Monday, August 8, 2016

Call To Action

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Over the past three years the support we have received from friends, family, and partner churches has been truly humbling and very affirming. What we do not just here in the “Shadow of the Downs”, but all over the city of Louisville is difficult, grueling, and yes, sometimes dangerous work. The support and prayers we have received from so many of you has no doubt played a significant role in keeping us in the “fight”. We do a job and ministries few others are willing or capable of doing, and we absolutely love it. With that said, for us, it really isn’t a job or even a ministry; it is who we have become as children of God.

It wasn’t always this way though, at least for me. If you had asked me in seminary what I wanted to do, I probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate to you a clear picture of what that was. However, if you had asked me what I didn’t want to do? Well, just come and hang out with me on any given day, and I would have articulated that very clearly for you…Urban pastor? Missional pastor? Church planter? Ministry with the poor? Convicts? Addicts? Drunks? Prostitutes? Gangbangers? Thieves? The homeless? Children? I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I sure enough knew what I didn’t want to do. Now I cannot imagine any other life.

When you find Jesus in the streets; in the face of the forgotten, the invisible, and the unwanted, there is no going back. Life can never be the same. I ask my church and my friends all of the time, “What if we really lived like we believe the things that we proclaim?” One of the things we do especially well down here is that we give people an opportunity to find out. Scripture comes to life in places like this and in the faces and lives of those we serve; it changes both the served and the server. Not feeling God in the pew? Not seeing Him in the daily grind? Come and hang out with us. There is more to this faith than Sunday morning or some praise music.

It is to these ends, that I am going to make a plea to the same folks that have been praying for us, applauding us, and supporting us. Join us. Not in the change your membership to us sort of way. As a pastor I’ve never been one to care about such things and I care even less about it now. But rather join us in the “being the hands and feet of Jesus” kind of way. In the making real, palpable, and instantaneous differences in the life of a child kind of way. In the “restoring hope and dignity in the lives of people who have forgotten what such things are” kind of way. In the “I want to live like I believe” kind of way.

If you can read to a child. If you can scoop food on a plate. If you can talk to people that Jesus loves. If you can hand someone a piece of food on the street. If you can pray with someone. If you can simply be present in the lives of people who truly feel forgotten, unloved, and unwanted…we NEED you and have a place for you. Please consider being the answer to the prayers that you pray for us and the well wishes you wish for us.

In the coming days we are going to officially begin our fundraising campaign here at Heathen Church. When you minister to and serve people who cannot support themselves, much less a church, we have to rely on the generosity of our friends and family. To those ends, I will warn you, I will probably drive all of you nuts before this is over. But right now, what we need as badly as funding, is friends to come alongside of us. We need people who are ready to live their faith. We need people ready to live like they believe.

Please consider joining us. Please do not hesitate to contact me on here, in private message, in email (pastorcorey@heathenchurch.com), by phone, by carrier pigeon, smoke signals, whatever it takes.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Un-Forgotten: Ode to a Friend

Tonight I received the confirmation I had hoped I wouldn’t receive.  I wrote the following back in January, but I didn’t post it.  I wanted more confirmation than neighborhood rumor.  It’s important to me to share this.  Not for myself, but rather my friend “Neil”.  He mattered and he didn’t even know it.  I received the confirmation of his death as I was told about another death in the neighborhood last night, one of our “familiars”; another of the forgotten.  People see junkies, they see homeless, they see criminals.  We see something else; we see human beings, created in the divine image.  Human beings precious to our God and precious to us.

 *****

 I’m not sure where to begin, which on this night probably means that I shouldn’t begin anywhere.  I’m just a few days into a two week “renewal” leave (ie…lots of napping and praying) and as usual, I’m not getting a whole lot of an opportunity to rest.  Currently, it is almost 10pm on a Saturday night and I have been hit with an absolute barrage for the last few hours.  From an alleged horrific event in a child’s life that just absolutely turned my stomach to another stomach turning event in the life of a member to the news that we have lost “Neil”.

 I know that you do not know “Neil” and that’s okay.  I don’t think many did or cared to for that matter.  Neil was one of the first people I met in the ‘hood.  He had seen me carrying stuff in and out of the church and had asked if we were interested in hiring a handyman.  I talked with Neil that day from a distance of only a couple of feet.  Neil’s face was covered with the tell-tale open wounds of a meth addict from digging at invisible bugs.  Many of the wounds oozed; all of them were raw and angry.  Neil had long hair, not unlike myself, and a beard, giving him a Jesus like appearance.

Neil should have been a hard person to talk to, his wounds difficult to stomach.  But what I noticed about Neil; I mean, what I really noticed about Neil were his eyes.  He had eyes that could only be described as gentle and kind.  There was a good soul in there.  Neil became something of a favorite of myself and my team around the neighborhood.  We always took the time to talk to him and to invite him in.  I think everyone else saw in him the things that I did.

 *****

We see and deal with a lot of bad stuff in our ministry.  As my friend and colleague from another church mentioned just this morning as he introduced me to his leadership retreat, “Corey has stories that will curl your hair.”  After I finished my talk to the assembled leadership, one of the members who I have become friendly with over the past several months came up to me, “I’m going to come back down there soon.  My husband says that I can’t go alone or after dark, but I’m coming back down.”

 My team and I are very good in these moments and these times.  We dive in, we love, and we try to disciple.  We truly don’t care what you look like, smell like, or believe.  The plight of the forgotten and the invisible, the unwanted; these are the stories of our people.

 I can’t even begin to tell you how many people we encounter that whether they come or go, no one knows and no one cares.  Think about that for a second.  So isolated, so alone in the world, that you exist as little more than a taker of space.  That person you breeze past in the grocery store?  That person you spy out of the corner of your eye in the gas station parking lot?  The nameless and faceless people you see walking on the street?  You know what?  They are neither nameless or faceless, they are human beings of divine worth, people that this Lord and Savior we all purport to follow found precious enough to die for.  They have names and they have stories.  They have feelings; hopes, desires, fears, and memories of better times.  Some of them even remember people who once loved them.  What so many of them have in common is that none of them wanted the situation in which they now find themselves.  This was not what they had hoped for, this was not their happy ending.

 *****

 “Neil” lived with his mother and his brother “Steve” a half block from the church.  We would see them often; all three suffering from the same affliction.  We would give food to Neil’s mom and we would sit with Steve during his breaks with reality; we have a ton of Steve stories.

Neil on the other hand was the one that really connected with us; there was something there, a spark that hadn’t yet been snuffed out.  He would always stop by the church when he saw us there; sometimes trying to sell us stuff he had found in someone’s garbage, no doubt for drug money.  Other times he would ask us if we were hiring.  While others, most of the time, he was just happy that people were talking to him like a human being.

 I have three very distinct stories of Neil that rise above all the others.  The first was the first time we actually got him to spend some time on the church property.  He was always okay with chatting with us, but to actually come to the church for an event?  That was too much, it made him nervous.

 Finally, one Sunday afternoon, we were having one of our neighborhood cookouts that we do during the summer and we finally convinced him to come and join us.  I remember a couple of things about these early moments.  The first is that his sores were worse than usual.  He had one in particular on his cheek, just above the corner of his mouth that looked as if he scratched it one more time you’d see the teeth behind it.  The second memory is that as he stepped onto the grass of the front yard of the church, he reminded me of a scared child.  He was nervous, his eyes darted around wildly, he looked as if he were walking on legs of rubber.  And then he met Trudy, one of our team members.  As we all did at one time, Neil took an instant shine to Trudy.  For the next forty-five minutes he talked nonstop about his grandparents and his little cousins; he couldn’t stop himself.  It really was as if some buried spring within him had suddenly burst back to life; he was remembering, “I matter, I am not alone, I love.”  This is one of my favorite memories of my time in South Louisville.

 My second Neil story was one of the hardest fits of laughter I’ve ever had.  Rickelle and I were riding into the neighborhood early one morning and we had turned in on the street near the liquor store.  I immediately spied Neil, who had a look on his face that told me he meant some sort of business.  We pulled up alongside him on the corner; he was oblivious to us.  I noticed that clutched in his hand was a grocery bag that barely covered a brand new box of Lucky Charms cereal.  Without warning, Neil exploded in a dead sprint with his box of cereal.  Seconds later, his mother (a large woman) exploded out of the liquor, stumbling down the steps before she broke into a not quite as impressive sprint (stumble) after Neil.  She was screaming a litany of incomprehensible curses after Neil.  I looked at Rickelle and just absolutely lost it.  I couldn’t quit laughing.  I had no idea what in the hell I had I just seen, but it was quite possibly the funniest thing I had ever witnessed and somehow, it was just so our neighborhood.

 We drove down Denmark, tears streaming down my face and there is Neil.  Running with the steely determination and concentration of an Olympic sprinter, his arms pumping rhythmically up and down, that box of Lucky Charms his prize.  In the rearview mirror, Neil’s mom was now at a “brisk” walk, her fist pumping wildly in the air, her hair askew.

 My final Neil story is one of the most disturbing stories I’ve had.  We were still during our preview phase of Heathen Church and I was in my office just minutes before I was to preach, when I heard a scream outside.  I ran outdoors to see an ambulance near Neil’s, but not at Neil’s; it was across the street.  I quickly took off towards the ambulance when I saw a “familiar” come out of the alley.  He was stunned, not entirely there.

 “She dead!  She’s dead!  She’s fucking dead!” The young man screamed to no one in particular.  I continued forward to meet him, he had been oblivious to my presence.

 “Who’s dead?” I asked, standing in front of him, impeding his progress.

 “My girl!  She shot up too much!  She’s dead!”  He threw his arms in the air to grab his head when I noticed blood dripping down his arm.

 “Let me see your arm, you’re bleeding.”  He held his arm out; he looked to have ripped his skin where he had been shooting up with his girl.

 “She’s dead man, she’s dead.” And he took off down the street. (She was dead, but unbeknownst to him, she had been resuscitated.)

Moments later, Neil came stumbling out of the alley.  His eyes were locked straight ahead as he shambled towards and then past the church.  I called out to him, even yelling at him at one point; I couldn’t even get a blink out of him.  Neil wasn’t there.

 *****

Tonight, in the barrage of crazy that has come to define us, I received word that Neil had died of a drug overdose in that same alley; alone.  So often in our neighborhood, people disappear in the night.  One day they’re there, the next they’re not.  No phone call, no note, no forwarding address, no trace.  People do not come to the South End to stay.  We hadn’t seen Neil since the Kentucky Derby last year.

It breaks my heart that Neil died of what we knew would eventually get him.  However, it breaks my heart even more that he died alone.  No one deserves that, especially him.  He was one of ours.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Reflections on Lent, Ministry, Self, and the Hood

I can tell you unequivocally that I have a lot of joy and contentment in my ministry.  The peace, purpose, and calm that comes when who you are collides with who you have been made to be; there is nothing like it.  I have a lot of fun at Grace UMC and in South Louisville.  Even after nearly three years there, I still wake up excited to go to “work”.  I have the most amazing ministry team I would’ve ever dared to have imagined existed.  Hard working, selfless people who love God that I get to count as family.

I felt it important to mention these things because of what I’m about to say.  I had a moment last week where I was absolutely gut punched; which is nothing new.  Happens a lot.  What wasn’t so new was that I sat in my own ashes for a bit.  I’ve become so good at sitting in the ashes of others that I suppose I had forgotten what it was to sit in my own.  I suppose there is a fear in doing so.  What if I despair?  What if I lose heart?  What if someone sees the momentary chink in my armor?

“You’re the pastor, you cannot do any of those things.” Lol…whatever.

One of our regulars since I’ve been in the ‘hood reappeared after months and it wasn’t good.  The last time we had seen him he was on a walker.  He had attempted to take someone’s drugs without paying for them.  He got off light.  They chased him down and busted up his leg with a ball bat. 

Prior to that?  He had seemingly gotten his life together.  He had gotten a job at one of the neighborhood grocery stores.  He was so proud to show us his uniform.  He was even prouder yet when soon after he was named “Employee of the Month”.  There’s something about a grown man chasing you down in the street to celebrate a life accomplishment like a child bringing home an extraordinary report card.  I totally would have put his accomplishment on the fridge if I could have.

Prior to that?  The first time we met this gentleman, we caught him stealing food from us during church only to come back later for the cookout.  He would come to Heathen Church so stoned he couldn’t sit up during church.  Despite that, he would suddenly sit up with an appropriately timed, “Amen!” Before collapsing back down in the pew.  Welcome to my church; it is in fact glorious.

But now?  The man we found last weekend?  Suicidal, strung out, and homeless; a shell of the man we had come to know and love.  And let’s face it, he wasn’t working with a whole lot to begin with.  There was an emptiness to him that rattled me.  My heart broke.

I came to my wife, plopped down in a chair at the dining room table, “Why do so many of our stories end up in rehab, jail, or a homeless shelter?”  I was covered in my own ash.

*****

Everyone and their dog knows that I love Christmas.  And so you would imagine that my Advent services are second to none.  Frankly speaking, they’re not.  I almost always walk away from them feeling like I didn’t quite nail them the way that I had wanted; which is kind of infuriating.  Maybe it’s the pressure I put on myself?  Maybe there is no way that I can convey the enormity of the love I have for that season?  And maybe I’m just being a little too hard on myself.  Who knows, not important.

Whatever the case may be, where I feel that I really shine is in the season of Lent.  I make things clear beginning on Ash Wednesday that we are marching towards the cross in the distance; drawing ever closer and it won’t be empty when we get there. There will be no rushing to the empty tomb on Easter morning.  We are going to understand and we are going to explore ourselves, our discipleship, and our Savior.  I want us to be able to stand at the foot of the cross on “Good” Friday to understand not only the price paid for us, but also the enormity of it.  Most of all?  I want you to understand that on that night, all hope was gone as a lifeless figure was pulled down from that cross.  There was and can never be a darker day than the day that we killed God.

My “Good” Friday sermon is a sledgehammer and yet there are no cruel intentions to it.  I seek not to harm, but rather to connect.  To connect followers with a story that we don’t like to sit with for too long, a story that we don’t like to dwell on; the price paid for each one of us.  Sure, we’ll acknowledge that Jesus died for our sins, which is certainly true enough.  But we treat it as if it were some far away event, as if it were some impersonal event that we have somehow become entitled to.  Not me.  I want to be reminded and I want my people to know what love on the cross truly meant.  I want us to stand there with our Lord and Savior, not scattering, not denying, and not averting our eyes.  I want us to understand and I want it to be personal.

At the end of sermon, I invite the congregation to journey with the lifeless body of Jesus into the tomb.  I want them to witness the boulder being placed across the opening.  I want them to experience the deepest darkness of despair.  Jesus is dead.  It’s a very rough and brutal place to take good people.  And my tendency is to let them sit there for a few seconds, which I’m sure seems an insufferable amount of time.  The faces that make up the congregation are without fail tear stained and broken.

Just when I sense that they cannot take it anymore, which is really, probably the point that I can’t take it any longer, I quietly and gently remind them, paraphrasing the famous words of Tony Campolo (who I’m not a huge fan of BTW), “Take heart dear brothers and sisters, it’s only Friday; Sunday’s coming.”  To really appreciate and celebrate Sunday morning, we have to endure Friday.  After all, to be resurrected, you do in fact first have to die.

*****

Needless to say, being a little over a week away from that “Good” Friday sermon when the churches of two of my closest brothers will join together with mine, this sermon has been on my mind and heart a lot.  This one takes a lot of mental, emotional, and spiritual preparation.  In all of that, I have found an odd peace in the sealed tomb of Friday.

The stories of our context; the despair, the pain, the loss, and of course many of the children and youth we minister to, we exist in a Friday world.  Our context is really good at finding new and devious ways of breaking your heart and attempting to break your spirit.  But I realized something today in my preparations, something profound.

Sunday is coming.  All too often in the “South End” we operate in a Friday world.  A world oftentimes of death, a world of no hope, a world of darkness.  The seeming impossibility of drug addiction, of homelessness, of violence.  The absolute tragedy of under/poorly educated children; children with no hope at school or at home.  It’s a vicious cycle; a self feeding, self sustaining monster with very real teeth.  A monster not content to just feed on the afflicted or the sinner. 

And yet, we are to be a light, a voice of hope, a voice of mercy, and a voice of love in the face of that monster.  We do this not because it’s simply what “we are supposed to do”.  We do not do this because we are trying to make a name for ourselves.  And we certainly don’t do it because we are some sort of spiritual masochists. 

We do it because we understand Friday and we know that Sunday is coming.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Year 2: Short Version

Greetings all!  Just wanted to post the shorter video we produced to show our second year at Grace.  What an amazing year it has been!



Thursday, September 17, 2015

Year 2 in Review (June 2014-June 2015)

Check out our 2nd year at Grace UMC in Louisville, KY!!!


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Writing is on the Wall, Reading the Tea Leaves, Wolves, and Discernment

Discernment.  The one spiritual gift that seemingly everyone claims and the one I would argue is in shortest supply.  It is the biggest reason that I neither trust, nor endorse spiritual gift inventories lol.  Typically, I feel like I'm gifted in discernment, but therein lies the rub; I'm honest enough with myself to recognize that I've been burned and been wrong enough to know, well, a busted clock is right twice a day.

Truth be told, I think for most of us, it is there when we need it.  The key, the tough part is recognizing it for what it is in those moments.  What is the voice of God?  What is of the voice of me?  What is the voice of the world?  In rare instances, I mean really rare instances, the answer is crystal clear and undeniable.  Most of the time though?  My own voice tends to be the best impersonator of the voice God and I am left trying to figure out which one is which.

*****
I am reminded of a moment shortly after arriving in Louisville.  I had been here long enough to understand the proverbial "lay of the land" or in other words, I recognized the monumental challenges I was faced with.  I was sitting in a good friend/mentor's office discussing this, when in a quiet moment I simply said, "I feel like I've been thrown to the wolves."

My good friend/mentor's response?  "You have been," he said with a laugh.

I sat quietly for a moment and in one of those moments where I accidentally/unintentionally say something totally awesome and action movie worthy, I responded with a heartfelt sigh, "Well, I guess I better start bringing back pelts."

*****

I have exactly two sermons that I've preached (or intend to preach) more than once.  One is on doubt, which I'll be pulling out sometime soon for the second time.  The other?  Oh I've preached that one several times.  It recounts the story of chained dog from my youth.  The dog's name?  Wolf.

*****

The first class of my first day of seminary was Inductive Bible Study with Dr. David Bauer, one of the most brilliant and humble human beings God ever placed on this planet.  I had read the primary text book (written by Dr. Bauer) in its entirety before the class.  That book convinced me in short order that I had no business pursuing a Masters and I certainly had no business in that class.  As soon as he opened his mouth on that first day?  All of my fears were realized.  I understood a total of about two sentences that first day of class and both have stuck with me.

"Context is everything."

"The simplest, most common structure to identify is recurrence.  If a word or a concept repeats, the author is trying to get your attention."

Bingo!  I had something to hang my hat on; I could easily identify that.  Chiastic structure?  Whatever!  I've got recurrence!!! (For the record, I got an A in that class lol)

I learned that day, or rather I came to realize, God is rather fond of repeating Himself when He wants our attention.  All right, so His fondness for repeating Himself is probably a stretch.  It's just what it takes sometimes to get through our (my) thick skull.

*****

I've been in a long and if I'm being honest, a torturous, season of discernment.  Life is good, ministry is good, but there is a fluttering in my spirit that would not be ignored.  Was the fluttering just me?  My tendencies?  My desires?  My wisdom?  Or was/is it God?  It wasn't going away and it was only getting stronger.  Time to whip out my awesome discernments skills.  No seriously, you should see my scores on every spiritual gift inventory I've ever taken.  Discernment is through the roof...lol.

I think I have two and only two gifts in the realm of discernment.  The first is that I know myself, I understand myself, and I am painfully honest about myself.  I know my tendency to get in God's way, I recognize my motivations, my desires, and yes, my ego.  I'm also really good at...wait for it...DISCERNING when my inner voice is masquerading as the voice of God.  My other gift?  Well, it really has nothing to do with discernment, it is my response to it; I am obedient to a fault.  Once I have discerned something (that is really a loaded concept I realize) I am obedient to it.  I don't have to understand it and I don't have to like it.  I respond with obedience to what I feel like God is communicating to me.  If I mess up?  Bonus third gift!  I trust that when I have erred in an attempt to be obedient that God will help me make it less of a mess or even a victory.

I find that in these matters, the older that I get, the more experienced that I get, I find that I am far more analytical than ever. (Thanks Dr. Bauer)  Previously I tended to be far more instinctual and now I'm far more analytical.  Has one proven more effective than the other?  Not really.  I do believe that I have good and trustworthy instincts (see gift #1 above).  However, being more analytical does appear to make the process somewhat cleaner, albeit slower.

I mention this simply because in this long season of discernment, I've distilled all of the "noise", all of the "static", and all of the information down to two voices.  Oddly enough they are pretty representative of the two "me's" and both sound like God.  One is based entirely on analysis and the other?  Pure instinct.  Which one is most representative of the voice of God?  Which one is most representative of the voice of Corey?  Not a clue.  Damn you discernment lol

On the analytical side, the evidence is overwhelming on every count.  Every piece points to one specific outcome.  If this were a legal matter, it would never make it to trial; there's nothing to argue or debate.  This side?  It's both just and righteous, and on the surface, would be very exciting to me.  The kicker?  New evidence supporting this side piles in on a seemingly daily basis.  If I were to travel this path, I have little doubt that it would be both accepted and understood.

The instinctual side?  It knows the score, it knows that the deficit will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.  It recognizes that there will likely never be full comfort in what it wants; it also knows really well that it could end badly on so many levels.  As a matter of fact, all of the aforementioned evidence says that it will.   Instinct says that I could very well point back to this post someday to say, "You absolutely blew it."  And yet, the instinctual side says with a grin, "So what? We don't play for here and now, we play for there and then."  The analytical side favors justice and righteousness, this side?  This side is nothing more than love.  All are traits of God, so which one is He most in?

*****

Thrown to the wolves.

Wolf pelts.

A dog named Wolf.

*****

I've been preaching for the past few weeks on the "Good Shepherd" (Matthew 10:1-21).  Specifically, to this point, I've been discussing those things which confuse and muddle the voice of the "Good Shepherd" and our inability to recognize said voice. We've talked about the myriad voices each one of us deals with and how so often they sound strikingly like the Good Shepherd.  However, in the passage Jesus is pretty clear; the sheep clearly know and dare I say, discern, His voice.

A really good line, I think anyhow, from this series was my admission, "My inner voice all too often is the very best mimic of the voice of God.  What I want, what I desire can too easily be confused with the will of God."  (Anyone else see a recurring theme here?)

What I want.  What I desire.  The will of God.

*****

"What do you want God?"

"Meh, whatever you want."

"Thanks God!"

Uggh.

*****

And then there it was.  I was reading the aforementioned passage before the church, just as I had done the previous few weeks, and boom; a lightening bolt to the heart in the shape of a wolf.

"The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it."

Contextually speaking (thanks again Dr. Bauer lol), this passage has nothing to do with me; I know this.  I will not twist it in an attempt to do make it so.  However, I also feel pretty certain that in that moment, those words were illuminated and used to grab my undivided attention; they cut straight to my heart.

*****

"What do you want God?"

"Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it."

"Fair enough."

*****

Funny.  I started this post out not really knowing or caring where it was going, and yet, here it is.  I've been picking at it for about a week and getting the words down and out have proven to be a pretty powerful tool in the discernment process.  I think (still trying to hedge my bets) that I do know the path that God would prefer me to take.  I also recognize now as I type this that at some level it's not necessarily the path that "Corey" was hoping for.  I can see now that the two sides weren't equals, even though I was convinced they were and that I was in fact quite biased.  There was one side that I was secretly pulling for.  

There's a little piece me of me that is just a bit disappointed, but oddly enough, that is a pretty powerful affirmation that I have discerned correctly.  Not that God is picking on me, or wants me to be disappointed, but that I can recognize the difference between God's will and Corey's will.  I tend to get nervous when I completely get my way lol.  

So many times in life and ministry, the paths that I did not necessarily want have turned out to be immense blessings.   I can see that, understand that, and totally believe that.  This situation?  I see great potential and blessings, but I also recognize that even as I sit here right now, the voice of Corey is attempting to mimic the voice and the will of God in the great potential and blessings that I see.  It is my attempt to justify the choice, perhaps even to comfort myself.  The reality?  I don't know what God has in mind; not my business.  I just know what's in front of me.  More pelts.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Not For the Faint of Heart

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  Matthew 25:31-46

*****

I tend to be a very introspective and reflective person.  Seems odd to me given that I am such an outward person.  I am energized by the company of others, I hate sitting still, and I certainly detest wasting time.  All of these things that very clearly (allegedly) define me as an unapologetically extroverted Alpha type personality.  Which of course fits, except when it doesn't.

*****

I take very little for granted.  That's what we're supposed to say, right?  At least as it relates to the so called "big" stuff; my ministry, my team, the people we serve.  I get convicted from time to time, that while I certainly don't take the big things for granted, my understanding of the "big" stuff is ever evolving.  I am so busy, such a force of nature, a kinetic ball of energy when that switch is flipped (mostly out of necessity; rarely am I ever those things simply for the sake of being so) that I don't often get a chance to appreciate (good, bad, or otherwise) things as they happen in the moment.  I can be downright oblivious to all but the big stuff going on around me.  So, I do spend a lot of time in the aftermath reflecting on success, failure, and the things that just are.

*****

Big stuff is easy.  I think one of the better compliments I've gotten, which came from a colleague, friend, and mentor, "There's nothing too big for you."  I do worry though, that sometimes there might be things too small for me, important things.  Once again, I take nothing for granted.  The ever elusive quiet times are the times that  I address that fear.  You want a church flipped?  You want it grown in short order?  You want new, contextually sensitive and appropriate ministries started from scratch?  I'm your guy.  I firmly believe when it comes to the "big stuff" of ministry, the things that look good on resumes, I can accomplish it simply based on sheer force of will, size of personality, no fear of failure, and dogged determination.  Bold?  Arrogant?  Pompous?  Nah, just confident.  The scary thing?  I do believe that as a "pastor" I could get by simply on those things...and that really scares me.

*****

I find myself spending a lot more time "inside", exploring, and I think (hope and pray) that I can say as it pertains to these explorations, there are no sacred cows.  I am not and do not want to be defined by my ministry or my title (Reverend still makes me squirm a little bit; while pastor is perfectly cool.  Weird.).  I want to be defined by my relationship with Jesus Christ.  And to those ends, I spend a lot of that inward time exploring my call, my faith, and my motivations for the "big stuff" that I find so easy.  Those are the types of things that I really refuse to take for granted, the things that I turn my very unforgiving microscope (reserved only for me) on those uncomfortable nerves.  Is my call valid?  Does it remain?  Do I honor God with my work and my life?  Do I, as I ask of my congregations so often, do I really believe all of the things that I proclaim?  My greatest fear is dishonoring God with empty words and actions (1Corinthians 13:1-13 and of course Wesley's sermon, "The Almost Christian").  There have been many times and I pray many more to come, where I say to God in complete sincerity and peace, "If this is no longer pleasing to you, I will walk away."  I feel confident that should the time come where God is no longer pleased by me or my service I could walk away still deeply in love with Him.  I know that God doesn't need me and I also know that He owes me nothing.  It is only at His pleasure that I get to do what I'm doing and I have a really bizarre peace with that.

*****

I find so much peace in being able to say that and mean it.  Make no mistake, the inner wrestling, the "sober accounting", the doubts, the fears can at times be brutal.  However, that I can make that simple statement?  Peace.  For most pastors, or anyone who feels called to ministry, our calls are one of our most sacred things.  We tend to be hyper-sensitive about it.  We place barriers around it; going so far as to fearfully, vigorously, and jealously guarding it against any hint of inspection or question.  For me?  The exact opposite scares me; fraudulence.  I flip it over, shake it up, poke, prod, and cut at that bugger.  If ever I find it lacking authenticity?  I will walk.  I would rather walk away than to be part of the problem.

*****

The passage at the beginning of this piece has become defining for Grace and Heathen Church.  It is who we are.  Everyone on my team is intimately involved in living out that passage.  We don't have to wonder if we are serving Jesus; we stand in His presence multiple times a week extending a hand, a sandwich, a bottle of water, clothing, and diapers to Him.  But here's the really cool thing; we don't wait for Jesus to come to us, we go looking for Him.  We look for Him in the places we suppose that He hangs out; under viaducts, homeless shelters, on the street, in bad neighborhoods.  And you know what?  We've yet to find Him missing.  People spend so much of their lives and energy "looking for Jesus".  Trust me, He's not hard to find.  My team and I tread some of the most foul, sometimes dangerous, sometimes scary territory in this city that has completely and utterly captured my heart, though I will probably leave her someday.  We walk over used needles, urine, feces; we fall through decaying floors, we go into hostile neighborhoods to move families to safety, we serve in a neighborhood that scares people, we quite literally hug the "unclean", and we count ourselves blessed.  Not just the pastor.  Not just a few "Super Christians".  All of us.  It is who we are.

*****

I am so busy, such a force of nature, a kinetic ball of energy when that switch is flipped (mostly out of necessity; rarely am I ever those things simply for the sake of being so) that I don't often get a chance to appreciate (good, bad, or otherwise) things as they happen in the moment.  I can be downright oblivious to all but the big stuff going on around me.

*****

Yesterday was one of those days; a thirteen hour sprint.  It's hot now in Louisville.  My clothes and my hair seem to be perpetually soaked in sweat.  These are the type of days that I am thankful for my weird aversion to the title "Reverend".  Being "Pastor Corey" allows me to wear torn up jeans and to rep my Hawkeyes in a ratty t-shirt in the land of Wildcats and Cardinals.  Reverend Nelson feels the need to wear suits.  I am dirty, I am tired, I look ragged; probably good that I'm constantly in motion lest someone notice that I look even less like what the world thinks my ilk ought to look like.

*****

10pm last night, I had a 6'5" man who had been homeless just that morning (and for the past year), come up behind me to drape his arms around my shoulders as he gave me a bear hug, "I love you man."  I surveyed the apartment he and our other friend had just moved into.  It was a place that I guess was oddly kind of like me.  On the surface, probably not what anyone would expect or want.  Worn, a little wild, a little dirty, and maybe just a little smelly.  But what it offered when you get past all that?

I find peace in weird places.  However, it wasn't in the apartment, or even in our friends who finally had a home of their own.  It was in the young men and women that stood in that apartment with me.  These kids (truly a term of endearment on my part; plus I'm old enough to be the parent of them all lol) have left behind the comforts of home and comfortable churches to celebrate in a run down apartment at an hour no reasonable person would endure.  I watched, my heart soared, as each one of them received hugs from our hosts.  None of them recoiled, but rather they received the hugs with joy and love.  They love the men we serve and they give so selflessly of themselves; I saw Jesus so clearly in each one of them.  In that moment, one perfect moment in time (I am blessed by this team with many of these moments) all of the answers to my wrestling, introspection, and reflection are revealed.

*****

Stuff like last night has become so routine for us, that I fear sometimes we take it for granted.  I think about this often every time a group of us disappear into the city.  I remember the first time that each one of them joined me.  I remember the first I went.  How unnerving, unsettling, and even scary it was.  Being Jesus to Jesus is not for the faint of heart.  There is nothing easy or glamorous about it; but goodness is it ever beautiful.

As we drove away from the apartment complex, not wanting any of us to take for granted what had just happened.  I never want the "routine" to become too routine.

"How many of you would have ever thought before joining this adventure that you'd be standing in an apartment like that, in this part of town, at an hour like this?  And being okay with it?"

*****

It is nights like that when we can all walk away knowing that God is well pleased, when the reflection is a little easier, but never simpler.  One thing (of many) that I absolutely love about this team is that they, like me, seem unwilling to take things for granted.  They aren't worried about the so called big things, they know that ministry is done in the trenches and in the streets; and that to find Jesus sometimes requires going where you're most likely to find Him.  They are not the faint-hearted; which fills my heart.