Thinking About Church…

Today is the first Sunday of Advent 2016. And the first time in 20+ years that I am not spending this morning in worship somewhere.

Several weeks ago – about a week after my last Sunday – a former church member asked me where I was going to church on Sunday. When I said I wasn’t… she pressed and wanted to know how I could go from going every week to not at all. I didn’t choose to discuss the matter with her but it has come up more than a few times since my last day in ministry.

I understand the question and the unasked questions behind it. I spent 24 years as a pastor and while I missed some Sunday’s here and there I was in the pulpit almost every one of those Sunday mornings. Have I lost my faith? How can I be a faithful Christian without attending worship and participating in church life? If the church was so important to me for so many years how could it stop being important so abruptly? And what does it mean to people whom I led and pastored if I have left the chruch?

The simplest answer I can give today (and that I am trying to understand) is that I don’t want to go. I went for all those years, sometimes out of duty and responsibility when I wasn’t feeling like it. Not HAVING to go is freeing. If you haven’t been a pastor, it ‘s hard to describe how Sunday morning (at least for me) cast a shadow over the rest of my week with its needs and expectations and responsibilities. These weeks have been a Sabbath from the Sabbath.

I have not given up on the church. I have certainly not given up on Christ. I still pray and read and ponder. I know the church is there and that I need to be there. But to find a place where people don’t know me and have lots of awkward questions and expect me to be involved is a challenge. To find a place where my Wesleyan-Methodist roots can take new root and thrive is also important. To want to go is important too – not to go because I must.

As Advent begins I am preparing not for the coming of Christ alone or for his return as Advent promises but also my own return.






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All Things End

I’ve been thinking about the end of my (professional) ministry a great deal these past few weeks. I catch myself thinking “Oh, this is the last time I will do that.” Or  realizing some things that form a part of the rhythm of my life are gone – or will be shortly.

About a month ago my wife and I went on a dinner cruise on the Ohio River. During the last hour we passed places that were a part of my life for many years but no longer are. Places that I remember fondly from childhood are not even there any more. Places we frequented no longer seem familiar. Or mine.

It struck me – when we moved to the Dayton area from Cincinnati in 2009 I grieved. I had spent my entire life in the Greater Cincinnati. But I found new memories, new friendships, a new sense of place and purpose and life. And I would grieve as much to leave Dayton now as I did to leaving Cincinnati then.

All things are transitory. Even those who spend their entire lives in the same community, the same church, the same circle of friends, the same house – one day will leave this world and leave those things behind. Most of us experience more than one such leaving as we take new jobs or  unanticipated transitions. All things end. It is a part of human existence.

Most of our endings are really preludes to beginnings. For persons of faith, even death is not an ending as much as a transition to another, more wonderful life.

I hope to end well this long – the longest – phase of life I have ever experienced (at least where work is concerned). It is bittersweet in many ways. But also the gateway to a new life and a new adventure. It can be the same for you.

While hunting for quotes on endings, I found this gem with which I leave you this Monday morning:

““There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”

― Ellen Goodman


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Dark But Not Night

Yesterday marked the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Our youngest child was born that February and so his entire conscious life has been lived in its shadow. Many of you, like me, can remember what you were doing and where you were as that numbing day unfolded. I remember calling Dana from my office at the church to say I had just heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Such horror and sorrow that would come in the hours and days after.

I don’t have the perspective – nor the wisdom – to understand how different our nation and world are because of that day. Thousands more have died in a seemingly endless string of wars and terrorist attacks. Our collective security has risen to obsessive levels of concern and focus. That national unity that emerged in the moments after was fleeting and in some ways we are less united than I can remember. Not to mention the erosion of economic security… the loss of civility and good 0ld-fashioned manners… the temperature of our political and social debates. 9/11 may not be the direct cause of all of this darkness but its shadow falls across it all and all of the reality we live today has been shaped by it.

It is dark outside but not yet night. The same events that might lead us to despair or cynicism have led some to rise to acts of incredible heroism and sacrifice. Maniacal, evil faith has deepened the genuine faith of many. Acts of violence, collective and individual, had been answered by countless acts of compassion and love for neighbor.

I remember reading an article that argued that these dark days were an argument FOR God’s existence and providence rather than AGAINST. I wish now that I had saved it somewhere that I could lay hands on it now. He wrote that rather than asking why such things happened… we should instead ask why not more of them? Why does the world not plunge into night? Why is there not more evil – and far less good – than we see even on such days as 9/11?

Because despite our human frailty… despite, from the Christian perspective, our bent to sin and wrong… there is still a Light that shines in that darkness. There is still a Providence that seeks the good and salvation of all. However dark it may be, it is never completely night.

In his epic tale of light and dark, evil and good, J.R.R. Tolkien puts in the mouth of one his minor characters these words that seem appropriate to the day:

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” 

(The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, II, 6)

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The Road… Around the Bend

“It looks like I’m going to have to let go of what I expected and enter a mystery.”
Eugene Peterson
I haven’t blogged since my post about leaving full-time ministry. The problem hasn’t been nothing to say – it’s been too much to process and turn into anything that makes sense. In choosing this path I knew there would be some grief and anxiety even though I am more certain now that this road is the one I am called to walk. Every road in life is filled with unexpected turns, detours, traffic jams – as well as surprising and beautiful views and unlooked-for blessings.
Many times over the last month friends have asked “So what are you going to do next?” The answer is “I don’t know.” I have some ideas. I have applied for a job that will not start until January. But other than that I really don’t know. My one serious job prospect is not at all certain – far from it. I don’t know where we will live (other than staying in Huber Heights so our son can finish high school). i don’t know how my life will look on November 1. Other than it will be different in significant ways from what it is today.
I am not a person who likes this kind of ambiguity. I like to know what is ahead and to have planned for every eventuality. I love GPS – it always knows what is coming, when to turn, what areas to avoid due to traffic or construction, what sites wait to be seen. The one on my smart phone is always up to date and is mostly accurate.
Life is more like paper maps and compasses. It takes as much effort to determine where you are on the map as to arrive at a destination. Things on the ground may be different from when the map was printed. A map can’t show construction that has gone over schedule or traffic that is impeding progress ten miles down the road.
In the certainty of God’s leading to travel this road I am also learning anew the enormous uncertainty of what lies ahead. I have things to do and decisions to make. But much waits on what is around the next bend. What I expected may not – and probably will not – be. God’s mystery awaits. Perhaps for you too.
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On Leaving Ministry

The Long and Winding Road

My first sermon at each church I have served has been on the call of Abram (who becomes Abraham):

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)

Each time I found myself in a new community, a new place to work and serve, a new adventure. It is time for another such adventure in answering God’s call.

For much of this year I have been discerning the next steps in my middle-aged life. Late last year I had a health scare that turned out to be something minor. But the experience left me reflective on the trajectory of my life. And this November 29 I will turn 50. A time for thinking about the second half of life and work.

For several years I have been sure that I would not end my pastoral career at retirement age. The reasons are many… the journey has been a long and winding one. Some pain and struggle. But also a deeper understanding of how God has gifted me. What do I do well? What gifts and experiences has God given me? And is the best stewardship of them in professional ministry? I have many years of work remaining and plenty of time for another career.

In early May the call came as it did decades ago. As clearly as God called me to leave a great job and future, so God has called me again to leave what I know to journey to what God will yet show me. My personal ministry is not ending – just the professional one. I know God will continue to use the gifts I have received to serve others, to speak and to share, to honor Christ in a new way.

I thank God for a spouse and children who support me in following this path. It means a huge change in our lives and perhaps lifestyle in the near term. My children have no memory of living anywhere except in a church parsonage. Or of their dad as anything but a pastor. And Dana has sacrificed much over the years including professionally to follow me around Ohio. I am grateful that they understand and affirm my decision and are excited, too, about this call to a new season of life.

My last day of ministry at Aldersgate UMC and as a professional pastor will be October 31. What comes next I do not know. Like Abram I can see some paths ahead to follow, some of what might be. Like that adventurer long ago – not just Abram but the young man who in 1992 began a journey – I know God will show me a new land and life. I am looking forward to it.


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Getting to the Divine “Yes”

These past six months have been a time of intense and expanding prayer for me. I have grown more in my prayer life than I have at any other time in my walk of faith.  The biggest change has come in my seeking to hear God’s “yes” to my prayers.

To intercede for others… to seek God’s answers to pressing personal, community, and even world problems… to believe that God has the power to do what we ask is all a real and vital journey. And I would be the first to give witness to the reality that God has answered in specific ways quite specific things I have asked.

But there comes a moment in the journey of prayer when one realizes the “yes” that matters is not God saying “yes.” It is not some slippery slope of seeing prayer as successful or not, It is not in finding some pattern that one believes will force the divine hand. This last one vexes me the most. I catch myself thinking about prayer as technique – if I do X, God will answer. If I say Y, God will respond. Read a few books on prayer and you will understand the allurement.

No, the “yes” that sounds the sweetest is the one echoed in the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is not resignation to fate (as it can easily be misconstrued). It is rather saying to God “I want this that I am saying… but what do you want for me? I want you to do this… but am I asking you for what you really want to give?”

The genuine divine “yes” comes when we say “yes” to God, to the divine will above all else. I don’t mean to suggest that I am there. I do mean to say that I have discovered a new freedom in seeking to say “yes” – to understand more clearly what God wants for me rather than to keep asking for what I want from God.

I have been praying for a long time for something very important to me. Early this year as I began this journey of prayer God showed me almost immediately that what I was asking God didn’t want to do. To answer me was to deny something better, something more wonderful that I could not imagine possible. Only in the last few weeks has this reality become clearer (more on this another time as it is still unfolding). I have said “yes” to something that I would have once thought was a repudiation of what God wants for me. Arriving at a moment of understanding that I project on God what I want far more than I genuinely want what God wants was a spiritual corner I had to turn.



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Casualties of War (Memorial Day Applied)

It’s sobering to realize how many have died fighting wars in our United States military. A 2015 story by the PBS NewsHour reported that 1.1 million military personnel have died in warfare since our country’s founding.

Even more sobering is the fact that just shy of 500,000 died in the U.S. Civil War – almost half. This staggering number comes from the fact that – unlike our other wars – this one was fought on American territory by American soldiers on both sides. The bloodiest day in American history occurred during this war (the Battle of Antietam) and the largest land battle in North American history also (Battle of Gettysburg).

I don’t want to hijack this solemn weekend of remembering but I was struck that the worst and bloodiest fights often occur not between warring nations but nations and people warring with themselves.

And I thought about my beloved denomination which is, well, at war with itself over issues of sexuality. Bitter conflicts I have witnessed in local churches. Families torn apart and destroyed by strife and disagreement. Battles at home are the worst, the bloodiest, and leave the deepest scars.

As we remember the fallen who have purchased peace and freedom for us… I am led, too, to prayer for peace on those internal fields of battle where blood is being spilled and spirits wounded even as I write. May the peace of Christ rule there and the freedom from anger and hurt come to reign there too.

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General Conference Reflection – Not Mine

I had drafted something along the lines of what I am about to repost below… but then read these much better and more eloquent observations from someone on the spot and who has a broad and deep experience of General Conference and the general church at large.

Among the greatest indictments of the modern church (UM and others) is that we are far more influenced by the culture and politics of our age than we are by the age to come when Jesus reigns without a rival. He has a rival now – us and our being more left and right, conservative and progressive than grace-filled and humble.

I invite you to read Mike Slaughter’s blog in its entirety HERE. I hope his concluding words will entice you to read and reflect on his message as I have been this morning.

“I believe the following expression, sometimes attributed to John Wesley among others, is the best counsel I know in these difficult days.

Unity in the essentials
Liberty in the non-essentials
Charity in ALL things.

I love Jesus. I love Christ’s Church. Let’s learn how to love each another. ”
(Michael Slaughter)

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Lies I Have Believed (Part 1)

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Or Maybe Not

I was raised to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do – and I am grateful for that! To approach life believing I could overcome obstacles… that I could face adversity…. that my abilities were enough. This was all good. (This may also be a lie too but that is for another day!).

But for me this came to be “I can fix anything.”   A person is broken, wounded, dysfunctional, etc. – I can fix that! An organization is broken or failing or myopic? I can fix that!  A system doesn’t work as it ought – I can tweak it, adjust it, repair it. I can fix that! Nearly fifty years of living and leading (and being led and coached) have helped me see the lie.

To believe I can fix “it” means taking responsibility that isn’t mine. Even as a leader, when all is said and done I can only take responsibility for me. I cannot make people do what they won’t. I cannot force what is not freely taken. My own sense of responsibility may even rob another – person or organizations – of its opportunity to take responsibility for the nest steps. And for life and health — and for the consequences.

And to assume a power that is beyond me. There are things that no human power can repair. There are things that are so broken that the best result is an end rather than a limping, gasping continuation. Even people – not that they should give up and die. But their brokenness is beyond my ability to help, heal or even bear.

There is so much more here to unpack but the lie “I can fix it” is a spiritual one. To believe I can fix things, systems, and people is to nudge God off the throne of the universe and, as people are wont to do, ease myself into the seat. Only God can create new life. Only God can heal in an ultimate way.

More painfully, the desire to fix others and other things is a way to avoid fixing me. To focus on the brokenness of others? Means I don’t have to look in the spiritual and psychological mirror. To bring my magic elixir to fix a system or structure? I don’t have to ask how I contribute to this system’s dysfunction. Or how I am blinded by things that are simply different from the things others in the organization cannot see.

I can do my part – I can offer what I know and have experienced. i can take responsibility for myself and my faults and my place in a system or group. I can even offer my “fix.” But I can’t do it all. And some things I cannot – and should not – do at all.


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Lazarus… Randy… Come Forth

During the weeks following Easter, our church invited speakers to share their answers to the question “What does the resurrection mean to you?” This blog post is a written version of my answer last Sunday, May 1.

The Resurrection is a profoundly personal story. While Paul does record a large-scale appearance of Jesus, most are to individuals and small groups. Jesus appears to Mary in the garden. He speaks with Peter and restores him to relationship. A mysterious figure walks with two disciples but reveals himself to be the risen Jesus. Thomas’ doubts are answered when Jesus appears and invites him to believe.

Among the most personal stories of resurrection occurs before Jesus’ death – the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus, who is with his sisters among Jesus’ closest friends, dies. Jesus travels to the scene of his burial and asserts to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus speaks to the dead Lazarus in his tomb and tells him “Lazarus, come forth!”

May 2011 marked the end of the longest, most painful two-years of my life. Another year of challenge lay ahead. The three worst years of my life were in full swing. I felt, as people often do when life is challenging, that I could not take one more thing. One more burden would crush me. One more crisis would be one too many. And then, without warning, it came.

I was driving to the office after my once-a-month Bible study at the local nursing home. My phone had rung several times during the class but I had muted them until I could get to the office. Then one of my best friends and closest colleagues called. Something was not right. When I answered the phone he asked if I was driving – when I responded “yes” he told me to pull over. “Your dad just died.”

There are moments seared into our memories. Moments whose feeling and details come back in exquisite detail when we allow them to re-enter our consciousness. That phone call is one of them.

I can only describe that moment as a moment when I died in a way. My dad was the person who, in addition to my wife and children, had supported and encouraged me in the hell I was living. He was the human rock, the source of wisdom both practical and spiritual, in my life. And he was gone. And part of me with him.

What I thought was unimaginable grief would deepen. He was alone, at home. On the phone with the 9-1-1 operator, my dad died frightened, alone, and gasping for breath. I had imagined things in my life could not get worse… but they could.

In the days that followed I must confess I wanted to die myself at times. I didn’t sleep well. I was dying inside if not outside.

And then I heard it. My soul was heavy, full of death and pain from months of crisis climaxing in an awful moment of death. And still I heard it. Like dead Lazarus lying in his tomb – insensible to this life, to his friends and family, beyond all caring and hope – the voice of Jesus. “Randy, come forth.” The Resurrection and the Life spoke into my time of death and said “Randy live.” And by his grace and his power, by his presence and his invitation, I did.

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