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.

Being Equipped, Encouraged, and Empowered at the Intersection of Faith and Sexuality

This post was shared on CenterPeace’s blog last week. I am grateful for our family’s opportunity to participate in this event. 

One weekend in October, many people are going to gather and discuss issues surrounding faith and sexuality. CenterPeace is hosting the e3 Conference (equipped, encouraged, and empowered) from October 27-29 at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas, TX. Many Christian scholars from across the country will join families to share stories and information and discuss how to hold conversations about faith, same-sex attraction, and gender identity in loving, Christian ways.

I am excited about this conference for many reasons. As a Christian and student of the Bible, I truly am seeking to increase my knowledge in areas of interpretation and application. I have questions that I thought I always knew the answer to, and maybe I did. But I mostly just accepted what was said to me without genuine, honest searching.

As a recovering alcoholic, I have experienced many preconceived ideas about addiction and recovery—many of them negative. Through conversations and spending time with people, I have been able to teach people that the experience of an alcoholic in recovery is not what they thought. This same lesson has applied to me as I have had the opportunity to talk to Christians who are attracted to members the same sex or who do not identify with their gender the same way I do. I have learned that many of my preconceived ideas were wrong—and often negative. I have learned to love and have conversations; with the purpose of that dialogue being to learn and become shaped more in the image of Christ.

As a parent, I have wrestled with what it means to have a child acknowledge his own same sex attraction. I have learned the blessing of having people with whom to hold conversations. I have had a lot of questions. I was blessed to have people and resources close by. I know that many parents either do not have or are not aware of the resources available to them.

The e3 Conference can be a great step in the journey for parents, siblings, children, or friends who love someone who experiences same sex attraction or has questions about their gender identity.

If you have questions about the intersection of faith and sexuality, this is the conference you need to attend. Come and find conversation partners. Come and ask questions. Come and learn about resources.

Come and be surrounded by the love and peace of Jesus.

When All Else Fails, FaithWorks

I originally posted this in January. I am posting again today because Class 40 is graduating tonight! FaithWorks of Abilene is an amazing place. I love telling people about it.

“It’s never too late to become what you might have been.”

I love my job. My actual title is Classroom Instructor; however, I learn so much more than I could ever teach.

At FaithWorks of Abilene, we provide underemployed and unemployed individuals with the confidence and skills necessary for gainful employment. Our mission is to help people find their place in the job market. We use a career counseling curriculum, provide counseling, teach the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, look at the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, and provide lessons in how to deal with conflict.

But that’s just a program description. It is important. I love telling people about it. (Seriously…invite me to speak and I will fill you in completely!)

However, there is so much more to FaithWorks than our program. It is all about our students. The reason I learn so much is that a diverse group of students bring their life experiences, their challenges, their unique abilities, and their resolve and determination to the classroom. We have students who have been told for so long they will never amount to anything. They come to us and prove people wrong.

I could tell you about the woman who made a mistake at a young age and spent many years in prison. When she came out, no one wanted to hire her; even though she attained three college degrees while incarcerated. After FaithWorks, she was given a chance by a local employer and has been promoted twice.

I could tell you about the man who was highly educated and working very successfully in his field. After a relationship break-up and emotional breakdown he lost everything. When he came to us, he had lost all of his self-confidence. Within two weeks of class starting, his confidence started coming back. He actually became a second teacher in the classroom.

I could tell you about our kitchen coordinator who never held a job for more than six months. After graduating from FaithWorks she started working in our kitchen and has been here for six months. Plus 3 and ½ years.

I could tell you about the woman who was homeless and always drunk who was estranged from her family. When she started, she had been out of work for a while. Due to some medical issues, she has not been able to find full-time work but she has been consistently volunteering ever since graduation. She has maintained her sobriety and has been living in her own home. She has reconciled with many members of her family.

I could tell you about the other 400+ students who have come through our doors.

I could tell you about the single parents who attend class and work part-time jobs in the evenings and weekends to take care of their families while they are in class.

I could tell you about the people working to make their lives better after making mistakes and picking up a criminal record.

I could tell you about the recovering addicts and alcoholics who just needed someone to give them a chance.

I could tell you about the students who experienced an unplanned life transition in their 40s and 50s and needed help getting reestablished.

I could even go on to tell you about how the systems in place that often work to make it more difficult for unemployed people to find work. I could tell you about all the obstacles that are placed in the way and all the hoops that people are made to jump through. I could tell you about the scores of people who keep telling our students, “You can’t.”

But instead of telling you about those, I just want to tell you that every single one of our students has faced a number of challenges. When they come to us, all they need is someone who will say to them, “I am on your side. You can do this.”

And once they receive a little bit of encouragement, they take off.

It truly is never too late to become what you might have been.

*If you live in Abilene and would benefit from our program, our Fall Class begins September 12! Check out our website: faithworksofabilene.org and our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Go Sit With It

One year ago, I went through a funk. It was a mild case of depression. Nothing was satisfying. I quit doing the things I do to bring joy to my life. I was not sleeping. I had little to no energy. I was going through the motions of work, church, and family obligations.

I can name the events that occurred that led to this. One Sunday in January, I had the unsettling honor of being in the birthing room with a mother whose child died during childbirth. I was able to hold the lifeless child and look on his face. The next week, my cousin was killed in a car accident. After traveling from Maryland to Texas for the funeral, my mother suffered a stroke.

I have been around death and the various details in a number of ways for most of my life. I have been in hospital rooms and living rooms with people as they took their last breath. I have planned and preached funerals. I have talked with and counseled families and friends as they deal with grief. I have walked through the grief of losing my brother.

But there was something about those three events occurring within a 10 day stretch that shook me in a way I have not been shaken before.

And I turned inward. I isolated. I didn’t talk. I hid behind the word “fine.” I was basically entering into the Walking Dead phenomenon, only without the entertainment of the actual TV show.

And this went on for months. After a powerful sermon at the church I attend, I decided to take a chance and reach out for help. I wrote a card detailing my despair and emptiness and actually signed my name to it. It was difficult spelling out the letters in my name on that card.

Someone called me. We talked. We prayed. I decided to go speak to a trusted spiritual advisor. His name is Randy. I told him I was unsettled. He asked me why. I detailed the events of the previous weeks and months.

He responded with a simple question: “You know what I’m going to tell you, don’t you?”

My answer: “You’re going to tell me to go sit with it.”

“Yes. Go sit with it.”

“Go sit with it” ranks right up there with “Do the next right thing.”

Randy is a well-respected, educated, wise, insightful, spiritual man. He thinks before he speaks. He does not let words fall out of his mouth carelessly.

But all he had for me was, “Go sit with it.”

I wanted advice. I wanted healing. I wanted the words that formed the magic solution to cure all that ailed me. I didn’t want to go sit with it.

But that was his counsel. What does it mean?

It means that there are seasons in life when we will be unsettled. We cannot avoid it or prevent it. We also can’t pretend like it’s not happening. We can’t simply sweep it under the rug or hide it in the closet. We must go through it.

It means that there are some issues that cannot be solved simply. They must be experienced and endured.

It means that sometimes we need to be silent in order to hear God. We need to be still to be aware of God’s presence. We may not always get the answers we want, but at many points in our lives we do not need answers. We need presence.

It means that I have to accept that I cannot solve everyone’s problems. I cannot be the hero for everyone in my life. And that is not what I am supposed to be anyway.

It means that I need to recognize how I participate in the suffering of the world. And how I can partner and walk alongside others as they participate, as well.

There was no magical solution. There was no simple solution. There wasn’t even a moment when everything got back to normal.

But every morning brought a new day.

And sometimes, that is all we can hope for.

Living With My Hero

As part of the blog challenge I am participating in this month, I am writing about people who inspire me. A lot of people have to admire their inspirations from afar. I get to live with mine. This post was originally shared in August 2012 under the title “An Excellent Woman.”

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“If you want to keep your family together you better get some help.”  Those words were spoken to me by my wife, Shawna, eight and a half years ago.  You see, I had messed up.  Royally.  I was losing my battle with alcoholism and decided it was time to let her know everything.  So I packed a bag, sat her down, told her all the terrible details, and watched as she surprised me: she left.

But the next morning she came back.

A year and a half later, she found out that I was still losing that same battle, only now it resulted in me losing my job as a minister.  Her response was to call some married friends who had been through the same struggle and ask if we could spend a few days with them.  Those friends said yes, and we started (again) on a long road to recovery.

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Several years, three states, and a couple of jobs later, we made the decision to move back to Abilene, TX, so I could enroll in graduate school.  She now works to help pay for my tuition.  And the bills.  And the food.  And the benefits.  Have I mentioned our three children yet?  Or that she is continuing her education as well? (Note: I have since graduated, but she is still working on her education. And three jobs.)

She has embodied grace in our relationship as husband and wife; but it goes even farther than that.  She does not know her biological father and she has a strained relationship with her mother.  Yet she has become like a mother to the young girls and women of every congregation we have been a part of.  She reaches out with motherly love and guidance to the young people she works with; many of whom have strained relationships in their own families of origin.

She was not raised with any sense of spirituality or religion, yet now her life is guided by prayer and an intense desire to do what is right.  She loves God and strives to make decisions that are in step with His will for her life.  She loves others and truly wishes to bless them in any way she can.  She prays for people, talks with people, teaches people, and provides food and other material blessings for people in need.

She does not always have it easy.  She struggles at times to be content or at peace; yet during those times of struggle she seeks counsel from those who are willing to listen.  She has a drive to learn more about herself and how she can continually improve in her service to God and others.  She pours her heart out in worship and in fellowship as she yearns to become the Godly woman she knows she was called to be.

I am who I am and where I am today because of my wife and her love, grace, support, strength, and excellence.  Our children are turning into young people who love God and serve others because of the example their mother has set for them.  I am in awe of her because of the journey she has traveled to arrive where she is.

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(Thanks to Michaela Kasselman for this fun pic! Check out more of her pics here.)

Every day I wake up, I thank God for the woman he has blessed me with.  Every day, I am reminded that our lives continue together because she was willing to come back.  She was willing to exhibit the grace and love of God.  She was willing to say, “I will walk with you.”  I will never be able to estimate her worth because it is beyond my ability to comprehend.  Yet I will continue to thank God every day for blessing me with a most excellent partner, wife, and friend.