Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Different Angle

Have you ever had one of those days that had you scratching your head nearly constantly?  You know what I mean.  One of those days where it seems like everything you see makes you want to just close the curtains, lock the door, and forget that you're part of this spinning orb...even just for a little bit?  It's not been anything earth shattering, but I've been told that I can't post anything on social media tonight, so I'm going to write for a few.  If you need a distraction because life is treating you like a repeat root canal, or you just can't figure out...well, never mind.  If you want to keep reading, come with me and see where this goes.  If you don't, Big Bang is on TV and it's a great episode right now.  I'll still love ya.

So, here it goes.  It's no secret that I'm a pastor, and have been for over 17 years.  It's also no secret that I'm a non-traditionalist.  Honestly, I have no clue where that came from.  My mom and dad raised me right.  I was born into a very traditional, very rural, very conservative, wonderful little church.  I loved those folks and they loved me like one of their own.  We had a slight falling out during my teen years and I moved on to become part of another congregation.  Then, years later, I was actually sent by my Bishop back to that little country, conservative, traditional, rural church...of which I had been born into years before...to serve as their pastor.  It was great.  I could not have asked for a better place to spend my first year in ministry.  That being said, I honestly have no clue why I am the way that I am.

I am a non-traditionalist.  That doesn't mean that I don't value tradition.  I do very much.  It was what formed me in the faith during my growing up years.  It's just that I think I've gotten to a place in my life where I don't idolize tradition like I once did. Now, I think that I just view things from a different angle.  Honestly, sometimes that makes me feel somewhat the freak.  Bear with me for a few and I'll explain.

I don't accept everything at face value anymore.  Before seminary all of my training and education were in the sciences.  My Bachelor degree is in biology.  I spent most of my college career in the streams, forests, and fields of Western Kentucky, catching insects, fish, and reptiles, and classifying plants.  I think that caused me to go into my theological education with a desire to know the where, why, how, and when.  So, as a pastor, I've tried to carry that into my conversations, leadership style, and preaching.

I'm also not a very deep thinker.  Systematic theology?  I stink at it.  Jesus said, "Love God with everything you have, and love others the way you love you."  That I can wrap my head around.  Paul's eschatology, or his resurrection theology, are a little more of a struggle for me.

Now, that being said...I also feel like I may be in the minority.  Because of that I feel like the kid that no one wants to play with sometimes.  Not that it's completely a bad thing...it's just a struggle sometimes.  It's wonderfully freeing for me, because I feel like I am finally at a place in my life where I understand a little of what's going on inside my head.  Yet, at the same time, it can be terribly frustrating.

As a pastor, my job is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, who then go out and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  But part of my job is to also lead the church to which I am appointed.  Part of leading the church to which I am appointed involves trying to figure out ways to bring the gospel to a hurting world, and maybe, if I'm lucky, see folks start coming to worship.  Granted, that is a by-product, and not the goal, but still.  It kind of is.

The struggle is this: church signs and social media.  Sometimes they make my job next to impossible because folks see things on church signs, or posted on social media, and think "If that's what the Church is like, I don't want any part of it."  What I'm trying to do is show folks that it really has nothing to do with the church as an institution, but about how different their life can be once they say "Yes" to a relationship with the God of all creation.

Today, true story...I saw a church sign that said, "He was born.  He died.  He rose.  Your turn."


Now, as a theologian, I think I understand what they were trying to say.  Christmas is the time we celebrate the birth.  Good Friday is when we recognize the cost of our salvation. Easter is when we celebrate the fact that death does not get the last word.  I get that.  "Your turn," is an invitation to make a decision on living a new life because of what Christ did on the cross.  I understand.  Honest.  But...a four line church sign saying that, where folks are going to see it at 55 mph, scratch their head and move on...really isn't helpful.  "Your turn..."  Wait, it's my turn to be born, die, and rise again?  What?

And then social media.  Help us, sweet Jesus.  It absolutely breaks my heart to hear about the total devastation that happened this weekend in Eastern Tennessee.  Such loss of natural beauty, not to mention the loss of wildlife, and the cost to rebuild.  Forest fires wipe out everything in their path.  So do tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, straight line winds, earthquakes, and the list goes on.  They are destructive on a level that most folks can't even comprehend unless you have been affected by them.  I can't imagine, personally.  What they aren't however...they're not necessarily of God.  For the souls whose lives are lost in any natural disaster, God's heart breaks.  I believe that.  What I can't believe is that God would take a life, be it human or lower animal, and use that to convince folk to "Get ready," if you know what I mean.  The wildfires that just destroyed a huge chunk of the Smoky Mountains, and this is just a guess, were probably caused by some idiot with a match, and fueled by 80 mph wind gusts.  They were not a sign of the end times, nor were they a judgement on humanity.  But that's just Jamie.  

Since this was titled "A different angle," I feel that I now have to present one.  One line church sign sermons are never a good idea because so often they are scriptures posted that are taken completely out of context, or worst case, they're just cheesy.  Folks see through that, and will probably be even less likely to give your worshipping congregation a shot.  If you have a sign and need to post something, try this, "Come and see."  It's the invitation Jesus gave two of the would be disciples, and because of those three words, two men went on to help turn the world upside down.

Social media...just because you can post it doesn't mean you should.  I will defend to the death your right to believe anything you want to believe, but promise me you'll do some biblical interpretation...no, biblical exegesis...before you post something relating scripture to natural disasters.  To do solid biblical exegesis, go to a commentary, see what was going on when that text was written...look for who it was written to...see if you can figure out why the author wrote it down in the first place.  The families of those who lose their lives in any natural disaster, or who have seen their worlds completely destroyed by the same, do not need to know that you think God was using this to get people's attention, and hopefully get them to "turn so they don't burn."

Now, why did I do this?  Not because I'm a jerk.  I may be, but that's not why I did this.  I wrote this because I'm frustrated.  I've given my life to a call to ministry and making a difference in the world.  I've seen the damage that churches can do in the lives of folks who feel that they are different.  I want people to think for themselves about who they are as children of the Almighty, and what that might meant for the way they live their lives, instead of just swallowing what is spoon fed to them.  I've seen the systems that keep folks from becoming part of a worshipping body, and want to do all I can to bring them down.  Why?  Because people, and the souls of those same people, are too important.  Feeling like you have no place to belong is devastating.  Being made to feel guilty, or less than, because you think differently is wrong.

As I've been working on this Sunday's message the last two days, one of the things that keeps coming to mind is that Jesus keeps showing up, unexpected, to the folks who feel like they are the most unworthy, but who need him the most.  Many times, it's those of us who are already on the inside, who...with good intentions, no doubt...prevent that from happening.

So, I guess this is a shout out to my fellow "outside the box" kind of folk.  Not all of us church folk are like what you see on church signs or posting on social media.  Most of us are trying to figure all of this out just like you are.  Most of us know that we are sinners in need of grace.  Many of us crave the freedom to think for ourselves but don't feel safe doing so.  We want to dig into these ancient, beautiful stories and see what they said to the people who heard them first, and what they can say to us all of these years later.  A lot of us cringe when we see things on church signs or posted on social media because we understand how it's going to make you feel.  And probably all of us ask that you don't judge us on the actions of a few.

If that's you, hit me up.  I'd love to sit down and talk with you.  I promise that I won't push a churchy agenda.  I will not judge you for the metal in your face or the color you dyed your hair.  We'll compare tattoos if you want.  I just want the opportunity to tell you about this guy who finally convinced me that I'm not the sum total of my past mistakes.  That's a church sign quote I could get behind.

Ok, rant is over.  Just don't get me started on neck ties.


Thursday, September 29, 2016

When the warm fuzzies go cool

That's when I realized I was in trouble.

I'm sitting in Leawood, Kansas at the Church of the Resurrection, I think the largest UMC in the denomination.  I'm not sure.  This week nearly 2000 church leaders are sitting in this room, waitng to learn how to be better leaders.

The band warmed up.  Worship started.  The audio was perfect.   The lights went down.  The lyrics popped on the screen.  Everything that we have thought was important for great, progressive, cutting edge worship was in place.

As I sat here, it hit me...nothing.  I felt nothing.  Instead I was looking around at the folks who were trickling in.  I was thinking about all of the things I needed to do when I get back.  I don't sleep well on the road and the last two nights have just reinforced that.  I had absolutely nothing as worship started.

The warm fuzzies that have kept me going for the last 17 years were cold.  Nothing. Nada.  Zilch.  Then I thought, "I'm in trouble.  I mean, really in trouble.  Something is bad wrong."

I've been trying, honestly.  I've cut back on time spent in the office.  I'm trying to find my joy in the things I used to do.  I'm trying to take time for self care, you know, a regular day off, Sabbath rest, less of the unhealthy and more of the healthy.  But...I just now realized that I'm not sure it's working.

Now, let me clarify, I love my job.  I love the church I serve.  We are doing things as a group that I've not seen done in a lot of other churches. We're reaching people that others don't want anything to do with.  I love my God, and I'm thankful for the call on my life.  I can't imagine ever doing anything else, except for the occasional day when I'd trade my church keys for a burger stand on the side of the road.  Hey, it happens.  I just own it.

But...I know I'm not alone in realizing that sometimes the warm fuzzies go cold.  We burn out.  We crash.  We don't feel the same we did when this ministry gig was new.  We may even find ourselves questioning whether or not we even need to be doing it.  Then we have a moment where we that realization slaps us in the face, and we have a decision to make...

Do we keep pushing, knowing that we are operating at the very edges of our limitations?  Folks, that's ego.  Pure and simple.

Or, do we take that moment of realization, that epiphany, the revelation that maybe something is out of whack, and use it as a catalyst to begin some major changes in our lives?

Let me get real for a minute.  If you are a church leader, as I am...and if you are not taking the necessary time to take care of yourself...I'm not either...you are doing your people, your family, your denomination, the kingdom, yourself, and the God who called you a great disservice.

We are not all that and a bag of chips.

There are people in our churches who can do some of the things we think we have to do, and they can do them well.  Let them.

I know your type.  I am one.  I know how passionate you used to be about your calling.  I know how hard you worked to get through school and jump through all of the hoops.  I know how many meals get interrupted by phone calls, and how many vacations get cut short because of emergencies.

I know.
I get it.
Trust me.

I know how you've laid awake at night worrying about how your church was going to make budget, or about the metrics, or why folks are leaving.  I know what is going on in your head, and how you think that if you just work a little harder, or a little longer, or if you do this or that, things will get better.  Well, guess what...it's not about you...or me.  We are tools God is using to build the kingdom.

I know that you may be thinking now, "I'm not feeling it as much either, lately."  Why are you not feeling it?  My guess is that, like me, you've been running on empty for so long that you can't remember what it's like to serve out of your passion.  Instead you've become an empty vessel, still trying to pour out for others what you no longer have for yourself.  Know what?  You (we) can't do it.

I want it back.  I want that feeling and that passion back.  I want to serve my God and my church out of the passion I had in the beginning.  But...for me to do that, for me to reclaim that place, there are some things that have to change.  I'm not answering my phone after 5 or 6 at night unless it's an emergency.  I'm going to fight the urge to go check into the office on my day off.  I'm working on a plan that will let me take the entire month of January off for renewal.  I've had to save vacation for it, but I honestly think that it will be worth it.

I'm not a touchy feely kind of guy, even though I'm probably more emotional than most guys.  I have, however, learned to pay attention to those gut feelings, and today, this is what that gut feeling said, "Jamie, you're in trouble.  Fix it.  Now."

So church leader, you're doing great things.  Your people need you, but they need you to take care of yourself.  If you're struggling with some of the things I've talked about here, send me a facebook message.  We'll talk.

Ya know, even just writing all of this down makes me feel a little better.  Hopefully this is the beginning of my own personal rediscovery.  Hopefully, you've seen yourself in this and will become intentional about your own.  The kingdom is counting on us.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

$2 Can I get $3 - Reflections on an estate auction

I process through writing, and have for a lot of years now.

This has been an unusually rough summer.  Over three months I've had one reminder after another that nothing stays the same.  First came the loss of my hunting buddy, Richard.  He was nearly 40 years older than I am but we had so much fun together.  That was the message I tried to bring when I was asked to officiate his funeral.  Next came the loss of my Grandmother within a couple weeks.  At her funeral I tried to step out of the grandson mode and into pastor mode so that I would be able to officiate that day.  Four days later came the loss of my grandmother-in-law. Though we weren't blood related, she had been a grandmother to me for 27 years.

Today, we had my Grandmother's estate auction.  This was the second auction my family and I had gone through together, the first being the day Grandma sold their farm and moved to town.  I thought today would be easier.  I was wrong.

I'm thankful for the folks who came out for the auction, but at the same time, it was hard to see their things laid out on a table and hear those words over and over again, "Two dollars, can I get three?"  The reality is...it was all just stuff...trinkets...household items...and angels.  Grandma loved angels.  To most folks that's all it was...just stuff.  And the auctioneer, God bless him, had to work hard to even get the $3 sometimes.  Some of the things auctioned off today, I didn't even know Grandma had.  Some of it, though, as soon as I laid eyes on it, after who knows how many years since I saw it last, a flood of memories overtook me.

A corn-silk brush...I'm not sure you can even still buy those...buried in a box of kitchen utensils...took me back immediately to when I was a kid, and how summer after summer, we'd spend days sitting under the pine trees in their back yard, watching Grandma brush ear after ear of sweet corn and pick the silks off of it.

A worn and rusted putty knife...also buried in a box of other random items...made me stop and think about all of the hours that putty knife must have spent in my Granddaddy's or my Grandma's hands.  Their hands had worn the handle on that knife smooth.

A little blue rubber ball...tucked inside a tote filled with matchbox cars and children's books...made me remember the last couple years of Granddaddy's life, and how we'd sit in their living room while he tossed that little blue ball to my baby girls.

An ancient folding card table...left almost for last and just tossed in with a bunch of other stuff...wasn't just a card table, it was Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners as the family began to grow.

$2, can I get $3?

Emotionally, I'm wiped out.  Completely.  I'm man enough to admit that I have cried more this summer than I have in a long time, and it happened again today.  Maybe I'm just too damned sentimental for my own good.  Perhaps I should try to be more practical.  So in that spirit, I offer this:

It's not the stuff.  It's really not.  I probably have a dozen putty knives of my own buried in one toolbox or another.  I can pick up a little blue ball for a dollar in just about any store.  Card tables?  I already had one...and the chairs to go with it.  It's not the stuff.

It's the memories tied to the stuff.

Part of me is very thankful that the things my grandparents worked for and accumulated over their lifetimes have now been given new life with new owners.  No, really, I am.  Was it hard to watch?  Yes.  But, I couldn't  have bought everything, even if I wanted to, nor should I have.  Why?  Because it's not about the stuff.

I'm so thankful that I was able to spend enough time with them, growing up, so that a worn out corn-silk brush meant what it meant to me today.  I'm thankful that my grandparents had the work ethic they did to even wear the handle smooth on a putty knife.  I'm so very thankful for that little ball, so that I can tell my girls, as long as I have breath, just how much their Daddy James enjoyed tossing that ball to them.

When my time comes, and it's coming, I want my life to be more than stuff spread out on an auction table.  I want my kids to look at all of that stuff and say, "Do you remember how he used to...?"  Or, "Do you remember how he used to use this for...?"  Or, "Do you remember how this always sat by his chair?"  It's not about the stuff.  It's about what the stuff brings to mind for those of us who are left behind.

During the auction today, I said that the whole experience was making me want to just give everything I own away and live the rest of my life out of a dufflebag... because estate auctions suck.  I think I've changed my mind...not about estate auctions themselves, they still suck, but about the emotions surrounding that day.

Was it difficult?  Good Lord, yes.  Was it painful?  At times.  But...every kitchen utensil...my grandmother had used to fix a holiday meal.  The putty knife...one of them had used it to fix something instead of throwing it out and buying a new one.  The little ball...my kids knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that their great-grandparents loved them dearly.

So I leave you with this, it's a challenge to live the rest of your days in such a manner that when the auctioneer says, "$2, can I get 3?" the stuff on the table will be priceless to your family.  Then let someone else take that $3 box and use it to do the same for their family.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

Theological Reflections From a Tattoo Parlor...

So, this isn't your typical preacher type thing...but I'm not a typical preacher type.

My oldest daughter, Jen, has been asking for a tattoo since she was 15.  She is now 20.  I told her all those years ago that when she decided what she really wanted, and could tell me why she really wanted it...and after she turned 18...I'd take her to get her first ink.  I also told her that I'd get another one when she did.  That would make 4 for me.

Jen was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 12, so this was something that she wanted, and a part of her life that she might actually have a little control over.  Some parents, and especially some preacher dads, might have thrown a fit over it, but it was fine with me.

Yesterday, I went to the shop where I had my other three done to set up an appointment.  Hank, the artist, asked me if we wanted to just do them last night, so I went home, got Jen, and we came back to get inked.

While we were waiting for him to finish with the client before us, I was people watching.  It's one of my favorite things to do.  I love to see how folks interact with each other in different settings, and since so many church folks have lived relatively sheltered lives (in some cases) it's a way for me to bring the rest of the world into my homiletics.

The tattoo parlor crowd isn't your typical Sunday morning crowd.  And if you lead a church, I encourage you to just visit a parlor and get to know some of the folks.  It's kind of eye opening.  Here's why...

First, the racial diversity when we got there was split just about 50/50.  Today, especially, anywhere you can find that kind of diversity and everyone is getting along, spend some time in that place.  That by itself was pretty cool.

Next, there were some folks who came in who, you could tell, struggled with the necessities of life.  Some folks might judge them for "wasting" money on ink when there were so many other things that they might need the money for worse.  In this case, though, the ink was a cover up from a bad decision earlier in life.  That reminded me to be a little slower to judge...or not judge at all.

After that I noticed a couple of young guys come in on motorcycles.  I know what you're thinking....and yes, they were on bikes...and yes, their language was more than just a little colorful...and yes, they were inked...and one of them even had a small bottle of cinnamon whiskey on him...but when they walked in, everyone in that place knew them and welcomed them in like family.  For them, that was a place where they knew they fit in, and they belonged.  That made me wonder how many churches would have given them the same kind of welcome.

Then there was Pat.  Pat looked like anyone's grandma, but in that little shop, she was treated like family.  You could tell she didn't have much.  She had lost her husband a few years ago and gotten a tattoo as a memorial.  This year she came back to get some work added to it.  Watching Hank interact with Pat while he was working and she was just standing there talking, made me wish I could talk to my Grandma again.  You wouldn't expect to see your Grandma in a tattoo parlor, but there she was, and she was one of them.  It was beautiful. 
Then, came a young woman from the back of the parlor.  I'd never met her before.  I'd never seen her before.  She came out to offer our artist something to eat for supper.  If you're at all familiar with the life of a tattoo artist, a regular schedule is not something they enjoy very often.  He stopped for a minute and fixed a sandwich.  Then...get this...she looked at us, two people she'd never seen before, and said, "Here, fix a sandwich.  You may be here a while."  She didn't offer just once, but three times, and was almost insistent that we fix a sandwich from the BBQ they had bought earlier in the day.  Did I mention that we had never met?  It made me stop and think about what hospitality really looks like, and what it means to really welcome the stranger.

Finally, it was our turn to get in the chair.  Jen was nervous and wanted me to go first so she could watch.  I sat down.  Hank set the template on my foot and got ready to start outlining my Jolly Roger.  The two guys on the bikes, from earlier, came back in and talked to me just like they'd known me all of their lives.  One of them joked about my pink T-shirt, and I joked back about it taking a real man to pull off that look.  I'd never seen either of them and we were cutting up and laughing like we had gone to school together.  They wanted to see my tattoo when Hank was finished with it.  An hour and half later, I was done, and it was Jen's turn.

She sat down in the chair, scared to death.  As bad as mine hurt, I didn't flinch or make any noise because I knew she was watching and was already nervous.  Hank set her template, they got it situated where she wanted it, and he went to work.  Jay, the other artist in the shop, came up from the back and he and I talked with Jen to keep her distracted.  Jay spent a half hour just standing there talking to us while she got her first tattoo.  That made me wonder about the other things he might have needed to be doing for that half hour, but instead, he stood there with us.  That was pretty cool.

Now for the theological reflection part.

A T-shirt covers my first three tattoos.  If I have on a shirt, you'd never know I had any ink.  That was intentional because of what I do for a living.  I know that some church folk are not crazy about their preacher having tattoos, so it's not something I push into others' faces.  When we walked in, we walked into a world that some folks never see, and probably wouldn't know how to handle if they did.  There is this stigma that, while not as prevalent now as in years past, is still attached to those with tattoos, those who are tattoo artists, and tattoo parlors.  Let's just be honest...for some, there is still this image of a tattoo parlor as some back alley underground, full of people who some see as less than, and there's nothing but drug sales and drinking going on.

In some places, that may be true.  But it's also true in some schools, grocery stores, just about any other business setting you can think of, and (gulp) the homes of some church folk.  What I saw last night, was the exact kind of welcome we read about in the gospels.  Jesus ruined his reputation with church folk by hanging out with folks they snubbed their noses at.  He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, and if you've read any of the gospels, he never denied it.  Not once.  He only told stories to defend his actions.

"Let's say a shepherd has 100 sheep, just hypothetically, and he loses one.  He will leave the 99 and go look for the one, and when he finds it, he throws this huge party because he's so happy that one sheep isn't lost anymore."

"Let's say a woman has 10 coins...just hypothetically...and she loses one.  She'll stay up all night, turning the house upside down until she finds it.  When she finds it, she calls everyone she knows, invites them over, and throws this huge party because she found the one coin."

"Let's say a dad has two boys.  One of them tells him, 'Dad, I wish you were dead.  Let me have my inheritance now.'"  Then he goes off and blows it on alcohol and hookers.  When he realizes how broke he is, and that he can't even buy lunch, he decides to go back home and beg his dad to let him come back.  But...and check this out...before he even gets close to the house, his dad sees him, way down the road, and literally runs to him, throws his arms around his neck and tells somebody to start the party because his boy was gone and is back home."  

Here's the deal.  I'm a 17 year veteran of the ministry as a career.  I'm an Elder in Full Connection in the United Methodist Church.  I've served 11 churches over 6 appointments.  Last night I was treated better, and made to feel more welcome, than in some of the churches I've served.  It's just the truth.  Three of the people in that place last night, only one of which I knew his first name before I got there, welcomed us in and made us feel like we were family.  When we left, sometime after midnight, they told us, "It was cool to hang out with y'all."  Wow. 

Why in God's name can we not do that in ALL of our churches?  Why do we have to judge folks because of what they wear?  Who said a tattoo makes you a bad person? Where does it say, in any of Jesus' teachings, to build a little brick building, stack it with pews and all things religious, then decide who can come in and who can't?  I haven't found it yet.  It may be there, but I haven't seen it yet.

Just last week I was told, "You wouldn't last 30 minutes as our pastor with those tattoos."  Really?  That's what we've turned the most amazing story in the history of the world into?  In so many places, we've taken the greatest story ever told and turned into our personal possession, leaving no room for anyone who doesn't look like, think like, act like, or live like us.  I just think we've missed the point.

WWJD?  What would Jesus do?  I can't speak for Jesus, but given what I've read in the Gospels, I'm thinking that Jesus would get off of his padded pew, take off his suit and tie, put on some street clothes, and go hang out at a tattoo parlor.  I think he'd watch folks when they came in, find a way to connect, start up a conversation, and just be.  I think he'd offer them a BBQ sandwich, whether he knew their name or not.  I think he'd just stand there and talk to folks.  He'd probably talk about his favorite band.  He might even go back and get a tattoo, who knows?

WWJD?  What wouldn't Jesus do? I can't speak for Jesus, but given what I've read in the Gospels, I'm thinking that Jesus wouldn't make anyone who came through the doors of that tattoo parlor feel less than. I don't think he'd flinch much when they dropped the F bomb.  I'm not sure he would have taken the little bottle of cinnamon whiskey and told the guy that he ought not do that.  I'm not sure he'd judge them.  And I doubt very seriously that he'd look down his nose at them.

Oh, one more thing that I think he would do.  I think, that when he made a connection with someone in a tattoo parlor, and who maybe for the first time in their lives felt like they were someone of sacred worth, he'd tell someone else to go and get the party started because this one who was lost has been found.

My prayer is that anyone who walks through any church door anywhere in the world, is made to feel as welcome as we were last night in a tattoo parlor.  That's my prayer.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Theology of the Riparian Zone

 For the past 17 years, I have been a theologian.  It's more than just a calling.  It's also my profession.  Early in my career, a well meaning parishioner told me one Sunday, "Now, don't you go off and let that seminary change you."  I understand what he was saying, and I respect the fact that he was afraid that seminary would make me unapproachable and less the people's pastor.  Well, seminary did change me, but not in the way that he feared.

Before seminary, though, my background was in the sciences.  I know, it's still kind of funny to me, too.  I hold an Associate of Science and a Bachelor of Biology.  Most of the time those two parts of me live rather independently of each other.  My focus for my undergrad work was primarily fisheries biology.  Instead of sticking around one more semester to take the one final class I needed for a fisheries degree, I opted for an elective and finished with a degree in biology.  I was one class away from a degree in fisheries, but I needed to get on to seminary because I was already the old man in class.

In fisheries systems, the Riparian Zone is the margin where land meets water.  It's basically where two worlds collide.  It's also an ecosystem all to itself.  There are animals who thrive in the Riparian Zone because they require elements from both worlds to survive.  They may breed in the water, spend their early life as aquatic animals, but then move onto land as adults.  There are species of plants that grow only in the Riparian Zone.  There are insects that you may only encounter along the margin between land and water.

Why is this important?  Well, to most folks it's probably not, and if you're still reading this you're either really bored or curious as to how it will all tie together.

As a theologian, with a science background, I understand the reality that not everyone lives in the same world, even though we inhabit the same planet, country, state, or community.  In the space where more than one world collides, things can tend to get complicated...and sometimes, ugly.  People living, sometimes, within a few miles of each other can experience the world around them in totally different ways simply because of the environment in which they exist.

I saw this yesterday.

A friend of mine called me out on something I said yesterday on Facebook.  It happens a lot, actually.  It doesn't mean that I have any hard feelings toward anyone who does it.  It simply means that we don't necessarily agree on whatever the topic is.  And...that's ok.  How boring would this world be if everyone agreed on everything?

Basically, I was accused of race baiting, was told that as a community leader this was inappropriate, and that my comment and the hashtag #stopthehate both bred division at a time when I should be calling for unity.  I respect that opinion.  I don't agree with it, but I respect it.  Here's why...

It was a call to unity.

In my 45 years I have never seen racial tensions as high as they are now.  I missed the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's by just a few years.  Today, people are afraid, and some maybe rightly so.  But racial tensions are not the only tensions that exist now.  There is fear and religious tension between Christians and Muslims.  There are tensions between straights and gays.  My own denomination is struggling with that right now.  Forget the fact that it's an election year with all of the political tension that's been added to the mix.

But I'm a theologian...a pastor...and a community leader.  So, what am I to do?

If I follow the example of Christ, I'm to spend more time in the proverbial Riparian Zone than in my comfort zone.  I feel that I'm to stand up for those living in the margins.  I feel that I'm to be a voice for those who feel as if no one is listening.  I feel that it's my responsibility as a follower, to be an agent of change, and to call out those systems that keep people marginalized.  If race is the issue, I feel that it's my obligation as a leader in the church to use my position to bring equality.  Whether we want to admit it or not, white privilege exists.  What I can't do is ignore the voices from those on the outside.              

Unfortunately, sometimes that's not a very popular stand.

See, a lot of folks have an image of Jesus as this passive guru who never raised his hand to anyone and only talked about grace.  He talked about grace...a lot...but societal injustices evidently infuriated him.   He died for people on the margins.  Everything he did pointed to the fact that as long as there were injustices, and there were, God's kingdom had not yet come.

Well, the truth is...there still are.

So, though I've never considered myself an apologist for my faith, in that I've never really felt the need to defend my faith, today I am.  I think very carefully about the words that I use because I know the weight they might carry simply because of who I am.  But...at my ordination as an Elder in Full Connection in the UMC, a red stole was placed on my shoulders, representing the mantle of Christ.  That's something I take very seriously.

Until something as divisive as a #stopthehate hashtage is no longer needed...
Until those who feel their voices don't matter are heard...
Until violence no longer begets violence...
Until people feel safe in their own neighborhoods...
Until there is no longer an "us" and "them"...
Until the day when the human race can finally come together as one...I will continue to use my calling and my position to stand up for those on the margins.

A quote from the late Father Dan Berrigan has haunted me from the moment I first heard it:

"If you're going to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood."

Thursday, July 7, 2016

I Am Philemon...

"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archipus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
(Philemon 1:1-3)

Last month I brought a series of messages at Grace Church LaCenter called, "The Stories We Haven't Heard."  The title was a tad misleading, in that most of them were stories we had indeed heard, we just don't hear them often.  A better working title would have been "Obscure stories," but someone had already done that one.

I pulled a couple Old Testament texts, and a couple from the New Testament.  I had a few others in que, just in case one or more of my choices didn't pan out.  It turned out to actually be a fun series to write, because it took more research than usual.

One of those messages on one obscure story was from the Book of Philemon.  I'm not sure we can really call it a book, since it was only one page, one chapter, and only 25 verses.  I'm not even sure we can call it a short story, much less, a book.  It is, in fact, a letter.  It's a letter that Paul wrote to a specific group of people, in a specific geographical area, at a specific time in history, for a specific purpose.  As we read these sacred texts all of these years later, that is one thing we absolutely must keep in mind.

I told my congregation that even though it was a letter written to a group of people who, by the way, wasn't us...there is still much it can say to us.

To get the gist of the letter, in case you haven't read it lately, Paul is writing to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus.  The hand of fate had somehow brought Onesimus into Paul's company, and they had evidently become quite close.  Paul calls him, "my own heart."  That's a pretty endearing phrase.  In that culture, Philemon had the legal and social right, from what I understand, to kill Onesimus simply for running away.  Paul is writing to discourage that, and to encourage Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not as a slave, and certainly not as a runaway slave.

It's Paul at some of his best writing.  It's a beautiful letter, tender, gentle, and written from a pastor's heart.  You can see that in almost every word Paul writes.  It's not head heavy with theology that no one can possibly understand, but instead, addresses something that many of us may have experienced, or at the very least, have been made aware of lately.  How?  Social media can do wonders for letting you know what's going on in the world.

As I read one post after another from my news feed, and as I studied that little letter from Paul (If indeed Paul wrote it) something hit me...

...I'm Philemon.

Let me explain.

My news feed actually represents a more diverse group than most folks would expect from me.  My social media "friends" are white, black, gay, straight, undecided, rich, poor, country, city, conservative, liberal, ultra conservative, ultra liberal, some hold several degrees, some barely graduated high school, addict, clean, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent, Northern, Southern, East Coast, West Coast, somewhere in between, yuppie, redneck, and I could keep going.

What that means is that I see posts representing every possible opinion, and honestly, I respect them all.  I don't agree with some of them, but I still respect them.  Here's what hit me as I let those two things (my newsfeed, and my reflections on Philemon) come together.

I'm Philemon.  I have no clue what it means to be Onesimus.  None...whatsoever.  To bring that statement forward nearly 2000 years, all I know (and I mentioned this in my message about this text) is life from the perspective of a middle class, white, heterosexual, fairly educated, southern, Christian, male perspective.  I have no idea what it's like to be gay, or black, or female, or non-Christian, or any of a number of other things that would make me anything but a white guy, middle class, straight, southern, and Christian.  I have no idea what it's like to be hated because of the color of my skin, or because I love differently than the majority.

I am Philemon.

Now, here's why that's important.  As a Philemon character type, I (and others like me) have something that some do not have.  Stay with me for a minute.  I (we) own the ability to welcome any who are not like me (us).  We (I) also own the ability to NOT welcome any who are not like me (us).   Is that fair?  No.  Is it a reality? Yes.

How will anyone who is not like us know which we will choose to do?

For one, they'll read our posts.  If we post to social media anything that sets us above another for whatever reason, we have chosen not to welcome them.  (and just because we can post it doesn't mean we should)  That doesn't mean we aren't entitled to our opinions, we are, and I respect yours, but when we choose not to welcome instead of welcome we are setting ourselves as judge.    

So today, I write as Paul wrote.  Not commanding that we welcome...but urging, in the name of the risen Christ.  If you use scripture in your posts, do your homework.  Check the context.  Read the whole chapter.  Understand that there may be other interpretations but your own.  Realize that we weren't even intended to read much of what we know as the New Testament.

Do...not...use...Holy Scripture...as...a...weapon...

The words contained in those pages are words of welcome, grace, second chances, and forgiveness.

So to my friends who are black, gay, or in any other way marginalized by those in the church, I apologize, from the depths of my soul.  The God who created you has called me to love you just as I love myself, and though I may screw it up from time to time, may it never be said of me that it was done intentionally.

To my brothers and sisters in the church universal, is it better to be right...or to be gracious?

I wish desperately that we were given the rest of Philemon's story.  But...by leaving it open ended, I choose to believe that Onesimus was welcomed back as a brother...not as a slave.



Wednesday, April 27, 2016


What I'm about to write, I write in the hopes that it helps keep someone else from going through what I'm going through right now.  I'm not complaining.  I'm not whining.  This is not some, "Poor me," kind of deal.  This is real life stuff.  These words come from the heart.  I've written about this before, but I'm starting to think that, at least for my own sanity, this is something I need to do a couple times a year.

I sent an email today.

"Big deal," you say, "I send emails every day."  As do I.  This one was different.  I wrote this email at least a dozen times in my head before I actually typed it out, set my target audience, and hit send.  In my 45 years, I can remember one conversation that was tougher for me to construct than was this one.  That being the night I called my dad from my dorm room at the University of Kentucky and told him I was coming home.

This email was going to my leadership team at church.

I'm finishing up my fifth year as lead pastor at Grace Church in Ballard County, KY.   We're a rural bunch, in a rural setting, 20 minutes from the closest city.  Still, we're a growing bunch, both in numbers and in spirit.  We've seen our average attendance increase 150% in five years.  We've added programming that covers almost the entire monthly calendar. We've gone from 2 small groups meeting during the week, to 24 meeting throughout the month.  Finances...they're better than they've ever been.  We're dreaming big dreams and making bold plans, plans that we know without a doubt we can't accomplish.  Construction was just completed on a 4.25 acre lake on the property as Phase One of a camp where we will get to watch God reach the youth of the county before the drugs do.  There are a lot of great things going on in this little section of the world, and most days, I can't believe that I even get to be a part of it.

I love my job.  Let me say that again.  I love my job.  Pastoring a church is not something you get into for the money, it's a passion...a God given passion.  I love my people.  I love to be with them during their times of celebration and their times of struggle.  I had one call me just today and say, "I needed to talk to someone and I couldn't get hold of my momma."  I was next on the list.  That was after taking care of business in the office this morning, and pastoral calls in two different hospitals.  It's a sacred work that we are called to...a holy work...a work that can make a real difference in someone's life.  We get to be with our people when their lives can't possibly seem to get any better, and when they can't possibly seem to get any worse.

They, whoever they are, say that if you love your job, you never work a day in your life.  I believe that.  But I still had to send the email today.

See, Monday night I led a devotional for a group of folks who were gearing up for a youth retreat this summer, and my text was from Mark's gospel...you know, the no frills...just the facts, ma'am...gospel.  Mark doesn't waste a lot of words on fluff.  Mark tells it pretty much like it is.  My text for that devotional was Mark 6.

In Mark 6, just before Jesus takes a few fish and a few pieces of bread and feeds thousands with them, the disciples are all running up to him because he had sent them out on an errand in an earlier story, and they couldn't wait to tell him about all of the great stuff they had done.  Mark doesn't say, (because no frills, remember) but I can imagine they had been out healing folks, and talking about all of the great things that were going to happen when the Kingdom broke out and God got God's way.  I figure they probably wanted to tell him about all of the folks they had talked to who had decided to follow "The Way."  Great stuff.  I mean, this is Kingdom kind of stuff.  Sacred work.  Holy work.

Yet, Jesus, in his Christly wisdom, stops them mid conversation and says what...do you remember?  "Come away with me, by yourselves, to a quiet place and get some rest."  He completely cut them off.  Mark doesn't even record one single story that Jesus let them tell.  It was almost rude...at least from our viewpoint.

That story has haunted me for two weeks.  Here's why...

I've noticed, of late, that my patience is much thinner than it used to be.  I've noticed that I don't have a level of tolerance that I once had.  I've noticed that I'm getting short with folks who just want to talk, or tell me about something that's going on.   I'm forgetting stuff more than I used to, and it's not just because I'm getting older.  I had a complete meltdown yesterday over a few things, that in the big picture, were nothing.

Why?  Because I've ignored what Jesus said to the disciples...for years.  I have not taken the time I needed to go away to a quiet place and rest.   So...I sent my leadership team an email today, told them what was going on, and asked for their blessings for a week off next week.  It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.

Pastors...listen to this, and I mean listen good...  Lay servants...listen to this.  Church volunteers...hear what I'm about to say.

Your God, the one who spoke the world into creation, the one who breathed life into you, the one who ordered everything we see, is the very same God who commanded us to take time away.  It's that important.

I don't care how fast your church is growing.  I don't care what cool programming you have.  I don't care what your numbers look like.  If you (we) are not taking care of yourself (ourselves), you (we) are going to crash and burn.  Who's going to suffer for it?  Your church for one.  The kingdom.  Your family and friends.  And finally, yourself.

I'm writing this because, right now I'm sitting in the ashes of my own damned arrogance.  And do you know what?  It's nobody's fault but mine.  My leadership tried to tell me a few years ago.  They saw the signs way back then, but we had so much to do, and things were going so well, and the schedule was so tight, and my God, look at how the numbers are coming up.  One of them even called me into MY office and said, "You need to take some time away."

Believe it or not, and I didn't until today, the church you serve will not implode if you take time for Sabbath, and if it does, you haven't done your job.  Our job is to equip leaders in the church who can do the work of ministry, share the load, and generate other leaders.  It is not, and I'm learning this the hard way, to do it all ourselves.

"But I want to make sure it's done right."  I get that, honestly.  I'm a perfectionist and a control freak.  I have 4 years' worth of blue chips, and 30 day chips, and so on from Celebrate Recovery for those very things.

"But my last church always said I never did enough, and always wanted to know how I spent my time." I get that.  Trust me.  I served four years in the pits of hell, dealing with the exact same thing...which, I believe, led me to becoming a workaholic out of pure guilt.

"But I've been called by God to do the work of the church, and I'm going to give it everything I have."  Kudos.  Let me know how that's going in five years.  You'll be right where I'm at.

Hey, I've said all of those things, too.  But the fact remains that I ignored the command from God to take Sabbath, AND the call from Christ to come away to a quiet place and rest, and because I did...because I felt like I had to be everything and do everything...I'm empty.

Let me tell you, empty sucks.

So, if you want to play the hero, knock yourself out.  Folks will let you.  They'll even pat you on the back for it.  You may get promoted, may get a bigger church, may get a nicer desk...you may even get called to lead conferences and tell folks about all of the great things that you're doing.  You may get bragged on because you're always at the office.  (That happened to me yesterday.)  Your folks may tell other folks about how they can call you at any time, day or night, and you'll drop whatever you're doing and go.

In our world, those things are what success looks like.  But do you know what?  We don't only live and/or work in our world.  We operate in and for another plane, another dimension, another level...and when we forget that our success is measured in a different way...and when we keep pushing when we should rest...and when we think that we're the only one who can do something right...this is where we wind up...sitting in the ashes of our own arrogance.

So...my email...it was hard to write, and I hesitated before I hit send.  But my people know that if I'm going to be of any good to them, I have to take care of myself.  They were ordained at their baptisms to do the work of the church, and by dang, they do it well.  They've been given the gifts that are needed to keep Grace Church going while I do exactly what I should have been doing all along.

I don't have any plans.  I may work in my garden.  I may read.  I might go hiking, or trim some trees, but here's what I'm not going to do...I'm not going to worry about that church coming apart at the seams because I'm not there for a few days.

Brothers and sisters, it doesn't matter if you are clergy or laity, our work is too important to ignore the call to rest.  Our people depend on us.  They need us to be at our best.  On Sunday morning, they expect us to bring our A game, and rightly so.  If we're strung out because our ego tells us that we don't need to rest, we can't do those things.

Now, I'm going to ask you the question my leadership team asked me, "When is your day off?"   Please understand that I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad, or feel guilty.  Please know that I understand that things just happen sometimes and setting a regular day every week is next to impossible.  There are emergencies, meetings, special events that happen all of the time.  But...I think I may have finally learned just how important it is to take some time, maybe a different day each week, but take a day to just rest.  Hopefully, this will help decrease the number of folks who feel like I've felt the last few days.

If you work with the Church in any way, you are in prayers, and so is your Sabbath time.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Art and Icy Wind

The temperature outside has dropped from 32 degrees to 24 degrees since lunch today.  I'm standing in this room, elbow to elbow with people in nice wool coats, scarves, hats, and gloves in their pockets.  When I say elbow to elbow, it is literally just that.  This place is packed.  There is hardly room to breathe, much less, move around.  It's an art show for the area high schools at the local, downtown art gallery. 

The longer I stand there, the closer the crowd gets, and being one who has a propensity to flip completely out in a crowded room, my panic gauge begins to peg, and I have to find some air...soon. 

I begin working my way toward the door, waiting for this person to move a couple inches, and that person to turn just a little, so that I can squeeze through the gap between them.  Over and over, I repeat this stopping and waiting, inching across the room, until I'm finally through the doors and outside on the sidewalk.

Immediately, the wind blowing off of the river and down Broadway hits me in the face, and for just a second, I wonder if it wasn't better inside the crowded room, but...people...and too many of them.  I stand on the sidewalk outside the gallery and watch him across the street, on the opposite corner. 

Inside that building, on that corner, were more nice wool coats, hats, gloves, and scarves; only they weren't crowded into a gallery, "oohing" and "aahing" over high school art students' latest works.  They were seated around small tables with steaks or glasses of wine.

I watch him from across the street.  Obviously, he didn't have a nice wool coat, or he would have had it on.  The wind was picking up speed as it made its way down the river and across the parking lot.  I turned for just a second, looked back, and he was gone.  I don't know where he went, but he wasn't standing on the corner, opposite me anymore.  No doubt, if he wasn't completely homeless, he at least did without the extras in life.  All it took was a peek at what he was wearing to be able to tell that.

I don't know why, but something inside me said, "Hey, let's try a little experiment.  Just looking at what's around you, and without being able to get inside a building, see if you can find a warm spot out of the wind." 

I guess I probably looked crazy, and actually I'm a little surprised that no one called the police.  While everyone else was still inside the gallery looking at art, and the others were sitting around little tables, sipping wine, I was creeping around corners...in and out of doorways...and going into alleys.  The funny thing, and not so funny at the same time, was that no matter where I went or which corner I turned, I could not get out of the wind. 

One would think that, eventually, some part of some building would block the wind, but I never found that spot.  Realistically, I was only out there for about 15 minutes before I'd had enough, and slipped back inside...but...

...but, I wondered where he went...and others like him...

It was just supposed to be an afternoon trip to the art gallery to see a piece that my youngest had in the show.  It turned into a reminder of just how good I really have it, and how so many aren't so lucky. 

This past week I saw a couple of guys sitting beside a stop sign.  It happens so often that, to some, it's almost cliche'.  I stopped, saw a break in the traffic, and made my turn.  It was getting late in the afternoon.  I had to start supper, and honestly, I just wasn't in the mood.  As I sat there in traffic, waiting for the light, my first thought was, "Damn.  I have to go back.  But I don't want to." 

I pulled out of the turning lane, hit the fast food drive in for a few burgers and some hot coffee (Which cost way more than I had planned on spending), circled back around and stopped this time.  I rolled down the window, handed them the sack and cups of coffee, and asked where they were headed. 

Austin, Texas. 

Austin, Texas is roughly 700 miles from Paducah, Ky...and it's January.  In Paducah, in January, it gets cold.  Bone chilling cold.  If you're on foot, hitching a ride, looking for a meal, or sleeping outside, Paducah, in January is probably not the ideal spot. 

Now, why have I written about this?  Not so that I'll get patted on the back, and I don't want anyone to comment with, "Bless you for doing that for those guys."  Honestly, if my conscience had let me, I might have made my turn and gone on home.  I'm writing about these two experiences, within the span of just a few days, to raise awareness of the fact that it is winter and not everyone has a place to get in out of the cold. 

Try it some time.  Go downtown on a cold, windy day, and try to find a corner that the wind is not whipping around. 

Then, imagine if you can, that the sidewalk by that particular corner is where you're sleeping tonight. 

Then, after you've don't that...all I ask is this...don't drive by the next guys sitting at a stop sign.  Who knows the difference a hot meal, a cup of coffee, and a little conversation might make.  Will it fix their problem or end homelessness?  Good Lord, no...
but anything is better than nothing.

"Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."