Walls, Bridges, and the Future of the UMC

horizon

Hello, my name is Grant, and I am an exile of the United Methodist Church. The exile is somewhat self-imposed, I’ll admit, but it is an exile all the same, as I am no longer a part of a body which I once loved dearly enough to want to work for its future.

The body has expelled not only me but a great number of my cohort. Many of the people that I know to be godly, spirit-filled people well-equipped for ministry in the UMC have been chewed up, spat out, and left embittered by the church. In fact I can only think of a handful are still doing ministry. I went to class with them, worshiped with them, and saw them grow, and nonetheless, the majority hit a wall.

Walls, sadly, seem to be the structures that the United Methodist Church desire to build.

This coming week is a big one for the UMC as hundreds gather together for the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, coming together to discuss what is being called “the Way Forward.” The issue that they ostensibly wish to tackle centers around the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, their marriage and ordination within the church, and all matters of faith that seem to revolve around this question. There have been countless digital and paper pages written about which way the People Called Methodists should go.

This is not one of those blogs.

I will not discuss the vagaries of the proposed plans, Traditional, Simple, One Church, or any alternative. I have no desire to hash out or defend any particular plan, as that is best left to the people who will discuss them in their committees. No, I simply wish to work out my many emotions and theories about the direction my spiritual home, my fellow bearers of the Holy Spirit, seem to be going in.

classic-chiseled-faceThe Rising Walls

Right now, it is my guess that the way that the church will decide to go will probably be the one that will be most painful for everyone involved. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but I simply do not think that, with all the money spent and power gained by the conservative/Traditional Plan supporters, there is slim chance that the General Conference will do anything but go with what they have defaulted to since the 1970’s. Yet, in the event that the Simple or the One Church plan does pass, the pain will be no less great. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. In every single event, every option will end with someone building a wall.

In the eyes of the people in favor of the Traditional plan, it is a matter of conservation. They believe that the correct path of the church is to defend itself against what they see are faulty or ungodly interpretations of God’s Word. Their faith is a faith that demands a wall be built between them and the ungodly who somehow defile or lessen the strength of the church’s authority. Their church, their faith, cannot withstand and encroaching world of gray uncertainty. And so they will build more walls. More divisions. And more people will run into those walls full force, and then dazed, will walk away disheartened.

Perhaps you might say my characterization is inaccurate, or insensitive to the dear and heartfelt beliefs of those in favor of the Traditional plan.

At this point in my life, I don’t care.

I used to care. I used to care very deeply, in fact. I dedicated my life to engaging in dialogue, creating an open space in study and in church meetings to discuss matters of all kinds of range and depth, often to wonderful results. However, this was in the local church, and when it comes to denomination-wide matters, the game changes entirely. Soon, control and power come into play in a whole new dimension. And the darkest, most fearful beliefs of those afraid of change, afraid of the other, and afraid that what they knew and loved might not always be how they imagined it would be come to the fore. Fear reigns. And when one is afraid, one seeks to defend. And what better defense is there than a wall?

I have seen what these walls do to those who believe in the gospel of transformation, renewal and grace. There is little grace in a wall, and there is little grace in the fearful. I am tired of being afraid of offending those who have little grace in their hearts. I am tired of being afraid of people who, in seeking to defend their little kingdoms from perceived threats, end up ostracizing, alienating, and disowning people who God desires to know, and love, and give grace to.

Mackinaw-Bridge-Walk-2018-from-south-tower-1Extending a Bridge

One of my dear friends in the Louisiana conference asked her congregation, “Who does God love?” In asking this question, she sought to truly probe those who let fear and suspicion color the gospel. Does God love the refugee child at the border? Does God love the woman who has an abortion? Does God love the Lesbian, the Gay man, the Bisexual? Does God love the Trans man, woman, or non-binary person? Does God love the sex worker? Does God love the poor? The African American? The Latinx? The downtrodden, the forgotten, and the unloved?

I will answer her question with a resounding YES.

God does love all of these people. And because God loves them, God wants us, in God’s church, to love them. 

God’s love is extensive, and radical, and life-changing. God’s love says YES. God’s love and grace is so vast it can encompass anyone who seeks it. God does not discriminate, and neither should we. More than that, God affirms the gifts and graces of all who seek to know the divine, and that includes all of the above and then some. God affirms and loves those who seek faithful relationships with each other, no matter how that might look.

On the other hand, God desires us to abandon our walls. God didn’t want us to build up huge towers. God, as revealed in Christ, told his followers to go out and tell people of the grace that God offers. Go to every town, every nation, every corner of the earth. Tell them what God has done for them, and then show them with their love.

I believe in an ever-changing world, influenced by the Almighty power, grace and love of the divine. I am convinced of a future that God is going to reveal to us in due time, and that future is revealed in the most “unconventional places.”

God’s love doesn’t look like a wall, or a building, or a bulwark or barrier. God’s love is a bridge, from the future to the present, an Advent realized when we understand that God’s power is manifest when we share in blessed communion with each other, and seek the good, the just, the merciful and the grace-filled.

constructionThe View of the Construction from Exile

No matter what happens, the church is going to be in pain for the foreseeable future. Walls will be built, no matter what. And in 20-30 years, those who built the walls will find that the ones they tried to exclude will still be inside their supposed safe-space, and will cry out for justice once again.

Because that’s the thing about God’s grace. You can try to resist it, and you might even succeed. But God is infinitely creative, and the cry for justice and love will never die, not completely. The fight will continue. But I believe that in the end, of course, we will see that the ones building bridges will have the new iteration of the church that looks just a bit more like God’s kin-dom. One that may not have as many people, or as much money, or power, or public prestige as the ones with the the high walls, but it will be vibrant, and rich, and life-giving. It’ll last longer, and give hope to those who need it. It’ll be warmer, and filled with much needed grace.

That’s the church I want to be a part of.

That’s the bridge I want to help build.

So this week is going to be hard. Walls will inevitably be built.

But we must always keep an eye to the future, to see what God’s going to do next among the rubble and the ruins.

God has a knack for resurrection, after all.

 

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Cold and Broken Hallelujahs: A meditation on Leonard Cohen, Shrek, Dystopia, and Hope

acoustic-guitar-playerWell I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah…

Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah…

But baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
You know, I used to live alone before I knew ya
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…

Well there was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me do ya
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah…

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya

And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…

–Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

There is no greater irony that a whole generation was introduced to this moving, powerful song in the movie Shrek.

That’s probably something Leonard Cohen would have smiled about, honestly. This song is about the complexities of life, of lost love gone sour, of the highs and the lows that compel us to sing hallelujahs, through a lover’s sigh, through a heartbroken weep, through a spiritual moan. The droning, rhythmic rhyming of the song, along with the repetition of the core lyric “hallelujah,” in both major and minor chords, is a masterwork in songwriting, and is rightly beloved to this day.

And I first heard in a movie about a farting ogre who wants to be left alone.

shrek-reboot-oh-no

Exactly.

 

Shrek is a dark, bizarro-world fairy tale, and was designed to be so by Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former Disney film producer who molded Shrek as a unsubtle middle finger to the Disney brand. Outwardly the parody is stark; the story is set in Duloc, a fantasy kingdom run by a tyrant who wants to rid the forest of fairy tale creatures, all the while insisting his sterile, joyless kingdom is the “perfect place.” In every corner, princess pastiche and fairy tale endings are mocked and brought down to the level of adolescent humor, farts, burps, and all. Nevertheless, the meaning of the film is one of realistic expectations: fairy tales aren’t real. Happy endings are rare, and when you get one, seldom will it look how you expected.

To this, I think Cohen would have approved. As do I.

Shrek has become a cultural touchstone, and a spawner of various and plentiful memes. The poignancy of the original film has been dulled by lackluster sequels and disappointing cash grabs. Like David, temptation dulled the shine of something that was good. Whereas David was tempted to abuse his power with Bathsheba, the property known as Shrek fell prey to the temptation of merchandising, sequel-izing, and diminishing returns. In the end, the song proved true, and all that is left of the property is a cold and broken hallelujah.

hqdefaultThe Shattered Utopian Myth

There is no such thing as a perfect place. At least, not realized on this earth just yet.

The farce of Shrek is that it’s a satire of Disney’s films as well as company image and practice, promising happy endings all the while commoditizing nostalgia. It says to the audience, “The things you were promised are not real. Sometimes, the world is terrible, and the best thing it can offer is a flimsy duplicate of a magical reality. But, in the end, you might find happiness if you accept yourself, and others, for who you truly are, warts and all.” That’s a valuable thing in this world. However, that doesn’t mean that the venomous bite of satire doesn’t still sting, and remind us that more often than not, the Lord Farquaads of the world win. The utopia we were sold isn’t real. The swamp is reality.

I want to talk about utopias and dystopias for a bit, because at this point in time, we need to take a good look at the world and appreciate what it really looks like, and how it’s always looked like. Specifically, we need to talk about the dystopic reality of America, and the hard truth that, actually, it’s always been pretty bad.

America was built upon mythic foundations. As soon as Europeans landed here, the myths began churning. For the Spaniards, it was a wilderness with untapped wealth, hoarding gold and riches undreamt-of before. The English and French wanted this wealth as well, and found instead of gold, vast plains for farming, mountains for mining, and animals for trapping. But, over time, another myth began to settle in: a myth of a new life in a new world. This was when the common people started settling, from puritans seeking freedom from persecution, to poor settlers just wanting a chance away from the cramped cities of Europe. More and more Europeans spilled into the west, and gobbled up the continent, and when the United States was founded, a new myth found life: Manifest Destiny. This kick started the engine of discovery and land acquisition. When at last the USA spanned from sea to shining sea, we had declared the land tamed, conquered, and our Shining City on a Hill was all but complete. Fast forward to World War II, we came into unprecedented wealth and industrialization, fueling another myth: the American Dream. This myth has continued to tantalize the masses to this day, and spur many a dreamer to entrepreneurship and fortune.

If you will notice clearly that all of these myths exclude some people. Specifically, the indigenous people of the Americas before the Europeans arrived, as well as the African slaves and their descendants that Europeans stole from their home continent. Oh, and can’t forget the women who were disenfranchised politically until only the 20th century. Let alone all of the other immigrants from all over the world that are systematically disenfranchised and taken advantage of. The myths of America are not for them. They do not fit in America’s Duloc-perfect vision of society. For them, America has only promised a swamp.

There are many in America today who yearn for a supposed bygone age of greatness, that we must return to. That age was always a myth though, a myth that tantalized people to maintain the utopian lie we were sold. There have always been disenfranchised people in America. The past is not great, and never has been. Duloc isn’t real, and the king has always been compensating for something.

America has almost always been a dystopia, if we’re being honest. And we need to be honest, because our hallelujahs, though they might be in earnest, are not always filled with joy. They are all too frequently filled with pain, heartache, anger and fear.

flower-hope-earth-climate-change-e1493332891171Hope in the Midst of Dystopia

This semester, I’ve been given the opportunity to take a class on the theologies of Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg. If you don’t know who these guys are, that’s fine; I didn’t until last fall. However, a number of my colleagues cite them as primary influences, specifically their insistence on hope. I’m going to be challenged by them, to be sure, not only because of the learning curve required when reading German theologians in general, but because hope is always a challenge.

Hope has always been a challenge, specifically to the reality of now. Hope is a belief in a future that things will be better, despite all of the terror and despair in the present. Moltmann wrote his theology of hope in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead of rejecting God, as many philosophers and academics did, Moltmann doubled down on a positive, hopeful eschatology, a promise that in the end, God in Jesus Christ will right what is wrong with our present reality, our dystopic present, and redeem it.

Moltmann and Pannenberg had no illusions about the myths we tell ourselves, or the dystopic realities of the 20th century. I often find myself wallowing in despair about how broken things are. In that, I find that I probably need a season of my life examining hope.

In other words, hope might get me to leave my swamp.

Hope can inspire hallelujahs that might be warm, whole, and joyful. The cold and broken realities may not last. Duloc’s tyrant might be overthrown. And we might indeed find a happy ending, if not a fairy tale ending. It certainly won’t be the way we expect it to be.

And that suits me just fine.

 

 

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January Lament

287px-bertram_mackennal_-_griefO that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
[a] as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.[b]
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered[c] us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
10 Your holy cities have become a wilderness,
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem a desolation.
11 Our holy and beautiful house,
where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire,
and all our pleasant places have become ruins.
12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

–Isaiah 64:1-12

cb2fc387-2fe6-450f-81d6-794680d20ebd

This picture has raised the hackles of many a friend of mine, and many an American, for good reasons. In view is two Americas: on the right, represented by Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, cries into the world the desire for justice, fairness, and for the very right to be heard at the Indigenous People’s March. On the left, an (as of yet) unnamed high school student, who had come to the capitol for another march, the March for Life, an anti-abortion rally, earlier in the week. Accompanying him are others from his same school, Covington Catholic High School, a private religious institution sponsoring him and his classmates for this event. Were they to remain in their own rally, for their own purpose, I have little qualms with. I might disagree with the anti-abortion lobby, but they have a right to free speech as much as anyone.

The problem though, is that everyone else does too. And that is something this young man could not allow without mocking and harassing other people. More than that, marginalized people, people who have historically been victims of genocide and abuse.

Atop his head, of course, is a hat that says “Make America Great Again.”

How, exactly does this smug child, obviously encouraged by the adults in his life to behave in this fashion, make America great? Of course this is rhetorical. America, for him, won’t be great until all people he deems beneath him are put in their place.

Such is the history of America.

I was raised in the nineties. I was told all my life that racism was over, the battle for gender equality was overblown and winding down, and everything was going to be better in the future. All of this, of course, was told to me within my own bubble of white privilege. I’ve previously talked about how my eyes have been opened multiple times in my life by the violence, hatred, and depravity of the world, usually done by people of my own demographic. From the backlash in small-town Texas against the violence of 9/11, in which discrimination, abuse and persecution of people of middle-eastern and Asian descent, to the perennial under-the-radar segregation and violence against African Americans becoming more and more overt, to the floodgates of misogyny blowing open on the internet more and more, to the election of Donald Trump, who began his candidacy by calling Mexicans drug dealers and rapists, although a few might be good people, this country I call home has either descended further into madness at a more rapid pace, or I’m just paying attention more.

The more time goes by, I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. The more I read of our history, the more I see and hear of the experiences of black people, Asian people, Latinxs, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ people, the more I understand how much I’ve been sheltered. How much I am truly protected, from history books to my own church.

This is not a blog of self-flagellation, by any means. This is simply a lament, as my anger at the injustice of the world boils at this moment, seeing in a boy protected from real persecution, real danger, real trouble, lord his privilege over a man who has fought his entire life for decency and equality.

I quoted the chapter from Isaiah earlier because I am in a mood to lament. Not enough is made of the art form of lament, and I can think of no time like the present to exercise it. We live in the decline of an empire, to be sure, and it is incumbent upon me, and all my religious brethren and sistren, to confess our own complicity, and lament the fact that we have contributed and allowed such pride that protects smug harassment, such avarice that permits the ongoing economic injustices that plague 99% of Americans for the benefit of less than 1%, and such apathy that fuels our complicity. Our world is both burning and drowning. Our children are starving. Our neighbors are in need. Where are the hands and feet of God? Too often, we find ourselves just wishing that it’d all go away, so we retreat into our churches, and pray for God to do something, when God is out there, calling us out to do something ourselves, to participate in the changes and the action that are being carried out by our African American sisters and brothers, our queer and marginalized family, our underrepresented neighbors.

So I lament the state of the world. I lament that we we stuck in a state of paralysis, where evil goes unpunished and good goes to an early grave. I lament how the church has stood back not wishing to get its hands dirty, to not take a side, or even to contribute to the injustice of the world against the marginalized, the poor, and the persecuted.

I also lament myself. I lament not taking sides before. I lament keeping silent and not defending others. I lament saying things to people in my youth that I regret, things that nobody should say. I lament my own participation in injustice. I lament not speaking up sooner. I have learned the hard way that playing along and keeping your head down only allows someone the opportunity to put a boot on your neck later on down the line.

I and so many others are caught between rage and nihilism. In this moment of anger and lament, I wanted to share these thoughts with you all. I’m unaccustomed to direct action or protest, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn, or participate. I’m working on my cowardice. But words… I can do words, at least.

So I lament, so that I can fight the good fight.

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A Resort at Dawn

newton-vineyardsAscribe to the Lord, you gods, *
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; *
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

3 The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.

4 The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.

5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; *
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;

6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.

7 The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; *
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

8 The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.

9 And in the temple of the Lord *
all are crying, “Glory!”

10 The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; *
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.

11 The Lord shall give strength to his people; *
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

–Psalm 29, NRSV

In the wee hours of the night, the mind tends to wander.

I’m writing these blog posts mostly in the spare time I have as a night auditor at a resort in Napa, California. Rest assured, I get my work done efficiently and well, and one of the upsides is that this particular job affords me time to read, study, and most of all, write. I jokingly call myself a Vampire Hotelier on twitter because some days, it truly feels like I am a vampire. My nights and my days are interchangeable at times. It gets dizzying during the school year when I’m switching between day schedules and night schedules.

There’s a magical span of time, around 4-5am, when things get extremely calm. I frequently feel like time stops. I used to get sleepy then, but nowadays I’m well stocked with instant coffee and teabags to keep away the sleepiness. But still, the magic hours get rough, especially after a 5 day run at the hotel.

But then, around 6:45 these days, dawn breaks. The fog begins to separate. Fresh dew descends upon the fields, and shine as the first rays of sunlight shine upon the resort’s vineyards. And ringing in my ears come the words of this song of praise.

In the silence, the booming voice of creation can be heard. Life erupts as a whisper in the fields, the hills and the running waters of the bay. Before the rest of the world wakes up, before the hills are abuzz with the cars of the morning commute, I get to commune in the cold, glimmering dawn, and hear the voice of God.

Few jobs can offer you the chance to hear God each morning. Fewer still can do so in such beautiful environs. When DeSay and I started dating, we often talked of travel, and our future. We dreamed about where to take a honeymoon, and I sheepishly confessed that I’d dreamed of doing it in San Francisco. Of course, her being from Sonoma and the bay area of California, this led her to laugh–we wound up going there within our first six months together to celebrate her birthday. I still remember our drive from the airport to the Sonoma hills, in the darkling haze of midnight. My face was pressed against the car window, drinking in the vast, looming shapes of the hills and cliffs that surround San Francisco. Even in darkness, I’d never been someplace so beautiful, so obviously shaped by the hands of God.

Now, I enjoy it every morning.

God sent me out here to California for a reason, that much is obvious. Things would not have fallen together so neatly out here otherwise. I was accepted at an institution that welcomed by unique interests. We were surrounded by loving and supportive family, helping us get a new, fresh start. Within a few months, I was able to find this job that suited my unique situation. God ordained it that we be here.

And to remind me, each morning, I see the divinely shaped hills, and witness the glorious dawn.

I hear the silent roar of God’s voice.

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A Confusing Epiphany

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”

 

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

–Matthew 2:1-12

epiphany-feast-day-magis-visit-baby-jesus-176@1x

Thinking about the Epiphany is an exercise that I always cherished, but this year, I’m in a completely different setting, in a completely different place, with a completely different circumstance. Therefore, I’m coming at Epiphany with an entirely different mindset, and I have to wonder:

 

Do you think the Magi were just a little bit confused, and maybe even disappointed?

Hear me out. They walk for God knows how far to arrive at the palace of Herod, fully expecting that their journey was over. They read the signs, and went to the place where they thought would be the end of their road, ready to head home after paying homage to the new king, only to be met by a puzzled Herod, who had no earthly idea what they were talking about. They had to explain the math, and tell the king their predictions. But in their heads, they were no doubt doing another set of calculations. The king had no new child born. The star still shone over Bethlehem, miles away. And undoubtedly, news had traveled about the kind of King Herod was (spoilers: he’s atrocious). So when Herod asks them to return after finding this new king, all three immediately said of course they would return.

I expect it was not 5 minutes after leaving the palace that they knew they had to make a choice. Return, and doom a child foretold by prophecy, or completely avoid Herod, return home another way, and hope that they make it back across the borders so that they were out of Herod’s jurisdiction before Herod found out.

We know the decision they made.

What we are told in the scriptures is that they were overjoyed when they found the Christ child. I have no doubts this is true. Knowing that the child was alive, as well as the family, and surrounded by loving parents and neighbors (note this was about 2 years after his birth) would be a relief.

But also, not a little disappointing.

Why? Well, this was the humble home of a construction worker, builder and stone mason. The child was but a peasant. I’m sure some old scholars used to the trappings of academia and the halls of nobility were disappointed to some extent. Furthermore, there was probably even more concern now that they had found the child. This family, let alone this town, had little defense against a mad king, with an entire army at his right hand. Herod would burn the city to the ground, or wreak havoc so devastating that the people here would have wished he had.

Of course, we know that’s exactly what he did too. Herod ordered that all the children under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem be slaughtered. Joseph and Mary were on the run as refugees in Egypt, escaping his wrath. But I guarantee you, the parents of those slaughtered children probably wish that life had ended after that day. No parent should have to bury a child. No parent should have to see their child ripped from their arms. And no parent should have to submit in such a way to such a tyrant.

The Epiphany is a moment of joy, of course. But the joy doesn’t last. It’s followed by terror and blood. Such is often the way of the world. Joy is fleeting, and often afterwards we are left to ask:

Was the joy worth it?

Was the joy of Christmas worth the slaughter of innocents? Was it worth the terror of knowing that doom would fall upon this family, if not sooner than later? Death and terror at the hands of tyrants would follow Jesus all his life, and would eventually end it. Jesus may not have feared…but not everyone is Jesus.

What a dangerous time we live in now, when tyrants reign, and fear clutches the hearts of parents, children, and the marginalized once more. One could say, of course, that tyrants always manage to grab power, and that this isn’t new, it’s just more overt than ever. What I would give to live in better days. But then again, that reminds me of kindly words from another wise man, given voice by a kindly linguist from Britain.

gandalffeature

It’s Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. Of course it is. If you didn’t know i was going to use this reference you obviously don’t know me.

When I sigh, and say “I wish none of this had ever happened,” the words of Gandalf echo in my ear and say,

So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Christmas always is a joyful season, but always comes with the reminder of how close to danger we always are. When light emerges, darkness grows bolder, wilder, more chaotic.

So it’s up to us to make the hard choices.

Do we cower in fear? Or do we live our truth, and speak it boldly?

I hope that we all might do so. I hope we let the light of Christmas never dim, even in the face of tyranny and evil. I hope we have the courage to take action, and not let darkness consume us.

May the Epiphany, though it might illuminate that which would disappoint us, confuse us, or cause us fear, instead embolden us to live in the light.

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Renewal

Happy new year, everyone.

It’s been a long one, and I’m still here. After everything, after the hurricane of life that was 2018, I’m still here. And more importantly, I’m still me!

Leaving everyone hanging after An Amputation was obviously not my desire, and for those who follow me and my life, I apologize for letting my blog rust a bit. This is fairly standard behavior at this point, though, so… yeah.

It’s the new year though, and this is going to be a good one. I can feel it. I’m out of a toxic environment, and an ill-fitting occupation. I’m in a new job that, while perhaps not my ideal occupation, suits me well for the time being. More importantly, I’m done with my first semester of PhD classes, and beginning a new one in February. My curation of this blog will, as usual, be up in the air, but I hope to write in it more frequently.

As it is the new year, such is the time to make resolutions for the year to come, promises made to one’s self that inevitably tend to get broken. But this year, I have three achievable goals to attain that I’ll share:

  1. Learn Italian well enough to take the research language proficiency exam.
  2. Get a paper of mine published.
  3. Explore California with my wife, DeSay.

The first is a rather bare minimum goal. It’s necessary, and required. Nonetheless, it’s important to make a goal like this anyways. I need to be active about it. I plan on using Duolingo to get there, so if you want to buddy up with me, I’m down for it, just message me!

The second is a lifelong dream of mine. I’m a writer, and I’ve always dreamt of making writing my living. Getting a paper published is a big first step in that direction. It’s daunting, but I want it. So why not this year?

Finally, I need to make progress with not only my career, but with myself and with my relationship with my wife. When we were dating, we’d often message each other, and dream about traveling all over the world. As we may not have the means to be world travelers, we can make the time this year to travel our own backyard a bit. There’s tons to do out here. I’m still new to the state. I want to see Yellowstone, and the beaches of San Diego. I want to see the mountains of the Sierra Nevadas, and everything this state has to offer. And I want to do it with my soulmate.

I’ve got a new life out here, one I’ve always wanted. Therefore, I’m going to start the year with optimism, renewed by purpose and a wide open world to explore, personally and professionally.

I’ve been given a chance few ever get. I’m gonna make the most of it.

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An Amputation

I’m struggling with my beliefs on the church.

Don’t get me wrong of course. I’m still very faithful to my God. That has never been in question, to be honest. My general systematic framework of belief is still there.

But that ecclesiology bit… always needed some work.

Part of that is my anthropology, a concept I’ve been thinking about a great deal–so much so that I’m centering my dissertation around the question, or so my current thinking is going. What I believe about humanity has severely fluctuated over time. I used to reject the concept of total depravity of humanity. I desperately wanted to believe in the inherent goodness of people, and their capacity to do good in the world.

That belief is shaken. The reason for that lies in the church.

I’m going to lay some things out there for you, dear reader, that I have been sitting on for a while, partly because it’s not general knowledge, and it’s fairly sensitive. I’m going to start talking about how I got to be in the place where I am now. No longer a pastor. No longer in any sort of traditional ministry. And, for the time being, no longer a part of any church organization.

Believe me when I say that this is not a place I thought I would ever have thought that I would have been in the past. I was a die-hard for the United Methodist church. I mean, dyed in the wool, born and bred in the Methodist mold. Born in a Methodist hospital, raised in a Methodist household. It wasn’t for lack of nurture that I came to my faith tradition. Oh, I dabbled in other denominations–I was, as many of you know, Presbyterian in college–but my home remained with Wesley and those peculiar people of his.

I had known for years that I was called to ministry in some capacity. I doubled down to the point that I believed that I was called to United Methodist ordination as an elder. I went to a United Methodist school of theology. I did the courses, got the Master’s degree. I went through everything, firm in my belief that I was called to the office of elder.

Reality tends towards a praxis of rude awakening.

I was assigned as an associate pastor to a congregation that wanted an associate, but had a senior pastor who desperately did not want one at all. I had no clear direction, and what drive I had either was thwarted by my shattered preconceptions of what a senior pastor would and should be, and the loneliness of being sent to somewhere that was so far from my peers. I had hoped to be an associate somewhere in Houston, and craved the mentoring of a caring senior pastor, but got neither. Disappointed, but not defeated, I did my best in that appointment. I made my share of mistakes, but I’m proud of what I attempted to do there. Sadly, my attempts were not met with the results I expected.

A year and a half into my first appointment, I was given the ultimatum: mess up again, and you are out.

I was given very little confidence by my superiors. I was told that “many are called, few are chosen.” I was even told by a superior that I straight up was not actually called to be a pastor.

That hurt. A lot. A deep scar that I still carry.

I was moved to a different location. 2 churches who needed a senior pastor. Never mind that I had been given little instruction in how to manage churches as a senior pastor, mind you. Forget that I still very much craved a good mentor, and a metropolitan locale. The church told me I was to go elsewhere, and so I did, good little believer in the system that I was.

I floundered. I struggled. My health was in decline, my depression and anxiety worsened. I was surrounded by very few people of my own age or mentality. I felt isolated, spiritually, mentally, and physically.

The wound was deepening. The separation was widening.

For three years, I struggled. With some good mentoring by a few kind, caring pastors that I grew to be friends with, I believed I improved as a pastor. I honed my edge. I got better as a pastor. I got better at interpersonal relations, got more outgoing, did more things in the community. I thought I was making progress.

I was told it wasn’t enough.

Perhaps not outright, but to my ears, I was told that -I- wasn’t enough.

My superiors were resolute. They saw neither the gifts nor the graces for ordained ministry in the office of the elder. They saw me struggling in my context. They saw my mistakes as irreconcilable. Funny that, being church people, they saw me as not worth saving in this vocation, despite my insistence on my calling, despite my progress. My sins were too great. My failures too catastrophic. My fruits an unworthy offering. With a kind eye, they denied me the goal I had been seeking for ten years. They gave me a choice: give up, or be denied by the board of ministry officially.

I was too tired. I was too broken. My spirit was too wounded.

I gave up, and was amputated from my dream. A dream I had worked for ten years to achieve. A dream that, in part because of the hand that fate had dealt me, and in part because I had mismanaged the hand sufficiently, I could no longer see to fruition.

It’s been a rough few months, but I’m learning to cope with the grief of it all. Yes, it is grief. I’ve done reading on moving on. I’ve prayed quite a bit. But going back to school has hammered home the fact that, to be honest, I have no church home. My church rejected my call to ministry.

I do harbor resentment to the church, resentment that will probably take years to deal with in my conversations with God. I’m in a better place, both physically and emotionally. The California air and culture agree with me better than Texas did, but that doesn’t quite make it home. I’m not sure if I have a home, outside of my family. The United Methodist church has certainly not felt like home to me since my departure from ministry. That the church I was looking forward to joining as an elder, and changing from the inside, is on the brink of schism brings me no joy. Profound sadness has permeated my thoughts on the church, and its ongoing troubles only exacerbate that sadness.

My home denomination may not exist much longer, but whatever happens to it, it will happen with me as an outsider. Even if I found a United Methodist church to join with, it won’t ever truly feel like home, not after the rejection I’ve felt and experienced.

I feel that my ecclesiology has been amputated, and I was the one who had to cut the final strands. But amputation can be a good thing. It can salvage a limb that had gone gangrenous, or cancerous. It can even leave opportunity for replacement that, while maybe not ever organic, can still function similarly, with some determination and adjustments. It won’t ever be the same though. It can’t remain the same.

I can’t remain the same, and I can’t mourn forever.

I guess I’m grieving still, for the foreseeable future. I’m going to have to work on my beliefs on the church, and it may not be as strong as it once was.

But it will be healthier.

Here’s to health.

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