I See We’ve Had an Incident…

In a previous blog, I mentioned that I do not do well with medications stronger than regular strength Tylenol. That will come into play in this true story. Also, NEVER take medications that have not been prescribed to you…even if your mother says it’s okay!

Emily and I have a favorite restaurant in Muncie, IN called Vera Mae’s Bistro. We especially love dining at Vera Mae’s around Christmas time, as the restaurant is beautifully decorated for the holiday.

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We have had many memorable visits to this wonderful establishment. The food, the service, the live music all make for an unforgettable experience.

Prior to venturing into the world of the vegan diet, I anxiously anticipated consuming the dill crusted cod, along with a salad with house made Bleu cheese or the French onion soup (which, seriously, is ridiculously good!). Emily regularly ordered the chicken brie raspberry, knowing she would be disappointed if she strayed from her favorite. And, of course, we left plenty of room for dessert (our favorite being the tiramisu from Ghyslain!).

Of course, we also had some memorable experiences shaped by unforeseeable “incidents”. You really can’t take the two of us anywhere!

One evening, a salad fork leapt from our table and came crashing down in the middle of the dining room. Hoping no one had noticed, we carried on our conversation and dining. Seconds later, one of the owners delivered a new fork to the table and politely said, “This might come in handy!”

We also enjoyed visiting Vera Mae’s with friends. One particular couple had the distinct pleasure of being with us for at lease two unique incidents.

As dinner was winding down, “someone” managed to shatter a glass on the table. It really was a freak accident. But, it was loud and messy. In addition to the water, in attempting to pick up some of the broken glass, I managed to slice my finger open and began bleeding. Thank goodness they used dark linen napkins! The waiter, who happened to be our waiter every-single-time we had an incident, came to the table and simply said, “Oh, I see we’ve had an incident.” After I apologized (I would like to point out that I am not the “someone” who broke the glass), he replied, “No worries. I typically have several incidents a night!”

Probably the most memorable incident (well, not for me, but for others) took place in the company of the previously mentioned couple. Emily and I were living in Lafayette at the time and were in Muncie visiting family and friends. We were both looking forward to getting together with our friends and enjoying a delicious meal!

Prior to leaving for dinner, I started to get a slight headache. We were at my parents house. I knew I needed to get ahead of the headache and asked my mother if she had any Tylenol. She fumbled around in the medicine cabinet and was unable to locate any Tylenol. However, she did find something that she proclaimed to be “just like Tylenol.”

Given that I trust my mother, I took the small bill and waited for it to kick in.

Just a quick note…NEVER take unknown, unprescribed medications from someone…not even from your mother! 

We were carpooling with our friends to the restaurant. On the way to the restaurant, I started feeling a bit “off” and told Emily that she would need to drive home. When I made this statement, she made the assumption that I was going to have an adult beverage with my meal.

However, the reality is that, as I was driving, I began to experience what I can only describe as tunnel vision, momentary blackouts and seeing stars. In hindsight, I probably should have pulled the car over.

Heading into the restaurant, others began to take notice that I was a bit “off”. When asked if I still felt up for dinner, my response was, “Yes. I think I just need to get something to eat and some water. I’ll be fine.” I was really looking forward to the dill crusted cod, tiramisu and time with friends.

Really, from that point forward, things are a bit fuzzy!

I know that I began to sweat profusely. Emily made the comment, “Jason, you are sweating a lot.” My response was a simple, “I am aware of that.”

One of our friends, who happens to be a dentist, started asking questions about what my mother had given me for the headache. Collectively, Emily and our friends made the decision that we needed to leave the restaurant and call it a night. We didn’t even make it to the salads!

Our friend, the dentist, said that we really needed to find out what my mother gave me so we could determine whether or not I could just go home and sleep it off or if I needed to go to the hospital.

Upon finding out what I was given (which was not “just like Tylenol”, more like extra strength Tylenol!), our friend indicated that I should be fine. He also shared that a person should never take it without food (in addition to not taking medicine that has not been prescribed by a professional…and, no, “Dr. Mom” does not count!).

On the drive home, I looked out the window and noticed that Muncie had a new Little Caesar’s! In my excitement, I exclaimed, “Well, &%$#, &@#$, Muncie has a Little Caesar’s.” Emily responded, “Guys, he must not feel well, because he didn’t say ‘**#$, #%^&, *^&*. If he left out the, #~%^, he must be out of it!”

After parting ways with our friends, we left the kids with my parents and Emily drove us back to Lafayette. I do not remember a single moment of the drive to Lafayette. However, I felt much better the next morning!

We’ve since had some successful, incident free visits to Vera Mae’s. I’m looking forward to being able to dine there again once things begin to open up again.

There are a few lessons here, folks…

  1. Never take medicine that was not prescribed to you.
  2. Mother’s should not be trusted!
  3. Well, I’m just kidding about number 2. But, number one is vitally important.

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The Divisiveness of Inclusion

People who know me well understand that I am committed to creating a more inclusive Church. My commitment to inclusion is grounded in the Great Commandment (the call of Jesus followers to love God and love neighbor). My commitment to inclusion is also built on the foundation of the ministry of Jesus, who reached out in hope-filled love and mercy to the most marginalized, overlooked and outcast of His day.

In my experience, inclusion has been one of the most divisive topics within the Church. Whenever I have made a strong statement (or even a veiled statement) regarding inclusion, I have faced the most pushback…even had my faith questioned by some.

I believe part of the divisiveness of inclusion centers on our reduction of inclusion to matters surrounding human sexuality (marriage, ordination, etc.). To me, inclusion definitely involves human sexuality. However, it also includes matters of race, gender, socioeconomics, education, abilities and more.

I am firmly committed to an inclusive Church that makes room for those who happen to disagree with me. I am often labeled as a progressive, both theologically and politically. Labels often don’t encompass the whole story. As a progressive, there are stereotypes that I am going to be closed off to traditionalist. Being closed off to anyone really misses the heart of inclusion. And, here’s the deal, I like to consider myself humble enough to recognize that “I could be wrong.”. I’m also egotistical enough to admit that I don’t really think I’m wrong!

I desire to see a Church that creates a safe and welcoming space for all. Being welcomed is more than tolerating someone’s presence. It involves expressing that all are wanted and included. One of my guiding questions in ministry is this, “is there room at my table (or church) for my enemy?” If the answer to that question is “no”, there is still work to be done on inclusion.

Some of my best friends and closest colleagues do not share my theological or political perspective. However, because we have mutual respect and trust for one another, we continue on this journey of faith together. We believe the best about one another and know that we are each doing our best to be faithful in living out our call to follow in the way of Jesus. Therefore, there are times we “agree to disagree.” I believe it’s one of the most beautiful expressions of our faith when people of opposing theological and political perspectives can join together in a common, uniting mission.

Let me be clear, for most of my friends that do not share my views on inclusion, it’s not that they are opposed to all people having a place in the church. Generally, the opposite is true! They do desire that all be welcome in the church! It’s not as if my friends who have different theological and political viewpoints on matters of inclusion, marriage or ordination love people less. It’s not like I have it all figured out and they are wrong. We have just arrived at different conclusions…and I like to think that it’s okay!

My commitment to inclusion stems from growing up in the church and my personal journey.

I grew up in a time when the old mantra of “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do,” was a core teaching for young people. In addition to that, there was a very clear teaching of, “don’t be gay.” In fact, it seemed to be that, as long as you were not gay, you could probably get away with drinking, smoking, and chewing.

In many ways, whether intentional or not, there was a clear teaching that homosexuality was the worst sin ever. Now, no one could ever give a defense beyond the standard line of, “well, the Bible defines marriage as one man and one woman. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” (As a began to take my faith more seriously, I started to notice many of the flaws in these lines of defense…for example, there are many Biblical definitions of marriage).

In various Christians circles, it appeared that the accepted definition of biblical marriage was used to make sure that, 1). We weren’t gay; 2). We wouldn’t have sex outside of marriage.

One day in a Bible study, I decided to challenge the accepted teaching. “So, I was reading the Old Testament the other day. What about that? That’s the Bible too, right? Dudes had multiple wives and multiple concubines. And, wives who were having trouble getting pregnant had their husbands have sex with their slaves. And, what about David? That guy had an affair and arranged to have his mistresses husband killed. What about divorce? The Bible seems to be against it, but we all seem to accept it. Doesn’t that seem like a bigger threat to the sanctity of marriage than being gay?”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then, I received the “go to” defense. “Well, that’s the Old Testament. We’re New Testament believers.” (Again, as I began to take my faith more seriously, I started to notice many of the flaws in this line of defense…for example, just take a look at what Jesus has to say about divorce and adultery in the Gospel of Matthew).

As I was learning about a God of love, I was also learning about systems of behavior that either included or excluded people. The messages were mixed. On one hand, we were taught the old Billy Graham mantra (which is beautiful, and I still cling to this idea) that “it’s the Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and our job to love”). On the other hand, we were taught to judge others based on their behaviors.

My senior year of high school through the end of my sophomore year of college, I took a brief hiatus from church and religion. I loosely held on to a belief in Jesus. I would pray when I needed assistance to get out of a jam.

I was wrestling with questions, doubts and challenges to my faith and the community of the church. Those questions, doubts and challenges made most of my religious friends uncomfortable. I’ve come to discover that God is big enough to handle our questions, doubts and challenges.

One of my biggest struggles was that there didn’t seem to be room for many of my friends in the life of the church. They would only be welcome if they curbed their behaviors first. They needed to behave and believe before they would be welcome to belong.

The reality is, I had been around gay people as long as I can remember. My mom was an educator and often had student teachers. One of my favorite student teachers (other than my ultimate favorite, my wife Emily) was a homosexual man. This was the 80’s in Muncie, IN. While not uncommon, it definitely wasn’t the norm. But he helped breakdown some of the stereotypes and generalizations that folks in small Midwestern cities held in regard to the homosexual population…well, at least in my mind.

The thing is, I never saw my homosexual brothers and sisters as outcasts doomed for hell. I mean, that’s the message I was hearing in certain Christian circles, but it was a hard message for me to accept.

I saw these folks as friends, family and teachers. I couldn’t imagine a God of love sending these amazing people to hell because of who they love. Yet, that is what I was being taught. So, that is what, for a time, I believed too. As a result of that belief, I know there were times when my words and actions towards the LGBTQ community caused harm. However, this belief really never felt right.

As I gained more independence, my circle expanded. The skateboard, music and art scene of my mid-sized Midwestern college hometown was full of interesting characters…straight, gay, bi, trans, black, white, Hispanic, Indian, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, rich, poor, you name it, it was part of our circle. Here’s the beautiful thing…everyone was welcome. Everyone was included. Everyone was valued. Everyone was loved. Everyone looked out for one another. The common response when differences were expressed was, “That’s cool, dude.” In the some of the Christian circles I associated with, when differences were expressed, the common response was, “I will pray for you to change your evil ways.”

I believe my non-religious circle had more impact on shaping my views on what the Church can be than my Christian circles!

The LGBTQ members of our circle were (and still are) among the most creative, kind, caring, generous and loving people I’ve ever known. When we begin to make someone who is supposed to be our “enemy” our “friend”, walls begin to break down. Once an issue has a face and a name, it’s hard to continue drawing divisive lines.

Yet, my faith family taught me that these friends were out. These friends were excluded. These friends needed to change their ways before they could be accepted. These friends needed to suppress who they are in order to be “in”.

I was walking a dangerous line befriending such worldly people. But my heart and mind could not agree with the conclusions my faith community had drawn.

Rather than fight, reconcile or justify my “alternative beliefs” within the community of faith, I fled. Now, I didn’t flee for long, but for a season, I was out. Instead of finding community within the Church, I found community and connection in this oddball collective of freaks and outcasts.

After a few years of rejecting my childhood faith, I discovered a longing to return. There was an emptiness and a desire for more. Don’t get me wrong, I was seemingly happy. I had a great circle of friends. But, something was missing. I attempted to fill the void with all the typical resources available to an 18-21-year-old guy. Yet, nothing addressed that strange sense of emptiness. I was having fun, yet longed for something deeper and meaningful.

My heart kept pointing me to Jesus. I tried to connect in the obvious spaces…campus ministries, the church all the cool kids were attending, but it all failed to connect. I was hearing the familiar refrains of what we stand against (gays, abortion, drinking, dancing, fun) and very little about what/who Jesus was for (love, outcasts, everyone).

I came to a conclusion that if I were to fully connect in a Christian community, I would either have to change my thoughts or suppress my beliefs on inclusion.

I then began to learn more about the church of my childhood, The United Methodist Church. I learned that we believe that “all people are of sacred worth” and that “all people” have a place in our church…that “all people” are to be welcomed and included in the life and ministry of the Church. Now, I realize we still have work to do. But, within our tradition, we have a commitment to being in ministry “with and for all”. Regardless of our theological interpretations and political perspectives, we are called to make room at our table for everyone!

I know that the church I love is committed to making a place at the table for everyone. Gay or straight; traditional or progressive; Republican or Democrat; rich or poor; longing for a more inclusive church or hoping to have stronger definitions in regard to matters of human sexuality; whatever issues and labels that are typically used to divide should be checked at the door. We have a call, as followers of Jesus, to be with and for all…yes, even those with whom we disagree! So, if you are offended by my perspective, that’s okay! There’s a place for you!

My longing for a more inclusive Church means that people from all walks of life will be welcome, wanted, included, safe, known and loved within the community of believers, so that all might experience the life-transforming love, grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.

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Let Me Help You…

“I can do it myself.”

These are words that are often spoken by young children as they begin to gain independence. As children start to figure things out on their own, they are offended when loved ones offer to help with basic tasks they have mastered.

However, these words were spoken several years ago by a man in his early 30’s. This man, well, it was me.

Before I get too far into this story, I need to make the disclaimer that I have never done well with medications. Anything stronger than a regular strength Tylenol will make me sick for days. The problem is, I didn’t really know that before the incident I’m about to share with you.

I’m one of those folks who waited until adulthood to have his wisdom teeth removed. When asked by the oral surgeon about my tolerance for pain, I told him, “Well, if you could just make me comfortable. You know, maybe fix me a cocktail that has one of those little umbrellas in it. Give me the feeling that I’ve been hanging out at the beach all day.”

As the effects of the “cocktail” kicked in, well, I don’t remember much after that. I do remember that just before the procedure started, I made some kind of wise crack about the dental school the surgeon attended (he was an I.U. guy…a friend was attending dental school at Ohio State at the time…so, I felt it was necessary to insert a slight jab).

Following the procedure, Emily took me home and, as far as I’m concerned, life was good. The truth is that I was out of it. And, life wasn’t so good for those around me. I picture myself as an ideal patient. Others might disagree.

At one point, I needed to visit the restroom. Emily, being the kind, caring, compassionate, and loving person she is, offered her assistance. She noticed that I was not of sound mind and felt like I could use some help.

I responded to her offer with a less-than kind, caring, compassionate and loving statement of, “I can do it myself.” So, against her better judgment, she let me have it my way.

The way Emily tells the story is that shortly after I made my way into the restroom, she heard a loud crash. She walked into the restroom to find yours truly passed out on the floor with one arm in the toilet! Yep, “I can do it myself!” Many will say that I got the reward I deserved!

Later that evening, Muncie experienced a small earthquake. Emily made the decision to sleep in our guest room (she said I was loud, had oral surgery breath, and was a bloody, drooling mess). Our guest room also doubled as a music room. So, when the earthquake hit, the drums and cymbals began to shake and make their presence known.

Emily came into the room to let me know there was an earthquake. Still dazed and confused from the “cocktail”, I tried to calm her down and informed Emily that it was just my mom coming over to help out! I said to check the door because I was certain it was my mom knocking. I believe it was 2am, not exactly a time my mother normally drops by.

So, I learned two important lessons that day…

  1. If someone you love and trust offers to help you, let them help you.
  2. As I result of my fall into the toilet, I can’t remember the second lesson. Oh, wait, guys, listen…it’s okay to sit down in the bathroom. In the words of Larry David, “It’s more comfortable. When you get up during the night you don’t have to turn the light on and wake up. And you get to read.”

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The Power of Music

On a recent walk through the neighborhood, “Mr. P.C.” from John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” album hit my playlist. Immediately, I was ushered back to a very specific time and place. My mind was flooded with memories within the first 4 measures of this tune.

As I continued walking and reminiscing, I found myself reflecting on the power of music.

Many of us have experienced the power music has to transform our moods and to tap deep into our emotions. Whether it’s in our rooms, on a walk, at a concert or worship gathering, music has the power to reach into our soul.

I could go on and on about how music has played a powerful role in my life.

Music can bring joy. If I turn on a Joao Gilberto or Antonio Carlos Jobim bossa nova, I can’t help but smile and move to the music (I would call it dancing, but my youngest daughter would disagree).

Music can bring laughter. I have always loved the crafty, and often humorous, lyrics of the Beastie Boys. Growing up, I was a big fan of The Dead Milkmen and They Might Be Giants. Both of those acts intentionally write songs that bring about laughter.

At the same time, music can bring me to tears. I can’t listen to Tchaikovsky’s “None but the Lonely Heart” without shedding a few tears. The same is true when I listen to “Appalachian Spring: VII. doppio movimento” by Aaron Copland. I remember the time the chancel choir sang a song that had been used at my mother-in-law’s celebration of life…they had no way to know that…and I could not pull myself together and had to just “take a moment” before I could precede with the worship gathering.

Music also has the ability to inspire protest and stir up a bit of anger and rage. I think back to the first time I heard Rage Against the Machine. I was immediately inspired to figure out ways to overthrow the oppressive government. I remember listening to Public Enemy and how Chuck D’s lyrics helped open my eyes to institutional racism. I think of the songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger that call us to action.

Music also has the power to heal and speak words of hope into our lives. I think of the song written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and made famous by Jackie De Shannon, “What the World Needs Now is Love”. It’s a timeless classic with a relevant message for all generations.

I also think of how music has the power to transport us back to very specific moments. I can hear certain songs and immediately be flooded with memories.

If I hear John Mellencamp’s “Cherry Bomb”, I recall how that was the song playing as I walked into my first middle school dance.

Anytime I hear The Cure, I remember how I leaned heavily on the album “Disintegration” after experiencing my first heartbreak.

If I hear Minor Threat’s version of “Stepping Stone”, I think of high school swim meets. I used this song to help pace myself in races.

If I hear “Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker, I am transported to Headliner’s in Muncie and can picture being gathered around a table with friends.

If I hear Pete Yorn and David Gray, I find myself thinking about driving along Highway 1 around the Santa Cruz, CA area.

When I hear the Buena Vista Social Club, I think about my first Valentine’s Day with Emily.

So, back to “Mr. P.C.”.

When I heard this song on my walk, I was taken back to Eastern Illinois University and the United States Percussion Camp…over 25 years ago. I was in an “advanced mallets” class, taught by Julie Spencer-Blume. She was teaching us about improvisation. We learned the melody, chord structure and scales utilized in the tune. We learned about taking cues from one another and the playful interaction that should be present when “trading 4’s”.

After class (it was our last class of the day), my friend Wisconsin Dave and I raced back to the dorm. We both started looking through our books of CD’s (this was long before the days of streaming services and mp3’s) to find a copy of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. Dave found his copy first. His CD’s were better organized than mine!

We grabbed my CD player and made our way back to the music building. Finding the door to the mallet room locked, we found a university employee and convinced him that Professor Johnny Lee Lane would approve of him letting us into the room to practice! We spent hours listening to the track and attempting to craft solos. We traded solos, critiqued one another, made suggestions and practiced late into the evening…all in an effort to be better prepared for our class the next day. And, it was awesome!

Today, I am thankful for the power of music!

Church Behaving Badly

For the most part, I have experienced tremendous blessing through the Church. The church has been a great source of life, love and encouragement. As a pastor, the Church has shaped me and helped form me into the person I am today.

However, there are times when the church has a tendency to behave badly. Most of the time, I think the misbehavior is unintentional. However, there are times in which churches are intentional and methodical in how they cause harm.

There are times when, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the church hurts those it is called to love and care for. There are times, when the people and institution that is supposed to be your biggest support is the biggest cause of pain.

And, I speak not only as one who has experienced church hurt, but as one who has caused harm and church hurt.

To be honest, I’ve never understood the competition that exists between churches. We are on the same team. We desire to point people to the life-transforming love, grace and mercy of Jesus. And, yet, there are times we actively work against one another.

We belittle one another’s methods.
We demean and discredit signs of life in other churches.
We gossip and spread rumors about the leadership of other ministries.
We ignore opportunities for collaboration.
Unfortunately, the list could go on and on.

To be honest, the competition doesn’t just exist between different congregations. Sometimes the biggest competition lies within the walls of individual congregations. Churches with multiple service times and worship styles have set the perfect stage for competition. “My service has more people than your service. My service has better music than your service. The pastor wears a robe during my service…that makes it more holy. The pastor wears jeans during my service…that makes it more authentic and relevant.”

There are times when we actively work against one another. We plan our big events at competing times, requiring people to decide which ministry they are going to support with their presence and gifts. We decide not to promote other ministries and events. And, we can say it’s unintentional. But, the reality is that it’s too often calculated, intentional and hurtful to those who have put their time, energy and effort into those ministry areas.

I know this because I’ve done it myself. I know this because I’ve experienced it myself.

Then, there are the obvious signs of church hurt – when big profile Christian leaders proclaim hurtful, harmful and often unbiblical “truths” that cause pain, division and harm not just to individuals put to entire people groups (immigrants, Democrats, Republicans, LGBTQ, pro-life, pro-choice).

The harm done in Jesus’ name is not reserved for one brand of theological or political persuasion. Progressives do plenty of harm. Conservatives do plenty of harm. Moderates do plenty of harm.

I’m reminded of Mark 9:38-41. “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

Rather than focusing on what divides…rather than focusing on our differences…maybe we should be more concerned with who we can be FOR one another.

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