What Does a Horse Race Teach Us About Ourselves

Growing up in West Virginia, if you asked me to name one thing about Kentucky, I would have quickly shouted out the words “home of the Kentucky Derby.” I can still remember the sounds of Jim McKay welcoming viewers of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” to the Derby each first Saturday of May. For me, it was Sunday Silence in 1989 that got me hooked on the race.

When I moved to Kentucky in 2007, the first thing that stood out to me was that there was more to the horse racing industry than just Louisville and Churchill Downs. There was Keeneland in Lexington, which fills the area of Versailles Road each spring and fall with race fans. There was the all-day coverage in the Louisville and Lexington television markets that focused on the undercard to the Derby, which only recently has NBC started to broadcast.

You cannot get more entrenched in the culture and customs of Kentucky than with horse racing and the Kentucky Derby.

Which is probably why many of us were shocked at the outcome of Saturday’s race. On a sloppy track that looked more like the infield of Woodstock than a credible racing surface, Maximum Security burst through a crowded field to seemingly win the 149th Kentucky Derby. Chaos and controversy soon dominated the conversation after two jockeys filed an objection to the outcome – essentially calling foul on Maximum Security – for interference.

Stewards immediately looked into the objection and, 20-plus minutes later, ruled that Maximum Security had, in fact, interfered with War of Will. This led to Maximum Security being disqualified, becoming the first presumptive derby winner to be disqualified and only the second to cross the line first and not to be declared the official winner. The first came in 1968 when Dancer’s Image apparent win was thrown out after a drug test found illegal drugs in the horse’s system, which gave the win to Forward Pass.

Because Maximum Security’s disqualification, and subsequent win by Country House, came in the social media era, it became the latest hot topic to discuss. Within minutes, “horse racing” experts from across the nation posted comments – some filled with anger and vitriol – of what they believed was right or not right about the actions, disqualification, and win by Country House. This has continued this week as Country House’s camp has announced the horse will not run in the Preakness next week.

For the sake of transparency, I did post on social media some sarcastic comments during the review and aftermath. The comments amounted to a bad dad joke that in professional wrestling a champion cannot lose their title by way of disqualification. Trust me, I know a bad joke when I see it, and I have a hard time running away from them,

I wonder, though, what does all of this say about us? Maximum Security’s disqualification is just the latest in a long example of a modern thirst to want to speak without knowledge, to jump to conclusions without context, to yell and scream without listening. It is a systematic issue that is destroying our ability to understand and appreciate the complexities of life, or even to hear from opposing view points or to wait for things to play out. We believe we have to speak and be quick about it. We even believe we have to speak with anger.

This isn’t just happening in society. I’m seeing this play out across the church today as we wrestle with the important issues facing us in our work of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We reflect the means of communication we see from society in our conversations about the future of the church, whether the United Methodist Church should break up, or even what it means to do ministry together. We respond in anger more than we listen to one another.

In doing so, I wonder if we are missing out on two important verses of reflection from James. In James 1:19, James writes that we “must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” These are words that we ignore in our desire to have a quick and impassioned response. If we need more clarification on what James means, he writes later that the tongue “is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire.” (James 2:5b-6a, NLT) Our words can do as much damage to society and one another as they can to lift up and inspire.

What limits our ability to stop, listen, and slow the anger is that we get caught up in the ground swell of anger and conversation, which creates within us a desire to speak. Social media is just one avenue where this takes place. We see this at the tables of McDonald’s, our conversations around the kitchen table, and in discussions among friends. Our desire to be seen as knowledgeable and quick with a response is not because of social media, but part of our own vanity in wanting to be seen and heard.

Our society is filled with people who believe they have to have something to say, even if we do not know anything about the subject we are talking about. This tendency is destroying our ability to hear from one another and to listen to disagreeing voices. Until we take it upon ourselves to slow down, refrain from always speaking, and listen to one another, we will continue to see the decaying of a society that is quick to speak and equally quick to get angry.

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Can I Go Home Again?

The last time I lived in West Virginia, officially, was in 2003.

Gov. Bob Wise was in the midst of a controversy surrounding an affair that would derail his administration. Many from the state, my age and younger, were leaving to fight the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many, as well, were leaving the state believing they could never find what they were looking for at home.

I was one of them. In 2003, I was a regional writer for The Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram. I was miserable and I thought it was because of my salary, my displeasure with the news side of the journalism world after being a sports writer, or even not being near the lights of a big city. It would take time to realize what was making me unhappy was my own personal life.

In search of happiness, and greener pastures, I took a flyer on a job in another town, in another state, but believing it would solve all my problems. I moved from one newsroom to another by picking up my notepad and moving to The Shelby Star in Shelby, N.C.

That was the summer of 2003. When I left, I swore I would never return to West Virginia other than to visit family and to watch my beloved Mountaineers.

For 16 years, though, I did just that. I stayed away other than family visits, funerals, and the occasional West Virginia game (though, I haven’t been to Mountaineer Field since the UConn game in 2007). Even though my address was different, I have long recognized that I never really left. I have always kept at least one foot in the Mountain State. I can name off state issues in West Virginia quicker than I can those facing Kentucky. I can get more frustrated with the lack of progress in Beckley, W.Va., than I do Paducah.

It has always been home. In a few weeks, I will be returning home. I’m going back to the Mountain State with a sense of excitement. I’m going home, also, with a deeper appreciation for the home state that came as a result of leaving for a period of time. This is the place I want to be with my family.

That doesn’t stop me, though, from having doubts about whether I can serve God well in West Virginia. No pastor is without their fair share of doubts or concerns about whether they are effective in the task God has called them to undertake. These doubts have escalated as I prepare to say goodbye to one congregation and begin to start with another.

A lot of my doubts and fear center around this phrase of Scripture: “no prophet is accepted in their own hometown.” (Luke 4:24) While Huntington is not my hometown, anyone from West Virginia will tell you the entire state is home.

A recent clip from Steve Harvey’s talk show is a perfect example of this. The clip is from a segment on his talk show where he interacts with two people on the street. They are from Beckley, W.Va. Immediately upon hearing this, Harvey reacts like anyone else from West Virginia when they see the Flying WV or green and white of Marshall University outside of the state. He begins to smile and beam with an excitement before shouting, “Beckley, West Virginia, baby! Let’s keep it alive! I like that!” Harvey is a native of West Virginia having been born near Welch, which is approximately 75 minutes from Beckley.

It doesn’t matter. The entire state is your hometown. For the record, I have been known to share the same sense of excitement when I see someone wearing the Flying WV outside of West Virginia. This includes running into people from West Virginia while on a recent trip to the Holy Land.

All that being said, it is hard to be a prophet in your own hometown. Jesus experienced this in Nazareth. There he shared about his messianic purpose to welcome God’s reign to all people. It was not well-received by the community that quickly turned to thinking of Jesus in terms of his connection to the town and not the words he said. Not too long afterwards, the same people who knew Jesus throughout his early life were attempting to get rid of him.

While no pastor is Jesus, there are still the same concerns of being able to speak effectively and prophetically into places where we are deeply familiar. Can a prophet in their hometown truly speak on the injustices that exist? Can a prophet in their hometown express God’s pain at the struggles the people live into? Can a prophet truly point the people of their hometown towards a better way in God’s holy love?

These are things I am wrestling with as the boxes begin to accumulate all around me. They are not, however, questions that will prevent me from leading as God calls me to lead or speak when I believe it is necessary. As we learn with the story of Thomas (John 20:19-29), opportunities to grow in God’s love and our calling to share the love of God with all people come as we push forward through our doubts and questions.

We recognize them. We express them. We embrace them. But, too, we allow them to be spaces where God’s grace works in and us and through us to point us to a deeper sense of God’s love.

A work that is well needed, now, as I prepare to do something I never thought I would do again … go home.

Moving Forward at Ogden

We have been living in a state of pastoral transition since February. It is now almost May and we still have until June before the transition is finalized. Are you tired of the transition, yet? It’s OK if you are, because trust me … I understand.

This has been a long transition. A really, really, really, really long transition. In fact, a friend of mine recently pointed out to me that, because of the extended nature of this transition, about 25 percent of my time at Ogden Memorial will be spent in this period of waiting.

That can produce anxieties and awkwardness. I know I have felt those emotions. There is an awkwardness that comes in knowing that the official goodbye is coming and is a ways off, but still wanting to do what is best and most effective in our work to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

My hope and focus throughout this transition has been to leave Ogden Memorial better off than when I arrived in June 2017. This is my deepest desire, especially now as we turn towards May and June and the transition is no longer an abstract reality, but something we will deal with more fully.

There are some things I want to encourage you to do, as we move closer to this transition period. I hope you will take these as heart-felt expressions of wanting to leave Ogden Memorial well and establish a good footing for the church moving forward.

First, I want to encourage you to be in constant prayer for the transition. Take time to pray for your new pastor. Pray that God will equip them to be blessed during their time at Ogden. Pray for the church that they will be leaving. Pray for myself and my family as we prepare to move to Beverly Hills and Huntington, W.Va. Pray for Beverly Hills, as well, as they prepare to say goodbye to Dr. Jerry Wood.

Second, I want to encourage you to remain hopeful. It is easy to allow the anxieties of what will the new pastor do or be like to consume our thoughts and conversations. Instead of thinking in anxious terms, I want to encourage us to think about the possibilities of new ministry, new life, and new opportunities that may come Ogden Memorial’s way through your new pastor.

Finally, I want to encourage you to keep moving forward. Tuesday I had the opportunity to share about the transition on WPKY’s “Coffee Talk” program. I shared my view that it is “next pastor up” as it comes to pastoral transitions. I truly believe this. The work continues of making disciples and sharing the love of Jesus Christ regardless of who the pastor may be. The work of being a church defined by how we love, make disciples, pray for one another, worship, and build community does not end. Too often we see pastoral transitions as a time when ministry ends, which is to the detriment of the mission. The church continues and we come along for the ride.

I’m looking forward to leading you in this transitional time, especially as Ogden Memorial moves forward into this new period of ministry and life. I believe fully that Ogden Memorial’s best days are coming.

Reflections on the Cathedral of Notre Dame

As Holy Week began, this week, we watched the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris with a sense of disbelief.

The fire began after 6:20 p.m., Paris time, and quickly spread throughout the church. The raging inferno consumed the entire building for several hours. Footage of the fire was broadcast across the world and many watched as the historic spire and roof collapsed. As the fire smoldered, worshipers gathered around the area singing hymns, such as Ave Maria, as a way to mourn what was taking place. We assumed, in the early moments of the fire, that all was lost.

In the days since the fire, we have learned that may not be the case. Many of the cathedral’s historic artifacts are able to be preserved. Some had already been taken off site due to an ongoing renovation project. Others, such as the Crown of Thorns, were removed during the fire. Even still, some relics, glass windows, and the cross and altar area were seemingly untouched by the flames.

Plans are underway to rebuild the cathedral. French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the nation’s desire for the church to be rebuilt. Leaders and others from around the world have committed upwards to $1 billion dollars (880 million euros) to restoration efforts after the fire.

The fire and the store of the Cathedral of Notre Dame has captured our attention this Holy Week. And, perhaps, rightly so.

For one, the church has a historic place in Western Civilization and culture. The 800-year old church has stood as one of the most iconic elements of the Paris skyline and is the site of some of the world’s most famous pieces of architecture. Even when it was nearly abandoned during the French Revolution, the site stood as a witness of hope in troubled times. So much so, that when German dictator Adolph Hitler gave orders, at the end of World War II, for his army to demolish the cathedral German soldiers, instead, preserved the building from destruction.

As well, the cathedral stands as one of the oldest churches in the world and, perhaps, one of its most recognizable. It is not the oldest. That honor goes to the Church of the Nativity in Israel, but its historic standing reminds us that the church, and its people, have given witness to God’s love throughout the generations. This Middle Ages structure of faith is a testament to how the people of God have been present and how we stand upon their shoulders.

Yet, we are captivated by the story of the Cathedral of Notre Dame because churches matter. Now, let me predicate that by saying that the church is not the focus of the mission. The focus of the mission is on the people and the community of faith. That doesn’t mean, however, that churches do not have an importance and place in the worship of God.

When I drive home to Shady Spring, W.Va., I have to pass Perry Memorial United Methodist Church. Every time I see the church, I am reminded of pastors who have preached there, people who have loved me, and moments of joy that bring a smile to my face. Those same emotions come as I pass by communities I’ve served or walk into my office and the sanctuary here at Ogden Memorial. We all have those same or similar emotions when we walk into our church. The church, as a building, gives a place for these holy moments to transpire.

We mourn the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, because it reminds us of our connection to our community of faith. Of how, we are gathered as a community to a specific place to give worship to God. We are sent out from that place to extend love and peace with the people we meet through our actions that are reflective of our worship. Churches give us a sending point for mission and ministry.

Perhaps, as well, it is ironic this fire occurred during Holy Week. This is a time in which we are mindful of the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. The fire is a symbolic and real reflection upon death and destruction. Within the fire, though, there are signs of hope and redemption, such as the pieces saved, places that can be rebuilt, and the opportunities for something greater to come. These are signs of the resurrection of God doing something amazing out of what seems lost and forever damaged.

A church, a building, a historic structure, gives us that place for reflection this week. So, it is appropriate that on this Holy Week we have been taken up by the situation in Paris. It has given us a reminder that even when it seems like everything is destroyed, God’s grace tells us that there is always hope.

Hope that is found even within a church building.

The Embrace of Jesus

On a bookshelf in my office is a new decorative piece that I received in Jerusalem. It is an olive wood carving of Jesus.

It is not the only such carving that I have in my office, but this one is different. When you look at it, the first thing you notice is Jesus embracing two children as he is sitting down. One child is cradled near his neck and likely a young toddler. The other is a young girl, perhaps no older than my own child, who is standing and brought in close to Jesus.

Of course, when you see the carving, your mind goes to the story in the Gospels when Jesus is confronted by his own disciples for welcoming children into his care. Children, in those days, were not to approach religious teachers until they reached a certain age, and a child approaching Jesus would have been unheard of and unacceptable. Jesus has other ideas, and says, “let the little children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14, NIV) Jesus is accepting and welcoming of children.

We know this. We celebrate it by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Perhaps that might be all you think about if you looked at the carving. But beyond that, I’m drawn to Jesus’ arms when I look at it on the shelf.

His arms are embracing and welcoming, and they bring in those society has discarded as unwelcome. There is more to the carving, and perhaps more to Matthew 19:14, than just the idea of welcoming children to the church and making sure they are part of Sunday School, worship, and children’s activities.

I cannot help but think of how the same arms that lift up a toddler and a young child in a warm embrace, also bring in the least of these and the unwanted in our own time. Jesus’ words of welcome to the children are not limited to those who have yet to reach a certain age. It is also extended to the people who live upon society’s margins.

In Jesus’ time, you would be hard pressed to find just one group that lived on the margins. There were the poor who lived in the same communities Jesus traveled through, who barely had enough money to provide food for their families. There were the religious outcasts – women, Gentiles, and others – who were not allowed to worship with the entire community. There were people who were discounted simply for where they lived or what had occurred in their lives.

Each of these groups of people, Jesus routinely welcomed… to the consternation of both the religious elites and his own disciples. The embrace of Jesus is wide and welcoming to the very people society says “no” to including.

Our participation in the life of Christ calls us to have the same embracing attitude of society’s outcasts and undesirables as Jesus does. The embrace of Jesus calls us into society’s margins to share the love and hope of Christ to the least of these. It also calls us to go into places of power and privilege, to the communities that believe they have no need of the God of holy love, and to express the truth of God’s hope.

The call to live like Jesus is one that brings us into places we are not always comfortable with going. Our invitations of welcome and care, in the life of the church universal, are often limited to those we find acceptable and approachable. We are often more comfortable with reaching people who are “like us” and desire churches to be filled with only like-minded individuals. We do this to the detriment of true discipleship and the embrace of Jesus.

Living like Jesus takes us into areas where we might be uncomfortable and requires us to live with arms wide open. What often holds us back is our own fear of what may happen, our biases, and, ultimately, our own trepidation of truly living like Jesus. When we allow fear to consume us, our embrace is limited and our arms do not fling open as wide as we see Jesus’ arms do.

I cannot help but ponder how we might be called to reflect upon this as we approach Holy Week on Sunday. The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection cannot be just Good News for those who sit comfortably in the pews of the sanctuary. It must also be Good News for the poor, forgotten, and unwelcomed of society.

Perhaps as we go to the cross with Jesus, we need to contemplate how truly embracing the church, as a whole, can be towards those society does not accept. Perhaps we also need to contemplate our own contribution to those situations in our own limited welcome and embrace of others.

As we do, we need to consider the hope of the resurrection that announces God is doing something new in the world. Something new and amazing – not just for me. Something new and amazing – not just for you. Something new and amazing – not just for those who sit in the pews of the church. But truly, something new and amazing for the poor, the forgotten, the outcast, the shunned, and the unwelcome.

The hope of this season is that Jesus’ arms are flung wide open with love for everyone. We get to share that good news.

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.

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.