An Open Seat, Just For You

This week’s post is written by a special guest: my daughter, Rheannon. She is a freshman in high school this year, active in a local service organization, theater, and her church’s youth group (as well as Freedom Fellowship which she talks about in the post).

Many of these thoughts have been circulating in her mind for a long time, but the sermon we heard at our church yesterday brought some clarity and focus. I hope these words will encourage you as they have encouraged me. 

Yesterday at church my preacher talked about the kingdom of God, and how hard it was to understand how church was really supposed to be. He spoke about how the kingdom is not where you are comfortable – church is not the place where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, believes what you do.

Church is where you are different, and challenged, and uncomfortable.

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This picture was taken at Freedom Fellowship, a satellite church of Highland. I’ve been going to Freedom for six years – longer than I’ve been at Highland. Every third Saturday night, Freedom does a special worship service and serves communion. Since I’ve been going, I’ve stood at the end of the line and given a hug to the people passing through the line.

I have always felt the closest to God in those moments. I’ve felt the presence of God on earth every time someone new passes through and return the hug for the first time.

Freedom’s ten year anniversary was a HUGE event – a big neighborhood party. Everyone who had been at Freedom in the beginning spoke about all the special things Freedom offered, and shared their favorite memories. Terry St. Pierre spoke about communion and how it started. Then, he talked about my hugging and how much it had affected the people who experienced it.

Then, we broke bread. And I gave hugs like I had been doing for almost half my life.

The woman featured in the picture had been going to Freedom for a couple of weeks at that point. I’d seen her in worship, uncomfortable at first, and then getting into it as the weeks went on. Every time I saw her raise her hand in worship, it brightened my day in amazing amounts.

I believe God put her in Freedom for a reason. I believe God sent her to Freedom to experience his love.

I believe she was sent to feel how worthy she was in the kingdom.

This would be the second time she had taken communion at Freedom. The first time, I’d given her a short hug and let her move on quickly like I did with a lot of newcomers.

That night, though, I gave her the biggest hug I could manage. I tried to relate to her God’s limitless love for her.

And I received more from that hug then I gave. She gripped my neck and gave everything right back to me, and I’ve never felt more blessed.

Because God’s kingdom comes when people give up their safe zones for the unknown without fear. God’s kingdom comes to earth when we allow ourselves to love without boundaries.

I believe that Freedom is the closest I will ever come to heaven on earth, simply because there is no judgement and no hate. Freedom gives me a chance to experience things churches strive for.

We welcome everyone.

We do not judge.

We do not leave anyone out of what they want to be a part of.

We do not assign certain jobs to certain people based on sex, or race, or social status.

Freedom is a place where the things others people say and believe no longer hold any truth or importance and you can believe what God believes about you and be affirmed by dozens of people that know how important you really are.

Today, we’re celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who fought for equality and respect among all people.

One point made in church yesterday was that a big part of the civil rights movement was the assembly of church. MLK was invited to talk with many churches, to have dialogue with the people who believed what he believed and who wanted to help.

Church has always been important to people who wish to bring peace among humans. Church is the place that people could be together and not be afraid.

And suddenly, church seemed to stop being that place. It began to become a place where we pretended to be perfectly okay to fit in. Church became a place where I no longer wanted to be.

But Freedom Fellowship? That’s where, at my most uncomfortable, I felt the most peace. Freedom is where I began to believe in the power of church again.

And there will always be an open seat, on any pew, on either side of the auditorium for anyone who wants to be there.

There is always a place at any table, inside or out, where anyone can sit and share a meal before worship starts.

There is always a place in God’s kingdom for anyone who has ever existed.

There is always a place for you.

Update: I forgot to give photo credit to Zach Snyder. The photo was taken on Freedom Fellowship’s 10th anniversary celebration.

A Modern Day Parable

A parable:

Yesterday, I was driving down a road I have driven many times. As I approached a red light, I turned my eyes towards my left. My plan was to come to a stop and make a right turn on red. As this is a path I had traveled often, I was probably not paying as close attention as I needed to. When I looked to the left, all the cars coming towards the intersection were getting into the left turn lane. My path was clear, I began to turn right.

Only after I began my turn, I noticed the barricades, construction equipment, and construction workers. They were patching holes in the street and had the entire street blocked off. My youngest child was with me and said, after I began the turn, “Dad, what are you doing?” I made a mistake. I was not observant. My path was blocked.

I now had several options. The first was just to be stubborn enough to keep on going. I could have pushed the accelerator to the floor and barreled through the barricades, equipment, and people and sped on along my way.

The second option was to open my door, get out of the car, and yell at the construction workers for being in the street working at a time that was not convenient for me. After all, I had somewhere to be; they could potentially make me late. Besides, it was after 5. They should be done working and headed on their way home.

The third option was to yell at my youngest child. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Didn’t you see they were there? Why would you allow me to make such a mistake? You need to be aware of what is going on and inform me before I do something stupid.”

The fourth option was to say, “Oops. That’s embarrassing,” put the car in reverse, back into my lane, and wait for the light to turn green and continue my journey utilizing an alternate route.

One option was dangerous and potentially life threatening. Two options would result in the damaging of relationships. One option necessitated humility, opening my eyes, acknowledging my mistake, and finding a better solution.

Open our eyes that we may see.

Hope That Demands Presence

This post was aided (as all of them are) by many sources and many words of definition, inspiration, clarity. Chief among them are Ta-Nehisi Coates, especially his book Between the World and Me, Austin Channing Brown (check out her website), and Sean Palmer (a great friend and wise author; go to his website, too). As I have prayed and meditated over which direction my life will take this year, these three authors informed me tremendously and I wanted to be sure and thank them (be sure and check out their websites and social media feeds–they are all passionate and informative).

I have struggled to form my word for 2017. The past few years, I have done words instead of resolutions (thank you for this post, Sean Palmer). This year, I had decided I was going to choose one word and from that identify different areas to develop that word more fully.

Then 2016 happened. And I just felt weary. I almost felt as if nothing truly mattered anymore. It was an overwhelming sense of despair. And then I started reading. I started listening. I started praying. And I came to a realization that led me to my word(s) for 2017.

Now is the time to stand firm. Now is the time to work hard. Now is the time to have hope.

Hope that demands presence.

HOPE. I will cling to the hope that I have. The hope that is grounded primarily in Jesus.

There are a number of reasons to feel despair. But all of those reasons are temporary. I have hope that, as Jonathan Martin has written, “God is at work not in the world as it should be but in the world that actually is.” Less than a month ago, we observed the Christian season of Advent—light coming into a dark world. There is a lot of darkness. I acknowledge it. I need to be more aware of it. I need to hear more from the people who are suffering. But the light is stronger than the dark. All of the events and circumstances that are legitimate causes for concern will not bury my hope. For I know there is something greater.

And I have to be honest: I am able to have hope in my current cultural context because of the privilege I have. I have a responsibility to use my voice in places where it will be heard. I have a responsibility to be a voice for people who are cast aside. I have a responsibility to amplify the voices of the people speaking about their experiences and sharing their wisdom. I have a responsibility to make sure I don’t take over, but learn to walk alongside.

DEMANDS. If I have hope that things are going to get better then I must get busy.

Hope is not a flighty feeling of wishing for things to get better. Hope is not a forlorn longing for days gone by when the world was a better place. Hope requires action.

I have hope that people can cross ethnic and class boundaries and form true relationship. So I need to be seeking to cultivate those relationships in my life.

I have hope that people can be treated fairly regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. So I need to be advocating for them and calling my elected officials to vote against discriminatory legislation. I need to be setting an example in my church and my community of how to be loving and welcoming.

I have hope that refugees will be welcomed to our country as they flee theirs at great risk. So I need to be connecting with agencies that promote the well-being of all people regardless of where they come from.

I have hope this world can be a better place. So I better be doing everything I am able to do to make sure that happens.

PRESENCE. I will be present. I will keep my eyes and ears open. I will listen.

Presence takes many forms. In this day and technological age, part of presence means putting my phone down, closing my laptop lid, and turning the TV off so that I can look a person in the eye as they speak to me.

Presence means showing up. To city council meetings and volunteer sign-up drives and candlelight vigils and marches and the ballot box and my local church and the neighborhood clean-up event and anything else that affords me the opportunity to speak and to serve.

Presence means conversations over coffee or at lunch and dinner tables with people who have different opinions and ideas as me. It means that I am willing to listen as well willing to speak. It means I will go out of my way to engage with people face to face and not via social media.

Presence means I will maintain my sobriety—not the absence of alcohol and drugs, but the practice of putting principles before personalities.

Presence means practicing spiritual disciplines: praying, sitting in silence, studying, worshipping, even fasting.

I will be present as much as I am able. I will not run. I will not hide. I will not give up. I will, in the words of President Obama, show up, dive in, and persevere.

My word for 2017 is hope that demands presence. I will need you to hold me accountable. Because I know some days will be easier than others. So let’s work together.

New Year, Same Old You

I hate to break it to you, but nothing magical happened Saturday night at midnight. A ball fell. People kissed. Champagne bottles were popped (or, as in this household, sparkling grape juice bottles). Confetti was thrown. And firecrackers were set off annoying dogs and neighbors for miles.

But let’s face it, it was just another day. We set up our lives by the calendar. We mark time by the passage of months and years. I know why we mark these occasions and celebrate them.

But we must remember: not much changes from December 31 to January 1. (Other than forgetting to change the year you write down on checks leading to a number of crossouts and corrections.)

This is why so many resolutions fizzle out. We are still the same person. So if we make no substantial change in our lives, all the resolutions in the world will not force change. Turning the pages of the calendar from 2016 to 2017 will not make change magically occur.

Now don’t get me wrong: I think because of the ways we measure time, the beginning of a calendar year can be a good time to start something new; or stop something old. Because we think in terms of months and years, we can use that to our advantage. But there are a couple of things we must intentionally do if we are going to make any lasting change.

First, make goals that are specific and realistic. Don’t say, “I’m going to lose weight.” You need to have a certain number of pounds in mind that you will lose. You need to have an eating and exercising plan. Likewise, don’t say, “I’m going to lose 100 pounds in the next 3 months.” That’s not realistic. In fact, that’s kinda dangerous. But make goals that you know you can accomplish.

Second, find a group of people to hold you accountable. If you can join a group working towards the same goal, that would be even better. One of the strengths of the 12 Step model is that everyone gathers for a common purpose—sobriety. While the individual journeys make look different, the overall goal of sobriety allows everyone to help hold one another accountable. Many healthy eating and exercise groups exist. Many writing groups and reading clubs are around that can help you write and read more. Or you can begin your own group. But you will be more successful if you surround yourself with people who can check up on you.

A change on the calendar will not lead you to make you change.

Deciding to make a change will lead you to make a change.

You are still (largely) the same person you were last week. The festivities of Saturday night did not change that. While I appreciate the sentiment behind “new year, new you,” it simply isn’t true. Unless you actively seek to make that change.

And remember, you are more than adequate to do the things necessary to change. By January 1, 2018, you may indeed be an entirely new person. I hope I am. But it won’t happen overnight. So let’s get to work.

Happy New Year, everybody.

When Your Childhood Dies

I still remember listening to Purple Rain on cassette tape. When Doves Cry will always be one of my favorite songs. When Stevie Nicks sang a tribute to Prince at her recent concert in Dallas, I was surprised at how much I was moved. (And for those of you who know me, I realize me being moved to tears should come as no surprise.)

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I also remember having a childhood crush on Carrie Fisher. Well, the crush was more realistically on Princess Leia, but Carrie brought her to life. Although as an adult I have appreciated her advocacy regarding mental health and addiction issues, I always thought of her first as a strong female character.

One night during high school, I was falling asleep with the radio on. I heard the words, “Ground control to Major Tom,” for the hundredth time, but really listened and paid attention for the first time. I was amazed at the way David Bowie was able to tell such a gripping and telling story in such a short time.

When a celebrity dies, a little piece of us dies with them. As humans, we seem to have this impression that the memories, and memory-makers, of our youth are somehow immortal. Each loss is a reminder of our own mortality. Each loss is a reminder that we are no longer that 8 year child going to theater to see Return of the Jedi; we are no longer that middle schooler dancing to Careless Whisper; we are no longer that young adult who appreciates the old musicals and still dances along to all the songs in Singing in the Rain.

As the shining stars of our youth go dim, a little piece of us darkens along with them.

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Two people from my church family passed away this past week. They were both kind and gentle people. I was not particularly close to either one, but have many mutual friends. One of them is a grandfather to some of the children in the youth group I volunteer with. As those families gather for funerals on the same week most of us celebrated Christmas, there is a hurt, a loss, that will forever change those who mourn.

When people that we know die, it creates an emptiness. Something, someone, we are familiar with is no longer physically present. Even simple things like regular greetings at church or occasionally bumping into one another at the grocery store aren’t going to happen anymore. Those events we took for granted because we always banked on “next time” now take on a new meaning.

As the people we know die, a little piece of us is lost and we are forever different.

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When it comes to celebrity deaths, 2016 has been a terrible year. Just this week has seen three stars (two of them mother and daughter) pass away. People have been mourning the loss of their childhood heroes from Severus Snape to Carol Brady; their sports idols from Muhammad Ali to Arnold Palmer; their musical angels from Merle Haggard to Leonard Cohen; their historical giants from Elie Wiesel to John Glenn.

It seems that each week has brought a new spotlight to one of those childhood memories; those thoughts of days gone by. And now, the person associated with the memory is gone. And we mourn. Maybe not so much because we knew them, most of us never get a chance to meet the celebrities we adore, but because of what they unknowingly meant to us.

At the same time, all of us have endured the loss of loved ones throughout the year. And we are navigating through the pain that brings.

In addition to that, there are thousands of others who have died this year that we know nothing about. We never knew them. They never made the news. They passed on and our lives kept moving as if nothing happened.

And all of that is okay. Because each loss—whether of a close friend or a person associated with a memory—brings an end to part of ourselves. This isn’t selfish. This is a gift we have received. We have been granted…something: a token of kindness, a refuge through song or stage, inspiration to face insurmountable odds, a relationship. Because we have been given these gifts, when the giver leaves, we mourn.

So as this calendar year draws to a close, mourn. Be sad for the parts of your younger days that you have lost. But also be grateful. Be grateful that you were the recipient of a gift that only you can fully understand.

Tomorrow, I will gather with other mourners and extend my sympathies to a husband who is burying his wife; a daughter who is burying her mother. I will mourn. Yet I will also be grateful as I continue reading stories of this person’s students who remember her fondly; whose lives have forever been shaped by the love she poured into them.

We lost bits of ourselves throughout this year, but we are who we are because of the gifts we have been given. So let us grieve. But let us also be thankful that we have reason to grieve.