Delores…

Love...

Delores surrounded by Aidan, Kya, and Carter. (5 years ago)

I want to share a few thoughts about an utterly lovely human being. Her name is Delores (Dee) and as try as I might, who she is, is practically impossible  to capture with words. But I hope, in some small way, to cast a bit of her light on you, so that you can shine to those around you. Dee is lovely. Not in the way that people can be lovely, but in the way that stars or a sunset or a flower is lovely…lovely as a force of nature.

I first met Dee in 2007. Kelley, my ex-wife (and current best friend) and I were just beginning to date. We were caught up in the emotion and excitement of discovering life together, but there was a deep hurt that she and her kids, Aidan and Kya were walking through. The year before, Kelley’s first husband, Ed succumbed to a brief but intense battle with cancer. He was 31.

Behind every smile and laugh were broken hearts and distant stares, but I knew this and was hopeful that we could walk the road together. My biggest fear, however, was meeting Ed’s family. I know how I would feel if I were in their shoes, having lost a son, a brother, a cousin…and having to meet someone who was following after. That moment was my greatest apprehension and as someone who can adapt to practically any social situation, I had no clue how to act or move or talk…and I knew I wouldn’t  figure it out. So, Kelley decided to throw a Labor Day get-together at her place and I flew down from Annapolis to meet her circle of family and friends. I was anxious and excited because of one person in particular that I would be meeting…her name was Delores and she was Ed’s mother.

So, the day of the gathering, I was a bundle of nerves and energy. Kelley stopped me several times to just hold my face and tell me that everything was going to be great. I mentioned that I was just having anxiety about meeting everyone…especially Dee. I remember Kelley looking at me and saying,

Rick, you have never met anyone like Dee…and she will love you.

I smiled and nodded my head, knowing that this was what Kelley should say. But you know what…

Kelley was right.

When Dee and her husband Edwin, who is just about as wonderful as Dee, arrived, I smelled them before I saw them. She is renowned for her BBQ ribs, which I could dedicate an entire blog to, so I was hit by the fragrance of ribs and collared greens and I knew that if nothing else, she had my stomach. I walked into Kelley’s tiny kitchen and saw Dee who is this petite, perfectly elegant woman crowned with brilliant silver hair and Edwin who is built like a retired defensive end standing there. Both of them were smiling. Not in a way to be courteous or hospitable, but the kind of way that you smile for someone who you love and haven’t seen in a very long time.

I smiled back…but I’m sure, much more awkwardly. I walked over and introduced myself and held my hand out. Delores walked, bypassing my hand and my fears, and embraced me. She squeezed tightly and quietly sounded a mmmhmm (which she always did when she hugged you). It is hard to explain, but in that one moment she painted a perfect picture of grace and love and redemption in a way that a life-time of working in a church never could. I glanced at Kelley and she just smiled a knowing smile a mouthed an, I told you so.

I’ve never known anyone like Dee.

After that hug, she looked up at me and said,

You are welcomed and loved and we are so glad to have you in our lives!

Incredible right? What’s more, instantly, I believed it. Then Edwin introduced himself with his deep baritone voice and gave me “hug” as well. His was less gentle and comforting and more rib-crushing vice grip…but loving in the same, inexplicable way. I smiled at Edwin to mask the internal bleeding that was happening inside. Looking back, I now know that Dee treats everyone this way…with love and dignity and light…and hope. But somewhere deep inside my heart, I’ll always believe that I am somehow special to her. And everyone who knows her will tell you the exact same thing.

The rest of that day was a blur or stories and laughing and very, very good food. As everyone was beginning to leave, Dee pulled me to the side and gave me some of the most encouraging, lovely words I’ve ever heard. I’d share them, but they are just for me…

A lifetime of highs and lows have rolled in and out like the tide in the years since that day. The life that Kelley and I were beginning on that Labor Day weekend looks very different from how we’d imagined it. Kelley and I discovered that we are more loving as friends than we were as spouses. Aidan and Kya are now adults for all practical purposes with their own lives starting to begin. And a little boy who is now 6 and will tell you that he has 3 “Grammas”. Dee makes no distinction between family made and family inherited.

All during the past 1o years, there would be Dee, flying in for a visit, sending a text message on a holiday…giving love and wisdom and hugs that would squeeze your heart from your eyes. (Carter’s analogy)

I’ll especially miss the early morning trips to the airport. Just Dee and I…talking about life and God and the messiness of caring and grace. She, explaining to me that it’s ok to be screwed up, just so long as you never give up.

Now, Kelley and the kids sit in a hospital in Detroit…repeating the same terrible drama that they did a decade ago with Dee’s son. They deserve better…they deserve more. Dee has been battling cancer and had contracted pneumonia…and has been moved to hospice. They are all surrounded by family and friends and people who are somehow more because of who Dee is. I sit in my apartment wiping tears away…watching Kelley’s updates…texting back and forth, thinking about how such goodness and light leaves a world in such need of it. It’s not fair. If anyone has ever deserved to shine a little longer in our darkness, it’s Dee.

Dee…

Thank you for loving me.

For treating me with love and respect and dignity when I had none. Thank you for smiling through the hurt and for insisting that I was yours too. Thank you that I never once felt unwanted by you…never wondering about how you felt about me. I want to be more like you…in how I love and rise and bring everyone up with me. Thank you for convicting me with your relentless love. Thank you for using your own hurt as fuel for beauty and grace and love. Thank you that you never used it as a weapon or an excuse.

I’m not there to say, goodbye, but that’s probably just as well…because we are all desperate not to.

We’ll will watch for the butterflies…

– Rick

Update: Dee joined her son Edward in eternity an hour after writing this. Please pray for the family and consider helping in a practical way by helping Kelley fund the cost of a journey that no one should have to make. Anything is appreciated:

 https://www.gofundme.com/kelley-dee

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Rerouting…

Last weekend, I had the great opportunity to speak at a good friend’s church during their youth ministry’s fall three-day kickoff event in Winter Park. I had never been to this church before, so I was guided only by the flickering light of technology that is the GPS. Typically, this a pretty normal, stress-free proposition, but I found, myself driving through Orlando during rush hour on a Friday…in a car that has plugged along for all of 210K miles. For those who might not understand driving in Orlando, this is the transportation equivalent of fighting kidney stones – You will survive it, but there will be a lot of pain, anxiety, and a bit of screaming.

As I was nearing a crucial bit of interchanges and traffic mergers, I had a prompt pop up on my phone:

Rerouting…

I could feel my anxiety start to climb. I was already running late and I had no idea why I was being rerouted. Did I miss a turn or an on-ramp? Was there an accident? Did I type the address in correctly? What would my new ETA be? Where in the name of Rand McNally is this going to take me?!

reroute

Now I consider myself to be pretty flexible, but I am afflicted with a deep need to be punctual. I hate, hate, hate being late for anything. I took the precaution of leaving extra-early from home just so that I would have plenty of margin. On-time is late for me and I really wanted to have enough time to arrive, meet the team, chat-up the teens and prepare for the night’s talk. This wasn’t part of my plan and truthfully, embarrassingly, frustratingly, I felt the tears well up in my eyes. It had been a long week.

Rerouting…

It’s been a couple of weeks since I left my post at the church. Since then, I’ve decided, at the encouragement of friends, to use this blog as an outlet help me pull out some of the thoughts and emotions that I am feeling on this journey. I do this partly as therapy for myself and partly as an exercise in finding community with others who might be treading a similar path. It’s been a time of reflection and flinching, honestly and earnestly trying to discern what is next. There’s been a strange intermingling of hope and anxiety, eagerness and fear. My life always seems to be a study in juxtaposing extremes. You would think that I would be somewhat used to the emotional gymnastics of it all by this point.

Rerouting…

I did eventually make it, late, to the church, and even though the event had been planned before my resigning from the church, it was exactly what I needed to remind me of my calling, passions, and the truths that I so quickly forget when my life’s GPS signals that desperate prompt on the screen that it is rerouting the path because the planned route has changed.

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The Theme for the weekend was Wish You Were Here. The idea being that God has created each of us to exist and live in the moment we are currently occupying. Not to squint forward towards a future whose gravity quickens our pace or gaze over our shoulder to a past that wistfully draws us to a halt. All we have and all we are designed to live in, is right now. That’s a hard medicine for me to swallow at this particular moment, but I do know that it is deeply, severely, true.

To help unpack this idea, I wanted to use my favorite story in the Bible as a touch point. The story of the Prodigal Son. If you know me at all, you know that I refer back to this parable almost comically. It is our story and it is so simple and wonderful that I never wander too far away from its presence in my life. More on that at a later date.

In Jesus’ parable, we find two brothers who live in a state of gazing forward or glancing backward. The younger looks towards a future freedom that justifies his relationship-crushing rebellion. Then on that stroll to the future, he finds himself rerouted. His life collapses because of his own choices and because of realities outside of his control. He is left staring at his past on his long-walk home to an uncertain future, practicing an I-am-unworthy-scum spiel for a father who will never think to hear it.

The older brother’s path is rerouted by the grace and reconciliation the father gives to the prodigal. Not because it costs the Father, but because it cost the older son something for the father to be who he is by nature…loving. The older brother is blinded by his fear of future security and status, and uses this fear as fuel in his own relationship-breaking. He had his conventions for how acceptance and love and fairness worked, obliterated. He uses the past as his justification for attacking both the younger brother and his father. Past performance dictates future behavior.

…except when it doesn’t. Grace.

We find that rebellion and religion are two halves of the same coin…minted by fear, the currency of self-sufficiency. Neither son understood that, for the father, the only thing that mattered was the moment…the relationship…the all-encompassing reality of love which only has value and substance in real-time.

Relationship and growth, and all that life offers us is only available in what is now. If I am transparent, I play a never-ending game of serve and volley between what was and what will be. I never never embracing the gift of now.

On the second night of the event, I wanted to unpack the concept of what we think of when we think of doing God’s Will or living out God’s Plan for our lives. Maybe more than any other topic, the idea of what God wants us to do with our lives has taken up more of my conversational time with teens, college students and in reality, people of almost any age. Those of us who are believers are obsessed with the formula. We crave certainty because it gives us the illusion of control. Faith is a quaint concept, but certainty is the real objective.

What is God’s plan for my life? What if I miss it?

Does God want me to go this way or that? What if God is in the opposite direction?

What is the map for my life supposed to look like? What if I’m reading it wrong?

-Or to put it another way-

How can I escape “right now” by reflecting on “what was” or by focusing on “what might be”?

These are the questions of the heart on reroute. The fears of someone desperately trying to rush through the pause because it’s too quiet. In that quiet there is a chaos hidden and it deeply unnerves. These are the preoccupations of a life interrupted and this is, If I’m honest, where I find myself…during the day…at 3 in the morning and everywhere in between. Somewhere in the deafening, chaotic quiet, we sit wishing to be for…

Anywhere but here…now. Can you relate? I hope so, because if not, that leaves me alone in this tension.

What I shared with those teenagers and myself last weekend was this: We care too much about the map.

The map is something we can understand and somewhat control. We spend the vast majority of our lives, loves and energy trying to pick the lock to the future while editing or photo-shopping the road gone-by in a fearful attempt at gaining control over what feels out-of-control. We convince ourselves that there is a set, standard, pass-or-fail path to where God is…to where we ought to be…to where happiness and completeness and faithfulness can be found. We think that God’s Will or God’s Plan is a place or series of touchstones on a journey and a diagram of the trip itself.

But…at the this point in my life, I don’t believe God’s Will/Plan is like that at all.

God’s Will is more about who we are becoming on the journey. It’s less of a doing and more a becoming. We don’t do God’s will, we live it…we embody it. God’s Will is not an edict…it’s an invitation to a new way to be alive.

I honestly believe that God’s Plan to become that Will is not a checklist of right job, right relationship, right school, right church…it’s more simple and more complex than that.
I believe that’s God’s Plan is, simple and true of anyone at any place in life…that we love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength and we love our neighbor as we would like to be loved. God’s Will and God’s Plan seem to be that we become love…like He is love. 

img_5131I’m learning, and maybe more difficultly, beginning to accept that God’s Plan in my life is not a pre-ordained checklist, map and itinerary, but maybe…it is more like a stream of handwritten letters to me on this journey (Like the one I shared here). Letters which offer direction towards choice without dictation. They are letters which no one else will ever understand completely, because they are intimate between a father and a son, but all might recognize in me.

They are intimate, non-generic, and nuanced encouragements, reminders, lessons and prophetic shoves towards becoming. Some arriving written in the pages of scripture, some from the lips of a 6-year old, some in the empty coffee cups of friends, some in a consistent, loving knock on the front door , in a gift-card for groceries, in a social media inbox…and some arrive in Orlando rush hour traffic just when the tears flow freely.

They are flashes of God’s presence and a beckoning to God’s Will. To live love upward and outward and yes, inward.

…love your neighbor as yourself.

So, I sit here, interrupted and paused…not sure of where I’m going, but hopeful of who I am and in becoming.

Rerouting…

– Rick

 

 

These Words…

My beliefs have changed and evolved over the last 20 years. Some, that I was certain of, have fallen away like dead leaves. Some, which I was opposed to, have taken root and started to bloom. What I thought was fruit had become weeds choking out the reality of God’s love. 

One belief that has not changed, but has grown into part of the canopy that spreads over everything…accepted, denied and wrestled with…are these words and what they tell us about what God is like.

#god #faith #doubt #hope #love #prodigal #godislove #believe #jesus  

A Note…

Today I was cleaning out boxes and found this note from my friend Jim Hiskey from my days at Bay Area Community Church.. Somehow this little piece of paper has stayed with me for the last 10 years like a piece of confetti from a place called Hope. I really needed these words today. Grateful. #anote #note #encouragement #neverretire #faith #ministry #nevergiveup

About My Church…

As many of you have heard, as of last week, I’m no longer the youth/college director at First UMC. I know that anytime there is a sudden and abrupt change, especially in ministry, there can be hurt, confusion, and sometimes, silence. I can’t, despite being desperate to, cure the first two, but hopefully I can speak to the third.

I want to just say something that is in no way contrived or prompted outside of my own heart: I love First United Methodist Church, its people, its amazing staff, and its loving, caring pastoral team. They are part of my story, my testimony, and have restored my hope and belief in the Body of Christ living and serving through the local church. Working in ministry is a job, but it is also your life. You become woven into the fabric of community and that fabric, in turn, becomes intertwined in your own heart and mind.

I’m grateful and indebted to the staff and leadership of FUMC for the last five years. It has changed my heart and life. Let me share why:

When I first came to FUMC almost five years ago, I was barely clinging to the notion of working in the local church. It’s all I’ve ever really done in my adult life but I was genuinely resigned to trying to build a life outside of ministry when I applied for the Young Adult Director position. I was initially told that I did not have the education credentials to qualify. I then asked for an interview regardless, and to my surprise, I was granted one. Two weeks later, I was part of the team. The church pushed past its initial reservations opening themselves to something else.

In that first year, I discovered a staff that was gracious, and kind, and accountable, and living in community through the covenant that binds us together. I was allowed to watch, learn, experiment, and sometimes, fail. I learned that leadership did not derive all value from the outcomes or numbers and that life in ministry is more connection than content.

A little over a year after starting, I fell into a crippling separation and divorce that I was sure would disqualify me from serving. Instead, I was loved, and encouraged, and welcomed to work through my heartbreak in the midst of others that were also carrying their imperfect stories. I was told that my brokenness qualified me to minister to others…not disqualify me.

Because of that safety, I discovered what genuine, authentic, transparent community looks like and and how the love shared in community is the path that God’s love spills into the world. That love was not just theoretic, it was practical. There were times when I had needs, and those needs where always met by the kindness and compassion of the church and the friends and family I found there.

I found, in classes and groups, people who were honest, and vulnerable, and unafraid to discuss the dark with the light, faith with doubt. People are safe to be what they are in the hopes of becoming, together, more.

And honestly, I have struggled with bouts of crippling depression that would have overwhelmed me if not for the care and understanding of leadership and staff for whom grace was more than a theological concept, but a way to live. Giving and receiving.

For these reasons and many, many more, FUMC helped me to believe in “church” again. That hasn’t changed.

So the question remains, If you love it, why leave? There’s no simple answer to that. The truth is that sometimes you realize, even beyond your own hopes and wants, that you might not be the best fit for what is needed to oversee a group…and I realize that. That is genuinely the gist of it. I wish I could explain it more thoroughly, but to be honest, I don’t quite understand it completely. However, I am more and more convinced that it’s right. I hope that you can trust that it is right. And what is right, sometimes doesn’t feel that way. 

I love teenagers and the people who give their love and energy to them. They are my hope and my heart. That hasn’t changed and will probably never change. It’s a part of what makes me, me. So although the context of how I serve changes, the conviction of my calling hasn’t. 

So what am I doing now? To be honest, I’m not sure yet. I’ve been here before, so I am kinda scared, but not without hope. There’s not a job already waiting for me and I’m not sure what that job would look like anyways…but know that I will be alright…believe that. 🙂

What I want you to know is that in many, important ways, FUMC is my spiritual and communal home…whether I work there or not. That’s not a platitude…it’s the truth. All of my closest friends and colleagues work there and it has my heart.

So when someone asks me about churches in Lakeland, I’ll point them to FUMC. 

When someone asks me where they can go to receive help when their life is crashing down around them, I’ll point them to FUMC.  

When someone wants know where their kids and teens will be loved, and challenged, and accepted, I’ll point them to FUMC. 

When someone is looking for a place that will embrace them where they are while encouraging them to move forward, I’ll point them to FUMC. 

When someone feels like they have no place or value in church, I’ll point them to FUMC. 

When a person doesn’t fit in a category, or a convention, or a status quo, I’ll point them to FUMC. 

And when those people ask me why FUMC, I’ll tell them… 

Because I love that church, and those people, and those leaders…because they first loved me.

– Rick

Nothing Wasted

 

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I dropped my son, Carter, off to Kelley a couple of days ago and I had an epiphany on the way home:
I have made some poor choices in my life…spiritually, academically, relationally, socially, occupationally. Sometimes I gaze over my shoulder and wonder what if I had made a better choice at this point or in that situation? What if I had gone here instead of there? If I had said, “Yes” instead of “No”? How would life be different? Better?

And that morning, I realized that every choice and turn and misstep has led me to the life of this boy. And, had one facet of my journey been different, it is likely that Carter would not be…we would not be.

In my son, God has shown my heart that all of those choices and mistakes and meanderings have not been meaningless…but have been redeemed and made purposeful and beautiful in his little 6-year-old face. A face that was drawn perfectly, lovingly from imperfect stumbling and shortcoming.

Sometimes we convince ourselves that God’s Will is a specific map of decisions and choices that constitute a pass or fail in faith. I can spend so much time regretting what was or agonizing what should be that I somehow fail to actually step into what I feel is the actual will of God. This isn’t a specific road map with pass-or-fail checkpoints…but instead a call to become something on the journey. God’s Will isn’t what we are doing…it’s something we are becoming.

I know now that given the chance to change any of those choices…I would not. I don’t know that I’ve ever understood grace so severely as I do right now. #grace #dadlife #myson

LENT IN THE LIFE OF THE BELIEVER…

CrossofashesLent is the forty-day period (excluding Sundays) starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. It lasts 40 days to commemorate the experience of Jesus fasting for 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. The word Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring” and corresponds to the season in which we observe it. It is a ritual that is centered on the Christian practice of fasting, with the goal being preparation for the Easter Celebration.

I grew up in a faith tradition that did not practice the liturgical season of Lent. As a matter of fact, I did not even understand what Lent was until my early 20’s when I joined the staff of a United Methodist church in Southlake, Texas. The whole concept was very strange to me. From the black smudges on the foreheads of people on Ash Wednesday to people giving up something they craved or valued for 40 days just to celebrate Easter it was all very mysterious and confusing to me. As I started to understand the deep significance and beautiful concepts that Lent represented, I found my faith deepened emotionally and stretched in ways that I hadn’t experienced before. I learned that Lent was an intentional season of preparation that brought a powerful understanding of the beauty and mystery of Easter. Before this, I did not understand the importance of preparation when it came to celebrating Easter.

So why should we observe Lent? Millions of Christians around the world celebrate Easter, but do not partake in the Lenten tradition. What is it about this time of preparation that is beneficial to the Christian experience? Why should we prepare for Easter?

First, Lent allows us to remember the humanity of Jesus in the context of his wilderness experience. Often we forget that Christ fully entered into the human condition. He experienced hunger, stress, temptation and exhaustion in such profound ways that we must never forget that He is a God who knows the difficulty of living as one of us. Jesus is not just the God that forgives and restores…he is the God that understands us completely and wholly. The powerful poem Jesus of the Scars by English Free Church Minister Edward Shillito underscores the humanity of Jesus found in the human experience. In particular the last stanza reminds us:

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;

They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;

But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,

And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Second, we are invited to participate in the spiritual discipline of fasting. During Lent, we are encouraged to fast from something valuable to us as a sign of our deepened desire for the presence of Jesus in our lives. Just as Jesus fasted from food in the wilderness, we are given the opportunity to select something valuable from our normal existence to deny ourselves during the forty days of Lent. This is done as a sign of sacrifice and in remembrance of the deep sacrifice and selfless nature of the Christ who gave completely of himself on the cross. Often, people may choose to take up a discipline or practice during the Lenten season as an offering in lieu of a fast. Either way, the point is that our lives are changed during Lent and we recognize the cost and discomfort that Christ encountered on our behalf.

Finally, Lent serves as a time of preparation for the event of Easter in the life of a Christian. Starting on Ash Wednesday, we enter in to a solemn time of reflection and recognition of the life and sacrifice of Jesus. Just as there was a cross before the empty tomb, Lent gives us a chance to experience to weight and gravity of Christ’s life and sacrifice before we enter into the exuberance of the Easter celebration. The contrast of dark and light brings a depth and value to the Easter experience that enriches and magnifies who Jesus is and what Jesus has accomplished.

I invite you to allow yourself to fully experience the Lenten season in a community of believers. Starting on Ash Wednesday and concluding on Easter Sunday, we have a wonderful opportunity to experience the emotional, spiritual and liturgical depth of Jesus in community with one another. We are reminded of the very real human experience of a Jesus who gave utterly of himself, navigated the valleys of darkness and overcame death, sin and the cross to make a way for us to live forever.