Three weeks ago, I was riding the bus to work, just like I do every day. I like riding the bus. I like the diversity. I like the energy of it. I like the idea that I’m helping the environment. It’s a sometimes infuriating logistical puzzle of routes and stops and fares. Mostly, though, I like riding the bus because of the people. Hundreds of them, at least, I’ve already seen come and go. On the bus, off the bus. Sitting. Standing. Trying to get to wherever it is that life has them going next. Not thinking ten steps ahead, but one or two. For most people, that’s as far ahead as we can imagine things, anyway.
So, the bus picks me up, I pay my fare and I take my seat. Another stop, and we gain a few more riders. A young black girl gets on, probably college-aged. She sits across from the bench I’m on in the first row of front facing side-by-side seats. On the bus, you don’t sit by people unless it’s full or you know each other. Another stop. More bodies. It’s getting full. Another stop. A few more bodies. One of them is a young black male, couldn’t be more than 20. I think of him as a boy, not in the pejorative sense obviously, but because I think of all people of college-age as boys and girls, even though I know that isn’t quite accurate. But he’s not a big guy. 5’8″ or 5’9″, tops. He sits his backpack down at his feet as he sits next to the girl across from me. “They probably know each other”, I think. He’s now sitting almost directly in front of me. Another stop. More bodies…
Friday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a man is driving his car down the highway. Probably thinking one or two steps ahead, like most of us do, he rolls along the road. I can imagine exactly what I’d be doing in that situation. I’m listening to podcasts or Chance the Rapper or NPR, passing subconsciously in and out of that state of black top Nirvana we all reach when we’ve been driving long enough that we put our minds on cruise control. Suddenly, his vehicle begins to stall, and before he knows what’s happened, he’s stuck in the middle of the highway. Somebody calls it in. Somebody else does, too.
A left hand turn takes us off of the main road and into a residential area. A right hand turn takes us down a street populated by low-income apartments on either side. We make our first stop on this street and pull away, as usual. Then, unexpectedly, the driver pulls the bus over. This has never happened to me before. I just assumed someone was sprinting to catch the bus and the driver was doing him a solid. I was admittedly caught a little flat-footed when the bus doors opened and a police officer stepped on board. The officer was white, probably early to mid 50’s. He wore glasses that said he didn’t give them much thought. On one hip, he wore a taser. On the other, a police firearm.
For five minutes we all sit, waiting to see what’s happening, to be told what was going on, to be explained to why all of our lives had been interrupted. Truthfully, it was tense. In my mind, I wanted to be anywhere else but here, and I know I had nothing to fear. Then, the simplest of things something I do dozens of times a day, thousands of times a year, sets off the tinderbox.
The police arrive on the scene to find a man, Terence Crutcher, in need of assistance. One, then, two. He interacts with them, but we don’t know exactly what that consisted of yet, except that video shows nothing remarkable. Mr. Crutcher, a 40 year-old black man who needs some help with his stalled car, begins to walk back toward his vehicle, just like anyone would. Now 3 police are there, and then 4. Overhead, the police helicopters circles in like an ominous buzzard. Could he even hear over the chopper and the sirens and the many voices?
It was a phone call that made things jump off on the bus that day. The boy across from me, the one who sat next to the girl, he called his boss and told him the bus was stopped and he’d probably be 10 minutes late. Before he can repeat himself to the person on the other end, the officer demands “Hang up the phone!”, still standing by the driver and the door, 10 feet from the object of his commands. The boy complies. This is where things get weird. The girl sitting next to him says “Excuse me”, implying that she wanted to get out of her seat. This means the boy has to get up and let her out. He does, as anyone would, giving the girl the freedom from her seat that she desired. The officer is obviously unnerved by all of this. He undoes the latch holding his taser in place and places his hand on the grips. Before he can sit all the way back down, the boy is told to put his hands on the bars over his head. He finishes sitting before the command can possibly process. This causes the officer to take two steps forward, now 5 feet from the object of his aim, a person, a man, a boy who rides this bus and has a boss to answer to. The taser is now drawn. It’s aimed right at the boy’s chest. He stands and turns slowly, complying.
“I just got on the bus, sir. I just got on the bus”, he pleads.
“Was that after you robbed the Dollar General?” the officer replies.
Within seconds, Terence Crutcher is tasered and shot. The only thing that happened faster than him getting gunned down in the middle of the highway was being labeled by the cackling crows in the sky. Footage from the police helicopter let’s us know that the first inclination of the officers was to begin to find ways that Mr. Crutcher might deserve to die that day. A person who has never met this human being, a college student, church goer and family member, had already begun to sweep Mr. Crutcher’s humanity under the rug when he said:
“That looks like a bad dude, too. Probably on something.”
Seconds later, he is dying on the pavement in the waning Oklahoma sun. Neither those on the air or the ground attempt to help the man dying in the road. For more than two minutes, not a single pulse is taken and not a single fuck is given. The impression is that if the tow truck could haul him off when it picked up his stalled vehicle, they’d give the driver an extra $50 and call it a day.
The boy matched a description for a suspect in a recent robbery. Young, black male wearing a white t-shirt and a hat. Specific, I know. He didn’t do it, by the way, at least, not that my research has turned up. They arrested two other guys for the robbery. After he was hauled off the bus in handcuffs, there was a collective sigh. Not of relief, but of that barely describable feeling that lies somewhere between sorrow and anger. The girl sat back down. I asked her if she was okay. She wanted prayer. So we prayed. It’s really all I could have done anyway that made any difference. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the only thing I do that can make a difference.
A man in the road.
A boy on a bus.
And we sigh that sigh. And we pray that prayer.
We get back on the bus. And we hope for a better tomorrow.
As we sprint toward the finish line of winter in Missouri and jump headlong into spring, I am reminded of the seasons and how quickly they seem to change. I’m reminded of the writer of Ecclesiastes who tells us “there is a season for everything under the heavens”. I, Zak, as one of your pastors and my wife, Robin, as your Next Generational Ministry Director, have enjoyed an amazing season at First United Methodist Church. It is a season that has lasted five years and a variety of positions, titles and opportunities for us both to serve this wonderful community.
It is with this in mind that Robin and I would like to let you know about a new season in our lives. We have asked to move this summer in order to be appointed to a United Methodist church in West Ohio. We don’t know exactly where we will be sent yet, but we believe God is with us in our transition to Ohio.
This has not been an easy decision for us, or one that we made without much prayer, counsel and a whole lot of anxiety. At this point in the process, we don’t have any more specifics to share other than we will remain in our positions and working hard to lead people in new life with Jesus into June of this year. Beyond that, we are requesting prayers and relying on God and the church to help guide our path.
The writer of Ecclesiastes also says “there is a time to plant and a time to uproot.” What we have helped to grow and the ways that we have been nurtured and grown in Sikeston will never be forgotten and will always be appreciated. Now, it is a time to uproot and begin the cycle again. We can’t wait to see the continued growth in Sikeston well into the future. We hope that you would pray for us as we begin to water the seeds of our next steps.
On Wednesday, no two ashes were the same. The crosses drawn on foreheads with my pudgy thumb were as unique as snowflakes. I did them all, but no two the same.
When we receive the ashes, we believe that not only are we allowing a pastor to inscribe a cross on our heads but that God is and was inscribing something on our hearts. Like the marks on our heads, the marks on our hearts are unique to us; no two the same.
To the soccer mom, I said “Remember that you are dust and to the dust you will return”, and God said “There is something moving in the margins, beyond your comfort. Something is stirring within you. Repent and believe the Gospel!”
To the businessmen, I said “Remember that you are dust and to the dust you will return”, and God said “You are more than your work. You are more than your success. Other people are not a means to an end. There is more for us to do! Repent and believe the Gospel!”
To the struggling single mom, I said “Remember that you are dust and to the dust you will return”, and God said “You are more than your circumstances. You are not your mistakes and how you view your life and yourself is not a mirror for how I see you. You are amazing and when you’ve doubted or when you’ve feared, I have been there. Repent, and believe the Gospel!”
To the chronically ill and elderly, I said “Remember that you are dust and to the dust you will return”, and God said “Remember. Remember all that I have done for you? Remember all that my people have done for you? Remember all that you have done in my name to bring about my Kingdom? Dust it shall be, but you aren’t done yet! Repent and believe the Gospel!”
To my wife, my partner for 16 of my 30 years, I said “Remember that you are dust and to the dust you will return”, and God said “I bet you didn’t see this coming. Oh, what more I see in store for you if you only trust in me! The best is yet to come. Repent and believe the Gospel!”
To my children, creatures of whom I am tasked with the responsibility that comes with creation as I see it modeled by God, beings who are just at the beginning of their journey, I said “Remember that you are dust and to the dust you will return”, and God said “Don’t let your dad or the church to which he is appointed at any given time be the only voice for who I am in your life. They will disappoint you at times, because they are human. Know that I am with you always, even if you can’t see me or if you choose not to. I will always love you. Repent, and believe the Gospel!”
With every dip into the bowl for more ashes, every long swipe down and short swipe across, in every conversation and hug and tear, God was inscribing on my heart, as well. To me, God said “Remember that you are dust and to the dust you will return. Remember this moment. Remember every interaction. Remember my people and hear their stories, because they matter to me. Remember that you are not in control and you are not in charge. Remember to be here now and not planning for later. Remember that the victory is mine and that my definition of success and the world’s, even the church’s, definition of success aren’t always the same. Remember where I called you from and remember where I’ve brought you. These are my people and I love them very much. Please, love them, too. Repent, and believe the Gospel!”
One of the most satisfying aspects of my life in ministry is getting to spend some time each Sunday morning with the 5th and 6th graders in our church. We pray together, we talk about our lives together, we study the things of God together, we play games together and we take Communion together. We have a lot of fun and we’ve seen an amazing amount of growth over the years, both in the number of 5th and 6th graders who show up for this ministry and also in the spiritual growth of these kids.
The thing about a successful ministry, though, is that it will quickly outpace itself and, with the best of intentions, try to turn inward in order to keep itself going. The group tries to think of more ways to do more things with the same people they already are familiar with. It’s a natural tendency that affects not only ministries in a church but also the entirety of the church itself. I can’t say that I’ve always made the right choices in fighting back this natural desire, but I like to think that we’ve done pretty well as a group. As a result, we don’t do big, church-sponsored gatherings on Halloween, New Year’s Eve or any other night. (We have been in the habit of twice annual lock-ins, but these are almost always made up of more than 50% of children who don’t attend our church. If this trend reversed sharply, I’d rethink it altogether).
While I am not a youth pastor or a children’s pastor, I am an associate pastor who does ministry with youth. And, again, while I am not sole the decision maker or what my church will or won’t do, I would advise against these in-church gatherings on important days. I’ve seen churches that do New Year’s Eve gatherings at church for youth, Halloween events for kids of all ages, alternative prom celebrations and more. In my opinion, these are a bad move for the people who have been charged with, not creating temptation free zones for kids to hide in, but to create disciples of Jesus that are ready to take the good news into the world.
This helicopter discipling will, in fact, risk giving kids the important experience and skills that they are going to need when, very soon, neither mom nor dad nor youth pastor will be around to cloister them and keep them from the scary outside world. I think the biggest question I have for those who advocate for these types of things is, do we expect the same thing from our adults? I’m sure there are some very fundamentalist churches that reject all of the ways of the world who would say yes, but I don’t personally know anyone who ascribes to that line of thinking. Most of the churches that I know, across a multitude of denominations and theologies, believe in and practice the Great Commission, however that looks for them.
So what I can’t understand is why we are afraid to let kids learn the skills that they will need in order to be disciple-makers themselves. Instead of making Christians in the church that are afraid to venture out in the world, we should be empowering our people, young and old, to be in the world as much as possible, being bearers of the light and life of Christ. One of my favorite lines that I like to use is that “We’ve spent way too long trying to keep the world out of our people when we should be sending our people out into the world.” Is there a balance that must be struck? Yes. But people who have been adequately discipled, people who have lived their whole lives going into the places where real life happens and are not afraid to be the light in the darkness, that is the goal. Not a bunch of kids hiding from danger inside the church.
Christmas. The Holiday Season. The most hap-hap-happiest season of all. Right? Well, it doesn’t always seem that way, does it? I know it doesn’t always feel that way for me. So, in order to share a little in the spirit of giving and all that, I want to present (see what I did there?) you with a list of ways that you can destress and un-mess your Christmas this year. These are just a few things that have worked for my family and I hope might help with yours. And if you can’t make it work this year, there’s always next time!
Rein In Your Holiday Spending
It’s easy to spend, spend and spend some more this time of year. Some folks have special savings accounts set up to put back money all year long. Some take out second mortgages and sell a kidney. Whatever works, right? Well, maybe there’s a better way.
In our family, we’ve adopted the increasingly popular habit of limiting the number of gifts that our kids get to the super-catchy: something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read. This is our second year of doing this, and let me tell you, the no-longer-existent stress of having to:
1. buy a metric buttload (it’s a real thing. I swear) of things that my kids will neither appreciate or use or
2. come up with the money for said junk
has changed my life and made my whole year more enjoyable. Is it because I’m cheap? Maybe a little. Mostly it’s because I’d rather fund experiences and memories with my kids than just buy stuff for them. So far so good. We’ll see if the costs catch up with me in therapy bills later.
Unwrap Your Ability To Say NO!
This one is all about your schedule. The old adage goes that either “you own your calendar or your calendar will own you”. It’s true. As a pastor, Christmas is undoubtedly our busiest time of the year. The church calendar is packed full of Christmas events, worship services, Blue Christmas, Travelers Christmas, children’s choir, community service events and more. Plus, there’s like, the rest of the world, too. Christmas parties, school programs and dance recitals galore aim to make sure they get their mark in on your holiday to-do list.
So how does one keep it together, stay social and not lose their marbles? Well, it’s not easy. There are some things you won’t be able to reschedule or skip out on. The facts of the matter are that there are just some things you will have to do. There will be some things you want to do. And then there will be those things that you dread.
The key for this time of year is not to get hung up on the amount of things. There’s just going to be a lot. Instead, focus on removing or rescheduling the most stressful events so that you can make Christmas work for you. With work, this may be impossible. School events aren’t normally up to your availability. So where you can have the most power is what, where and when you do your family activities.
I know this sounds scary. After all, family is number one and all that. I don’t disagree, but I would challenge the idea that, because family is important, that it should add to the stress and the mess. Instead, figure out what works best for YOUR family, and then work that into the schedule of the larger family. Grandma, Uncle Bill and your in-laws are all going to want face time. That’s great. But this year, let them know that it’s not all going to happen on the same day. Maybe this means you miss out on the giant family gathering. Maybe this means you eat cold leftovers. But believe me, if you make the necessary adjustments to your family schedule, you’ll be wishing Christmas came twice a year.
Probably not. But at least you’ll make it out alive.
As part of our Christmas sermon series at First United Methodist Church that we’re calling “Modern Family”, we have departed from our normal 20 minute preaching patterns and have had two of our pastors each week deliver 8-10 minute messages, each centering around a figure or group in the Christmas story. Although only eluded to in scripture, the innkeeper is a prominent figure in the Christmas story mythos and has a story to tell that we need to hear…
Have you ever noticed that there’s something about this time of year that makes us say things that we wouldn’t say during any other time? Sure, there are some obvious ones like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”. Then there are words like “caroling” and “advent”. But there’s one phrase that really boggles my mind. One that I just can’t seem to get a handle on. And it’s this:
‘Tis the season.
‘Tis the season.
‘Tis the season… for what, exactly?
I think that when most people say it, they say it as a way to explain things away. Usually good things.
Why would a stranger shovel the snow off of my driveway? ‘Tis the season.
Why would someone gather up a bunch of food, presents and other necessities for hundreds of people in need? ‘Tis the season.
And that’s all well and good. I just wish that I could take that use of the phrase and call it a fact. The idea that this season really is something special and that it brings out the best in people.
But a quick look around the reality of the world shows that, even in this season, all is not well.
Active shooters in medical centers.
‘Tis the season.
Knock-down, drag-out fights over flat-screens and kids toys.
‘Tis the season.
Refugees fleeing war-torn areas and seeking solace.
‘Tis the season.
And that was literally all just on Black Friday. Black Friday, indeed.
‘Tis the season.
We don’t even have to rely on current events to make us wonder just what is going on with this season. I mean, the holidays are supposed to be about peace and joy and love.
But if I’m honest, if we’re honest, I don’t always feel that way. I’m rushing to get work done so that I can rush to get our family gatherings done so I can rush to get my house decorated so I can rush to the store to buy all of the stuff that makes these others things possible. Have any of you ever felt like that?
And for some of us, we wrestle with the sadness of looking around at the holidays and missing those who aren’t there, whether it is because they are no longer with us or because they simply chose not to be.
For some of us, we are wondering how we’re going to pay for all of this. This year hasn’t been that great and things don’t seem to be looking up, no matter how much turkey I eat.
‘Tis the season.
Now, I don’t want you to feel guilty if any or all of these are true of you. What I do want you to know is that you are not alone. I often feel this way. We often feel this way. And 2000 years ago, in the days leading up to the reason that we say “‘tis the season”, they felt this way, too.
You see, the reason that we have to celebrate this season is the birth of a baby who became a man named Jesus. A man that would one day heal the sick, raise the dead and perform miracles like no one had ever seen. A man that would lead a life that is the example for a life lived with and for God. A man that would eventually die so that humanity could live fully and abundantly.
But Jesus was more than just a man. He was the God-Man. God come to earth. God come to smell, hear, taste, feel and see the world in the same way that you and I do. The God-man who would overcome death and who enables us to have new life. Jesus was and is all of this and more. But first, he was a baby.
In the time leading up to the birth of Jesus, the emperor of the Romans (who were occupying the region in which Jesus’ mother, Mary and her fiance, Joseph, lived) decided that he wanted a census to be completed. In other words, they were going to get some statistics on who was where in order to maximize the taxes they could assess.
Nonetheless, this wasn’t an optional kind of thing, so, even though Mary was nearly at the end of her pregnancy, they set out for the town of Bethlehem; Joseph’s ancestral home.
They begin the grueling, 90-mile journey in the winter, where it is often freezing during the night and quite wet. They are wrapped up to keep from freezing to death. They are drinking water and eating bread for every meal. The threat of bears, lions, boars and bandits lingers over them. This is not a Christmas vacation.
‘Tis the season.
But they make it to Bethlehem, nonetheless. They arrive, most likely expecting to stay with relatives or with family friends, but guess who else was expecting to do the same? Everyone else who was in town for the census. Bethlehem is crowded already and, judging by Mary’s current situation, it will have one more resident very soon.
‘Tis the season.
So the couple looks for somewhere to take up residence. Some place for them to stay while they finish up their census business and Mary has her baby. Because of the overcrowding, their best option is to seek a room at a primitive inn. But, once again, the crowding from the census has filled up the inn.
Can you imagine? Put yourself for a moment in the place of the inn’s manager, the innkeeper. Now, the Bible doesn’t come out and tell us anything about the innkeeper, but we can logically conclude that an inn who had no room had someone keeping up with the occupancy rates.
So, let’s look at this from the view of the innkeeper.
Business is booming and for the innkeeper, so is busyness. Every room is full and there’s no end in sight to the swell of people arriving for the census. The innkeeper is doing his best to keep things up to snuff. He’s got his family working full time. He’s hardly sleeping. He’s hired some extra staff to meet the demands of such a busy time of year.
‘Tis the season.
So many new folks being in town has increased his anxiety. The innkeeper’s blood pressure is high and his worry level is higher.
‘Tis the season.
And into this chaotic mix of life events and into his inn walks a woman, 9 months pregnant. From the moment that the innkeeper lays eyes on her, he knows that he’s going to disappoint her. There is no room at the inn, and no sob story, true or not, is going to change that. And the innkeeper has business to worry about. A reputation. He can’t go kicking people out to let others in. Business as usual.
But, somewhere in his heart of hearts, somewhere deep inside, a little bit of guilt breaks through; maybe a little compassion. No, he can’t get her a room and no he can’t put aside business in order to be much help, but he can offer them a spot with the animals. It’s not much, but it’ll be dry and it’ll be soft.
So it goes. Baby Jesus is born, wrapped up and placed in a food trough. God broke through that day. God was again with us. All the while, the innkeeper worked.
‘Tis the season.
Now, it would be easy to pile on the innkeeper and give him all kinds of grief. That’s the popular thing to do. Call him heartless or callous or cruel. But I think the truth in his actions is much more profound and much less simple.
You see, in the innkeeper, I see you and I see me. Like the innkeeper, we have the best of intentions. We mean to be good people. We mean to do the right thing. But in the midst of our lives and the busyness of the world, we miss out on God among us.
‘Tis the season.
In our own worries and our fears, in the expectations laid upon us by ourselves and those around us, we lose the ability to see when God is right before our eyes.
‘Tis the season.
So you and I have to answer the question that I think kept the innkeeper awake many nights once he realized what had happened: will we make room to see God work?
I want to close with this: God is preparing a way to work in us and through us. God is making the long journey to be in your presence. God is breaking through, into the world, to make a difference alongside you. You are coconspirators in a scandal of grace.