Dear Syrian Refugees

Dear Syrian refugees,

Welcome to America. More specifically, welcome to Louisiana.

I know there are a lot of folks saying you should go back home. “Back to where you came from.”

Ignore those people.  I know they’re loud, but just do your best to ignore ’em.

Most of us know the idiots who did those awful acts of atrocity in Paris had no connection to you as they snuck into your group, probably in the middle of the night as their first act of cowardice.

We also know you literally don’t have a home anymore.

And you know what? Some of us in south Louisiana know exactly what that’s like.

The great majority of us stand ready to welcome you and one of the ways we welcome folks in Louisiana is to show them a good time.

In these parts, that usually revolves around food, music, food, football, food, family and more food.

Sometimes, around this time of year, we combine all of those into one magical experience called a tailgate – here’s hoping you get to experience one – the kids will love it.

Maybe I can join you at the tailgate and if so, maybe I could tell you about my friend Jesus – cause you see, we’re also a spiritual bunch here in the South.

We love us some Jesus.

Yeah. I know. You might not have a favorable impression of Christianity.

And while that really bums me out, I hope your time in Louisiana changes that.

I hope someone welcomes you as Christ would.

I hope someone treats you like they’d like to be treated.

I hope someone takes care of you.

I hope someone treats you like family.

As my friend, Rev. Fernie Rivera reminds us every Sunday, I hope we “give you heaven”.

And when we do, my prayer is that you know this – we love because we worship a God who first loved us and continues to love us, despite our incredible habit of screwing up.

Oh – and for that one Syrian refugee who is now in Baton Rouge? I hope you are reading this, and if you are – I’d like to invite you and your family to First United Methodist Church.

We love to celebrate and share God’s love through Jesus Christ and we have a great time doing it.

We’re pretty easy to find – just look for the neon cross – you can see it from the interstate.

We like to think of it as a beacon of hope. Seriously. It really is.

(Oh yeah – and about that interstate – I apologize in advance for all of those cars. We call it ‘traffic’ and it really stinks.)

Well…anyway…welcome.

Or as we Louisianians love to say, “Welcome ya’ll!”

And as we Christians love to say, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” 

Peace,

Todd

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Heaven Is A Place On Earth

This past weekend I attended another Kairos retreat and I could go on and on about some of the miracles myself and the team witnessed inside Angola State Penitentiary.

While this story wouldn’t amount to a miracle, it’s most certainly an incredibly rich twist of irony and fate or, as we Christians would describe it, the true handiwork of God.

On every Kairos retreat, there is a special moment on Saturday evening where we get a chance to write down all of the people we’re holding in unforgiveness on a single piece of paper. Burn

Once that list is complete, (and it takes us all day to complete the list…because…you know…forgiveness is tough stuff) we proceed to the prison yard to place the lists in an urn and burn them.

It’s a powerful and symbolic exercise in giving those matters that are poisoning us to the ultimate healer.

As one of our team members correctly pointed out, “Unforgiveness is like a poison that we keep swallowing, but we expect the other person to die.”

Every forgiveness burn is powerful and unique to each team, but this particular burn was made special by some cheesy 80’s music.

As we strolled out to the yard, the radio in the hobby shop was on and it was loud – very loud.

In fact, several of us tried to get the attention of security to see if the radio could be turned off altogether or, at the very least, turned down.

After all, this was a holy moment and 80’s pop music is…well…it’s 80’s pop music for crying out loud!

In the end, there was just no way the radio would get turned down and I was irritated that our a holy moment was being covered with the soundtrack of my youth.

Besides, many of the names on my list (we go through the exercise too) were from the 80’s and here I was trying to release those moments.

But I settled in, relaxed and slowly paid attention to the song that was rudely interrupting our ceremony.

It was Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 hit, “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”.

Very rarely am I 100% sure of things in life, but I am 100% sure Belinda Carlisle did not write that song for prisoners and their exercise in forgiveness.

But God has a wonderful sense of humor and can use anything – including 80’s music.

As the song blared on the radio, I was immediately struck by the obvious reference to “heaven on Earth”, but then I listened more intently to the lyrics and knew God wanted that song to play at that moment.

As the flame grew and the smoke billowed above the yard, Belinda sang these fitting words to us:

When I feel alone
I reach for you
And you bring me home
When I’m lost at sea
I hear your voice
And it carries me

In this world we’re just beginning
To understand the miracle of living
Baby I was afraid before
But I’m not afraid anymore

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh heaven is a place on earth

Prior to our Kairos weekend, the prisoners at Angola “felt alone” but the love of Christ was brought to them and with a lot of work and a lot prayer, they “reached for Him” and Christ did indeed “bring them home”.

And for many of them, they are “just beginning to understand the miracle of living”, but today they are “not afraid anymore” because Saturday night, heaven was indeed a place on Earth!

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Come Watch Us Burn

I enjoyed delivering my first sermon.

Our pastor, Rev. Katie McKay Simpson is on maternity leave, so the church asked if I would be interested in delivering the message.

I jumped at the chance.

The sermon was the final installment of a four week series on John Wesley and our Methodist roots.

The verbatim of my sermon, including the video I included, is below

 

We’ve come to the end of the four week sermon series on John Wesley and our Methodist roots.

There’s a great quote by John Wesley that I absolutely love –

“Catch on fire and others will love to come watch you burn”

And we’ve got this interesting text this morning – the ascension verse, which I think we read together about five weeks ago.

More on that in a moment – but let’s start with some more history – the fascinating story of how Methodism took off in a massive way in our country.

In 1784, John Wesley named Francis Asbury as one of his co-bosses of the work in America.

Like Wesley, Asbury preached in a bunch of places: courthouses, public houses, tobacco houses, fields, public squares, wherever a crowd would gather to hear him.

Throughout his ministry he gave more than 16,000 sermons and he travelled nearly 300,000 miles on horseback.

He was often sick and he had no permanent home.

In fact, he was still traveling when he died at 70 years of age.

In 1771 there were just 300 Methodists in the American colonies led by four ministers.

By the time of Asbury’s death in 1816, Methodism could claim 2,000 ministers and over 200,000 members!

The scrappy Methodists did not have what the big mainline churches had back then – namely resources and social prestige…but they were up to something…

They had faith –  and it was through that faith that they were willing to risk everything in order to create something new – something that would transform and ignite new believers to Christ.

They took to heart the idea that Christ, though not here in the physical sense, is very much with us through the holy spirit.

They believed and took to heart the idea that we are the hands and feet of Christ.

Have you ever heard that phrase?

The hands and feet of Christ.

Picture – this is a statue of Christ at the Catholic Church in downtown Baton Rouge.

It has always fascinated me because the hands have been vandalized.

Here’s a great quote from Saint Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,

The early scrappy Methodists took this to heart – like I said, they were on to something….in just 45 years – the numbers bear this out:

In 1771 just 300 Methodists in the American colonies – four ministers.

45 years later, 200,000 members and 2,000 ministers.

I am not a math whiz but…

That’s 100 new members a week- every week.
400 month
4800 a year

In about a hundred years, they went from having about 20 churches to more than 19,000.

How did they do it?

They went out and became the HANDS and FEET of Christ, taking the ministry TO the people. FOR the people.

This is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he left us physically and gave us the Holy Spirit.

Acts 1: 9-11
After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. 10 As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”

This is what we find in this verse – Jesus leaving us physically. Remember, later he’ll give us the Holy Spirit.

But check out how the disciples didn’t get it at first….

In fact, they just stared up into the cloud. Waiting for him to return.

Let’s go to the 10th verse – they were staring intently when suddenly two men dressed in white stood next to them.

It was as if God said – fine – let’s get some angels down there and tell them what to do!

Why are you staring into space? Get moving!

I really resonate with this verse…

How many times in our lives have we just stared into the sky – waiting for God to take away some problem of ours…when in reality, he is calling us to move, to take action, he’s calling us to go love someone.

Why did he do this? 

I mean – he could’ve just stuck around on Earth and been like Batman – we’d get into a little trouble, shine the Bat symbol, which I guess would’ve been that fish thing symbol – and bam, he’d appear, I would think like a cloud, a rush of wind – I’m sure there’d be a robe and some sandals, beard, smiling…and he’d say something like “Truly I tell you – and the problem would…just…go away”

But he’s not a super hero, is he?

Jesus wanted us to do this because – well – he knew we would be greater.

In fact, he said it.

John 14:12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

Now this doesn’t mean greater in the sense that we are greater than Christ – it means greater in number.

He also knew that by doing these things, our relationship with him would grow – our love for him would grow.

Instead of just relying on some Batman signal, we would have a partner in heaven to help us do His work.

Have you ever been a part of this kind of work?

I have and its exhilarating.

As some of you know, because I seem to talk about it all the time – one of my passions is prison ministry.

I can tell you – if you had asked my wife if I would go into a maximum security prison and talk to murderers about Jesus, she would have laughed at you…literally…laughed at you…

But my journey to that prison is an example of Christ’s work in my heart, his work on my soul, and – perhaps just as important – other Christians inviting me, pulling me and in some ways, conspiring to drag me deeper and deeper and deeper…

I could share story after story after story of how we, as a Kairos team, together with Christ and for Christ – saved souls at Angola and there’s no doubt we did.

Those moments when we stared at the wonder of Christ – and all of humanity including our selves just disappeared. As the Psalmists say – we were weened from ourselves.

At times, the work – the stuff that was happening – the things that would just fall into place – the miracles that would happen – the unexplainable? It can be explained – it was and is the Holy Spirit.

Because when we call on Jesus to help us do His work – he is right there, sitting at the right hand of God and ready to do the unexplainable in order to help spread his message of love.

But those are the high where we become the hands and feet of Christ. As we would say in the business world, those moments are “low hanging fruit” – we know those moments are the hands and feet of Jesus.

What about tomorrow?
Monday morning at work?
Because tomorrow you’re not going to be in a prison – or even a church…
What about Tuesday afternoon with that cranky co-worker after the 4pm conference call?
Those moments that happen in the everyday.
Those dugout moments – the moments before we go to bat?

Recently, a friend shared a rather interesting story about a friend of his who was about to graduate from nursing school.

The story isn’t about the graduation. It’s not even about nursing.

It’s about awareness. It’s about people.

My friend was sitting next to a young nursing student who was studying for an upcoming final exam.

The extent of her studying seemed to focus on a huge binder.

Really thick. Lots of pages, lots of notes, lots of really complicated nursing stuff.

The stuff I would never read.

He asked her, “So this binder…this stuff…you have to know all of it? All of this material for your final exam.

“Yep,” she answered. “I have to know it all. You never know what the final exam will be about. There could be questions about this part, or this part, or even this part.”

A few days went by and my friend ran into the student.

Remembering the big binder and all of her studying, he asked her, “So, how was the exam?”

She paused and said, “There was just one question.”

One question?

But…she had that huge binder? All that material?

How could the final exam be summed up in a single question?

“Well, what was the question?” he asked.

She looked at him and said, “The final question was ‘Who is the janitor on the 3rd floor?'”

Who is the janitor?
On the third floor.
His name.
What is it?

In the end, the lesson for the nursing student was that nursing is about people, not stats, not databases, not protocols.

People.

Yes, all of the stuff in that binder was and will remain vitally important, but if we can’t relate, if we can’t stop and communicate, if we can’t look up from our phones and say hello, if we can’t do some of the most basic of human interactions…what are we here for?

Jesus talks a lot about human interaction.

In fact, when asked about the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-34), he said we should love God with all our heart, all our soul and all all our strength. Immediately after, he said the next greatest commandment is to love one another.

It’s hard to love someone when we don’t take the time to know them.

We can easily complicate matters can’t we?

Over-analysis can lead to paralysis – but it’s really simple.

Love one another.

Why do we complicate that so much?

I want to share a video – it’s a story of how, when we do things out of love, amazing transformations can occur

Steve Hartman is a fantastic storyteller – and he does an amazing job with this one.

Perhaps the reason I love it so much is because Steve realized the story is as much about that cynical wide receiver as it was about the kid who scored the touchdown.

Remember what the wide receiver said, he probably wouldn’t have thought to do that.

You know what – I am like that too…

But thank God – I have you surrounding me, encouraging me.

My teammates – my Christian teammates, conspiring in that gym to get me to do a Kairos.

Teammates who push me deeper, showing me how to be the hands and feet of Christ – because, trust me, I can’t do this stuff on my own.

What do you think the odds are Justice does that again – maybe not another scheming touchdown – but the odds he goes out of his way to love someone different?

I bet he does it again.

It’s probably exactly how Asbury and Wesley felt when they preached in a field and converted 10,000 people.

Yes! Get back on that horse and go to the next town and build another church!
Yes! Go to a maximum security prison and show someone the love of Christ!
Yes! Start a new worship experience where we preach to the RV lot after LSU home football games.

Why?

Because Just like God sent angels to the disciples to wake them up, to stir them up, to move them into action, the Spirit did the same to early Methodists – the spirit has done so in this church and my prayer today is that the spirit does the same exact thing to you – go from this place and be the hands and feet of Christ.

Catch on fire with enthusiasm, and they’ll come from miles to watch you burn.

Yes, John Wesley –  they will!

Come Baton Rouge – come watch us burn!!!

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The Way

We’ve arrived at the 24th and final verse of Psalm 139, the psalm we’ve been give as our guidepost prior to Annual Conference for the Louisiana United Methodist Churches.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

We’ve reached the end of this beautiful verse.

The psalmist, having heaped massive amounts of praise unto God for His all-knowing ability, ends with a simple request.

Reveal to me those awful moments when I am a jerk.

A jerk to my wife, my kids, my neighbor, my co-workers and most importantly, reveal those moments when I am a jerk to God.

We need this, don’t we?

In what can only be described as a holy moment, today’s lesson from the conference floor was one focused on vulnerability as we shared Brene Brown’s powerful TED talk.

In this talk, Brown speaks of our incredible struggle with vulnerability, citing how we in North America are the most in-debted, obese, addicted and medicated people on the planet.

Theologically speaking, that translates to the worshiping of so many false gods in an effort to selectively numb our human emotions as opposed to authentically living through those emotions with the God that never hurts and always heals – Jesus.

Brown’s talk is fantastic, so much so that it’s one of the most shared TED talks ever produced.

But it falls short in offering up a solution.

Allow me to offer one.

It’s a solution laid out for us in the Psalm we’ve come to know so well these past 24 days.

It’s a solution that begins with a maker who knows us, guides us, transforms us…a maker we can’t escape from, can’t hide from…a maker we can’t even turn the lights out on.

There’s no avoiding Him, so why not be vulnerable?

The psalmist, after high praise, is ready to do just that and the process of vulnerability begins with the simple process of asking our maker to show us those moments of our own vulnerability – those moments when we miss the mark.

Knowing full well that God is an active God, the psalmist realizes we are called into action and must enter into the process of forgiveness for healing, thus he asks for the way.

He’d have to wait a few years for it to all be fully realized, but we don’t have to – the way is clear.

His name is Jesus.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” John 14:6

Amen.

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God Is Not a School Teacher

Louisiana Methodists have gathered in Shreveport for Annual Conference.

Our Bishop Cynthia Harvey has asked us to use Psalm 139 as our guidepost.

For me, this has meant meditating and writing about each verse, each day.

Today’s verse is the 23rd:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

At conference, Bishop Harvey gave a wonderful sermon on Psalm 139 and I love how she described this verse.

After some tough sledding through verses with words like “hate”, she said it’s as if the psalmist catches himself at the 23rd verse.

I like that visual.

I’ll add that he catches himself, reminds himself that he is talking to the all-knowing God and with that, he gets a little risky.

Earlier in the conference Bishop Harvey told us, “the closer you get to God, the riskier it gets.”

This call into uncomfortableness is both bold and refreshing; yet also downright frightening for a guy like me.

Frightening in the sense that I like to have things figured out, straightened out, planned out and zeroed out.

Bishop Harvey is spot on though.

We need to get risky.

And that’s exactly what’s happening with the 23rd psalm as the psalmist is almost daring God to search, know and to test.

I like the search part – even the know part – it’s the test part.

Teacher

Test is a bold word and it’s an even bolder request to God.

With tests come consequences, wrong answers, trepidation, fear, worry and the unknown.

If that weren’t fearful enough (and for a guy like me, it is), tests from God are even more frightening because we are dealing with the complete opposite of a school teacher.

A schoolteacher will give you the lesson first and then the test.

God, on the other hand, gives us the test first and then the lesson.

We don’t like this – do we?

We want it the other way – the easy way.

But as we’ve unpacked in the 139th psalm, there are some things that we just can’t unpack, figure out or summarize with fancy bullet points.

Instead, we are left to rely on this thing called faith.

This afternoon, while sitting in the Gold Dome in Shreveport, we sang a great song that reminded me of that.

We’ve come this far by faith
Faith will lead you
Faith will guide you
Faith will hold you
Faith will bring you
Bring you over

When our faith is strong, God very much indeed
Leads us
Guides us
Holds us
Brings us

And when we truly come to realize this and live into this, there is no test we can fail.

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Hate is Good

This evening, Louisiana Methodists will gather in Shreveport for Annual Conference.

Prior to the gathering, our Bishop Cynthia Harvey has asked us to use Psalm 139 as our guidepost.

For me, this has meant meditating and writing about each verse, each day.

Today’s meditation is verse 22.

CEB:
   Yes, I hate them—through and through!
      They’ve become my enemies too.

In verse 21, we looked at how David was asking, at the time, a very legitimate question about whether he should hate those who hate the Lord.

In verse 22, we see David answering the question – with an exclamation point.

He hates them – through and through.

But who is them?

We know David is a man after God’s own heart and we know God’s heart is a heart that condemns the sin and not the person.

With that said, I agree with you David they have become my enemies.

Those sins…I hate them too.

As I have given my life to Christ, I look at moments where I miss the mark and those moments quite literally make me sick to stomach.

And here’s the thing, as I grow closer in my relationship with Christ, that sickening feeling happens more and more as we become more and more aware of our true relationship.

But don’t me wrong, the good news in all of this talk about being sick from sin is Jesus.

Christ is there to not only wipe away my sin but to remind me that I am adopted into His Kingdom, fully protected, wholly loved and hidden within the Trinity.

Colossians 3:3 “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”

But those moments of sin are still lurking and it’s why I need to take on the narrative of David – treating them like an enemy.

Unlike so many secular battles in my life that require much effort, I have just one weapon and it’s all I need – Christ.

My pastor uses a great analogy to help me visualize sin as a lurking enemy that, with Christ, we can defeat.

In the Oscar winning movie, A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe plays John Forbes Nash Jr., a math prodigy who suffered through schizophrenia to win the Nobel Prize.

In a scene near the end of the movie, a fellow professor is tasked with delicately asking Nash if he still sees imaginary people in the room.

Nash is honest as he says: “Yes. I am crazy. I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them. Like a diet of the mind, I choose not to indulge certain appetites.”

Those enemies that David hates through and through are still in the room.

They always will be.

We have to walk with confidence that the Christ life is one that, by its very nature, keeps us from saddling up close to that which can hurt us.

The closer we draw ourselves to God, the farther we walk from sin.

Besides, as James Bryan Smith writes, I want and need a God who hates:

I want a God who hates anything that hurts me. Hate is a strong word, but a good one. Because the true God not only hates what destroys me (sin and alienation) but has also taken steps to destroy my destroyer, I love him. And because this God destroyed sin by making the supreme sacrifice himself, taking all of the guilt, pain and suffering of my sin upon himself, I love him with an everlasting love.

 

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Hate?

In just a few days, Louisiana Methodists will gather in Shreveport for Annual Conference.

Prior to the gathering, our Bishop Cynthia Harvey has asked us to use Psalm 139 as our guidepost.

For me, this has meant meditating and writing about each verse, each day.

Today’s meditation is verse 21.

Psalm 139:21 NIV
   Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?

If you have been following along, you know we’re in what is considered by many to be the “difficult” portion of this otherwise beautiful Psalm.

Today – it’s the word hate – a word I hate.

I can’t promise to make this verse somehow graceful, lovely or completely comprehensible.

Instead, I can only offer what has made sense for me and what has given me peace.

As I said before, King David’s pleas and cries were offered prior to Jesus who taught us so much about hatred.

As I have done for this entire exercise, I have meditated on each single verse, each day.

While it’s always important to take individual, single verses and combine them with a complete sense of context (as best our feeble minds can do), this exercise of focusing solely on one verse at a time specifically helped me with verse 21.

In this verse, David is asking a question, and it’s the asking of the question that seems important to me.

Boy have I asked God questions.
Lots of them.
Always will.
I hope, and pray, you do too.
Healthiest exercise a believer can do.

When I became a Christian, there were moments when I would have to stop and seriously consider some of my life choices as being choices that would bring glory to God.

I did this in the only way I knew how – I would ask.

I began the to turn my life over to Christ in 1997 while living in Montgomery, Alabama.

A co-worker of mine simply invited me to church and, just like a penguin, I was drawn in and never left.

To this day, I am forever thankful for what was a seemingly laid back, yet lovingly choreographed gesture.

In those early days, there was a very popular fashion trend – the WWJD bracelets. WWJD

You may remember them by their simplicity, with the acronym asking the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”

In my early days of formation and exploration, this was a very important and healthy exercise for me.

Would Jesus want me to spend all night drinking with my buddies?

Would Jesus want me to even drink?

What would Jesus do when faced with this overly harsh criticism from a co-worker?

These were important questions for me at the time of my faith and while the question remains a powerful one, I have come to rely on a deeper question which is “Where is Jesus calling me?”

By its very nature, it’s a question that draws me toward God, which is always a place void of fear and anger (my two biggies) and, by contrast, full of peace and comfort.

So here in verse 21, David is asking a question.

He is asking for permission to hate those who hate the God he loves so much,
the God who has saved him,
the God who protects him,
the God who continues to provide.

How can anyone hate something so wonderful?

It’s a perfectly legitimate question and it’s also a perfectly legitimate and necessary question to ask when you are about to kill 47,000 people.

After all, if I were being told to do that in God’s name, I too would have a few questions for Him.

 

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