Ellen and Neighbors

I am not upset at the current culture I live in (a small city in central North Carolina in the southeast United States of America). Although, and this is when I know I am turning into my parents, I wouldn’t say I am upset but I am very disappointed. If you grew up in my household you would have known this was a go-to line with my parents as my sisters and I headed into our teenage years. “I’m not upset, just disappointed.”

I am disappointed in the culture I am living in because on Facebook yesterday and today, it seemed all people could talk about was this clip from Ellen’s Show.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE CLIP

Now, I love Ellen and her sense of humor, advocacy, and the fact she likes to scare people. However, my disappointment lies in the fact that this is a thing now. It is a thing for people to criticize others who are in the same room, sitting next to, or even interacting with another person who doesn’t have all the same views in life.

Sure, it is very easy to create an echo chamber that reverberates what we think is right in the world. I have stopped having some of my friend’s Facebook posts show up on my feed because they are TOO out there in their views on certain topics. But here is the reality of life. People don’t always agree. Shocking I know…actually I think it is shocking because we have forgotten that reality.

I am teaching Disciple 1 and we are just getting to the end of Exodus. So far, only two books in, people don’t always agree. They don’t always agree with each other and they don’t always agree with God. Yet, God didn’t stop working through them and God doesn’t stop working through us.

Flash forward to Jesus and we still find 12 people Jesus, the Son of God, called to be his disciples disagreeing all the time. God still used them to start the church. God wasn’t done with them yet.

There are a ton of reasons why this happened, why our culture turned in upon itself. We can blame politics, sports, social media, whatever. Somewhere along the way we have forgotten that people are people, not just ideas, views, or supporters.

I was disappointed people were excited Ellen told people she could be around people who she disagreed with. I was disappointed because that is what life is. We gather around tables in dining rooms, church potlucks, restaurants, or even sporting events with other people who see the world differently. I am disappointed we lost the notion that it is okay. I am disappointed we are now uncomfortable, or somehow forbidden to be with people who hold different views, and who think and process the world differently.

I am reminded of Jesus who walks with those who people are uncomfortable with. Jesus has dinner with sinners, Pharisees, prostitutes, Sadducees, tax collectors, and scribes. He doesn’t wonder if they view the world the same, because he knows they don’t. He still sits next to them and tells them to love each other.

It breaks my heart with disappointment we have forgotten one of the core teachings of Jesus. The simplicity and earthshattering command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Thank you Ellen for reminding us but I’m disappointed we so easily forget.

Reflection

I have shared life with so many. I have walked to death’s door and then celebrated with those left after the door closed. I have held the hands and prayed for a human, fresh out of the oven, and knelt beside the sole survivor of a miscarriage. I have sat across tables and desks from people wondering if this “god thing” is real and if so then why? Why seems to be the question most solicited and the one, after two degrees and two decades of experience, I can’t answer.

I have buried children and married middle life crises. I have proclaimed, “Christ is Risen!” only to see eyebrows bend in disbelief. I have blessed water to claim people for God and passed out the flesh of Jesus to people who snatch it from my fingers tips. I am the preacher to napping and the absent-minded prayer warrior. Some days I walk humbly and others carry a big stick. Some days I’m invited through doors I would rather run from. On others, I’m simply lonely in a room full of banana pudding and fried chicken.

I am a pastor. I am a preacher. I am a minister. I am a reverend. I am a parson.

My experience, my ministry is a selfish motive for when I doubt I look back to those conversations and expectations of hope and faith. When I mourn I remember the promises proclaimed behind all those caskets. When I’m running and hiding in a cave, I remember the one who comes to find all those not looking to be found. When I stand behind the pulpit, wondering if any of my words make sense, I am reminded they weren’t mine to begin with.

Ministry has given me tools to get through life. My soul is etched with experience of the divine and the human. I have witnessed the offering of the widow and the elder son’s tantrum. I have welcomed the woman at the well and thrown a few stones myself. In all the moments of transfiguration and cocks crowing, God, for some reason, still calls to feed smelly sheep.

I am a pastor. I am a preacher. I am a minister. I am a reverend. I am only a person. I carry all the weight of your expectations thrust onto my shoulders. I robe up because this is my calling, my falling, my confession, my obsession, and my profession.

I am a pastor. I am a preacher. I am a minister. I am a reverend. I am a parson.

I am because I AM.

Divinity School – 20 years later

duke-divinity-school-logoa-360x202My Instagram feed shared some great pictures of the new class of 1st years starting at Duke Divinity School. They were enjoying food, shaking hands, getting name tags, and doing first day of graduate school stuff. Later that night it hit me…twenty years ago I was doing that. T..W..E..N..T..Y.. years ago!

My age doesn’t get to me. I don’t really care that I am 42. I’ll say it loud and proud. However, the thought I was entering the middle of my ministerial career, or really did a few years ago, did evoke me to take pause.

I graduated from Duke Divinity School on my 25th birthday. The day after I turn 45, in just three years, I will be closer to my retirement (if I retire when I am 65 of course) then I will be to my seminary days. That is hard to believe. What makes it hard is that it doesn’t feel like 20 years ago.

I am not sure what I was expecting life and ministry would be like 20 years after stepping into the shadow of Duke’s chapel. I do remember running from the idea of local church ministry. I do remember feeling completely unworthy and unskilled to be a pastor, preacher, or minister. I do remember God was calling me to this place, but I just didn’t understand why.

20 years later I have served three churches in England for a year and finished up my first year at my fourth appointment. I am married with two kids, one of which is now a teenager. Life has happened. Ministry has happened. God has moved in me, used me, spoke through me, and continues to transform me.

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This picture (taken during my second year) has always been in my office all the while and it is from the graduate student camp out for Duke Men’s Basketball tickets. We are around a flag my mother-in-law created and hung at the house my roommates and I rented for the last two years. This is just a small number of people who I met at Duke. Some are pastors, some are not. Some do ministry in local churches, some for the denomination, some for the divinity school, some are doing other things. There are some who I see in the carpool line at my kid’s school.

I can still mentally put myself in the classrooms at Duke, hearing the voices of my professors Hauerwas, Willimon, Wainwright, Efird, Hall, Storey, and others. I reminisce about basketball games, bonfires, Thursday night dinner club watching “Friends,” late nights of reading and writing, midnight frisbee, hard exams, and laughing with wonderful friends.

I am writing this behind a desk, in a church office, when I probably should be finishing my sermon for Sunday. Something I completely enjoy doing and feel called to do in the depth of my soul. However, it was something I ran from my three years in seminary. I distinctly remember going to Duke chapel, sitting on a hard wooden pew, and finally giving in to my calling to the local church. I fought God because I hated to speak in front of people. I didn’t feel capable of being a leader. I didn’t feel like I could do it. Through vigorous theological education, deep prayer, and powerful Field Education experiences, I gave in to God’s call and I have never regretted, even when it has been SO VERY HARD.

20 years ago, this week, I didn’t know what I was walking into when I passed under the stone archway of the Divinity School. My life has never been the

I am thankful for the life-long friends I met there who still pray for me, do ministry with me, and who I could call at any hour of any day to talk and share life with. It was an amazing three years at Duke Divinity School. As I continue to look forward now, who knows what the world and church will look like but I do know for certain God will still be God.

Crisis of the Heart

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Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas via Pexels

It is President Trump’s fault! No, it is the Democrats! No, it is the Republicans! No, it is the immigrants themselves! No, it is the fault of their home country!

The picture of Oscar Alberto Martinez and his daughter, Angie Saleria M, who drowned while crossing the Rio Grande on Sunday, has crushed me. My heart did a similar thing when the picture of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, drowned on September 2, 2015, in the Mediterranean Sea.

The truth is, although my heart hurt by Alan’s picture, it was still a problem over there, far away, nothing I can do or say about it. Oscar and Angie’s death though was right on our border. There are around 2,000 children in Border Patrol custody on any given day. This problem will not go away. Sure, a picture of a dead father and daughter can pull your heart strings but there are countless others who are suffering who don’t have a picture to document their realities.

Jesus said in Matthew 25:44-45 (CEB); “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’”

Does it matter who started the issue at the border, whether it was Obama or Trump? Does it matter if these families, men, women, and children are arriving for a better life or seeking asylum? I keep asking myself, “What hell would I need to escape to risk the lives of my own wife and children like all of these people?” Whatever that reason is, it doesn’t matter.

For decades I have listened to people call the United States of America a Christian country. I have seen time and time again the cross is wrapped in the American flag or vice versa. Over and over we paint the picture that America is a place where the love of Jesus Christ is lived out and professed. But this is more for patriotism than discipleship.

We like to think we are the best country in the world, but it has been a while since we took a long look in the mirror. There are kids…CHILDREN…dying or suffering at our borders and in our custody and we have turned a blind eye. We are happy to ignore it because we don’t take our walk with God seriously enough. We will follow only when it is convenient. Only when it strokes our egos or pushes our agendas.

“We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God. We affirm the right of all persons to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, health care, education, and freedom from social discrimination. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all. We oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children, and we call on local churches to be in ministry with immigrant families.” [2016 Book of Discipline, Social Principles ¶162.H] But do we truly believe this?

Jeremiah 22:3 (CEB), “The Lord proclaims: Do what is just and right; rescue the oppressed from the power of the oppressor. Don’t exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow. Don’t spill the blood of the innocent in this place.” But do we truly believe this?

Leviticus 19:33-34 (CEB), “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” But do we truly believe this?

The way we treat the least of these in our world tells us a lot about our willingness to follow the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The way we detain, separate, and cast aside human beings made in the image of God tells God all God needs to know.

We must do better as a country. We must do better as followers of Jesus Christ. Does it really matter the reason why or should we simply treat these people as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? We…must…do…better!

 

 

Lamentations: Walking in the Dark

Lamentations Series

We just ended a three week series on Lamentations.  I never preached about this raw and emotional book before and it was hard to preach.  In my sermons, I tend to try and end on a happy note, an encouraging note but Lamentations isn’t that type of scripture.  It ends with more pain and grief than anything.  The pain the Israelites were feeling as they watched their city and beloved temple turn into rubble was horrible.  They lost everything as they moved into exile in Babalyon.  In this series, we look at grief, pain, and darkness which are realities in our lives as well.  We look at Personal Pain, Corporate Pain, and Remembering.

Pastor Kelly and I really wanted to leave the congregation feeling what Lamentations makes us feel, uneasy and blurry.  The first two sermons point to this reality, which we always wanted to acknowledge, many other people are feeling.  The third sermon was a reminder of where our hope is and what it can look like to remember who God is in the midst of the darkness.

Walking in the Dark: Personal Pain

Walking in the Dark: Corporate Pain (Here is the video liturgy used in this sermon)

Walking in the Dark: Remembering

Lies We Love (Sermon Series)

Here is a link to the four-part series preached at Milford Hills UMC.  This is a look at four of the common phrases or platitudes Christians say and exploring the theological validity of these statements.  Many Christians say them every day to bring comfort and sense to the reality of people’s lives.  However, they really are simply lies we love.

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Part I: Everything Happens for a Reason

Part II: Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

Part III: You Cannot Believe in God and Science

Part IV: God Doesn’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

Stop Relating

rawpixel-1315163-unsplashIt is human nature. It is something that is ingrained into who we are as human beings.  As we listen to people, walk with them through life, we desire, in the deepest part of who we are, to have them know we understand what they are going through.

My mother-in-law has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  As we have lived in this new reality people want to show their love, concerned and want updates.  People truly care for me, my wife, her stepmom, and the rest of our family.  They want to know we are all loved and cared for.  I get it.  It is a part of what we are called to do as Christians too but in all of the conversations I have noticed something and I am the first to admit it, I do it too.

This is part of our human nature we are all preprogrammed to do.  We attempt to relate.  We hear people’s stories of pain and we want to let them know we understand what they are going through.  “I had a brother who had pancreatic cancer.”  “My Aunt lived with that cancer for four years.”  “I had cancer too and after surgery, I was just fine.”  As we try to relate to the person talking to us maybe a better word for what we are doing is we are extending sympathy.

Here is where I find myself guilty.  Say a person comes to me and simply wants to share their journey with their spouse who has Alzheimer’s.  As I listen, I automatically, and without much thought, inform them I understand what they are going through because my Grandfather had this horrible disease.  I might even regale them with stories of him during his journey.  I have come to understand my personal reasons for doing this.  I want to show them I understand what they are going through, but what I am learning is, in this new chapter of my life with a loved one with cancer, it really doesn’t help.

It doesn’t help, in the Alzheimer’s scenario, because I am making my experience with my grandfather having this disease equal to this person’s spouse having the disease.  The truth is I wasn’t the main caregiver for my grandfather.  I wasn’t married to the person with the disease.  Grandparents and grandchildren don’t share life the same as a married couple does.  So not only are our experiences different but the pain, suffering, and struggles are different.  I make the connection through to make myself feel like I understand and that is where the problem lies.

Sympathy is not the same as empathy.  As a pastor, I truly want to show the person I am talking to that I care for them.  I want to know this relationship is a safe place to vent, cry, and be real.  I want to offer as much pastoral care as I can.  In my past I have offered a lot of sympathies when I was attempting, poorly, to offer empathy.  Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.  Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

When I jump to make the link to my grandfather had the same disease, what I am really doing is keeping that person’s pain at a distance.  I take their pain and make it something I have already dealt with or worked through.  I end up keeping it at arm’s reach and what I am doing is giving them sympathy.  As Brené Brown says, “Empathy is the fuel for connection.  Sympathy drives disconnection.”

Disconnection is the best way to describe it.  As I watch people have conversations with my wife and ask about her stepmom, I can see them switch to focus on their stories, how they can relate, and I can see the disconnection happen in real time.  I have walked away from a conversation when someone asked about a death in my family and sarcastically thought to myself, “Well, I’m glad I had time for you to share and relive the time you had to bury your three cats in three months.  That really makes me feel better about losing my last grandparent.”

When we want to be there for people.  When we truly and deep down want them to know we care and love them, stop trying to relate to their situation.  Stop pulling in personal connections of when this happened to you.  Stop pulling the focus away from the person you are trying to connect with because you aren’t connecting.  Instead, you are disconnecting.

Brené Brown has a wonderful piece from her TED Talk that was made into this short animated video and it is below.  It is well worth 6 minutes of your life.  I say 6 minutes because it is 3 minutes long and you should watch it at least twice to understand the power and truth in this video.

May we learn to offer more sympathy but just being quiet and listening.  Not offering answers or ways to fix life.  Just simply listening to someone else’s pain and struggles and simply saying (even without words) “I hear you.”