My reading today is Luke 12:22-34 and the prompt is asking me to consider what worries and fears I wish to let go of as I begin this retreat journey.
The reading itself is a familiar gospel text in which Jesus challenges his followers to let go of worry and concern. He says: “Look at the birds of the air and the lillies of the field – if God is taking care of them, how much more will God take care of you.” I have always taken notice of those words – they have always been my take away lines and images of this text. However, there is a danger when we read a text and find that take away image early on our way through it – if an image strikes us at the beginning of a reading it can be easy to miss other gems and highlights because we have been so taken with the image that jumped out first. Make sense? I think I have been guilty of this as I have read this text in previous journeys through Luke’s gospel. In doing so, I have more or less missed the words that jumped out for me today – the words of verse 32:
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Fathers pleasure to give you the Kingdom…”
Over the course of my faith journey I have often listened as preachers and teachers have spoken about the joy and pleasure God takes in His beloved children. I have a vivid memory of the British preacher, Mike Pilavachi, speaking to a gathering of young people in Belfast, reminding us that God delights over us with singing (Zeph 3:17). It is a beautiful image for sure…but it is also one that, if I am honest, I really struggle with. Perhaps it is the transactional culture of our world, or perhaps it is my upbringing in a place where good old evangelical guilt and shame were always in plentiful supply. Whatever it is, even all these years down the road, and even though I know in my head that God’s love is both full and unconditional, I still wrestle to know or feel in my soul that God takes pleasure in me. That’s why this verse stands out so much – it is a direct challenge to the transactional way I’ve been wired.
What worries and concerns do I want to let go of in this retreat? Honestly, I think it is the concern that I will be the one to get in the way of the Father’s pleasure by refusing to believe and trust in the extent of God’s great love. One of the prayers through all the readings for this week is the prayer for grace enough that I would “trust in God’s personal care and love for me.” May I be open to that grace today, and may i receive it in all the fullness with which God gives it.
I began a new prayer journey today. At the invitation of my Spiritual Director, I have become part of a group/community that will take this Ignatian journey together in the coming months. Each day I will have a set reading in my prayer time. My intention is that I will journal a response to the readings/prayer prompts.
Today’s reading is taken from Isaiah 43:1-7 and the prompt given me was to consider what images and words pop out for me in the reading, who God is for me, and to ask how God see’s me.
The words that popped for me in the reading of the text were the assurances in verse two:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.“
The specific words that caught my attention are those highlighted in bold and italic above.
The pandemic journey of the last 18 months has been one that has consistently felt both overwhelming and consuming. So much of life and work has changed dramatically during this time. Whether the image of difficulty is that of water or flames, the statement by the prophet that these times will not overwhelm and will not consume are encouragement for me and are food for my troubled soul.
When I reflect on who God is for me in light of this reading, I am going to say that God is my sustainer, that is to say I am sustained through this whole thing by God. I am quite convinced that without God’s grace and the sense of God’s call, I would have crumbled long ago. God has and continues to sustain me.
When I consider how God sees me in light of this text, I conclude that God sees me as His own – worthy of protecting, worthy of having been redeemed, worthy of sustaining. This was good news for me as I prayed and read this morning. It’s still good news as I journal tonight. I’m thankful.
I received a text message late last night from an old friend who I haven’t spoken with for far too long:
“Have you heard from _______ today?”
“No. Is something wrong?”
“Yes…can you call me?”
“Give me a couple of mins.”
My wife was asleep in bed beside me and I didn’t want to wake her up with my conversation, so I walked up to our living room, sat in my seat and placed the call. My old friend proceeded to tell me about our mutual friend’s daughter, who had been rushed into major surgery earlier that day. Things were not good. She then continued our conversation by telling me of another mutual friend. I knew he had been in a health battle of his own over the last year.
“Do you know about _______?”
“I know he has been very sick for a long time.”
“He is and has been. We went to visit him tonight and we don’t expect him to come through but a couple more days.”
After that, we talked for another thirty minutes about our connection, our friendship, our season of shared life and how our paths had crossed at just the right time. We gave thanks to God for the gift of friendship and love. And then we lamented our sadness that many of our shared friendships have been strained of late. You know the story – the tensions and divisions that swirl around us that have resulted in friendships that have become more distant, or even family relationships that have completely broken down. The conversation made me think of some of those same friendships and relationships in my own life, which then led me to reflect on how most of the things we take our stands on really just aren’t worth it.
The whole conversation sparked a creative moment in me, leading me to put the following words together in a poem. I don’t claim any prowess as a poet, none at all. But writing like this is cathartic for me. With the sadness of the day yesterday (on a global and personal level) putting these words down and reflecting on the relationships I need to proactively seek repair in helped. Maybe reading them will evoke some response from you…
When It Comes Home
It’s easy to Craft a statement, Pass a comment, or Post an opinion on social media About seemingly important matters: Politics. World Affairs. Religious rumblings. Or whatever the latest controversy is.
When the situation is far away; When it’s reality is distanced From our daily life, Thinking what we think; Saying what we say: Opining on matters we know very, very little about Comes so naturally to us.
Words get thrown out there About people we don’t really know, About things and places far away Where some pain has been noticed by us, But not felt by us. We might think we feel it, But we don’t. Not really.
However, real pain doesn’t remain distant forever. When it comes home None of those other things matter. No issue. No philosophy. No political position. No religious conviction.
When it comes home, When the tears roll down our own cheeks, And the pain is personal, Felt deep within…
It’s then we realize That all the other stuff Just wasn’t worth it.
Those things we drew our lines in the sand about. The “important stuff” we allowed to separate us. The politics that divided us. Those things that got us so riled up, And stopped us talking…
None of them were worth it.
That’s the thing about pain: When it comes home We realize that there’s no time left to put things right. We see and know that The clock has run out Before love had it’s chance to heal and restore; To recover what once was.
So stop it.
Stop letting far off, distant things – Things beyond our control, Stop letting them Push family and close friends Away.
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 capital 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.