August 24, 2019

It would be difficult to describe my 41st year of life. As my 40th birthday approached last year I knew that forty provided a new beginning. Not just because it was another decade but because I felt this move inside of me, this angst, a difficult to explain shifting happening deep within my soul. Sabbath, do not be anxious about anything, children getting older, my beard graying, a post-Maria Puerto Rico, a culture around me that seemed to be turning against people like me, and the continued struggles in United Methodism and in the local churches of this great tradition where some of the words, phrases, and happenings that kept me alert to the stirrings going on within me.

Looking back I recognize aspects of this angst emerging some years before. We rooted in Shreveport and lived life to the fullest, I kept on asking about my vocation, wondering if pastoral life was the life I wanted to live, and then I began to wonder about my role(s) in the larger Methodist world. National, Jurisdictional, and Annual Conference responsibilities began to lose their luster and I began to shed many of those leadership “opportunities.” There was a period that I felt that I was failing at everything, that joy was not to be recovered. In the midst of it I kept at it, rolling out of bed in the morning and finding ways to connect with people who were not connected to the life of the church, I kept asking them questions and learning more, meanwhile time kept on ticking and I kept wondering if what I was doing with my life was making a difference.

As the 40th celebration took shape and I found myself surrounded by family, friends, good cigars and amazing bottles of good rum (my favorite liquor) I recognized how blessed I was, how loved I was, and how lucky I was to be living life. It was then that I made a decision to resign from pastoral life. With a congregation in decline and a deepening feeling of lostness and joylessness, with a growing number of physical ailments and unanswered questions, I was convinced that it was time to find another vocation.

My 41st year of life born in the midst of what we could call an early mid-life crisis.

Like most personal crises this one began and was rooted deep inside of me. At the time I had a long list of blame to go around—as my wise mentor and friend Dr. Don Saliers taught me a long time ago “human beings are amazing at self-deception.” As the date on my resignation letter got close and I had to make a decision to mail it or not I had some decisions to make. Some were practical ones—how will I make a living? Will we be able to afford our 100 yr old dream home? Maybe we can sell a car or maybe both?— Other questions were more philosophical: Do I still believe in God? The church? The United Methodist Church? The “system?” And the classic, who am I if I am not a pastor?

I had asked these questions many times before but now they came with both urgency and a strength that I did not expect. It was a Fall and early Winter filled with much uneasiness and uncertainty. The letter was never mailed . . .

Though I was failing at many things I was being kept captive by a fear of failure. The demons of many years trying to prove something, to make sure that the universe would know that I was not a mistake, that I could amount to something, that I did work hard, and that I was successful kept sucking me into a vortex of lostness, anxiety, and fear that is hard to describe. I could hear the voices screaming in my head that all that I was experiencing proved to the universe that this accidentally conceived boy, who struggled learning English, and who still hears invitations to “go back where I came from,” was truly not meant to be.

And yes . . . I have spent many years in therapy and spiritual direction working through these things and will continue to, healing comes from our continued willingness to struggle and face our lives as they are and from being community with folks who love you into new life.

As the spring approach it became clear that change was coming. A conversation about a change in appointment forced me to ask some questions: Am I still called to be a pastor? Do I have the gifts to continue in this vocation? Where do my gifts intersect with the needs in the world? How have I been uniquely made to lead in this time?

It also forced me to dig deep into what it meant to begin again, to move my family far away from deep relationships that gave them much life, and the knowledge that by my vocational choice I was wounding my children in the way that I swore I would never do, in the ways that I had been with all my moves as a child and teenager.

Let me say something about this issue because I think it is important:

Yes, children are resilient, and my children have a double portion of it. I am amazed at how they have responded over the years at the many moves and changes. Yes, they will in the end be o.k. But being ok is not the same as being whole. In other words, we know (and I know from experience) that there is trauma experienced with moving a lot. Some of us survive it, but no without scarring and I can tell you that I am a functioning human being because I had loving parents who loved me through the many changes and because of my therapists and spiritual directors over the years who helped me find healing from the anxiety brought about by more moves than I care to remember.

I also know that Methodist pastor’s kids are not the only ones who move a lot but we cannot compare our moves with the moves that other’s do nor can we deny that children that move often—no matter what their parents vocation—have unique issues to deal with in their emotional life. So in our efforts to make parents and those children feel better (and maybe to shield ourselves from our own complicity) let us be careful that we are not invalidating their painful and heart-braking experiences of leaving friends, family, homes, communities, support systems, and people they love.

It would do our system good to provide more support to our families beyond a transition seminar. Support that goes beyond the dynamics of entering a new system and instead focuses on providing safe places for pastors, their families, and congregations to talk about, settle from, and move forward after a move. I have some things in mind but I’ll leave that for another post.

Just in case some might wonder: No system is perfect and I am the child of a pastor who served in a tradition that had a call system (where the pastor applied for the position and the congregation voted in order to decide who to hire) and I can tell you that I rather an appointive system than a called system (more about this in another post). I believe that since I have been in an appointive system for over 14 years and I am serving my 5th appointment I feel like I can reflect some on what it means to move, to live into our vows to “go where sent,” and to reflect to our overseers practices that are healthier than others at least to me and my family.

Now back to it!

Here is the thing: leaving, moving, and beginning in this season of my life, in the life of culture, and in the life of the Church has been interesting, challenging, and exciting. I am frustrated with the ways that the good news of Jesus is getting co-opted, with our continued insistence on using the good news of Jesus as a way to keep other humans out, and with our unwillingness to recognize that there are a variety of ways that we live into the way of Jesus, that none of us have a monopoly on that way, and that God is larger than our finite minds, hearts, and understandings of the Bible—and can I say that none of us should limit God’s revelation to the Bible? That maybe in doing so we are creating an idol? That there is a reason why over and over again the text of scripture becomes so by the power of the gathered community over time, in the Old Testament over thousands of years, and in the New Testament over hundreds of years. That I believe the Spirit is still speaking, prodding, creating, and doing new things all around us and still calling us to the One whose image we have been stamped with?

If you disagree that is fine, you are loved just like I am, but I am beyond arguing about all of this, beyond trying to be the orthodoxy police, and beyond trying to convince. I believe that the partisan categories of liberal and conservative are adding to the animosity among believers and do not help express our way of thinking about God. All I feel called to do is to love God, self, and neighbor, especially those that I disagree with or who have a different experience of the divine life, and continue to lean on God as I seek to be more like Jesus.

A few intentions that I am bringing to my 42nd year of life:

I feel called to be a healer, border-presence, story-teller, and priest.
I feel called to be a writer, frustrated poet, and story-hearer.
I feel called to be a justice-seeker, good news sharer, and prophet.
I feel called to sabbath-living, to space-making, and to holy balance.
I feel called to mystery, awe, and the transcendent.
I feel called to full-humanity, community, and unconditional love.
I feel called to forgiveness, reconciliation, and a cycle of restoration.
I feel called to contemplation, action, and the divine in ALL things.
I feel called to humility, questions, and continued exploration of ALL things.

So here we go 42 . . . Looking forward to lessons ahead, to encounters with the holy, and to the muse in all things.

Idolatry - the worship of a false god or image as such, a practice prohibited by the law of God. Figuratively, any obsessive concern can become idolatry.

Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms

Last year as I was doing one of my Bible in 90 Days marathons the theme that kept on I jumping out of the page was idolatry. The constant struggle of the people of Israel to keep their eyes on the one true God. Over and over again idolatry has been at the center of human frailty. From a serpent that claims some wisdom to the Baal’s, Marduch’s, Ashera’s, and El’s. In the New Testament there were more identifiable gods: power, fame, money, and religion. By the time Paul writes his letters he too reminds us of the constant human tendency that is at the root of our bent towards sin and death and that is our exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images that look like mortal humans” Romans 1:23.

Our prioritizing and humanizing of things and then placing them at the center of our identity, loyalty, and conviction continues to do what it has done from the beginning, separate us from God, from our true humanity, and from the true humanity of the other. This is not a new phenomenon for it is the basis of our primal story and the center of our existence as God’s people. We in need to be transformed, redeemed, and restored so that we can become a light of who we truly are as created ones different and apart from the creator.

In the last few days we have witnessed the terror of gun violence that inflicts us in the United States. We then have witnessed the terror of oral violence that continues to paralyze us from acting towards a more peaceable society. Some of this violent rhetoric is active and ovbious—name calling, insults, demeaning words, and mischaracterization of the other—the other is not as obvious but as deadly, silence. Specifically the silence that demands that we not mention certain words: guns, racism, xenophobia, white supremacy.

The people of God are not immune to such violence. We too get in the fray and often create more harm. In Facebook posts and comments, in emails to fellow believers (and pastors), and in face to face conversations around the coffee pots at work, in the marketplace and in the church we behaving in ways that place our ideologies, partisan affiliations, and world views as primary identities instead of our faith in Jesus Christ. In other words we too easily falling into our primal sin of idolatry.

The Christian faith calls us to “confess Jesus Christ as our savior, put [our] whole trust in his Grace and to serve him as Lord.” We forsaking other God’s, especially the gods of our own making, the gods we love to see in the mirror, and the gods of nationalism. We standing in the messy border between what is and what is to come, the kingdom of the world and the kin-dom of God. We shining a light and recognizing that evil, injustice, and oppression exist in the world. That in a society we must be willing to come together and say the words, struggle with them, and not allow ideological paranoia rule us, our knees easily bending to the gods we can easily see.

I don’t know what to do about guns, I don’t own one, and never will. I have an ethical and theological struggle with how easily they can take a life. I’ll have to confess that I do not trust myself with one, my emotions too raw at times of fear, uncertainty, and anger. But neither do I judge or blame another from having one.

I do know and have experienced racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy both in individuals, and in systems (including the church). I say this while continuing my sanctifying work from my own prejudices. I say this while recalling key events in my life when I have received such evil treatment both directly and indirectly, by word and by deed, by action and inaction. At times it has been my skin color, at others my accent, at others by my name (If I had a written collection of “Juan” jokes it would be more than one volume), and yet at others by those who claim “color-blindness” to avoid calling those around them and the systems into a new way.

I say this to invite all of us to a willingness to say the words. To study the history of colonialism, the slave trade, Women’s Suffrage, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, scientific racism (including but not only eugenics), natural theology, and American History (including Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, and American Civil Religion) and from the perspective of Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino Americans (especially Mexican Americans).

In saying the words and being willing to learn more we open the doors for repentance, forgiveness, and pardon. We, like those who wrote the Holy Scriptures, being willing to be honest about our own history, even when painful, so that we never forget. Remembering is key to forgiveness, freedom, and future.

Let us come together as people of God humbly and willingly engage each other in these conversations with love, compassion, curiosity, and in community. In doing so we might model for our neighbors, friends, love ones, and even enemies what it looks like to live into the way of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. Us, all of us, who claim to follow Jesus, living a cruciform life, with no other gods before us!

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I say these things with bated breath but convinced that silence would be a worst sin. As a pastor I have committed that sin (alongside pride and idolatry) more than most others out of fear. I also say these things because I actually believe that the people of God can disagree on policy, politics, party affiliation, and worldview and yet be committed principally to the way of Jesus, to the way of love, compassion, justice, and peace.

Every time I read through the gospels I am reminded that Jesus was constantly on the move. He went from town to town and gathered people around him. Though he did spend time in the temple (to turn tables over) and in the synagogue (to make the congregation mad) the majority of his time was spent with the everyday people as they lived their life. From tax collectors collecting taxes—and then being called to follow—to a Samaritan woman at the well, to an evening house call at a religious leader’s house, Jesus went where people were found.

It is in those places that the presence of God’s kingdom was experienced. Healings, restorations, exorcisms, resuscitations, and feedings happened in the midst of every day life. His teachings were often the offshoot of conversations with the powerful, religious, and educated. Even those teaching moments mostly happened among the people. In fact it is interesting that the one time that we hear of happening in the temple, his teaching was so radical that people wanted to kill him!

So I’ve been wondering why church folks spend so much time with other church folks? Why do so much of what we consider church stuff happens in the campus of congregational buildings?

When I was in Seminary I lived in student housing at a place called Turner Village. There we lived among other seminary students and were able to share the ups and down of life together. We celebrated the unexpected check in the mail, the good grade that was hard to get, and the special revelation received during our internship placement. Some of these connections happened at the mailbox or as we were doing and going but most of it happened at the laundromat on the basement level of one of the buildings.

The laundromat becoming a third place, a gathering place were stories were shared and the realities of life spoken. It was real, at times the most real place that we could find.

Since those days we’ve had our share of laundromat moments. There was the one behind the apartment complex we lived in during our last year in seminary. The one we visited the time that the dryer broke and the ones we would drive by on our way to a misional site. Each time I thought that if Jesus was hanging out today, he would most likely have a laundromat or two that he would frequent.

There we all have something in common: we need clean clothes. We also are paying top dollar for a service but when you do not have the cash (nor the credit) to buy a washer and dryer you have no choice. In our case today is a temporary inconvenience, but for most whom we met it was their way of life. They gather mostly on Saturdays and Sundays and attempt to get their laundry done. T.V.’s mounted on walls to entertain as you wait and a coke machine ready to make you caffeinated. There are also folding tables that make it easier to fold all your clothes. As all of this is happening you share stories, frustrations, and hopes.

Tomorrow I end my sermon series called “I believe” with a sermon on “I believe in the Church.” I am wondering what it would look like to be a body that lives its identity beyond the walls of our sanctuary spaces? A body that draws others to gather for praise and thanksgiving due to its commitment to being disciples in the places where they live, work, and play?

People need to experience Jesus. All of us do. I believe that if we took the ministry of Jesus on the road, if we went as a people who healed, reconciled, exorcised, raised the dead, and brought good news the kingdom of God would be experienced. The people at the laundromat would say “today salvation has come!”

It would change everything . . . Enough for now and can’t wait till tomorrow.

July 27, 2019

There are keener griefs than God.
They come quietly, and in plain daylight,
leaving us with nothing, and the means to feel it.

Christian Wiman in “This Mind of Dying” from Every Riven Thing: Poems

Dear Garrett,

You would have graduated this year. Your peers celebrated and we did too. We thought of you and wondered, what could have been? For me I imagined the Facebook pictures from your family and friends. You with cap and gown on, the dimples as you smiled, and the deep yet slightly mischievous look in your eyes, as you thought about what was next.

What could have been is an interesting exercise. It is both self-defeating and hopeful. It helps us grieve the realities lived while at the same time helping us recognize the reality that has not borne fruit. I’ve found over the years that art and poetry help me process these “what might have been” moments. They giving me the images and words to see in healthier ways, dream in more constructive ways, and heal in scar laden ways. Such is the reality of what might have been’s.

Last year I decided not to write. I was unsure why? I told myself that after ten years I maybe had nothing else to say. Truth be told the griefs were mounting after many years of pastoral ministry and they were close to overwhelming. I thought of you often during those days and was reminded that you were alongside God and the communion and I was hopeful that you were interceding on my behalf. You asking God to help me out, help me continue what your leaving sealed in me.

At the time I did not see it clearly. Too much grief, fear, failure, and loss. But also too many loves, connections, and rootedness. A few moments in those days reminded me of those hours when we waited and prayed. Again tears becoming beads in rosaries, supplication the mysteries, hours the repetition. God seeming so absent and yet so near. Though hopeful something deep within said that it would not turn out as we wished. And again it did not . . .

Today I find myself in a new place of ministry. A place that does not know your story just yet, maybe I should say “our story?” On my third day here I ended up having to make a hospital call. As I went down the hallway to my destination I passed by their Wall of Heroes and I though of you. Then just this past week the local LOPA (Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency) called the church and asked to meet with me so that we could meet and she could tell me all about what they do. I smiled and told her I looked forward to the conversation!

So, you found me again. Or better yet you reminded me again that you are with me always. Say hello to my Abuelo for me and to the other saints that I’ve had the honor to walk with. Intercede for me, that the “what might have been’s” become sources of hope, healing, and reminders that new life is always around the corner.

I’ll see you at the Great Feast!

Peace & Love, Juan Carlos+

All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them.

Luke 9:24

In our baptism we confess Jesus Christ as savior and we promise to serve Christ as our Lord. I’ve often asked myself what it means to confess and promise these things: What does it mean that Jesus is my “savior?” And what does it look like to serve him as my “Lord?”

This morning in worship we heard about Jesus’ identity. At first we heard about what others thought of him. Some thought he was the reincarnation of John the Baptist - the preparer of the way and the one who could have easily been misidentified as an old prophet; other thought he was Elijah who called down fire from heaven to destroy the priests of Baal, who spoke such words to queen Jezebel that she wanted to kill him, and who did amazing signs and wonders. Then there were those who thought he was one of the great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and maybe even Ezekiel. It seemed like at every turn the focus was exclusively on the sign, wonders, and the strong teaching instead of what those things pointed towards.

Maybe this is why he asked them to be silent about who he was. If people found out that he was the anointed one of God all sorts of predisposed expectations would be added to the already crowded gossip mill.

What he made clear could be one of the most uncomfortable reality for believers today. To be the anointed one of God does not mean becoming royal figure with all the power, splendor, and wealth. To be the anointed one of God does not mean becoming one of the ancient prophets who called down calamity to all the enemies of God, including yet no limited to those within the people of Israel who did not follow the rules. To be the anointed one of God does not mean to become a powerful priest who performs the mandated sacrifices in order to appease a wrathful deity and due to the power and influence that such figure has to use it for his own benefit.

What it does mean? SACRIFICE

The kind of sacrifice that is centered on what it means to be truly human. Sacrifice that recognizes that the world does not revolve around us, what we do, our place in society, or what we can produce. Sacrifice that recognizes that we are made to live life in community with others and that only in that community can we see God. Sacrifice that forces us to forgive others as we are forgiven, extend grace as we have been extended it, and see the world with kin-dom eyes and not ours. This is also the kind of sacrifice, the kind of cross, that reorders our life, and that is unable to be lived into without the presence and power of Grace. In other words this kind of life means that we surrender to the presence and power of Jesus, allowing Jesus to live not just in us but through us.

No wonder Jesus told Nicodemus that we needed to be born again. This birthing takes time and is dangerous, fragile, and painful. It is easier to convince ourselves that we have arrived or that if we just work harder we can achieve salvation. It is easier to hold on to the life we have and try to make it sound like it is the way of Jesus. It is harder to allow ourselves to die again and again. Harder to surrender, let go, and allow the Spirit of God to transform us through and through.

Today we might find ourselves like the disciples long ago who declared:

This message is hard. Who can hear it?

John 6:60b

And

Then who can be saved?

Luke 18:26b

I’m with you, so often I have asked God the same. At times I’ve done so with fists up in the air. Me and my toxic obsession to earn everything and my struggle with letting go and receive. Me and my toxic control issues and difficulty letting go. Me and my toxic pride and individualism that often looks a lot like a God complex. It is at this point that I remind myself that there is only one savior and that I am not one. It is here that I remind myself that I am not the lord of my life, that I have given myself to serve only one Lord and that Lord is Jesus the Christ.

You, like me, might be thinking, but this seems impossible?

Jesus replied, “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.”

Luke 18:27