Peace Over Fear

What I am about to say isn’t a political statement about gun control. It’s not an endorsement or a condemnation of any policy being put forth by legislators. (Though, like practically everyone else, I have very strong opinions about it.)

This is my personal explanation and reply to those who have been telling me to “arm myself”.

The first exhortation to do so came several months ago when I confided to a colleague the heartache I felt when, in the midst of some pretty heated conflict in my worshiping community, my dog suddenly died of antifreeze poisoning.  I have no doubt in my mind that the antifreeze poisoning was purely accidental–Omar was the type of dog that would sample anything he thought might be tasty, even if it was smeared all over the street. But my colleague was concerned for me and, with a serious expression on her face, said: You need to get your concealed carry permit.

Then came the white-supremacy linked church shooting in North Carolina. And with it came the exhortation to arm myself. This time so that I could protect my flock.

And most recently, the spate of terrorist attacks around the world and in Colorado and California have lead several of my friends and family members to give me the same advice: Arm yourself.

My short answer to that is: Heck no!

My long answer:

First, I need to clarify (though most of my readers already know this) that I am a Full Elder in The United Methodist Church. To those who aren’t familiar with the denominational lingo, I am an ordained minister–a devout Christian who has answered a calling from God to serve God’s people through a special path in life dedicated to Word (preaching and teaching scripture), Sacrament (Holy Communion and Baptism), Order (administration and preparing the church for mission) and Service (caring for the flock and leading people to Christ).

This was not an overnight decision. I struggled with my calling into the ministry for years–and even after accepting it I spent years discerning and preparing for it. The United Methodist Church is notorious among seminarians for its long process–taking a decade or more to reach the end goal. But when you’ve set aside that much of your life to prepare, discern, and be trained for a life in the ministry, following God is not something we take lightly.

It’s important to note that Jesus lived in a time just as (maybe even more) tumultuous than ours. Terrorism was something his people dealt with, too.  Maybe he didn’t have to fear home made pipe bombs and planes being flown into buildings or assault rifles–but the violence was real in his day. And the Roman empire didn’t take kindly to the insurrections and rebellions… many innocent Jews died horrible deaths for no other reason than they were sort of associated with a known rebel.

But Jesus didn’t arm himself.

He even famously told Peter, who did draw a sword at one point, that “those who live by the sword die by the sword.”

Jesus’ dedication to peace was a major component to the meaning of his sacrifice for us. If there was ever a person who reserved the right to judge whether another human should live or die, it was Jesus… and yet he didn’t strike anyone down. He didn’t lift a weapon. He didn’t arm himself for earthly war.

And that is the example I am to follow.

If I were to respond to the harsh reality of this world by changing my values or forgetting the example that Christ set, the one I strive to live into everyday, then the terrorists have already won.

Because that’s what terrorists want–they want to change the world by force into their image and they want us to surrender the things that matter to us and make us who we are.

If fear drove me to arm myself and to forget that I have been called to a life in imitation of a peaceful man then I have already surrendered to those earthly forces and evils.

Now, I am the first to admit that I don’t want to die. I am thirty-eight years old… still pretty young. Way to young to be dying. And, if I’m honest, I’m a tad bit afraid of dying. Especially at the hands of a terrorist. I don’t ever want to know what it feels like to have bullets tearing through my flesh. I don’t want to know what it feels like to have shrapnel slam into my body.

But my faith in Christ tells me that there is nothing in this world or the next to fear–that the penalty for my sins has already been forgiven and that I can rest assured that I will be able to stand before God. Thanks to Jesus and his endless grace, I already have life eternal.

So, yeah–dying a painful death is sort of scary, and I don’t want it… but I know that no matter what may come I have the comfort of eternity in God’s presence and that gives me peace of mind. It gives me strength. And it gives me hope.

Knowing that I have eternal life brings me back full circle to this life and what may come in this world. Maybe–just maybe–the senseless violence that exploded at the finish line in Boston, that stormed a women’s health clinic in Colorado, that burst into an employee award celebration in California will touch my life.

I can live in fear of that possibility. I can sacrifice the peace I’ve received by God. I can shrug off the assurance I have of eternal life thanks to Jesus, and I can arm myself to protect this flesh and blood.

Maybe in the heat of the moment this woman who was never able to squeeze the trigger when her father took her squirrel hunting will be able to take another human life in order to preserve her own… but I’d rather take my chances and cling to my values.

And if it ever comes down to it–I am daily preparing myself through prayer, through scripture, through worship and devotion to die as a martyr to peace rather than live a slave to fear.

 

We Are Called To Serve

I have sat down at my computer so many times since last Friday to write this post. There is so much to say and my heart has ached so deeply for the people of Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya… and so many other places that find themselves reeling from the violence perpetrated by extremist and terror groups.

My reactions are based on my faith upbringing. My desire to throw open the gates as wide as they can go and receive the war-weary refugee with open arms is the result of a life-time of religious education. The things I was taught as a child in Sunday School and Bible School, the call to serve issued to me when I was an adolescent working though Confirmation classes, the hands-on lessons of loving our neighbors taught me as a teenager in United Methodist Youth Fellowship… they tell me I have a duty to care for the refugee, even if it puts us at risk. Because discipleship is costly.

But then I see the things the people who helped raise me in faith are saying–I hear the call from some of my Christian friends and family to close the gates. I can’t reconcile those ideas with what I find in Scripture.

My first instinct is to fight.

I want to scream and yell and wave the Bible and shout from the mountaintops, “Remember what you taught me?”

I shake my head in despair because it feels like the terrorists have won–we’re so afraid of the possibility of an extremist getting through that we shut everyone out.

But in the end I know there is probably nothing I can say or do that will change their opinions. Just as I can’t even begin to understand where they are coming from, I’m sure they are shaking their heads at me and thinking the same about me.

So, as what I offer today is something that no Christian can deny:  God has called us to serve and care for the vulnerable. Regardless of the political opinions a person may hold regarding how many (or if) we allow refugees into our own neighborhoods, we are duty-bound as Christians to care for them. We can’t turn our backs on them all together.

In the days to follow, I’m sure I’ll offer my personal thoughts and insights on the refugee crisis–after all, this blog is about my faith journey as a minister and my interpretations of what it means to be a disciples in this world. I won’t shy away from putting my two cents into the debate… but for now, I offer a list of suggestions that we can all begin doing. I offer this, because the one thing that unites us all, across all the worldly divides, is Jesus Christ who taught us to love the stranger, to care for the vulnerable, to show compassion and mercy, and to live outside of judgment in the freedom of grace.

Pray.

For the women and children caught in the violence. For the men who prefer peace to war. For those who resist extremism. For those being persecuted and martyred for their courage to resist. And, because Jesus commanded us to do so, for our enemies.

Love.


Regardless of our opinion about proper policy regarding refugees, one things is certain: as Christians we must love them. Our language, our response, and our attitudes should reflect this. Our knee-jerk reactions usually aren’t very loving. They are usually self-serving. So in order to love, we must take a step back, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves, “Would someone overhearing this hear love in my words?” or “Would a passerby see love in my actions?” Sometimes, the greatest way to love is to learn to bite our tongue so that God can speak through us instead.

Act.

Prayer is never complete if it doesn’t lead us to action of some sort. God is more than a vending machine in which we inserts our hopes and desires and God in turn dispenses blessings. God is relational and will bring us into a deeper relationship–but that means we have to hold up our end if we want that relationship to grow.  

There are numerous ways to help, below you will find some resources for various organizations I personally trust who are doing good work with refugees:

UMCOR–United Methodist Committee on Relief (because the United Methodist church supports this program, donations made to these funds are used entirely for the program donated to–we cover the overhead!)

The UN Refugee Agency–“The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.” (from the website)

UNICEF–“The United Nations Children’s Fund is a United Nations Program headquartered in New York City that provides long-term humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries” (Wikipedia)

WorldVision–“World Vision International is an Evangelical Christian humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organization. It was founded in 1950 by Robert Pierce as a service organization to meet the emergency needs of missionaries.” (Wikipedia)

 

 

 

I Probably Wouldn’t Have Officiated Kim Davis’ Wedding (Does that mean she shouldn’t have been allowed to get married?)

Had Kim Davis walked into my office and asked me, as a minister, to officiate at her latest wedding, there is a chance I would have said “no”. I can’t be 100% sure about that because I don’t know Kim Davis personally–and my decision would have revolved around a number of issues including the couple’s theology about marriage and the couple’s prior track record with marriage and relationships.

fourth marriage would give me reason for concern. I’d have asked a lot of questions about that person’s marital track record, their understanding of the holiness of the marriage covenant, and what they had learned from their previous failed marriages.

So, yes–there is a really good chance, depending on how that conversation went, that I would have refused to conduct her marriage.

I am called to serve Christ through serving churches through parish ministry. I am not a “wedding chapel” pastor. I don’t run a business “hitching” people. I serve the Lord–and a part of that is being faithful to our teachings. Although the United Methodist Church doesn’t observe marriage as a sacrament, we still view it as a holy event in which two people are bound, one to the other, in a sacred covenant. This is not to be taken lightly. And as a pastor, with authority given me by my denomination and the state of West Virginia to perform weddings, I am obligated to protect the meaning of marriage.

But I am a pastor.

Kim Davis, on the other hand, is a county clerk.

Davis’ authority regarding marriage doesn’t come from God, church, or religion… it comes from civic government.

I am reminded of the day the religious leaders decided to trip Jesus up by cornering him and demanding to know if Jews should have to pay taxes to the Roman government. There were a lot of reasons why many Jewish leaders felt these taxes were unfair and against God’s will.

But not paying Rome was rebellion. Rebellion meant certain death. Death for Jews in Rome meant torture and suffering, chiefly in the form of crucifixion.

They thought they had Jesus in a no-win situation. He couldn’t announce his support of taxes in the midst of a crowd of people who were so overburdened by taxes that they were starving and dying under oppression. But publicly denying Rome’s right to tax Jews was something the Romans couldn’t let slide.

How did Jesus respond?

He famously asked for a coin. And then he asked his interrogators whose face was on that coin.

It was Caesar’s.

“So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

I can’t help but think that if Jesus were standing before the Rowan County courthouse today, with people demanding he either publicly support or publicly denounce Kim Davis’ actions that he would patiently ask for a copy of the marriage license in question.

“Whose seal is this?” He would ask, pointing to the raised seal stamped there by the Rowan County courthouse.

“The county’s” we’d have to answer. No matter how we might want to spin the story in our direction–it’s the courthouse that will process that paper, record it, and file it. It’s not gong to be faxed straight to the Pearly Gates. What we’re talking about here is an earthly, civic matter.

“So give to the county (the state, the nation) what is the county’s… give to God what is God’s”

Which brings me back to why I may very well have refused to officiate a wedding for Kim Davis. My job, as a Christian pastor, is to give to God what is God’s. .

But the courthouse’s job is to give to the government what is the government’s. The individuals working there can hold whatever religious views they want. They can have whatever opinion about marriage they want–but the beginning and end of courthouse obligations about marriage is to make sure the government requirements about marriage are met.

Kim Davis’ job as court clerk is to deal with issues of government. My job, as a pastor, is to deal with issues of faith.

As an individual, I may not like an elected official… but as a pastor I would be out of line if I stood in the pulpit and used my position as a faith leader to persuade people to vote her out.

As an individual, Kim Davis may hold religious views that conflict with views of the state… but she is out of line if she uses her role as an elected official to withhold state-guaranteed rights to people outside of her religion.

Those who know me personally know that I have been an advocate for marriage equality and celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision. But even with those sympathies, I have to admit that I can understand why Kim Davis feels so conflicted.

The United Methodist Church (UMC) prohibits same-sex marriage. The church is able to do this because of “freedom of religious expression”. So, even though the State of West Virginia has been recognizing same-sex marriages for a year now, and issuing licences for those couples to wed, I am not permitted to perform those weddings.

As an advocate for marriage equality, I long for the day when the UMC learns to embrace all forms of love between consenting adults–but I recently had to tell a young same-sex couple that I am unable to perform their wedding. It broke my heart. For a moment I wondered if I could even remain in the United Methodist Church. This is the church in which I was raised. I’m Methodist through and through. The teachings and doctrines on grace have been the bedrock of my life. But I had to ask myself if I could remain in the church and abide by it’s doctrines–or if it was time to move on.

I knew that I could rebel–I could do the wedding anyway. But that would most likely entail a church trial later down the line. And if I was brought up on charges for violating the laws of the UMC, the young couple in question would surely be dragged through the mud. Their marriage was not intended to be a political statement–but an expression of their love. I knew that my rebellion would only cause them and anyone else involved harm.

So, even though I’m on the other side of the issue from Kim Davis, I can understand the pain and conflict she feels regarding her role as an elected official and as a Christian who finds opposite-sex couples the only appropriate expression of marriage.

She is torn.

She has a decision to make.

I chose to remain in the UMC and be an agent of change, but that meant in the meanwhile I had to go against my conscience and refuse to perform a marriage that I really believe has the stuff to last.

Kim Davis needs to decide if she will remain in her elected position and serve the people, even in issues that may cause her conflict… or she needs to resign and allow someone who can serve the people to step up to the position.

But this act of rebellion against a government whose highest court has already ruled that the Constitution allows all it’s citizens to enter into marriage, needs to end. It’s tearing us all apart. It’s hurting us all. And it’s distracting us all from the gospel of Jesus Christ:  that the Kingdom of God has drawn near and that salvation is at hand.

The Things You Need To Know About Your Pastor

 

I once heard a fellow minister talk about attending marriage counseling with her husband and being instructed to make a list of the things she wanted her husband to understand about her. She challenged us to make a similiar list for our churches, so that they can better understand us. Several years later, I have finally prepared my list of things I wish my partners in ministry (chiefly, my congregations) knew about me*:

  1. My Meyers-Briggs personality type is INFP. Basically it says that I am an introvert (I am energized through quiet reflection and then give that energy to you), I am empathetic (I feel very deeply and how you feel affects me), and I tend to internalize things.  In short, what happens between us will stay with me for a long time. I will dwell on it. I will feel my own emotions and I will feel yours. I will reflect on it for days, weeks, months… even years.  Don’t ever assume that I don’t care about what’s happening. I care more deeply than many of you could ever imagine. My brain is simply hardwired that way.
  2. Ministers are always “on”. Even when we are attending social events, parties, or recreational events, we are always ministers and pastors. It would help us if you understood that when we’ve just spent the day teaching Bible Study, conducting home and hospital visitations, and then wrap it up at a parishioner’s family cookout, we are always in “work mode.” The long hours, always being “on”, and the pressures associated with is why ministers are one of the physically unhealthiest groups in America. It takes it toll–and just knowing that you know the pressures we face every day can go a long way to easing those pressures.
  3. Worship planning is a balancing act. Sure, you didn’t like the new hymn we sang today. But Sarah did. We are drawn to God in a lot of different ways–what feeds you spiritually may not feed another. Instead of telling me all about the things you don’t like–consider telling me instead about the things that do feed you. If I know what helps you come closer to God, I’ll try to use it more often. But if all I know is that you don’t like Trees of the Field, and Sarah has just gushed on and on about how much it inspired her to go out and tell others about God, who do you honestly think I’m going to pay more attention to?  Keep criticism constructive and focus more on the positive–it will help me strike a better balance as I prepare for worship.
  4. I need prayer.  When is the last time you prayed for your pastor? And when you were angry at her for some reason, did you pray for her more than you complained about her? Or did it go the other way?
  5. I have shed a lot of tears for you. I am strong. I am expected to be strong. I am an optimist–that’s just how I’m programmed (blame God or thank God–depends on your view of optimism). I will always see the best in people and will always look for evidence of God’s presence in this world. But this doesn’t mean I don’t worry. It doesn’t mean I haven’t felt the pain of conflict or agonized over the toll it takes on us all. But I wasn’t called by God to be a naysayer. I was called to proclaim God’s kingdom… so after the tears dry, I will always turn my attention back to Kingdom work. Always.
  6. I have spent a lot of time wrestling with God. There is a reason that one of my favorite stories is about Jacob wrestling with God by the Jabok River. Heaven knows I have wrestled with God most of my life. Heaven knows I walk with a perpetual limp, like Jacob, as evidence of those wrestling sessions. The stands I take in my faith life may not always be popular, but they aren’t taken lightly. They have come after years and years of struggle and contemplation and pondering (remember #1?).
  7. But I don’t have all the answers. I am a preacher, a minister, a pastor, a full-time servant of Christ… but I don’t have all the answers. God transforms us. If our prayer and scripture study isn’t changing us, we aren’t doing it right. God has transformed me quite a bit in my life–things I was once so certain were the “right belief” or “right doctrine”, God has changed my heart about.  I am passionate and outspoken–but I don’t assume I have all the answers and I don’t assume we will always agree. However, I do expect us to always be respectful and loving in how we treat each other. Condemnation and judgment have no place in the lives of Christians. Jesus took that responsibility away from us so that we wouldn’t be burdened by it.
  8. I don’t need you to agree with me to walk with me. God gave us each a free will and a reasoning mind. I learned a long time ago that I don’t need to agree with everyone I walk with–I just need to be able to see the face of Jesus in them. So, I sometimes walk with people who aren’t like me at all. I sometimes walk with people who think differently than me. Sometimes I have spirited debates with people who think different… and that’s okay. Because learning to love one another through our differences teaches us to learn to love our enemies (pretty sure that was one of Jesus’ “things”). But if we can’t love a fellow believer who thinks different, then how in the world are we going to go that extra step and love an enemy?
  9. I have nightmares about telephones. Refer back to#1 and #2–I often go 12 hours or more in a day, and we introverts are famous for disliking telephones. Whether I’m in Bible Study, prepping for Sunday’s message, praying for the congregation, visiting the sick or shut-in, in a meeting, etc…, my phone is turned off. For safety and legal reasons, I don’t answer it when I’m driving. I don’t take the phone with me when I’m visiting–I leave it in the car. I know we live in an age of cell-phones and instantaneous results–but I work in a vocation that demands I be present with the people I am with. This means that I can’t be answering the phone constantly… and being expected to return a dozen phone calls a day is a nuisance since I am usually not in a place where it is convenient or even possible to do so (remember–this is West Virginia. Cell signals are tricky things in these mountains.) It would be a real blessing and a mercy to me if you would show me the grace of patience when it comes to telephones. You have no idea how badly I need it.
  10. I spend a lot of time prepping.  I invest 15-20 hours a week in sermon preparation alone.  I spend two hours prepping for each Bible Study Class (I teach two). Add into that all the other weekly obligations:  two hours for worship prep, daily visitations (approximately 2 hours a day), meetings (approximately 2 hours a week), and time spent on the phone (approximately 1 hour a day). Then add the daily personal spiritual disciplines I must maintain in order to do ministry: 1 hour personal Bible study, 1-2 hours daily prayer, 1-2 hours of spiritual reflection (such as prayer of examen, spiritual writing/reading, etc…) and at least 8 hours of Sabbath time a week.   If you take the low estimates of that–it totals 72 hours a week!!! That’s not even including all the training events, ministry events, and community events of which I need to be a part.
  11. I’m tired. I don’t know how you can look at #10 and fail to understand why I–and pretty much every other pastor–are tired.  But seriously–we are tired. When we have to turn down an invitation or aren’t able to be at every thing that is occurring, please be understanding. So much or our own personal lives are sacrificed so that we can be in service to others. Ministers with spouses and children sacrifice a lot of family time. And for the most part, all we ask is that you understand.
  12. I can really use your help. When you call me because Jane was taken to the hospital, it would really help if you would go to visit Jane. When you call me because you’re worried that Joe hasn’t been in worship for the past three Sundays, it would really help if you would call Joe and talk to him, tell him he is missed. When you feel it’s important to tell me that Dan is angry that we didn’t observe his birthday in worship, it would really help if you would call Dan and wish him a happy birthday. If everyone in the church were doing a part of the visitation,outreach, and evangelism, it wouldn’t be such a burden on me… and I wouldn’t be as likely to disappoint you when I missed Jane at the hospital, or didn’t call Joe as fast as you would’ve liked, because the immediate need would have already been taken care of by you!
  13. “Come to dinner sometime” is not the same as “Come to dinner Wednesday at 6:00pm.” Open-ended invitations aren’t really invitations. Telling me to “drop by for dinner sometime” is a politeness… but it’s not an actual invite. It feels weird to drop by someone’s house at dinner time when you haven’t been expressly invited, so please don’t get upset when I don’t “drop by”. If you really want me, ask me to attend a specific dinner. “Come to dinner Wednesday at 6:00pm” tells me you really want me there, that you have planned to have me over, and that you will ensure I have a space at your table and with your family when I come.
  14. I love you very much. I’ve saved the most important for last.  For a long time I struggled with what Jesus said in Luke 14:26: “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple.”  Does Jesus really want us to hate? But my life in ministry has taught me that Jesus wasn’t talking about hating in our modern context–he doesn’t actually intend for me to hate my Mom and Dad who love me so much and have sacrificed so much for me over the years–but I am expected to make a sacrifice in order to serve Christ. Sometimes that sacrifice is my family. And since I am a true-blue Appalachian, this is downright painful. Extended family is a top priority to us and I’m not sure people outside Appalachia can really understand what I’m talking about–but it feels like I’m carving out my heart when I can’t be a part of family events. When I have to miss the family Christmas party because I need to be at a Carol Sing with my congregation, or when I can’t celebrate birthdays and other landmarks with my nieces and nephews, there is a pain deep in my soul. But you have become my family. What I have sacrificed God has given me back. So–when people get so angry at me that they leave the church, it hurts deeper than you can ever imagine. When I see you angry at me, spreading gossip about me, or stirring up resistance to me, when I get hateful letters, or overhear those nasty comments I was never supposed to hear.. I feel as if my own mother and father are disowning me. I love you because you are my family–but sometimes it feels very one-sided. Sometimes I feel as if I am disposable to you… I’m sure that’s not the intention, but it is how I feel. I just hope you know how very much you mean to me and how very much I have given up so that I can be here with you.

*This list is specific to me.

Tune in next week for Part Two: The Things For Which Your Pastor is Most Thankful!

Faith in Humanity: Restored (Also, debunking the myth of “losing the battle”)

The Back Story:
Last week I received a letter from someone who was worried about a lot of things.  In the midst of her lamentations she declared that we (meaning Christianity, I assume) are “losing the battle.”

The Story:
Today I went to the hospital after I had finished teaching morning Bible Study.  I spent my time with an older gentleman (a senior citizen) battling a physical ailment he’s struggled with quite a while, and then with a young woman who just gave birth to her first child. Two chapters in life, separated by many years and many experiences–and I was privileged enough to be a part of both stories.

On the way home I was pondering those bookend episodes of two very different lives… because that’s what we introverts do: we ponder.

But my pondering was abruptly ended while stopped at a red light. I noticed a white-haired gentleman who looked to be about the same age as the man I had just visited in the hospital.  This man, however, was standing on the interstate exit ramp, holding a sign I could not read because he was facing away from me. But I didn’t need to read it. I already knew that he was looking for financial assistance from those who were stuck in traffic.

I was just reaching for the few coins I had on me (I never carry cash) and wondering if I could get his attention and if he could safely cross the busy intersection to get to me… and if all that was worth the few cents (a dime and a few pennies) I could offer him when the light turned green and I had to drive on.

Then, I noticed a gray truck parked on the side of the busy highway and a young man hurrying along the gravel berm toward the ramp. Clutched in his hand was one of Sheetz’ distinctive bags.  I watched in my rearview mirror as the young man darted across the ramp and walked right up to the white-haired gentleman and offered him the bag with a warm, friendly gesture.

And I thought, “My faith in humanity has just been restored.”

The Twist:
But no sooner than the scene behind me was out of view of my mirrors, I suddenly recalled the desperate letter that had so boldly proclaimed that we were “losing the battle.”

That sentence had been rubbing at me all week.

The Jesus I know is a victor. That’s what we sing about in church. That’s how we refer to him when we talk about him.  That’s what we claim to believe.

And yet, so many times, Christians moan about losing a battle.

When Congress votes in a way that we don’t like: We’re losing the battle!
When we don’t like the president or his policies: We’re losing the battle!
When the Supreme Court offers a decision different from ours: We’re losing the battle!

Everything from Beyoncé performing at the Super Bowl to mass shootings  sends up the cry: We’re losing the battle!

Debunking the Myth:
This past year I’ve had the opportunity to study the book of Revelation three times. Each one has been a long, comprehensive study. The first was a personal study to prepare me for the more daunting task of teaching the text to each of the two churches I serve. Back-to-back, three times over, I went verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter through Revelation.

And can you guess what I learned?

The battle is already won.

Over and over again, that message was clear. Whether it was heavenly hosts singing praises or words of patience uttered to saints and martyrs, it was clear–the victory had already been claimed.

He had claimed it, when stretched out and nailed to a cross, Jesus took our sins upon himself by asking God to forgive us.

Death and the grave could not defeat him. All the sins of the world couldn’t break him. Evil will never trample over him.

The battle is not ours to lose–it is Christ’s and it has already been won.

That’s the great thing about Revelation.  No matter which of the twenty-dollar seminary words you use to describe your eschatological (end-times) views, the message is always the same. Whether you see Revelation as a historical book addressing the first century church, or as a symbolic writing with spiritual meaning, or as a prophecy of things yet to come, it all plays out the same:  Christ has already defeated sin and evil. The battle is won.

The Moral of the Story:
Jesus told us that what we have done for the “least of these” we have also done for him.  He told us this when he was warning us that some people (whom he called “goats”) would claim they had never seen him hungry or sick or in prison or naked. But others (whom he called “sheep”) would have seen his face in the faces of the poor, the sick, the helpless, the broken, the hurting…

Everyday we can live into the victory of the battle already won–we can be the sheep, chilling on the green pastures of the Kingdom and enjoying the abundance of life. Or we can be the goats–taking the hard way over brutal terrain, stumbling on stone after stone, and missing what is so painfully obvious right before our eyes: Jesus is the victor! He’s already navigated this terrain! He’s already found the way–we just need to follow him!

I Saw Jesus Today:
It was wonderful–the young man who had gone out of his way to drive to Sheetz (the closest one to that interstate ramp is notoriously slow in its service) and return to offer food to a man begging for help not only restored my faith in humanity, but also helped me to see Jesus.

Look closely at the image before you: A young man in the prime of his life, driving a nice new truck, with money enough to buy food on a whim and a white-haired senior citizen, begging for scraps and loose change on a hot day at a busy intersection.

Do you see Jesus, too?

Look a little closer–It’s not the young man.

That’s not Jesus.

Jesus told us that his sheep–his disciples–would be the ones feeding him.

But where did we see you hungry and feed you?
What you have done for the least of these you have done for me.

Look a little closer–Jesus is in the face of the white-haired man begging for scraps.
And his disciple was living in the victory of a battle already won–a victory in which he could share the abundance of his life for the sake of another. A victory in which he didn’t need to judge that white-haired man’s worthiness… he only needed to see Jesus.

I saw Jesus today.  And today, I was reminded that I already live in the victory of eternal life.

Oops! I Forgot Our Anniversary

Hey you–

It just dawned on me that I let June 10th come and go without taking a moment to let you know how much I appreciate you. I swore to myself if would be an anniversary I’d never overlook… and here I am, having to acknowledge it slipped right by me. I won’t trouble you with the excuses, though.

We’ve been together since the start, haven’t we? You were there when I was a kid–always by my side.  I didn’t pay you as much attention as you paid me, but there was always a comfort in knowing that you were right there.  I could call on you any time of day or night, and you’d be right there, without fail.

Then I became a teenager and we got more serious.  I could see how much you meant to my life, but I had a hard time letting you in on those secrets.  It’s as if I thought I could keep my innermost thoughts hidden away from the one who knew me better than anyone else.

I had some rough times back then.  I started struggling with depression in early adolescence and it just kept escalating throughout junior high and high school.  By the time I was sixteen I had been contemplating suicide for so long that it was inevitable that I make an attempt… and I did.

And you were there.

I wouldn’t let you too close to me that day. I didn’t want anyone to tell me how much they loved me or wanted me to stick around… I just wanted people to see the pain, to know that there was something deeply wrong going on in my life… to know that I needed help.

You stood patiently beside me the whole time. Even when I didn’t want to see you there, I knew you were. No matter how hard I tried to push you away, you refused to budge.

When the moment was right, when the healing had come and new life was beginning to take root in this old-before-her-time soul, you told me you wanted us to be closer. You told me you wanted us to walk together for the rest of forever. And I said that sounded pretty good.

But by my late teens I was beginning to wonder if I was simply too young to be settling down with the likes of you–so soon anyway.  So I rebelled a bit against you. I tried to make you hate me. I tried to make you lose faith in me. I tried to make you reconsider the commitment you had made to me. But you just kept on hanging on, patiently waiting for me to come to my senses.

There were times when I was unfaithful to you–I’d rush off to try some new fad, or I’d think the grass was greener somewhere else.  And in the end, I’d have to realize that the happiest moments of my life were with you, and even the unhappy ones were more bearable when I was with you, and I’d come crawling back with this self-indulgent attitude of entitlement. I just expected you to take me back.

I’d tell you I was sorry, but you’d just smile and wipe the tears away and tell me that I was already forgiven.

I just kept trying to drag you along on every half-baked, selfish dream I had. I kept telling you that I knew best how our relationship should go. You’d tell me what you needed from me, and I’d go off and do things my way instead.  I got us into some real messes, didn’t I? There were a lot of tears for the both of us during those years between my late teens and mid-twenties.

And still you were there.

When I finally stopped telling you what to do and started listening to you, things really started to turn around.

You were with me when I left home to go so far away to attend seminary.

You were with me when I had to learn to share the pew with people I didn’t want to share it with.

When I was jealous that other people loved you as much as I seemed to, I wanted to keep you all to myself–to tell them they didn’t really know you like I did, that they just weren’t good enough for you.

And you just smiled at me with that patient way you have and shook your head and told me you would never abandon me, so I didn’t need to hide you away or hoard you.

You loved people I couldn’t imagine loving… and through you I began to learn to love more deeply. I started to see the beauty in others in whole new ways. I began to see their worth and their value. I began to see them through your eyes.

We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I am far better off for having known you. You’ve done most of the work in this relationship. I’ve caused most of the trouble.

And still you’re here.

This is four days late in being said, but four years ago you joined me at the altar–you were in the kind gentle hands of Bishop Grove and Bishop Swenson–hands that seemed impossibly heavy when they laid on my head. You were in the hands of mentors and colleagues as they gathered around–warm hands that held me up. You were in the blur of confusion when the Bible was thrust into my hands, in the surreal dizziness as the stole was hung around my neck.  You were there when that robed crowd around me opened up and the people of the West Virginia Annual Conference stood and greeted me with warm and seemingly endless applause.

I promised you I’d walk with you for the rest of forever–and that day, before the witness of the whole church, you reminded me that you had already promised to walk with me for the rest of forever.

I haven’t been perfect these four years. I’ve made mistakes. But I have learned so much. I have grown so much. The love you taught me for your people–for all your people–has continued to grow and swell this heart and soul to proportions I never knew were possible.

Happy Anniversary, Dear Lord.

It took me a long time to get to that day–but you never left me, and I know you never will.

Rocking the Boat and Walking on the Water

A few weeks ago I had a chance to sit on a panel of Appalachian clergywomen and speak about our experiences to a group of men and women from around the world who take on the issue of how the United Methodist Church deals with the status and role of women (General Commission on the Status and Role of Women).

One of the questions posed was about obstacles we face in our ministry settings.

I spoke a bit about isolation, because it has been a common theme throughout my ministry. Starting with seminary (where I was the only West Virginia student in attendance, a cultural isolation) to my first appointment, by choice, in the Southern Coalfields (where I was the only elder in the entire county, a geographical isolation) to my current appointment in a region of the state that is most rapidly growing (population and economy), I have been isolated.

But, I explained, the isolation I feel now is unique and disheartening, because there is positively no reason why I should be isolated.  Some of it has to do with being a bit of a liberal in a conservative area (okay… a big liberal)but that isn’t really the problem. Most people are open and receptive, even when we don’t always agree on issues.

The problem is a disconnect between what church leadership requests of us and how they respond when we deliver it.

Whether it is in seminary classes, at monthly clergy meetings, church conferences, or preaching events where District Superintendents and Bishops speak to the body of Christ which identifies as United Methodist, we are told to be bold. To speak the prophetic message whether it is popular or not. To think outside the box. To not obsess over pleasing the members, but reaching out to those yet unchurched. We’re told to resist the status quo, to rethink what church looks like and what Christian lives look like.

Students like me, people who never quite fit in the “status quo” and who always sort of marched to the beat of her own drummer, eat it up.

Then we start the ministry; and, what is lived by those who had been preaching to us to be bold is completely different.

Suddenly, we are warned that if we look different (I’m moderately–on my way to heavily–tattooed) we are limiting our ability to do ministry.

Suddenly, when we preach a gospel of love and forgiveness, when we point out that Christ’s table is open to all, we are told that maybe our radical positions aren’t a good match for our congregations.

Suddenly, when we dare to step out on a limb in total faith and stand for what we fully believe is God’s justice, we’re told we should just be quiet on those issues.

Don’t stand up, you’ll rock the boat!

But how can we preach the gospel on Sunday and then fail to live it on Monday?

And why are our church leaders crying to the heavens that they need a new breed of preachers just to get us and immediately begin to try to mold us into their image?

Since that meeting I have been pondering all of the above and more as I try to make sense out of some of the events of the past two years of my ministry.

I took a controversial stand in adding my voice to other clergy men and women advocating for marriage equality.

I knew that my position was in a minority view in my own state, as well as my denomination. I also knew that my parishioners, on the whole, did not share my conviction.  But it was an issue I had been wrestling with for a decade.

Much like Jacob wrestling with God down by the Jabbok River, I walked away with a limb. And a new conviction to walk with God, even when God was leading me into troubling places.

It was a bold statement. And, of course, it was unpopular. When the backlash came I wasn’t really surprised–I was only surprised by how some it was manifested.

Knowing this was a precarious situation I was in, and knowing that I was fairly new in the ministry (only in full-time ministry five years at that point, ordained for only two years) I made an effort to keep my District Superintendent informed. Mostly, though, I just wanted his advice.

Unfortunately, all I heard from this minister of four decades was that I shouldn’t have “rocked the boat” and that as pastors we are best served not taking controversial stands on hot-button topics.

This was in direct opposition to what had been preached at me for years as I came up through the local church, climbed through all the steps of ministry in the United Methodist Church (we’re called ‘Methodists’ because we’re so methodical in our practices–elaborately methodical, so there were a lot of steps).

But when I look at what Jesus did when the disciples found themselves in a rocking boat on a lake being ravaged by a storm, he certainly didn’t tell them that they shouldn’t have gotten into the boat in the first place.

In Matthew 14:22-33 we get the story of Jesus sending his disciples across the lake while he disperses the crowds that had been gathered around him (this is right after the feeding of the five thousand) and he goes off to pray.

While they are doing as he had told them to do, disaster sets in. They’re battling a strong headwind. Their little boat is being battered by the waves. They are a long way from land on rough water and things just aren’t looking good for them.

Suddenly they look up and see Jesus walking across the water and they freak out–as any one with any common sense would do.

But Jesus didn’t offer the sort of advice I frequently hear from church leaders–he didn’t say, “You should have checked the weather reports and tested the waters before you went where I sent you.”

No–he offered the sort of advice I was yearning to hear as the worst of the backlash battered me in my little, frantically rocking boat: “Be encouraged! It’s me, Jesus. Don’t be afraid!”

In many ways, I think that’s all I really wanted to hear.

I knew the puddle I thought I was stepping in had turned out to be quite a bit deeper than I had realized, and I didn’t expect any magic words to make it disappear. I knew there was no formula to follow to make everyone happy and cool with each other. I knew I had a long way to go. I just wanted to hear: “Be encouraged! It’s Jesus. Don’t be afraid!”

I had wrestled with and resisted making that stand for so long–I had discerned and then discerned again and again and again the message I was receiving from God in my life, in my studies, in my experiences, in my relationships, that I knew I had to speak. I had run out of excuses to remain silent.

All I needed was to hear the words of Christ spoken to me through my brother in Christ: “Don’t be afraid.”

But all I heard was, “You shouldn’t have rocked the boat.”

I’ve come to realize that most of us in the ministry are in that rocking boat, whether we want to be or not.  For that matter, all of Christianity is pretty much in that rocking boat. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t steady it. The waves are battering us. We are being tossed asunder. But if we look, we’re sure to see Jesus walking on the water toward us because the chaos and craziness of this world can’t knock him down, no matter how ferocious it gets.

Some of us will stay in the boat–some of us will get so excited we jump out of the boat like Peter so that we can walk on the water, too–and chances are, like Peter, we’ll realize where we are and we’ll begin to sink.

As I look back, I realize taking that stand was my “getting out of the boat” moment in my faith. When I looked around and saw how terrible the storm really was, how much worse it looked once I was out of the (illusion of) safety of the boat, I began to sink.

I looked to my leaders for help–I looked to them to be the hands and feet of Christ.  I expected to hear, “Don’t be afraid”. I expected to see a hand reaching into the depths to lift me up out of the despair and hopelessness into which I was sinking.  But all I heard was, “Why’d you do it? Why’d you rock the boat and then jump in?”

I’ve learned from  the past two years. I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve seen a side of myself I didn’t know was there. My faith has been tested and it turned out to be stronger than I ever imagined it could be. I’ve found new friends. I’ve found an unconditional love. I’ve been forgiven. And by some I haven’t been. I’ve realized how many wounds a soul can take (full disclosure: it’s more than you would believe). I walk with a pretty dramatic limp these days… but I walk as a new woman, a stronger disciple, and filled with more hope and love than I knew existed.

I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m still learning from them. I hope to always learn from them.

I’ve cried and I’ve laughed. I’ve mourned and I’ve celebrated.

But most importantly, I’ve learned that maybe what people most need to hear in this world is exactly what Jesus said to his disciples, what I yearned to hear from my brothers and sisters in leadership positions around me:  “Be encouraged! Look! There’s Jesus! Don’t be afraid!”

We may not always agree with the people we see sinking in despair–but that is not the time to lecture and chastise about the decisions they have made or the reasons why they thought they thought it was time to leap out of the boat.  It’s the time to be the hands of Christ in this world.

It’s the time to reach into the depths and lift them up.

It’s the time to speak words of encouragement and comfort.

Maybe, just maybe, if we–the church–were being that voice of encouragement and comfort no one would have to feel so isolated from the Body of Christ. Maybe, with a word of encouragement and comfort, we’d all be a little bolder, a little more willing to speak a prophetic message, to seek God’s justice in this world of chaos.