Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Cure of Souls

What the heck does a pastor do anyway? What does your pastor do? What's his/her job description? The truth is, most of don't know what a pastor does, or is supposed to do. The tougher truth is that there are a few of us who don't think they do much of anything, at least until Sunday rolls around. I grew up as a pastors kid, and can vividly remember the night I told my dad to get a job. Dang. Sorry dad. Of course, I have since learned the hard way that a true pastor carries a tremendous spiritual burden, and there is no clocking out. Even so, the job of pastor remains one of the most ambiguous career paths available. I think us pastors are just as confused about it as the lay folk. I personally have been through seven years of schooling, and have served as a full time minister for more than six years and I'm still not totally clear about what exactly I'm supposed to be doing.

For some clarity on the issue, I recently looked back at the original job description of the parish Priest. The ancient term used to describe the role of the Priest is "the cure of souls." It included five things.....Preaching the Word, giving the sacraments, giving Godly counsel, visiting the sick, and embracing the poor. That's it! Now, if you look at most job descriptions put out by present day pastoral search committees, you're bound to see something totally different. Outside of preaching the Word, nary a one of those five will have made the list. Instead you'll see things like "dynamic leadership",and " ability to take our church to the next level". Hence our conundrum, and thus our current identity crisis. For better or worse, we pastors have become significantly divorced from our original model. Strategizing and motivating are not the same as curing souls. And for the record, dynamic communication is not the really the same as preaching the Word. It's probably obvious, but the calling to cure souls resonates deeply with me. Fasting and praying for the flock is certainly not a glamorous usage of time, but the old saints understood that someone had to do it. Visiting the sick/poor, and offering communion is not bound to produce visible results, but that's what makes them sacred. To put it in Eugene Petersons words, pastors have been "lashed to the mast of Word and sacrament", whether we like it or not. Your thoughts? More on this next week.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Son sit still ( a tribute to Big E )

Our son Ellis turns one today. Here's a little homage to the youngin we affectionately refer to as Big E.

Here's to you Ellis, on your first birthday. Here's to twenty-five pounds of perpetual motion. Here's to being born a month early, but living as though you were born a month late and had time to make up for. Here's to turning every diaper change into a wrestling match with no clear winner. Here's to adopting the motto: why stop and smell the roses when it's much quicker to just eat them? Here's to looking like me but being more boy than I ever was.

We love you son. Your mommy and I are so glad you were born. I'm pretty sure your sister feels the same way, even though you have pulled more hair from her head than you have grown on your own. We love you even though you're one year old, and we have yet to rock you to sleep a single time. You like to move. You have places to go. We get it. Anyway, you're a precious little boy, and your smile is absolutely priceless. Happy birthday buddy!

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Do You Respond?

Poverty surrounds us. I mean all of us. None of us are so insulated that we are spared at least occasional contact with the broken. We know, of course, that poverty is not merely a physical issue. I would suggest that it’s not even primarily a physical issue. Poverty is all too often a complex network of brokenness that starts at the center and works its’ way out to the surface. Since we all see it, we may find it helpful to ask….how should we respond to it? Well, there are tons of wrong ways to respond. Denying, avoiding, and blaming would be a few. I’m learning though that there may be as many right responses as there are wrong ones.

When Bill Gates saw it, his response was to start a foundation. Through his charitable efforts, an inconceivable amount of money has been pumped into the poorest of poor communities. And he has raised as much awareness as he has money. A long, long time before Bill Gates was conscience- stricken by the presence of poverty, St. Francis had his heart stirred by the sight of beggars. His response? He stripped stark naked and ran into the woods. He gave away his possessions, spent the bulk of his time in prayer, and preached the Good News to the poor.

Here we see one issue provoke two profoundly diverse responses. Who was right? I think they both were. The contrast between them can be at least partially explained by their gifts. Bill Gates was given a keen intellect and a resilient drive. His response was measured. It was practical. St. Francis was given a sanctified imagination and a high tolerance for embarrassment. His reaction was absurd. Then again, so was the inequality he was faced with.

When you see poverty, how do you answer? Do you run to the bank or to the woods? Do you come up with a plan, or do you get down on your face? I guess the important thing is that we all do something. The world could sure use more conscientious entrepreneurs. LORD knows we could use a lot more naked saints.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

not alone

When I was younger, I rarely had occasion to be home alone. If my folks were both out of pocket, they generally left Matt and I in the fairly capable hands of our older brother Kris. But I do vividly recall one exception. Mom and dad were going to pick up Matt from camp, and Kris was working. I was only ten or eleven, but I begged mom and dad to let me stay home so I could watch Jaws. That's correct. Eventually they relented. They pulled out of the driveway. I was by myself, and excited for it. I cut on the TV, adjusted the rabbit ears and watched with rapt attention as a mammoth man-eater stalked his prey. Here's the deal with Jaws....Jaws is scary if you're actually in the ocean. I was easily a hundred miles from the nearest respectable body of water. But I was scared out of my mind. I don't know if it was the ominous music or the phantom dorsal fin that kept poking through the fuzzy lines on my television screen. Anyway, the reality of my aloneness hit me hard. The house felt quiet and empty. My family would return in a matter of hours, but I seriously felt like I would be alone for the rest of eternity. In my panic I did what any self-respecting youngster would do. I intentionally locked myself out of my house and asked my neighbors if I could watch Star Trek with them until my people returned. They obliged and I didn't feel alone anymore.

That's one story about one time that I felt alone.It's not the only story. Honestly, feeling alone has been sort of a recurring theme in my life. I haven't always felt alone, but there have been times when I have felt utterly so. Many well-intentioned people have counseled me to remember that God is there in spite of my lonely feelings. That doesn't really help. What did help was the revelation that God isn't just there in spite of my loneliness. He is in my loneliness. Actually, without getting too mystical about it, I have learned that God is my loneliness. He has placed within his children a deep, deep longing for him. It's a longing that God made but refuses to fill, even with himself. It is this longing that draws us slowly but surely to the heart of our Creator. We were created in his image. I take that to mean that there is a little piece of God at the center of us all. So my hunger for intimacy, and my yearning for security is nothing more than the action of God searching for himself. The truth that I am not alone is displayed by my loneliness. If I were truly alone, I would never feel lonely.

"Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there."

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Nantahala

Last weekend, we went rafting. Actually, we went camping and rafting. We thought it would be fun to take some of our middle school boys into the woods for a couple of days. There were eleven of us total. We left Friday, and headed up to the Nantahala, where we camped Friday night. We had in mind a sort-of return to nature. Or in some cases an initial introduction. Thus we confiscated all personal gaming devices and mp3 players. Fortunately, the inevitable protests that ensued were not the highlight of the weekend.

We spent the evening by the fire. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows and told really bad ghost stories. Saturday, the much awaited rafting commenced. As with every trip down the river, ours was a mixture of the good and the bad. First, the bad….The water was COLD. Dae Dae fell in. Tre got thrown in. We nearly knocked an old man out of his kayak. Our guide was a young lady who had lived in a tent all summer and was covered with a lethal combination of tattoos and dreadlocks.

Now the good….The sky was beautiful. The sun was shining. Everybody laughed a lot. And finally, our guide was a young lady who had lived in a tent all summer and was covered with a lethal combination of tattoos and dreadlocks. Thank you LORD for your amazing creation and the unique way you meet us there. You didn’t have to but you did.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Called to feel

As I have sort of alluded to recently, I went through a pretty difficult time a little over a year ago. A big part of my struggles revolved around ministry. Here's a little something I wrote a couple of months ago as I looked back on that time.....

My attempts to unbreak my people broke me. It was physically painful. A numbness; like someone you love just punched you in the gut and left you praying for air while they walked off without remorse. For weeks I prayed that God would heal whatever it was that broke. I wanted to be fixed so that I could be a healer. The harder I pleaded the more distant God felt. What did he want me to do? Where was he? Why would he call me to something that I not only couldn't handle, but that would render me unable to handle anything? And so, we wrestled. There were only two ways this wrestling match could end. It was either going to kill me, or I was going to have to cry uncle.

It took me losing all of my strength before I would finally quit fighting. In my surrender I saw what until then I could not see. God wasn't going to give me rest from my brokenness. He was calling me to rest in my brokenness. To sit down. To feel the pain that my people feel on a daily basis. To hurt for them, and to remain present in a place that most folks try to escape from. I asked God to make me strong. He was delighted that I had finally been made weak. The place that I wanted to hide was the place that God wanted to show the world for my own good, and for his own glory.

I now know that in order for ministry to mean something, it has to hurt sometimes. How often do we rush into ministry, but away from pain? We want to save others, but forget that we can't save anyone that we have no empathy for. I am called to carry the pain of a people. I long to carry it with dignity and sobriety. Sometimes I still try to fix others before they break me. More often though, I'm reminded that only if I allow them to break me do either of us stand a chance of being fixed.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The sacred shrug/ Everywhere part 2

Sometimes "I don't know" is the best answer. Sometimes a shrug speaks more truth than an over-confident fist pump. Please don't get me wrong. I love the church, and she has been far better to me than I have to her. But at times I see a church dressed with certainty; a church with little to no tolerance for the transcendence of the Eternal. Maybe the best evidence is the lack of silence in our public and private lives. With silence comes mystery. With mystery comes uncertainty. With uncertainty comes a lack of control. And if we're not in control, then just who the heck is? We could give control to God, but he's so unpredictable, who knows what he might do. We are left then with two choices. We either strip God of his mystery, or we strip ourselves of our false certainty. We are reluctant to take the second option for one primary reason....nothing scares us more than nothing scares us. Stepping into the abyss of Gods' mystery scares the junk out of us because there is a perceived loss of identity. Being hidden in Christ precludes us from advancing our own cause.

And so we fake it. We cling to our idols of the intellect that bear a slight resemblance to the Deity they represent. We develop systems of belief that appease for the moment our existential angst. The end result is that God no longer moves in our churches. Every time he tries to, we freeze him in mid stride.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Senior Projects

One of the privileges that we have in our ministry is the opportunity to build relationships with some pretty cool senior citizens. In addition to providing groceries to the residents of East Side Homes, we have been blessed with the volunteers and the resources to pitch in and repair some houses. This ministry is reserved solely for senior citizens.
Recently, we hosted our first work team consisting entirely of middle-schoolers. Not one of these youngsters had any experience painting, nor of having grown over five-and-a-half feet tall. Yet what they lacked in experience and stature, they more than made up for in heart. They painted, cleaned, and weeded for two days straight. Nary a complaint was heard. They even paid eager attention as Mr. Harvey told tales of his long passed childhood. Mr. Harvey is an eighty-five year old resident of the East Side, and a recipient of some of our groups’ kindheartedness. Remind me to tell you more about this remarkable man later.
After a couple of days of hard work, these young folks headed back to Kernersville with some good stories and a few new friends. We capped the weekend off by taking them to church with us. It’s a red-letter day on Martin Luther King Drive when two vanloads of white kids walk into the sanctuary of Greater St. John Baptist Church. Pastor Kearns gave them the full treatment as he plunged headlong into one of his famous singing sermons. Despite the anticipated culture shock, our team seemed to enjoy it. One of them even volunteered to be an usher.
All in all, it was a great weekend for everyone involved. Some young people got to expand their horizon. Some old houses got a free touch-up. I got to stand back and soak it all in. Thanks guys.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hey - I'm guest-posting over here today:
Join me on Mary Kathryn Tyson's page to hear about my buddy, Tre.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Everywhere part 1

What do you think God is like? How does he feel? What does he think about? What does he like? What does he hate? Where is he? How did he get there? All of us have asked these questions at some point or another. Some of us have tried our darndest to come up with sensible answers. To the degree that we are locked into an answer to any or all of these questions is the degree to which we have developed a God-concept. A God-concept is a firm mental image of what you consider God to be like. God-concepts are not all bad. They almost always come with a measure of truth. Trouble gets to brewin' though when we lose sight of God for the sake of our ideas about him.

Up until last summer, I had a deeply rooted God-concept of my own. Over the years, and mostly unknowingly, I had built a statue of the Almighty within the recesses of my mind. I must say, he looked pretty doggone good. I kept him well-maintained, and chased the pigeons away when they got too close. By way of my God-concept, I found spiritual assurance. I pretty well understood God, and was rarely surprised. If ever a doubt crossed my mind, all I had to do was behold my omnipotent statue in all of its' concrete glory. Then the bottom fell out.

Disappointment with ministry. A realization of my own inadequacy. Those and a hand full of other things sent me headlong into a crisis of faith. What had always worked would work no longer. I could no longer answer the questions with confidence. I could no longer convince myself that I understood. The statue was wobbling, and soon it would come crashing down and shatter into a million pieces. I frantically tried to piece God back together, but the glue wouldn't hold. God, as I knew him, was dead. The silence was deafening.

Out of the ashes of my existential despair came a revelation. Now that I lacked a concept of how God was, I was free to experience him as he actually is. I found God by losing him. Through the painful, and sometimes unwilling relinquishment of my God-concept, I had a skin-on-skin encounter with the transcendent. Unbeknownst to me, God had been holding me the entire time.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I recently returned from a week at children's camp. Allow me to sum up my experience via a little arithmetic. 6 black kids + 9 white kids + a duffel bag full of pharmaceuticals + 2 bed wetters + 2 fans + a quiver full of poorly aimed arrows + a snake that may have been an extension chord = Deer cabin 2010. With the race issue alone, there was drama from the get-go. There were times when I honestly wondered if I was at kids camp or playing a bit part in the prequel to the Longest Yard. Rocks were thrown. Words were exchanged. Tears were shed. And that was just among the counselors. Despite the apparent anarchy, we tried everything we could to salvage the week. Laying on of hands. Sad music and altar calls. Eloquent expositions on the harmony of the created order. Yet each new attempt to right the ship was ultimately dashed upon the same rocks that had heretofore been used as weapons.

When the sun rose on Friday morning, we had but one chance. One measly opportunity to rescue this week in the woods from the proverbial bowels of pointlessness. That one chance was the infamous Camp Relay. For those of you unacquainted with this ancient right of passage, the Camp Relay is a five-minute free-for-all across the campground that pits cabin against a cabin in a series of athletic feats. It demands an unbroken string of perfection, and a diverse array of skill-sets. As the race began that day, most leaders cheered their campers on with the predictable chants of " do your best", and " we're all in this together." We were slightly more ambitious. I personally ran the full gauntlet, screaming " for this you were created" into the pre-adolescent ears of my campers. It just so happened that it was our day. For one moment, we somehow managed to take all of the competitiveness, animosity, and malice and direct it squarely where it the direction of 100 and some unsuspecting church kids. Wesley Kelly's dizziness- defying performance on the bat-spin was unprecedented. The three-legged race was as graceful as a fresh foal galloping over the green hills of eastern Kentucky. Don't even get me started on the leap-frog.

Well before the last leg was completed, the celebration had already begun. As we hoisted our fifty-pound bifocled bed wetter into the air, the entire week was brought into perspective. Five days of treachery were made right as we received first prize. What was the prize? All the corn dogs we could eat and a fresh mattress for bunk #5. Sweet justice.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cheeseburgers and Ministry

I would be remiss if I did not bear witness to what is perhaps the best burger in existence (with all due respect to Mrs. Penny).
Last week on our way to the beach, the family and I stopped in at Johnson’s Hamburgers in Siler City. I had long heard rumors of Old Man Johnson’s unyielding dedication to his craft. I felt compelled to taste for myself. Two advertised. As moved as I was by the dining experience at Johnson’s, it is the not-so-secret secret to his success that I find most worth sharing. Turns out, Old Man Johnson takes in the same amount of fresh, grain-fed beef every day. It’s the very same amount he has been unloading for the past forty-plus years. In spite of growing demand, this blue-collar businessman refuses to up his order. He cooks what meat he has. Then he shuts it down. Some days the burgers are gone in three hours. They never last more than four. He likewise refuses to increase the size of his restaurant. Twelve stools and a hand full of booths are his max. Patrons who want a burger and a seat will have to get there early and wait. Ornery? Perhaps. Meticulous? Without doubt. But here we find more of an artist than an entrepreneur. A man I picture weeping over his burgers as he patties them to perfection. In the end though, it’s not so much that he despises growth, or refuses to evolve. Mr. Johnson is simply unwilling to compromise the product for the sake of increasing production. He understands that in his efforts to get more people to come, he may make his eatery no longer worth coming to.
I’m asked pretty often where I see the Bridge Project going. How will we expand? How will we facilitate growth? In answer to these questions, I will stand beside the old man and say....we may not go anywhere, we have no plans of expanding, and we refuse to grow if it means watering down the recipe. In burgers and in ministry, it is never wise to sacrifice quality on the altar of success.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Defining Racism

From day one, a defining characteristic of The Bridge Project has been our calling to stand as a witness against racism. That calling continues as a driving force behind what we do. That part has not changed. What has changed, or I should say is changing, is how exactly we define racism. For the longest time, I viewed and spoke of racism in terms of individual bias. Racism happened when one person judged another strictly on the basis of his race. I’ve noticed that my non-white friends have a distinctly different take on the constitution of racism.
Whereas I often speak of an individual harboring a racist grudge against another, my non-white cohorts seem to speak more of institutions which chronically favor one race over another. Their view of racism is more in line with the classic definition of the word. According to this definition, racism is not just prejudice. It is prejudice plus power. I think of it this way......if someone calls me a name it hurts my feelings. It hurts my feelings a lot worse though if the government agrees with him.
Opening myself to this definition of racism forces me to face-up to an ugly truth. That truth is that I have benefited greatly from the color of my skin, and that my privilege has been to the detriment of others. America was made for white people. For the first four-hundred years of existence, America legally documented black people as “sub-human.” Although we may have publicly repented of our sin, the deep root of white-supremacy remains intact. We don’t notice, but minorities do. They notice because they remain on the business end of the lie that one man can stand over another.
Our work has been aimed at stopping the bleeding in the black community. It’s good to stop the bleeding, but it’s ultimately futile if the wound is not healed. The Black Panthers had a saying for white folks who were sympathetic to their cause. They would say, “Go home and save your own people.” Maybe they were right.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Revolution of Fidelity

In our ministry, we are currently embarking upon one of our most seemingly futile attempts to date. About two weeks ago, I began an abstinence initiative with two separate groups of young men. One group is comprised of fifteen to eighteen year olds. The other consists of nineteen to twenty-two year olds. I assure you that the absurdity and even the humor of this initiative are not lost on me. Even so, with each group, I find myself gravitating back to this one subject. Most of my guys are already sexually experienced. Some of them have already born the consequences of sexually transmitted diseases. Two of them are already raising sons of their own. Why then do we spend so much time and energy on what is, by all appearances, a lost cause?
I have three reasons. First, I believe they can change. Each time these young men engage in illicit sex, they are making a conscious choice. As long as they have breath, they have Gods’ grace working in their favor. As long as they have Gods’ grace, they can choose correctly. Secondly, I believe they must change. Restoring sex to its proper place in the black community is not an option. For too long, these young men have used a certain part of their anatomy as a wrecking ball to destroy the surrounding community. Poverty and brokenness will continue to be the birthright of this community if healing does not take place. And third, it is my responsibility to tell them the truth whether they listen to me or not. I am humbled that God has given me access to this pivotal group of young men. I love them, and I am a firm believer in their potential for leadership. As long as I have their ear, I will do my best to point them in the direction of life.
It won’t be easy. There is a momentum of infidelity working against these gentlemen. It is a momentum that has been gaining strength over the course of successive generations. Yet new possibilities are seldom realized before they are first imagined. Can you muster the faith to imagine with me a movement of young black men committed to sexual wholeness? Can you imagine a revolution of fidelity where you least suspect it?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Remembering Martin

As I write this, we are one week from the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. Come next week, I and many others will gather together to hear words of remembrance, and to march in unison to the mournful tune of the old spirituals. We will watch clips of the man speaking his most enduring words in the shadow of Lincoln. We may reflect on how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve yet to go in the realization of his ideal. But to comment on how close we are to realizing his vision is to imply that we understand it. Worse yet, it may imply that we understand the man himself. I’m not sure we do.

It is our involuntary instinct to reduce individuals, especially famous ones, to a sound bite. To us, Dr. King was the immortal crusader who sacrificed it all so that black folks and white folks could live with equal dignity. He was the supremely confident-and sometimes downright defiant- champion of integration. He was the guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and asked for no more than a decent seat on the next Greyhound back to Birmingham. For all of the bombastic eloquence of his “I have a dream” speech, there is something harmless and nonthreatening in his appearance. He almost looks cute up there! I don’t know what, but something of the past four decades has softened his legacy. The repetition of the tight, articulate, seventeen minute oration has sanitized him. But rest assured, he was not who you think he was.

Yes his heart beat for equality, but it was not the essence of his message. His vision had to do with something far more dangerous than equality. He was after unity. He didn’t want to be treated as an equal. He wanted to be treated as a brother. He didn’t want to take your seat on the bus. He wanted to sit with you. He saw in the liberation of the black minority the betterment of all creation.

More than a crusader, Martin was a prophet. As such, he deeply identified with how division afflicted the Father heart of God. This awareness broke him. But like his favorite prophet Jeremiah, it broke him and compelled him all at once. He wasn’t just out to heal a rend in the fabric of his country. I think in a way that he nor we could ever fully understand, he was out to heal a rend in the heart of his Maker. There’s nothing cute about that.