One of the most frustrating and discouraging aspects of life these days is our eager willingness to assign labels to one another. In doing so we draw our conclusions about a person based on the one thing we think we know about them. As far as I can see, we are all a little guilty of this. I am convinced that it is not good for us. Not at all. As I write this, I also confess that I am as good at labeling others as the next person.

Lately, I am more aware than normal of the labels assigned to me. In weeks gone by I reached a heightened point of frustration with it all and wrote the following words. I share them here for a couple of reasons:

  1. Writing like this is a welcome form of self expression in my life. When I am hurt, frustrated, or anxious, writing helps.
  2. In general, most of the labels being assigned to me deserve a little push back – again, for me, writing is a good way to do that.

This whole labeling thing needs to be called out. People are so much more than the labels we assign to them.

So here goes…


I am a Christian.
Not a liberal.
Not a conservative.
Not a unionist.
Not a nationalist.
Not a Republican.
Not a Democrat.
Not left wing.
Not right wing.
Not a traditionalist.
Not a progressive.
Just a Christian.

Just a Christian.

This means that to the best of my ability
I follow Christ.
I follow His way.
I follow His teachings.
I stand in the 2000 year old tradition established by the other Christ followers who have gone before me.
I read and study the Scripture, interpreting it through the lens of the Christ, to whom all Scripture points, and letting it guide my steps and form my character.
I believe in the Triune God: Father, Son, and Spirit.
I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the very Word of God made flesh.
I believe in his death and bodily resurrection.
And I believe that everything needed for my salvation and that of others is found in Christ.
Christ alone.

I believe these things and more because
I am a Christian

All of this is gift.
A gift of grace.
I’ve done nothing to deserve it or earn it.
And neither has anyone else
Who has received it.

It’s just gift.

And rather scandalously given,

Not because I am
Left wing,
Right wing,
Or Progressive.

There is no because.
It’s just gift.

Being a Christian is a gift,
graciously given,
Which calls me to a life of following
In Christ’s way:

The way of sacrifice.
The way of generosity.
The way of peace.
The way of forgiveness.
The way of mercy.
The way of justice.
The way of love.

I am simply a Christian.

So I reject the other labels slapped on me by those who really don’t know me.
I reject their thoughts of who they think I am.
I reject their assumptions about my character, theology, or philosophy in life.

If they want to talk about these things with me,
I would love that.

In fact,
I actually wish folks had
The courage
And good faith
To have those conversations,
Instead of all the chattering that’s done
About me,
Behind my back

Useless labels?
These things do nothing but enrage.
None of them are good for the soul.
Not at all.

Instead of gossip and assumption,
Why don’t we give ourselves to one another in Christian love?
Why don’t we choose to build each other up instead of tearing one another down with inaccurate and unjustified labels?
Why don’t we choose to extend grace, amazing grace, to one another?

Afterall, isn’t that what God has first done for us?

The Father’s Pleasure

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.

“They Shall Not Overwhelm You.”

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.

When It Comes Home

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:
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

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 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. 

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

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?