Friday, December 14, 2018

I Love My G-Man

We recently learned that our son Gabriel has a chromosomal deletion that will make it difficult for him to learn the same way other kids do. It will present itself in behaviors that are typically associated with autism. It can be hard for him to focus on a given task. It affects his balance and coordination and vision and muscle tone.

He’s going to struggle with a lot of life.

Recently Gabe told us that sometimes he sits by himself at recess because nobody at school wants to play with him. “On the outside always looking in, will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”

But here’s the thing - also recently, Gabe sang “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, perfectly on pitch and able to recall almost all of the words.

His mind is beautiful. He is always creating, or watching videos about people creating. He likes to cook, and to prepare his meal with as many condiments as we will allow. No Lego brick is safe from his imagination; his constructions are legendary. To be outside under a tree digging in the dirt for hours would be his idea of the perfect afternoon. He does not like to throw things away, since they could be building materials for the fabulous machines he invents on a regular basis.

Gabe’s creativity helps him cope with his social anxiety. Kitty is Gabe’s constant companion, his very best friend. Sometimes when somebody asks him something, Gabe answers with a “Meow” that is so soft and subtle that it is really hard to hear. When Kitty gets lost, the world comes to a screeching halt until he is located. As Hobbes is to Calvin, Kitty is to Gabriel.

And he sings. His pitch memory is remarkable, his tone is angelic. Gabriel can hear a song one time, and then twenty minutes later we overhear him humming the tune to himself while he plays Legos. His best singing is done this way, when he is by himself, busy with some other task. There is music within him that bubbles up in not quite random ways.

Last week I saw this video, and it captivated me. Please give it a quick watch…

Our Gabe is the little mountain, gazing up at the strength and confidence of the big mountains, wanting what they have, not realizing that he has so much of his own beauty to offer.

Every kid has something to offer. Every kid matters. The ones who learn and think and see the world a bit differently than most of us have gifts that are beautiful and unique. It may not be strength or wealth or power as the word defines those things, nevertheless each and every kid needs to understand their inherent worth.

Please be careful, grown-ups. Just because a child isn’t acting like you think they should act, basically being smaller versions of you, doesn’t mean that they are being “bad” or that something is “wrong” with them. They don’t need to be fixed; they need to be seen, to be heard.

They need encouragement, enrichment, and support. They need patient teachers and compassionate friends. They need families who love them unconditionally.

They need to know that they matter.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Strange and Stirring"

I could be wrong, but ...

I have noted some resonance between the Methodist church of the reconstruction era and the United Methodist Church of the marriage equality era. I wonder if the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in June of 2015 might just be as significant a moment for the church as emancipation was in January of 1863. Certainly not in the particulars, but a pivotal moment theologically nonetheless.

A phrase has been recurring in my mind just lately - “The Times Were Strange and Stirring.” It’s the title of a book by Reginald Hildebrand about the history of the church in the time just after the Civil War. In it, he summarizes Methodist responses to recently liberated slaves. In the introduction, Hildebrand writes:

“The emancipation of black southerners was both conventional and radical. It was conventional in the sense that, in their quest for freedom, the freedpeople did not try to alter the commonly held understandings of what that term meant. They did not challenge the fundamental political, social, or economic ideals of the American republic. Southern blacks wanted to direct their own lives: they wanted to have secure families, to be educated, to own property, to be protected by the law, and to participate in the political process. In short, their aspirations were very traditional. On the other hand, emancipation was radical in the sense that it challenged the omnipresent, multifaceted ideology of white supremacy which posited that blacks should be subordinate to whites in all areas of life. Some emancipationists tried to finesse that ideology by allowing freedom to be mediated through white paternalism. Others insisted on confronting the ideology head-on through a kind of black nationalism. Still others believed that the ideology of white supremacy could be transcended, and they tried to construct a new social order in which color would play no significant part.”(Hildebrand, p. xiv-xv, underlines are mine)

In many ways, marriage equality is also both conventional and radical. It is quite conventional in that same-sex couples want to raise families, to have jobs, to live equally under the law, to have a say in the way their communities function. And in another way, marriage equality is similarly quite radical in that it challenges long-held beliefs of heteronormativity that assume the exclusive validity of heterosexuality and the duality of complementary gender roles. I hear a definite resonance with Hildebrand’s observations around emancipation.

Further, Hildebrand notes three Methodist ecclesiological responses to emancipation. In his terms they are “white paternalism,” “black nationalism,” and “a new social order.” I see more connections here with the way churches have responded to people who are gay in the “marriage equality” era.

There is a kind of “straight paternalism” in churches with an ecclesiology that says that gay people are welcome because all sinners are welcome. And if we all will confess and repent then we will be saved. A church with such a theology can claim to be acting in love for people who are gay, out of a desire to save them from God’s punishment. The most drastic manifestation of “straight paternalism” is conversion therapy.

Secondly, it isn’t nationalism, but there is a distinct ecclesiology in churches whose theology is focused on issues pertaining to homosexuality to the exclusion of any other concerns. There is a perfectly understandable righteous indignation born of years of oppression, discrimination, and violence. The confidence, aggression, and energy of this theology will not rest until there is complete liberation from even the smallest hint of homophobia.

And finally there is a “new social order” type of ecclesiology that seeks to completely transcend homophobic ideology and to be a church in which sexual orientation plays no significant part. Churches with this theological perspective may address questions of marriage and ordination of people who are gay very selectively, if at all. Full inclusion is assumed, but not advertised.

It must be said that there is an obvious and crucial distinction to be made. The Methodist movement had already splintered into multiple denominations by the time emancipation came, and examination of the ecclesiology of that time consists in comparing different denominations, among them the AME, AME Zion, CME, ME North, and ME South churches. In the post-marriage-equality era, we are mostly talking about differing ecclesiologies within one denomination, in my particular case within the United Methodist Church.

If I had more time, I would love to be able to research more fully, and write more extensively about the post-marriage-equality church. The thoughts I have jotted above are really just ideas rumbling around in my noodle, and still very much in the early stages of development. It seems to me that there is something there, but I could be wrong.

If you have managed to slog through this far, please help me tune these ideas with your comments. This post was really one of those where I was writing mostly to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page, so I could see them and reflect.

One thing that I know for sure, we are once again living in times that are “strange and stirring.”

Monday, November 26, 2018

Beyond Expectations

There is a cultural standard for what Christmas “should” be. However, it is an illusion.

Preparing for the birth of Jesus, we too often buy into the illusion. I mean, how can we not? It surrounds us, saturating our world with priorities designed to fatten the bottom line of big box stores and shopping websites. We are cajoled into creating “the perfect Christmas,” and you are in luck, because it just so happens to be on sale today!

But what if this year we set a different standard? What if the standard for Christmas was grace? How would that look? What would that feel like? What would change?

Maybe we ought to stop preparing ourselves for Christmas according to what Pinterest tells us it should look like, and start preparing ourselves for Christmas according to the words of the prophets and the compelling “Prepare the way of the Lord!” we hear from the wilderness.

This year’s Advent worship series at Campbell UMC is titled “Beyond Expectations: A Season of Grace.” I am hopeful that the intense, taxing expectations we often feel at this time of year will be lessened as we focus our hearts and minds on “the dawn of redeeming grace” that should relieve our stress, rather than increase it.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Active Gratitude: A Thanksgiving Parable

A family returned home one evening to discover they had been given a gift. A brown cardboard box sat on their porch. They brought the box in, and opened it.

Inside was a set of fine china - plates, bowls, glasses, silverware - the works. It was beautiful!

The family was so grateful. "Let's use them tonight at supper," they said.

And so they did. They set the table beautifully, and enjoyed a delightful dinner together on their brand new china. It was marvelous.

When supper was over, they said, "Welp, we're done with that!" And they gathered all the plates, bowls, glasses, and silverware together and threw it all away.


A second family returned home one evening to discover they had been given a gift. A brown cardboard box sat on their porch. They brought the box in, and opened it.

Inside was a set of fine china - plates, bowls, glasses, silverware - the works. It was beautiful!

The family was so grateful. "Let's make sure this amazing gift never ever gets broken," they said.

And so they wrapped up each piece in bubble wrap, stashed it away in a storage bin, and put the bin in their attic. In a week, they had forgotten that it was there.


A third family returned home one evening to discover they had been given a gift. A brown cardboard box sat on their porch. They brought the box in, and opened it.

Inside was a set of fine china - plates, bowls, glasses, silverware - the works. It was beautiful!

The family was so grateful. "Let's use them tonight at supper," they said.

And so they did. They set the table beautifully, and enjoyed a delightful dinner together on their brand new china. It was marvelous.

When supper was over, they cleared the table together. They washed each piece in warm, soapy water. They dried each piece with a soft, fluffy towel. They stored them away carefully in their kitchen cabinets.

When all of the pieces were cared for, the family said, "I can't wait for supper tomorrow! Let's invite our friends over so we can share this beautiful gift!"

And as time passed and dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of meals were shared with generations of family, neighbors, and friends, pieces of the china would chip, glasses would crack, silverware would get tarnished. But to be honest, nobody really noticed.


In active gratitude for all we have received, may we use our gifts to serve God and neighbor, spreading love, offering grace, and living at peace with one another. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Diversity Without Division

The United Methodist Church is not divided, it is diverse.

This distinction is crucial to understand in these weeks leading up to February's General Conference session. The practice of ministry looks very different from one region to another, from one town to another, even from one congregation to another in the same town, and even within one congregation!

And in this diversity of ministry, we are still the United Methodist Church. I am not sure when "diversity" became a bad thing, but among many it seems to be so. We are a beautifully, frustratingly diverse church; some people celebrate that and others dig in their heels against it.

Among the things we do very differently across the denomination are some practices that comprise the very heart of Christian discipleship: worship, Holy Communion, mission and service work, small group processes. Our buildings are diverse, our staffing structures are diverse, our administrative processes are diverse. We are a diverse denomination. (Or, as I have said before, we are a "holy mess.")

So, let me get to my point. In the United Methodist Church today, there are pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings, congregations that host same-sex weddings, and ordained clergy who are gay and out. And in the United Methodist Church there are pastors who will not officiate at same-sex weddings, congregations that refuse to host them, and conferences and bishops who would never ordain a person if they are gay and out.

That's the reality. That's what is happening now. And some look at that reality and see "division" whereas some see "diversity."

In addition, there are already a processes in place in our denomination to respond to all of that. We have processes by which we seek a "just resolution" to conflict. Paragraph 362 of our Book of Discipline says, "This review shall have as its primary purpose a just resolution of any violations of this sacred trust, in the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Christ."

The just resolution process allows for dialogue and relies on relationship. It means that one case may look very different from another, and be resolved in a very different way. And while that frustrates some, I would much rather have a flexible system that can be contextualized easily than a rigid system of automatic responses that we try to apply to every case everywhere, for all time.

Beyond that, there are already processes in place by which an individual member, a pastor, or a congregation can exit the denomination. There are connectional, structural, and financial implications in those processes, of course, and relationships that need healing and restoration as a result. Nevertheless we already have these processes in place. Those processes are utilized every year, as people and congregations decide to not be United Methodist any more.

We are "Methodists;" we have methods for doing everything we do!

My point is saying this is simply this. In practice, not a lot is going to change after this upcoming General Conference, no matter what happens there.

Pastors will continue to marry same-sex couples - the question is are we going to change our denominational policy to formally allow it.

People who are gay will continue to be ordained - the question is are we going to change our denominational policy to formally allow it.

For some, the answers to these questions will be a hard NO. For the "hard no" people on the right, it is a matter of Biblical obedience. But there are "hard no" people on the left as well, for whom just "allowing" it is not enough; it is a matter of Biblical justice and therefore our denominational policy needs to "mandate" it. This reflects the polarization in which we live these days.

If I may offer an unpopular opinion - the far right (and maybe the far left as well) will leave the United Methodist Church no matter what happens next February. And then in 2020 at the next General Conference we'll address the new reality and look toward the future.

And listen Linda, if we think the decision made at General Conference 2019 is going to "fix" the church once and for all, we are naive and short-sighted. There is no one easy way to "fix" our brokenness; salvation is a life-long endeavor.

But one thing we can do toward that end is to understand the distinction between divided and diverse, and to reclaim diversity as a healthy, beautiful characteristic of the church.

CLICK HERE to see my sermon about the Trinity in which I explore the idea of diversity without division and unity without uniformity.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Doesn't Work for Me: My Thoughts on That Yoga Sermon

On Halloween this year, a friend sent me a link to a sermon and asked my opinion. My first response, was, literally, "This is a REALLY LONG SERMON!" I don't know what would happen to me if I ever preached an hour long sermon, and I am in no hurry to find out.

So, John Lindell is my neighbor, my colleague, and my brother in Christ. I have never met him, but have heard a whole lot about him, and listened to several of his sermons before. I would encourage you to view his entire sermon yourself, as I have.

At first, I responded to my friend directly, offering my opinion in a private message, and was going to leave it there. But this week the sermon went public, especially the section in which he says "yoga is diametrically opposed to Christianity" and "idol worship," which is very clear and very hard to interpret in any other than a condemning light. Several of my friends are talking about it on social media and in a few individual conversations with me, wondering what I think.

So, here's what I think.

Now there are a lot of specific things in the sermon that I could address, but let me just say this...

The version of Christianity represented in the sermon does not work for me. This theology is very particular and rigidly defined, very certain. For example, the preacher here is very clear about thinking open-mindedness is bad, and instead we should guard our minds with some kind of "mind gate" that God has provided us (though I did not find reference to such in the Bible).

Now, I understand how well this rigid version of Christianity works for many people. Right and wrong are very clearly delineated; there are no questions, no doubts. And there is a  kind of comfort there, knowing what the precise rules are and knowing what will happen if you don't follow them. And of course, this theology of certainty works for many, many people; for evidence, all you have to do is count worship attendance numbers.

But it doesn't work for me.

And the reason it doesn't work for me is that my relationship with God is by faith, not certainty. I believe that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, not because we are clear about "right" and "wrong" and always follow the rules. My faith in God is hope for things unseen. It is the not knowing for sure but doing it anyway. I simply cannot relate to God with such certainty, fitting neatly into clearly defined, unyielding theological boundaries.

And here's my biggest lament in all of this. When this version of Christianity is presented as "the only way," and people reject it because it doesn't work for them, they end up rejecting Christ altogether. And that breaks my heart.

I cannot tell you how many people I've spoken with who have described the church they rejected, and who have heard me reply by saying, "Well, actually I reject that version of the church as well. It doesn't work for me, either!" But having never been told there are other ways to do it, or rather having been told that all the other ways to do it are wrong or heretical or demonic, they just walk away altogether.

So although I could very well address this sermon's indiscriminate proof-texting, the switching translations of the Bible from one quotation to the next without mentioning it in order to make his point, the playing on people's fears, the lumping of respected world religions into the same category as ouija boards, the complete omission of all the stuff Christianity has actually stolen from other religions over time, the disconnect between his in-depth knowledge of the topic and his admonition to avoid it, and more, I will not.

Instead I will just say, this version of Christianity is not for me. And if it's not for you, either, then come on over to Campbell UMC and experience an alternative. And if Campbell doesn't work for you, then by all means let me know that so we can sit down and talk about what exactly you are lookng for, so that I can help you find it.

Personally, I am much more upset about Rev. Lindell's remarks about scary movies and TV shows than I am about yoga! I sure hope none of his congregation enjoy "The Haunting of Hill House" as much as I do. That is some good television; I highly recommend it!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Boy, The Boss, and The Bully (A Creative Re-Telling of "David and Goliath")

The Bully is bigger, stronger, and has more stuff than just about anyone else. But The Bully does not use his privileged position for the common good, but rather for selfish purposes.

Plus, The Bully is loud. Like, really loud. His favorite thing is to stand up in front of people and shout things. Most of the things he shouts are things about how much better he himself is than anyone else, how big, how strong, and how much stuff he has.

As our story begins, this is what The Bully is doing. He is technically representing a "side," but he really doesn't care about one "side" or the other; all he wants is for people to know how great he is. That is his only agenda as he stands (literally) in the gap between the sides: that everyone notice him.

And they do.

The Boss certainly does.

Now, The Boss is old, and getting older. He has started to forget things, and to act in unusual ways, doing things that make the people around him make meaningful eye contact with one another, shake their heads, and look worried.

And as The Boss slowly drifts away from rationality, it kind of scares him. He becomes desperate to hold on to what once was. This makes him irritable, grouchy, and just plain mean. He becomes unreasonably defensive, and does so astonishingly quickly, and his companions often walk on eggshells, trying not to upset him.

The Boss has heard the Bully, and The Boss is ticked.

Which is when The Boy shows up.

The Boy is fascinated by conflict, drawn to it like a moth to a flame. He is bemused by The Bully, secretly impressed by his bravado. The Boy is also quite arrogant, puffed up with a braggadocious confidence born of youth and previous successes.

And The Boy has figured out how to strategically yet casually drop these success stories into daily conversations as often as he can. This, by the way, infuriates his older brothers, who would rather he just stay home and do his chores. Even his dad seems to conveniently forget about him from time to time.

The Boy has heard The Bully, and The Boy is energized.

He asks, "What's the reward for taking out this guy? Like, what's in it for me if I decide to take this loser out?"

"Well, The Boss would love it, I'm sure," comes the reply. "Probably cut you in on a pretty big slice of the action!"

"Let me at 'im!" says The Boy.

When The Boss gets wind of The Boy's bluster, he calls him over. "You can't take this guy," he says. "You're just a kid."

The Boy's smile is almost a sneer. He drops some knowledge. "That guy? He's nothing. A piece of dust. I've killed literal lions with my bare hands. Ain't no thing."

The Boss is impressed. "Go on, then." But then The Boss shakes his head, coming out of a foggy daze, and seems to remember that he's supposed to be in charge here. So he starts to tell The Boy how to do the job. But The Boy won't have it.

"Look here, Boss. It's my way or no way at all. Hear me?"

And he goes up to The Bully. Now The Bully has been standing there, shouting. Like he does. And when he sees The Boy coming up to him it kind of catches him off guard. "I'm hurt! I'm insulted! This little puppy coming up to me, thinking he's got something? Bring it, scrub."

And The Boy thumps his own chest with equal machismo. "I will bring it, you big loser. Did I mention I killed literal lions with my bare hands yet? Well, I did. So there."

And by the sheer force of his toxic masculinity, so surprising to The Bully who usually corners the market on that particular commodity, The Boy knocks over The Bully. And while he's down on the ground, The Boy walks up to him and kicks his teeth out before he can get away.

Then he picks up the teeth and strings them together on a little piece of twine that he wraps around his neck so everyone will be sure to see that it was him, The Boy, who kicked out The Bully's teeth.

And when The Boss saw it happen, since he had already forgotten their previous meetings, he asked his buddy, "Who is that kid?" And his buddy, not wanting to upset The Boss by reminding him that he had, in fact, already met The Boy, feigned ignorance.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Dare We Use Data?

I wonder if the General Conference could make a data-informed decision in February?

(For those who may be unaware, the United Methodist Church has called a special session of our denominational  decision makers to decide what to do about same-sex marriage and the ordination of people who are gay.)

I don't think the decision should be completely based on data, of course, but at least data-informed. We talk about the need for data-informed decision making all the time, so why not at General Conference as well?

There are data on the views of United Methodists about same-sex marriage. Pew Research says that 49% favor, 43% oppose, and 8% don't know. Here's that info: (click this.) I am not aware of any data on UM views about ordination of people who are gay; if you know of any, please share them.

But that's not even what we need at this point, is it? It seems to me that we need data on a different question - for lack of  a better term, "compatibility."

What I'd like to know, as a delegate to General Conference, is an answer to this question: "How many United Methodists want to remain in a denomination with people who view marriage differently than they do? And how many do not want to remain in a denomination with people who view marriage differently than they do?"

Those who would stay in a denomination with people who see things differently have been labelled "compatibilists" and those who would not have been labelled "incompatibilists." I embrace these terms for the sake of brevity.

Here's my question, then. Is anyone aware of a poll, undertaken with sound scientific structures and procedures, that asks that question? I know that a few Annual Conferences did informal surveys last June, but have there been any legitimate polling organizations working on this? If we had that information, it sure seems like we would be better equipped to make a data-informed decision in February.

I have a hypothesis, of course. I think the majority of us, maybe even two-thirds, are "compatibilists." I do think that percentage would vary by age. I think that percentage would vary by region, as well. However, my informed opinion is that overall, United Methodists are mostly "compatibilists."

But that's just my opinion. I would LOVE to have some data to either back that up or not.

Our views on same-sex marriage are quite diverse, as I have written about previously. It isn't a matter of just yes or no. So that's not really the question to focus on, I don't think. The key question is compatibility, and I really would like to have some data behind our decision.

Friday, October 12, 2018

School Bus Stop: A Moment

The school bus stops, northbound. A dozen cars behind, a dozen more (including me) southbound. All stop.

Lights flash, stop sign out, door opens.

The bus driver begins applauding.

Just clapping his hands, looking out of the door with a bit of a smile.

In a rush, the kid dashes from the porch, hood up, backpack bouncing. Practically flying down the driveway, eyes up, smile radiant.

The kid leaps, plunges, soars up the steps.

The bus driver holds up one hand, the small grin now a full out, mouth wide open, smile of pure excitement and joy.

The kid smacks his hand with the most epic of high fives, turns, and walks down the aisle to find a seat.

The driver, smile lingering, eyes in the mirror.

Door closes, stop sign down, lights off.

The bus pulls away, the cars begin to move again.

A minute, maybe a minute and half total. Nothing to it, really. And yet what an amazing impact it will have on the rest of the day.

For that kid, for that bus driver. And for me.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

When Anger and Fear Run the Show

I have had my mind changed so many times in my life that I have lost count. And most of those times, my mind was changed by someone dropping a truth bomb that opened my eyes to a new way of looking at things.

I remember one such conversation, must have been twenty or twenty-five years ago, with a good friend who also happened to be very conservative. He taught me something I've never forgotten.

I told him, "I don't understand how you can be a conservative Republican and also a Christian."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well, I believe followers of Jesus are supposed to work for the common good, help people in need, feed the hungry and all that. So I don't see how you can vote for politicians who don't want to do those things."

"Okay, I see what you're saying," he replied. "But actually I also believe followers of Jesus are supposed to help those in need, feed the hungry and all that. Yes. I'm with you."

And here he paused and gave me a look that let me know he was about to truth-bomb me. I braced for impact.

"I just don't think it's the government's job to do that. See, I believe that job is done most effectively by individuals, churches, and non-profits. And that's why I'm a 'smaller government' guy, actually. If the government is smaller, we have lower taxes, and if we have lower taxes, it frees up more of my money to use in order to help people in need more effectively."

And here I remember the distinct feeling of understanding something I had actually never thought about before. It was a pretty cool feeling, to be honest. I truly understood my friend's perspective, and could appreciate how he saw things.

We both wanted to work for "the common good." The only point of disagreement was how much of a role the government should play in doing that work. He was conservative, which means he thought that role should be smaller, whereas I was a progressive, which means I thought the role should be more significant. And so we could actually have a rational and respectful conversation about where along the spectrum of governmental involvement would be best for our community, our state, our nation.

Now, I share the story of that conversation in order to say this: We're not there any more.

If we persist in viewing politics as an ongoing conversation about how much government involvement is good for the people of our communities, our states, our nation, then we are kidding ourselves. That's not what we are doing any more.

The foundational political spectrum used to be from right to left, from conservative to progressive. It isn't that these days. Far from it.

The foundational political spectrum is from fear and anger on one end to rationality and respect on the other. And just lately it feels like the "fear and anger" end of the scale is leaning dangerously.

Fear and anger are powerful, and spread easily. There is a way in which fear and anger can be good things, but the movie "Inside Out" taught us nothing if not what a disaster it is when fear and anger are running the show. And is there any doubt that fear and anger are running the show these days?

Fear and anger manifest in malicious, jeering tirades in public.
Fear and anger manifest in horrific insults hurled thoughtlessly at others.
Fear and anger manifest in broken friendships and family members who no longer speak to one another.
Fear and anger manifest in a zero sum game of "us" and "them" thinking, in which there are clear winners and losers and as long as you are a winner then everything is fine.
Fear and anger are being modeled daily for us by our elected leaders in appalling, immature displays.

And ultimately fear and anger run out of ways to manifest that are not physically violent, and reach a tipping point. How close are we?

And we are all being infected by it. As a pastor, I sense that people are generally exhausted. So much energy is being consumed by the fear and anger all around us that it leaves nothing for anything else. Even the really good stuff that we know is really good and we ought to be doing but just don't have the mental, spiritual, or physical energy to do it.

This is not intended as a partisan post. No one has exclusive access to fear and anger in this bizarre season we live in. I hope nobody reads it from one "side" or another. I am legitimately worried that we are headed somewhere none of us want to be, and nobody has the energy to stop it.

With a truth bomb of his own, Abraham Lincoln concluded his second inaugural address, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

It is to this day one of the most amazing political speeches in history. I still believe Lincoln's ideas are possible, in spite of everything. "Yes. Yes I'm sure I do," he told himself encouragingly.

There is an antidote to the infection. A sure-fire cure for what ails us. And we all know what it includes:

Honesty. Integrity. Compassion. Humility. Rationality. Respect. Grace. Love.

May God grant us the energy to resist the anger and the fear and advocate instead for these.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

MLB Playoffs

It's playoff time again, and I kind of have a rooting interest this year. I'd really like to see Moose and Lo Cain get another ring, so I'm on board with the Brewers.

And as it turns out, my formula for picking a team for which to root also works this year! In the past, when the Royals or the Cardinals don't make the post-season, I have based my rooting interest on the team with the lowest opening day payrolls.

Here's the list, according to this site.

American League:
Red Sox -  240 (the highest in MLB this year)
Yankees -  173
Astros -     164
Indians -   142
A's -          82

National League:
Dodgers -  191
Cubs -       189
Rockies -  147
Braves -    122
Brewers -  96

(Those are rounded to the nearest million, by the way.)

So see there, my chosen team is also the lowest National League payroll! How about that? Works out perfectly. So other than the Brewers, I'll be rooting for the lower payroll of whichever two teams are playing.

The total of the list above? That would be 1,546,000,000. That's one BILLION five hundred forty six MILLION dollars. Also kinda fun is to realize that the San Francisco Giants spent $213 million dollars (second highest in MLB) to miss the playoffs and end up with a 73-89 record.

As I say every year, these dollar figures are mind-boggling. I fully acknowledge the reality of how many global issues could be solved if this money were shifted to other purposes. Yes, indeed I get that.

And at the same time, ... well, it's baseball! So go Brewers!

Friday, September 14, 2018


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

"The Pick Up" - Thoughts on Removing Kids from Parents

I drove up to the house that New Year’s Day morning, not knowing what to expect. I had been given the address by the caseworker, and was told they would be waiting for me. It had all been arranged. But still, this was the first time I had done anything like this, and I don’t mind saying, I was scared.

We had gotten the call the day before: two boys, ages five and two, dad was unable to care for them any more because of his developmental disability. Could we take them?

Yes. We have room, we’ll be more than happy to take them.

There were no workers available to get them. Could we do the pick up?

Wait. “Do the pick up?” You mean go over and remove them from their dad’s home? Us? Sure, we had plenty of experience receiving kids into our home who had been removed, but no one had ever asked us to be the actual ones to go and get them.

Yes please, if you could. It would be very helpful.

So we said we would. We’re foster parents; it’s what we do. We take care of kids who need taken care of for a little while. This was a part of the deal. So we said we would.

I drove up to the house, pulled into the driveway, and turned off the engine. I saw a face at the front window, small, pale, eyes wide. With a flick, it vanished, and the curtain swayed shut.

I got out of the van and zipped up my coat against the cold before I walked to the porch. The door opened as I approached. A woman, about 30 years old, eyes red from crying, trying bravely to smile. “Hello,” she said.

“Hello. I’m Andy.”

“Come on in,” she replied.

There was a pile of boxes, suitcases, and backpacks just inside the door. “Here’s their stuff,” she said.

From the back of the house, I heard a child’s voice. “No!”

A man walked into the room, carrying a boy. He didn’t look at me. The boy was struggling in his arms, pushing against his dad’s chest, trying to get down. The man had him in that firm yet gentle grip that one only learns from plenty of experience with wiggly boys.

Another, smaller boy trailed behind.

“Let’s get your stuff, boys,” he said.

The woman started picking up bags, I grabbed a couple of suitcases, and we went outside. The man held on to the squirming boy, and followed. The little one was a shadow.

We put our load of luggage in the back, and then the woman said to the man, “Why don’t you go ahead and put the boys in the car?” This was a really good idea, and I opened the side doors for him. He began to buckle the boys into the car seats while we went back into the house to get the rest of the stuff.

When we got back out to the van, he had calmed the bigger boy down enough to buckle him in, and he was working on the little one, who was quite a bit easier to manage. When he had him secured, he walked back around to the other side of the van.

I watched as he put his hand gently on the boy’s small head, bent over close, and rested his forehead against his son’s. I did not hear what he said; his voice was low and it wasn’t my place to invade that moment. When he stood up, his son again offered a weak, confused, “No!” and began a litany, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” that was spoken slowly, through the tears that were streaming down his face.

When he heard his big brother start up, the two year old joined him, but with less intensity, more like he was sad that his brother was sad than the bitter grief of being separated from his home. He knew, yet he didn’t know.

The man closed the van door and walked quickly back into the house, head down, never once meeting my eyes.

I looked at the woman, who had fresh tears overflowing her eyes. I tried to smile, and said, “I promise you we will take good care of them.” I closed the two year old’s door.

She just nodded at me, unable to say anything.

So I got into the van, started the engine, and drove home.

They cried the entire trip.

Granted, just because I have physically removed children from their parent does not make me an expert on immigration policy. But in light of our work as foster parents, the stories coming from our nation’s southern border are particularly disturbing.

Families seeking refuge in our country are, by many accounts, being forcibly separated from one another and the children are being placed in the care of the state. A high-ranking member of the current administration has referred to this policy as “a tough deterrent.” Another said that if parents don’t want their children taken away, they shouldn’t bring them along.

I find that the arguments in favor of the policy are not even slightly compelling, and in fact are abhorrent to me. To argue that a parent has violated a law and therefore anything that happens to them or to their family is justified is not only a profound oversimplification of the situation, it is flat-out evil. Official U.S. immigration policy now feels like the kind of thing the “bad guy” would do in a movie, and not a very good movie at that.

And yet …  how can I think this when I myself have been the “bad guy?” I am a part of a system that removes children from their homes when it is deemed necessary. In fact, I have been the one doing the actual separating! Can I with clean conscience say that what’s happening is wrong unless it’s happening within the system I’m a part of? What is the distinction?

Whatever is happening at the policy level, real people have been given the task of taking real kids from real parents. Whatever is said at a press conference in front of an audience, a person goes up to another person and takes their child away from them. Whatever may be true at the “macro” level in terms of law or economics or politics, someone has to “do the pick up.”

And it is awful. It hurts. Trust me, I know.

For me, the most important questions to ask have to do with the children. Are they safe? Do they have food, clothing, and shelter? Are they being cared for? Is someone there with them, telling them not to be afraid? Do they know that they matter to someone? Do they realize they are somebody who is worth something?

And is everything being done, with as much urgency as possible, to get them back home again?