When Jesus Brings Division

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(Artwork: “The Word Brings Division” by Ian M. Welch)

I invite you to travel with me into a prayerful and contemplative struggle.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)

From today’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary (Sunday, August 18, 2019), these are words of Jesus that many teachers and preachers of Scripture would prefer to ignore. It is far easer to focus on the Jesus who speaks of loving our neighbors and enemies, welcoming the children, embracing the “least of these,” and turning the other cheek. What do we do with a Jesus who says that his presence brings division and family fracture, especially in a world where families, friends, and churches are already bitterly divided over politics, decisions about human sexuality and race, and a variety of important social issues that have become polarizing?

Is Jesus suggesting that such division is what he desires?

I believe that coming to this conclusion would be a dangerous misreading of the Scripture. Jesus is not promoting broken relationships when he tells us that his presence brings division, nor is he communicating a desire for fractured families. Rather, he is illuminating what we have already come to understand from experience—that advocating for the priorities that Jesus champions and walking in the Way that he incarnated will often inspire even our friends and family members to stand against us. Jesus is neither celebrating this reality nor glorifying it. He is simply warning us that aligning ourselves with him and with his worldview might inspire opposition and even rejection from those for whom such an alignment represents foolishness or betrayal, or both.

But here is where things become really tricky. Do people oppose us for the right reasons as Christ-followers these days? Are we opposed for standing against hypocrisy (Luke 12:1) and resisting the manipulations of religious and political leaders (Luke 12:2-3)? Are we stood against because of our steadfast devotion to Jesus and his commitment to valuing the marginalized and the lost (Luke 12:8-12)? Are we noticed and questioned for refusing to hoard our riches and possessions (Luke 12:13-21), for laying aside a spirit of crippling fear (or fear mongering) and worry (Luke 12:22-31), and for daring to live with a relentless spiritual attentiveness and moral watchfulness (Luke 12:35-40)? Are we criticized because of our passion for cultivating a God-honoring stewardship over the matters that have been entrusted to our care (Luke 12:41-48)?

These are the issues that occupy Jesus’ mind in the verses leading up to his teaching about his presence in the world causing division, which leads me to back to this question: Are Christ-followers in 2019 being opposed for the right reasons? Are we being opposed because of our refusal to align ourselves with the hypocrisy, the manipulation, the greed, the fear, and the spiritual and moral inattentiveness against which Jesus himself speaks out?

Or, do we too often participate in (and thereby perpetuate) less consequential divisions and fractures that consume our best energies, diminish our deeper unity, and compromise our shared witness concerning the things that matter most?

If I am making that sound like a rhetorical question, please forgive me. I do not mean it to be rhetorical. I am voicing an authentic struggle that emerges from a heart that desperately wants to get it right. If Jesus’ coming brings division, then I long for the division to be over the right things and not over the misplaced and overemphasized battle lines crafted by an alternative narrative that is sometimes confused with the Way of Jesus.

Loving Beyond the Words

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I recently re-watched an interesting film entitled The Last Kiss. The film, released in 2006, creates a rather unsettling and multi-layered cinematic portrait of young men and women attempting to come to grips with issues of commitment, betrayal, parenthood, and covenant. Although I cannot describe the film as exceptional, it does create some memorable moments.

One of those moments revolves around the following words, spoken by an older and wiser patriarch to a younger man who has recently betrayed his girlfriend with another woman. This younger man begins to talk about how much he loves his girlfriend. The patriarch interrupts him with an observation that is as significant as it is stark:

Stop talking about love. Every idiot in the world says he loves somebody. It means nothing. What you FEEL only matters to you.  It’s what you DO to the people you say you love. That’s what matters. It’s the only thing that counts.

It was a moment that compelled me to reflect upon how frequently I over-romanticize love, allowing it to become little more than a self-gratifying inner warmth and a euphoric means to emotional self-aggrandizement. Sometimes, I throw around the word “love” with an almost devil-may-care nonchalance. I say that I love my wife. I say that I love my family. I say that I love Jesus. But I also SAY that I love homemade vanilla ice cream, and comic books, and vacations to far away places, and the food at my favorite restaurants. When it comes to love, in other words, my talk can become extremely cheap. I can say that I love just about anything or anyone and then pat myself on the back for my emotional tenderness.

Maybe the patriarch in The Last Kiss is right. Maybe “every idiot in the world says that he loves somebody,” or something.

In the parable of the great judgment, Jesus tells us that, whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner, we are, in actuality, doing those things for Jesus himself:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did these things to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them to me” (Matthew 25:40). In that moment of Scripture, Jesus offers a teaching that we dare not ignore—a teaching that brings him into alignment with the patriarch in The Last Kiss:  “Stop simply talking about love,” Jesus seems to be saying in Matthew 25:40.  “After all, every idiot in the world says that he loves somebody. The words, in that case, mean very little until they are validated by tangibility.”

By calling to mind real acts of ministry like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, Jesus relocates love from the inner realm of the felt to the outer realm of the enacted.  “It’s what you DO to the people you say you love,” Jesus essentially says.  “That’s what matters. What really counts is whether or not you dared to see my countenance in the faces of the people around you and then enacted something real for the purpose of ministering to their deepest needs.”

Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the most authentic love is love incarnated; love in motion and action; love demonstrated and offered in the form of tangible acts of mercy and compassion.

In Zimbabwe, it is customary before a communal meal for two people to stand outside the door of the room where the meal is to be served. One of these persons holds a pitcher of warm, soapy water, the other person holds a basin. Their purpose is to wash the hands of all who are about to eat—a routine expression of servanthood and hospitality in a culture where such things are still treasured.

Once during a trip to Zimbabwe, as my hands were being washed before a meal, I expressed my gratitude to the two young boys who were doing the washing. One of the boys responded in this fashion:  “It is we who are grateful, sir. You are helping us to love you by allowing us to serve you.”

That boy’s words were a powerful reminder to me that the love of Jesus Christ finds its most profound expression, not in the words that we speak (essential as those words may be), but in the tangible ministry and risky servanthood that we offer.

My prayer for the church is that its people will be so inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit that the words of the familiar song will finally become fully applicable: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”—a love, not only spoken in our words, but, even more importantly, incarnated in our decisions, our priorities, and our frequent moments of serving, risking, and caregiving.

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Hope-Filled Expectations

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(Artwork: “The Good People” by Laurie Pace)

As a recently-appointed District Superintendent, I have spent the last several months prayerfully discerning what it is that I am expecting of myself as both a leader and a follower in this new season of ministry. I have also been reflecting upon what it is that I might be expecting of the clergy leaders with whom I am privileged to serve—and what they might be expecting of me as their District Superintendent.

The following paragraphs are the result of my contemplation about expectations. I shared these paragraphs recently with the clergy leaders of the district I superintend. I offer them here once again. It is not an exhaustive list of expectations, to be sure. Perhaps many others could or should be added. But this list does reflect some of my deepest priorities.

Please know my heart. This list of expectations is not intended to be heavy-handed or authoritarian. Rather, these expectations are the hope-filled expression of a sinner saved by grace who longs to become more fully what Jesus is calling him to be and to become an encouragement to others. Perhaps some of these expectations will resonate with your spirit. I hope so.

A New District Superintendent’s Expectations of Himself
and the Clergy Leaders With Whom He Serves

 1. An Ever-Deepening Love for God and People

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies the greatest commandment in this fashion: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind…and a second [commandment] is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Clergy are expected to grow in their commitment to physical and emotional health, so that they might be energized and equipped to love God with a whole heart.

Clergy are expected to grow in their commitment to the spiritual disciplines (such as prayer, study of Scripture and meditation upon its revelations, confession and repentance, worship, solitude, community, ministries of social justice, and regular participation in the Lord’s Supper), so that they might be enlivened to love God with a devoted soul.

Clergy are expected to grow in their commitment to the disciplines of lifelong learning, continuing education, and theological engagement, so that they might be prepared to love God with an active mind.

2. A Commitment to Personal Integrity

The word “integrity” is a derivative of a Latin word meaning “intact” or “whole.” People of integrity are people who commit themselves to authenticity, wholeness, and ethical intactness in their relationships, their administration, their self-care, their communication, and their personal conduct. Clergy are expected to commit themselves to living and ministering with the kind of integrity that bears witness to a holistic walk with Christ.

3. Participation in Intentional Community

Communal accountability and collegial nurture are essential portions of our discipleship to Jesus Christ, who once promised to be uniquely present wherever “two or three” were gathered in his name. Clergy are expected to commit themselves to a finding (or developing) and experiencing the kind of intentional community with colleagues that invites mutual prayer, encouragement, and conversation.

4. Tithing and Growth in Generosity

In the church’s ministry, clergy set the tone for generosity and boldness in giving.  It is expected that clergy will teach tithing and growth in giving in the churches they serve. Moreover, it is expected that clergy will model these same disciplines in their personal walk with Christ by growing toward tithing (if tithing is not yet a practiced discipline) and possibly beyond it.

5. Respect for Colleagues in Ministry

An eagerness to tear one another down is antithetical to the spirit of love in which we are called to live. Clergy are expected to encourage and support one another, to pray for one another, and to resist the temptation to speak negatively about colleagues.

6. A Work Ethic That Honors the Urgency of the Gospel

Clergy are expected to be disciplined about their commitment to ministry and the consistency of their conscientiousness, in order that every local church or place of ministry might receive faithful, effective, and fruitful leadership.

7. The Honoring of Sabbath

In the often-frenetic pace of life and ministry, clergy are expected to be Sabbath people, experiencing consistent and intentional time away from work for solitude, time with family, and rest.

8. Participation in District and Conference Ministry

United Methodist clergy are joined by a connectional covenant. District and Conference ministry is an important portion of that covenant. Whenever possible, clergy are expected to support District and Conference ministry with their involvement and participation.

9. A Stubborn and Prayerful Resistance to Cynicism and Chronic Negativity

Nothing corrupts the joy and vibrancy of the church’s ministry faster than the proliferation of cynicism and unrestrained negativity. All too often, even the church’s leadership allows itself to be drawn into this counterproductive spirit, choosing disparagement instead of the recognition of possibilities. Clergy are expected to resist such cynicism and negativity, thereby becoming instruments of prophetic joy and hope.

10. An Unwavering Devotion to Primary Relationships

One’s most important and life-defining relationships are never to be sacrificed upon the altar of one’s ministry. Clergy are expected to give their best time and energy to their deepest friendships and their family relationships, so that their covenantal relationships might always occupy a priority position in their stewardship over their life and ministry.

11. A Christ-honoring Witness in All Areas of Communication, Including Social Media

Clergy are expected to communicate carefully, meaningfully, and graciously in all areas of their lives, so that their communication might reflect their journey of sanctification.

12. A Commitment to Scriptural Holiness, Wesleyan Theology, and Connectional Covenant

Clergy are expected to grow daily in their embodiment of a biblical worldview and in their practice of a distinctively Wesleyan theology that reflects God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. As United Methodists, we are also joined in a connectional covenant that demands a faithfulness to our polity, our parameters, and our practices.

Daring to Dream

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Do you consider yourself to be a dreamer? By “dreamer,” I do not mean one who experiences the literal dreams that occur during sleep. Rather, I mean the figurative and creative dreaming that some people seem to be particularly gifted to do when they are awake.

A dreamer is a person with a deeply engaged imagination who pays attention to the often hidden things that other people do not see; who envisions possibilities and potential that other people cannot discern; and who generates ideas that other people often dismiss as unrealistic and untenable. A dreamer is a type of visionary who glimpses reality through a mystical lens that sees beyond what is to what could be.

Based upon that definition, would you consider yourself to be a dreamer?

I do not know if I am a dreamer any longer or not, but I think that I started out as one. I spent a good portion of my childhood dreaming up imaginary scenarios for myself in which to play. Many of those imaginary scenarios were based upon my favorite television shows. One day, I would pretend to be Matt Dillon, the heroic marshal from “Gunsmoke.”  But just when I had my holster and cowboy hat in place, I would pause to read a comic book. Then I would not want to be a cowboy anymore. I would want to be Superman. So I would take off the holster and put on my red cape. But just when I figured out how to make the living room into Metropolis, an episode of “Star Trek” would appear on the television. Then I would not want to be Superman any longer. I would want to be captain James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in this playful schizophrenia, moving quickly and effortlessly from one imaginative context to another, one character to another. It was in the midst of one of those imaginative contexts that I came to the dinner table one evening wearing a black vest and a plastic futuristic pistol at my side. My mother said to me, “Who are you supposed to be tonight?”

“Well,” I said, “if you must know, I’m Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon.  It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”  To which my mother responded, “Eric, how in the world did you become such a dreamer?!”

Children make for good dreamers and sometimes dream more imaginatively than anyone else. Sadly, we tend to grow out of our capacity for imaginative dreaming as we age. Perhaps we quietly allow this to happen because we know all too well that the world can be hard on adult dreamers. Adult dreamers are looked upon as impractical and irrelevant. Sometimes they are treated as a threat because they see things differently than other people. Sometimes we even go so far as to kill our adult dreamers because we want so desperately to be rid of them and their unsettling ideas.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a dreamer. He dreamed of a world of racial equality in which people would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. He was killed for that dream.

People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom were dreamers. During the Second World War, they dared to dream of a Germany that would stand against the evils perpetuated by the Nazi regime. Corrie Ten Boom was imprisoned in a concentration camp for her dream. Bonhoeffer was hanged for his.

In the Old Testament, Joseph was a dreamer. He was a young man who was prone to peculiar visions of an alternative but divinely preferred future into which his family and the people of Israel were moving. But his brothers hated him for his dreaming. They saw his dreaming as an effort on Joseph’s part to claim dominion over them. One day, the brothers ambushed Joseph, threw him into a pit, and then sold him to some travelers who took him as a slave into Egypt.

Joseph’s story reminds us that the human penchant for dismissing dreamers is nothing new. Even in the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, dreamers like Joseph often found themselves violently rejected because people were so utterly threatened by their disruptive ways of seeing the world.

There was another dreamer. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. He dared to dream of a kingdom where prostitutes are valued as much as temple priests; where the face of God can be discerned in the countenances of the poor, the broken, and the marginalized; where rebirth and transformation are doorways into the salvation of God. Where did that dream take him?  It took him to a rugged cross where he bled and died for the sake of the world.

Dreamers often have beautiful and urgent things to say, things that other people will never dare to articulate. But the world can be painfully inhospitable to dreamers. Sometimes we even nail our adult dreamers to a cross in an effort to silence their countercultural voices.

I was once a part of a church that had a dreamer in it. Her name was Olivia. She was notorious for her dreams and visions and her willingness to talk about them amidst a congregation that had grown impatient with her impracticality and her penchant for mystical metaphors. One day at a Bible study, Olivia spoke up. “I had a dream last night,” she said.

“Okay, Olivia, tell us about your dream.” (That was what I said out loud, but what I really thought was this: “Olivia, we only have a half hour left in this Bible study, and we don’t have time to waste on your nonsensical dreams, which I am certain have nothing at all to do with the subject matter of our study!”)

“Well,” she said, “in the dream, hundreds of children of all different colors and races were standing outside our church building, pounding on the doors to get inside. But inside the church, all of us were dancing to music that was so loud that we couldn’t hear the pounding. The children were pounding on the doors to get inside, and we weren’t listening to their cries.”

“When I woke up after the dream,” Olivia said, “my pillow was wet with tears.”

“Uh, okay, Olivia. Um, thanks for that.” (Thinking to myself, “Can I please get back to my lesson plan now?”)

In my mind, I had already dismissed Olivia. As quickly as Joseph’s brothers had dismissed him in the Old Testament, so had I dismissed Olivia because her dreams and visions were an inconvenience to me.

The very next day, two youth in the community committed suicide independently. One was 19 the other was 17. Both of them were alienated from their family, and neither one of them had a connection to a church. As soon as I heard the news, I thought about Olivia’s dream—a dream about children pounding on the doors of the church, crying to get inside and not being heard.

I thought to myself in that moment, “It is time for me to listen to the dreamer more attentively, because she is seeing the things of God.”

On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Dr. King’s Assassination

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It happened fifty years ago. April 4, 1968.

Half a century has passed.

As a fifty-two year old, I was alive when it happened, but I do not remember the event. My mother told me that she held me protectively in her arms as she listened to the horrifying news reports.

At 6:01 p.m. on Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

We cannot hide ourselves from the violence of what transpired that evening. The single bullet, fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle, entered through Dr. King’s lower right cheek, about an inch to the right of his mouth. The bullet cut a sickeningly destructive path, fracturing Dr. King’s jaw and then traveling downward, severing his jugular and breaking several vertebrae before finally coming to rest in the right part of his back.

Dr. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, where medical professionals opened his chest and did all they could to revive his heart. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.

He was thirty-nine.

The day before his assassination, Dr. King made his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. Toward the end of the speech, Dr. King offered these important words, as prophetic as they are poignant:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Last night, during a visit to a Jazz club in New Orleans, I experienced a group of racially diverse musicians entertaining an equally diverse crowd.

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The front man and the bass player were black. The pianist was Asian American. The drummer was white. The appreciative crowd included a variety of races and ethnicities, all of whom were experiencing what felt like a sacramental engagement with a music that seemed otherworldly in its virtuosity. At some point during the music, I thought about what remains one of the most racially segregated experiences in American culture—the Sunday morning worship hour. Tears formed in my eyes as I began to connect the dots. An assassination fifty years ago. A church that still fails to incarnate the beloved community that Jesus envisions. A jazz club in New Orleans, offering a musical communion that the church has yet to celebrate fully.

Not very long ago, I recently heard a pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. I asked him for permission to share that viewpoint in this blog post and assured him that I would not use his name so that his privacy would be protected. He gave to me his permission.

Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, shared in a conversation among clergy colleagues:

I don’t know why we keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism.  But when we keep making racism a point of focus (like we are in our annual conference and other places in the church), all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting a hugely negative thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.

Days after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist church member, who also permitted me to share her comment:

People have told me that they don’t want a colored pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too. I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.

Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of race in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to cause a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our history, our prejudice, and our dehumanizing presuppositions.

When contemplating this issue, my concern has to do with the simplistic way in which many of us define racism. I suppose that the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of racism—“any form of discrimination based on race”—can be utilized as a bare minimum. But the kind of racism operative in the church is often far more elaborate and insidious than one-on-one discrimination. It is an institutional racism, often perpetuated by the structures and processes that many within the denomination are reluctant to change or even acknowledge. These structures and processes are often undergirded by an ethos of what might be called “white privilege” which, in its essence, is a desire to preserve the status quo because of the way in which the status quo guards and protects the privileges of the race in power.

Some have suggested that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct, created to further an agenda. My experience has led me to believe that this perspective is dreadfully misguided.

When I was first a United Methodist District Superintendent, I introduced a pastor of color to a Staff-Parish Relations Committee as part of a new pastoral appointment. The conversation covered many important topics that night. The topic that received the most time, however (over half an hour, in fact), was how the congregation was going to respond to a person of color in the pulpit.

As I drove home that night, the essence of white privilege became painfully clear to me. As a white male pastor in Western Pennsylvania, I will never have to experience my race or gender being discussed as part of a pastoral in-take. I will never have to hear people consider the possibility that my race might inspire some people to leave the church. Granted, they might eventually leave the church for some other reason—my preaching style, or my temperament, or my interpersonal skills. But I will never have to overcome initial prejudices that are based upon my racial identity. I have the privilege of not having to deal with such prejudices, and this privilege is decidedly white.

When one begins to take seriously a racism undergirded by institutional inequities and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric like this:

“Hey, those black folks are just as racist as I am!”

Or this:

“Black people need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. After all, I never owned any slaves. It’s time to get over the past.”

The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complex and institutional dynamics of racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often causes one to ignore completely the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.

I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. But this much is certain: The current emphasis on dismantling racism in the United Methodist Church is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully patient with the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few ethnic minority clergy in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.”

These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.

Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to guard against the desire to oversimplify these tensions.  I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, I am grateful that the bullet that ended his too-short life could not kill his urgent and still-unfolding dream. I hold that dream deeply in my soul, all the while praying for the courage to become one of the instruments through which a dream might be more vibrantly realized. As Dr. King once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Unsettle me, Lord Jesus, that I might never be inclined to accommodate a hurtful and unjust silence.

Radical Hope for the Addicted

Breaking Free by Koa Kohler

(The painting above, created by Koa Kohler, is entitled “Breaking Free”)

During my first two years in Butler, Pennsylvania, the church that I serve had a connection with 34 people who died as a result of drug overdose. When I say that there was a connection, I mean that those 34 people were either members of our church, or attenders, or related to somebody who is part of our church.

Two years. 34 overdose deaths touching our congregational family.

At the end of my second year in Butler, I stood in a funeral home, officiating at the funeral service for one of these 34 people. Just before the service, the cousin of the young woman who had died walked up to me with tears streaming down her face and spoke to me words that I will never forget. “My cousin was more like a sister to me,” she said, “and I just need you to know that there was more to her life than her addiction. She was a beautiful person who just got caught up in something bad that she couldn’t control.” Following the service for the young woman, her mother pulled me aside. “Pastor,” she said, “I don’t know what the churches of this town can do, but they have to do something. No more of this! Churches have to open their doors to addicts and their families every single day so that people can know that drugs don’t have to win.”

Here is the bottom line. During my first two years in Butler, God had to begin a massive reconstruction project on my heart and my thought processes related to addiction. I came to Butler harboring secret ideas—ideas about addiction only happening in the lives of certain kinds of people who simply need to get it together and make better choices. I now believe something very different. I now believe that the widespread reality of addiction in our community and in our world is the greatest spiritual crisis of our generation, one that demands nothing less than a transformed way of looking at the world.

And a transformed way of looking at the world is precisely what that part of the Bible we call “the Beatitudes” represents. We call them Beatitudes because that word, “beatitude,” is a derivative of a Latin word that means “blessing.” But what is seriously unnerving about the Beatitudes is who Jesus describes as being blessed in his kingdom. It is certainly not the people common sense would identify.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever met anyone poorer in spirit than an addicted soul desperate for recovery.)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever encountered a deeper mourning than the mourning I have experienced in the lives of addicts and in the life of the family that surrounds the addict.)

There is a timeless relevance in the unsettling Word that Jesus offers to us through the Beatitudes. When we dare to apply the truth of the Beatitudes to our context, we find a word of radical hope even for addicted people and the families that surround them. In fact, when I quiet myself long enough to listen with my heart, here is how I am hearing the Beatitudes today:

“Blessed are those who are poor in the spirit of addiction. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn over addiction and the suffering it produces, for they shall be comforted.”

We always have to resist the temptation to make Scripture say something that it does not say. For example, when Jesus tells us that those who are poor in spirit and in a condition of mourning are “blessed,” he is not glorifying human suffering. He is not trying to get us to believe that it is a pleasant thing to suffer or to be devastated by addiction. But maybe Jesus’ point is that, in the world-altering grace of the Kingdom of God, addicted people can be spoken of as being uniquely blessed precisely because they know how desperate for deliverance they really are. The rest of us so often live in the illusion of being in control. Addicted people understand their need for salvation. The rest of us so often fall into the trap of distorted self-reliance, believing that we have no need for a savior. Addicted people are often more available to God than everyone else, precisely because they see (in a way that others cannot) that they are up against a struggle that demands a saving grace of supernatural proportions. That is why an addict can rightly be described as living in a condition of blessing—not because their addiction is good, but because their potential for recognizing the urgency and power of God’s deliverance is good.

If that is at all true, if you hear Jesus speaking a word of radical hope to the addict through the Beatitudes today, then I am inviting you to think differently with me about the reality of addiction. Here is how.

First, refuse to allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because here is the truth: Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls. Jesus never stops.

I heard a pastoral colleague recently (not from this community) lamenting hurtful words that she heard spoken in one of her church’s adult Sunday School classes. The hurtful words sounded something like this:

We need to stop giving these addicts Narcan because all they’re going to do is overdose again. It is a sinful waste of time and resources to keep people alive if they are just going to choose to die.

Can you imagine being the parent of an addict and hearing something like this from a Christ-following brother or sister? The pastor of that congregation put it this way:

“A statement like that indicates that our theology has not kept pace with our context. For me, this is a pro-life issue. I am a pro-life pastor who believes in a pro-life Jesus who never quits in the work of offering eternal life that he makes possible. And neither should we.”

Do not allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls.

Second, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in the struggle against addiction. Be sad about it. Be heartbroken. Be devastated at times when the situation calls for it. But refuse to plant spiritual roots in the spoiled soil of discouragement. Why? Because Jesus Christ will not rest until every addict experiences the blessing of a complete deliverance from an enslavement to addiction. For some, this deliverance might take a portion of eternity that we do not yet see. But rest assured, no addict lives outside the boundaries of Jesus’ love and the redemptive grace that he is so very desperate to offer to addicted souls. And if that is true, if Jesus is on the side of the addicted and committed to their deliverance, then HOPE is our “go-to,” not discouragement.  Therefore, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in this. Instead, commit yourself to participating in the saving work that Jesus is doing in the world by coming alongside the addicted in whatever way is appropriate. Become a part of that saving work.

Finally, refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction, because, here is the thing: Every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of addiction. You might not be addicted to a substance, but I can practically guarantee you that you are addicted to something. We all are.

We are addicted to hurtful ways of thinking that inspire us to kneel down at the altar of our own distorted opinions.

We are addicted to hatred that prevents us from loving, forgiving, and hoping.

We are addicted to patterns of behavior that are hurtful to ourselves and the people around us.

We are addicted to false stories that prevent us from embracing the truth about ourselves and our relationship with the world.

On Facebook, one never has to look far to find someone spouting a passionate opinion (or sharing a convenient meme) about a particular subject. Politics. Religion. Movies. Sports. Hollywood. Current events. When I stumble upon such conversations, it often sounds less like the gracious pursuit of truth. In fact, it often sounds more like a bunch of addicted people getting high on the drug of their own opinions and their forced certainty.

Here is my point: When we speak of addiction, we are not speaking about “those people.” We are speaking about all of us. Because an enslavement to some kind of an addiction is a reality for all of us. When we are in relationship with Jesus, he brings us into a lifelong recovery that manifests itself as a journey of living one day at a time without the particular distortions to which we have become addicted. In that regard, the recovering addict has much to teach the church about what it means to be authentically Christian.

So, I invite you to a refusal. Refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction. Because every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of it in one way or another, and, thanks be to God, Jesus is not giving up on any single one of us!

For the last year at Butler First United Methodist Church, we have held a Saturday evening worship experience that we call “The Bridge.” Everyone is invited to the Bridge, but we offer a particularly pointed invitation to those who struggle with the reality of addiction and their families.

Why do we call it “The Bridge”? Because a bridge is precisely what we believe Jesus to be. He is the bridge from isolation to community; from despair to hope; from addiction to recovery; from being lost to being found.

We never know who is going to show up at “The Bridge.” Nor do we know exactly what will happen in each week’s worship. To be completely confessional, we don’t really know what we are doing with this ministry. (Is it okay for a pastor to admit that?!) But, every single week at “The Bridge,” it feels like we wade into deep and important water.

Last Saturday night, a man stood up during prayer time at “The Bridge,” introduced himself as a recovering addict, and announced that, as of this week, he will be six months clean. He just wanted to thank Jesus Christ for his transformed life.

Following the service, this man came forward to pray with me. When I asked him how we should pray, this was his response: “Pray that more and more people in our community will come to understand what I have come to understand.”

I couldn’t help but ask the question. “And what is it have you come to understand, Thomas?”

“What I’ve come to understand,” he said, “is that addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives. It might be a chapter, or even a series of chapters. But it is never the end of the story.”

That is nothing less than the Gospel, offered by Jesus through the Beatitudes and spoken afresh by a recovering addict in downtown Butler. “Addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives.”

That Gospel is the foundation of the radical hope offered to us by Jesus Christ, in whose name we stand against addiction and in whose name I gratefully write.

Always Hope

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One would think I would be used to it by now. Intense political rhetoric from (occasionally) well-meaning and self-lauded pundits who are absolutely convinced of their own rightness. Ecclesiastical debates that often feel more like the drawing of battle lines than they do a heartfelt and reverent search for the implications of the Gospel. Cancer manifesting its cruelty in the lives of beautiful and unsuspecting people who are seemingly doing everything right to stay healthy. Another heroin overdose, another gut-wrenching and heartbreaking funeral.

Yeah, one would think I would be used to it by now. The problem is, I am not.

I am weary today. I am saddened. My heart is heavy with a pain that I am not even able to delineate and analyze. It is the kind of disquietude that interrupts my sleep and distorts my temperament. So many words being spoken and arguments being sought. So many tragedies being accommodated by fragile souls. So many people assuming the absolute worst about others.

And yet…

Ah, yes. There’s the Gospel in a nutshell: “And yet…” That simple phrase calls to mind the redemptive presence of a God who is always at work to bring about a new reality that runs counter to the existing circumstances. There is pain AND YET God brings healing. There is death AND YET God generates resurrection. There is suffering, AND YET God awakens hope.

Hope. I needed to type that word this morning so that I might see the letters and speak them out loud. Hope. By “hope,” I do not mean a passive disengagement. Neither do I mean an anemic wishfulness or a superficial outcry for how we would prefer things to be. Rather, I mean the kind of hope that the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he told us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23)

That, I think, is the transformational discipline that people of faith call “hope.” It is the nurturing of a sturdy conviction of life’s abundant potential. It is the belief that God is steadily leading us toward the redemptive ground that exists just beyond the edge of our brokenness. It is the life-giving trust that the mistreated threads of our tattered garments are being woven into the richly beautiful tapestry that God is making out of our history.

Hope. It is the gracious gift offered by a God who specializes in transforming sharp-edged rhetoric into relationship; a fractured church into a Christ-centered communion; tragic death into vibrant new life. Hope.

I have shared this song with many of you before. I share it again, simply because I need to. I am honored to stand with you, sisters and brothers, in this meaningful journey called hope.

Always Hope (Words and music by Eric Park)

I can see the broken pieces
I can trace the pain
The bitter tears your soul releases
Falling down like rain

I won’t minimize the anguish
You’re inclined to feel
Though I’ll beg you not to languish
In your own ordeal

There’s always
Hope
The conviction of a life’s potential
Hope
The assurance of a grace essential
Hope
The belief that tears we shed aren’t wasted
Hope
The remembrance of a joy once tasted

Purge me of my platitudes
My impulse to explain
No condescending attitudes
No clinical refrain

I won’t sabotage the silence
That your wounds demand
Though I’ll join your deep reliance
On a gentler hand

There’s always
Hope
The conviction of a life’s potential
Hope
The assurance of a grace essential
Hope
The belief that tears we shed aren’t wasted
Hope
The remembrance of a joy once tasted

Dare to believe that the brokenness cannot define you
Dare to believe that the fragments can only refine you
Dare to believe that the tapestry isn’t completed
Dare to believe in the weaving of threads now mistreated

On the sacred ground of your grief
We will gently tread
At the banquet of belief
Our hearts will find new bread

Just beyond the edge of broken
Lies redemptive ground
Just beyond the words unspoken
Hope waits to be found
Hope
The conviction of a life’s potential
Hope
The assurance of a grace essential
Hope
The belief that tears we shed aren’t wasted
Hope
The remembrance of a joy once tasted