Responsibilities in a world of rights and privileges

As I hung it recently on my new office wall, I noticed again perhaps the most significant feature of my Emory & Henry College diploma. Beyond the paragraph proclaiming that I earned a degree, or the attractive frame my parents bought, or even the little gold seal signifying that I graduated with honors, the most crucial part of the document may be a single word.

An Emory & Henry College diploma specifies that the graduate is awarded a degree “with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities thereunto appertaining.” That single word, “responsibilities,” makes it clear that my diploma is not merely a celebration of accomplishment but also a benediction for the rest of my life. Because of that one word, my diploma doesn’t merely say, “You did it!” It also asks, “Now, what are you going to do?”

I appreciate the word because it is a motivator. It is a constant beckoner. It perpetually causes us to ask how we will live and who we will be in the present and future, rather than allowing us to rest upon the laurels or wallow in the ashes of who we have been in the past.

Well over half of my life has passed since the college entrusted me with those responsibilities, and because they have been my companions for so long, I have become protective of responsibilities, almost as if they’re family.

Lately, I find I’m more defensive than protective, because frankly, responsibilities are endangered in our nation and culture today.

The same is not true of responsibilities’ neighbors on my diploma, the more beloved rights and privileges. We cherish our rights. We cling to our privileges. I wonder why we so vigorously avoid responsibilities?

Perhaps we have unconsciously agreed upon too narrow a definition of responsibility. We too closely associate responsibility with fault or blame, as in when we ask, “Who is responsible for this mess?”

In the world of bipartisan politics, where I find very little that is creative or constructive these days, this is the preferred understanding of responsibility. Partisans of opposite persuasions are glad to assign responsibility–by which they mean fault or blame–to the other party or ideology. Rather than offering a compelling vision for a better future, each party is content to grasp for higher ground in public esteem by describing how the other party is “responsible” for all that is wrong around us.

When this is our understanding of responsibility, we tend to assume a critical tone, seeking at once to excoriate others and exonerate ourselves. No wonder we would avoid this kind of responsibility. No one wants to be wrong or at fault! No one likes to bear the blame.

The etymology of responsibility, however, points us back to the Latin verb respondere, which means “to answer,” or “to respond.” So, I guess we could justify a critical tone and seek responsibility by asking, “Who will answer for this mess?” Just as easily and legitimately, however, we may choose an an earnest, inquisitive, compassionate tone and believe that the more appropriate, productive, responsible questions are, “Who will respond to this mess? Who has an answer to this problem?”

Have you ever pressed the button or raised the telephone receiver for customer assistance in a big box store? It’s not uncommon in that circumstance to hear a voice over the house speakers indicating that a customer needs assistance, closely followed by the question, “Who is responding?”

Let that be a lesson in responsibility for us. That retailer isn’t blaming its associates that I don’t know where to find an item; the voice simply wants to know who’s responding to the call for help. The same concept is true with the civic servants we call “first responders.” In the heat of danger or crisis, we’re glad and grateful that they’re answering–responding to–the call for help.

From its roots in respondere, perhaps responsibility really is as simple as offering ourselves to respond to the call for help, to seek the answer to our common question, to work together for a solution, rather than merely (and lazily) assigning blame.

Again, though, responsibilities struggle for acknowledgement and even survival alongside their much more popular neighbors, rights and privileges.

Lately, I’ve been heartbroken by often belligerent and seemingly self-centered social media posts and comments justifying and rationalizing the refusal to wear a mask in the COVID-19 pandemic as an exercise of individual rights. Where responsibilities ask who will respond or answer the call to seek a solution to our common crisis, rights lure us to answer, “Not I. It is my right to refuse a mask. I am not to blame or at fault (responsible) for another’s exposure or infection.”

Similarly, my heart hurts when we cling to privilege, often failing to see it, and denounce or decry others’ efforts and struggles for social injustice or racial inequality. We can’t hear responsibility asking us who will respond because privilege cries out, “I never owned a slave. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I am not to blame or at fault (and therefore responsible) for injustice.”

When privileges are named and challenged, those who enjoy them might even convince themselves that they are becoming the oppressed! Just that easily, a perceived threat to our privileges begins to feel like an encroachment upon our rights! In our agitation over what we stand to lose, we feel no inclination or incentive to join others’ struggles for equality. If anything, we feel instigated to oppose them.

By their very nature, rights and privileges–which we feel we have earned or deserve, or to which we feel entitled–can lead us to a place of self-centeredness or self-interest from which it is difficult even to perceive injustice. We can become unsympathetic, unempathetic, uncompassionate, and simply unable to see the injustice or inequality others endure.

There’s the danger of rights and privileges. They give us permission to assert what we deserve, which can lead to insistence upon self, diminishing and threatening any sense of community we might feel. Their less popular counterweights are responsibilities, which encourage us to ask what we can contribute to society, to focus on what we can give and not merely upon what we might get.

The one to whom I strive to offer my absolute devotion said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Maybe that’s another way of saying that the one with many rights and privileges also has many responsibilities.

In just a few days, my daughter Grace will become a first-year student at Emory & Henry College, and over the next four years, I hope and trust that she will learn many lessons–academically, socially, and spiritually. I hope she’ll come to appreciate even more fully the values and virtues of ambition, hard work, and achievement, and in May 2024, I expect to smile, applaud, and maybe even cry a little in celebration of her accomplishments and the recognitions she has earned. I will be proud of the rights and privileges accompanying that hard-earned diploma she will hold.

But on the inside, I’ll also be whispering a little prayer that her four years in that unique community inspire her to spend the rest of her life looking beyond blame, responding to the call, seeking the best answers for all . . . embracing responsibilities.

Leave a comment

Filed under Social & Cultural Commentary

The Importance of “I’m Sorry”

Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” A few years later, Chicago confessed, “It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry.”

Those words probably stick in my mind because I can remember all the times those words have stuck in my mouth. It really is hard for me to say, “I’m sorry,” and if sorry isn’t the very hardest word for me to say, it’s certainly near the top of the list.

Why is that? I imagine it’s because I really don’t like to be wrong. Pridefully, I think an apology is more about me than the person to whom I need to apologize. Blinded by my own need to be right and justified, I lose sight of the importance of being in a right relationship. Tragically, my pride and unwillingness to apologize often cause even more injury to the very people I love most of all.

To apologize requires humility and empathy–humility to admit our capability to err and empathy to identify with the other’s hurt. To say, “I’m sorry,” is to affirm that another’s injury–whether intended or not–is more important than our own need to be above reproach. Put simply, it is to love neighbor as self.

But it is hard.

I experienced that first hand today with my own Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. In our morning session of the annual conference, we considered a resolution about our ministry together with LGBTQAI+ brothers and sisters that concluded:

THEREFORE, Be it Resolved that as the Holston Annual Conference we commit ourselves to join hands as one, united through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness as we work together toward God’s hope for the people of Holston and apologize for the harm caused to the body of Christ and its witness in the world.

As an annual conference, it was hard for us to say, “I’m sorry.” Sorry proved to be the hardest word.

I’m not surprised. Our differences over human sexuality cause strong emotional reactions, and I’m sure that many members of our annual conference found it hard to apologize because they felt it would be admitting to wrongdoing for which they do not feel responsible. Some probably are simply unable to see that any harm has been done, so inextricably and hopelessly are their ideas of sexuality and sinfulness intertwined.

Regardless, the resolution was amended to say that we grieve, rather than apologize for the harm caused.

I can appreciate our collective emotional desire to amend the resolution. Grieving allows us to be compassionate, but it doesn’t require us to feel responsible. Grieving lets us wish that others weren’t hurting without necessarily seeing our own place in causing their pain–even accidentally.

My biggest heartbreak is that we have diminished–with the change of a word–our urgency to bring about reconciliation. We have not demanded of ourselves a resolve to renew and redouble our efforts to do no harm–even accidentally.

Today’s annual conference action has helped me to see myself more clearly, and I hope I’ve taken another step in growth and maturity toward being better able to value my relationships over my pride.

I hope I’ve learned that an apology is not fundamentally about me.  Its primary purpose is not to point out my wrongness or to imply my willful injury of another. Rather, to say “I’m sorry” is to affirm my love for the other, to say that I regret his/her hurt, and that I want our relationship to be restored even more than I want to be blameless and right.

I wish our annual conference had done that through our resolution today.

We are not of one heart and voice in the Holston Annual Conference today. Even in its amended form, I doubt that we adopt the resolution.

Nevertheless, in my heart and in the hearts of many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, the resolution remains unamended. We really do “apologize for the harm caused to the body of Christ and its witness in the world.”

No matter how hard it is to say, and even if it’s the hardest word of all, we’re sorry.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Goodbye Too Soon Connor

“He’s gone.”

Those were the two words my wife Suzanne said when I answered the phone on Wednesday afternoon at 5:18 pm.

Since I was out of town, she had called me about an hour earlier to let me know that our eighteen-year-old nephew Connor was nearing the end of his journey. In that earlier call, she had given me the priceless gift of putting me on speaker so that I could say to him through tears, “I love you. I have since the day you were born.” His answer—the last words he ever spoke to me—was, “I got it.”

As much as I dwell on the hurt of Wednesday’s telephone conversations right now, I absolutely resolve to remember the “hell of a fight” (his mother’s words) that Connor waged to postpone those phone calls as long as possible.

About two years ago, we learned that Ewing sarcoma was the cause of a persistent pain in Connor’s hip, from which the sinister intruder had spread to a shoulder and ribs. Since then, trips to Winston-Salem, scans, tests, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments have become Connor’s new normal.

He was a trooper through thousands of miles of travel and hours of treatment.

The insidious disease took so much from him—his hair, his body mass, his stamina, his junior year of high school—but it didn’t take his courage or resolve.

And so we were able to cry—joyfully—when he rang the bell in that hospital hallway in January 2018, signifying that he had made it to the end of chemotherapy. We cried again in October 2018 when he was crowned Abingdon High School’s homecoming king after being introduced by the stadium announcer as “cancer survivor, Connor Bartz!”

One week later, we cried yet again when we learned that Ewing sarcoma was back. And it was angry.

For the rest of my life, I will refuse to spell that horrible c-word with its vowels. I will spell it cncr, because it is dirty and ugly, like a four-letter word. It takes and takes until there is nothing left to give. In the words of the psalmist, “I hate it with perfect hatred.”

Again, it took—this time, from Connor’s senior year and from his remaining strength and stamina. And again, he gave—as his mom Shea says, “a hell of a fight.”

Round two was fought in Cincinnati, and though the setting was different, his courage was the same. He took on the grind of thousands of miles, hours, scans, needles and treatments, and he gave it all he had.

I emphasize that. In the end, I refuse to say that cncr took Connor’s life. Last Monday, he made the very difficult and courageous decision to discontinue treatment. He came home to face the final round with a horrible disease on his own terms, in his own bed.

He was surrounded by love, as he had been his whole life. In fact, if love alone could cure cncr, it never would’ve had a chance against him. You’ve never seen two more devoted parents or two more devoted sisters than Connor’s.

I’m grateful that his very last awareness was that he was cherished.

Even under the weight of this present grief, we can look beyond how he died to celebrate with a smile how he lived!

He was an artist, by talent, by training, and by temperament. He loved music, and he lived to perform.

Always a percussionist, he marched through life to his own cadence. A great love of his life was marching in the Abingdon High School band, and he would’ve loved the opportunity to march in front of the band as drum major. He dreamed of marching through his young adult summers in a DCI drum corps.

He began playing piano only in the past few years, but he had a real gift for it. His long slender fingers seemed to navigate the keys instinctively. He played with nuance and passion, and no one had to tell him to rehearse because he seemed to have a perfectionist streak and wanted to rehearse until he got it right.

A highlight of his sister Elise’s wedding this summer was Connor’s playing the song to which Elise and their dad Chandler walked down the aisle at the beginning of the service. It was beautiful. The kid simply made beauty on a piano.

Music was a very natural expression of his innate passion.

He was passionate about politics. One of the great injustices of Connor’s life is that he never got to vote in a presidential election. What a shame it is that many don’t even vote, because it would have meant a lot to him.

William Sloane Coffin wrote a book entitled, The Heart Is a Little to the Left. Connor’s was a lot to the left. He was a fan and supporter of Bernie Sanders and was more than a little frustrated with Howard Schultz over the past few weeks because he feared he might siphon votes away from the Democratic presidential nominee.

I believe his political convictions emerged from his natural protective streak, which always seemed visible in his love for his younger sister Abby. He cared deeply for the ones on the margins—the poorest, the most oppressed, the ones least assured of justice, and perhaps most passionately for LGBTQ persons.

He was an idealist. That doesn’t mean he was ideal. He was a teen, and before that he was a child. He complained. He critiqued. He pushed people’s buttons. He was flawed in all the ways that people are flawed. That’s just part of being human.

Nonetheless, he was an idealist, and in his ideal world there would be justice for all, respect for all, and loving affirmation of all. In the ideal world, everyone would practice their musical instruments to perfection. In the ideal world, there would be no terminal illnesses.

But here in the real world, in the closing rounds of the fight for his life, Connor found comfort in a description of an ideal world to come. His favorite image from scripture over the past few days was from Revelation 21:3-4, in which the voice from heaven’s throne says, “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Eternal God of heaven, please hold Connor now that we cannot.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past couple of days. When Connor was younger, he was fascinated by the HMS Titanic. His parents took him to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and I believe he even had a Titanic theme birthday party a few years ago.

Do you know what fascinates us about the Titanic? We remember it because the voyage ended before it should have. The story is tragic because it ended too soon.

That’s what strikes me most right now about my nephew Connor. He will be forever eighteen in our memories. We will grieve all the things that he never got to do. We will always have the sense that his story among us simply ended too soon.

Too soon indeed.

Connor, I will always be proud and grateful to have been your uncle.

I will always cherish our parting hug on Saturday night.

I will always be thankful that I got that one last chance on Wednesday to tell you on the telephone what I will simply say again here:

I love you. I have since the day you were born.

And I always will.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Heart of an Alien

Last Thursday, April 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided a meat processing facility about ninety miles away in Grainger County, Tennessee. The result of the raid was that several dozen people were detained for further legal proceedings related to their immigration status.

The first of those “further proceedings” occurred yesterday, as people identified in Thursday’s raid reported to an immigration intake office in Knoxville, Tennessee. Religious leaders from a variety of denominations–including some of my own respected friends and colleagues of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church–were present to demonstrate their solidarity with the people and families who fear they are on the verge of deportation.

As you read that last sentence, you may have felt encouraged or outraged, depending on your perspective. It may have given you hope or caused you heartburn.

We live in an era in which our society and church are increasingly polarized, and our deeply held passions and convictions about faith and politics become so commingled that it can be difficult to discern whether our beliefs shape our political views or vice versa. Moreover, we often call this a “Christian nation,” further entangling our views of faith and policy.

So, whether you celebrate or seethe, may I please ask you to stop right now to question why you feel as you do about immigration? What convictions do you hold that make you glad, sad, or mad that ICE raided the packing plant or that the church came out yesterday to show solidarity with immigrants and their families?

As I seek to know and understand my own reactions, the United States citizen in me recognizes the need for immigration policy and border security, and I realize that the ICE agents–both at the processing plant last week and at the intake center yesterday–were doing exactly what we the people have asked and expected them to do on our behalf. I’m grateful for them and for the protection they provide us.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am also a citizen of the eternal Kingdom of God, and if I am to obey that Kingdom’s greatest commandment, to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind, I must allow the Lordship of Jesus Christ reign over the sovereignty of the United States of America.

As a member of Christ’s body the church, I believe that God calls me–and all Christians–to lift our voices on behalf of, to stand in solidarity alongside, and to offer help and support to the immigrants in our midst.

Why? Because God has always shown favor to the stranger, the alien, the immigrant.

Those words are the various translations of the Hebrew word ger in the King James Version, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, and Common English Bible.

From the very beginning of scripture in the book of Genesis, Abram(-aham) is a ger, a stranger/alien/immigrant, and his descendants keep up the family tradition throughout God’s holy word.

The twelfth chapter of Genesis reports that Abram(-aham) leaves his homeland of Haran, and from then on he is at various times an alien in the lands of the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Philistines. In Genesis 20, he and Sarah are aliens in the land of Gerar, whose name literally means something like “the place of strangers/aliens/immigrants.”

In Genesis 15:13, God tells Abram, “your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs . . . for four hundred years.” The next four books of the Bible tell us not only about God’s rescue of the oppressed strangers/aliens/immigrants from Egypt, but also about their wandering about for another forty years until they finally occupy the land that will be their home.

Their Exodus is led by Moses, a man who had two sons, one of whom was named, “Gershom (for he said, ‘I have been an alien in a foreign land’)” (Exodus 18:3).

As the Israelites travel through the wilderness, God prepares them to be hospitable to the strangers, aliens, and immigrants who will live among them in their promised land. In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God requires that they offer to both citizens and aliens equal protection under the law.

In Leviticus 19:33, God specifically requires, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.” Beyond merely refraining from oppression, God requires the people to provide for the strangers’, aliens’, and immigrants’ needs in Deuteronomy, both as they leave extra produce in their fields for gleaning (24:19-22) and as they provide directly for the “aliens, the orphans, and the widows” from the people’s tithes (14:29).

Because God commanded that the Israelites leave room for the aliens to glean from their crops, Ruth, a ger from Moab, was able to gather enough gleaned barley to feed herself and her mother-in-law Naomi. While gleaning, she meets and eventually marries Boaz, and they become the great-grandparents of David, the great king of Israel.

This is momentous enough that when Matthew the gospel writer records forty-two generations of Jesus’ genealogy, he mentions only five women, and names only four. Ruth, the stranger/alien/immigrant is one of the four (Matthew 1:5).

Just as Matthew’s gospel begins with a ger playing a key role in Jesus’ genealogy, the story ends with Jesus himself telling his followers that our treatment of strangers is a key expression of our faith.

In Matthew 25’s judgment of the nations, he says to the righteous, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Likewise, he says to the accursed, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”

Through all of scripture, the message is consistent: it matters to God how we treat the ger–the stranger, the alien, the immigrant–in our midst.

As if in summary, God says to Moses and Israel in Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

The Common English Bible translates that same verse, “Don’t oppress an immigrant. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.”

We citizens of the United States of America could just as easily hear that particular translation entirely apart from any context of faith. We know what it’s like to be immigrants because we were immigrants, or at least our ancestors were. We can find a way to be hospitable toward immigrants, because we have benefited from previous generations’ hospitality.

I can hear the immediate objection: “Let them come into this nation legally!” I agree that it would seem that simple, but my own family’s experience convinces me otherwise.

There are two immigrants in my household, my sons Brett and Micah, whom Suzanne and I adopted (absolutely legally and at considerable expense) from Guatemala as infants. In a court deposition, their birth mother said she was at peace with the decision to make Brett available for adoption because she could not provide for him financially.

She testified that she made a “few centavos per day making tamales.” At today’s exchange rate, a Guatemalan Quetzal, the standard unit of currency, is worth thirteen cents. One centavo is worth 1/100 of a Guatemalan Quetzal, or 1/100 of thirteen cents. In other words, it would take seven centavos to equal one US cent.

I’ll leave you to imagine what she meant by “a few centavos.” Imagine further what she could or could not purchase with those few centavos.

We learned later that she saw a picture of our wood frame home with vinyl siding and said, “Palacio!” To her, our home was a palace, and the child she carried was going to live in a land and family of unimaginable wealth.

There’s the problem with, “Let them come into this nation legally.” Earning a few centavos a day, neither Maria nor hundreds of thousands of her Central American neighbors will ever afford to pay attorneys, to acquire documentation, or to access commercial transportation.

Their financial desperation is often compounded by the circumstantial desperation of living in communities and nations in which the rule of law has not yet superseded the rules of corruption, violence, ethnic conflict, or trafficking, and in which the words “human rights” are merely words, hollow and empty of meaning.

So, in desperation, they come by any means available in search of a job that pays more than a few centavos a day, in pursuit of a modest home that is a palacio compared to what they have left behind, with dreams of an education for their children, in hopes of living in a land without widespread corruption and oppression, a land in which they are not persecuted . . . in short, they are probably very much like our immigrant ancestors.

However, we have become so accustomed to being part of the “we” that it is easy for us to forget that we were once “they.” That’s really what this conversation is all about. In fact, the English word “alien” derives from the Latin word alius, which literally means “the other.”

It is easy to identify what is other than ourselves, and the more foreign something or someone is, the easier it is for us to respond in fear. As foreign as our income and palacio seemed to Maria, she would probably seem even more foreign here in our community.

With her small frame, her dark complexion, wearing her distinctive Guatemalan K’iche’ Maya huipil, and speaking some Spanish, but mostly in her K’iche’ dialect, she would be different from most of “us.” She would be a ger.

Unable to understand her language and unaccustomed to her appearance and habits, we might fear her intentions or dismiss the possibility that we would ever find enough common ground to consider each other neighbors . . .

. . . neighbors, as in “Love your neighbor,” the second great commandment of this Kingdom of which I am a citizen. In this Kingdom, we do the hard work of finding the neighbor in the stranger. In this Kingdom, we walk by faith and not by fear.

Fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God, how would our sovereign God have us respond to the ger, to the stranger, alien, or immigrant in our midst?

How would Jesus Christ have us welcome him by welcoming the stranger in 2018?

We already know the answer to these questions, don’t we?

God calls us to respond from our hearts, because as the Israelites learned so long ago, we know “the heart of an alien.”


For further reflection, the United Methodist Church offers these resources related to global migration.

Leave a comment

Filed under Following Jesus, Social & Cultural Commentary

Cleaning Up the Cross

Just over a year ago, I mentioned to some leaders in our church family that I would really love to have a larger wooden cross to use in our Holy Week worship services. Like many churches, we had one that had been made from the carcass of some prior year’s Christmas tree, but I wanted something sturdier, more substantial, more lifelike.

I realized the irony as soon as the word departed my lips. How lifelike should an instrument of death be?

Nevertheless, our worship committee chairperson Donna Fowlkes assigned herself a mission, and a few days later, her husband Tom brought a sturdy, straight, weathered trunk of a cedar tree that was fifteen feet tall.

One afternoon last spring, I cut it into lengths of nine and six feet, carefully measured and cut notches, and finally joined the two sections together with the most rustic looking coconut twine I could find.

We had a large, intimidating old rugged cross that served beautifully as the focal point for our Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday services. Then, on Easter Sunday morning, we stapled chicken wire around that old rugged cross, and our congregation covered almost every inch of 9 by 6 ruggedness with fresh flowers and greenery. It was transformed into a thing of beauty.

Then, when the flowers had wilted after a few days on display in front of our church building, the cross returned to its storage place in the attic . . .

. . . until yesterday, when I brought the cross out of the attic for the annual Maundy Thursday service. Since I’m a fairly large (and stubborn) man, I didn’t ask anyone to help. I wrestled the cross through the attic to the top of the stairs easily enough, but as I started down the four flights of stairs, I began to notice how unbalanced and unwieldy a 9 by 6 cedar cross can be.

At one point, I stumbled a bit under its weight.

Whoa. That was a profound moment.

As I continued my journey down the stairs and into the chapel, I became increasingly aware of all the stems and protrusions that remained on the trunk where limbs had once grown. Again, I noted the irony as I concentrated not to rip my clothes on this truly rugged cross.

Finally, as I moved the cross into position in the chapel, my hands felt the remaining wood staples and–worse yet–staple fragments that had secured last year’s chicken wire. Out of frustration and disgust, I said aloud to myself, “Someone’s going to get hurt on this thing!”

Again, whoa.

I sat there on the chapel floor with heavy pliers in one hand and a hammer in the other to remove or drive flush all the staples and pieces I could find in that rugged trunk. As I literally cleaned up the cross, I prayed that I wouldn’t clean it up figuratively in my ministry.

That’s a real temptation, though, isn’t it?

We seek the empty tomb, but prefer to bypass the agonizing cross.

We cherish the cross as a symbol of victory, overlooking that it was for Jesus an instrument of suffering and death. It becomes a brass or golden symbol, shiny and smooth–in other words, the kind of cross that doesn’t hurt anyone.

Hundreds of people will gather in our church the day after tomorrow to celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the grave. A few dozen gathered today at noon to remember his suffering. I’m not being critical. I’m just restating that the church suffers from cross avoidance. Maybe it just hurts too much.

As I carried that cross down the steps yesterday, a stray staple dug into my left hand, just below my index finger. It drew blood and left a mark.

I’m glad and grateful for that reminder that someone could get hurt on that rugged cross.

My heart overflows this Good Friday with gratitude for my Lord Jesus Christ, who not only hurt, but suffered, agonized, and ultimately died on a larger, heavier, more burdensome and sinister cross.

May I never clean up that cross.


Filed under Following Jesus

Giving Up Mass Shootings for Lent

This post approximates my sermon from this past Sunday, February 18, at State Street United Methodist Church.

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:16-20).

As we celebrated Ash Wednesday just a few days ago, we remembered that the ashes imposed upon our foreheads were expressions of grief and mourning for our human mortality and sinfulness.

Mortality and sinfulness.

On that very same day, miles away (and worlds apart) from the Ash Wednesday services in our chapel, mortality and sinfulness were conspicuous at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a young man armed with fury and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle killed seventeen students and faculty members.

Because of my faith, I believe that each was made in the image of God, that all of them were lovingly and uniquely knit together by God in their mothers’ wombs, and that not one of them fell to the ground apart from God. I believe each was–and is–precious in the sight of the Lord.

So, for me, and I suspect for churches and Christians all across our land, Ash Wednesday’s ashes have become a sign of grief and mourning for the mortality of seventeen precious lives and for the sinfulness of the shooter and all like him who have such callous disregard for God’s good gift of life.

Nearly one thousand seven hundred years ago, the season of Lent likely began as an intensive period of fasting, prayer, and repentance for candidates preparing for baptism on Easter morning. From these roots, our practice of “giving up” something for Lent is more than merely an act of self-discipline; it is an act of repentance, of walking away from something that stands between us and God.

Most often, the ashes upon our foreheads are very self-centered. We mourn our own mortality, and we tend to repent from our own individual sinfulness. Less often do we lift up our shared mortality or our collective sin, but I believe this year’s Ash Wednesday massacre in Parkland invites us to just such an awareness.

So, Christians, let’s walk away. Let’s give up mass shootings for Lent.

It may sound ludicrous or hopelessly idealistic, but walking away from evil is what we Christians do. It’s why our ancestors in the faith got a forty-day head start in their walk away from sin and evil before beginning a journey with Christ through baptism.

We United Methodists continue to acknowledge the primacy of turning away from evil in the covenant we share for baptism, confirmation, or profession of faith. Before asking a person to profess faith in Jesus Christ, we begin by asking about the person’s willingness to “give up” or to walk away from sin and evil.

The first covenant question to the candidate is, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”

The second question is similar: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

To give up mass shootings for Lent, let’s begin with our vows: Renounce. Reject. Resist. Repent.

Renounce! Renounce the wickedness and evil of mass shootings.

Have the courage to say both often and out loud that there is no place in our society–and certainly no place within the reign of Jesus Christ–for this deplorable evil.

For far too long and at the expense of far too many precious God-knit lives has the church remained silent, or at least relatively quiet. Our failure to renounce the evil epidemic of mass shootings is a failure to keep our covenant vows.

Worse yet, failing to decry the evil is in fact accommodating to the evil, accepting the evil, and–God forbid–becoming complicit to the evil.

There is power in saying the words. When we can name the opponent, we can form a game plan or battle plan. When we can name the cancer, we can begin to treat it. When we can name (and renounce) the evil, we can begin to defeat it.

Christians, speak up! Say that mass shootings are nothing but wickedness, and they are outside the will of God.

Renounce, and then reject this systemic evil.

Reject the notion that the heartless mass-scale reaping of human life is somehow an unavoidable consequence of living in a fallen, sinful world.

Reject that this is a secular problem, somehow removed from our lives of faith.

Reject the idea that the problem is too big, and we are helpless to do anything about it. Ours is the society that first landed a human on the moon. Ours is the society that eradicated polio. Ours can be the society to eradicate this evil too.

Reject the temptation to assign blame. Pointing a finger at parents, teachers, FBI, NRA, legislators, or law enforcement officers does not help. Arguing over who’s primarily at fault distracts us from finding common ground and mutual solutions.

Importantly for the sake of any meaningful progress, reject the temptation to politicize mass shootings and any potential solutions to this horrible evil. Otherwise, we will fall too easily and readily into our partisan trenches and continue to make the mass shooting madness an argument to be won against our foes, rather than a mutual evil to be confronted with our neighbors.

When we begin to talk about the availability of firearms and accessories, the temptation is to frame that conversation purely along partisan lines. We become either the protectors or the enemies of the Second Amendment. Reject the temptation to categorize and oppose someone politically just because firearms are the topic! There is room for conversation when we cease our arguments and see each other as neighbors, rather than partisan opponents.

When we begin to talk about the availability of mental healthcare, there is a similar temptation to devolve into arguments about profits, payers, universality, Obamacare, and other hyper-politicized terms and concepts. Again, this is not an argument to be won; instead, it is an evil to be eradicated. Reject the notion that mental healthcare conversations must necessarily become political debates.

The church and its individual members have been too idle, perhaps because we believe that the evil is too great and complex to be vanquished. Let me remind us that the proper name Satan means “the adversary” or “the obstacle.” As we seek to eradicate evil, the evil one will use anything–including petty arguments–to get in our way. Reject them!

Renounce, Reject, and Resist.

Resistance is active. It is not passive or submissive. Resisting means actively opposing the evil in our midst. It requires doing something.

You may be growing anxious because you suspect that I’m about to tell you to do something with which you disagree politically. I assure you I am not.

If the solution were easy, we would have identified and agreed upon it already. This is a complex evil without a simple solution. So, I will not dare tell you how to resist. I simply implore you to do something to combat this evil.

If you are convinced that the problem is the availability of particular firearms and accessories, do something about it! Contact your legislators today and share your convictions.

If you believe the availability, accessibility, or quality of mental healthcare is at the heart of this evil, do something about it! Lift your voice and advocate for greater funding, for more availability, for less stigmatization.

If you believe the FBI needs more resources to follow up on tips, or if you believe schools need more security measures or greater law enforcement presence, do something about it! Offer to pay more taxes, advocate for greater resources, and in the name of Jesus Christ, do something to resist the evil!

If you believe the fundamental problem is that hearts need to be changed, be a changer of hearts. Perhaps your church (like my church) is within a few meters of a nearby school. What if you proclaim that school your mission field? What if you resist the evil by doing everything in your power to ensure that every student in that school feels loved, embraced, and included in community?

There are thirty-five days remaining in the season of Lent. If every person who reads this blog reaches out to share the love of Christ with just one person per day for the remainder of Lent, thousands of people might be touched by that simple effort.

We shrink from the evil and do nothing because we assume there is nothing we can do. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1930 hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” offers up this prayer to God: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

Enable us Lord to resist the evils that you call us to renounce and reject!

When you feel that you are too weak, and that your resistance is ineffective, recall the question from the United Methodist covenant, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

God empowers our resistance on behalf of Jesus Christ. That’s an important qualifier. Don’t let your resistance be merely about your opinions, convictions, or political affiliations. Let your resistance be in the name of and within the will of Jesus Christ.

How will you know if you’re doing the Lord’s will?

Repent. Turn to him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength through the remainder of this season of Lent.

Though I am saddened and hurt by all the critical rejection of “thoughts and prayers” over the past few days, I realize and embrace that we cannot simply pray for consolation for the families of the slaughtered innocents. We must also pray for God’s deliverance from this ongoing evil.

So, to know how to reject and resist, I suggest we spend this season in fasting and prayer to seek God’s wisdom. Fasting is not merely an act of self-denial; it is also an act of vulnerability and humility before God, reminding us of our ultimate dependence upon him. Let us prayerfully depend upon God to inspire and shape our rejection and resistance, so that they are Christlike and holy. Let us admit that we are ultimately dependent upon God’s wisdom and power to end this wickedness.

I hear God’s Spirit calling me to repent from the ways I have contributed to this systemic wickedness, not only in the larger world and community, but even in my own family.

I have not walked away from the gratuitous and profitable violence in the entertainment industry that numbs us to the effects and consequence of intentional harm to others.

I have not walked away from the kill tallies and headshots of video games that celebrate violence with point bonuses and allow our children to notch countless kills from the comfort of their own game consoles.

I have not led my congregation in heartfelt renunciation, rejection, resistance, and repentance each time another 17, or 58, or 33 innocent lives are lost in a mass shooting.

In fact, I repent that I am more familiar with the numbers than the names of the people senselessly slaughtered in our society. I have allowed them to become statistics, rather than beloved individuals created in the image of God.

I repent because I believe their deaths matter to God.

In the passage from Matthew’s gospel at the beginning of this post, Matthew tells the story of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents,” in which Herod, filled with fury, causes a mass killing in and around Bethlehem.

There are no known extrabiblical historical sources to verify the account, and the death total has been subject to speculation for generations. Given Bethlehem’s estimated population of only a few hundred people during Jesus’ lifetime, the number of children killed by Herod’s soldiers was probably a dozen or less. Still, Matthew associates this story with inconsolable weeping.

Whether a few children in Bethlehem, seventeen in Parkland, fifty-eight in Las Vegas, thirty-three at Virginia Tech, or any number anywhere, I believe God’s is the first heart to break when the innocent are slaughtered.

God knows enough mothers, fathers, and communities have wept inconsolably.

Through this season of Lent with the ashes fresh on our heads, we join with them in weeping over mortality and sinfulness.

Mortality and sinfulness.

So church, let’s give up mass shootings for Lent.

And let’s keep giving them up until Rachel weeps no more.

Leave a comment

Filed under Following Jesus, Social & Cultural Commentary

I hope he really is a con-man . . .

. . . but not in the typical way we use that phrase. I don’t want President-Elect Trump to gain our confidence, only to use it as leverage for manipulation. I don’t want him to be shady.

But I do hope he will strive to lead us into the truest sense of that prefix con-, which literally means “together” or “with.” I know you agree that our United States feel a little less than united, a little short of together these days.

Part of the reason for that, I believe, is that we are becoming a nation of experts. In this postmodern era, there are increasingly few agreed-upon normative truths. Some describe this as an age of “self-referentiality,” in which we are losing the ability to seek the common good because we are so consumed with what seems best for ourselves. Without caution and self-awareness, we can easily slide down a slippery slope from reference to what seems best for us to reverence for what we merely like, want, or prefer.

Here’s the great danger of that: when each sees himself/herself as the moral, rational, or political point of reference, anyone who disagrees is wrong. If I am the arbiter of what is good and true, you are wrong (and perhaps evil and/or stupid) if you disagree with me. Did we not see this in the presidential election? Didn’t candidates, campaigns, and individual voters treat their opponents as if they were absolute imbeciles?

The perfect storm is that this rise of self-reference has coincided with the rise of social media. So, we can all publish our expertise via tweets, posts, and blogs. We can critique, criticize, and rate via likes, retweets, and comments.

Though it allows us to express ourselves to a larger audience, social media doesn’t necessarily facilitate better communication. Posts and tweets are not conversational. They are necessarily one-way, monological expressions. I acknowledge the irony that I’m expressing and you’re reading this thought in a blog post.

We’ve all seen the worst of social media “communication.” One person posts a rant. Another offers a rebuttal in the comments. The author of the original post responds defensively. They unfriend/unfollow each other.

That’s not communication. It certainly doesn’t build community. Tweets and sound bytes can give the impression  that we’re not interested in what anyone else might say. They can alienate us and drive us even further into self-reference.

So, when he assumes office tomorrow, I hope President-Elect Trump will use his Twitter account a little less often. I hope he will strive to be less self-referential than Presidential. I hope he will be a con-man, striving to bring us together with each other.

I hope he will enter into conversations, requiring him to be present with people and to enter into that very real form of communication that occurs only as we both express and listen.

I hope he will make a genuine effort to connect with people, whether they agree or disagree with him. I hope he will strive to lead toward what is best for all.

In his interactions, I hope he will be humble and conciliatory, believing that individual concessions are often necessary for the corporate good.

I hope he will strive for consensus, as seemingly impossible as it is in our generation of hyperpartisan politics. I hope he will lead efforts to find the wisest, best solutions for both parties and all people.

Idealistic? Perhaps, but it’s the kind of idealism upon which our nation is built. Our national motto is E Pluribus Unum, or “out of many, one.” Though we have always valued individual rights, we have equally realized that we are stronger and better when we are united than when we stand alone.

You might even say we are a nation of cons.

Our legislative branch, the congress comes together to legislate for the good of the whole.

Our constitution is the covenant (or contract) that binds us together “to form a more perfect union.”

That constitution, by the way, replaced the Articles of Confederation adopted by a Continental Congress.

I believe with all my heart that we live in the greatest nation on earth. I thank God that we will observe a significant transfer of governing authority tomorrow with no shots fired, lives lost, or battles fought. But our nation can be–ought to be–greater still. I pray and hope that President Elect Trump will be a con- man as he leads us.

Because united we stand; divided, well . . .

1 Comment

Filed under Social & Cultural Commentary

Weeping for the Children

As I ironed a shirt this morning, making my typical preparations for a typical day of work, a heartbreakingly and increasingly all-too-typical news story caught my attention and gripped my heart.

Shots had been fired. Life had been lost.

Cell phone videos replayed the struggle among two Baton Rouge police officers and a civilian suspect. Broadcast journalists, experts, protesters, and family members debated whether the shooting was justifiable. They all agreed that it was tragic, and I agreed with them.

The next scene underscored and emphasized the tragedy for me. As his mother spoke to the media, fifteen year old Cameron Sterling sobbed and cried out, “I want daddy!”

There’s the tragedy.

See, regardless of our arguments over justifiability of shootings, availability of guns, culpability of suspects, avoidability of responsibility, or any other –bility we can imagine, sudden and violent deaths are tragic because they strip children of their parents, parents of their children, loved ones of their loved ones . . .

Perhaps Cameron Sterling spoke for all of us when those three words rushed and gushed up from his heart–“I want daddy!” When violence of any kind wins, we all lose something, maybe even some part of ourselves.

Though my heart and spirit were heavier, my typical morning progressed until my wife Suzanne called my attention to the atypical–tragedy had forced its way into our community. Overnight, there had been an “active shooter” even here in Bristol, just minutes from our home. As the story unfolded through the morning, we were numbed by the unthinkable, the unimaginable. The shooting victim who lost her life was our age. Her children are about the same ages as our children. Her son played on the same soccer team as our son.

Just weeks ago, we sat on the sideline with her, cheering for our children. This morning, as she made her typical preparations for a typical day of work, her beautiful life ended tragically, senselessly, violently and suddenly. At this very moment, I can imagine her son, Chauncey, our team’s goalie, crying out through his own sobs, “I want momma!”

Sadly, this isn’t the first time that tragic violence has come so close to our children’s hearts. On July 27, 2008, Chloe Chavez sat with her family when a gunman opened fire in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. Before he was subdued, the shooter had injured Chloe’s mother, grandfather, and great uncle and had killed a family friend who was like a great aunt to her. Only a month earlier, Chloe and my daughter Grace had finished their Kindergarten year together in the same classroom. Earlier in the year, we had enjoyed meeting all those nice people at Chloe’s birthday party.

When Suzanne and I learned that she had sat there among her family members–splattered in their blood as they were wounded and killed–we could imagine six year old Chloe’s screams . . .

Today, as young Chauncey and his family cry out in grief, I remember the familiar words of my Judeo-Christian faith tradition, “How long, O Lord?”

But as a follower (and a father), the primary scripture-image that comes to my heart and mind is, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).

In Jeremiah’s prophecy, the image is of Rachel in her tomb in Ramah, crying for the children of Israel as they are taken away into exile. In Matthew 2:18, the gospel writer suggests that Herod’s massacre of infants is the reason for Rachel’s weeping.

Today, whether from her tomb in Ramah or from her place in God’s eternal presence, I believe with all my heart that our ancestor Rachel weeps for her children like Chloe, Cameron, and today, Chauncey, as they cry out primally for the ones they’ve loved and lost.

Our hearts weep with yours Rachel. We weep with you.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

United Methodists, Please Don’t Lose Our Witness!

Dear Fellow Followers of Jesus in the United Methodist Church,

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will have concluded. One year from today, people I dearly love will breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over for another quadrennium. One year from today, people I dearly love will be heartbroken, perhaps to the point of leaving our church. One year from today, people I dearly love will be elated and filled with joy and hope.

I can’t foresee how the debates will proceed about human sexuality and other topics that are highly charged–emotionally, spiritually, missionally, and otherwise. Nor do I know how our church’s Book of Discipline will change, if at all. But I feel certain of this–one year from today, some United Methodists will feel that they’ve won, and others will feel that they’ve lost.

One year from today, people who outwardly consider themselves brothers and sisters in Christ will leave Portland, Oregon, feeling that they have either triumphed over or been defeated by their opponents. I find that heartbreaking, and I can’t help but feel that God finds it heartbreaking too.

I have seen the divide very clearly in my own circle of friends and sphere of influence in just the past few days. When United Methodist Communications released the story on Monday about our Connectional Table’s proposal to remove the Book of Discipline’s prohibitive language about sexuality, my Facebook friends were seemingly equally divided and equally convicted in their responses. Some were exuberant. Others were disgusted. Some derided the Connectional Table for sounding another peal of our church’s death knell. Others praised the Connectional Table for offering our church a new potential route toward vitality and life.

I have no problem with my friends’ differing perspectives. We will always have differences of opinion and conviction. God made us, and God made each of us differently and uniquely. What causes my heart to ache is when we Christians vilify and demonize the people who don’t share our perspective, when we view a person as an opponent to be out-argued, out-maneuvered, and ultimately out-voted.

We let ourselves off the hook because we convince ourselves (seemingly regardless of our perspective and conviction), that we are taking a stand, making a case, winning an argument, and maybe even fighting a fight in the name of God. When we understand ourselves to be the ones who are standing up for God, it’s fairly easy for us to believe that anyone who disagrees with us ultimately disagrees with God. Since we see ourselves standing on the side of God, and therefore on the side of good, the one who opposes us must be standing on the side of evil, or at least on the side of something less than holy.

At worst, sometimes very subtly or almost even imperceptibly, our vision becomes impaired. We lose our ability to see fellow children of God, fearfully and wonderfully knit together in his image in our mothers’ wombs. We lose sight of fellow lambs of the Good Shepherd’s flock. We can no longer see fellow members of the Body of Christ or fellow neighbors to be loved as we love ourselves. We become blind to the reality that we are all fellow sinners of God’s redemption.

Instead, we see adversaries, opponents, even outright enemies to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world.

Adversary. Opponent. Enemy. Any one of these is an acceptable translation of the Greek word/name satan. God forbid that we see or treat each other as adversaries!

There, my friends, is the danger. Regardless of our place on the theological spectrum, it’s awfully easy to fall into a polar worldview, in which we see ourselves as the defenders of the cause of Christ, and we see others as, well, other.

How does that happen? Again, I believe it’s a matter of vision. We become so focused on principle that we fail to see people. In our zeal to glorify God by embracing, espousing, and arguing a cause, we overlook the one commandment that Jesus says is comparable to loving God–the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Notice the emphasis in that last sentence. Christians, that’s what’s different about us. As Jesus said, everyone loves the people who love them back. What sets apart followers of Jesus is our love for those who disagree with or even persecute us. Jesus commands us to love. It’s a requirement.

Jesus ups the ante even further. Not only does he expect us not to see the other as an adversary, not only does he command us to love the person with whom we disagree, but in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, he warns us about our very attitudes toward each other:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

That tells me loudly and clearly that we should be very humble in our praying, discerning, conferencing, debating, and voting. To see the person who may stand on the other side of the issue as a fool is to imperil our own souls.

Humility is the key, isn’t it? It’s humility that allows us to embrace and be embraced by God’s saving grace. It’s humility that enables us to see others as our neighbors, equally lovable as ourselves. It’s humility that enables us to realize that we need the other members of the body, and furthermore, that we just might grow from hearing their perspectives. It’s humility that enables us to love them (as we love ourselves) enough to really listen to them.

What if we really believed that the people with whom we disagree really meant what they said when they stood in front of a congregation–just as we did–and renounced evil, rejected wickedness, and confessed their faith in Christ? What if we believed that they were striving to love God and to follow Jesus just as fervently as we are? What if we were humble enough to ask ourselves, “What if I’m wrong?”

It’s a question that begs to be asked. Consider the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests, the elders, the council, and the teachers of the law, and so many others in the gospel stories. In retrospect, we see them as the bad guys in the gospels, the antagonists to Jesus. Yet all of them were striving to lead Israel to a deeper devotion to God. They all had (or at least began with) very good intentions. They all were striving to make their land a little holier. They all thought they were teaching and doing God’s will.

At times, they disagreed with, argued with, and even scorned each other, because each claimed God’s endorsement. Their common ground was that they rejected and felt threatened by Jesus, ultimately to the point that they could no longer tolerate his presence in their midst or even on this earth.

Theirs is a humbling example. Their insistence that they were right led them to hate, rather than to love. In their zeal to protect and defend their corner of the kingdom of God or their part of the revelation of God’s will, they couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize the very presence of God in their midst. God save us from that kind of zeal!

Am I suggesting that we abandon our principles? Absolutely not! Any person of strong faith ought to be a person of strong convictions. Anyone with a strong faith ought to have a strong witness to share, even (and perhaps especially) with fellow followers of Christ. We help to shape each other’s convictions as we walk together in the footsteps of Jesus, going on to perfection together.

I’m simply asking that we lead with love. I’m praying that we will see the image of God, the neighbor, and the brother or sister in each other. I’m praying that we refrain from calling names, casting aspersions, lobbing rhetorical barbs, and assigning blame toward each other. We all lose when we see the adversary, the enemy, the opponent in each other.

Let’s remember Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, the real adversary, opponent, or enemy is the very one, Satan, whose name is defined by those words. When we see each other as opponents, the victory is his.

Maybe the most important consideration and realization of all is this: we get in the way of our very mission and meaning when we treat each other as opponents. Years ago, one of my mentors in the faith planted a very helpful concept in my heart and mind. He said that we Christians can inadvertently “lose our witness” when the impression that we give to others is that we’re joyless and confrontational. We proclaim love with our lips but don’t reveal it in our relationships within the church. Too often, our dialogue becomes disagreement. Our conversation becomes conflict.

We United Methodists can all agree that our mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We can do neither very well when so much of our passion is consumed in an effort to remodel what we perceive to be the other side of a divided house. We lose our witness when the cacophony of our internal bickering drowns out our external efforts to tell the story of Jesus and his love. People won’t believe our message of grace if they don’t encounter that grace in us.

May I suggest this? Instead of writing off a person with whom you are at odds, write a note. Invite him or her to share a meal or cup of coffee. Instead of shaking the dust from your sandals, shake the hand of a person who doesn’t share your perspective. Sit down to a conversation about your common love of Jesus Christ and his church. Find that love that binds us all together. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and learn to love each other before we try to change each other.

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference will be history. That means we have twelve months, fifty-two weeks, three hundred sixty-five days to get it right and to show the world how brothers and sisters in Christ live in communion and community with each other even when we disagree.

Fellow followers of Jesus Christ in the United Methodist Church, the world is watching. I believe a great cloud of witnesses is watching. Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ is watching. They not only await the outcomes of the General Conference, but they watch with hopeful expectation for the love and grace we will extend to each other as we work, talk, and vote toward those outcomes.

Many people whom I love dearly have very definite ideas about where the church ought to be. I pray that we’re all equally concerned about how we get there.

One year from today, we’ll see.

We’ll see.


Filed under Following Jesus, Social & Cultural Commentary

Heart Rate & Heartbreak: All in a Mother’s Heart

This Mother’s Day marks the end of a full season of grief. Exactly three months ago today, on February 10, 2015, a date which will live in infamy, Suzanne and I heard the four most painful words of our lives: “no fetal heart rate.”

Only a few weeks earlier we had learned that we were expecting our (gulp!) fifth child, and we had experienced the emotional gamut in the wake of that news.

First, there was shock. After all, we are supposedly a fertility-challenged couple. Eleven years ago, when our Grace was almost three years old and we were trying to have a second child, a fertility expert told us that it would be virtually impossible for us to conceive a child without some medical intervention like in vitro fertilization. I asked, “If we’re unable to conceive, how do we explain our daughter Grace?” The doctor said, “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s a fluke.”

Fluke number two arrived nine years later when our Sage was born, but still, even after two conceptions and births, I don’t think either of us really believed that there would ever be another fluke. That’s why we were initially shocked when we learned in January that our family would grow again.

At moments, we felt overwhelmed. Our house has bedrooms for four children. How and where would we make accommodations for the fifth? I recalled the CNN story I had seen a few months earlier about the rising cost of raising a child to age 18. I had joked that we only needed a million bucks to raise four children. Now, seemingly overnight, we needed $1.25 million–and that was before college tuitions!

Our two year old Sage was just growing past the most difficult stages of infancy, and it made us tired to think of starting over again with a new child, especially at our ages.

Anticipated exhaustion gave way to laughter as our ages inspired hilarious thoughts and conversations. We calculated our ages at various milestones in the baby’s life. I joked about how people would ask me which graduate was my grandchild, since I would be sixty-two at his or her high school graduation. Suzanne imagined herself as the sixty-one year old mother of the bride or groom, if the baby married at the same age as she had. We joked that we would have children involved in the church’s youth ministries for twenty consecutive years, from Grace’s sixth grade year through the new child’s graduation.

Moments of laughter paled in comparison to the moments of outright joy! We imagined all the fun moments ahead as seven of us Jonases packed into our Honda Odyssey. We dreamed of how many grandchildren would gather at our house for future celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas. We felt blessed that two people who had no apparent reason to expect that they would conceive once were now expecting for the third time!

Bursting with the need to share that joy with the world one weekend, I put together a cute little video announcement that came closer to going viral than anything I had ever posted on Facebook. We felt warmly embraced by the congratulations, hugs, and Facebook “likes” that our friends and family piled upon us!

Just eleven days after posting that video, on a cold February Tuesday, Suzanne and I sat in the ultrasound lab as we had so often throughout two previous pregnancies. A couple of weeks earlier, she had gotten to see the tiny flicker of a heartbeat, but I had been at the pediatrician’s office with one of our other kids and had missed that ultrasound appointment. I was eager to see the tiny heart’s movement for myself.

As the technician began the scan, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to see any distinct features this early in the pregnancy, but I also knew to look for the heart flashing rapidly like a tiny computer cursor. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t worry. I couldn’t imagine there was any need to. The technician casually asked whether our doctor wanted to see the ultrasound for himself and said that she had better go invite him just in case. When they returned, he looked and listened for only a few seconds before he turned to us and said, “I’m afraid I have bad news. There’s no fetal heart rate.”

I feel certain that he said more, perhaps something about the hardest part of his job, but I didn’t really hear any of it. Once again, we were in shock, but for an entirely different reason. My mind and heart were stuck on those four words: no fetal heart rate. Just that quickly, we were no longer expecting parents. We were grieving parents.

And we have grieved.

But it’s a different kind of grief with an unborn child. There are none of the usual cultural trappings of grief–no obituary, no visitation, no funeral service. Rather than the customary surge of emotion that washes over a family over the span of one or two days with those public expressions of love and grief, we have experienced more of a tidal ebb and flow. Rather than sharing tears with a hundred people at a service, we’ve shared a hundred different moments with people over the past ninety days.

It’s a different quality of grief too. In every other experience of a loved one’s death, I’ve grieved because of a shared past. We’ve had a special bond and shared special experiences in the past, and I have mourned because there would be no more moments like those in the future. In this case, I grieve that I never got to have a past or future with our unborn baby.

In fact, for me, the mourning is best expressed in an almost endless series of we nevers. We never got to hold our baby, know if our baby was a boy or girl, know his or her hair color, smell his or her skin and breath, make comparisons of her or his physical and personality traits with other members in our family, settle on a name, and maybe most importantly, whisper “I love you” against soft baby hair or ears . . .

There are just too many we nevers. They’ve been my constant companions over the past three months as I’ve grieved my loss. What comforts me most is the image of Jesus holding my baby until I can.

But I haven’t just grieved for myself. I have grieved for my Suzanne.

Seventeen years ago, during our exactly fifty-one weeks of dating before we were married, Suzanne and I had a conversation about vocation. She was completing her preparations to be a French teacher, but she said to me that day, “What I really want to be is a mommy.”

We knew there would be fertility challenges, and because of that and her deep maternal desire and calling, we prayed and prayed for a baby. When we learned we were expecting our Grace, it only seemed natural to name her Grace, since we genuinely believed she was a gift from God. Her name became all the more meaningful when she was born two days after the 9-11 attacks. Grace became even more precious to us when we learned, in the words of the aforementioned fertility expert, that she was a “fluke.”

From the beginning, Suzanne was a natural. I’ve learned almost everything I know about being a parent from her. Sure, my parents taught me to be loving and compassionate, and my dad showed me what it means to be a nurturing dad, but Suzanne taught me the skills like diaper changing, bottle preparation, bathing, towel wrapping, and others. She’s still trying to teach me how to brush daughters’ hair and how not to be a pushover with our kids. Hey, I’m a work in progress, but she’s a natural.

When we had the conversation with the fertility expert and made the subsequent decision to adopt, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. She loved Brett before we ever saw him, and when we did see him for the first time in a hotel lobby where several adopting parents were meeting their adopted children, she spotted him across the room and said, “That’s my baby!” He has been ever since.

When our adoption agency called to let us know that Brett’s birth mother had given birth to another baby boy, she didn’t feel overwhelmed. She was thrilled! Micah bonded with her immediately and looked at me with suspicion. When I held him, he screamed, but when she held him, he was content. When we brought Micah home that December, she was the stay-at-home mom of three children under the age of five. I can imagine very few tougher jobs–and hers came without a paycheck.

When Sage (fluke #2) came along at a time in our lives when we didn’t expect to have an infant in the house, Suzanne talked about how much fun it would be to have four children in the house, and she was excited that we had greater odds of having lots of grandchildren.

You should see the relationship she has with Sage now! That two year old bundle of red-headed spirit thinks her mommy is the world’s MVP! Mommy does everything better than Daddy, or anyone else on earth, for that matter. Mommy is her security blanket, the gravitational pull at the center of Sage’s every orbit. Mommy is her best buddy.

In fact, if you’ve seen Suzanne with any of our kids, you didn’t have to hear the words. You know from watching that what she really wanted to be is a mommy.

And so, when we discovered in January that the fifth Jonas child was on the way, there were some nearly overwhelming moments at first, but Suzanne quickly started nesting. She had already made room in her heart, and she was making plans for the space this child would occupy in our family and home. No matter how early in the pregnancy, she was clearly this baby’s mommy, and this precious child was her baby.

Then four words–no fetal heart rate–broke my Suzanne’s heart.

We’ve both grieved, but her grief is different from mine. I joyfully expected a baby, but she carried our baby. She felt the changes in her body. She loved that baby right through the nausea and fatigue. She provided within her body the only earthly home our baby ever knew.

Because of that, her we nevers are accompanied by a million what ifs. She wonders what if she had eaten differently, acted differently? What if? What if? What if?

I have grown to hate the word miscarriage, and I refuse to say it. Like mistake, misuse, misappropriate, miscue, and all those other mis- words, miscarriage implies that someone did something wrong, resulting in an unwanted outcome. She did nothing wrong, and I hate that her grief is accompanied by second, third, and millionth guessing of herself. Next to God’s, our baby knew no greater love than Suzanne’s.

So, on this Mother’s Day, we’ve come to the end of a season of grief, but our grief has not ended. Suzanne no longer carries our baby’s body within her, but she still carries the love, the memories, the we nevers, and the what ifs. I suppose she always will.

Today will be a day of great joy for my Suzanne. She will be surrounded by two sons and two daughters who love and cherish her! She will celebrate that she’s living her dream and being what God made and called her to be–a mommy! But this Mother’s Day, the first since we loved and lost our fifth child, will also hold some grief.

Suzanne has adopted twice. She has been pregnant three times. And today, though she will only hold four of those precious children in her arms, I know she holds all five in her heart.

Will you please hold her in yours?


Filed under Family & Roots