Unarmed Empire, Book Review

A new book has come out that you should buy today: Unarmed Empire by Sean Palmer.

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Order it here!

“This book is the result of a lifetime in the church.”

So begins Unarmed Empire, the new book by Sean Palmer. Sean is an incredible story teller. He observes. He listens. He reflects. And as he writes, he tells a story that I truly believe every churchgoer will relate to on some level.

Sean loves the church. He loves what the church should be and can be. He hates what the church in many places has become.

As Sean relays stories of his experience in the church, he is quick to point out his own failings. As he is quick to state, people on both sides of the current state of political discourse have become victims. We have allowed our personal, political, and philosophical opinions dictate how we operate and interact. Instead of being a Kingdom people, we have adopted a “Pax Americana.”

If you are a churchgoer who wants to reclaim what Jesus called the church to be, this book is for you. If you have been burned by churches in the past, pick up this book to grasp a picture of what church can and should be and what some churches truly are striving to be.

Sean is calling us all to community—a community based on grace, a community based on welcoming, a community that seeks to create peace. This book is authentic. It is convicting. It is a road map for what we as a church have been called to be.

Sean is a friend. I have known him for more than half my life. As he writes, I can hear and appreciate his growth and maturity through the years. I can see the ways God has molded and shaped him; how God has used him to bring about the Kingdom without being too distracted by any earthly kingdom. Sean may not realize how important he has been to my own spiritual development over the years. And as I read his book, I was wanting to loudly proclaim, “Amen,” over and over—about 90% of the time. The rest of the time, he was convicting me to wrestle with my own sin; the ways I have given in to earthly standards in my relationships with other people.

We have lost our story. Let us reclaim it. “Christians can be right, but if we are not kind, we are wrong.” Let us be kind. Let us be welcoming. Let us be the church.

 

Asking Questions, Having Conversations

The following is a post I wrote for CenterPeace: providing safe spaces for men and women who experience same-sex attraction. For years, CenterPeace and their director, Sally Gary, have been striving to help create and increase conversations. I was honored to write this piece and am glad to share it here on my blog, as well. I would encourage you to check out CenterPeace’s website and blog.

(My post is one of series of posts written by fathers. Beginning today (Monday), Sally will also be sharing guest posts written by mothers.)

Continuing with our guest series from fathers of LGBTQ daughters and sons on Fridays, here’s a post from my friend, Paul Mathis.

Sometimes, I say the dumbest things. (According to my children, this only seems to be heightened as they grow older.)

I like to think I am a kind person; a thoughtful person; a caring person; a smart person. I know that I truly do want to be supportive and encouraging. But sometimes, in my quest to speak words of kindness, I mess up and say something that just sounds awful.

Have you ever read those posts on social media? Something like “Ten things never to say to a foster family,” or “Never say this to someone whose family member is deployed.” I read those and realize that I have said virtually all of them. Always with the best intentions. Always because I truly do care. But sometimes, I just don’t have the right vocabulary to speak into certain situations.

So when my son came to me several years ago and said he was bisexual (and later he would tell me he was gay), I did not know what to say. I came up with some non-committal response that ended with me telling him I loved him.

There is so much I wish I knew at that point. I had been raised in a traditional, conservative denomination that taught homosexuality was a sin. Although I never participated in any boycotts, I was quick to put down Disney and other media companies for their “liberal, homosexual agenda.”

Yet through all of that, I had several friends who were a part of the LGBTQ community. They welcomed me and I welcomed them. We spoke freely and openly. I can truly say I loved counting them among my friends.

But there were so many times that I would either say the wrong thing thinking I was being funny or supportive; or I would just not say anything at all because I was afraid anything would be the wrong thing.

One thing I never did: reach out to someone who could help me have these conversations. However, that was not just because of my fear; I did not know anyone with whom I could have those discussions.

My son approaching me made me so aware of my perceived inability to have these conversations. I did not know what to say. I was afraid to say anything wrong so I defaulted to saying nothing at all. I was woefully unprepared.

I wish I could go back and tell my past self that I was not unprepared. I loved my son. I still do. And it was okay for me to tell him that I was confused, uncertain, scared, and whatever else. It was okay for me to say that because I could also say without hesitation that I loved him. I loved his siblings, as well, unconditionally. I repeated that as often as I could.

I wish I could go back and tell myself that it is okay to question what I had been taught and to be okay with not having an answer. I wish I could tell myself to continue on the journey. I wish I could tell myself that I did not need to feel alone on the journey.

Here is what I cannot do: go back in time. Here is what I did do: reach out to Sally Gary and ask if I could have a conversation.

I remember well the day I texted Sally and asked if I could talk to her and say things that might make me sound ignorant and hateful. I just did not have the language I needed to have a conversation about sexual identity and orientation with my son.

Sally was welcoming. She was patient. She was kind. She was loving.

In the ensuing six years, my relationship with my son has grown closer. More than anything else, Sally taught me that I actually was prepared to have this conversation with my son because I loved him. Sally has taught countless people that conversations based in love are such a vital piece of building and maintaining relationships.

Here is what I continue to do: encourage every parent who has a question to make use of CenterPeace and all its resources. First and foremost, love your children. Second, know you are not alone. Third, continue engaging in conversation based in love and covered in prayer.

Sometimes, I say the dumbest things. But sometimes, my child hears me and knows he is loved.

I am grateful for CenterPeace and Sally and the conversations that have started because of this ministry. I am grateful for the visible support Sally has been to countless others. So when she lost her hair due to her chemo treatments I wanted to do something as a visible sign of support. My shaved head has inspired many questions. Each time I answer, I get to talk about Sally and CenterPeace!

Debating the Worth of My Existence

When news broke yesterday about the passing of Chris Cornell, I was saddened. Although I do not know him, I know his music. I love his voice, his poetry, his talent. I have spent many hours listening to his solo stuff, Soundgarden, Audio Slave, and Temple of the Dog. Knowing Soundgarden had reunited and was touring again brought a smile to my face.

I don’t really know why. Music does that to many of us, I guess.

But as more and more news began to spread, ultimately leading up to the report that it was suicide, the typical, and truly sad, predictable comments began to occur. The statements of “what a waste.” The jokes that are always in poor taste but pop up whenever something tragic happens.

I am used to this by now. In real life, tragedies happen and there is usually a manner of respect shown for the deceased and those left behind. But in social media and pop culture world, tragedies bring out the worst in people trying to bring attention to themselves.

His death is not occasion for a joke. His death is not the opportunity to decry all that is wrong with artists. His death is not the time to call it “a great waste.” His death is a tragedy. A wife is left widowed. Children are left without a father. Family members and friends will mourn his passing. And, in this instance, may even question if they played some role; if they should have done even more.

Chris Cornell’s death is no more tragic because he is a celebrity. But is no less tragic, either.

Cornell has spoken in the past about his struggle with drugs and alcohol. I do not know what his journey was like; if he was drunk or high that night or if he had been clean and sober for years. But that doesn’t matter.

But I do remember. I remember the places my addiction took me. I remember the nights when I was alone with my thoughts and it was not a great place to be. I remember the (mostly self-imposed) isolation. The days when my guilt beat me up for all the poor choices I was making and the nights when justification said “one more” couldn’t possibly make a difference. I remember receiving praise and compliments for my work yet believing in my self-talk which said I was not as good as the next person.

I was never suicidal. For that I am grateful. But there were many nights that I sat by myself and thought this world would be a better place if I was not in it. I loved my wife and my children. I loved the rest of my family. But really, would anyone miss me? Wasn’t I causing more trouble than I was worth? I was losing the will to fight to ever get well and I was hating the path that I was on.

Let me repeat: I was never suicidal. But there were a lot of days that I thought the only way I would overcome my addiction would be to die.

I don’t know Chris Cornell. He was a celebrity whose art I admired. However, maybe we can use the occasion of his reported suicide to ask people around us how they are doing—and actually want an answer. Maybe we can keep our eyes open for those who are isolating themselves. Maybe we can make sure to actually nurture relationships and not take them for granted.

Maybe we can reach out to families who are suffering loss. Maybe we can consider the power of our words and not speak them so carelessly.

Maybe we need to speak up for ourselves. Maybe you are the one who is hurting and you need to reach out for help.

I know the pain of being isolated. I know the uncertainty of wondering if my life is worth it. I know the difficulty of asking for help.

If you are hurting, please speak up. If you know someone who is hurting, please be kind.

When a tragedy occurs, avoid the temptation to “tsk” or to joke. Remember the pain that exists. Reach out and take care of those around you. Take care of yourself and speak up when necessary.

Remember that your life is worth it.

 

*The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK

Your Boring Story

We know the story. Even those who have little or no Christian background know the story of the Prodigal Son. We know about the younger son leaving and going to the far country. We know about the desire to eat the slop they were feeding the pigs. We know about the return home, the rehearsed confession, the anticipated humiliation, and giving up of the position his birth gave him. We know about the father sitting on the porch and seeing the son while he was still a long way off. We know about the fatted calf and the party and the joy. That which was dead is now alive; that which was lost is now found.

It is one of the most popular stories in the Bible. It is likely one of the most popular stories in all of literature.

And it is an important story. No matter how far you have strayed; no matter how egregious your behavior; no matter how hateful your words and actions have been, you can always come home. We need to remember this. We need to proclaim this. We need people to remind us how they have come home and how they have overcome.

But it just feels like something is missing…

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There are many opportunities to hear powerful testimonies of people who have lost everything and found it again. People who were born into horrible circumstances only to overcome. People who have undergone miraculous transformations.

And those stories are important. We need to hear them. There are people who are hurting, broken, and lonely. In the midst of despair, it is valuable to hear that you are not alone.

I have been given the opportunity to share my testimony in several settings. It is an honor to be able to do so. I am grateful that I can share where I have been and where my journey currently has me and where it is taking me.

I am also grateful for those other stories I get to hear when others share. It is a gift of grace to be present when someone is willing to open up and be vulnerable and provide us a glimpse into their lives.

But what about those people whose stories are, for lack of a better term, boring? What about those people who never had a journey “to the far country?”

Sometimes, I wonder if we celebrate the story of the modern day prodigals (which is good) so much that we discredit the story of the modern day older brother (which is not so good).

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I have read and heard and preached on and listened to sermons about the Parable of the Prodigal Son millions of times. (Or some number close to that.)

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So I never expected to hear something different in the story when I read it out loud last week. A small phrase that I never caught before. A few simple words that changed the meaning in a profound way.

I never realized before that after the party started—you know, the party with the fatted calf for the younger brother who came back home—the father went out to the older brother.

This may not seem like much, but it hit me as I read it this time: the younger son was not the only one the father noticed. The younger son was not the only one the father was waiting for. The younger son was not the only one the father ran out to in order to extend grace and mercy. The younger son was not the only one the father wanted to celebrate.

The father went to the older brother. The brother who had stayed at home. The boring brother.

Leaving home, squandering our money in alcohol and sex, landing flat on our backs at rock bottom, and only then coming to our senses is not a prerequisite to be loved by God.

It is also not a prerequisite to having a great story, a great confession.

The older brother stayed. When the father must have felt abandoned, the older brother was there. When the work load increased, the older brother increased his effort. When the father faced the shame that would have come with a child abandoning the family, the older brother worked to restore the family honor.

The older brother is not a bad person. He is not the antagonist (though he is sometimes seen as such). The older brother devoted his life to serving and honoring his father.

And because he was never in need of radical grace, he did not know what to do when he saw his father extend it. And when he struggled with the acceptance of his younger brother, the father then extended radical grace to the older brother.

No matter how boring you may think your story is, you are still the recipient of the amazing gift of grace from God.

And your story is still important. We need to know that there is redemption for those of us who have struggled with addiction, loss, imprisonment, and oppression. But we also need to know there is redemption for those who have never wandered away.

You may think your story is boring. But it is not. Your story is valuable. Your story needs to be heard.

Your story will be a blessing. So share it.

 

*Picture is of the painting The Prodigal Son Returns by Soichi Watanabe

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.