Palm Sunday: Triumph to Tragedy

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and I had the opportunity to bring the message at Sydenstricker UMC for a vacationing Pastor Don. Click here to hear the sermon, called “Triumph and Tragedy.” In it, I explore the shadows that fall over the joyous reception Jesus had that day at Jerusalem: the shadow caused by our own spiritual blindness, and the shadow of the Cross. Give a listen and let me know what you think!

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Agonizing Decisions, Part II

So what did we do about Sarah’s friend who was on the verge of eviction and possible homelessness, did we take him in or not?

The short answer is, no, we didn’t. My biggest concern was that I didn’t want to solve the problem right in front of him, only to create a larger problem next. We live in a part of northern Virginia that is very suburban, even rural to the southwest of us; a car is pretty essential to getting just about anywhere, and if he doesn’t have a license and a car, then it’s not possible to get to jobs. So yeah, we could give him a place to stay, but then he’d be essentially trapped in our basement, unable to get to jobs and save up and restart his life.

We communicated that to him and to Sarah. She took it hard; wouldn’t speak to us for a few days. We never heard back from him. I’ve asked Sarah if she’s heard, and all she knows is he’s alive, but he isn’t communicating much.

I feel terrible for him, but I also know we weren’t really a solution for him. But it made me wonder, as I head towards the pastorate: how many other lives like his will I come across? How can I help them, if I can’t even help this one?

Well, maybe we did. You see, one of the things he told us when we spoke was that he hadn’t looked into any programs in his city that could help him. So we reached out to friends and did some research, and so rather than just say No, we added a list of three programs that we found that could help him, and details on two upcoming job fairs in his area. We might not have given him a fish, but I hope we were able to teach him to fish, or at least how to find someone in his own area code who can help.

From everything I can gather, that was the right response. But I can’t say it was easy to do. Mary commented later that this is the one thing she worries most about in our next life: I’ll want to help absolutely everyone, and when I can’t, or when it goes badly, how I’ll internalise it. She may have a point. All I can do is to say I look forward to some of the training I’ll get, including a class on pastoral crisis interventions in seminary.

In the meantime, spare a prayer for a young man struggling to find his way. We’ll keep reaching out, trying to see how he’s doing. I truly pray there’s a good end to this chapter in his story.

Agonizing Decisions, Part I

Nobody ever promised life would be easy. We’ve had a heckuva decision to make recently. Sarah came to us with news that an 18-year-old male friend from another Virginia city (i.e., a significant distance off) was being evicted from his apartment within days and on the verge of becoming homeless. She asked, Could he come stay with us and start to make a new life here in Northern Virginia?

Oy.

Very long story short, this is someone whom she knows far better than we do: we had met him once, last summer, and I think I spent all of four hours with him that weekend. We spent about 40 minutes on the phone with the young man to hear him out directly about his present situation. 

On the one hand, he has no car and no license. He wants to work in an industry that isn’t local to our neighborhood, so he would need a way to get to work. He’s very desirous of working, but for various reasons (not important to get into here) hasn’t kept a job more than a few months. For various reasons he hasn’t been able to go to his parents for assistance. He seems like a decent person who’s struggling to get his life started. But I really don’t know him, and how do I bring someone into my home (in the presence of my wife and 18-year-old daughter) whom I don’t really know all that well?

On the other hand: Christ has no hands and feet but ours. What good does it do to talk about Christ’s love in action, if I can’t see it through?

“I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink.  I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’” Matthew 25:42-45

So what do we do? What is the proper Christian response to this?

We took counsel from many, many friends, and I cannot say any of them said, “Absolutely, you have to take him in.” Which is itself an interesting observation. I got a lot more responses along the lines of sharp, whistled intakes of breath, and caution to not do it. And to be sure, the last thing I would want is someone who takes up residence in my basement and then can never leave–not only for the impact on my family, but all the more, because it won’t have really solved the problem, only changed it and put it on my family’s back.

This becomes all the more a real question as I transition into the pastorate. I’m not aware that I’m under any obligation to take into the parsonage every homeless person who shows up at the door. But I am expected to help, and to help in ways that don’t create further harm to the person seeking help. Plus…it’s my daughter. And it’s a friend of hers.

I have agonized over this for weeks. An awful lot of my prayer life went into this topic for awhile.

So what should I have done? Let me know your thoughts…then next time I’ll share what we actually did.

Lent 2019: Preparation

I’ve shared before that I approach Lent a little differently than others might. People ask, “What are you giving up for Lent?” and I’ll respond with something like, “This year I’m giving up winter. I’m done with it.” Or, “I’m giving up smoking.” Um, I’ve never smoked, so it’s an easy one to give up.

My focus is not on giving something up just for the sake of it, but more on the question of, how do I use these six weeks to draw closer to God? In years past I’ve given up clutter and tried to simplify my life. Or I’ve added a devotional reading, or picked up a Bible study. And I’m ashamed to say, this year I hadn’t put a lot of thought into what I would do for Lent before it started.

If I had to pick a theme for this Lent, I think it’s going to be Preparation. Not only preparation for the Lord’s sacrifice for me, but preparation for all that’s about to happen to me as I journey to Local Licensed Pastor beginning in June. For instance, I have to order a clerical robe. I think I’ve got one picked out, but there’s so MANY! And I have to prepare for licensing school, and I have a challenging workload in classes to get through before then…it’s going to be a full season, and I think its theme is Preparation.

In each of these, the trick is to live into the truth that God will provide. He will lead me through whatever I need to, in order to achieve Preparation. I can’t obsess over all the to-dos, or all that’s hanging over me. On an everyday basis, I have to let go of trying to be the one controlling it all, and let the Preparation happen to me, and indeed for me.

I think that’s also part of Lent: the surrender. The giving over to the one who gave himself over for us, and recognizing what that sacrifice calls us into.

Have a blessed Lent.

Somebody Fired The Starting Gun

So let me tell you a bit about the beginning of my week last week.

Sunday night: a close friend reached out to me about his relationship with one of his adult children. Things had been awkward lately, with unspoken feelings piling up and spilling into behaviors that finally came to a head, and text messages started flying. I spent time helping him craft messages that conveyed love in the midst of the hurt, and helping him think through how to approach the topic so his own feelings are heard, but which preserves the underlying relationship.

Monday: another brother in Christ shared that he has been “down the deep dark hole that leads to nowhere,” in a black depression lately, such that he hasn’t seen seen in years. A familiar tale of trying to keep all the plates spinning at work, at home, with family, with friends, with everybody, and not being able to do so. Marriage, kids, job…sometimes all the facets of our lives collide at once.

Tuesday: a family member has started on a new life opportunity that has her away from home for the first time in awhile, and her start of the program was marred by anxiety attacks. She was quite upset with herself, because if she can’t get them under control she can’t finish her program and take the next step she wants to take. And so the texts I received were panicked: “Help me!”

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By Wednesday, it felt like someone had blown the whistle to start the race of my pastoral time, and I was still back at the bench getting my laces tied. All of a sudden, out of the woodwork came these people I love experiencing their own crises. I know enough to know that my role is not to solve the problems: I know I can’t do that. Instead, my role is to walk alongside, to encourage, to pray for, to connect them with resources that are trained to do more than I can. And in each of the cases last week, that’s how I tried to act: the ministry of presence, of sharing genuine concern and love. And in each of the cases, I felt inadequate, unsure, a little floundering myself. I can only pray they received each some sort of peace, some sort of help, despite my inadequacies.

Nonetheless, this is the path I’m called to follow. This is the world I will inhabit: sudden panicked texts and painful situations needing help, and more. I know I don’t know enough yet about pastoral counseling, and for the missteps I know I’m going to make in my early pastoral career, right up front, let me beg forgiveness.

And at the same time, let me declare the love that’s out there and available. If, as one mentor put it, “as you go deeper into this, the world will respond to that call [that I’ve been given],” then I celebrate this as affirming what God is already at work and doing. And I know I can’t do this…but He can. So come, Holy Spirit. Fill me, use me, let your words and Christ’s love be what people hear and see, not my own shortcomings.

Let’s go.

A Morning Spent in the Back Office

This morning I got to spend in “the back office” for the first time in forever. And it was excellent!

As a fourth-string drummer, I rarely get called upon to fill in in worship and praise bands, especially since our own church’s praise service disbanded about four years ago. But Jerry was desperate, clearly, for he had reached out to see if I could sit in with the band at Old Bridge Church for their 11:11 worship service today. And what made it even sweeter was he also invited my daughter Sarah to play and sing along. The picture above is from rehearsal; Sarah is the guitarist off my left crash cymbal.

It was challenging: none of the songs were ones I knew by heart, and several I hadn’t heard before. (I clearly need to broaden my playlists.) But we made it through, God was praised, and no one threw rotten fruit. So I call that a win.

I truly love drumming in praise worship. I love being a part of bringing praise to the Lord, in perhaps inspiring those in the service to experience God’s presence, and generally to be able to share the experience while helping be a part of creating it, if that makes any sense.  And so when I was invited to be the drummer for this spring’s Emmaus men’s walk, I was thrilled.

It has certainly occurred to me that there is a significant risk that once I join the pastorate this summer, occasions like this one will be even rarer than they are today. And there’s a piece of me that mourns that. Oh, sure, it’s still possible I’ll get to play in worship. Who knows. But as any regular activity, as something part of my ministry? I have a harder time seeing that happen.

Drumming isn’t the only thing that will change, and perhaps disappear, once I am licensed this summer. It is an entire season of change that I will be coming into, and doubtless other facets of my life and ministry to date will change, will fade, will even go away entirely. And yet I take comfort in knowing that despite it, God will be praised. Maybe I won’t be the one behind the kit anymore. But it’s never been about me–or at least, it shouldn’t have been. It’s about the four hardest words in English: Thy will be done.

Anxious: Guess We’re Doing This!

Ten days ago (yep, I’m still processing this somewhat), the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (DCOM) for the Alexandria District, Virginia Annual Conference, of the United Methodist Church, formally endorsed me as a Certified Candidate for Ordination, and moreover approved me for licensing as a Local Pastor as soon as July. Yep. This year.

I had about an hour-long interview with the ~dozen or so members of the DCOM, who asked lots of questions about my fitness to lead, my understanding of the sacraments, and so forth. (Although interestingly, never asked “Why do you want to become a pastor?”) They asked about my devotional life, my self-care habits, how I developed the sermon I posted to YouTube. They also asked what kind of appointment I’d be seeking, and I told them I’m still committed to the idea of finishing my Federal service in another ~5-plus years while attending seminary part-time, so a part-time posting nearby that allows me the chance to be mentored and get my feet wet, make some mistakes and have someone there to help me understand them–that would be perfect. Later that day I had an email from the DCOM chair that I had been approved.

Part of me wanted to laugh, part of me wanted to cry, part of me said “You fools! If only you knew how unready I am for this!” And so I think the right word is “anxious.” I’m anxious in the sense of, what have I gotten myself into? How can anyone possibly think I am able to do this? But also “anxious” in the sense of, let’s get to it! Let’s go, let’s get started, I’m anxious to begin!

I still have to go to licensing school, ten days in May, but for all intents and purposes, I will become the Rev. Eric Kleppinger as of annual conference in late June. And then…the adventure begins. Part-time pastoring, plus full-time employment, plus two seminary classes a term, plus family, plus life, the universe, and everything.

For I can do all things through the one who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Amen. And amen. Lord, you have called me to this. In you I find my strength to follow, and in you I will find my strength to do all you’ve called me to do. Let thy will be done. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. Because, I guess we’re doing this!