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 I 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

Done with the church

     Ok, now that I have your attention, I don't really mean done with 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)