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.”

 

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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.