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 from a Native West Virginian on the West Virginia Floods

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to travel to West Virginia. I grew up in the Mountain State, a native of Shady Spring, and a graduate of West Virginia University. So, when the state experienced some of the worst flooding in its history there was only one thing to do: Act.

The church where I serve as the pastor, Claylick United Methodist Church in Salvisa, Ky., rallied to be a blessing to the people who I call my people. I cannot thank them enough for their love and connection to people beyond our own neighborhood. We took an entire carload of supplies to the state and will likely take more in the days to come. It is the least we can do to give back to people who are hurting.13501569_10153656035981272_2276381847571286993_n Continue reading

Do We Take Sports Too Seriously?

I’m a sports fan.

For anyone who knows me this isn’t much of a shocking statement to start a column. I make no secrets about my loyalties to West Virginia University, the St. Louis Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers, the Carolina Hurricanes, and a random collection of athletes from multiple disciplines of athletic competitions. I’ve been around sports almost my entire life, either as a fan, a participant, or a writer.

What I enjoy most about sports is the competition of determining the better team on a given day. I would say the thrill of victory, but in my playing days … I didn’t get to experience that one too often. (I’m the spitting image of a benchwarmer if there ever was one.) To be honest, sports isn’t just about what we see on the fields of play. It is also about the commodore that exists between friends and fans in celebrating their teams accomplishments and, of course, reminding Cubs fans that they have already been eliminated from World Series competition.

There is a lot to love and enjoy about sports.

However, I wonder if sometimes we, myself included, take our passion for sports too far. Sometimes it seems that our enjoyment of athletic competition is almost a worship experience where the quality of our day (or life) is determined by what happens on the field. Indeed, sometimes it seems that sports, especially in North America, is the god we chose to worship and obey.

We treat our coaches and players like saviors who will redeem our lives through athletic success. Every fan base has their sacred coaches and players. Those individuals who are talked about with reverence and awe for their accomplishments. While there is certainly nothing wrong with respecting and admiring the contributions of an important player or coach, sometimes our response to these individuals borders on making them an idol and treating them as if they have redeemed our existence. They made our lives better because they came to our team or won a big game. I think about here in Kentucky and John Calipari who is treated as almost like a savior among some in the Kentucky fan base since arriving in 2009. I also think about other individuals such as Nick Saban or Bear Bryant at Alabama and Oliver Luck at West Virginia who are also treated as saviors among their fan bases. We make these individuals our gods who can do no wrong in our eyes (as long as they remain with our team, of course).

But, we also worship our teams by allowing their wins and losses to determine how we will live. This is because we become completely identified by our teams and their successes. The team becomes engrained in our personalities. Instead of sports being a hobby or a release from the world, sports becomes an unhealthy passion where everything is determined by how a certain team plays. Take for instance the Alabama fan who believers their life is now improved because the Crimson Tide has won another national championship or the Florida fan who cannot get over his team’s performance in the Sugar Bowl. Of course, this isn’t the only way we identify with sports. We also identity so much with our teams that we treat the opposing fan base as the enemy and someone not to be treated with respect. Sometimes we take a joke too far and denounce anyone who would dare root for the rival team. Think about Harvey Updyke, an Alabama fan, who allowed his worship of Alabama to allow him to allegedly destroy a landmark on Auburn’s campus. Every fan base has individuals who are too committed to a team and their performance.

When sports becomes our god or starts to take on godlike qualities in our lives, we, especially followers of Christ, need to take a step back and reflect on why it is that we enjoy sports and what they mean to us.

One of the big things that we need to remember is that it is just a game. It does not determine my life if West Virginia loses to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl. I can be unhappy that the team lost and even frustrated the defense failed to show up, but I have to be willing to recognize that it is just a game. It cannot determine how I will live or interact with others. I must be willing to, in a way, leave what happens on the field so that it doesn’t affect how I live and interact with others.

To do that, however, we all have to be willing to put sports into perspective. We have to remember that following sports is a hobby and cannot determine everything about us. Sure, enjoy sports and everything about them, but we have to be willing to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is dangerous to our faith, especially as Christians. The moment that sports feels like worship and becomes too engrained into who we are then we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

Sports are fun and enjoyable. It is a great way to relax and step away from the stresses of the world. However, we must be careful how we view sports, especially if we begin to worship our teams as they are our god.

Thoughts About Bill Stewart

Bill Stewart secured his place in West Virginia University lore on January 2, 2008.

In the moments before the underdog Mountaineers, champions of the Big East, took on the Big 12 champion Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Stewart addressed his team. Now, that is not an uncommon situation.Every college football coach will say something to their team prior to a game and will have something special prepared for a big game. This was not the usual BCS game.

There was something different about this game.

West Virginia entered the game having nearly lost everything. It lost a December 1 game against arch rival Pittsburgh in a game which had the Mountaineers won they would have earned a spot in the BCS National Championship game. After the game, then head coach Rich Rodrgiuez announced his departure to Michigan. Stewart, one of the few holdovers from Don Nehlen’s final seasons in Morgantown, was named as the interim head coach and had the difficult assignment of leading a disappointed Mountaineer team into Arizona.

It was with this backdrop that Stewart delivered an inspiring message to his players and to those who follow the Old Gold and Blue (West Virginians, alums, students, etc.). His speech became an instant YouTube classic for West Virginia fans and alums.

Leave no doubt tonight! No doubt … they shouldn’t have played the old gold and blue. Not this night! Not this night!

Those words echo today in the aftermath of Stewart’s passing following a heart attack at a Lewis County, W.Va., golf course. He was 59.

Stewart’s served as the poetic backdrop to what could easily be described as the most important football win in West Virginia history. More important than the 1982 win over Oklahoma. More important than the wins over Penn State, Syracuse and Boston College in 1988. More important, even, than WVU’s recent BCS win over Clemson. The win allowed Mountaineer faithful to celebrate in the midst of a season that had, for a month, focused on the motif of “what if.”

Following the victory, Stewart was rewarded with the title of head coach – a decision that proved to be controversial. He would go on to moderate success with three nine-win seasons and one additional bowl win. His own dismissal from the program was steeped in controversy, as he was involved in reports regarding the behavior of then head coach in waiting Dana Holgorsen.

Stewart may not have been the greatest coach, but he was loyal to his native West Virginia and its flagship football program. That is what he will be remembered for on this night. Not so much the wins and losses, but how he helped to guide a football team – and a state – out of despair and into a time of joyous celebration.

Leave no doubt, Bill Stewart was a great Mountaineer and will be truly missed.