Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

I live in the city that was once the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. We have a road that runs right smack through the city called Monument Avenue. It is what it sounds like, an avenue that contains monuments, most of which are commemorating personalities and figures of the Confederacy, save for the lone monument commemorating the city’s native son, Arthur Ashe.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave or have quarantined yourself from any news channel like you have COVID-19, you’ve seen our “little” statues in the national (and probably international) news. There is major controversy, debate, and outrage over these monuments and whether or not they deserve a place in public.

Those in favor of the monuments continue to claim that tearing them down is erasing history. In my mind, that is a whole other post altogether. Last time that I checked, history was marked by more than monuments prevalently displayed in very public areas. Museums. Parks. Books. I don’t know, seems there are plenty of ways to preserve history….but I digress.

A few years ago, I attended a conference in Richmond put on by an organization that does great work towards racial reconciliation with action and education. It was a wake-up call for me. I’d had my head in the sand for far too long. I transformed myself into an intellectual sponge and have been reading a lot since then.

It’s been a journey and continues to be such, a process of transformation and change, and learning and unlearning, as a friend so eloquently put it.

I have been privileged to have friends of color and to be invited into spaces where honest dialogue can be had. When I’m in doubt or questioning or genuinely confused, I have been grateful to have friends, colleagues, and mentors whom I can call. I trust them. I respect them. I am blessed to be on a journey with them as guides and teachers.

When I’m uncertain, I become far more quiet than I am used to being. In fact, when I come to a place of uncertainty, people who don’t know me would most likely label me an introvert.

I’ve not always been this way. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve done a LOT of work to get to where I am today. It’s been painful, I’ve screwed up far too often, and I can easily slip back into my own biases and preconceived notions.

Last week, during a conversation at a meeting I was attending, the conversation turned towards current events, specifically protests and demonstrations. As we talked through all that was happening around us, one of my African American colleagues and ministry partners said, “They don’t speak for me.” His words have been reverberating in my head since he said them.

I keep hearing those words over and over in my head as I watch so many people rising up to take a stand, but as one friend described it, it’s a flashpan moment – a big flash and then…….nothing.

I watched a video last week of a time when Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and head of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer, spoke as well.

In the course of Keller’s talk, he said that justice always requires sacrifice. I can’t stop thinking of that.

When I put those two deep thoughts together, I keep asking myself what I am sacrificing so that my black and brown brothers and sisters have a voice. If I speak for them, I still maintain control and power, but if I let them speak for themselves, I relinquish power and control to them. If I give them authority, then their voice gets louder and louder, that authority becomes a megaphone for their voice.

I’m not saying that protests and demonstrations aren’t worthwhile, but I am asking the question of what happens when the dust settles and it’s all over? What is left?

Just like the end of the Civil War didn’t stop racism nor did the Emancipation Proclamation, protests and demonstrations won’t either.

Again, please hear what I’m NOT saying here. I am NOT saying that there isn’t a place for protests and demonstrations, but what am I doing ALONG with protesting and demonstrating? Am I getting dirty? Am I sacrificing for justice?

It’s a convicting and vulnerable question to ask if we really let it unpeel us. As much headway as I feel I have personally made, I’ve still got such a long way to go. My own Christian faith tells me that it’s more of a journey than an arrival, a process rather than a destination.

Two dear friends who have been part of my faith community went to a park in Richmond the other day. They had set aside the day for themselves and were enjoying the weather in this park.

While in the park, they met two young African American men. They started a conversation with them, asking them questions, listening, and hearing about how they are feeling in the midst of all that is happening around them. In the words of my friends, “It was a blessing.” At the end of their time together, despite our current pandemic, they shook hands (I’m sure they all disinfected afterwards).

That handshake, to me, represented something so significant and special. Despite the current pandemic, that handshake said, “I see you, I hear you, I value you.”

In my growing experience, I am realizing that it is the slow and deliberate work of relationships that makes the most difference. I can’t change you. You can’t change me. But I can change me and you can change you. Sometimes, when we allow ourselves to be changed, others can see the change and are stirred and moved by it. It’s an evangelism of sorts, it’s bearing witness.

So, I’ll still take part in protests and demonstrations, I’ll still speak up and stand up, but when I hang up my signs and take off my protesting shoes, what am I doing in the regular places of my life to ensure that I am pursuing justice? Am I making sacrifices for justice? If not, I had better ask myself if I really want justice as badly as I say I do.

Touch Me

hug emojiAs this exercise in sequestering ourselves and social distancing continues, it’s fascinating to make observations about how others are dealing with it all as well as make observations about how I am dealing with it. Some days are diamonds, others, not so much.

Some of us just come to a certain point and then we shut down. Others of us may feel as if we’ve hit our stride, that we were made for this kind of isolation. I’ve always said that I can tolerate a lot when I know that there will be an end to it, the problem becomes when that end is elusive or it keeps changing.

Among the most confounding things about this virus is the sheer unknown nature of it. “Experts” are on the media regularly sharing their views, but those views don’t seem to hold up very well as twenty four hours later (or less) an opposite and equal viewpoint may be shared. It seems exponentially more frustrating than parenting, every time you think you’ve got a handle on things and know what to expect, a curveball is thrown that puts you once again at the mercy of factors that are out of your own control.

During this time, I’ve watched my introverted teenager become a virtual social chair. He’s adapted well with his small friend group to set up virtual weekly movie nights. The kid who I’ve worried about regarding his social habits seems to be adapting like a boss to a situation that has the rest of us cowering and crying, “Uncle.”

One thing that has seemed to stand out to me through all of this is our hunger for contact outside of our computer, tablet, and smart phone screens. Virtual connection can only last so long before we feel like it pales in comparison to the real thing. As great as our HD or 4K technology is, it doesn’t offer up to us the flesh and blood humanness of what we offer each other when we stand face to face, hearing each other’s breath and staring into each other’s eyes.

We need each other, and while we may go through periods when we try to convince ourselves to the contrary, those periods are unsustainable. We were made for community, we were made for contact, we were made for touch, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. To remain untouched is to feel unloved.

You may have heard countless stories of orphans in far off countries who were never picked up as babies only to experience significant emotional issues later in childhood and life. We may think that we’re stronger now, no longer babies or children, no longer helpless, able to stand strong on our own, but there is no denying our need for contact.

Encouragement can only go so far when it happens virtually. I’d love to think that my effectiveness is just as strong on a screen as it is in person, but if I truly thought that, I would be wrong. Community cries out for community. There’s a reason why the writer of the New Testament Book of Hebrews wrote not to forsake the assembling of yourselves, the gathering together of our communities.

While I am not calling for a casting off of the physical restraints that now stand in place for our protection and the protection of the most vulnerable among us, I do know that something has to give.

Maybe you’ve seen one of the latest emojis that Facebook has offered us, the “virtual hug.” It’s a poor substitute for the real thing, but it seems that’s all we have right now. So we press on, longing for touch, longing to connect, and waiting for the day when it will be safe once again to do so.

Nuanced

Nuance. It’s a slight variation or subtle difference. It’s not fully one way or another. It bucks up against the hard line that wants to paint vivid stripes down the middle of ideologies in order to place people fully in one camp or another. It requires conversation. It requires patience. It requires thinking differently.

We don’t do nuance well.

As if our country wasn’t divided enough prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, it seems that this virus may very well have poured gasoline on an already blazing fire, causing things to grow wildly out of control.

We can’t seem to grasp that there are more than two schools of thought regarding this virus. It’s not simply: wear a mask or everyone dies or wearing a mask infringes upon my rights. It’s not simply: social distance and stay the hell at home or go out and get everyone else sick. There’s nuance here and we’ve got to take the time to hear what it is.

Granted, there are some fools out there. I struggle with those who claim that their rights are being infringed upon because stores are telling them that masks are required for entering and shopping. It’s 15 minutes, suck it up, don a mask, and shut up.

But I’ve been the subject of more than a few glances when I tell someone that I went out for something other than a shopping trip, doctor’s appointment, or other essential appointment.

I’ve had conversations with people who have experienced the verbal abuse of their spouse, fearful that it will one day escalate into something physical. I’ve heard stories of children who have become the targets of parents who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and flat out rage from the other effects of the virus, not the direct physical effects, but the indirect mental effects.

Overall, the treatment is becoming as severe as the virus itself. By that, I mean that the consequences of our dealing with COVID-19 are starting to seriously impact the mental health of people. Social distancing. Shutting down the economy. Labeling businesses essential and non-essential. Those things are necessary, for a time, but stopping them cold turkey for a prolonged period of time is being to have an effect that will last far longer than this virus.

I’m not saying that we should throw caution to the wind and simply open things up. That would defeat the purpose of what we have been doing over the last nearly two months. But we do have to stop throwing shade, making judgments, calling names until we’ve really heard where someone else is coming from. Is it possible that they are experiencing something that we’ve not had to deal with? Is it possible that there’s something nuanced about their perspective? Is it possible that we can’t see the whole picture?

Frankly, I think our media is a joke. Somewhere along the way, we moved from reporting to opining. We don’t report “just the facts” anymore, we report with a spin, and I’m talking more than just Fox News. If you think your favorite news channel doesn’t put a political spin on things, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in a densely populated area.

When we encounter someone who is approaching this virus differently than we are, maybe it warrants a conversation, a phone call, an email, a text message. Maybe we need to hear more about what they’re dealing with rather than simply writing them off as “stupid” because they don’t see things the way that we do. Is it possible that in that conversation, we might actually learn something?

One thing that has been abundantly clear to me over the last few weeks is that COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere fast or soon. It’s not being eradicated by some miracle cure. We can’t simply put the blood of the lamb on our door posts and hope that the virus will pass right over us. So, we’d better figure out how to cope with it……..and each other.

Something Like A Collision

car collisionThe other night, I was driving home from the hospital. I had just gone to visit a friend who has been struggling with health issues lately. Visits like that are always helpful to put things in perspective for my own life.

On the drive home, I was fairly pensive, pondering the existential questions of life as I drove up Interstate 95. My phone buzzed as a message came in from another friend asking whether I had a minute to chat. After my talk-to-text affirmative response, I spent some time on the phone with him hearing about the challenges that he is facing in his life within his own family.

When I hung up the phone with him, my mind raced to a handful of other friends and acquaintances whose lives have been a bit of a challenge lately. Marriages on the rocks. Childrearing challenges. Sickness. Crises of faith. It was a little overwhelming for me to consider.

My mind wandered to this church planting journey that I am on. I thought about the name of this church we are starting, The Branch. Our tagline has been, “Where life and faith meet.” I couldn’t help but think that sometimes that meeting of life and faith meet feels more like an abrupt collision than a cordial meeting.

Years ago, a mentor reminded me that when you embrace a name for yourself as a church, you had better be prepared to embrace all that comes in that name. I couldn’t help but hear his words as I thought about life and faith meeting. I’ve known from the start that this collision of life and faith would be messy.

I’ve never been one to tolerate giving messages or advice that I am not following myself. To think that any kind of meeting of what can sometimes feel like diametrically opposed things like life and faith would be a walk in the park would be naive, in my opinion. Collisions rarely are tidy.

But that’s the thing, as I thought about it, the reason why I am doing what I am doing. I’ve grown weary of encountering people who are hurting who run from the church rather than running towards it. I’ve grown weary of the stories of people forming opinions about Jesus based on his imperfect followers. I’ve grown weary of church sometimes looking more like an insider’s club that suspiciously eyes outsiders for fear of what they might have brought with them. I’ve grown weary of church sometimes looking more like a retirement home for the already convinced rather than a hospital for the sick who are desperately in need of attention.

Different. Everyone wants to be different, to establish themselves within their own uniqueness. I guess we’ve embraced that same notion. We want to be different. We want to be a place where life and faith meet so that God can break down barriers to his grace. So, when we begin to see barriers being broken down, I guess you could say that we can begin to measure ourselves against our goal.

I’ve been in a handful of accidents in my lifetime, nothing tremendously horrible (thankfully), but enough to know that collisions rarely leave us without a mark. Even if there is no physical evidence of a collision, it generally impacts us mentally.

I fully expect that the more and more we see life and faith meet, collide even, we will be impacted by those meetings, those collisions. We won’t be the same, and frankly, I think that’s what we’re going for.

 

The Cost of Community

I’m beginning to compile thoughts on community. It seems that it’s a recurring theme in my conversations lately. But I’m very curious what people think about community, how they view it, how much it is a part of their lives, and even how they define it.

As I’ve served in a local church for the past fifteen years and been part of a church community of some sorts for the bulk of my life, that has been one of the greatest pictures to me of community. It has defined community for me in so many ways, both the good and the bad.

I would go so far as to say that because of the community of which I have been part, some of the challenges and difficulties in life have been tempered. The loss of parents. The addition of children. Health issues. Going through any of these things on your own with no one around you is a challenge. Add community and the whole dynamic changes.

Here’s one of the insights that I’ve seen lately. I shared this with a friend recently and it continues to resonate as my brain unpacks it more. Community is costly but we aren’t always willing to pay the price. In fact, I think that we are looking for a high-quality product but many times we are only willing to pay economy price for it.

Now, when I say that community is costly, I am not talking about actual financial cost, although it might sometimes come to that. I am talking about resource cost in general. Community costs us, but what are we willing to pay for it.

Over and over, in my experience, I continue to see people who want what they want regardless of what they have to pay for it, but not in the area of community. When it comes to community, people have high expectations and high need but they want to pay low costs and have low commitment.

Well, you can’t have it both ways. You get what you pay for, an old adage that’s as meaningful today as it was when it was first coined. If you aren’t willing to pay the cost and give the commitment to community, do you really have the right to complain when it doesn’t meet the needs that you were hoping it would?

In my job, I have had the opportunity to meet with couples as they move towards marriage, as they struggle with marriage, and as they just encounter everything that life throws at them. Recently, in a wedding I officiated, I told the couple that you don’t go into a marriage expecting to change the other person. Marriage is as much about your own formation as it is about the formation of your partner.

But how many times have I seen couples who come to me and, whether they explicitly say it or not, are saying deep down that the needs that they thought would be met in their spouse are not being met. The first question I want to ask them is, “How are you meeting their needs?”

This is an experiment, a testing ground, this journey that I am on. As I move forward in the launching of a brand new church, community and all the conversations around it will inform so much of what I do. As I journey through, I’ll be taking notes the whole time and I’m sure I’ll be writing about it, successes and failures alike.

What’s Better?

truthBefore I dive into this post, I need to say two things, and I need to say that what follows may ruffle a few feathers. I’m not perfect and am constantly being transformed, but part of my working this out is being done as I write it out.

First of all, I was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in New England. My mom, dad, and brother were also all born in Brooklyn. The New York directness of which people speak was inherited by me. If there was something to be said or talked about, we pretty much put it on the table. There weren’t a lot of rugs in my house under which we could sweep things. As hard and uncomfortable as it was to be direct, I experienced it frequently in my family and I think I am a better man for it.

Second of all, I’m not a big political guy. Like other things in life, politics, to me, is a necessary evil. I was the kid who came home in elementary school from a mock election voting for the opposite candidate that my parents had supported. When I told them who I’d voted for, I got a stern talking to in order to set me right. As the decades have worn on, I’ve been just as jaded as everyone else with the political climate in the United States. But, regardless of my dislike or disagreement with a political figure, I’ve still understood that there should be a certain amount of respect that’s due a political candidate, usually because they’ve earned it.

Political correctness, in my opinion, feels like the bane of my existence, mostly because it seems to fly in direct opposition to honesty and truth. While I was raised outside of New York City and I understand and embrace the directness that stems from that subculture, I have also learned over the years that while directness is a good thing, tempering that directness is also an essential part of getting people on board. That’s not to say that I do that well all the time, but it’s something that I have grown in and something which I am constantly striving to get better at doing. Just because something is true doesn’t mean that it needs to be said or said in its truest fashion.

As my wife and I were talking the other day, I was lamenting the fact that there is so much hatred, anger, and animosity that spews all over social media and the media in general. Criticism is one thing, but hatred is a completely different animal. I’ve received enough of my own criticism to understand that there is value in that when it is received and applied well.

But I’ve struggled with the fact that we are not a nation of truth tellers and we don’t seem like we want to be told the truth either. Some people would rather be lied to and be treated well then be told the truth and treated poorly.

What’s worse is that people have somehow equated telling the truth with being mean and nasty and lying as being nice, as if we’ve set up limitations that you can only be one or the other. I can either lie to you and treat you kindly, polishing my speech and candycoating my flaws, or I can speak freely, frankly, and harshly while not caring how my speech comes across.

I don’t think it’s either/or.

We have seen people in the public eye who are forthright and honest but who are complete jerks about it. They cut right to the point, which may be a draw, but their delivery is atrocious and offensive. But why can’t people be direct and kind at the same time? Is it possible to speak the truth in love with a genuine desire to tell people the truth while still being careful and sensitive to what’s being said and how it’s being communicated?

At the same time, why do we have to put on all kinds of fronts in public in order to hide the beast that seems to be lurking behind closed doors? That’s been more than apparent as we’ve seen on a larger and larger scale in the area of sexual harassment. People who have looked polished and clean on the outside have really been devious predators behind closed doors. What’s causing this?

My heart goes out to all of these women (and men) who have come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault against some fairly high profile people. The courage that it’s taken to stand up and speak into such a difficult and damaging situation is something that I applaud. But what is it that has caused this? Something has propagated this to the level that it’s at and I think it goes much deeper than anyone is willing to admit.

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount seem to get a lot of press, but it’s usually only certain of his words. We seem to forget the whole picture and just like our culture and the media, we like to soundbite things that support our own cause. I realize that in saying that and then quoting Jesus, I may be doing that very thing, but bear with me a second. In Matthew 5, Jesus said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” In other words, let what comes out of your mouth be truth, don’t shift your words or waffle around.

One of the conversations that I’ve had with my boss lately has been about what this looks like in our church. How do we become lovingly honest? A phrase that has been used in regards to what that looks like is being ruthlessly self-aware. We become ruthlessly self-aware as we are able to have honest conversations with each other, lovingly and willingly entering into dialogue to talk about things that may be uncomfortable but, in the end, are worthwhile because of the growth that can take place when those conversations happen.

I’ve grown tired of the loss of integrity in our culture. That’s not to say that I am perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I do my best to make sure that who I am in public is who I am in private as well. It’s not always easy and to be honest, when who I can tend to be in private comes out publicly, it provides accountability with people who are close to me who confront me on these glaring issues that they see.

So what would it look like if we moved towards these kinds of relationships and conversations? How would it be if we didn’t feel like being honest always meant being a jerk and being nice always meant lying to someone’s face?

I think that we can be lovingly honest. It’s something that I want to strive towards and hope that those who are closest to me will strive for the same thing. That kind of approach can go a long way in changing more than just ourselves and our relationships, I think it can move out and help others to strive towards the same thing themselves.

 

Monumentally Important

gettysburgLast week, my family and I spent the day of the eclipse at Gettysburg National Battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After looking at the eclipse (through our glasses), we bought a tour CD, hopped in our car, and rode through the battlefield, listening to a dramatization of the events that took place three days in July of 1863.

 I’ve always been a history hack. History intrigues me and can even excite me, but I’ve never really invested as much time in the learning of it to be any good at remembering it all. That isn’t to say that I am a sloppy student of history, I just haven’t really had the kind of margin or bandwidth in my life to fully dive into the pursuit of history the way that I would like. I’m fascinated by it but like so much in my life, it becomes just one of many things I can spend time pursuing.

 Living just outside Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate Capital, just a little over seventy miles from Charlottesville, my mind was whirring as we drove onto the battlefield. With all the talk of removing Confederate monuments in places like Charlottesville and Richmond, and also having read countless articles of everyone and their brother expressing their views of where monuments belong, I was curious to see just how I reacted to what I would experience at Gettysburg.

 As we listened to the narration of this historical battle on our CD as we drove through the battlefield, we stopped at monument after monument. Each state involved in the battle had its own monument to the men whose lives had been lost there and the brave ones who had fought there.

 My mind quickly thought about the events of those three days more than one hundred and fifty years ago and the war that split the nation. While many may claim that the Civil War was about so much more than slavery, slavery continues to be what gets the headlines with that war. While other issues may have been involved and while I understand that wars are far more complicated than to be diluted down to a single issue, it’s hard to say that slavery, at the very least, played a significant role in the war.

 But my mind also thought about Charlottesville and St. Louis and Charleston and so many other cities that have shown that the ideals for which a war was fought have not died with the men on that battlefield but still rear their ugly heads in the twenty first century.

 We came upon a monument, the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, in the midst of the battlefields that had been dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1938. The quotes on the monument were haunting to me.

 “An enduring light to guide us in unity and fellowship.”

 “Peace eternal in a nation united.”

 Were these really true? Cold I honestly say that this was the case?

 Driving through the battlefield and encountering monument after monument, there was one thing that we didn’t encounter: protesters. There was no one shouting hate speech. There were no banners being waved. There was just the silence and solemnity of a former battlefield.

Looking at each of the monuments though, I think they were right where they belonged. They hadn’t been placed in an urban setting with no connection to the war. They were placed in locations that were significant to their meaning and in that context they could be useful and helpful. They could help to educate and teach in that context, pointing future generations not to elevate them or the men they represented, but to remember.

 Funny, when you go to the dictionary to find the definition of “monument,” one of the first definitions you come across is, “something erected in memory of a person, event, etc., as a building, pillar, or statue.” Does that mean that monuments cease to become monuments when they cease to help us remember? Do they still count as monuments when they are erected to give homage and reverence?

 Not far from my home outside Richmond, Virginia, just up I-95 in Woodford, is a shrine to Stonewall Jackson. Now a shrine is a completely different thing than a monument. According to the dictionary, a shrine is, “any place or object hallowed by its history or associations.” Shrines are not monuments and monuments are not shrines.

 So how is it that some of our monuments have become shrines? How have we come to a place where we have somehow separated the meaning and the history  and the context from monuments whose sole purpose was to point us towards those very things?

 I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s as black and white (no pun intended) as some have tried to make it. I don’t think that we can make large sweeping and blanket statements that say, “All monuments are bad and racist.” Nor do I think that we can say, “All monuments are sacred and speak to history regardless of where they are located.

Like so many things, discernment, conversation, and relationship may be required to move past our generalizations and quick fix remedies. When we dwell in generalizations and quick fix remedies, we forgo the efforts required to engage in difficult discussions and conversations. It’s much easier to say, “Tear all the monuments down” than it is to say, “Can we talk about this? Why are they important?”

 There are reasons why I think this has happened, but that’s for another post on another day. In the meantime, I’m going to go back and look at those pictures I took on the battlefields of Gettysburg. I’m going to remember the conversations that I had with my children. I’m going to relish hearing them say that all of us are created equal. And I’m going to do my best to help them understand that monuments aren’t shrines. That seems to be monumentally important to me.

Responding to the Tension

welcome to charlottesvilleThe events in Charlottesville last weekend and the continuing turmoil that we are feeling in our country at the state of disarray and disunity may have us a little on edge. Some of us will look at the situation and say that things are not as bad as they appear, while others will look and say that things are far worse than they appear. One thing that we know for sure is that there is a problem and anyone who would deny that is denying reality.

 As human beings, we can do a really good job of pressing down the tensions and conflicts that are trying to rise, we can make it seem as if the problem is not as big of a deal as we might think it is, denying out of fear, out of pride, or out of something else deep within us, sometimes denying it outright altogether. But the problem remains and, in fact, grows more severe the longer we push it down and deny it.

 Some say we have a problem with racism in our country, and I agree. The racial tensions that we have been experiencing in recent days are not new, they have been lying underneath the surface for a lot longer. I choose not to assign blame to a political figure for their sins of commission or sins of omission, because I think that the problem is much deeper, it extends far beyond just one person. While actions and words (or a lack thereof) may have perpetuated and even instigated other actions, the problem lies much deeper than just outward demonstrations. It’s a heart issue.

 The problem is racism, yes, and the problem is a heart problem, yes, but I would actually go a step further to boldly say that it is actually a sin problem. It’s one that extends far beyond our country to our world, for anytime that we deny that God created us as anything less than equal, we are being disobedient and denying that ALL of us have been created in the image of God.

 Many may disagree with me. Those who don’t espouse to any religious beliefs may think that’s a bit strong, but I think that we could all still agree that it is a moral and ethical issue. There is a cancer that runs deeper than signs and protests, deeper than freedom of speech or expressing opinions, and far deeper than the foundations of the monuments that are in question at this time.

 God’s people, the Israelites, would set up stones at the place where God had done something significant in their lives. They stood as monuments to all that God had brought them through. I am sure that the sight of those stones would bring back a flood of memories, some good, some bad. The words of Joshua to the Israelites in Joshua 4 resound to me, “In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.'”

It’s interesting, because Joshua didn’t tell them to tell future generations what the stones meant to them, but what had happened there. There was no interpretation necessary. But the stones were not there because the stones were important, the stones were there because what had happened was important and they never wanted to forget.

I think we’ve forgotten. I think we’ve forgotten what happened here and I think that some of us have forgotten to tell our stories. We’ve elevated a movement or a person or even a bunch of stones, and we’ve forgotten what was behind them and we’ve forgotten to tell our stories.

There will always be extremists, and extremists always get the press. But the rest of us who live in the tension between extremes have a choice. We can either ignore those extremes in hopes that they go away, or we can make our voices louder, choosing to tell the stories of why we’re here. We may not always agree, we may have differing opinions, but if our end goal is to tell truthful stories, I honestly think that some of those differences and disagreements will begin to fall away.

I sat in my office this morning sad. I was sad and even scared that I had three children who had been brought into the world to face these kinds of things. But beyond my sadness and my fear, I could see hope. I could see hope in knowing that I had the opportunity to lift up a different monument for my children, not one forged in stone and steel, but one that was written on their hearts. I have the opportunity to tell them the stories, not to promote a movement or an agenda, but to promote us living according to how we were created, in the image of the One who created us.

The Value of Relationships

Today is the last day of my trip. The end of a journey. For the last three and a half weeks, my family and I have been traveling across the United States. Richmond to Los Angeles and back again. Today, we finally arrive back home.

We’ve squeezed an awful lot into those 24 days. National parks. Baseball games. Reunions with friends. While we’ve been able to do an awful lot, there have been plenty of things that we just haven’t been able to do. There’s only a certain amount of time in a day and as much as you can try to stretch it, you just can’t do everything.

As we’ve been making our way back east towards home, we’ve had the privilege of staying with three of my closest friends from my time in seminary. On the way out, we connected with some family members and some dear friends of my wife’s from her college days.

In the midst of this valuable time, two things have stood out to me.

First of all, the structure of our trip, seeing all the sights that we could see and ending at a much more manageable pace with relationships at the heart of the final days, has been perfect. I can’t think of a better way to spend these last days as we inch our way towards home than to engage in meaningful conversations with some of the people that I love and respect the most.

All of these friends of mine are spread out across the Midwest. South Dakota. Iowa. Ohio. One friend, who we were not able to see, lives in Singapore. Needless to say, we don’t get to see each other very often. While two of the three that I saw were at our seminary graduation a few years ago and one of the three was officially ordained into ministry two years ago, we all have not really spent time together in years.

The second thing that stood out to me was the importance of these relationships. The nature of life is that it just doesn’t slow down. I’ve spent a lot of time during my three month sabbatical considering that truth and its implications. In the midst of schedules, families, crises, and all the things that life throws at us, we make time for the things that are important to us, but even the things that are important to us can have a tendency to fall by the wayside as the things that are directly present before us invade and overtake us like kudzu on trees in the southland.

As I ramp up to dive back into the fray of ministry after three months away, I can’t think of a more fitting preparation for my reentry than to spend time with these friends and their families. One of the things that I valued most about my time in seminary was time spent with these friends outside of the classroom. Sure, we learned a lot within the classroom, but the nature of the program that we went through was that all of us were in ministry and doing ministry while we were getting our degrees. The ability to share about what was happening and the things that we were learning along the way was invaluable.

I am grateful for all of the people that God has placed along my path. I’m especially grateful to these guys that I’ve had the privilege of spending time with over the last few days. I’m not sure when we will have the chance to connect again, but I sure hope it’s soon. Relationships are a much more precious commodity than we can often treat them, I’ve got to make sure that they become a priority. Spending quality time with trusted and respected friends is worth the effort and sacrifice that we make in order for it to happen. The benefits that we will reap from time spent are incalculable, especially when we consider the alternative and just what we might miss out on.

Rules for Sabbatical

Being a pastor is a different kind of job. It’s not just a 9 to 5 job where you do your work and then go home. Oftentimes, it’s a job that last far beyond the bounds of what some might see as the typical daily grind. It’s a job that isn’t easily “left at the office” either. If you are truly called to it, there are deep ties and connections with those to whom you minister. While one might develop some deep relationships with co-workers in normal jobs, working as a pastor may result in deeper relationships with more people.

As I have been preparing to go on my three month sabbatical starting next week, it’s been mildly amusing to hear firsthand or secondhand about what people think are the appropriate levels of engagement that they can have with me along the way. Can we talk to you if we see you in public? What if we’re having a party? Can you come? How about golf? Can you play?

I was at a meeting the other night and made jokes with the others at the meeting as I imagined people seeing me in the grocery store and running the other way for fear of disrupting my sabbatical. If someone did that, I’d be really disappointed (although it might result in a good, hearty laugh). Everyone laughed at the thought of that but I told them that I was legitimately planning to write a post about the rules for my sabbatical. So, here it is.

My lead pastor gave me a piece of advice that I think can frame up a lot of my sabbatical. He said, “If it causes you anxiety or it raises your blood pressure, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.” While life will still go on throughout the thirteen weeks of my sabbatical, this is good wisdom to know the kinds of conversations in which to engage and which should be avoided.

I am a social person and to become anti-social during this time would be uncharacteristic of me. So, I don’t plan to do that. At the same time, engaging in banter on Facebook or other social media outlets may result in that anxiety and raised blood pressure of which I wrote. It also may invigorate me. I plan to continue to blog and hope to actually become a little more consistent and disciplined in my writing through this time. I am going to do my best to allow people to track with me through my blog in a way that they might normally do via more personal contact.

While I will most likely be taking advantage of attending other houses of worship when I am in town during this time, I certainly don’t want people to avoid me, especially when they see me in public. I don’t want people to feel that they can’t talk with me. I don’t want people to feel that they can’t drop me a note here and there, shoot me a text, or even leave me a message, especially if it’s to let me know that they are thinking about me and praying for me. I have a hard time thinking that kind of encouragement would raise my anxiety or my blood pressure.

When it comes to whether or not something is acceptable during this time, I think others can probably abide by the same rule about raising anxiety and blood pressure. Like I said, the thought that people are praying me through this time and the idea of me getting encouraging notes, texts, or emails (to my non-work email) along the way is a pretty neat thought.

This is all new territory for me. My father was a pastor for over forty years and he never had the pleasure of privilege of having a sabbatical. While his church was incredibly accommodating with him for different seasons of his life, especially when he got his doctorate, to the best of my knowledge, he never received an actual sabbatical. So, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity.

I’m excited for what lies ahead during this time. It will be a learning and growing experience. When I get back, I will see just how well I’ve done at raising up others to serve in my areas of ministry. I’m excited to share just where I am along the way and what I’m being taught through the bumps, the curves, and the quiet moments on the road.