Living God’s Creative Story

Today is the first day of spring. For someone who is not a fan of winter weather, snow, or cold temperatures the announcement of spring weather has come brings with it the sounds of rejoicing and celebration.

I’ve always have enjoyed spring. Perhaps it is because it reminds me of Spring Break trips with my grandparents to Florida or some other destination. Maybe it is because it means baseball season will soon begin. Or maybe, too, it is because I can get rid of the piles of jackets that you need in the winter.

Spring brings with it a sense of new life and hopefulness that we all need. Think about what takes place around this time each year. Flowers begin to bloom. Trees begin to bud. The grass begins to grow. Life seems to be restored.

I think about those images and I am reminded of the creative work of God. Throughout Scripture, we are reminded that God brings new life out of what seems to be destroyed, broken, or at the point of death. Where we see what cannot be possible, God looks at does something that impossible in bringing life to what seemed to be dead.

We see this in the very first sentences of Scripture. In Genesis 1:1, we are told of how God is the One who took what was nothing and made something. We don’t have to get into the why’s and how’s of that miraculous truth to simply stand in awe of the fact that where there seemed to be an impossibility – nothing – God made something happen.

Further along in the story of Scripture, in Ezekiel 37:1-14, we receive the story of God breathing life into dead bones. God’s creative life brings new hope to what seems to be beyond the capability of doing anything. Once again, God took an impossibility – dead bones – and made something happen.

We see it, again, with the promise of the resurrection. Jesus died on the cross. He was dead on Friday. He was dead on Saturday. On Sunday, the grave was empty. I’ve been to the grave … there was no body in there. Jesus’ resurrection is the victory over the world’s crippling powers of death and destruction. It is the assurance of hope that we claim at Easter that God can take what seems to be impossible – victory over death – and doing the impossible. God always makes something happen!

Our faith promises us that we worship the God who never gives up and is always striving to make something new out of the ashes of the world. This is the story that we claim and participate in through our faith. Yet, I wonder if it is a story that we truly believe.

I suggest that, because is tempting to always see things at face value. That is what the world teaches us to do by taking things as they seem. If something seems like an impossibility, we are taught to give up on it and to be realistic about the situation before us.

This is a mindset that can be found within the church. When we reflect on where we are as a church or community, it is easy to say things like “we might as well close” or “things are not like they used to be.” In doing so, we are focusing only upon what is in front of us and looking at things through worldly measures. Do we have enough people? Are we doing enough to justify the work? Is it worth it to keep going on?

Our discussions about the possibilities of the church’s mission are often guided by the same metrics we use to make decisions about future investment opportunities within a business. Yet, we are a community that is not a business. We are part of the narrative of God’s creative act in the world, which claims that God can do what seems to be impossible.

To believe that, however, we have to be willing to see the possible in the midst of the impossibility that is before us. That requires a change in our attitude of responding to things not out of negatives, but out of the positives. Being part of God’s creative effort invites us to ask ourselves what can God do, and what is God calling us to be a part of, in the midst of what seems bleak and hopeless.

We also have to change our approach from blaming others when things do not go well. In its place, we have to move into a direction of reflecting on what is God inviting us to learn and how might we do things differently from those lessons.

When we change our attitudes and our approach to difficult moments, it takes away the pressure and stresses that can fill our hearts about the church. It also invites us to be part of the grand narrative of God in a deeper way.

I truly believe that no matter the negative situation that faces us in the church, today, that God is capable and able to do more than we could ever imagine through them. We worship the God who takes nothing and makes something happen, and we are invited to be part of that great work.

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The Life of a Pastor

Each week, my office is filled with an assortment of conversations. They can run the gambit from talking about an upcoming ministry to praying for someone who is having a difficult time of life. If anything, ministry has taught me is that you need to be prepared for any conversation that may come your way.

I have to be honest, though. This week a running conversation had caught me unprepared. Not that I didn’t want to talk about the subject, but that it wasn’t something I had ever been really open about with too many people in my ministry before.

It’s that pastors carry more on their shoulders than we will ever admit or are able to share.

Those words came up in several conversations and it has placed me in a reflective mood, which is often dangerous for someone who likes to incorporate writing these weekly reflections as a part of his ministry. Why is it that pastors have a hard time admitting this job is harder, emotionally, than what we often let on? Because let’s be honest and admit that being a pastor can be a lonely life.

One of the reasons we don’t share with our congregations what we deal with is because we are taught not to become too close with the congregants. There are several good reasons for this. You don’t want to build an unhealthy relationship with a member. You want to be able to maintain the proper leadership boundaries and functions. You never know when you might be moving.

All of those are good reasons, and, let me say, pastors must have proper and appropriate boundaries to protect themselves and the congregation. However, boundaries do not prevent healthy and appropriate relationships from taking place. Our congregants need to see us when we are hurting, because they need to know we are human and deal with the same things that they do.

At the same time, sometimes the reason we are reluctant to share with our congregations about the difficulties and loneliness of the pastoral life is because of our own fear. We can carry with us a fear that if we share something we are dealing with, no one will hear us. We also can carry the fear that if we share about a weakness in our leadership, it will hinder our ability to lead or could affect our future appointment.

As a result, we hold our cards too close to our robes. I am just as guilty as any other pastor of doing this, because I have been hurt before when I’ve shared about something I was dealing with or asked someone for an opinion about a problem within the church. The hurts we have experienced in these moments can, like anyone else, lead us to wear a mask in our conversations. We can project that we have it all together when, in reality, we do not.

So, I want to be as honest as I feel I can with you about what the ministry life can be like. While ministry is a fulfilling and powerful life and I would not want to do anything else, it is one of the most emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining jobs I have held. In any one day, you can be in a meeting planning a community outreach, working on a sermon, dealing with an administrative issue, handling complaints about an issue in the church, and offering pastoral care to someone in need. At the same time, you are trying to take care of the financial, physical, and emotional needs of your family and be present within their lives.

There is the old joke that we are forced to laugh at, but is really not that funny. It goes something along the lines of “it must be nice to work only one hour a week.” Worship is the end product of hours of work. A typical “work week” for me is about 60 hours, which includes about 20-25 hours in worship and sermon preparation. It also includes at least one or two nights a week where I am at the church for meetings or other events. What we often see is the end result of hours of work that gets unnoticed in our desire to have a good “show,” which comes at the end of this time.

Ministry is often lonely, because you never feel like you can have true friendships. In my life, at least, I have found that friendships in ministry are for a season, and that deep friendships are hard to find. There are multiple reasons for this, but you can often feel like you are on an island all by yourself in ministry. Pastors who serve in rural contexts can often feel this the most, because you often have to drive longer distances to connect with other leaders.

No profession is without its challenges. No life is without its difficulties. These are just some of the struggles and realities of a pastor’s life. They are some, though not all, of what I’ve experienced. Please pray for your pastors. Pray for the churches and communities they are called to serve. Pray for their families.

We need all the prayer, but also all the community, we can get.

Entering Lent Grieving

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is a day of holy contemplation and reflection. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday is a time when we begin the season of Lent by remembering our mortality and need of God to redeem us. One of the most important practices of this day is the imposition of ashes as a representation of our mortality and sinfulness.

In Scripture, the practice of wearing ashes connects to the expression of grief. When someone is mourning, whether it is Job or the mourners outside of Lazarus’ tomb, they would often place ashes on their head to represent their grief and sorrow.

As we begin this particular season of Lent, I recognize there are several places of grief that I am experiencing.

I am feeling the grief of the aftermath of General Conference. In the days since General Conference has ended, I will be honest and admit that I’ve not wanted to think too much about what took place other than what I need to share with you all. To be present in St. Louis was humbling and an honor, but it was also hard to watch. As I shared with our Town Hall meeting Sunday, I felt as though I was watching my church come apart along nearly the same divisional lines we see in the political arena. This breaks my heart. So, I am grieving where we are as a United Methodist Church, global, today.

I am also grieving this pastoral transition. While in my heart I know that my family and I are making the right decision for Noah and as much as we are excited about being in Huntington and closer to family, these realities also come with it a lot of grief. With every ministry ending there comes with it sorrow for relationships that will come to an end. So, please know that while my heart is looking ahead to the season to come, it is mournful for a season that is coming to a close.

I grieve where we are in our conversations with one another. Our conversations often represent the divides we experience today. We are living in one of the most divisive times that I can remember. Sociologists will try to come up with reasons for this – social media, political divide, etc. – but I don’t believe we spend enough time sorrowful for how we treat one another. If you are a progressive, there is a tendency to assume the worst among those who are conservative. The same goes with conservatives in how they view progressives. We dismiss those, with our words, the very people we disagree with. It often comes as a result of our inability to find common ground with one another, and this grieves me.

There is much more that grieves my soul, today, but these are just a few. My soul is heavy as we enter this holy season of Lent. As such, I recognize that within my own self is a need for God to heal these places of brokenness, to allow me to see my own contributions into these areas of grief, and to let God lead me into a path of deeper discipleship.

That is my prayer for my own life, today, and I hope it is also your prayer. Lent provides us an opportunity to recognize these places of grief that we have because the world doesn’t match up to the desires of God. For that matter, these places of grief come about because we know we don’t always live into the purposes God has for our lives.

We cannot carry on and act as though these places do not exist. That is a heavy temptation that hovers over us. To ignore common realities, these places of grief, and to move on as if nothing is wrong is something that we all face, because we live in a world that would rather move on that deal with the deeper realities of life. In doing so, we prevent the work of God’s holy love to heal us, renew us, and reshape us for deeper living with the Lord and one another.

The deeper walk calls us to experience the work of God’s love in the midst of the grief and to remember God is always present. We cannot ignore grief, but we can see them as an opportunity for us to grow deeper in our relationship with the Lord.

As we embark on this season of Lent, yes, I am mindful that there are several places of grief in my life. Yet, I remain hopeful, because God is present to heal, renew, and reshape these places of grief into opportunities for new life to shine through.

That is the promise of the Resurrection, after all, that Lent guides us towards.

Noise While Seeking Mission

I’m back in press row. As the work of the called General Conference continues in St. Louis, I’m trying to think when was the last time I sat in press row for an event.

Was it a race in Pocono in 2001? Was it a college wrestling event? Was it … who knows?

It’s been great to be back working with the media. My work has been to assist the work of the Kentucky Annual Conference and its Communications Team.

But, as we have continued through our work sharing about General Conference to our conferences, subscribers, and other interested people I’ve been struck by the amount of noise in the press room.

Part of this is because we are utilizing a mostly empty NFL stadium for General Conference. An empty stadium creates an echo that is hard to miss. Conversations can be heard, maybe not always clearly, from rows away because the sound bounces off the empty rows and walls. At times, it can be hard to distinguish between what is taking place on the floor and the conversations going on around us.

There is a lot of noise in the air.

I cannot help but think how that is indicative of where we are as a body as we enter the final two days of the called session. There is a lot of noise as we seek to discern where God is leading us as a church.

Noise from people who assume they know exactly what will happen come Tuesday night.

Noise from people who are adamant that their desires are the only way forward for the church to remain a witness of God’s redeeming and gracious love.

Noise from people who are not fully engaged in what is taking place, but want to offer their opinions on what must happen nonetheless.

The thing about noise is that it makes it hard to distinguish what needs to be heard and what can be ignored. It is there to distract and keep you from the mission that God has put before you. It overwhelms and hinders the church from being the church.

We have all contributed to the noise that fills the air of the church. We add to the noise through our words, our actions, and our deeds that we often believe our noble, just, and necessary for the body of Christ to be the body of Christ. The question that we must consider is are we willing to lessen our participation in the noise, so that we may hear the voice of God speaking to us?

Jesus says his sheep will hear his voice. Within that truth, though, there has to be a desire to want to hear Jesus speaking to us.

So, if we are going to lessen our participation in the noise so that we can hear Jesus’ voice we have to be willing not to hear our own voice. This is where we realize that being the church is hard, because we all want to be heard more than anything else. Our primary focus must always be to let Jesus’ voice to be heard and then follow where God leads us.

Now, don’t get me wrong every one has a value, worth, and needs to be heard. Every person is of sacred worth and within that their voice must be heard and appreciated. However, that basic human need comes within the greater and more important need to hear Jesus’ voice speaking and leading us.

Why is that important? Because I may be wrong.

We don’t always want to recognize that. However, if we are going to limit the noise within the church we have to admit we may be wrong about our views, agendas, and understandings of what it means to be the church today.

Conservatives may be wrong. Progressives may be wrong. Moderates may be wrong. We may all be wrong.

Are we willing to admit that? Because if we can then maybe, just maybe, the noise will lessen and we will be able to hear the voice of Jesus  leading us to be the church that “makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

 

Reflections from a Day of Prayer

For months, we waited for the Commission on a Way Forward to complete its work.

For months, we waited for delegates to gather in St. Louis for the called General Conference.

And as the General Conference began on Saturday, we waited for the work to begin as we spent the day in a time of prayer of worship and reflection.

We waited. And it was holy.

Delegates to the called General Conference here in St. Louis spent the majority of Saturday’s opening session in prayer for the church. Keep in mind delegates are only here until Tuesday and we spent a day praying for the church and its mission.

And it was holy.

There is a temptation, especially with the time limit facing delegates and the work before them, to rush right in to the petitions and the various plans before General Conference. We want to rush to the finish line without taking care of the important spiritual needs of the church.

We want to debate. We want to deliberate. We want to get on with it.

We seldom want to come together to pray, to be centered, and to hear about the needs of our brothers and sisters. This is not just a problem for General Conference. It is a problem for the entire church.

Our struggles with being the church comes when we want to do the work of the church without being the mission of the church. Part of this is because being is harder than doing.

What do I mean by this?

In doing, we feel like we are accomplishing something. Worship has been held. Food distributed to those in need. Bible Studies were conducted. We can do things for the Lord and on behalf of the church and feel good about ourselves without ever doing the hard things of being the church.

The hard things of being the church take places when we stop, slow down, and are centered to experience the presence of God. The hard things are enhanced when we pray, listen, and talk with one another.

So, today we did the hard things by praying for one another. We did the hard things by not debating the plans from the Commission on a Way Forward, but hearing about the needs that face the entire church. We did the hard things by asking for expressions of peace and forgiveness from one another.

Only time will tell about how today’s prayer session will affect the entire tone of General Conference. The delegates still have to work through difficult and challenging proposals.

The hope, at least for today, is that this called time began on the right foot by slowing down and being the church before doing the work of the church.

Explaining a Difficult Decision

Why after 16 years am I preparing my family to move back to West Virginia?

The year was 2003 when I packed up our belongings from our tiny house in Clarksburg, W.Va., to make the move to Shelby, N.C. I was moving from one newspaper to another, chasing a dream of making it big as a reporter, but not realizing I was running from something more important.

That realization would come later. Much later. Like 16 years and a lot of life lessons later that lead us to preparing to move to West Virginia in June to take an appointment at Beverly Hills UMC in Huntington, W.Va.

When I moved to Shelby, though, I believed I would become yet another in a long line of people who left West Virginia never to return.  I never expected to go back to the Mountain State for more than a quick visit with family and a pepperoni roll. For 16 years that was the case, even as I moved from one place after another.

That all changed in the summer of 2018.

Two things happened that shook me to the core and had my family rethinking where we are and where God was calling us. The first was our son, Noah, being diagnosed as low-to-middle functioning on the autism spectrum. Nothing quite prepares you for a doctor to look you in the eye and tell you that your son has a unique set of challenges all of his own that will require additional therapy beyond the local school, thousands of dollars, and more time than you know where to find it.

As a father, I began to do what any other father would do and that is to look everywhere in our community for the therapy he needed. There was only one facility in western Kentucky capable of handling Noah’s needs. It was an hour away and wanted more of us – 10 hours a week – than what we were able to give due to the distance and our family schedules. We knew Noah would be missing out, but it was all we could manage.

Noah needed more.

The other thing that happened in the summer of 2018 was that I watched a documentary by Anthony Bourdain on West Virginia. I know it seems silly to mention, but it truly played an important role in leading us to where we are today. The show shook me. I expected it to be another in a long time of digs at the Mountain State by those who had no desire to understand its unique history or challenges. I was proven wrong. Instead, what the late Bourdain gave America was a love story that focused on the people, communities, and culture that makes the Mountain State a place of struggle and grace.

And for the first time in 15 years I became homesick. Not a homesick that would pass as soon as the next show came on, but the type of homesick that forced me to think about something I often tell my churches. You find your passion in the places where you feel your heart breaking and believe God is calling you to do something. For me, that is and has always been West Virginia.

Throughout the summer of 2018, I recognized two important things: Noah needed more and I needed more. The question I had was did this need to happen?

We began to do our research. Among the things we learned was the amount of resources a small state like West Virginia has for children on the autism spectrum. Yes, the resources are limited to the major metropolitan regions of Charleston/Huntington and Morgantown – which, sadly, is true for many states – but they are also good programs. Marshall University’s West Virginia Autism Training Center seeks to advocate for individuals and families with autism throughout the state. At the same time, it is also recognized as one of the best schools for students with autism in the nation. West Virginia University recently opened a new neurodevelopment center through the Children’s Hospital to help children with special needs. We also knew within those areas were access to Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, which Noah specifically needs.

This got us intrigued about a move, but what put us over the edge was family and home.

My family, for the most part, remains in West Virginia. My grandmother lives by herself in our family home in Shady Spring, while other family members are spread throughout the state. While Kentucky and West Virginia are neighbors, there was a distance that made it hard for some of my family to come when we needed them. We needed family support to help us with Noah, and, at the same time, we needed to be closer to our family in West Virginia and Virginia.

As well, the aspect of home is a deep pull for me. If you ask anyone who has left West Virginia where home is, they will instantly tell you that it is not the place they live currently but the mountains of West Virginia. It will always be home and nothing, no matter how hard you try, can replace that since of comfort and belonging. The mountains have a strong pull to them that can never seem to let you go.

Even with all of that, leaving Kentucky and moving to Huntington, W.Va., was not an easy decision. It took time to make sure it was the right decision. This was not something we wanted to rush, but something we agonized over for months before being able to say, “yes,” to West Virginia.

As excited as we are for what God will do within and through us at Beverly Hills United Methodist Church, we recognize this decision comes with a sense of loss of a place where our family was formed, friendships were made, and memories of ministry were fostered in Mackville, Perryville, Covington, Salvisa, and Princeton, Ky.

Kentucky will always have a special place in our hearts. The mountains of West Virginia, though, are calling us … home.

 

Let Us End Racism

It’s been more than 20 years since that moment. I still remember it like it was yesterday.

I was in my dorm room in Brooke Towers at West Virginia University when a group of my friends came back to the floor. They lived just a couple rooms from me and, occasionally, we would go to dinner together in the cafeteria.

On this particular day, however, one of them noticed a shopping cart that was in the hallway. It was a long-standing game for those of us who lived in the Towers community to “borrow” shopping carts from the Kroger down the hill. I admit to borrowing one or two during my two-year residence at Towers.

For some reason, the presence of the shopping cart agitated this student. He became irate. He slammed the cart across the hall. He screamed out words I can still hear today.

I hate these n#####!

Down the hall was another hall friend of mine. He would soon become famous for his standout performances as a running back on the football team. I cannot recall if he was there, but the words were shouted loud enough that if he was, he would have heard them.

I was embarrassed. I was appalled. I was ashamed.

I didn’t shout the words, and it certainly wasn’t the first time I heard them. Growing up in southern West Virginia, you were exposed to racist attitudes and language that sought to separate people. As a kid, you didn’t always have the words and experiences to understand what it was that people were saying. You did, however, know it made you uncomfortable.

That moment, in my dorm room, changed everything for me. I didn’t want to be associated with racists nor did I want to be one myself. I wasn’t perfect in this area, but I wanted to live out the values of my faith stronger that God created us all the same.

I define racism as simply dismissing others because of the color of their skin and making contributions to society that separates people by race. It is a two-fold existence, and we have to recognize where we’ve contributed in some way to either side of the definition. Perhaps we have said things that have dismissed people because of their skin color or we’ve performed acts that have contributed to the separation of races. Sometimes we’ve done both and many times we are silent when we’ve witnessed it.

I pray for the day when racism ends.

I recognize we must be the answer to these prayers. A few years ago, I proclaimed in a sermon that my son’s generation would be the ones to see that dream come true. Several years after making that statement I’m cautious, because our children are formed by our examples and, often times, the examples we often share is of division and separation.

We share the example of dismissing concerns from people of color. When people of color share about institutional biases that favor whites, we often turn to the old advantage that everyone has an equal playing field in America. I’m a white male from Appalachia who has experienced institutional biases based upon my education and where I went to school. How much more so have people of color experienced? We need to hear their concerns and make the appropriate systematic changes that levels the playing field so all may have a chance to succeed in life.

We share the example of valuing heritage over the concerns of symbolic racism. When people of color express how displaying the Confederate flag and statutes brings up images of slavery and oppression, we often dismiss the concerns by saying we are focusing on our traditions and heritage. Instead of hearing their concerns and working together to find proper solutions and balance, we immediately dismiss the comments as detrimental to society.

We share the example of pointing out the differences instead of focusing on our commonalities. We do this by making specific references to the skin color of people of color we meet. There is an issue when we will use phrases like “that black person” or “my Hispanic helper” that we would not use if that same person is white. We point out our differences to the detriment of finding the places of common life and shared interest.

Perhaps, though, the most heartbreaking is that we will immediately accept someone based on their skin color and we will equally question someone by the same attribute. We see this in our politics, in social media, and in life. Acceptance is, sadly, as much about race as it is about the content of someone’s character today.

I bemoan all of this.

The sad thing is our children watch how we treat people. They see how we treat one another and the words and actions we use when it comes to race. Our actions provide more guidance for our children on how to live out God’s love than our words ever can.

If we truly want racism to end in our nation then it cannot begin by passing the baton to a younger and more accepting generation. It must begin with us saying, “Enough is enough.”