Seven Years a Pastor

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speak and pray peaceI didn’t mention it on a Sunday morning or even much in conversations with anyone until this past weekend, but this month marks our seventh anniversary at Church in Bethesda. Before moving to Bethesda I was a youth pastor, a worship AV tech, and a church planter, but this position has been my first and only position as a lead senior pastor.

There’s so much I still don’t know, and many mistakes are littered along the path of what God has done with us and through us. There have been joys and pains, disappointments and celebrations. I’ve been thinking this week about lessons I might have learned along the way in the last seven years, and I made some notes as my thoughts distilled. Here are a few things I think I’ve learned or at least begun to attempt to incorporate into my life along the way…

1) I’ve stopped ever making that dumb old joke about “working with people would be awesome, if it weren’t for the people.” In ministry circles you might here, “Well, church work is great, except for the people” or something along those lines… and invariably the person making the joke does love the people, they just have really had a hard time with relationships and interpersonal dynamics of late. Working with people is undeniably tough. Minsters get to not only see people at their best and worst, but also hear from people at their best and worst. As trying as the job can be, I’ve decided that such a joke about people has no appropriate place in my thoughts or words. I mean what does that line really mean? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone agreed with me? Or if they thought like me? Or would just do what there were told to do? Yuck. Where’s the Spirit, the creativity, the joy and growth in that?

2) I rarely say things like “the Bible says” or even use the word “Bible.” I tend these days to speak far more about “our scriptures” or even the “biblical narrative” in such and such place in scripture. If I want to mention or quote a passage, I’ll reference it’s author instead of referencing that name we print on the cover as if God approved that draft cover personally before it went into printing. The phrase “the Bible says” is misleading and is used far too hurtfully far too many times. The word Bible itself simply means paper or book, from the Greek ta biblia. It seems in Medieval times we coined the phrase Biblia Sacra, and now our English scriptures all come emblazoned with Holy Bible. God’s greatest work is in us, not on paper.

3) I can trust people. I could blame it on being Gen-X, or to listening to The Wall too many times growing up (or last week), but the bottom line is that I tend toward  having “Introverted Cynic” stamped on my forehead. I often expect the worst, and like most other self-fulfilling prophecies, I can get the worst or incite the worst. But seven years of pastoring has shattered my cynical delusions. Dang it, people are so good and so beautiful, even when the hard days roll around. I can give myself to them, and it’s ok. I can give myself to you.

4) I can trust God. I have known some pain in the last seven years, and I’ve known some good times. Sort of a scriptural story, huh? Sort of a life story. There’s rarely a plot line in anyone’s personal or professional life that takes an arc of joy through only good times… instead there are challenges, obstacles and dark valleys of shadow to traverse, and through them all God is a constant of goodness.

5) If I have a blessing to give, I need to give it freely and with love. I remember singing it as a child in church classes, “He said freely freely, you have received, freely freely give / Go in my name and because you believe, other will know that I live.” The freely give part is from the semi-famous statement of Jesus in Matthew 10:8 when Jesus sends the Twelve on a very specific mission to preach in the villages of Israel. “Freely you have received, freely give.” Jesus will later expand their mission from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria and the ends of the earth, and I think the reciprocity of giving as we have received remains in effect. I need to be giving, freely sharing, reaching out.

There’s nothing earth shattering here. I wish that in seven years I might have discovered the magical way to eternally balance a church budget (or my own), or a hidden verse that could be prayed thirty times a day to cure male pattern baldness. No such luck. I think I would characterize the last seven years as a deepening as much as growth.

I know I’m different today than I was seven years ago, and I’m lead more and more to my knees with the Jesuit prayer I began using a while back to sign off on my blogs and had tattooed on my arm, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.” To the greater (multiplying) glory of God. And in that glory of God exists the blessing of the earth and all it’s people, animals and beautiful matter. Amen.

AMDG, Todd

Ferguson: The Need to Listen

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Before Ferguson becomes old news in the wake of a more recent death or similar narrative to the sad loss of Michael Brown’s life, I want to ask just one thing of my beloved friends and neighbors who are not African American: Please, start listening and validating your African American neighbors’ stories, fears and feelings.

civility oct 6 2012

It’s time for us to fully hear and validate the narratives from our African American sisters and brothers across this country. We have to listen, to hear the fear and to hear the pain, and we must accept it. It can be such a blessing to be heard, and such a hurt to be ignored.

When something like the death of Michael Brown occurs, the fatal police shooting of an unarmed young African American male, we begin to hear the multitude of voices saying that this is status quo for their neighborhood. They say that this just part of being black in America, that it’s their fear for their own children, and that it’s just another white man killing a black man. We need to listen to these voices.

I resist listening because to do so is painful. Another armed white man has killed an another unarmed black man, and won’t face any charges, because that’s just the way it is in America. As a white man I cringe and want to look away, to “listen away” if only I could. I want it to not be true. I want it to be wrong. I want to deny the voices. But to deny the words, to ignore the words or to argue against the reality of my neighbor’s fear, pain and frustration, is to add insult to their injury. In fact, it’s worse than insult. It’s further injury.

It’s painful to validate the pain of my neighbor because I must then help carry it. I will sometimes do this for people I know and love, say the people in my family or my closest friends… but to carry the pain of a stranger? To carry the pain of a stranger, a pain that is also an indictment of me and the so near and present history that has been a huge part of me being who I am, and where I am, and what I have? That’s hard for me, a white man.

And yet, listening is exactly what I need to do. I have to listen and believe in the person speaking. I have to validate their story. I must value and give dignity to the experience of my hurting neighbor. If I cannot hear and value my neighbor, then I cannot speak to and journey with my neighbor. I will have already taken from them the value of their presence.

We all need to be heard and validated. When our African American neighbors speak, they must be heard. When their stories are told, we must welcome them to share. And when we are shamed by their words and begin to feel the hurt they are sharing, we must carry it with them. This is the only road to the future.

When our African American neighbors speak of their fear of raising children and the specter of death from police shooting, we must listen. When they speak of fearing the police, we must listen. When they speak of being misunderstood and harassed by white law enforcement, we must listen. When their story is painful to us, we must pay the price of listening.

There’s no way forward other than giving the dignity of thoughtful listening, and the validating worth of being heard. We cannot simply choose a side and hunker down with our arguments in our better neighborhoods and hope for compelling distractions to ease our disquiet… at least until the next shooting.

There are many narratives, and they must be equally heard. The Ferguson narrative is not the only African American narrative of contemporary America, but it is an authentic and valuable narrative that needs to stand alongside the other stories of being an American today.

There are also streams of experience that cut across the many narratives. We won’t begin to find a way forward between communities and their police forces as long as we ignore the real fear, the real pain and the real distrust engendered by histories of abuse, injustice and neglect.

A new narrative comes from our collective pain over the past and present, our redressing of wrongs and our belief in one another. When white Americans quote “black-on-black” crime statistics and point to the background looting that so often accompanies the peaceful voices begging to be heard, we do a deep injustice to the future, theirs and our own.

We cannot just say that we want to move forward. We have to be fully present now. We must trustworthy listeners. Although there is a goodness in attempting to be “color blind,” I’m afraid the weakness of that idea exists in it’s refusal to validate the divergent stories and experiences of different colors.

black like meSo, I’m trying harder than ever to listen, and I ask you to as well. Seek out the stories. Let the voices have their say and be heard. I ask you to want to better understand. Toward that goal, I’m reading Black Like Me at the moment. What the heck, I grew up in Texas and didn’t read this in school!? I grew up a few miles from the author’s home town and never heard of John Howard Griffin!!! Come on, Texas! I only know of him now because my dear friend David Gerard, who is African American, mentioned him in a poem I’m going to share in this post. David is also a musician, a poet and a gracious soul.

wanna hollerYears ago I was affected by reading Nathan McCall‘s  Makes Me Wanna Holler, a book of pain that forced me to hear someone’s story that was so very different from my own. It was hard to read and I wanted to argue at times, but his story needs to be heard and understood.

Maybe you have heard of “the talk,” the talk given to young black men by their parents who fear for them? This is a real part of growing up in America for many families, and we should all own that shame and want a better future.

I ask you, to hear my friend David’s poem, and to love him as I do. I’m going to reproduce the poem here and try to get his arrangement as visually true to his pdf he sent me as possible…

THE RACE CARD

when I try to tell my friends
what it’s like to be a black man in America
they evoke a patronizing empathy

when I try to tell my friends
that there is one standard for me
and a double standard between us
they seek refuge in their denial

when I try to tell my friends
how every black man ever stopped by the Police
wonders if he’ll be shot to death
they say I’m just being melodramatic

when I tell them that i’m nothing
in the eyes of authority
and that my life is easily expendable
they try to change the subject

when I tell my friends
that every black teen from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown
is six feet under due to prejudice and brutality
they ask me to look at “the other side” of things

when I tell my friends
to go undercover, as John Howard Griffin did
and notice the difference in how they are treated
they accuse me of “playing the race card”

when I was twenty-two,
I was talking with a friend
in the lobby of a moviehouse
when a bunch of cops came in

in search of a suspect
they pinned me to the wall and frisked me
because they were looking for a black man

when the victim saw me
and said to them, “That’s not him”
they took their hands off me and left
without apology

when I try to tell my friends
the humiliation and shame I felt
and their casual disregard
they say, “they were just doing their job”

when I try to tell my friends
they will never know what it is
to walk a mile in a black man’s shoes
they just don’t get it

my friends accuse me of playing “the race card”
but that hand was already dealt to me
the day I was born.

18 August, 2014

I thank David for telling his story. I pray that we listen better,  and that together we all can make a way forward, a way that tells and values our stories, and writes a better one for tomorrow.

AMDG, Todd

 

Old Books, Good Friends

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WP_20140818_003On a lighter note, Teresa started rereading one of our favorite series of novels, and I followed suit. We’ve been fans of David & Leigh Eddings for a long time enjoying The Belgariad books and the same host of characters into The Mallorean books. We’ve often read his two related trilogies, The Ellinium and The Tamuli. He’s a masterful story teller, so much that we even read Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress, both retellings of each other and much the previous books. Can’t get enough! One scene in The Ellinium caused me to shout in surprise and almost throw the book the first time I read it. Good stuff. 

Digging into the first book of The Belgariad I was struck by a re-introduction to one of the main characters, Durnik the Smith. I would have thought, being the tenth time I’ve read this series over the years, that I couldn’t be surprised by anything. But I had not thought of Durnik in so long, it was like reconnecting with an old friend. Sound silly? We are big re-readers at our house, Teresa and I both. Rereading beloved books series is a comfort. This time is was also a welcome reunion.

Have you reread anything lately? Do you operate with the kind of imagination that relates to the most beloved characters on a level close to friendship and deep affection? Jumping into these novels again has reaffirmed for me the gifting with which some novelists have blessed my life. Of course, the characters are fictional, but the blessing of sharing imagination and fantasy with the likes David & Leigh Eddings, R.A. Salvatore and Frank Herbert over the years has been a tangible, palpable joy.

AMDG, Todd

Suicide. Grace. God.

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genieIt’s hard to say goodbye to someone who has been an integral part of the American experience for so many years, and yet someone the vast majority of us did not really know. Robin Williams was a comedic genius who gave us so many voices to enjoy. He could make us laugh with only a facial expression, but when he opened his mouth, and who knew what was going to come out, we would all be giddy and goofy with anticipation. What a soul! He will be missed in this life, and cherished and loved for his gifts.

He was also a human being, and had all the flawed brokenness that is so endemic to our daily struggle. Like many others, he was not immune to depression because of money, fame or success. Probably the money, fame and success were some of the things that could exacerbate his depression. I’m not doctor, so I don’t speak from medical training. I’m just someone who has grappled with depression my entire life, and I can relate to the reality of the best times bringing on the worst. If you have asked, “How could he be depressed with all the money and fame?” then you’re probably not someone who has struggled with chronic depression. For you this could an opportunity to realize how difficult it has been for that friend or family member to deal with their depression. It defies logic. It is very real. It is not chosen.

So while we mourn and look around and listen to one another, there were a few things I’m not always hearing and I wanted to make sure got clearly said…

1) Depression doesn’t separate you from God’s love. No one should assume that struggling with chronic depression is in any way necessarily an indicator that someone has rejected God, lost God’s love or is trying to live life without God. There is no scriptural basis for that kind of judgment or condemnation.

2) Depression is never bigger than God’s grace and love. That goes for anyone who attempts suicide, succeeds at suicide or is a survivor left by a loved one who commits suicide. To be reminded that God’s grace is bigger than suicide is not to say that suicide is ok. Suicide is painful, hurtful and devastating for the survivors. And yet, suicide also flows from some of the deepest pain and anguish that we carry as humans. As our hearts are moved and made raw by the anguish of suicide, can we believe that the heart of God is any less moved? There’s no scriptural basis for saying that suicide is an instant separation from God… that’s a traditional teaching that needs to be corrected.

3) Beware the isolation. I’m not speaking here specifically to Robin Williams’ experience, but in a broader sense… don’t go it alone. Chronic depression and the feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and shame that it engenders will move you to separate yourself from others. Please don’t. Seek people. Start with a doctor who can help you determine if there’s a medical need that requires treatment, and get with a healing community… your friends, family, church, synagogue, temple, mosque, etc.

4) Don’t help isolate people who are depressed! Please, don’t turn away from someone who is struggling with a depression that you don’t understand. Help create a community of hope and healing where you live. Read, study and pray to be prepared to be a healing presence for someone in need. Be prepared to love and to help as much as someone will let you.

5) For my fellow followers of Christ, if a “Christian” blogger or group speaks of suicide in a judgmental, accusatory fashion, lacking the grace and love we expect from Jesus, then for the love of Jesus DO NOT SHARE THAT BLOGGER! Why is it that the worst opinions and perspectives I have seen on the death of Robin Williams have been from “Christian” groups? This is not as it should be, and the solution is ours to enact. I refuse to link to them and expand their influence by sharing their hate and/or ignorance, even to refute and disown their words. Please, please, please be discerning.

If you’re up against that wall, when depression and it’s crippling grip have a hold, I’m yours. Email me, ok? We’ll chat. I’ll give ya my email, in code so the spammers can’t get in the way… it’s reserve7 @ gmail. com. Squish that together without the spaces and you got me. We’ll walk some road together. If you don’t like me, find someone else! We’re in this together.

“But no matter what comes, we will always taste victory through Him who loved us. For I have every confidence that nothing—not death, life, heavenly messengers, dark spirits, the present, the future, spiritual powers, height, depth, nor any created thing—can come between us and the love of God revealed in the Anointed, Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:37-39

AMDG, Todd

For some, there are days that are hard earned, when holding on takes every bit of faith and hope… celebrate the victory! Luka Bloom celebrates that in his song, You Survive.

Here are a few other resources…

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 24/7: (800) 273-8255

Suicide Hotlines by State

Crisislink

The Trevor Project for our LGBTQ youth,

and for our veterans… Veterans Crisis Line.

The Voice Bible: Enjoying Some New Sounds

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the voice bibleI am totally addicted to our scriptures. I have this wicked old King James Bible that I bought at a thrift store last year for a quarter, some of you know it and have seen it, and well… sometimes I just smell it. It smells so good, the old leather and old paper. I also have to confess that I have most of the English translations on my shelf. I’m sure there’s a few I don’t have, but I have the biggies.

Just yesterday I bought a paperback copy of The Voice, which was introduced a couple years ago, but I don’t claim to spend a lot of time watching what is hitting the scene year to year. I was just snooping the shelves at Barnes and Noble and saw it, picked it up and decided to give it a good home.

First thoughts…

This really is a new thing. The goals and diversity of the translators, scholars and artists all come together to create a rendering of our scriptures that is both informative and engaging. In a time when many of us are becoming increasingly conscious of the deficits in some of our traditional readings and interpretations (due often to our favorite English translations), The Voice is helpful for re-hearing the message.

I dig the screenplay aspect. I like that the The Voice will break dialogue into a screenplay format instead of just trying to maintain columns with quotes and paragraph breaks. It does take a little getting used to, since other notes and summaries are included in the text of a passage. My only angst is that pages can almost become cluttered with everything going on.

I’m excited about the way it lends itself to the public reading and presentation of scripture with creativity and life. Wow, that was a long thought. I was so blessed in July to spend a couple of days with Dr. Nancy Gross up at Princeton Theological Seminary to study and practice the public reading of scripture, along with four days refining presentation skills with Dr. Michael Brothers. (You’d think I would be a decent preacher by now, right?) What a great summer to stumble onto The Voice! I’m beginning to tie lots of cool ends together in my head as I read through the translation.

Here’s a review of The Voice that I thought was a balanced approach to weighing it’s strengths and weakness, a review by Dr. Ben Witherington. But of course, the best way to experience a new translation project like this is to, well, experience it. I recommend The Voice if you are finding your engagement with scripture to be a little dry these days. It might be a fresh wind of joy to help rediscover the depth and grace of our sacred writings.

AMDG, Todd

Un-Branded Truths

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reserve7:

It’s a long one, but I’ve been thinking about this lately and recently had a good conversation about unbranding truths!

Originally posted on toddthomas.net:

equals human first runI wrote the bulk of this blog a couple of weeks ago and promptly forgot to finish and post it. I wrote it just after the Mother’s Day parade gunfire in New Orleans, as we reeled as a nation from the Boston Marathon attack and the women rescued in Cleveland after a decade of imprisonment. But honestly, I started forming this post in my heart a little earlier than that after reading of the young woman in Canada, Rhetaeh Parsons, who ended her life after being raped and bullied by her classmates. You’ll have to excuse me if it offends anyone that I don’t refer to it as an “alleged” rape. It offends me that when a young woman is oppressed to the point of ending her life that someone might still doubt the veracity of the crime done to her.

I am inured at heart by the violence…

View original 3,226 more words

Will We Live Up To Their Faith in Us?

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for the children we prayI’ve been thinking about the children on our Southern border and the need for us to move in a gracious, welcoming, valuing way to address their needs. But it’s not just about their needs. I believe an essential part of who we are as a nation and a people is on the line.

The child immigration crisis in the South is a test of our nation’s values, beliefs and future, and we run the risk of disappointing ourselves as much as neglecting these children. The more I try to hold all the facets of this problem in balance the more I am convinced that we face a unique moment of challenge and opportunity as a nation. Ten and twenty years from now, will we have a generation in our nation that includes these children, I’ll call them Hopers, among us at universities, schools, workplaces and communities across our country? Or will we have a shameful memory of not responding to the hurt and pain of our most vulnerable neighbors?

What is it that causes those parents to hope for so much from us? I’m stumped trying to imagine what the parents of these children must experience in their daily lives at home and what they must imagine we will do as surrogates for their children. Why do they believe in us so deeply and so optimistically? I don’t know, but I do believe this: We have not set a trajectory of hope or healing in our response to these children. We have been afraid and sometimes angry. It’s time to change the conversation and set a new trajectory that will lead us all, all of us, to a blessed and shared future.

Can we live up to what their parents have believed of us? Are we as good as we have believed? More and more I’m beginning to be a Hoper, myself. I want to hope in us and believe in us, too! I want to see us face such a challenge and opportunity with an amazing grace and the poise of a nation that knows all too well about displacement and the painful legacy it leaves behind. We have this amazing opportunity to change the way we act as a species, a nation, a culture and as neighbors. It truly is one of the greatest tests of sharing that I think we have ever faced. And we can be amazing if we choose to be. I hope we shine.

I know the arguments about lawful entry to our country. I understand the fear of validating the practice of just shipping children wholesale across the desert to our border. I get the worries, I understand the indignation, and I share some of the trepidation. We still have to hope. We need hope as much as these children need hope. We still have to act. We still must regard the sanctity of human life and our connection with all people as a central priority to safeguarding our own future, our shared future.

Let’s not fear anymore. Enough with the indignant outrage. Let’s put aside our worry. Let’s embrace these children and face tomorrow with them. They are here now. They are ours. They are us. Let’s share the hope and belief in us of those parents.

I don’t have all the answers to the problem at the border, but we must respond with dignity, hope, love and concern for these children. We must respond, sooner than later. Let’s shoulder the cost of welcoming.  Pray. Sign petitions. Donate to relief work. Speak peace. Love these children.

Let’s all be Hopers.

AMDG, Todd

*Here’s a timely warning about neglect and an example of creative thinking to find longer term solutions to problems like this, from David Gergan and Daniel Katz. I thought it was a good read, worth consideration.

*No need to go into detail about how I’m getting involved, but here is an article from the Dallas Morning News with links to Texas area relief groups and opportunities to join their work…

dallasnews

*Here are some petitions and perspectives…
change org daily kos first focus paxchristi