And So, We Press On: A Post-General Conference Reflection

The 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church has just concluded. I think it’s fair to say that no one is walking away from St. Louis with a resounding victory for their respective cause. Yet I can’t bring myself to conclude that General Conference was a total waste of time and energy (I’ll say more about that later.)

So, just in case you’re still wondering what’s going on, the purpose of this gathering was to somehow move through our glaring differences over homosexuality. The United Methodist Church at this point is nearly divided in half between traditionalists/conservatives who uphold our current restrictions on marrying and ordaining lesbian and gay persons and moderates/progressives who want to make room for their full inclusion along with all LGBTQ people.

I had a hunch before this General Conference session that nothing certain and decisive would be accomplished. Why? It’s because we have been gridlocked in this debate now for 47 years. Our inner dynamics have not changed enough to make room for anything substantially new or different. Even though the Traditionalist Plan passed, basically keeping our current restrictive language on homosexuality while tightening the enforcement of our rules, our future is far from certain.

Now that said, there are two major narratives coming out of General Conference, and I believe neither of them are altogether true or helpful.
The first and most passionate narrative says that the United Methodist Church is now dead. We have closed the doors on LGBTQ people. We have turned away and turned off an entire generation of young people who fully embrace LGBTQ people. In so doing, we have set our church backwards, pushing it headlong into its grave.

In response, let me say that I too am feeling the brokenness, anger, bitterness, and despair with those of us who have wanted— and still want!— a fully inclusive church. Some who have been in this struggle a lot longer than I have are understandably devastated. What happened is not at all right. It’s unjust. It’s not righteous, loving, or Christlike. And I would say, it is blatantly unbiblical to be this discriminatory against our LGBTQ neighbors. I make no apologies for being that blunt. We are living under bad church law. Period.

BUT, I am not sounding the death knell of the United Methodist Church. Not yet. I’ll say more about that after dispelling the second narrative that is coming out of General Conference.

The second narrative, especially promulgated by the press, is that the United Methodist Church is now a far more conservative church who has severely tightened our grip on the ban of same-sex marriages and gay and lesbian ordinations. One headline I just saw says that conservatives have retaken the United Methodist Church!

This, too is not at all accurate. While it’s true that the Traditional Plan won the day, it has major flaws that could very well be struck down by our Judicial Council (the UM equivalent of the Supreme Court). So, this may result in one of two possible outcomes. The Judicial Council will either gut what was passed, leaving a badly truncated plan without much substance, or the Judicial Council could rule the entire plan out-of-order, leaving us where we started. In either case, it’s widely believed that at that point, the conservative bloc of the United Methodist Church will leave and begin a new denomination.

So what then?

If for nothing else, General Conference was a much-needed exercise in showing ourselves and the world, once and for all, who we are, who we aren’t, and what we’re we’re committed to. It was a sober reality check. For many people, including myself, it has given us stronger resolve to be the church in these trying days.

In summary, nothing right now is for absolute certain.
77BFB3B8-A7FD-4C03-9C09-3AC311E487DEWell… nothing except for one crucial thing: we will press on to be the church of Jesus Christ. I find myself now in the same place I was before, perhaps more so. I am and I will be a shepherd of a church who fully embraces and includes all people, no matter their race, nation of origin, gender, age, ability or disability, sexual orientation or identity, economic status, or legal status. I make room for all people at my table, committed to nurturing them into the beloved children of God they are. And there is nothing— no denominational standard, no scare headlines, or dire warnings of doom— that will stop that mission. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. It’s the way he lived his life. And until the day he returns in glory, or I die and meet him in Paradise, I will walk in his footsteps.

As I mentioned yesterday, we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that expanse between cold, hard reality and the hopeful future we know is possible. Right now, that gap is feeling especially tragic. Yet I will stand in it, push ahead, and join hands with all people of goodwill who share my heart. Together, we will be the church for and with all people.

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The Church Is a Whore, But…

The late commentator Charles Krauthammer once said that in the newsroom there are always some favorite stories of historical figures that people love to tell, and everyone knows the origins of these tales may be somewhat apocryphal, but we dare not check! They’re that good.

The same is probably true of this famous quote often attributed to St. Augustine:

“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

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It may be a misquote of something else Augustine said, or it could be totally apocryphal, but I dare not check. It’s that good… and timely, especially in this moment. (By the way, if you are more scholarly than I am and are tempted to dispel the myth, please don’t spoil it. At least not right now!)

It’s a timely reminder for me and for many fellow United Methodists as we watch the proceedings of a special General Conference Session that is focusing on THE major issue that threatens the future of our church’s unity: homosexuality. I’ve written about this elsewhere, just in case you’re not familiar with what the hubbub is all about.

For me, this season of the church’s life is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and demoralizing. Many of us, who make up almost half of the United Methodist Church, want to see a church in which all perspectives on homosexuality can be honored. Just as importantly, we want a church in which those who are LGBTQ could finally have a full seat at the Lord’s Table, especially in terms of marriage and ordination. At the same time, those of us who cannot accept that kind of inclusiveness would also have a full seat at the table. We want one United Methodist Church with enough room for all of us.

Well, the chances of this happening are not looking very good right now. From what I can surmise, we’re either looking at 1) a far more conservative-leaning church; 2) an ideological split, leading to separate denominations; or 3) no major decision of consequence leading to more angst, uncertainty, and a nasty splintering apart of the church.

Our problems are manifold and maddeningly cyclical:

  • People of different views are talking past each other, don’t really understand the other, and fundamentally don’t want to be associated with the other.
  • Ideological factions are fighting for the power to “own” the namesake, spirit, direction, and resources of the church. It’s truly a struggle over power.
  • We’re insane. We keep using the same means and tactics to solve our problems, each time expecting a different, elusive result.

I have to confess, I have given serious thought to throwing in the towel and giving up on the United Methodist Church for good. I’ve even had fleeting thoughts of giving up on church altogether, at least this manifestation of it. My reasoning: after spending all this time and money for nearly 47 years, all the while doing great harm to people who are LGBTQ, why bother anymore? Surely, I could offer my gifts and graces as a pastor to something that is more functional and less harmful to people I love.

Yet… yet… just tonight, I had three conversations with non-Christian friends and family members of mine. Amazingly, they all said the same thing:

Keep on keeping on.
Be the shepherd and mentor God has called you to be. Don’t give up.
Shine the greater light. Keep yourself open to truth and growth. It will serve you well.

Keep in mind, none of that came from the church. All of it was said by non-Christians, my wider “church family.”

So, I’ve consigned myself to that wonderful, perhaps apocalyptic reflection of St. Augustine: the church is a whore, but she is my mother.

The United Methodist Church, with all her ugly warts, terrible inefficiencies, and gross inadequacies is far removed from the kind of faithful church I want her to be. Yet she is my mother. Admittedly, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I’m far removed from the kind of faithful son of God I should be, too. Perhaps she’s a reflection of me, and I of her.

Still, the United Methodist Church is my mother. She is the church who birthed me through the waters of baptism when I was 18-years-old. God used her to call me into ministry. She’s nurtured that call and has had a huge hand in shaping me into the person I am today.

There have been times when being a disciple of Jesus has meant rejecting the aspects of this mother I can’t stand. On a few occasions, I’ve even had to shout a clear  “Hell no!” (literally) to some of her tendencies, attitudes, and values.

But this mother of a church still loves me. (Now I really, really wish she loved some of my other siblings in Christ as much as much as she loves and makes room for me! However…) She’s still here. There’s lots of good in her. I can keep doing some real good with her. Even when she’s got her priorities and focus out of whack, she still does great things. Somehow, the world is a better place because of her.

Oh my Lord, she’s a whore! And yet the Lord knows that and still insists on calling her his bride. There’s no doubt about that. So yes, the United Methodist Church is my mother, and I’ll always be her child, even if that means the possibility of one day striking out in a different direction. But for now, I will continue to struggle with her, for her sake, mine, and for the sake of the world that Christ died to save.

At this moment we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that long expanse between cold reality and the desired future we know exists. In the end, when all is said and done, the struggle will have been well worth it. That’s God’s promise. And as hard as it is to say right now, she, this sordid church mother of mine, is worth it, too.

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What Kind of United Methodist Church Will We Be? (A Late Hour Reflection)

This is the question haunting my beloved United Methodist Church: what kind of church will we be? As the delegates from our worldwide UMC connection meet as a General Conference over the next four days in St. Louis, MO, this is surely the question of the hour. After their work is through, what kind of church will we be?
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It’s almost too painfully cliché to ask this question, let alone write (yet another!) blog post on it. So why bother?

Well, I am still stunned— in awe, really— that the most compelling visions for what the United Methodist Church can be and should be are so incredibly disparate. Many are struggling for a church that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ people, in marriage and ordination, especially. Many others are struggling for a church that upholds biblical authority, particularly as it pertains to traditional understandings of human sexuality. These are two different visions from two very different starting places of concern.

And yet, I find a glaring irony behind these disparate visions: we would be loath to find any General Conference delegate who does not cherish both an inclusive church and a church formed under biblical authority, no matter their starting assumptions! That may seem incredibly obvious to all who have been deep in the conversation, but it’s clear from the pre-General Conference rhetoric I’ve seen that many of us still don’t really appreciate that about each other. One group believes that they possess the most genuine vision of what real inclusiveness is all about. Meanwhile, another group claims to have the true, faithful grasp on the Bible’s teaching regarding human sexuality, that they are the ones who truly uphold biblical authority. Yet we all claim to walk as inclusive, biblical Christians, obviously with varying understandings of what this means!

So it’s now a tug-of-war between which vision of inclusiveness and biblical authority will garner the most votes. And again, as it has been since 1972, this fight will result in winners and losers, all equally claiming to be in the right, on God’s side, of course. Except this time, there is the strong gumption, on both the progressive and the conservative wings of the church, to part ways, if their respective vision of “what kind of church we will be” does not prevail.

It’s deeply troubling for me to even imagine splitting apart like that.

I have to confess, I do not know what will come of things, and that has me feeling quite anxious right now. I know I’m not alone in harboring this kind of fear. If you’re still reading this and have a stake in what’s happening, you’ve probably got some share of the anxiety bug, too. Just admit it!

So I offer both myself and you a biblical thought that just might ease off the anxiety and lead to the best future for the United Methodist Church, come what may.

“…we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
‭‭1 John‬ ‭4:16-18‬

John Wesley quoted from the biblical book of 1 John a lot, especially when talking about being perfected in love. Deeply profound passages like this one certainly explain why.

We all know it, and yet we easily forget it. At the end of the day, and in the great Right Now of our lives, it all really does boil down to love, or a lack of it. If we want to understand love, then go deeper in God. If we want to understand God, then go deeper in love. Daring to surrender ourselves to this intimate power of Love, a Love we all hunger for, forces our shadows of fear, judgment, and rejection to simply fade away into the nothingness they really are. All that’s left is the bond of God, made known in God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for one another, gathered within the sacred “love dance” of the Triune God.

The presence of fear, suspicion, anger, accusations, side-taking, ideological banner-waving, and self-righteous crusading, is the conspicuous absence of love. I know that sounds so naïvely obvious. Yet for Christ’s sake and ours, could we not pause long enough to call out all this shadowy behavior for what it is— the rejection of Love for the expediency of power— and reclaim God who is Love, and Love who is God? Could we claim Love to effectively exorcise our demonic tendencies to glorify our positions, stances, and political tactics to the detriment of our brothers and sisters? Let’s try it.

Looking at things again as I bring myself back down from my lofty “love” perch for just a moment, it may very well be that a unified church is simply not possible. If we’re honest, we don’t have a “United” Methodist Church now. I have desperately wanted us to remain one united church. I still do. I’ve prayed and worked for it.

If it’s simply not possible, we may be forced to painfully admit it and own up to our failure. It may very well be a sober admission of “it is what it is.”

But no matter where we find ourselves, even between the most gaping ideological divides, we still have the opportunity to be the living incarnation of Love towards one another. If that alone could happen— if we could truly grasp the depths of Love for one another— it would be a powerful witness. And then, the crucified Christ who embodies our collective sin and failure could be glorified in our midst, even if his Body is still broken on the cross of our shortcomings.

If we simply let it all go, rest in Love, and unconditionally give this gift to one another… If we could put flesh to the presence of God who is Love among us, then maybe… just maybe… we could all discover the glimpses of a compelling vision for what the whole Church could be, no matter what becomes of our beloved United Methodist Church.

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What If My Church Told Me I Could Not Serve?

One of my Facebook friends asked a provocative question.

To place his question in context, in case you’ve not heard, the United Methodist Church is at a schismatic loggerheads over the issue of human sexuality, specifically on whether or not openly LGBTQ persons can be married in our churches by our clergy and licensed or ordained as ministers. We’ve been at this debate now for nearly 47 years, and in less than two weeks, delegates from our worldwide church will meet to (hopefully) decide our collective fate. In any case, we’re more than likely looking at some degree of fracturing over this issue.

So, my friend made an observation and asked me to comment on it:

Presumably you did not just one day decide that being a pastor would be a cool profession but believed that God called you to the vocation. Given that God has called you to that vocation, what is your response if the church tells you that you are not fit to be a pastor? The Bible is replete with references of God using what others might consider broken to do His work. Indeed, from God’s aspect, we could all be considered broken vessels.

Very good point. I’m assuming, hopefully not in error, that my friend is making the case that we are all imperfect, broken vessels, and God makes use of our lives anyway. I can certainly vouch for that. So, his case continues, why then would we single out someone’s sexual orientation as an absolute litmus test for ministerial fitness. (That’s presuming, of course, that a sexual orientation other than “straight” is an area of brokenness. I’ll address that below.)

In response to my friend, I wrote the following, and modified it a bit for this post:
I know that nothing I say here will change anyone’s mind. The lines are clearly drawn and most everyone is well beyond reasonable dialogue. But since you asked…

I’m first and foremost a student of the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus, and the written Word (our Bible). I discern truth by asking how Christ and the timeless truth of Scripture play themselves out through our long tradition, through the filter of sober reasoning, and within the scope of our experience. (That’s the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) I state all that to lay the groundwork for what follows.

You originally asked what I would do if the church told me I was not fit to be a pastor, even if I was called, gifted, and graced to serve the church in this role. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question because up until this point, the church has never invalidated me or my call. And if the church ever did negate my call or fitness for ministry, I’d have to evaluate those circumstances then.

However, I do know some folks who have been forced into this terrible dilemma. They are authentically Christ-like, gifted, graced, called people whom I would be honored to have as colleagues. But because of their sexual orientation, they are denied commissioning and ordination in the United Methodist Church, under our current code of church law. I know what the Bible says about sin and homosexuality, and I have made the case elsewhere that what the Bible condemns as sexual sin on the one hand, and the lives of our LGBTQ Christian brothers and sisters on the other hand, is NOT the same thing. I honor both the truth of Scripture and the personhood of these folks, without violating either one, at least in my mind and heart.
Some of these folks— a few are gay and a few are lesbian— have chosen to be ordained by another faith tradition that would honor their call. They are happily and effectively serving congregations who value their faith, graces and gifts. Praise God for that!

Other folks have chosen to stay with us as United Methodists and struggle on for change. They’re not angry zealots, at least the ones I know. They are patiently, persistently working towards change by sharing their living witness. I must say, rarely have I found their kind of graciousness and courage mirrored by most other Christians I know.

(As for the issue of same-sex marriage… I’m supportive of clergy celebrating them and churches hosting them per se, but I don’t think our progressive/liberal friends have done enough biblical and theological homework to demonstrate how marriage can be so radically redefined. The issue of same-sex marriage is far more than a matter of equal rights and equal access. We’re really talking about the redefinition of marriage as an entire institution, and I don’t feel that we have done nearly enough deeper, higher level biblical and theological work to understand same-sex marriage as a celebration or sacrament of the church. So far, we have been content to dig in to those tired, entrenched arguments— equal rights vs. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”— and fight it out. Not good.)

So… all this to say that yes, I’m in support of the One Church Plan, and firmly so. It’s our best option to move forward together. The One Church Plan would allow clergy, congregations, and Annual Conferences the latitude to decide for themselves how they will be in ministry with our LGBTQ neighbors, and would allow Annual Conferences to determine if they will or will not license and ordained LGBTQ persons for ministry. It recognizes that we are all United Methodists, and choose to remain together as one church while giving each other some contextual breathing room to be in ministry, in the ways we discern the Holy Spirit is leading us.
Some may stop me here and ask, “How can the Holy Spirit guide one group of people a certain way, and another group in a very different way? Isn’t that pneumatological confusion?”

Ultimately, God and God’s church is so much bigger and expansive than we try to make it. That’s always been the case. Look at how Jesus operated in the gospels, and you’ll see what I mean. Just as in Jesus’ circle there was room for Pharisee and sinner, zealot and tax collector, men and women, Samaritan and Jew, there’s room for all of us, conservative and liberal and all in between, because we all hold to Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4:5). Jesus and the ancient church never demanded uniform conformity on much of anything except in our allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Christ. (Credal conformity was a much later development.)

Yet here we are, and tragically, we have elevated this issue of human sexuality to the forefront of everything else as the make or break item, and because we have, we are irreconcilable in our differences. The conservative and liberal extremes have brokered our church’s unity into an all or nothing paradigm, between biblical integrity and justice, as if one could ever be separable from the other. We need both things held in dynamic tension within one church. Too few, however, want to hold this tension for long, meaning that ultimately, in one way or another, we’re going to split.

And we’re all going to pay for it, no matter how “gracious” we intend to be while parting ways.

To the prospect of a split, I say without apology: shame on us. We’re only damaging ourselves, our witness, and our ability to live out the Great Commission. The ideological golden calves we have fashioned and worshipped for the past 47 years have distracted us from our worship and trust of the One God who has made us all, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, in his image. But one day, those golden calves will be burned and ground up, and we’ll be forced to repent by drinking the bitter water of our idolatry. Or we will cease to be the church.

That said, no matter what happens, the Church Universal will go on, and as a pastor of the Church, I will, too, in one way or another. And thankfully, no one has disqualified me from living out God’s call on my life… at least not yet.

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Christians and Halloween—Fright, Flight, or Fight?

8BA642DA-3F20-4092-A717-96F5D66EFB5AHappy Halloween? Or wait… should I be wishing you a Happy Halloween? I’m a Christian and a pastor, after all.

So, I’ll admit it, when it comes to major festivities like Christmas or Halloween, we Christians have had our hang-ups and complaints, and Halloween is no exception to the rule.

Depending on what Christian you talk to you about Halloween, you’ll hear various responses ranging from…

  • “Halloween? That’s a completely evil, pagan holiday. We should have nothing to do with it.”
  • “Oh for crying out loud… It’s just a fun day for dressing up, having a good time, and trick-or-treating.”
  • Or… a shrug.

Because I like learning about this kind of thing and then writing on it, I did some research into the origins and evolution of the October 31 festivity we have come to know as Halloween. I wanted to know where it comes from. And I was especially curious about what kind of connections we Christians have to it, since it seems to evoke visceral, cheerful, or nonchalant responses. My findings were quite fascinating and varied!

Want to learn more? Read on with me…

So the first thing I learned is that the origins of Halloween are pretty complex, funkier than a witch’s brew. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Seriously, it’s a strange synergy of ancient Celtic, Christian, and even Germanic traditions, ginned up in the last nearly 100 years by our American retail and entertainment industries.

From what I can surmise, the earliest roots for Halloween come from the Celtic tradition of Samhain. (That’s the pagan influence which sends some Christians screaming for the exit doors.) It’s actually a beautiful tradition. A friend of mine who practices Celtic-based spirituality described it for me this way:

Samhain has its roots in the end of harvest celebrations around the world, by many different names. On the agricultural calendar it marks the time before the frost when anything in the fields were rendered dead. the dying of the crop- a sacrifice as it were- makes the fields fertile for buried seeds that bring the promise of a new crop to come in the spring- the rebirth. Because of the shorter days and less sunlight, the gate or veil between the living and dead is so thin.

So there it is. Samhain is an end-of-the-harvest celebration and an acknowledgment of the transition from the life of summer to the sleep of winter. This gave rise to the belief that on Samhain, the veil between the living and the dead was particularly thin, which meant that our ancestors along with good and evil spirits would come to visit the living.

Bonfires were lit and turnips were carved into faces to ward off any evil. People would go out mumming– a mix of caroling and gift giving/receiving, disguised, to celebrate the visit of the dead to the living, while attempting to ward off evil spirits. Great feasts were held to welcome the visitation of the dead with the living.

From this you can see some of the early influences of Samhain still at work today– Halloween bonfires, pumpkin carvings, costumes and mask, parties and feasts, trick or treating, and harvest festivals.

But… that’s only half the story.

Once upon a time, the Catholic Church had a fascinating practice of combining Christian and pagan traditions together, in order to make a bridge from paganism into Christianity. They believed that taking something pagan and “baptizing” it into something Christian would be a way to make connections between the church and the existing culture. And they were wildly successful. (Placing Christmas right around the winter solstice is another successful attempt at the same thing.)

In the 9th Century, Pope Gregory IV took the May 13 “St. Mary and All the Martyrs” celebration (which was itself an approbation of a Roman holiday commemorating the dead) and placed it on November 1, calling it “All Hallow’s Day.” All Hallow’s, later called All Saint’s has taken on many meanings through the years, but largely, it is a time to remember and commemorate the saints of God who have gone on before us and to celebrate our ongoing connection and communion with them, as they surround us in the heavens. We give thanks for them, look to their example, and look forward to sharing in their resurrection from the dead with Jesus Christ, joining together in the New Heaven and New Earth at the end of all time.

Major Catholic feast days were always preceded by a day of preparation- an Eve. That made an All Hallow’s Eve on October 31. Since many of our Halloween traditions came to America from the Irish and Scots, All Hallow’s “Even” (“even” is the Scottish word for Eve) came with them. “Even” was routinely contracted to “E’en”. Over the years, All Hallow’s E’en was shortened to Hallow’een and eventually shortened again to our modern day Halloween.

Put all of that together, and as I mentioned earlier, the Halloween of today is a very odd mix of old pagan and Christian traditions, greatly expanded by American commercialism, leaving these pagan and Christian traditions weaved together into this strange– and at times– uncomfortable hodgepodge of culture and religion. Of course, today, most people, even many Christians, are unaware of the Christian roots of Halloween.

So what can be done about that?

It begins by looking at our modern celebration of Halloween. It seems to be made up of several key things:

  • Community. This is the one night of the year that kids happily go from door to door collecting candy from neighbors they might not otherwise talk to. People gather together for parties, community bonfires, and harvest celebrations. I see in all this our ongoing need for connection with our neighbors.
  • A festive burlesque of death, evil, and the things that frighten us. Why do we go after all this stuff? Why so many ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches, and tombstones? I think it’s our attempt to laugh at and even mock the things we fear the most. Death, evil, and our shadows lurk in the outer wings of our lives. At least we like to keep them there as long as we can. But once in a while, we feel an innate need to face our fears and shadows and to parody, mock, and play with them. It seems to me that Halloween has become a major vehicle folks use to do that very thing.
  • An embrace of the changing seasons. This time of year is an ingathering time– something we felt much more profoundly when more of us lived agrarian lives. It’s a time to say goodbye to the life, light, and warmth of summer and to greet the deep, dark, cold sleep of winter. Perhaps this moves us to think of our own lives, specifically how truly thin the veil is between this life, death, and the next life.

I think we Christians can embrace Halloween in a whole new way, very intentionally, without running from it or heedlessly partaking in it without any consideration to our beliefs and unique witness.

First, we must share and live out the truth that through every season of our lives, God is faithful. It’s just a matter of fully embracing the season we are in and trusting that God is fully present in that season (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15). This includes, of course, the passing of summer and our transition into winter, in nature and over the course of our human lives, too.

Second, we can join in the community! Halloween stuff is fun. It’s a special time that people get together, enjoy one another, and hopefully build relationships. It’s within these human connections that the good news of Jesus is shared, both by our gracious speech and the good news of our lives, filled with the goodness of Christ.

Third, we do indeed have good news to share. Death and evil are defeated foes! Through Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross, we have the freedom to resist evil and to move through death into resurrection. Halloween may be one day of the year to laugh off evil and death. But every day we Christians all over the globe openly defy the powers of evil and death through the unstoppable power of God’s Holy Spirit within us and in the world. This segues very nicely into the celebration of All Saints, after the revelry of Halloween is over and packed up. There are so many creative ways to share this awesome good news with an anxious, bitterly divided world. How could we Christians do that, authentically and creatively, without being obnoxiously preachy, during this time of year?

So… Happy Halloween! See the presence and good news of God, even within the strange, growing darkness of the day. It’s the kind of hope and peace that will carry us through all the seasons of our lives.

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The Faithful Struggle

Several weeks ago after my church’s Tuesday morning prayer time, I asked one of our participants how she was doing. Just a few months ago she had suddenly lost a very close cousin, also a member of our church. Her answer was a short two words, “I’m struggling.”

For some reason, her answer really got to me. Part of it was her authenticity. She had the sincere courage to tell me how she was really doing beyond the typical, protective “I’m fine” blanket response. But the other part of it for me has to do with the kind of person she is. This woman is a wonderful Christian with a deep faith and a true Christ-like love. And yet, she struggles.
That conversation lingered with me for a while and has since then become the impetus for a series of sermons I’m sharing next month called “The Faithful Struggle.” I purposefully left that title a bit vague, as in the words faithful and struggle could be read as different parts of speech. Now just in case your grammar skills are a bit rusty, let me help you out a bit. We could read “the faithful struggle” as “our struggle defined by faith” or “faithful (people) struggle”. Truth be told, it means both things.

Struggle. So often that word is synonymous with failure. We hear of struggling people, struggling sports teams, struggling churches, struggling communities, and we know the implication. It’s a roundabout way of saying that failure is probable, if not imminent.

But I would venture to say that struggle is how most of us would define our lives, if we’re honest with ourselves. (I know I do!) Life is hard… very hard! Life is patently unfair and unjust. Things rarely go according to plan. We live with a degree of pain we didn’t ask for and don’t deserve. Mistakes and regrets checker our successes. None of this is a cynical “half-glass full” view of life. It’s reality— one we don’t admit very often for fear of looking weak or pessimistic.

Nevertheless: the faithful struggle. The faithful do indeed struggle. And our struggle brings true definition to a life of faith. I would say that this struggle defines the terrain of the entire biblical story. The biblical story is born in struggle, carries forward in struggle and ends with a great struggle that gives birth to a new heavens and a new earth. In this sweeping narrative of the Bible we find our own struggles affirmed and defined. Then we know we’re not alone. Our personal struggles are both unique and universal. We do not struggle by ourselves, and more significantly, there is always hope for better things.

*******

On a personal level, it seems like struggle has defined most of my life, especially my adult life. Words like victory, achievement, conquering, winning don’t mean as much to me. It’s not that I haven’t had a good share of victories and successes. I have. But they are high-rise markers on a much larger map, a map shaped by hills and valleys, muscle-aching climbs, back-breaking, steep falls, thick marshes, and dense forests with scant paths.

Those things, to me, are the defining moments of my life, not the summits themselves. It’s the struggles— the broken relationships, devastating losses, depression, life stresses of familial, professional and financial demands, inner battles, and health ups and downs— that define the real contours of my life. The dirty, nitty-gritty of everyday living. It’s there, mired in those struggles, where I’ve learned to love, to believe, to trust, to grow and mature, to strengthen, and to learn through failure.

*******

So where do we go from here? My sermon series is in five parts:

1) Accept where you are. We will never grow or improve unless we take an objective, sober look at where we are and accept it for what it is. Note: that doesn’t mean we stay here. But we won’t get very far with any degree of success unless we name our place. In naming it, we also may find that a better life is not as far away as we may think.

2) Struggle to pray. I’m a pastor, but let me admit: prayer is tough. Yes I pray, but it never seems like I pray often enough or deeply enough. Sometimes we make prayer more difficult than what it is, but the nature of connecting our minds and hearts with God can be a challenge, especially in the heat of struggle. Yet without this vital connection with God that only prayer can provide, we will never see the road ahead or have the strength and wisdom to take it, even if we do get a glimpse of it.

3) We have a future with hope. God always promises that our future is one with the hope of restoration and blessing. Granted, we do not know what shape our restoration and blessing will take, this promise of God can be the source of so much creative impetus in the now of our lives.
(on the other hand…)

4) The struggle is step by step, only in this day. Crystal balls are over-rated and they don’t work most of the time anyway. As much as we desire to know what tomorrow brings and worry about preparing for it, most of it is a fruitless endeavor. Truth: we simply do not know what the next moment holds. Period. That truth sets us free to live fully in the moment we’re living right now.

5) Struggle with the cross. The cross of Jesus is the ultimate sign of the faithful struggle. It’s there on the cross that God faces and achieves the struggle of all humanity for reconciliation and life. Jesus makes clear that the cross takes center stage within each of our lives, too. It defines and shapes our lives of struggle and offers us our path home through Jesus, who promises to be our Way, our Truth, and our Life.

I anticipate that these series of messages will be some of the most important I have ever shared. They are part autobiographical and universal enough that I’m confident anyone can find themselves in what I will share. So, I hope you can join us at Trinity UMC starting on Sunday September 2, 2018!

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#GreaterLoveAnnapolis

268FA8B7-F952-49BB-B0CB-2EC1AE6C4608A week ago today, a man armed with a shotgun walked into the office of the Capital-Gazette newspaper, opened fire and murdered 5 people, wounding two others. This kind of atrocity is unthinkable for a warm, charming town like Annapolis.

Annapolis is my hometown and the place where I now serve as a pastor. Violence like this quite literally- emotionally, spiritually- hits home deep within me.

And it got me to do some soul searching.

For far too long, most people would chalk up our societal challenges as cultural or political struggles. In a way they are. However, on a much deeper level, our problems are spiritual problems. I’ve always known that, but in the last week, I’ve relearned that powerful truth.

Spirituality centers around four main questions: Who are we? Whose are we? What is our purpose? What’s our destination?

To simplify things even more, I believe that spirituality centers on our ability or inability to love and our ability or inability to do good and avoid evil. Increasingly more of us are at a loss for how to do these things. We see our shortcomings, not just in the physical violence some people commit, but in the verbal violence, self-centeredness, and apathy many more of us struggle with.

The answer to our dilemma, quite simply, is love.

Also running in the soundtrack of my thoughts has been a deep desire to connect with people to talk about deep things and to do meaningful life together, but so often barriers like religion (I’m a Christian and a pastor) get in the way. Cultural and political differences throw their weight around, too.

While we cannot whitewash those differences or pretend they don’t exist— they most certainly do!— could there be a common ethic which could form new community for the purpose of inner- and interpersonal change and transformation? Could we learn to recognize and treasure our differences and diversity, all the while sharing in the greatest yearnings of our common humanity?

I firmly believe that the answer is yes– a resounding YES. That yes is the basis of Greater Love Annapolis.

With Greater Love Annapolis, I envision the establishment of a network of neighbors committed to something I call “the ethic of Greater Love”. That ethic is centered on four main principles:

  1. Unconditional Love
  • Living by the Golden Rule: loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and expressing that love in thoughtful, intentional, practical, and ongoing ways
  • Seeking to build relationships of cooperation and friendship with all of our neighbors, regardless of culture, race, nation of origin, sexuality, economic status, religious or political affiliation
  • Offering our neighbors the gift of deep listening for the purpose of understanding and empathy
  • Striving for forgiveness and reconciliation wherever there are broken relationships
  • Operating out of a profound respect for the dignity and worth of every neighbor, recognizing in them our shared humanity
  1. Personal Integrity
  • Safeguarding ourselves from self-harming behaviors and addictions while actively seeking healing from any of these personal defects
  • Nurturing a spiritual life that leads to personal growth, wisdom, and greater integrity of character
  • Honest dealings with ourselves and others, both publicly and privately
  • Making our lives fully accountable to a network of trusted friends
  1. Humility
  • Considering the dreams, aspirations and welfare of others before ourselves
  • Speaking only that which builds up all of our neighbors, refraining from language that tears down and belittles them
  1. Solidarity with Our Most Vulnerable Neighbors
  • Raising awareness of the attitudes, systems and powers that marginalize and prey upon the most vulnerable members of our community and all those whose voices are not heard.
  • Peaceful, loving, and persistent confrontation of those attitudes, systems, and powers.
  • Establishing new community and systems that protect and empower our most vulnerable neighbors

From here, I anticipate conversations and discussions about what our network would look like and do. I see an organized effort to create community Greater Love Annapolis groups for the purpose of hanging out, conversation, learning, accountability, and planning for advocacy/community organizing. I see a movement of transformed and transforming people of mercy and justice, lived not in tribalism and self-righteous anger, but with loving passion and fearless strength for greater equality, dignity and opportunity for all people.

I see an Annapolis community with a deeply spiritual, shared conscious.
I see awakening and revival, rooted in love.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
‭‭John‬ ‭15:13‬

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The Flurry and Fun of Baptizing a Toddler

Toddlerhood. I think it is the most magical time of childhood. I use the word “magical” quite intentionally. For figuratively speaking, magic can result in amazement and wonder, laughter and joy, or wholesale destruction, all at a moment’s notice and with nary a hint of warning.

Toddlers, fueled by wellsprings of energy have the wide-eyed curiosity of a thousand cats, empowered for the first time by upright mobility, the beginnings of fine-motor dexterity, language and their first inkling of independence. They’re unpredictable, moody, perpetually playful, and offer us adults the gift of re-experiencing the world with fresh wonder. (I’ve often said that toddlers and teenagers are strikingly similar, but that’s a subject for another post.)

So imagine centering a toddler within the sacramental rite of baptism. Baptism is an orderly, highly scripted, predictable ritual. For babies, youth and adults- no problem. For toddlers? Well…
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When some parents from my church approached me with a bit of cautious trepidation about baptizing their almost two-year-old son Graham, I told them, “You know, we’ll make it all work somehow.” Inwardly, however, I was nervously wondering how adaptable and flexible the parents, congregation and the ritual would be to the temperament of a toddler. That was the big question.

Yesterday, Sunday morning, came, and the parents arrived with their son Graham, their pre-school daughter (who was insistent that her little brother should not be getting wet for this whole baptism thing), and a whole gaggle of family and friends. Graham was the epitome of cuteness- a white dress shirt, tan-colored vest and slacks, a tie and black shoes. He seemed to know something big was afoot, so he was extra primed with nervous, curious energy, toddler-style, of course.

I’m not always the most conscientious pre-planner, but something told me to make a few strategic adjustments. So first I switched out the cold, room temperature water in the baptismal font with warm tap water. Granted, that wouldn’t make Graham’s big sister any happier, but perhaps warm water would soothe his nerves a bit more. And then I gave Graham’s parents the baptism certificate before the service began. That way, if a quick getaway was needed after the baptism ritual, his parents wouldn’t leave empty-handed.

Well, the moment we had all anticipated arrived. Right on cue, as soon as we had gotten underway with the baptism ritual, the game of “Pass the Fidgety Child” commenced between the boy’s mom and dad. That game quickly lost its charm, and then Graham’s impatient chattering and complaining ramped up, quickly accelerating towards a 5-alarm nuclear meltdown.

Now I’m pretty calm in a storm, and that includes being in the presence of crying or screaming children. In a worship setting, I just carry on as if nothing is happening, trusting that the child and parents will work things out. My operational value in all this is let children with families be themselves. But when Graham’s protests were clearly distressing his parents while my congregation stirred with uneasy laughter, clearly it was time for a tactical change on my part.

My paternal instincts kicked in, and in a split moment I asked myself, “What would Pope Francis do?” He’s an amazing example of allowing children to be children, and in unprecedented and impromptu moments of grace, he unflinchingly finds ways for children to be included in his leadership of highly ritualistic Roman Catholic liturgy. So, in Pope Francis style, I improvised.

I found myself stepping closer to the father who by then had broken out into a visible sweat and was hoisting his son at the waist in one arm. Graham was facing out kicking and protesting. I showed Graham my hymnal and the words of the liturgy I was reading, and instantly, he stopped fussing, followed my finger in the text and went back and forth between looking at me and looking at the words of his own baptism liturgy.

I then adjusted my voice a bit from my normal boomy “this is the Word of the Lord” public speaking voice to a quieter, side-by-side reading inflection. I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about (or maybe he understood more than I give him credit for, especially the all important non-verbal stuff of communication.) At any rate, for the first time in that service, I think Graham felt included in what was going on, and during the next several minutes of liturgy, he was as well-behaved as any watching adult.

It’s ironic. This was the church’s and his rite of baptism, and yet we were about to unwittingly leave this highly aware toddler completely unengaged in it. Why shouldn’t things be such that a child like Graham could fully involve himself and have his own sense of ownership of this tremendous gift of God’s grace that he was being given?

Then the time came for the administration of the water. By then, it seems I wasn’t a threat, so Graham came willingly into my arms and enjoyed the gift of his baptismal waters. It was truly one of those authentic, natural moments of grace for Graham, his family and his new congregation of brothers and sisters in Christ.
35BBEE0F-33CC-4C5F-B07C-F7D2E1CCDBF9While I suppose there are many lessons to be learned from an instance like this, one stands out for me. Be fully present in the moment. Being fully present allows for maximum connection with those around us and the greatest opportunity within our connection for God to show up and do things that clearly demonstrate God’s power, God’s grace, and God’s amazing love.

And yes, as we all learned, that can even include a toddler.

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The Lies of Suicide

F6C44347-CD36-4D8E-923D-14CB181AEF89Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain.

Two in one week. Add them to that terribly long, horrific list of people who have taken their own lives— people we have known or knew from a distance.

What scares me is that a report published just this week indicates that suicide rates are climbing all over the country. It’s evident of a medical system unable to adequately treat the number of people who have mental illness, the numbers of people who go undiagnosed, and especially this: the growing cultural acceptability of suicide. It’s glamorized and even rewarded when we say things like, “I’m glad his suffering is over. She’s in a better place now. He’s free. She’s flown away.”

Suicide seems to have an increasingly seductive allure as a final act of escape. In a culture that promotes and celebrates distraction, diversions and get-aways from reality, suicide lurches more prominently within the darker recesses of our shadowy selves. In our compulsive, overly anxious, self-obsessed natures in which we fear and glamorize death with a “who cares” kind of apathy, is it any wonder that more of us are tempted to listen to the “like sucks” “I just want to die” “screw it all” “forget you, world” voices in our heads? Listen to it enough, own it enough, and then we begin to find reasons to act out on it in highly destructive ways. Suicide is ranking higher as a mode of self-destruction.

But suicide is a devilish liar of the worst kind. I should know.
I’ve written before about my own struggles through suicidal thinking. Having climbed through that darkness by God’s grace and presence along with the presence of some loved ones, I know how powerfully seductive suicidal thinking can be.

“Nothing matters.” “I don’t matter anymore.” “If people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me.” “I’m a failure and a disappointment to everyone.” “Everyone will be better off without me.” “Sure, people might be hurt when I’m gone, but they’ll get over it, especially me. They always do. They always have.”

Lies and more lies. Suicide doesn’t take just one life. It drains the life out of everyone else that one life touched. It’s a violent, most awful way to die, no matter how it is carried out. And suicide never delivers on its promises. No one is ever better off dead, and the world becomes a far lesser place without us suddenly not in it, not a better one. Suicide leaves nothing but death and tragedy in its wake. When we accept that reality, we can choose love and life over lies and death.

It could be said that suicide prevention revolves around the choices we all make. We either lovingly choose to make life-giving and saving connections, or we choose death. That is true for the one contemplating suicide and everyone else around him or her.

As I did in my most recent post on mental illness, I’d like to offer some essential ideas for those who might be considering suicide and for their loved ones:

1) As hard as it is, make the choice to reach out. Many of us know how it feels to be so bottomed out that the effort it takes to reach out for help can seem unbearably difficult. We don’t want to bother anyone. Apathy paralyzes us. When that happens— Just. Do. It. Call someone. Text or message someone. If it’s dire enough, Google “suicide” and there you’ll find the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Get yourself to an Emergency Room. Take one step at a time away from the edge and towards life. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Your loved ones are worth it.

2) Be there. Watch out for the warning signs of suicidal moods in other people- extreme withdrawal, any kind of loose talk of wanting to die or wanting everything to end, or sudden, unexplainable mood shifts. Don’t just say, “Call me if you need anything.” Go there and make the connection. Listen to your gut, and remember that accidental overstepping is better than careful sidestepping, especially if someone’s life is on the line. If you feel someone is in imminent danger, offer to make a phone call or to take them to the hospital. But don’t leave.

3) Make time. At any moment with anyone, making time to slow down and deeply listen to the lives and stories of our neighbors, to hear and non-judgmentally receive their thoughts and feelings, good or bad, to provide a safe place to talk, explore, and “get stuff out” may be the best mental health medicine and suicide prevention we could offer to each other. Many of us suffer from loneliness, real or perceived. The best cure for that I know is the connection of deep listening. It’s been said that the gift of listening is a gift of pure, unconditional love. You don’t have to be a therapist. You’re not there to fix anything or make it better. You’re there simply to be the presence of God who is love.

And love… love is what keeps us alive, healthy, and happy.

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So I Have Mental Illness…

On Sunday morning I shared something with my congregation that I had never publically put to words: “Your pastor has mental illness.”

I began a 4-part sermon series on stress, specifically how to transform stress into happiness. I’ve learned quite a bit about stress management and transformation through my battles with major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. So to offer some ethos and pathos to the subject matter, i.e. Yes, your pastor really does know what he’s talking about and can personally relate to you!, I mentioned to my congregation a disease I have which has been with me through most of my adult life. It’s been my number-one health concern.
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There have been several times that depression took me to the depths of suicidal ideation. Several years ago I was even admitted for a week at an inpatient mental health care hospital for debilitating depression and suicidal intentions. Antidepressants to keep my brain chemistry at good, balanced levels have been a regular part of my wellbeing.

Presently, I’m doing really well. I treat depression with a daily morning dose of antidepressants. I watch for the signs and triggers that pull me down into depression— things like extra stress. I surround myself with plenty of accountability from people like my wife and a handful of close friends. And when life throws a vicious curveball or my brain chemistry somehow gets out of whack, I bring my doctor and therapist into my support network, too.

I mention all this, not to garner sympathy or to create a stir, but to continue my work of casting a luminous light on the most shadowed, closeted, and one of the most prevalent health concerns many of us face. We see the terrible effects of it when someone like Kate Spade takes her own life or when someone violently acts out, causing massive human carnage. We see it in the lives of most of our homeless neighbors. Mental illness affects community and world leaders, celebrities, stay-home parents, teenagers, corporate executives, and yes, clergy like me.  It takes the shape of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, schizophrenia, mood disorders, and a whole host of other diagnoses. For far too long now, mental illness has been badly misunderstood and unfairly scrutinized, resulting in a social environment in which critically needed support for those suffering from mental illness and and their caregivers becomes extremely difficult to find.

That is especially true in the church. In the church, much shame surrounds mental illness.

I’ve often called depression a disease of double shame. There’s the inward shame of worthlessness, hopelessness, apathy, emptiness and nothingness. Then there’s the outward shame, the things explicitly said or subtly  implied that depression is a result of spiritual and moral failure: “Just give it to God in prayer and you’ll feel better.” “True believers always have joy.” “Real Christians don’t get depressed.” “Depression is a separation from God.” “Just be grateful. Just keep your chin up. Trust God.”— implications that I can’t do or haven’t already done those things.

It’s time to come to grips with the truth that mental illness of any kind is not spiritual or moral failure. It doesn’t indicate innate character, moral, spiritual or emotional flaws any more grievous than anyone else’s. It is, quite simply, bad brain chemistry brought on sometimes situationally, most often as a chronic condition, or both.

So how can faith communities and any other forms of human community care for people with mental illness and their loved ones? Several key things come to mind (no pun intended):

1) Put aside your assumptions. Listen and learn. Misinformation has created the stereotypical perceptions we commonly use to frame mental illness. Throw those out, and offer the gift of deep listening and a willingness to learn. What’s it like? What does it mean and not mean? How do we cope and live? Let us, we who have mental illness and our loved ones, show you our world and how we struggle.

2) Abandon judgmentalism. (See #1.) In addition, avoid finger pointing and fault finding.

3) Be a companion on the journey. Attempting to give advice, thinking that the right words will make it better, or coming with any attitude that you’re “here to help” only makes things worse. Think of it as coming alongside as a friend. Deeply listen. Listen to understand. Give us space when needed. Show compassion in simple, practical ways. But remember: we’re not your problem to fix. Only God can do that through a whole network of supportive care. And you may be blessed to be one of those people.

4) Be an advocate. Look out for people with mental illness. When you can, speak up to protect our dignity and correct misperceptions. Help others to understand what mental illness is and isn’t.

The healing balm for mental illness is the persistent, gentle light of understanding love, quality medical care, time and space. I know this full well. I’m here today because of it.

And I can also say that we who have mental illness can live happy, productive, deeply spiritual lives. I’ve learned a lot about light and darkness, life and death, pain and healing, salvation and redemption through my ups and downs with mental illness. Those are lessons I would never give back, and for which I am deeply grateful. These are gifts that can richly bless the world, too. That’s my hope.

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