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.

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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.

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.”

 

Explaining a Difficult Decision

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

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

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

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

That all changed in the summer of 2018.

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

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

Noah needed more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Let Us End Racism

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

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

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

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

I hate these n#####!

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

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

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

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

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

I pray for the day when racism ends.

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

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

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

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

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

I bemoan all of this.

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

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

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.