Kindles

A few days ago I got a box out of the closet in the corner of my office. The faded markings on a address on the box, covered by several layers of packing tape indicated I received the contents while serving in Kincaid, WV as a student pastor in the United Methodist Church. I lived near the church in Kincaid, served a second church in Mossy and attended what was then called West Virginia Institute of Technology. That school, like a couple other of my alma maters, has since either closed or been relocated. It’s hard to tell which from their name and new location. If anyone asks, I tell them I graduated from WV Tech which is a little ironic for a guy who knew his next step in life would be a theological education. Then again it would explain why I justify writing my devotions, studies, blogs and even sermons on electronic paper when creating my “SFD”. (Writers and fans of Ann Lamont will get that. Others won’t want to know.)

That box at some point in time held a hot air popcorn popper but I don’t remember having one of those so I reckon the contents that are currently there were shipped to me in this container. The label says it was delivered to a post office box in Kincaid. Yes. I had one of those but the number meant nothing to me even after seeing it in writing. The postmark is dim that I can’t make out the date but I’m guessing the late 80’s or early 90’s. I’m not so dim as to forget when I went to whatever the name of that school was.

The box isn’t all that important. Nor the mailing label for that matter. But they were interesting to me. In a way they remind me that the contents and I relocate from time to time. We’ve traveled quite a few miles this box and I.

IMG_20171205_124748.jpgInside it are ceramic figures of a sheep, a donkey, an ox (not to any kind of scale, mind you, because I’ve seen an ox and they are scary big) as well as a camel that has been glued together more than once. An angel is in there too as well as three suspiciously Anglo looking “Wise Men from the East” and equally White looking shepherd, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. Don’t ever tell me that we don’t allow culture to influence our “pure biblical religion.” I will just ask you to show me your nativity set or a copy of the latest Christmas card you bought with a scene of Jesus’ birth on it.

We all make Jesus fit into our culture at times. It’s what we do as humans. Actually, it’s what the Son of God had to do to become one of us as well.

I carefully placed this suspect nativity set on the credenza in my office using some plants left over from my Dad’s funeral a couple of years ago as a back drop. I didn’t think much about the racial and theological implications of the pieces while I was placing them. I handled each one with care because I didn’t want to get the glue out again and because each one kindles in me a love for the group of people who got together decades ago and hand painted each one of these figurines.

I attended United Methodist Temple in Beckley, WV as a youth and young adult. They had a tradition of giving one piece of this set to each child as they grew up among them. When the occasion arose that they had some outlier like me who came late to the party, then they would send them an entire set when they went off to college or left home for whatever reason. The thing is that I knew that these pieces were labors of love. The people who painted and sent them to me were my last true church “home.” I have loved and have been loved by every congregation I’ve served but the fact is that I came out of Temple.

These were my people.

These were my people giving me a gift.

These were my people giving me a gift to remind me of the Incarnate nature of Jesus.

Every year I put them out and remember. Every year I put them away in the same box, with the same styrofoam popcorn – just caught that irony there of the box and the packing popcorn – and I remember the care taken to make sure I got them.

And I take them with me. Always.

Peace!

#ReThinkAdvent
#UnwrapChristmas

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.