Thoughts on the “Easy Life” of the Pandemic Pastor

If you ever want to instantly piss off your pastor, the best way to do so is to make a quip about how they only work one day a week.  He or she might smile at you and laugh along with you, but inside they will most likely be seething and feeling very unappreciated.

Recently, I was part of a conversation with a family from my church.  It was a frank conversation in which we had a difference of opinion on how our church has handled the pandemic.  My experience of our chat was that it was gracious, honest and productive for us all.  We each got to say what we had to say.

One unexpected little surprise in this conversation was the part when I was told of some other conversations that have been taking place between this family and other church members who have also been disgruntled with the pandemic response I have led in our church.  I was told that one other church member has suggested that the reason I have been so cautious to bring things back in our church is that I have not been working nearly as hard and I am enjoying my current pace too much to bring things back.

I’ll not lie, as I heard them tell me this it felt like a hard punch to the gut. I was rendered speechless in the moment, and I am fairly sure my facial expressions were a dead give away of my own my levels of disbelief at what I was hearing.  

I eventually responded, explaining briefly that the year and a bit since March 2020 has been the hardest working, most stressful year of my working life so far, and that I had not taken all of my vacation or many of the spiritual days that I am given (one per month.) I also mentioned that this also applied to my pastoral colleagues.

I didn’t get into the details of it all with the family I was hearing it from, but the truth is that I have not been able to think about much else since.  

We taught more classes, made more phone calls, met with leaders, pivoted all our worship to online, re-pivoted back to outdoor, in-person worship (while keeping online going), re-pivoted again to indoor, in-person worship (while still keeping online going), hired a new Youth Director, conducted a successful Capitol Campaign, managed our budget, paid all our bills, took in 35 new members, baptized children, conducted funerals, officiated at weddings, engaged in community ministries feeding hungry people and supporting those who are in financial distress, and supporting partner organizations with regular monetary distributions from our General Missions Fund.

We maintained our Conference responsibilities, serving on various boards and committees at both District and Conference level. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the ongoing denominational turmoil that persists in the UMC. Nor should I forget the fallout we had to deal with in the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol – the words chosen and published by our cabinet were less than helpful amidst the wider tension of our times (although I was not in disagreement with the points being made by them!)

On top of all this, I have spent countless hours with dozens of people throughout the duration of the pandemic, listening to their pain and struggle. And I have also spent hours listening to the people who felt they needed to come and tell me how I ought not to preach about matters of justice and righteousness in our world – not that I really did preach that much about those matters at all.

We have grieved the losses of people along the way – the losses of our people who felt they could not hang in there or be supportive of our church any longer. Some have moved on to other churches – I wish them well. Truly. Some just got out of the habit and rhythm of worship. I hope we will be able to welcome them back in the near future.

The above list is a full, but not exhaustive one. We have done all this and more, and we have done it with only two things in mind – our love for Jesus, and our desire to love and serve the people of the church to which we have been sent. My colleagues are the best in the business – they give of their time and talents, and they, like me, also give financial tithes to our church also. It should also be noted that none of what I have outlined here takes into consideration the fact that we, too, have personal lives and families, and therefore all the other things of life are going on in the background just like they do in all lives.

The people who said these things about me and my colleagues are just plain wrong. Hearing that these things have been thought and spoken behind our backs hurts. We have done nothing to deserve this kind of commentary, and I cannot let it pass without noting it here in this way.

So, if you are still reading this, and you are a member of a local church, can I say one more thing to you: reach out and see if your pastor or pastors are okay.  The chances are that they are tired, stressed, bereft of ideas, and really, really struggling with how to put it all back together on the other side of this pandemic.  They need you to step up and play your part.  They need your help. At the very least, they need to know you support them

So instead of critiquing, why not roll up your sleeves and ask what it is you can do to help build things back? Why not try offering a word of support and encouragement to build them up and remind that you are rooting for them?God knows there will be plenty of time for critique again in the future. 

On “Faith Over Fear.”

“Faith over Fear.”

These are words that I have heard a lot in the last year or so.  I spend most of my life in and around people of Christian faith.  By and large they are generous, faithful, caring, hopeful, and loving people to the very best of their abilities.  

During the pandemic, Christian communities have taken different approaches in terms of responding to the best advice of epidemiologists on how to deal most effectively with COVID-19.  Where I live, in Florida, our Statewide stay at home orders in March and April 2020 were never applied to churches or other religious groups.  We were free to meet if we wanted. Of course, in those earliest days most, but not all, churches did cease to gather for worship. However, since then different churches have taken different approaches to bringing their people back on to campuses to gatherings.

Many churches, including my own, have continued to adhere to the advice coming out of expert bodies such as the CDC.  Many other churches have chosen to go a different way and open up their gatherings at a much faster rate than what the CDC would have recommended.  These latter groups tend to be the ones who have used the phrase “Faith Over Fear.” 

Now let me say up front regarding this three word phrase – I get it. I do. The Scriptures are filled with stories in which God invites ordinary human beings to place their trust in God; to put their faith in God and trust that by God’s grace and power they will come through a testing time.  Noah, Moses and the Israelites, and Daniel – to name just a few.  In my own life, I, too, have known times in which I was invited to place my faith and trust in God to bring me through testing times. Scripture also uses the phrase “do not fear” (or phrases like it) approximately 120 times – it is a big theme throughout the bible!

So, I get it. Christians are invited to let go of fear in their lives and walk as fully as possible in faith.

Amen to that!

But inasmuch as there is great truth contained in these three words, there is also some serious difficulty with using them the way they are being employed by many in the context of the global COVID 19 pandemic.

First, while the encouragement to live by faith instead of living in fear is a central part of the Christian faith, it rarely, if ever, invites us to disregard helps or solutions to a problem that are right there in front of us.  For example, I am sure all readers of this blog entry will have heard a sermon illustration about the guy sitting on top of his house after some serious flooding had impacted his community.  He was waiting up there to be rescued and he had faith that God would perform this rescue.  The search party pulled up to his house on their boat and told him to jump aboard.  He didn’t because he believed God was coming to rescue him.  Then a search helicopter flew overhead and winched down a helper for the man, but still he refused, saying that God was going to rescue him from this predicament.  The man was ignoring the very means by which God’s rescue was going to take place.  He had faith over fear, but he had also been completely blinded by it, to the point that he could not see the help that was right there in front of him.

The second, and perhaps most harmful difficulty with this phrase is that it has been weaponized by many who are using it. I have been in the room and heard people say that they believe that more cautious approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic have been based on fear and not faith.  Of course, this could not be further from the truth. My own local church has taken such a cautious approach. Our response has been consistent, and based primarily on the desire to do no harm, to love our neighbors, and to serve our community.  When expert voices state that the best help we can be to our community in times like this is to wash our hands, wear our masks, and avoid crowds, we are going to do our best to adhere to that advice, and even though we don’t like it we are going to choose it for the good of our community and the vulnerable within it, and we are going to do our best to remember that relatively speaking we really have not been asked to sacrifice that much.  

Using the language of faith over fear in this weaponized way is a means of speaking down to the other.  It is a way of accusing another of giving in to fear and of not having faith. I reject this.  And I recognize instead that those who are willing to act in ways that are protective of their neighbors and community are those who are acting not out of fear, but instead out of a great love that is willing to make small sacrifices for the good of the whole.  They are actually placing their faith in God: the God who calls God’s people to embody love for one another.  Fear has literally nothing to do with it.

My third issue with the use of this phrase has been the way it centers entirely on the individual.  Often, the folks I hear saying “Faith over Fear” are the some of the same folks that tell me they have had the virus and have come through it.  They wonder what all the fuss is about; why things are not returning to normal faster. 

While I don’t doubt that these experiences are true, and while I am thankful that COVID did not harm these folks any more than it did, I have a deep frustration with those who seem to diminish the experiences of others, or deem them not as important as their own. I get frustrated by the unwillingness of these same people to remain vigilant on behalf of others. This individualistic, “I’m alright Jack!” approach to faith is anathema to the call of God as it is found consistently in Scripture: the call to willingly and sacrificially love and serve one another. The Law and the Prophets state this often. Jesus himself said that in order to become great in the Kingdom of God we must be come servants of one another (Matthew 20:26, Mark 10:43, Luke 22:26.)

Make no mistake, I get the phrase and I understand entirely that it is most often used very innocently. But as happens so often with clichés, it is being used without much thought. I really do love this phrase, but I do not love how it has been used and is being used by many these days because it unmasks an underlying individuality and an unwillingness to make small sacrifices on behalf of the vulnerable.  

So please, dear reader, please be careful how you use these three little words in the days ahead.  Before using them, ask yourself what it is that you are really trying to say. If you are using them as an expression of frustration or accusation then maybe they would be better left unsaid.

When Saints Pass

In my first years out of seminary I was thrown into the deep end in terms of funerals and bereavement care. In my first year alone I conducted 23 funeral services in the Greater Shankill community and in all my time there (three years) I conducted more than 50 in total. I am thankful to say that since my move to America in 2013 that rate has not kept up. I have learned over the years that there are just some seasons in which communities experience more frequent occurrences of loss. I would say that I am in the middle of one of those seasons right now. I have just this afternoon conducted my third funeral/Memorial/committal service in less than a week.

Not all funeral services are the same, of course. How could they be? We are all so very different from one another after all. But there are stories I get to tell from time to time that are simply wonderful human stories of faith, endurance, simplicity, joy, and peace in the face of death.

We live in an age in which everyone is fighting to be heard and listened to. People are trying to create platforms from which to speak and influence. You can be a “Social Media Influencer” and speak to thousands of people worldwide – if you know how to build your platform. The Church is no different. Christian celebrities vie for attention and influence on their social media outlets. And even in local church dynamics we all know that there are always those who want to shout loud in defense of their particular theological understanding, and woe betide anyone that might think or say anything contrary to it (including the preacher!) I mean who hasn’t seen their church family duke it out on social media over something rather unimportant?

What has this got to do with the death of saints or the services I conducted this week?

I’m glad you asked.

You see, the services I have conducted this week have been for three ordinary people who had no interest in shouting loud, being seen or heard, or in defending any thought position. They did not have to be noticed in life to experience it well. All three of them simply showed up each day with a quiet sense of faith and a willingness to get on with loving people and serving their community.

No drama.
No debate.
No desire to take center stage.
No need to try and control or take charge.
No tantrums when things aren’t going as they want.

They just showed up in life, gave of themselves quietly and faithfully, and lived well with those around them. And in this age in which so many are vying for attention, on social media platforms or even in local communities, it was refreshing to stop and celebrate the lives of three people who had chosen to live a different, and dare I say better way.

May they rest in peace and rise in glory.

Pentecost 2021

Pentecost by Jennifer Allison (accessed at https://pixels.com/featured/pentecost-jennifer-allison.html)

They had been told the Spirit would be given to them. They had been told they would receive power when it did, power to be Christ’s witnesses at home and beyond.

So they gathered together, waiting.

And then it happened.

On the feast of Pentecost, it happened.

That which had been promised was fulfilled.
The wind blew and filled the building.
What looked like tongues of fire came to rest on the heads of those gathered there, and they were all filled with the Spirit.

Since that moment, Christians have continued to gather and wait, hungry for the work of God’s Spirit to take place within and around them.

On Pentecost Sunday in particular, we re-tell the above story and we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Tomorrow morning we gather again at Memorial United Methodist Church (on campus and online) on Pentecost Sunday. We will wear our red colors, we will hear the Scripture read, a word preached, and we will pray with longing and hunger to see and experience the Spirit moving among us.

This will be the first Sunday with our new COVID protocols in place, the first Sunday (since we started meeting in-person again) without an RSVP requirement for services. It’s also the first Sunday with a relaxation in terms of mask wearing for those individuals who have been vaccinated.

I’m both excited and a little bit fearful, too. My brain and habits have been programmed in new ways during the last year and these changes feel like they are big.

Maybe that’s what Christ’s friends felt as they waited in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come – excitement at what the coming of the Spirit might mean for them, and fear about moving into a new and unfamiliar territory. Maybe you are feeling some of that too?

Whatever we are feeling about our emerging from COVID, whether we are gathering online or in-person for church tomorrow, my prayer is the following: this Pentecost may we all know afresh the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as she leads us in mission and ministry and as she guides our steps into the new normals of the days ahead.

Rejecting Evil

As I listened to the Psalm in my church’s Lenten devotional for today, there was one phrase that penetrated my ears more than the others. In speaking of those he or she sees as “wicked,” the Psalmist writes these five powerful words:

“…they do not reject evil.”

Psalm 36:4 (NRSV)

I am not one that spends as much time as I perhaps should reflecting on evil in the world. This is probably much to do with the privilege I have been afforded in my life – I am an educated, gainfully employed, reasonably healthy, middle class, white European and have never wanted for anything. When I have needed food, it has always been there. In fact, even when I don’t need food there is an abundance of it there and I have always enjoyed partaking of it. When I have needed access to healthcare, it has always been there either by the universal healthcare provision of my home government, or, more latterly, because I have been able to afford healthcare here in the United States. I have come through third level education to doctoral level and I carry no student debt – my education has been provided for me and paid for by employers or parents for my entire life. I live in a good neighborhood and always have. The evils of this world have rarely, if ever, come knocking at my door, hence my lack of reflection on them.

This is not to say that I am unaware of evil in the world. I am. I just don’t have it in my sights round the clock in a way that someone who is living with evil on the doorstep of his or her life might.

But these five words leapt out at me as I listened to Psalm 36 being read this morning, as they should have, because rejection of evil is 100% a foundational component in the life of a Christian. 

In my own tradition (United Methodist) we hold high our understanding of baptism and what it is to be baptized. We understand that in our baptism we are called to a life of discipleship. Our baptism liturgy asks the following question (as the first of three that are asked) of those who are seeking baptism/bringing a child for baptism:

“On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?”

United Methodist Baptismal Covenant I

Right there in the beginning of this holy and sacred moment is the emphasis on rejecting evil. The question follows as to what evil actually is. For many, a rejection of evil boils down to the individual rejection of personal sin. But this question is asking more than whether or not an individual is behaving themselves in life or not. Read it again: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? This is about more than individual rejection of a sinful lifestyle that is distracting one from God. This is an invitation to reject evil powers in this world, and to reject them is both to refuse to participate in them AND to seek to dismantle them in whatever ways we can. This is why the work of anti-racism is currently front and center in the United Methodist Conference in which I serve – it is seen as a central part of discipleship in our present age and context to reject and dismantle the stronghold of racism and racial injustice in our nation and world. Of course, this is just one example of evil out of multiple examples I could land on in our times.

So when I read the Psalmist complain about the wicked in his or her world, and that they do not reject evil, I recognize that this is not a new aspect of discipleship. Rejection of evil in the world has always been a central aspect of being part of the family of God.

So how will I respond today? I can go on enjoying the privilege I have in this world and thinking very little of the evil that I quite blindly and blissfully participate in and which surrounds me each day OR I can let this word speak to me; let it call me into a new way in which I take steps forward in rejecting evil.

I think the most important thing I can do today is to read/hear this word, begin to open my eyes and recognize the evil in this world, and start anew to live into my calling as a baptized member of the household of God – to reject evil outright and work to dismantle its stronghold in my world.

How will you respond today?

When Will We All Stop Shouting And Start Listening?

SocialMedia Rage

The early days of social media were fun. Connecting with old friends we hadn’t been in contact with for years, seeing what had become of people since they had left school – who they had married, what they were doing for a living, etc. It was fun. Those early days were also a time when social media was a way to be and stay connected. All of a sudden I could keep up with that my old friend was doing in Sydney, Australia without having to make an expensive phone call or write a letter or email. It was just there. My eyes could be in the worlds of my friends just a little, just enough to stay in touch and to be mindful and thankful for the fabulous network of friends and family I have in my life

It was fun.
It was simple.
It was reasonably wholesome.

But it’s just not any more.

As I scrolled through one of my social media feeds recently, I stumbled upon a thread of chatter that had been started when one friend shared a piece of news and opined against it. The concept of the post itself was fair enough – a simple case of my friend having learned of an action being taken, being in disagreement with the action, and expressing it on social media. What followed was a long thread of comments, some in support of my friend’s position and some not. Most were polite as you might hope for, but one was just downright nasty and condescending. This individual had taken the polar opposite view of the piece of news, and then proceeded to speak down as if the original poster was brand new to the world with no measure of understanding as to how things ought to be, and no ability to think critically for themselves.

Social media used to be fun.
Social media used to be simple.
Social media used to be reasonably wholesome.

More recently I see it being nothing more than a hub for virtue signaling from both sides of almost any debate in which those who offer comment do so with almost no sense of care or respect for the relationship by which they are connected to the one they are debating with in the first place.

It’s exhausting.

And it is profoundly problematic because pointing the finger in a few sentences of verbiage on social media does little or nothing to ever change the mind or heart of another, which I assume is the bottom line mission of any keyboard warrior regardless of the cause they are championing.

I have been guilty of this myself. Make no mistake. I love nothing more than a good debate over a social issue. I have opinions on many matters and if I find an issue that I don’t have an opinion on, I will be very quick to rustle one up for you. Over the years I have entered into these social media interactions with aplomb only to find that they usually don’t result in any change and ultimately serve only to strengthen the personal positions of those I engaged in debate with. Why might this be? Probably because such conversations are more about our over-eagerness to speak/shout/roar at the other so to be heard and understood rather than to listen to the other so as to understand.

Social media invites us to speak as much and as loudly as we want, but it really doesn’t invite us to listen much at all.

None of this is to say that social media is singularly a great menace. No. The reason I keep my social media accounts is because the fun, simplicity, and wholesomeness of those early days is still there. I live 4000 miles from home – being connected to friends and family there is so very important to me. Social media is not a menace in and of itself, but it becomes so when we, the users, fail to take a listening posture with one another. If we continue to fail to do this then the relationships that form the very basis of our social media networks are placed at risk as we each encamp ourselves on one side or another of a matter and refuse to budge. Doing this only makes an enemy of the other and it results in zero progress.

Respectfully listening with view to learning and understanding how another individual experiences and sees the world is the most important skill we can recover in these days. It is this kind of listening that opens the door to our empathy, and it is our empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of the other, that may very well make us willing to seek change for the common good of one another – even if that change may bring with it some difficulty and struggle (what change doesn’t?) It starts with listening, and sadly I don’t think we can recover good and effective listening by communicating primarily on our social media timelines and threads. The only way we can recover the art of listening is by doing the hard work of making time and sitting with our friends, our family, and others in conversations in which we both have covenanted to listen to one another, to validate the experience of the other as genuine and to be learned from, and to find our way forward together.

Whether it is a social issue…
a religious or theological matter…
a family situation…
or…
dare I say it – a political one…

…until we can recover the art of humble listening, I fear we are doomed to continue duping ourselves by living into the notion that our shouting loudly at others from our keyboards will change them and/or the world around us. And yes, I am aware that by writing this piece and posting it on the internet and sharing it on my social media feeds I am indeed engaging in a little bit of shouting loudly from my keyboard…oh the irony!

The individual who spoke without listening in the example I cited above probably closed the door to ever being listened to or understood on this matter by the original poster. The door, most likely, has probably been firmly closed and the relationship likely diminished as a result – all because shouting loudly was valued over listening humbly.

If this is who we have become or are becoming, then God help us.

A Personal Tribute to a Wonderful Friend and Mentor.

I wanted to take a moment to tell you about my friend, Glenn, who tragically passed away yesterday.

We met just over twenty years ago when I got my first full time job.  We had both been hired at the same time – me as youth development worker and Glenn as Mission Director for East Belfast Mission (EBM).  Back then the EBM building was a dark, minimalist space that had been built in the 1950’s having previously been destroyed in the Belfast Blitz.  As dark as the space was, I can still remember the brightness of Glenn’s demeanor that first time we met.  Sometimes you meet a person and you get the impression that you want to know him or her more.  I had that impression with Glenn.

We started our jobs within a week of each other, a fact I was so thankful for as the years of our friendship wore on.  Having that common beginning gave us a bond from the get go.

Glenn was an outstanding mission director at EBM.  He was driven and focused in terms of the administrative and visionary tasks of his work.  He was also extremely pastoral, not only knowing his quite large staff team by name, but also caring for them all and showing interest in their stories.  He was sharp and intelligent – well-read and thought through on anything I ever had to ask him about. And he was fun in an environment and atmosphere that absolutely needed fun.

During my three years at EBM there was not one single time when I knocked on the door that Glenn told me he didn’t have time for me.  It never mattered what he was working on, if one of his team needed a moment to talk something through, or if they needed help thinking something through, Glenn was there.  The laptop would be closed, he would ask if I wanted tea or coffee and the conversation would start. I am pretty sure I left every one of those conversations feeling better or thinking more clearly.  Glenn had that effect as a leader and boss.

“If I am too busy to take time for you, Charlie, then I am too busy.”

I can remember him saying those exact words to me. They have stuck with me and have been central in shaping the kind of leader/manager I am with my staff team today.  

I was still in my early twenties back then.  I thought I had arrived when I landed my first full time youth director post at a church in the city.  I thought I must have known it all and then I learned rapidly that I didn’t.  One thing that became clear to me at the time was that I needed a mentor in my life and work. Someone who would guide me in the faith and in learning the community work/ministry world I was now a part of.  I shared this need with another friend. I also shared that I did not know who I could invite to be a mentor in my life.  

“Charlie, you work with Glenn Jordan every day.  Duhhhh!”

He was right (Thank’s, Phil!)

The next week I made some time with Glenn and simply asked him if he would become a mentor for me in Christian life and in my ministry.  He agreed readily and since that moment, I don’t think there has been a time in our relationship when he has not spoken to me both as friend and co-worker, but also as someone who agreed to mentor me – he has coached, counseled and comforted me at various points along the way, and always as one who I invited specifically to do so at both the best of times and at the worst of times too.  

The time came for me to leave EBM as Margaret and I made our first move to the United States.  Glenn and I stayed in touch by email there was no social media at that time.  He ribbed me about the fact that I moved here and started to drive a Mercedes (I should add that it was a Mercedes that was made the year before I was born and had been given to Margaret and myself in Port St. Lucie.) 

“You’ve sold out to American capitalism already, Charlie!” he joked.

After we moved that time in 2003, direct face to face contact with Glenn was less and less, of course, but when we returned to Northern Ireland in 2006 Glenn and I were able to pick up our face to face contact and friendship again.  We’d meet for coffee on the Belmont Road in East Belfast, or for a beer in the city centre after work on a Friday evening.  He was still working at EBM and they were moving towards an exciting new building vision for their entire site.  Glenn would let me know about their plans and as the work started on site, he walk me through and let me see the progress being made.  

It had been when I was still working there at EBM that the project was being envisioned.  I can still remember when Glenn and others in charge landed on the name for the redevelopment project: Skainos.  In my mind’s eye right now I can see the word scribbled on the wee whiteboard in his office and I can hear him telling me about the meaning of the Greek word and why it perfectly described what was going to take place on that site over the coming years.  

Finally, when all the building work was done, he was as proud as punch of the design and architecture of it all.  He would show me around and give me the stories of the thinking behind every little detail.  Glenn was a storyteller, and a gifted one at that. 

When I was commissioned for ministry and sent to Shankill Methodist Church in July 2010, I asked Glenn to come and preach at my welcoming service.  When I heard him preach or teach from the Bible, he always caught my attention.  I will never forget him preaching on the Parable of the Good Samaritan and making me and all the other listeners read from the perspective of the Inn Keeper in the story.  I’ll also never forget the night Glenn led the EBM Bible Study with a session on Psalm 32.  To this day, when I encounter that particular text my mind flashes back to the things Glenn taught us that night.  He was a brilliant mind when it came to Bible teaching – always creative, and always courageous to think outside the box.

His time at EBM/Skainos came to a close just after Margaret and I moved back to the United States in 2013.  By now, technology had advanced and we had social media accounts by which we could follow what was going on in each others’ lives.  I would see the pictures of his beloved dogs taken on their regular walks along the crooked shore of the County Down coast line.  I would see pictures of his kids – he was such a proud dad.  I would see the pictures he would take of the various table set ups he had as visual aids for teaching the young people of his Bible class each week.  I would see images of Bruce Springsteen concerts, so many images of Bruce Springsteen concerts.  Glenn loved The Boss and followed him fanatically any time he would be playing shows in the UK and Ireland. I would see images of pictures taken of the pages of poetry books.  Glenn loved poetry and literature and always had something quite inspiring to share with the world from what he was reading.

We would also banter each other back and forth, particularly about rugby.  We both loved rugby.  Glenn even came to watch me play in the 2009 final of the Forster Cup at Ravenhill in Belfast.  He had no reason to come watch other than his love for the game, and our friendship.  I appreciated his attendance so much

Concerning rugby, Glenn lived under the illusion that backs (shirt numbers 9-15) were the team members who captured best all of the class, beauty, and energy of the game.  I, on the other hand, knew the truth.  I knew that it is the forwards in the game of rugby (numbers 1-8) who not only captured all the class, beauty, and energy of the game, but who also worked 100 times as hard as the backs and gave them the platform they needed to look so good.  Glenn never let up in speaking up for the backs.  I would like to say that deep down he knew the truth, but I would be wrong.  I and many others were never able to convince him at all of the primary importance of forwards in the game of rugby. 

What impressed me so much about Glenn?  What made me always want to take time with him and drink in the details of our conversations?

Glenn Jordan was the real deal.  What I saw in him, I believe, was what the whole world saw, and it was what seemingly everyone found infectious about his personality.  He was himself and felt no need to perform for people.

I was also always impressed by Glenn’s work.  I saw it up close and personal as a colleague for three years, and I paid close attention as I observed it from distance after that. Glenn was a community worker/activist/leader/theologian who was right there with the people of the communities he served.  He took time to get to know people, he connected with them, he listened and heard, he pulled them together and engaged them in conversations that at times were hard.  Glenn Jordan was a community leader, theologian, and peace-builder that Northern Ireland is going to miss immensely.  

As you can tell, I have many vivid memories of a great friendship with a quite fantastic man. One of them stands out more than others though. As I have alluded to above, we both loved the game of rugby. I have not mentioned that Glenn was born in the south of Ireland in Dublin. His local provincial team in Dublin was Leinster. He was a Leinster fan. But he was also an adopted son of Ulster and a fan of our local provincial team too. So when Leinster were playing Ulster in the 2012 Heineken Cup Final to determine who the champions of Europe would be that season, Glenn was rightly torn as to who he would support when he attended the game. In the most Glenn Jordan type solution possible, he had a friend take both his Ulster rugby jersey and his Leinster rugby jersey, cut them both in half, and sew a new shirt together that would represent both teams, and cover Glenn’s own divided loyalties for the day. It was brilliant. (The shirt is pictured below)

As I write this now, I can’t quite believe he is gone, and my heart breaks for Adrienne, Philippa, and Christopher, who are now left without the most wonderful husband and dad.  

I have written plenty as to the best of times with Glenn.  And I could write plenty more from some incredibly low times too in which he was a tower of strength and resolve for many.  But I know that he wouldn’t really want me to go into any of that. “Don’t let it take up space in your head, Charlie” he would say. 

To me and to many, Glenn Jordan was an incredible human, a loyal friend, a devoted mentor, wonderfully creative, truly down to earth, and committed to Godly peace and justice in the world. I will miss him and his voice in my life immensely.

Until we meet again, my friend.

Finding Holiness in the Chaos.

Below is the content of a text I wrote this morning in reply to some friends back home who have been in touch having watched UK/Ireland new reports on the chaos that is playing out in the United States.

It has been slightly edited for the purpose of publishing here

This is shared with permission of the friends I mention by name.


I’ll not lie to you lads, I am hurting deeply today.

I am a little afraid, too, with everything that is going on here, and I don’t think it is completely outside the realms of possibility that this shit could get out of hand very quickly.

I held a vigil of lament, solidarity, and hope on our church steps on Sunday night. It was a good time. And it was good for the predominantly white, middle class people of my church (which very much includes me) to be a part of. It felt righteous and appropriate, but, honestly, aside of creating a space for people to be together I am not sure that it will have made much of a difference at all.

I could be wrong. Prayer works in ways I can’t fathom. I get that and believe it.

Last night I went with my daughter to an ad hoc demonstration/protest that had been arranged on snapchat among her High School peers. To be honest, we did not want her to go along. We did not know who was organizing it, or what the aim or objective was. But as I thought about who I want her to be and how i want her to have a voice in the world, I understood that I should let her speak in this way. So Marge and I said she could go but that we would be there too. I put on my clerical collar and my #loveshowsup church t-shirt and we accompanied her.

The whole things was terribly organized. We got to where we thought we were supposed to be and there were only about four other people standing around. Then we realized that we all had got the meeting point wrong, so we walked to find the others. When we found them there were about 15-20 more who had gathered already. Then about 20 more arrived about 20 minutes later. Very late.

Typical kids. But I digress…

I stood back a little from them with Chef Mike. Mike runs the local High School Culinary program that caters our Wednesday Night Community dinners at church. His daughter and mine are class mates. Together, we were keeping an eye on things, looking out for the safety of our girls, and we chatted as the other kids gathered. We actually didn’t know if they would ever move from their meeting point and begin their march.

But then they did.

About 50-60 young people with placards in hand walked all the way along the main thoroughfare in our wee town chanting things like “Black Lives Matter”, “Silence is Violence”, “Say His Name: GEORGE FLOYD!” or “Say her name: BREONA TAYLOR!”, “I Can’t Breathe”, and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

They chanted together at the tops of their voices every step of the way along the five mile walk they completed.

I walked alongside them more or less every step of the way.

Listening.
Critiquing.
Grumbling.
Catching myself on.
Wising up.
Beaming with pride that my daughter wanted and needed to be part of this.

It was holy.

And then this morning Chef Mike called me out of the blue.

“Can I come see you?” He asked.

“Of course!” I replied.

He did.

He walked into my office with tears in his eyes and he opened his arms and hugged me…hugged me tight. For the next thirty minutes we talked about our experience of the night before, and how powerful and moving it had been. It literally emptied Mike in a way he had not expected – emotionally, physically, mentally. He just needed to talk. So did I.

That was holy too.

The holiness is in the chaos.

All this stuff is so very raw. It is making me dig deep and recognize the ugliness that continues to reside in me in the form of my privilege in this world.

The inner work of it all is hard.

But it is holy.

I think we need to look out for the holy in all this.


Afterword: One thing I failed to mention to my friends in the original message was to give credit and high praise to our local Police Department for the way they handled 60 young people marching down the main road of our town. They were excellent and I am grateful for the way they carry out their work in our local community.

A Vigil of Lament, Solidarity, and Hope

Tonight, I was proud and blessed to stand with several clergy from our community on the steps of the church I serve and a Vigil of Lament, Solidarity, and Hope.  It was a last minute idea in response to the events of the week in the United States, but it came together well.

Below is the text of the prayer I wrote for the occasion.  It was read by five local clergy brothers and sisters.  Before the prayer was prayed, we read Psalm 77.  Afterwards, we observed a minute of silence before closing with one more short prayer and a blessing.

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In your mercy, God, heal our land!

Gracious and Almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being. You are the creator of all things.  You made humans in your image, humans of all shapes and sizes, of all colors and creeds.  You made us with an immense capacity for love, kindness and compassion.  But Lord, we do not always embody those qualities.

We gather here in this place, during a moment of deep struggle in our nation.  We gather with heavy hearts, hearts that are burdened with grief, with anger, with pain, and with immense frustration.

We grieve at the senseless loss of George Floyd’s life.

We are angered that in our society the odds are stacked against some because of the color of their skin.

We are in pain as we are faced once more with the reality of our own brokenness; of our own complicity in the perpetuation of how things are.

And we are frustrated because events like this happen again and again and again.

We bring you our lament at the reality we are seeing

We gather to say that enough is enough!

In your mercy, God, heal our land!

 

George Floyd’s murder is another in a list of unjust deaths that is far too long.  We bring our confessions and we seek your forgiveness.

Forgive us for failing to listen to voices that have been crying out for centuries.

Forgive us for turning a blind eye to the evil of racism.

Forgive us for the prejudice that we each hold in our own hearts, and our failure to stand up against racism when we see it.

Forgive us our own ignorance and failure to understand how we all participate in systems that have not applied justice equally or fairly for all.

Forgive us for being too eager to speak over the other and for being unwilling to listen to the experiences of those who look different than we do.

Forgive us as we gather here tonight to say that enough is enough!

In your mercy, God, heal our land!

 

As we watch on, the scenes being broadcast from multiple cities in our nation are harrowing to watch.  Peaceful demonstrations of protest spilling over and becoming violent because of the actions of the few.

We see the frustration.

We see the years of being unheard boiling over.

We hear those cries for change.

We stand tonight in solidarity with the communities suffering most.

We stand with George Floyd’s family – uphold and sustain them in their loss and grief.

We stand with our brothers and sisters in the African American community as they continue to cry “How Long!”

And we stand with all communities and groups whose life experience makes them feel like they are always swimming upstream.

We pray for all who are gathered and present in troubled cities throughout the USA, praying for those who are there to protest, and for those who are there to protect too.  Grant peace in places of protest tonight.

And for those who go to these places to stir up trouble, Lord change their hearts and take them home.

Lord, enough is enough.

In your mercy, God, heal our land!

 

Lord Jesus, on this Pentecost Sunday we remember that moment when your followers were gathered together in one place and experienced the coming of your Spirit in a powerful way that empowered them and commissioned them to be bearers of healing and good news in their world.

Your work among a gathered group of ordinary people was a work that would change the world and bring healing, restoration, and reconciliation in the power of the Spirit.  By your indwelling, your servants are given the power to change and live transformed and renewed lives.

This is your work, Gracious God, and so we pray: do it again.

As we open our hearts to you, as we seek your transforming power in our lives, please do your work again.

We need another Pentecost!

Open our eyes to the realities and sufferings of those around us, and move us to seek changes to the root causes that bring them about.

Because enough is enough.

In your mercy, God, heal our land!

 

God, we have gathered to lament our current reality and seek forgiveness for our part in it.

We have gathered to express our solidarity with those who are suffering most.

We are also gathered in great hope.

You are the God who is with us in all things.

You are the God who does not run away from the chaos brought about by human sin.

You are the God whose love has been made known in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

You are the God of Christ’s resurrection by which we know that hope is imperishable and that death has no victory.

Help us to remember this.

Help us to remember that although the arc of human history is long, it bends towards justice.

Help us to remember that even though history’s wrenching pain cannot be unlived, when faced with courage it need not be lived again.

Grant us courage.

Grant us humility.

Grant us wisdom.

Grant us love.

In you we have great hope.  Enliven our hearts to that reality and give us strength to press forward so that the dream that Dr. King spoke of will edge closer to becoming our reality.

Enough is enough.

In your mercy, God, heal our land!

Unfolding Leaves, Softening Branches, and the Importance of Keeping Watch.

Below is the text of the sermon I preached this morning at Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach, Florida.  The sermon was written based on our chosen gospel text for the week, Mark 13: 28-37 and in response to the events that came to light during the last week in America around the barbaric, racist murder of Ahmaud Arberry. I post it here as I do with other sermons I want to share more publicly and hold in place (although all my sermons since July 2018 are available on the Memorial YouTube Channel.)

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I was speaking with one of our congregation members recently on the telephone.  We had been talking about a different matter and we were beginning to come to the end of our conversation.  The individual mentioned to me that they thought my preaching was good, but that there was a sermon a few weeks ago in which he remembered me stepping away from my notes. “It really made a difference Pastor Charlie, I felt you really preached from the heart that day!” he said.

Of course, I hope that every word I preach to you and to anyone else comes from my heart, every week as a result of good study and preparation, but I would be lying to you if I said that the comment has not stuck with me a little and made me wonder what the difference is that that person saw that day.  Is it just the absence of notes?  Is it just my ability to look at a camera directly or to look a congregation in the eye as I speak?

Who knows?

I can tell you this though, as I got ready to preach today, I asked the specific question of myself:  what is in your heart Charlie?

This is week nine of online worship.  Speaking from my heart, I can tell you that I am fed up with it.  I want you all back here.  I want to gather with you.  I want to hear the chatter of your voices before a service.  I want to hear you singing.  I want to hear you laugh a little when I make a joke in a sermon. I want to hear you give an amen at just the right time, and then again when I repeat the point and make you give me an louder, stronger and more affirming amen…

That is very much in my heart.

What else was in there?

This is week nine of this strange new normal that we have all been thrust into.  Some of us are still staying in doors and some of us are rushing out to do our thing in the world again.  Some people are wearing masks and some are not.  Some are keeping their distance from others and some are up close and personal.  I had to get gas in my car yesterday and as I was filling up, a guy came up to me and asked me the way to Jekyll Island.  When I turned to him to reply, he was just a little bit too close for my comfort.  The poor man wasn’t even thinking about it.  I had to go to Target also to get Margaret’s Mother’s Day gift and cards – it feels weird when you have not seen that many people in one place for a few months to then see them all at once, and all way too close to each other…I was glad to get home.  And as I think about that I think that this whole experience has changed me a little bit, and that it is likely changing us all somewhat.

In my heart I am struggling with this new normal.  I don’t like it.  I don’t know what to do with it. And I don’t know how we are supposed to be with one another any more.

It’s confusing, and annoying, and hard.  That’s all in my heart today. Maybe it’s in yours too?

But I am not here to preach to you about how well or not well I am coping with the global pandemic, and you’re not here to listen to me talk about that stuff either.  What else is in my heart today that I must speak?

This is the week that the world outside of Albany, Georgia heard about a young man called Ahmaud Arberry.  Ahmaud would have turned 26 years old on Friday past if he had not been shot and killed in an incident way back in February.  As we have learned about the story this week we have learned that the young man was just out for a run when he was chased down and murdered in a racist attack, and that someone thought it was okay to catch this all on video.

When I say I want to talk to you about what’s in my heart today, I want to talk to you about this, friends, because this story does run right to the core of who we are and of how we are with one another.

I go out for a run several mornings every week.  I run freely and without a care for my safety.  When I see people they wave and smile at me, or they say hello and I do the same in return. Ahmaud Arberry was not free to run the streets of a neighborhood without being looked upon by some with suspicion.  Ahmaud Arberry was not free to run the streets of a neighborhood without being chased down by those who would look down upon him and who would consider his life worthless and ultimately expendable because of the color of his skin.

You might be listening right now and thinking that this does not apply to you.  You don’t have a racist bone in your body.  You have many black and brown skinned friends and work colleagues in your life.  And that might well be true.  I can say the same in my own life.

Maybe you are thinking that the preacher doesn’t need to be speaking into these kinds of matters. But church, that’s not true. We can’t sit by witnessing evil like this in the world and do nothing about it.  That is not what the church of Jesus Christ does.  It’s not what the church of Jesus Christ is called to.  When we see suffering in the world, we roll up our sleeves and do something about it. When we see hunger in the world we do something about it.  We exist to see the world transformed, to announce the good news in both word and deed, and see the Kingdom of God made real in the lives of all people.  That is our call.  We all want to make a difference for good in the world.  When we see evil at play in our world, we must be those who are willing to do something about it.  Shaking our heads and walking by on the other side of the road is not good enough.  Jesus himself said that in the parable of the good Samaritan.  Being silent is not good enough.  The twentieth century German theologian, Deitrich Bonhoeffer said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Dr. King said: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

It hurts to hear that, right?  It hurts me to hear it as I say it.  And the chances are that it hurts us because it is true – often in the face of these things that happen frequently around us we choose silence and passive head shaking over and above doing anything about it.

That’s how I reacted this week when I heard about it.  I watched that footage online, found myself disgusted and disturbed by it, and then I found myself scrolling right on by to the next thing in my feed.

But it did not leave my mind.  I started to wonder what I could do that might make a difference.  I could make a couple of social media posts that might raise awareness some, but would it really make a difference?  Not really is the answer.  I could sign an online petition and make a donation to an organization that is working every day to make against the evil of racism in the United States.  Those two things  might certainly make a little difference…but inside there was still this nagging feeling that something else should needed to be done.  So I lifted my cell phone and I sent a text message to two of my African America brothers in ministry and humbly asked for their help in shaping a response to this that might be effective and make a difference.  Anthony and Granardo welcomed my initiative and we will talk more in the days ahead.

I tell you this because signing my name wasn’t enough.  Writing a social media post was not enough.  Friends, I can tell you from first hand experience in my life – if there is a division in a society between human beings no bridge will be built and no difference will ever be made by sitting comfortably in our own tribes and shaking our head in lament at the tragedy of it all.  We have got to talk about this stuff. We have got to get up and move towards the other, and make the rights and freedoms of the other as important and as defendable as our own.

What does all this have to do with the parable of the fig tree in Mark 13?

At the beginning of the chapter, the disciples have asked Jesus a question regarding the things that Jesus has been talking about – namely the fall of the Temple that Jesus has just foretold.  “When will all this take place?” They ask.  Jesus tells them that this is going to happen, and that there will be difficulty and persecution for his followers.  That there will be many who will falsely claim to be the messiah.  His followers are to remain alert because he has already told them everything.  And they are to watch out for the coming of the Son of Man.

In the same way that they know summer is coming by the unfolding leaves and softening branches of the fig tree, so they will be able to tell when the Son of Man is coming.  Mark writes these words as a word of hope for his community who are living in times of conflict and division all around them.  They are to remember that they are people with purpose and their call is to remain focused and steadfast on that purpose.  Heaven and earth will pass away, says Jesus, but his words will not pass away.  Jesus is echoing the words of Isaiah 40 and in doing so he is showing his followers once again that he is who he says he is – the Son of Man who will come back to his people.  So they are to stay focused on their purpose.  They are to be alert so that they are ready when he does return.

Nobody knows when that time will be.  As Jesus had said a few verses earlier, many would proclaim they were the Messiah, or they knew who the Messiah was and when the Messiah would come, but they could not know.  Nobody knows that hour says Jesus – only the Father.  And so the only thing that the followers of Christ can do is be about their business – the business of the kingdom, all day every day until that time.  It is like a landowner who goes off on a trip, leaving his employees in charge.  Their job is to keep the land going.  It is to do what they are called to do until the landowner returns.  He could show up tomorrow, or it could be months from now but the important thing is that they be ready, so they are to stay alert.

Church we are called to be about the business of the Landowner in this world.  We are called to be about our work until the time comes for the Landowner to return, and that work is the work of easing suffering, of feeding the hungry, of giving shelter to the homeless, of being peacemakers and bridgebuilders in the world, of announcing good news of great hope for the forgiveness of sin and the freedom of Christ to experience healing and restoration,  and to begin a new life in Christ.  That’s who we are, and that is why we cannot sit by and passively shake our heads when we are witness to the realities of the evil of racism in our society.  We must each do something to ensure that a 25 year old black man can go for a run, or drive on the roads, or go into a store in this nation without fear for his own safety and life. It is by doing these things, that we stay alert and ready for the return of the landowner at any moment.

Let’s not be found sleeping, friends.