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.

 

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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.”

Two Events, Two Moments for Hope

I’ve been looking forward to February for some time. It will truly be here before you know it. The month will be filled with opportunities for ministry, discipleship, and more than 13,000 miles on the road and air.

The two big events for February, as far as we are concerned, are our Holy Land trip and the called General Conference. In this week’s pastor’s note, I want to share with you about both of these important moments.

Holy Land Trip

We are excited to take approximately 20 people to the Holy Land from February 4-13. We will visit Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jericho, and, of course, Jerusalem. As well, we will visit the place where Jesus was born, where he was crucified and rose from the grave, and other important sites of our faith and spiritual heritage.

One of the holiest stops on the trip is praying at the Wailing Wall. This site is the most holy place in Jerusalem for Jews, as it is close to where the Holy of Holies – the symbolic place of God’s holy presence in the Temple – was located and is a place of deep prayer. Throughout the day, people will gather to this spot to pray and reflect.

Part of the custom at the Wailing Wall is to leave your written prayers in the cracks. Doing so is an act of giving your prayer. Twice a year, these prayers are collected and the papers are buried in the Mount of Olives.

We encourage you to send your personal prayers with us to place at the Wailing Wall. There is a basket outside of the sanctuary where you can leave your prayer. These will be prayed over at the wall and placed in the cracks. You have until January 27 to place your prayer cards in the basket.

During the trip, however, there will be several ways you can follow along with the pilgrims in Israel. We will provide a daily video wrap-up on our Facebook page and will post photos along the way. As well, our sermon on February 10 will come to us from Israel. You will not want to miss worship that day! We will provide time for those who went on the trip to share about their experiences as later date.

Please be in prayer for everyone who is going on the trip. One of the blessings of this experience is how this has become an ecumenical trip filled with people from various communities and churches in our area.

General Conference

February also brings with it the special called General Conference in St. Louis (February 23-26). As some of you know, I will be at General Conference assisting the work of the Kentucky Annual Conference’s Communications staff. You can learn more about General Conference, its importance as the only body that can speak officially on behalf of the United Methodist Church, and what will be discussed by visiting the Kentucky Annual Conference’s General Conference resource page.

My honest hope is we will continue to be a witness of Jesus Christ that is making disciples of Jesus Christ by how we honor both the Great Commandment and Great Commission. I have a great hope for the church and believe the church has a great future ahead of it, as I have shared with you previously.

As we prepare for General Conference, I invite you to attend the Concert of Prayer, sponsored by the Pennyrile District, on February 3 at 3 p.m., at Frist United Methodist Church in Hopkinsville. This event will focus on specific times of prayer for our entire church and provide opportunities for us to remember our connection with one another. The focus of our February 17 worship service will be on praying for the entire church as we enter this season.

Do Not Be Afraid

Both of these moments can lead to fear. Will everyone be safe in Israel? What will happen to the mission of the church? Please do not be fearful of anything. Jesus encourages us to be people who do not live in fear, but to live with a sense of hope. May that be who we are in these weeks to come.

Finding Places of Joy

The Third Week of Advent always stands out to me. On Sunday, we will light the pink candle of Advent as it is Gaudete Sunday.

Gaudete Sunday refers to the Latin translation for the word “rejoice.” The pink candle of Advent is lit to represent the places where we can find joy in our relationship with Christ and how our souls rejoice in the Lord. It stands out in a sea of purple candles.

Just as joy stands out in our world today. We don’t always see places filled with joy. What we often find instead are places of frustration, anger, and sadness.

That is what we easily focus upon when we look back on the year. Our end-of-the-year reflections are often geared towards the struggles and hardships that we have faced or the disruptive forces in the world. When we think of 2018, we might think of the chaotic and anger-filled midterm election. We might think of the disruptive political atmosphere and the divisions we are experiencing as a nation. We might, even, look at it a little closer to home and think about lower offerings and church attendance.

I think we focus on these things – these challenges – because our hearts are often set to a posture of fear and disharmony than it is to live with joy. In reality, to feel and express joy is counter to our natural inclinations and desires. Fear is a natural emotion for us, but joy is not. Fear leads to agony, which leads to distrust, which leads to separation, and, then, anger.

Joy does just the opposite. Joy is about an inner sense of hope and longing for the Lord and having that desire be at the core of our response for the world. Paul writes in Philippians 4:4 that we are to “rejoice in the Lord always.” We are to live with an uncommon joy that is found in knowing God and living for God.

It is a joy that is filled with inner peace. When we rejoice in the Lord, we are able to recognize that our sense of self-worth comes in knowing God’s redeeming and eternal love for us. It does not come from a posture of living up to people’s expectations, filling our calendar with too many things, or even trying to do it all. It comes in knowing that we are a child of God and a person of sacred and holy worth. That joy of knowing a peace that leads to wholeness and connection.

We are able to rejoice in God, because we know God’s love for us is not measured upon what we do. Our reactions to love are often based upon what we get out of the experience. We will love someone only if they return those same affections to us. That is not how God’s love works. God’s love is based upon the primary characteristic of who God is: love. We cannot earn God’s love. We cannot get God to love us more than the Lord already does. God’s love is there for us regardless of how we may respond. That leads us to an experience of true joy.

Let’s be clear, though, that joy is not an empty emotion. What often hinders us is we think that if we are to be people of joy then we should never get upset or angry. We may even think we will never experience challenges or sorrows.

That is nowhere near the truth. I often remind people that Jesus experienced the fullness of life, which means that he got angry (read John 2 and the story of Jesus turning the tables over), got upset (at religious leaders), and experiences challenges (to his authority and disciples not living up to expectations).

What living with joy means, though, is an acknowledgement that when those moments happen, we are not going to allow it to affect our desire for God. That deep sense of joy in knowing God’s love, then, affects how we respond to these challenges and difficulties. We may not respond as the world would, but we are motivated to be guided by the love of Christ and the joy of our heart.

That might mean that our joy for the Lord leads us to fight for justice and equal treatment of all people. It might mean that our joy for the Lord will lead us to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It might mean, too, that our joy for the Lord will lead us to offer care to people who have experienced the same sorrows we have experienced.

Joy truly stands out. In a world of self-focused living joy reminds that as we are connected to God, we are able to make a deep and impactful difference in the world.

Why We Need Hope

Throughout my pastoral ministry, one of the things I have observed is that when we approach the Christmas season it seems we are exhausted. I’m not talking about, necessarily, the rush from one event to the next, but the emotional exhaustion that comes in carrying the burdens of life.

We try to ignore them, but they are an ever-present reality that do not go away easily. The grief of losing a loved one does not go away simply because we sing “Joy to the World.” The sorrow of family struggles underline many of our Christmas dinners and scheduling of family gatherings. The disappointment of jobs, financial struggles, and other burdens come upon us as we contemplate how we can purchase the gift our children deeply desire.

I don’t know about you, but I know the struggles within my own family and life can keep me from enjoying this special time. As well, the demands of ministry and the season, itself, often can distract me from what we share each week of Christ has come and Christ will come again.

We need hope. I need hope.

Hope, for me, is defined by the presence of God that is there with us in all moments of life. It is the acknowledgement that we are never alone in life. Hope is truly everything.

This assurance is found in name of Jesus. Matthew 1:23 reminds us that within the name Immanuel is the hope of “God with us.” Matthew also ends his gospel with Jesus providing that same hope by saying, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:28c, NLT).

God is with us. That is a message of hope.

It is also a message that can be forgotten when we deal with life’s challenging moments. I know how it is easy in my own life to miss that presence. When I’m wrestling with needs for Noah or other difficult struggles, it’s easy to believe that you are on your own. That can lead you to a very hopeless feeling. Hopelessness is not what God intends for us.

We need hope this Advent and Christmas season. I need hope this Advent and Christmas season.

A few years ago, I had to create a “fruitfulness project” for ordination in the Kentucky Annual Conference. A fruitfulness project was a requirement geared to show if a pastor can plan an outreach that makes disciples. My project was the “Service of Hope.” At that time, it was a two-tiered event with a series of teaching discussions led by various people on how to have hope during Christmas that concluded with a worship of hope.

The worship of hope, a Service of Hope, has become a central part of who I am as a pastor. I recognize how much we need that hope and how easy it is to ignore that need. I recognize how much I need it as well.

This service is designed to allow us to give to God these burdens we believe that we are the only ones who can carry them. We gather as a community knowing we need hope not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

On December 18 at 6 p.m., we will gather as a community for a time of worship to recognize our need of God’s hope. The Service of Hope will be ecumenical and will feature leaders and speakers from churches around our community. I am excited about this change in our worship.

I hope you will make time to join us for this special service, because the best gift we can receive this time of year is the hope of God’s presence in the most difficult moments of life.

We don’t need to hide from these moments. We don’t need to believe we can pull ourselves up by just being stronger.

We need hope. And, you know what, I need hope.

Moving Forward from 2018

The day after Election Day is always for process stories.

Why did the Democrats win the House of Representatives? Why did Republicans maintain control of the Senate? What does this mean for 2019 in Kentucky? What does it mean for the presidential race in 2020? What does it mean for (insert your favorite cause here)?

Process stories are important. They help us to understand what took place during an election, especially an election as highly contested as yesterday. Turnout was high across the nation and in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In Caldwell County, more than 50 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

I’m not as interested in who won or lost, as a follower of Christ, as I am in how we can build move forward beyond the divisions we are experiencing today. How can we move forward as the body of Christ as a response to our political realities?

I believe that is the question that is comes out of our recent conversation about having a Christ-like political engagement. If we truly are to be of Christ and live in the world, then our actions within the political realm – the words we say, the decisions we make, and the actions we take on behalf of others – must reflect the love and hope of Jesus Christ. There must be practical steps to our belief that Christ calls us to be citizens of God’s kingdom who reflect kingdom values in the world.

One of the most important things we can do is pray for our leaders. As we’ve mentioned before, praying is one of the most basic values of a disciples of Jesus Christ. In prayer we call upon God’s blessings, discernment, and wisdom to be upon the person. We are not praying for our agenda to be heard or enacted. What we do pray for is for our leaders to be protected, cared for, and to know that they are a child of God.

At the same time, though, we should be willing to engage those politically different than us. Jesus gives us the model for this. None of his core disciples came from the same background. Some were fishermen. Some were tax collectors. Some were pious. Some were zealots. What brought them together were common values and a desire to follow Jesus wherever he went.

Too often, though, our friendships are limited to those who hold the same affinities as we do. It is why we often hear this line after an election: I don’t know why (insert candidate won) none of my friends voted for them. Much of our political divisions and rhetoric would be eased, I believe, if we were willing to make friends and have conversations with those who come from different backgrounds than us.

This is true not just in the political arena. One of the most glaring divisions in America today is the urban and rural divide. I do not believe the issues and needs in these two areas of the nation are understood by those beyond those areas. That creates a situation where we talk past one another instead of with each other and, at the same time, have a battle for resources and attention. A willingness to understand comes forth from a desire to engage and converse with those from a different background.

Finally, I believe Christ calls us to keep the main thing the main thing. That is to make disciples of Jesus Christ of all nations and people. That is our most important work and a mission that we often neglect to gain the acceptance of those in political power. Our primary purpose is to make disciples who are empowered and equipped to transform their corner of the world for Christ. We are not called to make Republican Christians or Democratic Christians. We are called to be disciples who are Christ-like in our words, actions, and deeds.

We cannot get distracted by political power in absence to the mission of sharing the love of Christ.

Pray. Engage. Keep to the mission.

If the church does that, then we will lead a revival of love and care into our communities that will share the love of Christ in the midst of our divisions.

A Christ-Like Political Engagement

Every Election Day is special for me. It ranks as one of my favorite days of the year. As I’ve mentioned before, the day for me includes voting as early as possible and, then, staying up until the last vote is counted or the election is determined. Sadly, the day no longer includes the customary pizza as it did during my journalism days.

I’m fascinated with not only elections. I love trying to discern how different races will affect the entire narrative of Election Day. I love looking at how various precinct returns can determine the outcome of an election.

I am a political nerd.

While I love Election Day and following elections, what I’m also intrigued by is how we, as followers of Christ, engage the public arena. I believe we have an important role to play in the public square, but we must be Christ-like in how we live this out. Our engagement must always be guided by the foundations of our love of Christ and not by our partisan desires.

I do not believe it is God’s desire for the church to be a sounding board for our favorite political party. The church, as well, should not be a place where only those of a particular political ideology are welcome. Just as the church is welcoming of people of different races and cultures, so too should the church be welcoming of those from all political ideologies.

This is a cornerstone value for me and my ministry. I believe the church is at its best when we are a large community made of people from different walks of life, urban and rural, black and white, Republican and Democrat. Throughout my ministry, I’ve been blessed to provide pastoral care and leadership to Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and those who never get involved in elections. They have each taught me something about the church and our engagement in different issues.

What I desire is to truly model our witness in the public square after Jesus’ own engagement, because, yes, Jesus was political. He was never a partisan in the terms that we would use today, but he was, in fact, willing to engage the public square.

The very nature of his birth was the first such engagement. In Luke’s account of the Nativity, the angels proclaim a message of “good news” to the shepherds of Jesus’ birth. This connects to a practice within the Roman Empire to announce the birth of a new Caesar as “good news.” The birth of Jesus stands and Jesus’ life stands against any claim to kingship and authority.

As well, Jesus’ earthly ministry was filled with encounters that challenged the accepted practices and custom of the time. The testimony of women, for instance, was seen as unreliable, yet Jesus often invited women into discipleship and called the women in the garden to be the first to announce the message of the resurrection. Children in Jesus’ time were often ignored and mistreated, and yet Jesus embraced children and said they had a place in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ own death came because he was seen as a political threat by the Roman powers in Jerusalem. Jesus was political.

Followers of Christ should be willing and able to speak to the issues of the day. Our engagement in policy matters must come out of our faith in Christ. This is helped by interpreting what Scripture says on an issue through the help of tradition (what has the church said about an issue throughout time), reason (what do we know about an issue), and experience (what is our shared experience on this topic).

We should never shy from being a voice of hope, peace, joy, and love in the public arena as a response to our faith in God. In doing so though, our primary allegiance is to God and not to our partisan loyalties.

On November 6, I encourage you to vote but also to pray for those who are seeking elected office. I know from personal experience how hard and demanding the campaigns for any office is, and so we give thanks to God for those who put themselves in nomination for elected responsibility. As well, let us ponder where God leads us to be a voice of hope, peace, love, and joy through the issues that face us.

We are not a political party, but we are a church. Thanks be to God for that!