How much trauma can you handle?

We’re asked to respond to a new tragedy everyday. It’s wearisome. Through my social media feed I am flooded with news about the latest hurricane, plain crash, shooting. As a pastor, I  want to respond adequately but my responses often feel hollow. I also want joy, a laugh each day with our adorable kids. And yet one can feel the weight of the world’s  trauma delivered to you daily. How much trauma can one handle?

I remember after a shooting in Las Vegas, I could only muster up a “Thoughts and Prayers for Las Vegas” on my Facebook account. A friend messaged me and said, “Thoughts and prayers just aren’t doing it these days.” I understand the sentiment.

Once I learn about a tragedy, and prayerfully consider how I might acknowledge it, another one occurs. As a pastor, I often struggle with how much to preach about a recent tragedy. There’s a hesitancy to write a sermon too early in the week.  After a while, you become numb. When is there time to offer a message of grace to the dad out there in the fourth pew who just lost his job?

One practice that has helped me is the practice of lament. Lament slows us down. A lament is our way of complaining faithfully to God. The Bible doesn’t lack people who complain in their prayer life. The Bible can teach us to complain like a Christian. This coming Sunday, we’re looking at the story of Abram. In Genesis 12, God called Abram at age 75 to leave his home country for a new land. God promises to bless Abram and make of him a great nation. God promised to give his wife Sarai a child. In chapter 15 Abram has grown weary of God not fulfilling his promise. The Lord says to Abram, “Don’t be afraid.” But Abram is too frustrated to let it go. Abram responds, “Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children?” (Gen. 15:2).

Abram is real with God. To be real and honest takes trust. In our prayer life, we can be real with God and bring forth our complaints. God is big enough to handle it. God doesn’t punish Abram for his griping. In fact, the Lord and Abram draw closer to each other through this exchange of real emotion. And through it, Abram trusted the Lord and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character (Genesis 15:6).

As we think about tragedy, what does it mean to be a people of lament as a faithful response? After witnessing tragedy and trauma, our emotions often become a tangled mess. To move too quickly to the next tragedy makes us numb to the suffering. We’re not able to deal with our real emotions. Our prayers become nothing more than simple thoughts. Lamentation slows us down and helps us feel, helps us have our heart punctured so that we don’t just move on. Noted theologian Dominique Gilliard writes on this topic,

We can’t take time to lament because we are constantly processing new tragedies.

Nevertheless, before we truly grieve one tragedy, another occurs. So in our rush to keep up with our newsfeeds, with the latest scandal, the newest tragedy, we move on before processing the trauma we have just witnessed. We move on to stay up to date — and in part, because we believe that our minds and our hearts, like our smartphones, can hold only so much.

Lamentation, however, forces us to slow down. In the midst of daily tragedy, lamentation requires us to stay engaged after the cameras and publicity move on. It summons us to immerse ourselves in the pain and despair of the world, of our communities, of our own sinfulness.

I’m thankful for the congregation I serve. After Hurricane Michael last fall that ploughed through Florida, our congregation decided to send a team to help. We’re heading out over spring break to Marianna Florida to do some relief work. It’s a way for them to get out of their head and into their hearts. It’s a way for our church to be on the ground and to hear the stories of those affected. It’s a way to lament and feel the fulness of the human experience with all its hurt and hope. It’s a way to experience the pain of the cross and the joy of the resurrection.

 

Belly Cry over General Conference

I’m three days removed from the General Conference in St. Louis. It was nice to start a new month and to see signs of life in the flowers shouldering their way through the earth crumbs. But like many people in the United Methodist Church, I’m still hurting. It feels like spiritual PTSD. I’m hesitant to make this comparison in respect to those who have suffered through real war, but it’s the best I can do. St. Louis was traumatic. I had hoped the One Church Plan would pass. It didn’t.

When I came home on Wednesday afternoon, I found that I had an empty house for a few moments. I was exhausted and left my suitcase downstairs. My wonderful wife encouraged me to get some rest. I was determined to get a 15 minute nap before heading to Wednesday night activities. Then the tears began to flow. It was a cry that I could not explain, a belly cry. It was a moment that reminded me of Joseph in Genesis 45 when he encountered his brothers who had sold him into slavery.

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. (Genesis 45:1-2). 

It was one of those cries where Joseph felt the years of suppressed hurts and abandonment puncture his heart all at once. It was his cry that remembered the good nights from his boyhood sitting around a dinner table with his dad and brothers. It was a cry that remembered the day he looked up from a pit at his brothers cashing in for his life. It was a cry that remembered the voice of Potiphar’s wife falsely accusing him of an affair and the clashing of chains from being thrown into jail in a foreign land. It was a cry too of hope that maybe there could be days ahead when he could forgive these brothers for their evil and love could return.

My cry felt like that on Wednesday. It was a cry that remembered the good days of entering the ministry of my home conference and being embraced by the some of the very people for whom today I feel so much anger. It was a cry that remembered the great love of the Ugandan people with whom I shared life, struggle and joy with for 12 weeks when I was in seminary…where I was embraced and loved and changed. It was a cry of finding myself at odds with people I love. It was a cry that remembered the faces of LGBTQ persons at this conference as they shouted from their souls to be heard. It was a cry that remembered how they sung with joy even as their hopes collapsed around them as the Traditional Plan was adopted. All I could think, “God, I didn’t know the pain. God, I didn’t know.” It was a cry that I couldn’t control or understand.

Maybe for the first time, I felt a piece of the hell our LGBTQ community has felt. I cried for a minute and felt in that minute what many have felt for a lifetime. The institution that should have accepted them the most, didn’t.

Where do we go from here? I’m praying about whether to offer the olive branch or draw the sword. I imagine many of us are struggling with the same emotions. This I do know. It’s time for centrist like me to quit playing referee and get onto the field of this great struggle over human sexuality. My prayer is that our brothers and sisters from the WCA can feel the pain these actions have caused and understand that there are other ways of reading the scriptures we both love.

The good news of Joseph’s story is that it ends in reconciliation. God’s providence brought forth a future. Joseph gave over his anger. He said to his brothers,

“Don’t be afraid! I have no right to change what God has decided. 20 You tried to harm me, but God made it turn out for the best, so that he could save all these people, as he is now doing. 21 Don’t be afraid! I will take care of you and your children.”  (Gen. 50:20-21).

Maybe, in the midst of this Methodist mess, God can make it turn out for the best, so that he could save all these people, as he is now doing.

 

 

 

It was a tough day, but there’s hope.

To all my non-Methodist friends, please be patient with me on this UMC lingo. Here’s a quick report from General Conference from today in St. Louis. In our session today, the “Traditional Plan” passed and the “One Church Plan” did not. I have advocated for the “One Church Plan” time and again as I think it gives flexibility to our churches and keeps the United Methodist Church from splitting. It would keep beloved ministries of our connection like Camp Glisson in tact! There is a chance it will be brought back up tomorrow, but for now it’s defeated.

It’s looking like tomorrow the “Traditional Plan” will be struck down because it is largely unconstitutional. However, there are two other “dissociation” provisions for churches that will likely pass tomorrow and be in line with the UMC constitution. It’s often referred to as a ‘gracious exit.’ What this could mean is that individual churches can vote to leave the denomination and take their property and assets with them.

I have heard reports for months that groups of churches and clergy are planning to exit the United Methodist Church as soon as the ‘exit strategy’ is passed. I’m a bit sad by all of this. I have no plans of leaving this church that has given me so much in my life. In fact, today I met some men from South Georgia who knew my grandparents and their ministry at Epworth by the Sea. It brought back fond memories of my grandparents’ gift of the church and Jesus to me. Being a United Methodist is a big part of who I am. As much as I disagree with some of the people I suspect might be leaving our denomination, I also love them. It will be sad to see them go. I was especially saddened to see the faces and social media post from gay friends who were disillusioned with the church’s defeat of the “One Church Plan.” They feel the church does not care about them or accept their call into ministry. The pain is real! That’s why this conference is hard.

But I’m also at peace. God could be doing something new in the midst of all of this. Jesus is still on the throne. I had a chance to visit with Candler students in a hotel lobby tonight. There were tears, prayers, music and laughter. They gave me bright hope for tomorrow. The Holy Spirit is still blowing upon the church.

It’s hard to love sometimes.

It’s been a long day. It started off with helping lead worship at Haygood. I love my church. Our District Superintendent preached for us. He did an amazing job. At least that’s what I have to say, right Mike? It really was a great sermon on Jesus praying for us in John 17. Our music ministry knocked it out of the park.

I had to book it out of church to make my 2:00pm flight for St. Louis. Had there been a long red light on the way to the airport I might not have made it! But I did. I’m here in St. Louis observing General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our delegates are here to make a decision about the church’s beliefs on human sexuality.

I got to my seat around 3:30 pm and a group of LGBTQ persons marched in step around the perimeter of the conference singing “Hate divides. Love provides.” Earlier in the day, the conference voted on their priorities of issues to address. Many saw this vote as sort of a straw poll of what plan will pass. (For more information about the plans, check out UMC.org). The number one vote-getter was (wait for it) the future of our pensions plan. In essence, the church wants to talk about money and what churches will be able to take with them should they decide to leave and break up of our denomination. The world is watching and our first priority was not theology, not unity, not even the Bible. It was money, plain and simple.  It was not one of our better moments.

I gain a sense the people are beginning to feel as though we have to come this place to witness a divorce in our church. There’s a foreboding mood. I’m not there. I do feel like there’s hope tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll consider all the plans we have heard about over the last three years. My own hope is we’ll choose the One Church plan that allows some flexibility in how our churches decide to move forward. It allows for churches who have a more traditional view on marriage to stay their course while also allows other churches to marry same-sex couples. To me, it’s the only way we the United Methodist Church can stay together.

It’s hard not to get sour. I mentioned to a friend that my devotion from this morning was I John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” She said, “Isn’t that just like God?” There’s part of me that doesn’t want to love right now. One the way out of the building there were protesters from Westboro Baptist Church yelling all sorts of slanders against gay people. (I guess you’re doing something right when they show up.) With all my being I want to tell those delegates in the United Methodist Church set against the full inclusion of LGBTQ that the UMC will be viewed by future generations in a similar way to those protesters from Westboro. That’s not the church God has called us to be.

It’s hard to love. But love, I must, if I’m to be a disciple of the one we call Jesus. Joy cometh in the morning.

Prosperity According to the Gospel

I’m challenged by the scripture for this week’s sermon. It’s Luke 6:20-26. He tells his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who are hungry…blessed are you who weep now.” Jesus calls the hurting and the vulnerable of the world “blessed.”

And then Jesus has some hard words for the powerful of the world when he says, “Woe to you who are rich…woe to you are full…woe to you who are laughing.”

Luke’s gospel shows us time and again God’s plan to turn the world upside down. If I’m honest with myself, I belong in more of the latter categories. By the world’s standards, I am rich. I have two cars, a house, two college degrees. We have enough food to feed a football team in our refrigerator.

We hear the word “prosperity” thrown around a lot these days. American prosperity seems to me to be rooted in the accumulation of wealth, goods and services. I’m guilty of such pursuits. Jesus is putting people like me on notice. It’s clear that God is on the side of the poor. He calls them blessed. Prosperity according to the gospel is not defined by wealth. God’s notion of prosperity is found in seeing people as God sees them.

But there’s good news in the bad news. The good news is we can make changes and reset priorities. God has called for a reversal of how we use our resources. In my own devotional life, I’m thinking about the season of Lent (the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter) as a time to support more initiatives to help the poor of the earth. It’s my hope that God will help me see more clearly and lovingly the people he calls blessed.

 

 

Make a splash church!

The ‘splash’ sound has been a sound I have loved throughout my life.

I love the splash of a basketball net! I remember many nights as a kid shooting on the goal at the end of our carport. The best sound in the world was to hear the ‘splash’ of the ball ripping through the net. In fact, I was picky about which nets I chose. Some made louder noises than others.

I love the splashes of the pool! My friends and I had a game growing up. We would try to rock the pool. We would line up at the diving board. Each of us would take a turn making a splash with a cannon ball until the whole pool rocked!

And I love the splashes Jesus made in his ministry. In a story from Luke 5, Jesus was standing beside a lake. He told one of the fishermen named Simon to set out into the deep part of the lake in his boat and to let down his net. Simon replied that he and his fellow fishermen had fished all night long and had caught nothing, but he was willing to give it a go. Simon let down his nets. To his surprise, he has to call others to help. As they strain to pull in the catch they are worried they’re going to break the nets because there are so many fish. Can you hear the splashes of the hundreds of fish as the net reaches the surface? Jesus knew how to make a splash. Jesus would call Simon to catch people from that point forward.

When we follow Jesus and reach new people, we need to make a splash. Rock the boat a bit and send waves into the community. Jesus made splashes everywhere he traveled. It was hard to miss Jesus. People were being healed, fed and raised from the dead. On many occasions, his presence incited rebuke and disdain. Whether people agreed with him or not, you knew Jesus was in the area.

For the modern church, Jesus has called us to make a splash. It’s time to let our communities know God is up to something. Stir up the church to get behind a Habitat House. Organize the youth and parents for a community movie night. Commission new people to sort clothes at the local shelter. Tell the good news of Jesus’ love in a local park. Whatever we do, there needs to be some noise, some activity, some pulling in of nets. Set out into the deep. Make a splash church.

Why I am going to General Conference

In late February, I am heading to St. Louis for General Conference. For those unfamiliar with the United Methodist Church, General Conference is a gathering of elected representatives for the global United Methodist Church. Although, I’m not one of those elected representatives, I love our church and want to be there. The session was called to address the church’s stance on human sexuality. They will be deciding on whether the church will ordain practicing homosexuals and allow same-sex marriages in our churches. They will consider three options for moving the church forward. There is much more to learn about General Conference than I have time to cover in this post. Learn more here. 

I have asked myself, “Why am I going?” For one, I have never been to General Conference and I’d like to see one as monumental as this one. Another reason is that I want to be where the action is. A friend told me a while back that if you want to become a good theological journalist, go to the action. Be in the room where it happens. But as I have thought more about it, the deeper reason is that I need to go where the pain is. Several people have told me not to go because I’ll see the worst of the church. My hope is that in the midst of the pain, I’ll be moved with mercy.

As I remember the story of the good Samaritan from Luke 10, I recall that the Samaritan  was moved to mercy because he came near the hurt of the bleeding man on the roadside. The issue of homosexuality has torn apart my beloved church. It feels like she’s in the ditch on the roadside bleeding. I want to come near where her pain is. Many view the only way to heal the wound is to split. But as I remember the story of the good Samaritan, I remember how he poured on the healing ointment, bandaged the wound and after a few days of rest, the healing took place. My hope and prayer for the church is that there is enough healing ointment left in the bottle.

Like most people, I have wrestled with how I feel about these issues. If I had written this post 5 years ago, I would have taken a traditional stance as much as that would have pained me. I found it hard back then to interpret the scriptures in a way that condoned same-sex marriages and the ordination of homosexuals. Since that time, I have changed my mind. I have re-read those scriptures and I do find other interpretations compelling. For instance, was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 19 about the evils of homosexuality or the evils of rape? I think it’s about rape.

More than anything, my heart has been moved by the great pain and doubt I have witnessed in many family and friends who are gay. They have struggled with their identity, their worth, their place in the church. I can’t bear to see it, nor do I think the God I have known all my life can either.

As I read the gospels, I read about the Jesus who said ‘woe to you experts of the law…because you have hindered those who were entering’ (Luke 11:52). I guess, what I mean is Jesus was hardest on the people who were sure they understood the teachings of the law and used those teachings to exclude. Jesus told them plainly they were wrong and needed to rethink who God included into the kingdom. Jesus would show throughout the gospel how expansive his heart was towards those pushed to the margins.

I have great faith that friends and loved ones who disagree with me (and I know there are many) do so out out of a love for the scriptures and a love for God. I pray you would extend the same sentiment towards me. I have changed my mind. I find today that changing your mind can come across as weak. But the more I read the scriptures, the more I see God changing people’s mind, like Paul who changed from being the great persecutor of the church to the great evangelist of the faith (Acts 9). Peter had his world rocked when God told him he could eat what the law had  prohibited. (Acts 10).

I’m looking forward to heading out to St. Louis. My prayer is the Holy Spirit will guide us. Whether people agree with me or not, I send an olive branch to you and say we can still be part of the same United Methodist Church we love. Whatever change may or may not happen, may we all abide in love for God and each other. May the healing ointment pour freely.