Better when it’s bad

“When we don’t know what to do, we know what to do.”

-Bishop Cynthia Harvey quoting Louisiana United Methodists (source)

When you start pretty much any job I know of, your job description includes, “other duties as assigned.” This is certainly the case in pastoral ministry. On Monday, my “other duties as assigned” included being a hot shot driver, as I delivered 250 cleaning buckets to Marshall, Texas to help that community clean up from the recent flooding along the Texas/Louisiana border.

Cleaning buckets are an UMCOR standard, and are really helpful to people mucking out their homes or businesses following natural disasters. UMCOR, for folks who aren’t fluent in Metho-babble, stands for United Methodist Committee on Relief; it’s our disaster and humanitarian relief organization, and it is awesome.

As I was driving  home to the smooth, smooth sounds of a vibrating, rattling, whining box truck, I started thinking about the quote at the beginning of this post. Given their geography and history, I’m sure Louisiana United Methodists are as good as it gets at responding to crisis.

But you know what? In general, the United Methodist Church is really, really good at responding when it’s really, really bad. In moments of humanitarian or natural disaster, United Methodist Christians from all theological perspectives and parts of the world spring into action to work together quickly, faithfully, and decisively. In these moments, we look like the sort of people who are truly committed to building the Kingdom of God.

If only we could behave the way we do in the midst of disaster when we come together to try and set a structure and a vision for our church in our quadrennial General Conference meetings. If we were able to work together, to focus on our shared commitments and set a course for our church that allows us to all faithfully do the work we’re called to do. The United Methodist Church could really take a lesson from ourselves, we could learn from what we do when we don’t know what to do.

Because we aren’t just flying by the seat of our pants in the face of disaster. Prior to being elected bishop, Bishop Harvey was in charge of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. She assumed this role in the midst of tragedy. The Deputy General Secretary prior to her was a man named Sam Dixon. Dixon died in Haiti during the catastrophic earthquake in 2010. Rev. Dr. Dixon was in Haiti before the earthquakes doing humanitarian work.

The United Methodist Church does such good relief work because we do an incredibly good job of building our infrastructures and systems that allow us to respond quickly and effectively. We have people on the ground before disasters strike, and we have built a system that allows every dollar given to disaster recovery to go to that work. And Methodists from all around the connection trust in UMCOR to do its work well.

But at General Conference, this is not what our work together looks like. We are a global church with a rich and diverse theological history held together by our Wesleyan heritage and our unique polity and governance structures. But lately, instead of celebrating that and finding ways to support it, we yell at each other about sexuality for two weeks, don’t address any of our other issues, and leave feeling wounded and even further divided.

Many people of my own theological perspective, one which seeks full and meaningful inclusion of LGBTQ people into the life of the United Methodist Church, feel as if our current doctrine and structures keep us from fully engaging in the kind of work we are called by God to do.

Many people of a theological perspective which views homosexuality as sinful feel as if changing our rhetoric on this subject would be catastrophic to our church and take us away from our historical values.

Both of these viewpoints are deeply held and serious, biblically-based convictions. But they don’t just keep us from coming up with a way forward as it relates to issues of human sexuality. We don’t trust each other, so all proposals for any sort of change or development that would help create a church structure better able to address our rapidly changing world become a referendum on sexuality. And it’s killing us.

I hope for a day in which we realize our common goals, in which we make authentic space for the whole of United Methodism to do God’s work in the world, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What if we responded to slow-moving crises the way we respond to fast-moving ones? What if we did the hard and necessary work of developing an infrastructure that allowed us to work boldly and decisively for the Kingdom of God?

I pray that we realize that we are a people who know what to do when we don’t know what to do. And I pray that we get to work doing it!

Easter is forever

On Easter Monday, I tweeted this:


I’ve also continued to wish people Happy Easter, not only because I’m a fan of the liturgical calendar which says that we’re in the midst of the Easter season (it STARTS Easter Sunday, it doesn’t end there), but because there’s a tendency in our faith to spend precious little time in the midst of resurrection.

The world we live in tells us a story of pain and sadness, grief and loss. This story ends on a Friday, and it doesn’t end well. It ends with the God of the universe strung up on a tree, killed for insisting upon love in a world that insists upon almost anything else. So here’s the thing that bothers me:

I feel like the church lets the story that the world likes to tell be the story we tell, too.

We obsess ourselves with the tragedy of the cross. We preach about it. We teach about it. We talk about it, think about it, and pray about it.

And we should, because to be loved by a God so committed to us that God’s own self was subjected to torture, pain, and execution is worthy of contemplation.

But I don’t go to church on Sundays because of the cross.

To obsess ourselves with death and the cross denies the Good News, the Gospel, the fact that our faith doesn’t end with death on a tree.

Because the climax of the Christian faith is that in the face of death, God told a new story.

Yes, your pain is real, God said. Yes, insisting on love and life in a world interested in very different things will lead to death, God said. But then God said something else, too.

Death can’t stop life, God said.

I go to church on Sundays because of the empty grave.

I follow a God who became fully human, lived a life entirely of service, love, and healing, and got killed for it.

But, even if that’s the part we remember to talk about, it’s not the part that makes us whole. Because the empty grave sets us free.

Because life in Christ doesn’t mean skipping the part of the story that is painful, difficult, and deadly. It’s knowing that the cross is not the climax.

Thank the Lord, we are resurrection people!


Christian love is absurd. And not just in the face of Brussels. 


I’ve started and deleted this post a dozen times in the last few hours. Because what is there to say?

It is absurd to look for God in the face of the kind of evil we’ve seen in Brussels (or the Ivory Coast, Turkey, Syria, and so many other places). Where in that kind of hell is there any good news?

Dozens of innocent people dead. Hundreds wounded. Countless politicians and political hopefuls saying disgusting things about leaders and each other.

Oh, and people saying hateful, outrageous things about Muslim people. (If you’re looking for Muslim folk condemning the attacks in Brussels, look here, here, here, or just Google it.)

We seem to have two choices in this endless cycle of violence:  We can respond with hatred and fear towards “those people” who wish to harm us, or we can allow ourselves to become numb and cynical, resigned to the fact that hell on earth is a real and present danger and simply shrugging our shoulders and moving on.

On Sunday, a couple billion people will gather in communities of faith around the world to celebrate the defining event of our Christian faith.

On Sunday, we will affirm that in response to unthinkable tragedy, God did something beautiful, new, and absurd.

On Sunday,  we will remember something that changed the world forever.

On Sunday, we will talk about the execution of an innocent man on Friday, the grieving of his loss on Saturday, and the absurdity of what happened next.

But you know what happened right after God’s absurd response to execution? At first, well, nothing:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body.  Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?”  When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled.

But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Mark 16:1-8 (CEB)

“Overcome with terror and dread…they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Okay, so maybe the contemporary response to terror and dread is a little louder than saying nothing to anyone, but is it any better?

Shouting loudly about how to keep people  from other countries out, how to predetermine who is good and who is evil so we can make sure that WE are safe, isn’t any different than fleeing and saying nothing to anyone.

God doesn’t work like that. Because even though Mary, Mary and Salome wanted to hide from the whole world, paralyzed with fear of what they’d seen (and hadn’t seen) in the tomb, they eventually remembered what kind of people Jesus had taught them to be.

People who showed radical love and respect to all sorts of people, and who listened faithfully when God asked them to do a hard thing.

The movement grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ only exists because a group of scared people in real and present danger made an absurd decision to live fearlessly in the face of evil.

Because their messiah had taught them that, even though they were women, they were sacred and invaluable.

Because they’d watched him spread his message to people they had always been told were unclean and unlovable: eunuchs, Samaritans, even Roman soldiers.

Because when the people in charge came to kill him, he told his friends to put away their swords.

The absurdity of the Gospel is insisting on offering hope and life even in the faith of death and uncertainty.

2000 years ago, the absurdity of the Gospel looked like three women telling the truth about an empty tomb.

In 2016, the absurdity of the Gospel looks like insisting on showing love and light in the face of terror and darkness.

It looks like truly loving our neighbors.

The radical love of God is an absurd response to a world so broken that it pushed God onto the cross.

Insisting on love, light, and a widening circle of welcome in the face of evil is absurd. Thankfully, God has no problem with that.

The Idolatry of Firearms

This article originally ran as an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle in December of 2015. The idea started with a Facebook post I made sitting in a blind in South Texas.

Following the murders in San Bernadino, I found myself in a peculiar situation. I was sitting in a deer blind sick to my stomach about the problem of guns in America.

I am a Texan, a United Methodist pastor, and I’ve been a deer hunter my whole life.
It goes without saying that guns are a part of the culture here in Texas. I went hunting with my father and grandfather for the first time when I was just two months old on Thanksgiving; my father handed my bassinet up into the waiting hands of my grandfather in a deer blind.

Hunting has taught me about life and death, and about respect and responsibility. It has brought me closer to my family. I have given and received guns as gifts, and they have been special to me and to the people I gave them to. I have used guns that belonged to my grandfather – he died when I was four – and they are important to me. There is a song by songwriter Roger Craeger called “I Got the Guns” about the significance of firearms in Texas culture. It’s a song I like because it says things I understand.

Hunting is my favorite hobby. I’m frustrated by a trip to the range when I can’t get four shots inside a quarter-sized grouping. I like shooting, and I’m pretty good at it.
But every week there seems to be another shooting. Another mass shooting. And no matter the ideology or mental health status of the shooter, guns are at the scene each and every time.

In reflecting on guns, I’ve realized that while I may be a hunter, I don’t like what guns mean in America. I don’t like that they’re a status symbol, something to collect and be proud of, and something we’re so emotionally invested in that we won’t even have a conversation about regulating them. And I say that as someone who has some of these feelings myself.

My religion teaches me that if we are so invested in our personal ability to have something that we won’t consider its effect on our society, that thing is an idol. And America’s relationship with guns is nothing short of idolatrous. As a United Methodist pastor, I have a profound belief that part of my role is to help make meaning of the world we live in, and to try and speak truth that brings us closer to the world as God wants it to look: the Kingdom of God.

And every time we have the same shouting match about guns, we delay any kind of real conversation, and more people die.

One of my favorite theologians is Paul Tillich, and Tillich used a helpful term for situations like this one. He called them demonic. Demonic to Tillich meant that something was evil enough to be coercive. Something truly demonic plays on our insecurities and self-destructive tendencies.

There’s a demonic tendency in our culture that’s doing two things: It’s inspiring more and more and more people to go on killing rampages with guns, and it’s convincing most of us that there’s nothing we can do about it.

Prayer is important. Prayer is significant. Prayer has the power to change our hearts and indeed the world. But only if we respond to answered prayers with action and purpose.

I’m sick of political leaders responding to tragedy with hollow tweets about prayers, and following that up with no action. Most good prayer inspires action. It’s time to act on gun violence.

I’m no policy wonk. But I do know some things about guns. Guns last for decades, rarely get thrown away and often end up belonging to reluctant owners. I think it’s time for buyback programs for people with guns they don’t want. I also think guns, like cars, ought to have titles. Sell a gun? Transfer the title. Gun stolen? Report it. Knowing what’s out there is half the battle.

In addition, I support most of the traditional measures like strengthened background checks and longer waiting periods. But what’s more important than any of my ideas is a willingness from our political leaders to set aside their partisan biases and have real, significant conversation on gun control. Now.