Friday, September 14, 2018

Depleted


We took a year off from foster care when our daughter was a senior in high school, and always said we would do the same for our son. We want to be present for the senior year, attend all of the performances and go visit colleges, and just basically be here. Fully here.

We told the case worker back in the late Spring that was our intention, and she was on board. The court schedule delayed the transition a little while, since we didn’t want to move them before a long-term decision was made about their placement plan. But other than that delay of a few weeks, we have known all along that this transition was coming.

And yet …

Knowing that a foster placement is leaving is one thing; grieving the transition is quite another.

It is especially difficult this time, it seems. These two have worn us down. We are depleted. The energy it has consumed to care for these two boys for these nine months has left us very little with which to focus on anything else. At least, not very well.

The level of chaos and disruption that their past trauma has brought into our home is hard to describe. And their past trauma follows them everywhere, bringing the chaos and the disruption along the way. It’s a particularly nasty kind of frustrating; just when we start to think there are signs of progress, like they might be “figuring it out,” things shatter, and come crashing down.

Their subconscious sabotage of all things functional is maddening. Like we are living an alternate reality. And it’s exhausting.

We are depleted.

So this one doesn’t feel at all like a foster parent “win” for us. Twelve years and twenty kids, and we have enough experience to have seen pretty much everything, and there have most definitely been “wins.” But right now, not so much. Words like defeat, failure, surrender … these seem more fitting.

The boys’ behavior is so erratic, so chaotic, that it is impossible to predict what will happen now. There may be a “honeymoon” for the new foster family, during which things seem to be on track. And I hope and pray that it stays that way and they find a forever family there.

And it is just as likely that the one will disappear into the deep sorrow that defines his identity and the other will lash out from the uncontrollable rage that lurks in his heart, and it will all come crashing down. Again.

This morning I knelt down and looked into the three year old’s eyes. I said, “We are gonna have a good day today, right?”

His sweet and sincere “Yes Daddy” will linger in my memory.

Then we did three deep breaths, like we do every morning, and he went into the room to greet his teachers.

And now it’s not even that I don’t know what to feel, it’s more like I just … don’t. Like the emotions are so conflicted that they’re cancelling each other out. And we’re just left void. Blank.

Depleted.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

A Surreal Malevolence


There is a surreal malevolence at work in the world, whose goal is only chaos.

This surreal malevolence cares not for nation, corporation, denomination, family, or tribe. This surreal malevolence uses as its tools anything and everything it can get its corrosive claws on - partisan politics, news outlets, social media - whatever. Even (and especially) those things we would like to think of a good and nice and maybe even fun.

Further, the surreal malevolence does not care who gets elected or is legally able to be married or kneels for their flag (or not) or makes a profit or goes to bed hungry or wins the war. And as long as we are all out of sorts, mad at one another, and anxious, the surreal malevolence is satisfied.

Those who engage in a particular religious worldview know the surreal malevolence as Satan, the Devil, the Tempter, and a dozen other names. He is called Screwtape and Wormwood. She is known as demon or darkness or death. Their name is Legion.

Succumbing to the surreal malevolence is a pandemic, with global proportions. Evidence is ample, recorded on handheld devices and posted to YouTube in a daily deluge. Chaos. Anxiety. Unrest. Lifelong friends now unable to speak. Family members suspicious of one another, openly hostile. Hatred on full, public display. Once orderly systems rife with confusion.

And the surreal malevolence under the surface is relentless, uncaring, unfeeling; laying waste to empathy, respect, humility, integrity, compassion, honesty, common sense, all that once was assumed, now rotting away.

And even so, God whispers, “Do not be afraid.”

Yes indeed, “Fear not.” For there is another force at work in the world. A force more powerful by far. And that force is not only capable of defeating the surreal malevolence, it is quite likely the only thing that can.

To put it into words, that force is known as “true love.”

There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear. And you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free. True love - a deep, bold love that is brutal in its honesty and equally brutal in its graciousness. A love that insists on authenticity and vulnerability. A love that is at the same time both pliable and unyielding. A love that is at the same time naked and wearing the full armor of God. A love that is the paradox of the deepest pain and the most ecstatic joy.

True love. Love that gazes into your eyes and makes your heart flutter. Love that brings a smile to your lips. Love that embraces without awkwardness, and also knows when to walk away. Love that will calm the storm, but can rock the boat when necessary. True. Love.

To live our lives fully by the tenets of true love is terrifying. It requires us to do things like turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile and give not only our coat but our shirt as well and lay down our life for someone else. It is inherently risky. Not metaphorically risky, actually physically risky to your comfort, your health, your safety. It is unabashedly selfless. It is not for the faint of heart.

To put it simply, resisting the surreal malevolence at work in the world requires us to announce, advocate for, and embody true love. Everything we do, everything we say, even everything we think about, all must come from one source, to the exclusion of any other.

In so doing, we exhume the seeds of chaos and sow instead seeds of grace and peace. The work will require us to lay aside our apathy, our passivity, and our fear. The tools for this work are compassion, empathy, and justice. The harvest may be a long time coming, but it will be plentiful. If we will be patient and work with diligence, we will feast.

I can feel in my guts when I am beginning to succumb to the surreal malevolence. It raises my blood pressure and gives me heartburn. I’m sure you know your own warning signs, you are aware. Do not collapse. Breathe deeply. Take a drink. Back off. Remember what you need, what you have, what you know.

And then re-enter the moment, re-centered on true love. Re-enter re-centered. And get back to work.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Yes, you have enemies; You also have grace.


For many people, it’s easy to say, “I do not have any enemies” without thinking too hard about it. We tend to think of “enemies” in geopolitical rather than in personal terms. I get that.

However, when I am too quick to dismiss the idea that I have enemies, it alters my reading of the 23rd Psalm, in which God “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” If I have no enemies, then does God not prepare the table? Who are these “enemies” to which the Psalmist refers?

The word is not uncommon, appearing over a dozen times in the Psalms. It is one of the terms used to describe one of the two groups of people in the Psalms: the “righteous” and the “wicked.” Broadly speaking, the “righteous” are those whose relationship with God is characterized by abiding trust and utter dependence. The “wicked” (or “enemies”) are those who oppose God’s call to completely trust God and depend upon divine grace.

And so we might paraphrase Psalm 23:5 this way - “You keep providing grace for me, right when I need it the most.” For it is precisely in the presence of “enemies,” meaning those things that keep us from experiencing the fullness of a relationship with God, that we need grace the most.

God doesn’t give up on us. Ever. And God especially doesn’t give up on us when we need grace the most. In fact that’s when God doubles down on grace, pouring it out in abundance.

Someone reading this right now may very well feel like God has given up on you. It’s not true. I promise. And because God hasn’t and won’t give up on you, I won’t either. I promise. God is preparing a table before you, right in the presence of your enemies, right when you need it the most. And I would love to join you for dinner!

Monday, August 06, 2018

Love Disruption


I stood next to the communion table in the middle of the chancel area, holding an extra loaf of bread in my hand, ready to re-supply one of the serving stations when needed.

The man approached me from the congregation, passing by one of the serving stations as he did so. My first thought was that he had misunderstood the serving instructions and was coming forward to get a piece of bread from the loaf I was holding. So I stepped forward to meet him, indicating that he should return to the serving station.

However, he actually wanted to talk. To me. Full voice. Right there and right then. And so he did.

He was not pleased with the day’s sermon content, and one of the illustrations in particular. And he wanted to let me know that he was not pleased and to ask me if he could address the entire church to express this sentiment.

My first response was to ask him if we could discuss the matter at a more appropriate time. I told him I would be happy to talk with him after worship, if he wanted to. This was insufficient.

And so I then shifted to answering his concerns, assuring him that I heard him, I understood his opinion, and that the illustration in question was used to give an example of the larger message of the sermon. (The message, by the way, was that Jesus asks his followers to love one another as he loves us.) I asked him about the other illustration that had been used, and if that one also bothered him. He said, “No that one was fine.”

It was at this point that I realized that the man was suffering. He was experiencing some kind of crisis, and was not fully engaged with reality. I do not know exactly what the nature of his particular pain was, but it was evident that it was governing his words and actions.

And so I again shifted gears, gently suggesting that we could talk about his concerns at another time.

Through it all, communion was being served. The three serving stations were going, people were receiving the sacrament, the steady sound of “the Body of Christ, the Blood of Christ” was the background of my conversation, people were kneeling in prayer all around us. #ThisIsChurch

My approach wasn’t working, and I was beginning to weigh other options, when Debi came up toward the table.

Debi had just received communion and spent time in prayer, and now she was walking up onto the chancel area and approaching the man and me. We made eye contact. In that unspoken moment, she said, “Do you want me to see if I can encourage him to come with me?” And I said, “Yes please, and thank you. And God bless you.”

Debi then spoke gently and graciously, but firmly to the man, saying, “Let’s go out into the hall and you and I can talk about this. I want to hear what you have to say.”

At about the same time, Matt stepped up into the chancel area as well. Matt echoed Debi’s words, and reached out to the man to walk out with him. At first the man acted as if he was going to resist, but decided to go with them. He stumbled a bit going down the steps, but walked out calmly between Debi and Matt.

Several church folks met him at the door of the sanctuary, and stepped out into the hallway with him. It was all very quiet and calm. Communion continued to be served at all three serving stations for the entire duration of this event. I watched through the windows in the back of the room, and saw several people gathered around the man.

Just before we sang the final song, he came back into the sanctuary. He went to his seat, and stood for the final song.

And then I witnessed one of the most beautiful, grace-filled moments of worship I’ve ever seen.

Here at Campbell, we have the practice of joining hands for the closing prayer. The people in worship were invited to join hands, as usual. And they did.

And not only did the people right around the man reach out and join hands with him, people literally crossed the aisle to make sure he had people to connect with. They surrounded him with grace. When I saw it, I knew I was witnessing the work of the Holy Spirit. I knew I was seeing the sermon come to life in that room, as these amazing followers of Jesus chose to love this man, just as Jesus loves us. This. Is. Church.

I have heard through the grapevine that later in the day the man was still talking about what had upset him from the sermon at Campbell. Someone told me that as he left he took his nametag off, threw it down on the table, and declared that he was not going to be coming back. We are planning to do what follow-up we can with him, to make sure that he is in fact okay.

But here’s what I saw on Sunday. I saw a disruption of love. I saw the church of Jesus Christ being the church of Jesus Christ. I saw grace in action. I saw the sermon we had just heard become incarnate. I saw an authentic outpouring of love for one struggling person. I saw the core values of Campbell UMC come to life with grace, inclusivity, authenticity, and truly selfless service.

A guest on Sunday asked me after worship if she could see our safety policies and procedures for a Sunday morning disruption, “since you obviously have them!” Imagine her surprise when I replied, “Actually no, we do not have any written procedures for Sunday morning disruptions like that. What you saw this morning was authentic; it was just Campbell being Campbell.”

It is far more important to know who you are than to know what to do.

I’m not opposed to having written security policies mind you, but what happened last Sunday was not the result of any kind of policy. Debi and Matt and all the others did what they did because that’s who they are. They did not stop and say, “Now what is our policy for 'Sunday Morning Disruptions'?” They simply and selflessly responded with grace.

They made sure the man knew that he was being heard; they made sure he and others were safe; they made sure he knew that he had people around him; and ... they prayed with him.

And they did all of this not because they “knew what to do in a situation like this.”

They did it all because they know who they are. And it was beautiful to see.

#ThisIsChurch

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Way Forward Report - Initial Thoughts


“Which plan are you going to vote for?”

Since the “Commission on a Way Forward’s Report to the General Conference” has been published, several people have asked me that question – “How are you going to vote?” or “What plan do you like?” or some variation thereof.

The truth of the matter is, at this point we have no idea what we will actually be voting on. Our United Methodist General Conference is a bureaucratic morass, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. After the petition process, the debates, the amendments, the motions to do this and that and the other obscure parliamentary procedure, who the heck actually knows WHAT we will be voting on, much less how we will end up.

As I’ve said before, our United Methodist system performs exactly as it is designed to perform. Suffice it to say that our denominational structures and processes are not conducive to sweeping, dramatic transformations.

In their report, the Commission lays out three plans – One Church, Connectional Conferences, and Traditional. (My very sketchy summaries are below, and I’ll also share the link to the report itself. Click this.)

There were thirty-two people on the Commission, and they were asked which of the three plans they would publicly support. (Feel free to check my numbers on this, by the way, and correct them if I have miscalculated.)

18 support One Church. 12 support Connectional Conferences. 9 support Traditional.

That is to say, there are that many names listed on each plan. If you are good at math, you will already have noticed that is 39 names. (If not, you will now be going back to add them up.) 39 names - from a 32 member commission. So … It’s a riddle!

Actually it’s not a riddle. Some people put their names on more than one. And one put their name on all three. And some didn’t put their names down at all. As near as I can tell…

Of the 18 One Church people, 6 also publicly support Connectional Conferences, and 1 supports all 3.

Of the 12 Connectional Conferences people, 6 also publicly support One Church and 5 also support the Traditional plan, and 1 supports all 3.

Of the 9 Traditional people, 5 also publicly support the Connectional Conferences plan, and (as I have mentioned) 1 supports all 3.

There are 6 commission members who did not take a public position. All 6 are bishops.

So what, right? Well, to me it is noteworthy that the “Connectional Conferences” plan is the only one of the three that has zero people who publicly support only it.

There are 11 who support only One Church. There are 3 who support only Traditional. All 12 who support the Connectional Conferences plan also support one of the others.

I’m not sure what that means exactly, but it may mean that none of the commission members are really champions for the Connectional Conferences plan, and I think that says something in and of itself. It also seems like the Commission on a Way Forward as a whole is itself in favor of the One Church plan, which may say something or not.

As I said above, at this point in the incredibly long and complicated process, there is nothing to vote on.  Any General Conference delegate who tells you how they will be voting is being a bit premature. We need to wait until we get “in the room where it happens” and see how everything unfolds and what things may be added or withdrawn or changed. Where we end up on February 26, 2019 is anyone’s guess.

Please continue to pray daily, and if you might be able to pause from 2:23-2:26 each day, you would be joining thousands of Methodists praying at the same time. Pray for grace and peace and love. Pray for guidance and focus and patience. Pray for an awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

And please pray, as I do each day, for a bright, hopeful, faithful future for the United Methodist Church.


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Sketchy summaries:
One Church - Pastors are free to, but not forced to marry same-sex couples. Conferences are free to, but not forced to ordain gay people.
Connectional Conferences - Creates 3 new subdivisions within the United Methodist denomination based on theological perspective, one on the conservative end of things, one in the center, and one one the progressive end. Conferences, congregations, and pastors choose with which of the 3 to affiliate.
Traditional - Reinforces restrictions on marrying and ordaining people who are gay, and strengthens the penalties for doing so.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Yes, We Really Are Better Together (Or: Again, the UMC is NOT Divided, In Spite of What Some Would Have You Think)


The Good News organization is working very hard to perpetuate the myth that the United Methodist Church is divided.

I just received a book in the mail from them titled, “Are we Really Better Together? An Evangelical Perspective on the Division in the UMC.” The first chapter is called, “We are Divided.” The subsequent four chapters each begin with the words “Divided on…”

Let me say this again, and as clearly as possible:

The United Methodist Church is NOT divided, we are polarized. It is imperative that we understand this distinction. There are loud voices on the ends of the spectrum, both right and left, that are dominating the denominational conversation. These polar opposites cannot abide the thought of being a church with people who think differently than they do.

The vast majority of United Methodists have a variety of beliefs and perspectives and opinions, even on very important theological matters, and are quite comfortable being the church together and embracing those differences as growth opportunities rather than vehicles for condemnation. We are united, not uniform, and see diversity as a strength rather than something to be feared.

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Of course, although there are many things on which Methodists do not march in lock-step, the linchpin topic is homosexuality.

I have read the introduction and the first chapter of the Good News book mentioned above, and I have yet to read the term “sexual orientation.” I have read the phrase “people who experience same-sex attraction,” and “those who identify themselves as gay or lesbian,” and even “a person struggling and sometimes failing to resist a predisposition to same-sex intimacy.”

At the same time, this declaration is made in the book’s introduction. “…we understand how LGBTQ+ advocates arrive at their justification for making the claim” that the UMC finds LGBTQ+ people “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and not merely the practice.

My question is this: How can the authors say they “understand” LGBTQ+ advocates, while refusing to acknowledge the reality of sexual orientation? Why do they so carefully avoid even mentioning the phrase, much less affirming sexual orientation and how significantly sexual orientation informs one’s identity as a person?

Until the far right “pole” of our denomination acknowledges that sexual orientation is a real thing, and as long as they continue to separate sexual practice from sexual attraction with such callousness, they are unable to make the declaration that they truly “understand” LGBTQ+ advocates justifications for anything.

And as for the far left “pole” of our denomination, until they acknowledge that no one should be forced to marry a same-sex couple against their wishes, and that those opposed to same-sex marriage are not hateful bigots with no compassion or sense of justice, they are similarly unable to make any declarations of understanding and unity. The far left pole is guilty of making sweeping generalizations just as gracelessly as the far right is, they are just less systematic about it.

And until both “poles” stop dominating the political processes that comprise our denomination’s administrative decision-making structures, the tension will remain. The language of the far right pole is legislative process; the language of the far left pole is protest. And so it goes. The reason the vast majority of United Methodists are not invested so heavily in this argument is that we are more invested in being the church in all of its colorful, vibrant, and messy diversity.

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Here’s what I need, and I hope someone will help me out.

I am a marriage equality pastor. That means that if I were given permission by the denomination to officiate a same-sex wedding, I would. I have colleagues who are traditional marriage pastors. That means they would not perform a same-sex wedding, even if given permission by the denomination.

I gladly embrace the connectional covenant that binds me to other pastors, and will continue to do so if the denominational stance on marriage changes. And what I need is a traditional marriage pastor who would stand beside me and say the same thing.

For eighteen years, I have worked in covenant with pastors in a denomination that forces me to practice my ministry in a way I believe is unjust to people who are gay. What I’m asking for is a traditional marriage pastor who would covenant to work with me in a denomination that does not force either one of us to do so, but allows each of us the freedom to marry couples or not, by our pastoral authority to discern that they are ready to begin a faithful, grace-filled, mutually respectful, life-long covenant relationship together.

Give me one hundred preachers who would enter into such a covenant, fearing nothing but sin and desiring nothing but God, I care not whether they be lay or clergy, local pastor or elder or deacon, traditional marriage or marriage equality, and we alone will shake the gates of the General Conference and bring new life to the United Methodist Church.*



*(With all due apologies to Mr. Wesley for my crass usurpation of his most elegant quote.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

He Has Seen Monsters

At breakfast this morning our three year old foster son and I had a conversation in which I attempted to convince him that monsters are not real. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he did not believe me, and considering his life experiences, how could I expect him to?

He knows there are monsters; he has seen them.

We don’t know all the details of what our two boys went through prior to being taken into care. We probably never will. But we do know some things.

We know that the four year old flinches almost every time I walk by him, even if I am not approaching him directly.

We know that the three year old’s temper tantrums come out of nowhere and are uncontrollable; last week in the middle of one he said, “I can’t hold it!”

We know that they have somehow learned words and phrases that we never taught them, that they never heard in our home, and they repeat them at times designed to create mass reaction.

We know that they are happiest when we are angry. Angry adults are “normal” in their world.

So even without knowing the details, we know enough. We’ve been parents for twenty years, foster parents for twelve, so we’ve been at this for a while. We know enough.

Yes, there are monsters, and our boys have seen them.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than how it treats its children.” That’s how Nelson Mandela began his remarks at the launch of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in May of 1995.

He continued, “We come from a past in which the lives of our children were assaulted and devastated in countless ways. It would be no exaggeration to speak of a national abuse of a generation by a society which it should have been able to trust.”

I fear that we are living in such a time in our nation. In my work I have seen children being “assaulted and devastated in countless ways,” and my spirit is burdened with a call to heal the brokenness I see within and among so, so many. To let them know that they matter, they have inherent sacred worth, just for being who they are, a beloved child of God.

Fred Rogers wrote, “One of the universal fears of childhood is the fear of not having value in the eyes of the people whom we admire so much.” The overwhelming majority of child abuse is perpetrated by people that kids admire, that they love, that they trust. And neglect by definition happens when a grown-up who is expected to be caring for a child, doesn’t.

If we as individuals, as families, as churches, as communities, as a nation, as a global village … if we do not take into consideration the long-term consequences of our words and actions on the children around us, we are failing. Children will listen.

Because our three year old believes that monsters are real, and I really can’t say he’s wrong.