I know well the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart that take place in the quieter moments of my life when there is no one else around me. Many, maybe most of those are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, even praiseworthy (Phil 4:8), but many other words and thoughts of mine are the very opposite. When I think or speak them and then recognize what I have thought or said, I am quick to confess it. Then I do my best to turn from them and do better the next time. But invariably, those sinful words and thoughts always seem to come back to my mind and then out of my mouth.
The things I don’t want to think, do, or say, I often end up thinking, doing, and saying (Rom 7:15).
But behold what manner of love God has lavished upon my life. As sinful as I am, I am also called child of God (1 John 3:1). Where sin abounds in me, grace abounds all the more (Rom 5:20). Even though I am a sinner, Jesus Christ died for me, proving God’s love towards me (Rom 5:8).
Even though I am a sinner, I am beloved of God, and God welcomes me as a child in God’s family.
Now isn’t it good news that a sinner like me can be part of God’s family?
I am also a United Methodist pastor, appointed to a wonderful church family.
They’re a bunch of sinners too.
I’m pretty sure my congregation has lots of people that think and say the wrong things all the time.
I’m pretty sure we have gossips, slanderers, and those who cause dissensions.
I’m also pretty sure we have people that eat and drink too much.
It’s a fairly safe bet that there are people in our church who frequently take mind altering drugs.
We have people that are pent up with anger and given to harmful and unhelpful outbursts.
Statistically speaking, there’s a real likelihood that we have sexually immoral people in our number – maybe engaged in illicit extra-marital affairs, or viewing pornography with regularity. Who knows – we might even have some who take part in sexual orgies.
We have people that are jealous and envious of others, coveting their possessions and who knows what else.
We have people who engage in idolatry, idolizing things such as college football, politicians and political parties and ideologies, guns, and even our nation, the USA.
But behold what manner of love God has lavished on them. As sinful as they are, they are also called children of God (1 John 3:1). Where sin abounds in them, grace abounds all the more (Rom 5:20). Even though they are sinners, Jesus Christ died for every one of them, proving God’s love for them (Rom 5:8).
Even though they are sinners, they are beloved of God, and God welcomes them as a children in God’s family.
Isn’t it good news that sinners like these can be part of God’s family?
I was told a story today about an individual in our town who was making payment on an account at a local business the week before Easter. As they were doing so the staff person processing the payment asked if the individual would be going to church on Easter Sunday. When the individual said no, the staffer then invited them to attend her church which just happened to be a local Baptist church.
“No thank you.” said the individual “I’m not big into the Baptists”
“But you’ve never been to our church” came the reply.
“Can women lead from the front in your church?”
“You see…I would really struggle with that” said the individual, thinking it would be the end of the conversation.
But it wasn’t the end. The cashier had one more thing to say.
“Well, whatever you do, don’t go to the Methodist Church. They have a transgender there.”
“Really? That’s awesome!” said the individual, “That sounds like exactly the kind of church I would like to go to.”
I have to confess when this story was relayed to me today, my initial thoughts toward the cashier and her church family were not charitable; the meditations of my heart and the words of my mouth were far from gracious or righteous – they were downright sinful. It would have been really easy for me to respond here by writing a hit piece filled with my own perceptions of the failures and shortcomings of this individual and her church family
But then I was reminded of Jesus’ teaching towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7, we read these words of Christ:
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Here’s the thing – Methodists and Baptists have all sinned and all fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). In the same way my church is full of sinners, so is the Baptist Church and all other churches in our community and world. To advise a stranger to stay away from one church because of your perception that that church welcomes people you think ought to be unwelcome in church is an act of the kind of judgement and hypocrisy Jesus was warning against in the above passage. Sister in Christ: can’t we do better than that?
But behold what manner of love God has lavished on us. As sinful as we are, we are also called children of God (1 John 3:1). Where sin abounds in us, grace abounds all the more (Rom 5:20). Even though we are sinners, Jesus Christ died for every one of us, proving God’s love for us (Rom 5:8).
Even though we are sinners, we are beloved of God, and God welcomes us as children in God’s own family.
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that all people are invited to be part of God’s family; all people really are welcome. And if my church provides a place of such welcome for those excluded by other church families; if my church provides a place where those same excluded people will hear of God’s love for them and will be invited to open their hearts to the work of God’s Spirit in their lives…well…actually that just makes me a church leader that’s extremely proud of the way we do life together in our United Methodist Church.
You see, if God can make room for a sinner like me to be made welcome in God’s family and have my gifts recognized and put to use therein, then God can do that for any other person.
That’s grace, and its as scandalous as it is amazing.
May we all find grace-filled church families that welcome us and help open us to the unconditional and life-transforming love of God.
When I reviewed 2021 this time last year, I was writing about what had been a profoundly difficult 12 months for me. On a personal level, I very much needed to write those reflections, but I also knew they didn’t need to be shared publicly, hence the password protected post. What I can share from it is the last few sentences:
Once more, I find myself sitting at the end of a year filled with hope as I look into the coming twelve months. 2021 was a doozy for sure! I have never felt as low and as hurt as I did this past year, but Jesus is a healer and has not forgotten me, and God is indeed close to the broken hearted and hears the cry of the distressed. As the prophet Isaiah says:
“He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)
Although 2021 had been a stinker, my sense of hope had not been completely obliterated and I looked forward to a considerably better 2022. Do you want to know how that worked out? If so, read on.
New Year Building Projects.
An immense amount of energy had been put into a capital fundraising campaign at church in 2021 (which had been a great success), so when we entered the new year in January, it was time to start on the two projects we had been fundraising for: a new children’s playground on the church campus and some much needed renovation work on our largest worship space. Over the coming months we managed to overcome hurdles and delays to get the work done and paid for by the middle of the year. The children’s playground was completed relatively quickly and has given the Children of our Early Education Center and our Children’s Ministry great joy ever since. I must confess that I also get a great sense of joy when I glance out of our worship space on Sunday mornings and see those kids playing safely as part of their Sunday mornings at Church. The worship space was given an overhaul which changed our staging, opened up a new welcome and fellowship space at the entrance to the building, and significantly improved our kitchen and our AV capabilities. The improvements have enhanced the space tenfold and I have received nothing but positive feedback from folks.
It was definitely a season of inconvenience, putting stress on our systems while we operated with significantly less space. But it was also very much worth it to create a space more conducive to our church’s ministry in the 21st century.
During summer 2021 I had a moment of madness in which I determined to complete a marathon, signing up for the Jekyll Island Marathon that was due to take place in January 2022. With my training complete, I was ready to get the thing done and dusted but weather got in the way – the race was cancelled at the last minute. But I had done all that hard work and was determined not to have it be wasted so I signed up for the next available marathon which was just a few weeks later in February.
When the time came, the weather was awful again – possibly worse that the weather that had led to the Jekyll Island race being cancelled, but the organizers of The Donna Foundation Marathon decided to press ahead. Run, walk, or crawl, I was going to complete a marathon that day. The weather was truly horrible – imagine a cold, windy, wet winter day in Northern Ireland and that’s what it was like. Pure boggin’! It wasn’t pretty at all, but I crossed the finish line and am now (very proudly) a marathon finisher.
What’s even funnier is that because the canceled event gave a deferred entry for the 2023 race, I signed up for it again, have been training in the latter part of 2022, and will run the Jekyll Island Marathon on January 15th, 2023. I am hoping for much better weather and a better time, and I will probably retire from marathons after that 😉
Farewell, Pastor Drew.
As 2021 was coming to an end, we shared the news with our church that Pastor Drew Weseman, who had been the Associate Pastor at Memorial for almost 8 years, would be moving to pastures new (and colder) in Michigan. At the end of February, the time for Drew’s departure came, so we celebrated his ministry and made our farewells.
When I got to Memorial, I had never had an Associate Pastor serve alongside me before. I had no clue how to do it. Drew sensed that and gave me abundant grace as I worked it out. Over the years, and along with Pastor Carrie, we comprised what I consider to be a bit of a pastoral dream team (within a wider church staff dream team. We developed trust in each other, were of one heart and mind for our ministry together, and each brought our individual gifts to get the job done.
It was one thing to know that Drew was leaving, but it was quite another to work out a plan of transition that would ensure ministry would continue seamlessly. With our Staff Parish Relations Committee, we took a big decision to re-structure our staff team, the main move in which would be move from having a pastoral team of three full-time Pastors to two full-time and one part-time. Doing so gave us space to also bring on a part-time children’s ministry co-ordinator. Long story short, it worked. In fact, short of Drew remaining with us it could not have worked better!
2022 was always going to be a massive year for Memorial because it brought our 200th Anniversary. We celebrated this landmark with a big weekend at the beginning of June. We were joined by Bishop Ken Carter and partnered with our sister United Methodist Church in Fernandina, Trinity, who were also celebrating their 200th anniversary.
Both Memorial and Trinity were founded as one single Methodist Church in 1822, but as a result of wider divisions in Methodism and America in the late 19th century, they have become the two churches that remain today. Celebrating our shared beginnings and the witness that both I churches have today (both independently of each other AND together) was a wonderful blessing.
Perhaps the best aspect of these special celebrations was that we were not only looking back telling the stories of glory days gone by. While we did celebrate a long, wonderful history in our churches, we also noted the work of God’s Spirit in and through our churches in these days, and looked forward with great hope to what will come in the next 200 years.
Florida Conference 2022.
In June, I was looking forward to gathering in person again as the Florida Annual Conference had its first non-virtual gathering since 2019. My excitement and enthusiasm did not last long though – the shenanigans that took place in the Clergy Session of the Annual Conference are something that I will never forget. It is not for me to comment on them here, other than to say that the harm done to the commissioning class of 2022 was substantial. For me, it was a significantly low point in the year and only served to emphasize that alongside the many encouraging aspects of being a United Methodist, the brokenness and division that exists in our denomination is immense and utterly lamentable.
Northern Ireland Tour & Renewal Leave.
One need after a super-stressful and exhausting 2021 was some time for reflection and rest.
I am very privileged to work in a vocation and serve within a denominational structure that offers time, space, and support for such clergy renewal, and in 2022, I was given the gift of 6 weeks away from ministry responsibilities. With our children getting closer and closer to their times to “fly the nest,” Margaret and I planned a once in a lifetime experience that would get us all home together for the first time since 2019 and also take us on a multi-city railway adventure on mainland Europe.
We began by hosting a group of 31 friends in Northern Ireland for a week. I have developed a tour that introduces people to Northern Ireland’s history of division, its more recent history of peace-building and reconciliation work, and some of its stunning beauty. This was the third group I’ve taken on this tour – we had an amazing time with lots of learning, laughter, and fun before the tourists departed to their next adventures and Margaret, Eva, Jackson and I started out on ours.
Over the next ten days we visited Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich, Pisa, and Rome. We walked for miles, saw everything that first time visitors to these cities would want to see, and we ate and drank like kings and queens. It was a glorious time of togetherness, beauty, and joy. On a personal level, in each city, in one way or another, I was reminded of my own call to ministry. this was a special, refreshing, and unexpected part of the experience for me, one which has injected a new energy into my calling in the months since.
The rest of the time on renewal leave was spent back in Northern Ireland, where we spent important and needed time connecting with our families, especially with my family.
Just when I as reaching the lowest point of 2021, I had to make an unexpected two week trip home to see my parents. Dad had been taken into hospital and ultimately ended up having some major surgery on his back. Those two weeks I spent at home were not only important in terms of my being present with family at a time when I needed to be, they were also the beginning of my own healing from the harm and exhaustion I had experienced in 2020 and 2021. Unfortunately, the healing I was starting to experience at that time was not the beginning of a similar journey for my Dad. His doctors ultimately discovered an aggressive cancer in his body that was in stage four and for which there were no effective treatments. Dad was dying.
When we discovered the aggressive nature of his illness, I decided to make another trip home in April. I wanted to have time with Dad while he could still get out and about a little. Those ten days are ones that I will always be grateful I had the opportunity to take. We managed to get out for some lunches together, we talked at length about his own life, his fears, his faith, and what he wanted us to do when it was time to celebrate his life.
When we (Margaret, Eva, Jackson, and I) were back in Northern Ireland in June, my other siblings had managed to travel home at the same time. We were able to gather on Father’s Day for what would turn out to be a very special time. It was also the last time that both my parents, my siblings and I would all be together in one place.
Before returning to the United States, we took one more night at home to visit and ultimately say goodbye to Dad. He and I shared a nip of good whiskey and then came the time for us to go. Eva and Jackson said goodbye first, then Margaret, and then me. I knelt down in front of Dad and leaned in to hug him and whisper a couple of things in his ear. He whispered a few things back and then finished of by asking me to “say a wee word” which was his way of asking me to say a prayer. I said I would, pulled back from him a little to ready myself to fulfill his request, but then couldn’t do it. With tears in my eyes, I shook my head and said to him that I was sorry for not being able to do it. Then I put my head back on his chest and just rested there. In that moment, even though I am a 6’5″, 285lb giant of a man, I felt like a wee baby in my dad’s arms. I’ve no idea what was going on that I felt like that, but I do know this: that it’s a beautiful memory I will hold for my whole life. It was a gift to be held by dad that evening.
Dad died on August 27th. Since then I have wanted to write for him, but each time I have tried I’ve not been able to.
Suffice to say that my dad, Jackson Addison Charles, was a good man from the inside out, and I am so deeply grateful and very proud that I got to be his son.
Much of what I’ve written above has mentioned aspects of life in church. Even so, given that it was a major source of stress and pain in 2021 it’s worth giving this particular part of my life a small section of its own.
If 2021 was a year of distress and difficulty in church, 2022, by contrast, was a year in which we started to put the worst of the pandemic behind us and began to establish ourselves anew for what is ahead in the coming years. Even in the midst of increased levels of denominational struggle, 2022 has been a year of encouragement at Memorial.
We spent the year journeying through the entire bible together. This journey shaped many of our small group discipleship opportunities as well as our entire preaching plan for the year. People have connected with the Scriptures in fresh ways and found a closer relationship with God and a deeper sense of what it is to live in to their calling. Journeying with them has been a complete honor and privilege.
I have worked with a small group of disciples that have been a weekly source of encouragement and blessing. They have studied Scripture together and are currently working through a couple of books on prayer, learning how to pray together and intercede for the world. Each of them would tell you that they are being changed by the connection with one another and by the work of the Spirit among them. They are praying together six mornings a week on Zoom and have birthed a second prayer group. I know that this work is happening alongside other groups that are growing in grace and sensing the move of God’s Spirit.
Memorial is a stronger, more together, and happier church in 2022 than it has been in any of the years I have served here before. I thank God for what is happening here and for how God is sustaining our life and ministry together.
The end of 2022 marks the end of the tenure of Bishop Ken Carter’s leadership in the Florida Conference. As a member of the clergy, I have not known different Bishop, and that’s okay with me. If my first impression of Episcopal leadership is the example of Bishop Carter, I don’t think I could have had a better one. He has led in Florida (not to mention wider United Methodism) through some of the most divided, turbulent times most of us will know, and he has done so with excellence. He is wise, pastoral, courageous, and humble. I am proud and grateful to have served here at this time.
As Bishop Ken moves on to his next episcopal appointment in Western North Carolina, I pray for him and wish him well. I am also excited about our incoming Bishop, Tom Berlin. I am praying that God will guide him, and guide our Conference in the years ahead.
Looking back, 2022 has been encouraging in some ways, and devastating in others. Dad’s loss is immense in my life and I miss him so much. But overall I have a sense that things moved forward, some of my pain was relieved, and my call was renewed. I go into 2023 with a sense that God holds all things, including me, and God is with us. By faith in Christ, and by the power of the Spirit, all things will be well.
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:
Writing like this is a welcome form of self expression in my life. When I am hurt, frustrated, or anxious, writing helps.
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.
Freely, Graciously, And rather scandalously given,
Not because I am Liberal, Conservative, Unionist, Nationalist, Republican, Democrat, Left wing, Right wing, Traditionalist, 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. Anytime.
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
Assumptions? Gossip? Useless labels? These things do nothing but enrage. None of them are good for the soul. Not at all.
So, 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?
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.