My 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
It 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.”
This week has been the hardest of my 16 years of ministry. After officiating a beautiful and fun wedding of one parishioner, my wife and I traveled the hour and a half trip back home. About 30 minutes in I received a phone call. We received the news Connor, a twelve-year-old youth of my church, died because of suicide.
We drove straight to their house and joined in the shock, sorrow, grief, and unbelief of what was happening. I didn’t have words and still don’t. The next morning, Sunday, I stood in front of our congregation and broke the news and their hearts. We sang hymns and read scripture and just grieved.
As I prepared to lead Connor’s funeral I requested prayer and insights from every minister I knew. I deeply appreciate the support I personally received and I know the prayers lifted up on behalf of the family were felt too. People shared eulogies they did for families who lost children and ones they did for those who lost their lives to suicide.
I felt I would share what I said at Connor’s funeral. Below is my meditation. It is the longest and hardest one I have ever preached but one that was well received. I said a lot but I felt a lot was needed and must be said. I have permission to share this from the family and permission to use Connor’s name.
If this helps one person prepare to lead a similar funeral, then it is worth it. If it helps one person realize what youth go through and how suicide is not the answer, then it is worth it.
Meditation for Connor Francisco
From the moment we are born we are all heading in one direction. We are mortal creatures who have a finite time here on earth. We all will reach the same destination at some point. My grandfather had battled Alzheimer’s for many years and when he passed away it felt like death was a merciful healer. It is the same way when someone passes away with a chronic disease or has suffered for a long time with pain. For others, like my grandmother, she lived well into her 90s and her body simply gave out. Death, although still sad, seemed natural and that the timing was right. When death comes in these situations we are sad and we mourn but it makes sense.
When tragic events happen like a car accident or some sort of natural disaster, we still have an event to blame. Death may come as a “thief in the night” but we still know whom to blame. There is still a bad guy. If we had to choose, which we never want too, these are the types of deaths we would prefer.
We gather here today to surround the Francisco’s with our love and our presence for none of these reasons. We arrive here today to cry out to God today because this is not how it is supposed to be. We should not have to bury a 12-year-old boy who was full of life. This is not how Connor’s story was supposed to end.
He is a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with stage 4 hepatoblastoma (hep-a-toe-blastoma), a rare type of liver cancer. He survived surgeries. He survived chemo treatments that were designed to bring his 2-year-old body to the brink of death to fight and kill his cancer. It did damage to his body, his brain, and set him back. He lost the ability to talk, to walk, and to think and had to relearn how to do all of that. However, he survived it all.
He learned to walk again and walked so heavy on his flat feet you could always know where he was. He learned to talk and, when he trusted you, he would love to talk your ear off about whatever was on his mind. He learned to think again and when faced with a riddle or problem in youth group, he would usually be the one who would help solve it. He survived and thrived through all of this. This is not supposed to be the end of his miracle story.
This is not the way it is supposed to be. This is not…this is not…this is not part of some major plan of God. This was not God’s plan at all. I do not want to worship a God who thinks this is some sort of way to bring people to Christ, to take a child so young. This is not a time to say God needed another angel because humans and angels are two different things in the Bible and I do not want to worship a God who pulls children away in their prime to be by his side for some demented reason. This is not the time, for any of us talking to this family to start any phrase with “at least.” If you find yourself talking to this family and you start the sentence with “at least”. Stop. Swallow your words and don’t utter another because there is nothing that follows those two words that will provide them with any comfort or peace. This is not the time for stupid platitudes and phrases that truly make us feel better but only do more damage to those who mourn. This is not the time to say things like “everything happens for a reason.” Those are truly half-truths that have nothing to do with the God who is present here in this place today.
This is not the time for me to stand here behind the pulpit and think I have any type of answer to why this happened. I truly wish I could shake the Bible and out would pop some sugarcoated pill I could give you all to swallow and make it all better. I wish there was some sort of theology I could condense into a tweet or t-shirt that would make all our pain, sorrow and grieve go away. But I can’t, because the truth is something like that doesn’t exist.
What I do know is today is a day to cry. Today is a day to let the tears flow and let the sadness sink in…because today…today…sucks. It sucks because this is not the way it is supposed to be. Today we are to mourn that Connor isn’t with us anymore. We won’t be able to see that infectious smile that would bust through those doors right there. I won’t be able to feel that smack on my back that takes my breath away. I know it came from a place of love and admiration but also it came from a happy kid who didn’t know his own strength. Today we mourn because we don’t have around us anymore a hard-working kid who thought the harder the task the more fun. We don’t have this kid who loved Camp Care and all the kids that looked and went through the things he went through. We don’t have this kid who was so proud he was taller than his mom and catching up with his dad. We don’t have a kid to play each Sunday at the nursery door and make the little kids laugh as he playfully scared them. This day…today…sucks.
This is the day when we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is the day when we learn we will have to simply be okay with uncertainty and never knowing the answers to the burning questions we have. We will never…never know why. We will never truly understand and somehow we will have to go on with our lives never knowing. That is the reality of today.
Today is also a day when we need to be thankful for how Connor affected and touched our lives. Connor loved to help people. He would serve meals, drinks, and desserts at fundraiser dinners for hours. He was one of the few youths I know who wasn’t afraid of hard manual labor and he almost relished in it. He knew he was strong and so he happily would agree to carry anything and everything, even if you were fine carrying it yourself. We need to be thankful that this wonderful kid who would greet everyone in this church on a Sunday. If he were actually the greeter, he wouldn’t wait until you came inside…no. He was outside on the front steps dragging you into the church with a hug and his huge smile.
Connor had a great eye for construction. Whether it was cultivated from Bob the Builder or simply because he loved working with his hands, he had a gift. The chicken coop he built is beautiful and so are the other wood projects he worked on with Sam, like the rifle he made Matthew for Christmas.
Connor loved the groups he was apart of. He would tell me all about Camp Care and camping trips he went on with boy scouts. I was looking forward to asking him how his hike went last weekend and how he outlasted older Scouts of his troop with a 40lb pack on his back the whole time. He loved this youth group and although he was the only boy most nights, he still knew he was accepted and loved. Just because the games we played were against girls, it didn’t stop his level of competition. Oh, and when he laughed…that belly laugh was infectious and could be heard for miles around. We witnessed that laugh a month ago at our last Youth Sunday. He won the Family Feud for the neighbor’s team and when he did; he raised his hands in triumph as the congregation all clapped and cheered. He was the king of marshmallow towers, pumpkin baseball, and waterslide kickball.
However, you know Connor, you could see a boy who simply wanted to be loved and truly was by so many people. The amount of love that has been poured out on the Francisco’s this week is simply a small testimony to the love we all have for Connor and all of them. The love we have for Connor is wonderful but it is nothing compared to the love his family has for him and the love God has for him. When I see Diane, David, and Matthew, I see people who were willing to sacrifice everything for him. You all have been the example of what unconditional love looks like. You all gave so much to Connor and he gave so much back to you as well.
Hold on to those memories, those moments, and the time love was shared because that is how Connor will continue to live on and affect so many more people in this world. I know you all are proud of him and the journey he has taken. Two years ago, when the youth did a youth Sunday focused on Disney movies, Diane left the church in tears. This was the first time Connor spoke in front of people. He did an amazing job. Her tears were tears of joy and pride in her son because of how far he came from a five-year-old who couldn’t say a word. Hold on to these memories and tell his miracle story.
Connor was one of my three confirmands this year. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church is when youth take their faith seriously for themselves. They profess their faith in God in front of the church and then welcomed as full members of our congregation. Connor attended every night and worked hard with his mentor, Andy, to discover God’s love for him and the grace God offers through his Son Jesus Christ. This past Easter Connor stood up here, about where he is now, and professed his faith in Christ. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, he loved God and understood God loved him. I know that God surrounded Connor his entire life and loved him.
But here is another hard part…the other hard question I know many are asking…where was God on Saturday? I firmly believe God was right there with Connor and God’s heart was the first to break when Connor died. I also know, without a doubt, that God has made sure Saturday is not the end of Connor’s story. Connor’s story continues and it doesn’t end in darkness and in grief. Jesus says in Matthew 19:14, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.” The Romans text says, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powersor height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” It is because of death and resurrection of God’s Son that Connor’s story continues in the light and in the grace of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As I talked with the family this week there was something that truly stuck with me. As Connor would help Diane or David with things around the house when he was done getting something from the top shelf or moving something heavy he would look at them and say, “Aren’t you glad you got me.” “Aren’t you glad I’m here.” Although this is not the way his life was supposed to end, I’m glad, I’m sure you all are glad, Connor was here for the almost 13 years. I’m glad he was here and I got to know him because I am different because of Connor. This was a very safe place for Connor and as we witnessed that change in him, going from a wallflower to the life of the party, we all understood what the church is truly supposed to be. As Elizabeth, one of our wise youth, said this week, “Connor felt this was more than a church because we became his church family.” We are better because of Connor. He has taught us so much in the short time he was here and I’m glad I got him for as long as I did, I’m glad he was here. And I know all of you would agree with that.
There is one more piece of scripture I want to read today. It comes out of the Gospel of John and it is a selection of verses in the 14th chapter. Hear now the word of God…
In this scripture Jesus is telling his disciples and us, he never leaves us alone. God doesn’t leave anyone behind.
Connor always wanted to help. When Madison was cold he took off his jacket and gave it to her. When someone needed a refill on their drink, he would pop up and get it for them. Connor had a servant’s heart and was always willing to help. This is what Jesus was able to do for Connor. Connor had to be in some dark place, a place he didn’t know how to get himself out of. But after he slipped from this world to the next Connor wasn’t in darkness anymore; instead, he was surrounded by light. This light doesn’t leave him alone, it doesn’t abandon him or leave him behind. It keeps coming because that is what Jesus does. Jesus keeps seeking us, surrounding us and never leaving our side. Connor now is at rest. He is made whole. He doesn’t have to fear cancer returning. His fears and anxieties are now gone because he is basking in the presence of God and is surrounded by the light of Jesus Christ.
Please know that no matter how dark your world is or gets in the future. Know you are always surrounded by the light and grace of God. God is right there with you in your mourning. God is right there in the darkness offering an inextinguishable light. There is nothing you can do to separate yourself from God’s love and God is always with you…always.
Today we mourn. Today we cry. Today we remember. This is not the way it was supposed to end. As God cried because Connor’s life was cut short, God still welcomed him in with loving arms. I can picture Connor looking up into the eyes of Jesus and asking, “what can I do to help?” Then, after a full day of working in God’s glorious kingdom, asking Christ, “Aren’t you glad I’m here? Aren’t you glad you got me.” And Jesus, looking into Connor’s eyes and his big smile, replying, “Well done good and faithful servant, the kingdom of heaven belongs to children like you. Yes, I’m glad you are here. Yes, I’m glad I got you. I have always had you and I always will.”
May the peace and love of our God, the creator, the redeemer and the sustainer be felt in your heart today and always.
“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
John 13:34-35 CEB
Maybe it is the afterglow of the royal wedding and Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon. Maybe it is because YouVersion sent this verse to my email on Friday, May 18th. Either way, the idea of love is the defining nature of what it means to be a Christian has always called to me.
Love is what Christ is. Love is who God is. We as disciples are called to love because “this is how everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Loving one another as Christ loved us is our command. Yet, why does it have to be so hard?
love my family. My wife and two kids are precious to me and although I get angry at them, I never stop loving them. I love them so much I would die for them. When Facebook memories pop up, I can be brought to tears thinking about how much life we have shared and how deep my love goes.
I love God. I attempt to understand God, learn who God is, grow in my relationship with God and as life moves on I love God deeper today then I did five years ago. I know what God has done for me, calls me to do and how God walks with me each and every day. I can feel God’s presence in my life and I pray I can live a life that glorifies the God who I love and who loves me.
We are fine loving God and loving those close to us. Yet, God doesn’t call us to love God and family alone. God calls us to love each other. It is the “each other” that I admit I have a hard time with. I have a hard time when God asks me to love the person who rants in a grocery store that everyone should speak English in one of the most diverse cities in our nation. I have a hard time loving the person who is constantly rude to the server at a restaurant because they want to exert some sort of power over a person in the service industry. I have a hard time loving those who hate Democrats or Republicans because they are seen as enemies. I have a hard time loving those who look across the world, at the vast kaleidoscope of humanity, and only see populations to exploit for cheap labor to increase profits.
This is not living into Jesus’ command to love each other. I admit I struggle with loving these people, yet God calls me to do so.
We want to fix others in order to make them more lovable. We will love a Democrat only if she starts to think and act like a Republican. We will love those in the Ivory Coast or Honduras, only when they start to think and act like Americans. We demand change in order to be worthy of love.
Jesus doesn’t demand this. Jesus’ command is for us to love each other. There is a change, but the change is within us. The change is not to demand others to bend to our will, our ideals, or our views. The change is to change the way I, we, see each other. We need to see them as God sees them. When we do we can then love them as Jesus commands.
When I walk around the assortment of humanity in Walmart, and the same goes for Target or Costco for that matter, I am reminded constantly of the hard task it is to love other humans. Yet that is our command. “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” (I added the emphasis)
If I do not follow this command, if I live a life full of hate and bitterness towards others, then I will not be counted as a disciple of Jesus Christ. I swallow hard and trudge on. I make mistakes but I seek and strive loving God and others perfectly because that is what a disciple of Jesus Christ is commanded to do.