Welcome and Wanted

TearKen Wilson, in a blog post that appeared here reminded me once again of the great importance of language in dealing with issues that at times so divisive that it threatens to break apart the Body of Christ without an Eucharistic prayer or flare.

I especially found this article helpful and hopeful for my love of the United Methodist Church because it shares such a crossroad with my own story.

Before I go any further, I want to add a caveat. I am working this out in my life…I have not arrived. I want to hear from people who disagree with me from both sides because then and only then will I find the iron and the presence of Spirit that will sharpen us all. I don’t want diatribes about my misguided “thinking” leading me on a path straight to hell. (I have a good feeling that I will delete those replies with more reluctance than relish but delete them nonetheless.)

So here goes…

Let me start with my story. At the age of twenty, my girlfriend became pregnant with our second child. (The tragic loss of our first child is another confession for another day and has little to do with this story, so I will move forward.) It was decided that the best path forward for the two of us was marriage. So, on her Senior prom day, we were married. We honeymooned in Pipestem, WV for a weekend and she went back to school and I went back to work in the convenience store industry. Our daughter, Leslie, was born a little over three months later and was welcomed and wanted in our family.

For a short time, the marriage went well. But truthfully, I was not good at communicating my needs and I was even worse at listening to my young spouse. Our marriage went downhill fast and by the time Leslie turned two, her parents were divorced.

Meanwhile, I had begun to answer a call to ministry that began sometime in my early teen years. I wondered what the cloud of an “unmarried pregnancy” and then a divorce would do to my ability to serve God’s people in the United Methodist Church as a pastor and Elder. I knew my Bible. Fornication was a sin and my child has been conceived in this very way. Divorce was also clearly a sin and the fact that I fully intended to marry again someday made that sin even worse according to plain reading of Scripture because this would mean that I and my new spouse would place ourselves in a perpetual state of committing adultery.

(As a side note, during the time I was divorced, I met up with some well meaning, extremely faith filled divorced persons who were holding onto “Covenant Marriages” with their divorced spouses. They swore off the possibility of ever marrying again and considered themselves forever married to their first spouse even when that spouse moved on and remarried. I found this whole way of thinking beyond anything that made any type of sense to me – despite my Biblical knowledge. There would be something wrong with me saying I was still married to my first wife when she married her third husband. I had a word for this – creepy.)

Eventually, I met and married Pam, the love of my life and the mother of my two other daughters as well as the very close “bonus” mom to Leslie. And I continued my theological education and my quest for ordination as an Elder in the United Methodist Church.

One time…one time…did this whole marital history come up in the midst of the many interviews that I went through. It was not a question about my fitness for ministry, though. It was a question about how I had dealt with the pain and healing that God’s grace had seen me through. It was a pastoral question.

I graduated from Duke Divinity School and was ordained an Elder in the United Methodist Church in 1998. I have served in that capacity without anyone filing a complaint against me for committing adultery against my first wife – despite what the Bible says. In fact, I remember the first words from the Board of Ordained ministry that approved me were “Welcome! We want you to do marvelous things with God’s grace working in you.”

I share all this because after reading the article on C. S. Lewis and his marriage noted above, it struck me that I had benefited from years of the words-can-hurt-or-heal1Church working through the language needed to deal in a pastoral way with a very difficult cultural and theological problem. Divorce was rampant in our society and yet this did not stop God from calling people like me to ministry and ordination. And yet…and yet…the church struggled enough to find the language that would work with a sinner like me – “Welcome” and “Wanted”.

Ken Wilson suggests that these words may be the way that we approach everyone who wishes to become a part of this great story that is God’s Kingdom incorporated in the structure of the Church. It could be about that person’s struggle with addiction, their gossipy nature, their tendency to destroy God’s temple with overeating, the reliance upon trusting in their own ability to provide for themselves rather than giving freely to God or it may even be about sexual identity. It most certainly could be about the divorce/remarriage problem that plagues our churches. (I hope you note that all of these things I have listed are clearly prohibited by Scripture and have as much to do with choice as anything else might have to do with choice.) We are all captured by the sin of our choices and we could all begin to work through them together with the use of two very powerful theological words:

Welcome…

Wanted…

These words do not affirm anything going on in the spiritual growth of the person, but they acknowledge that in God’s Kingdom, there is work to be done. We can welcome and want people to be a part of that story wherever they are in the story of God’s redemption and perfection of our lives. And we can live out that redemption and perfection in our own lives without having to cast out others who we think are not there yet.

Two simple words…welcome and wanted. They are words I am glad have been said to me. They are words I will gladly share with many others.

Hidden Treasure

ScannerAt the counter I watch,
I watch as hands move items across strange red eyes that see only white and black.

To whom do these hands belong?
Who cherishes their touch and longs for their presence?
What do these hands cherish and loath?
What treasure lies within the one who works that moment to serve me?

Eyes that could see more meet across this altar of commerce.
Words fly by another from each field of dreams:
“How are you today?”
“Fine. And you?”
Are they words that seek depth – words that plow the soil between two treasures buried in self?

I think not. I know not.

Of course there are times my words become great instruments of digging.
They plow through the air to till the soul of another.
My words – known and named by me as “Truth” – are used to bury deeper
a treasure.
a treasure that could be mine
that could be the worlds
that is the Kingdom of God in another.

Those rare and holy moments where Another
breathes and moves through me
to allow the stranger to become the friend
to allow those who know a Truth different than mine
to be truly heard and deeply loved
seem, oh, so few.
yet they cover me with a joy I could not know
if I grasp the pitiful field that I call me.

Hidden treasure is not cheap.
It costs me, me.

Inspired by Matthew 13:44-46

Mystery of Prayer

(Inspired by March 11, 2014 www.pray-as-you-go.com and Matthew 6:5-14.)

thinking_rfid-e1337372097366

I am alone, yet not by myself.
Words rattle in my mind and fall into the very heart
of the One who Created, Is Creating, and Will Recreate.

Joy!
God is near always:
Jesus sits with me in prayer…
Labors in my work…
Grins when I am laughing…
Joins me in my struggles…
Nods in agreement as I forgive…
Cavorts with me in play…
Sighs with me in hunger…
Touches me as I tenderly reach out to my lover…
Cries at my frustration…
Joy!

The mystery of prayer?
The Kingdom will be found in one –
praying in an empty room,
yet never, never, alone.

Mired

He felt mired in the muck of mediocrity, that was for certain.  The Book lay open before him on the desk.  The damnable cursor on the computer screen blinked.  And blinked again.  And as if for good measure, it continued blinking well into the night. “Go into all the world and make disciples…”  The words mocked him.cold weather

It was Saturday night and inspiration had escaped again.  Perhaps it went out the window on Thursday afternoon when the parishioner dropped by to tell him that there were lots of problems with the church.  “We just can’t seem to get our act together and go any one direction.”  Go into the world and make disciples…

Perhaps it had left even earlier in the week.  Tuesday maybe?  That was when the counters let him know that there was not enough in the end of the year offering to meet the total obligations that they hoped to pay to the denomination.  Something left him them.  He wasn’t sure if it was inspiration or hope.  Go into the world and make disciples…

Or maybe Saturday morning when the other parishioner stopped by to say that he was leaving the church.  “Nothing wrong,” preacher.  “I just feel it is time to go on in order to keep the peace.”  Yeah…that could have been it.  Go into the world and make disciples.

He got up from his desk in the little study and stood by the Kuerig© as he waited for another cup of decaf to brew.  He walked over and got a couple of the leftover chocolate chip cookies.  He then stood in the living room where his family was watching some movie or another on the screen.  “Sermon fuel?” his oldest child asked.  He swallowed and nodded and then took the ten steps back to the study.  Go into the world and make disciples.

“This really shouldn’t be that hard,” he said to the blinking cursor or himself.  Or maybe it was a prayer uttered to God.  He really didn’t care all that much.  The coffee was hot.  The cookies were good.  His mind wandered back to the mornings earlier that week when the wind chills were well below -20.  He thought of the so called “Polar Vortex” and how interesting it was that meteorologist always seemed to be coming up with new names to call weather patterns that had been around for years.  “Winter Storm Ion?  Really?  We are naming snowstorms now?” he thought as he finished the last cookie.


A song played in the background – something from YouTube. His mind continued to dwell on the storm and cold and he remembered the phone call he received on Tuesday just after the counters left.  Someone wanted to do something about the few homeless people in the small town they lived in.  Maybe they couldn’t do it for this cold snap, but there would be others.  They had places for people to stay warm.  There were plenty of people around to help open doors, prepare food, share seats and conversations.

The cursor stopped blinking about then and letters started to appear on the blank page.  Go and make disciples.  Go, make, disciples.

Unleashing the Scriptures

Unleashing the Scriptures

bibleThe room was small, one of those cramped “pretty” rooms found almost exclusively in churches.  The furnishings were nice if not slightly, well, no actually, they were completely dated. A picture of Jesus hung on one wall and directly across was an even larger picture of some long gone saint of the church.  It truly was difficult to tell who was watching over whom on those walls.

There were six souls in that room as well.  Five of them in a state of restless listening and the sixth was just in a “state.”  They were all pastors, but this sixth person was probably on the verge of finding some way out of that calling.  The sixth pastor was hurt.  The sixth pastor was angry.  The sixth pastor felt abandoned.

One of the listeners eventually quietly offered a word of Scripture…something about a yoke being easy and a burden being light.  Another of the listeners offered a word from the Word that reminded number six that a worker was worth what God had paid for them.  Number six remained in a “state.”

In the silence that followed, a person already in the room would have heard hearts breaking and aching to reach a colleague.  An observer walking in would have thought there was a death in the family but there was no one relative that united these six pastors – only a calling to serve.  A stranger off the street – an outsider – might have sat among them and offered advice about finding a new path.

Eventually the painful silence was broken by the words of one of the listeners.  It had to be one that was not only listening to the pastor in the “state” but also listening to the Holy Spirit.  They said, “When I was being examined for ordination, the people on the Board used to say to one another, ‘Would I want this person to be my parent’s pastor?’  Well, Scott Sears, I want you to know something.  I would not only want you to be my parent’s pastor but I would welcome you to be my children’s pastor, anytime.  They could not ask for anyone with a better heart to lead them spiritually!  You ARE a caring pastor no matter what anyone else says.”

The state of the sixth pastor…my troubled state…melted away in the presence of Jesus found in colleagues and friends and sisters and brothers.

Yes, there were words from the Scripture.  These were words that I had read and heard on my own along with others like a passage from Isaiah that was shared by another friend – “’Remember,’ says the Lord, ‘remember that I have plans for you.  Plans for good and not evil.”  But on their own, these words just didn’t bring comfort…didn’t bring understanding.

It was only when I was together with a group of loving, forgiving, trusting Christians – a place where I could be myself and be loved – that the Bible and the very Word of God that is Jesus came alive.

Yes, I know that there are times and sometimes circumstances that keep people from being together in groups to study the Bible and to hold one another accountable.  But the single most common reason people are not in some sort of Bible Study group is simple – they just don’t want to take the risk.

I speak from experience on this one folks – a painful yet wonderful experience that showed me once again that the greatest place to seek understanding of God’s word, God’s will and God’s way is with a group of loving Christians.  (This was not the first time being in a small group made a difference in my life and faith and I am quite certain it won’t be the last.)  If you don’t have a small group…build one.  If you think you can’t build one…then call me and I will put together those that call so that they can have one another to help, to build up and to encourage in the Word.  (And don’t worry about being stuck at home, or work or school…there are always ways for people to get together.)  The group I met with and continue to meet with today drives hours to be together.  Why?  Because!  Simply because.

One of the books I read in seminary which happened to be written by one of my favorite seminary professors, Unleashing the Scriptures, argued that Christians really should not be trusted to read the Bible alone – it was a book written in community and should be studied in community.  Although I may not go to that extreme, the author, Stanley Hauerwas, is absolutely correct – Christians are a community…not a group of individuals.  We must, must, must read the Bible together.

It’s been well over 18 months since that day in the room with that pain and those tears.  But the words and the Word…well, nothing has dulled them from my memory.  Thanks be to God.