Licensing School 2019

For the last nine days of May, I and 29 of my newest friends (30 if you count the baby, Shay, who was there with her mommy) were holed up at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach for the Virginia Annual Conference‘s 2019 Licensing School. This is the annual set of classes put on by the Conference for those of us who are about to become licensed as pastors for the first time. There were eight 12-hour days that spanned over the Memorial Day weekend–no time off for that, and we came to think that was just like the jobs we’ll be stepping into.

I had been forewarned that there was a high risk of developing lifelong friendships here, and I think that’s probably a fair danger: this was a great group of Christians looking towards their first opportunity to care for others as people sent in Jesus’ name. And so we spent a lot if time covering topics we will need to know: from the more abstract, like Wesleyan theology, to the more immediately practical, like how to do a baptism or Communion correctly, to the intensely practical, like how to keep the wedding planner from taking over your church.

In fact, one of the more intensely special moments for me was when I had a chance to practice a baptism on a doll baby. Of course, it wasn’t squirming like real life will hand me, but even so, when it came time to pronounce the blessing, I was moved. And even a little bit intimidated: you mean somehow *I* am going to get to do this? That can’t be right!

We had a similar experience when we completed our practice Communion with the Hawaiian roll and grape juice: we were told to take the leftovers outside and scatter them, just as if it were real…as if we had really done it! But of course, we had, and we will…which, again, felt a little moving and intimidating.

The final night’s worship, one of the course directors said that he had met us as friends, and now he sends us forth as colleagues. That meant a lot to me: the acceptance, the trust, and the welcoming are all a part of what this past year-and-change has demonstrated. This *is* real! And it’s about to get a whole lot more real as I step into this role at Sydenstricker in just a few weeks.

Advertisements

So, This is Now A Thing…

I really don’t understand how it can be the end of May already. Didn’t we just have our trip to England, wasn’t it just Valentine’s Day, I thought Lent began last Wednesday…?

And was it really February that I had my DCOM meeting and got approved to become a local licensed pastor?

But in this second half of the month, the pastor train is picking up speed. Last weekend was the announcement that I would be staying at Sydenstricker UMC as their new Associate Pastor; there were actual whoops and “yay!”s from the pews when it was said. Which made me feel welcomed and supported and blessed all at once. I’m fortunate to begin my pastoral career among such people, and indeed, among people that I know and where I can grow, make my mistakes, and help move things forward in a supportive environment.

And now I write from the campus of Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, where I and 28 others are spending nine days in Licensing School under the tutelage of leaders throughout Virginia, teaching us how to become productive, effective pastors. I’m among a group of folks who will be taking fresh the reins of two- and three-point charges in rural Virginia, mostly moving to new assignments; my friend John and I are in the minority for sure, where we are rising to be Associate Pastors at our home churches.

It’s a mix of practical advice that I’m trying to soak up, especially as they discuss smaller churches (as I will doubtless have myself someday). But it’s also vaguely intimidating still as well: I’ll be responsible for all this?? At times like this I’m grateful for the opportunity to have an in-place mentor who knows all this stuff, and worried for how well I will pick up on the subtleties and nuances of whatever charge I get next.

But in the end, as with this whole endeavor, it’s about faith. Faith that God has called me into this for a reason, that if I will only open myself to him, I can hear his voice and let him lead me into those changing scenes and different situations that I will face. So yeah, it looks like this is going to be A Thing now…let’s do this. Together, please.

E-189, Rescued From Ourselves

This past weekend I had the blessing to accompany the team and 19 new pilgrims to an amazing experience of God’s love in Emmaus weekend E-189. The theme for the weekend was Rescued From Ourselves, and in so many ways God helped us all achieve that goal. For instance, one brother confronted his decades-old baggage about abuse he suffered as a boy. It was a powerful and glorious experience and I was humbled to be a part of it.

On one level it was a little disappointing that only 19 (of the maximum 30) new pilgrims attended. But it started me thinking. These weekends aren’t for everybody, to be sure. I know people who aren’t ready: for whom this kind of overwhelming love wouldn’t be understood. It reminds me of the parable of the good soil:

A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! (Matthew 13:3-8)

We want to become good soil, which is ready to receive the seed and let it blossom. And so I think the challenge for us isn’t necessarily how many people we can get to the mountain, but whether we’re doing the necessary spadework to prepare them to receive the seed well: that it doesn’t get eaten or wilt or live among thorns. That would be my challenge to us ahead of next time: preparing the ground for 30–or even 19!–pilgrims who will be truly transformed.

Agonizing Decisions: Aftermath

I wanted to return to the story I had shared in two parts about Sarah’s friend who was on the verge of eviction from his apartment, and our wrestling with what to do. Our God is good, and always working, and even added to our Easter morning joy. I was in Easter services when my phone started buzzing with messages from him. He wrote:

“[…] In the midst of getting my phone fixed, finding a place to go, getting a job and all the other day to day things of life I just wasn’t able to find the words, heart or time to give you all the response you deserve. First I’d like to say, THANK YOU. Thank you so much for even considering things as seriously as you all did. I appreciate the efforts made and everything you all did to help me. Even though your answer was no, you all still made sure to give me other resources and information doing literally all you could do from your end and that means a lot because there’s very few people that have known me my whole life that will do the same. So, thank you.”

He went on to say that he’s found a place, sharing a room with a friend, and he’s found a job, working in a retail store, so he now has money coming in and is beginning to turn his life around.

God is at work in even the situations we think are hopeless. God is at work if we would just get out of his way and let him–if we would listen for where he is leading us. I am beyond grateful to hear Sarah’s friend is not on the streets, he’s safe, and he’s beginning to put things in order.  I give God all the credit for everything he’s done, and will do, to bring this young man through. And I have to give him the fist-bump for nudging him to reach out to us on Easter morning–the day love broke through ALL of the darkness and gave us the source of all our hope. Ours is an incredible God!

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!

logo_logo_v3

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.