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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.