Belonging

Note: This is the text from a sermon I preached on Sunday, June 23, 2019 – World Refugee Sunday. It was two days after my wedding.

 

 



World Refugee Sunday is one of my favorite Sunday’s of the entire year. The book of James warns us that we shouldn’t have favorites and those of us in ministry are taught that no Sunday should truly be more special than any other, for the purpose of every Sunday is corporate worship of God and the fellowship of believers; yet, here I stand, unapologetically confessing this to you on one of my favorite Sundays. Declared by the United Nations in 2000, June 20 is World Refugee Day. Soon thereafter, the World Evangelical Alliance along with several Christian denominations declared that the Sundays before and after June 20 would be recognized each year as World Refugee Sunday. In recent years, the trend of recognizing its legitimacy as a liturgical holiday has grown alongside the refugee crisis taking place around the world: a growing epidemic concerning which I’d now like to share some statistics with you that I received from the United Nations Refugee Agency.

-As of the end of 2017, there were 68.5 million individuals worldwide who had been displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.
-1 in every 110 people globally is either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee.
-3.5 million refugee children are unable to attend school and receive an education
-Since 2015, more than 1.4 million persons have taken the chance to swim the Mediterranean Sea or board unseaworthy dinghies in desperate attempts to flee Northern Africa and the Middle East. Over 10,000 have drowned in the process.

Now, many would prefer I keep this out of the pulpit. They would argue that what I’m discussing is a political issue and that politics don’t belong in the church. I overwhelmingly agree with them that this is a political issue but couldn’t disagree more that politics don’t belong in the church. Jesus was not only political – he was adamantly outspoken about the politics of his day. He was defiant as he challenged governing laws and those who would seek to enforce them, religious laws and religious authorities, social customs and the upper echelon of society who sought to keep class divisions in place. Jesus was very political and so should we be as well.

However, one thing Jesus never was – was partisan. You see that’s what we should really be concerned about with politics in the church. We should be political but we should never be partisan. Politics when used in it’s purest sense allows us, even when we disagree, to work together for the common good. It creates empathy, allowing us to think, to feel, to sense what the “other” is thinking, feeling, and sensing. When partisanship creeps in, prejudice comes with it. The empathy stops and all the preconceived notions of the “other” keep us from working together for the common good. Partisanship creates “me vs. them” and inserts the lie into our minds that the “other” is selfish, the “other” is bad, and the “other” doesn’t belong.

I mentioned that over 10,000 people have drowned fleeing persecution across the Mediterranean Sea. Among the approximately 216 who drowned in September of 2015 was Alan Kurdi. You may not recognize the name but I would almost guarantee that you would recognize his picture. You see, Alan Kurdi was a 3 year old Kurdish boy who was fleeing with his family during the Syrian Civil War in which Kurds were being persecuted. In the early morning hours of September 2, 2015, having been denied asylum multiple times and desperate to escape persecution, Alan’s family of four along with 12 others boarded a rubber inflatable boat intended for only 8 people, with no life jackets, and cast away for Greece. The boat capsized shortly after it launched. A now infamous picture shows Alan’s lifeless body washed up on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey. 

I remember getting home late on September 3, 2015 after a rehearsal. I crashed on the couch in my living room after a long day and turned on the TV. The image of Alan Kurdi spread across my television. I’ve never been the same. I watched for the next several minutes as the news reporter told the story of what happened and I wept. I thought of my nephew Lawson, merely 5 years old at the time, and found myself consumed with the thought, “What if that was him?”

Politics isn’t the reason there are 68.5 million displaced individuals in the world. Politics isn’t why 3.5 million children aren’t being educated. Politics didn’t kill Alan Kurdi; partisanship, fear of the “other”, and a feeling that they do not belong is the cause.

When I was in 5th grade, my mother and father divorced. My mother won custody and moved my sister and I with her from Alabaster, AL back to her home town of Anniston. The majority of her family still lived there and she desired for us to be closer to them. At first, things were great – I was able to be closer to cousins my own age as we all lived on the same street in the same neighborhood, often playing together, eating together; it was a great time in my life. Something happened over the next year and my mother’s relationship with the rest of her family soured. Soon, we weren’t playing together, we weren’t eating together, and we rarely saw each other. Many assumptions were made and it caused a rift between my mother and her family. When I was in 6th grade, my mother suddenly lost her job. She struggled to find work and soon thereafter, we lost our house. I still remember sitting in my mother’s van as she called relative after relative asking if we could stay with them. We lucked out and one of my aunts let us come to their house. We weren’t there long before they asked us to leave. We were back in the van and, once again, my mom called several relatives. One of my family members told my mom that they would pray for guidance on what to do. At 11 years old, I almost lost my faith that day as I witnessed my family choosing prejudice. That family member did end up letting us stay with them, although it was never a feeling of welcome, and eventually, our lives were back on track in a positive light, but much of the damage had been done; in my mind, to my family, I didn’t belong.

We are currently facing an epidemic of outrageous proportions. Millions of men, women, and children around the world are being told they don’t belong. They are being told they don’t belong by their countries of citizenship – that they aren’t the right ethnicity, the right color, the right gender, the right religion, the right sexuality, the right ideology – and they are being hurt through the abuses of power and force. Then as they seek refuge from this persecution and from poverty and starvation, they are told they don’t belong because they aren’t the right nationality or aren’t going through the right processes which take years and resources far beyond their reach. They find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place both of which are plastered with giant banners that say “You don’t belong!”

Meanwhile, Christ tells us in our Gospel lesson that:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

He will separate them not by age, not by race, nor by gender. He will not separate them as Americans from Mexicans, he will not separate them as Egyptian from Kenyan, he will not separate them as Israeli from Palestinian. No, he will separate them in one way:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Christ will divide the sheep from the goats solely based on the ways in which they have and have not cared for his people – for his family.

On Friday, I made a vow to Becca. I made a vow to “love her as I love no other.” I made a vow to “share all that I am with her.” I made a vow to take her as my wife through “sickness and health, through poverty and plenty, through joy and sorrow; now and forever.” We can all agree that when I do not uphold these vows, I fail her as her spouse. There will be times that it happens and we will do our best to derive mercy and grace from Christ to forgive each other and work to better ourselves but it all starts with our promise to one another.

From that same vein, why is it that we make promises to Christ that we will follow him, we will be his disciples, we will love him and obey him; yet, when he gives us Matthew 25, we do not act?

John Wesley tells us to, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” I tell you that when we feed all the hungry that we can, we welcome all the strangers and refugees that we can, we clothe all the naked, house all the homeless, heal all the sick, and free all those in bondage that we can and we do it with a blind eye to the laundry list of demographic statuses – when we do all of these things that Christ explicitly directs us to do, I tell you that we are doing it to Christ. And when we don’t, when we let partisan beliefs blind us to those in need, regardless of socioeconomic status or race or gender or nationality – when we don’t help the refugee, in the same way, we do it to Christ himself. Christ looks at the American business man, the Honduran farmer, the Israeli mother, the Palestinian father, and the Kurdish child and says, “You are mine. You belong.” When will we do the same?

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Pause and Breathe

“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”

John 12:1-11

Six days before his crucifixion, Christ sat among friends as Martha prepared a meal and Mary anointed and washed his feet. They did not know what was coming but Jesus did. Despite this, he enjoyed their company and even gave them a lesson in Mary’s humility and the importance of being present.

The world around us is rife with stress, anxiety, worry, busyness. We fill ourselves with so much of what the world offers that we struggle to make time for Christ. We fill the gaps and the holes in our life with more things, more events – then we wonder why that empty, purposeless feeling lingers. We find ourselves in the company of friends at parties, dinners, even bible studies consumed with worry, forgetting to be present in the moment. But on this Holy Monday, we take a moment to pause, breathe the breath that God has given us, and reflect on what is to come.

God wants to work in us, to empower us to know that despite the distractions this world throws our way, despite the looming darkness that we may sense at times, there is restoration and healing and light to be experienced in the highs and the lows of Holy Week, if only we be present in the moment. As you go about your busy week, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to pause, breathe and offer this simple prayer:

Lord, thank you for this time that you have given me.
Make me present with these people that I might see
you in them 
and that they might see you in me.
Focus my thoughts on the redemption of the cross
and the promise of an empty tomb. Amen.

Relatable

On January 19, 2017, and for the eight years preceding that date, Barack Obama was my president. As of January 20, 2017, and for the undetermined foreseeable future, Donald Trump is my president. No snarky slogan or attempt at poetic justice will ever make either of those statements less true.

We live in a society that yearns to degrade those with whom they disagree. Rather than attempt to engage in civil discourse, we hide behind jeers and slurs. We give self-appointed titles, attempting to box the world around us into the vision of our own reality. “Obama is not MY president.” “Trump will never be MY president.”

I understand the frustration; I get the sentiment. It’s hard to accept that the world’s reality does not fit within the selfishly created box of one’s own mind. It’s a struggle I have faced time and time again throughout my short life. I’ve been shaped by the landscape of my own personal journey as have we all. To some, the life experience I’ve had so far has been adventurous, filled with cultural and religious diversity. To others, my life experience has been narrow-sighted, lacking exposure to the greater world and it’s many beautiful nuances. To all, it’s relative.

Collectively as human beings, we do a tremendously bad job of being relatable. Again, it’s hard to accept that the world’s reality does not fit within the selfishly created box of one’s own mind. I’ve met many wonderful people who are excellent at attempting to be relatable, even succeeding at times, but yet they still suffer the consequences of their own life experiences and the prejudices that come with that. We attempt to ignore the prejudices rather than trying to overcome them which creates a cyclical effect of constant resurgence. We never get past ourselves to see into the lives of others.

Maybe it’s negative to say but I also don’t think we will ever get completely past ourselves truly allowing us to see into the lives of others. I think that’s assimilation and we aren’t built as human beings to be universally assimilated. There will always be cultural, ethnic, religious, and political division that we face (which is good if treated in a healthy way). The key is found in the respect of the opposing view, which brings me back to my original point:

On January 19, 2017, and for the eight years preceding that date, Barack Obama was your president. As of January 20, 2017, and for the undetermined foreseeable future, Donald Trump is your president. No snarky slogan or attempt at poetic justice will ever make either of those statements less true. Don’t disregard this statement because it is coming from a white, middle-class, Protestant, male; that would be the antithesis of my entire point. Eight years ago, I was rallying a battle cry that Barack Obama was not my president and over the last eight years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a life experience that showed me just how wrong I was. Don’t be me. Be better than me.

Fight for injustice, stand up against tyranny, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the poor, pray for those with whom you agree and pray for those with whom you disagree. Today, let’s all try to be a little more relatable.

The stones will cry out

The nineteenth chapter of Luke tells of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. People everywhere were shouting and singing “Hosanna” and waving palm branches in excitement and adoration of their Messiah. In verse 39, some of the Pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke these people for making such a fuss. In verse 40, Jesus responds that if they were silent, the stones themselves would cry out.

Wouldn’t that just be utterly terrifying? You’re going through life, minding your own business, never praising God, and all of a sudden, the rocks on the ground starting yelling and singing. Not only are they yelling and singing but they’re shouting praises to God.

As a worship leader, it can be hard to remove my ego and realize how truly irrelevant I am in praising God. Yes, it is my responsibility as a follower of Christ to glorify God and yes, it is my responsibility as a worship leader to utilize music to worship and lead others in worshiping God. But it’s plain right there in verse 40, if I don’t do it, someone else will, and if they don’t do it, the rocks themselves will cry out in praise and adoration of our great God.

God will be praised. God will be glorified.

The fact of the matter is: I’m replaceable, and that is a good and wonderful thing. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to use music to glorify God and lead others in worship but the realization that I’m easily replaceable, that God will be praised regardless of what I do, helps me to keep the most important aspect of worship in check: it is completely and entirely never about me or you. Ever.

Does ego get in the way sometimes? Absolutely it does. Even worship leaders and Pastors are fallible. But if I can’t work past that ego, then I’m in this for all the wrong reasons and need to get out of God’s way. We reach a dangerous point when we let ego step in and make worship more about our desires and our preferences than the reason we are worshiping in the first place. We reach an equally dangerous point when we constantly criticize another person’s preference of worship just because it doesn’t fit into the mold of what we think is best. When we allow that to happen, the only rocks that won’t be praising God are the rocks that were once the hearts beating in our chest.

God is expansive and beautiful and worthy of all the types of praise and worship that we can muster. Praise God with all you can. Don’t let ego get in the way and don’t let the rocks do your job.

Mom: The Emotional Basket Case

I like pretending that I am not an emotional person. It’s always seemed like it would be so much easier to get through life if you just didn’t have emotional responses to situations or people. Thus I decided that making it seem as if I didn’t care would make it easier for me to get through life. The problem is I do care.

I secretly cry more than the average person. I read articles about war-torn countries taking the lives of children halfway around the world, watch stories about young athletes overcoming disabilities and adversity, see homeless veterans begging for food at intersections and I can’t stop the tears welling up as my heart begins to ache inside my chest. I say secretly because I hate crying in front of people. When it happens, I turn my head or leave the room and fight it as best I can. Most of the time, no one notices; I’ve gotten very good at it.

It’s my mom’s fault. She is an emotional basket case. At least once a week, I call my mom and we talk about what’s happened in each of our lives over the previous week. She shares a plethora of opinions and I have a retort for every one of them. At least once every couple of weeks, she will inevitably cry. 99 times out of 100, it’s over something that would seem trivial to most people but she doesn’t care, it’s meaningful to her and deserves tears. That’s where I get it from.

I got something else from my mom: my love of people. From an early age, she has taught me tolerance and acceptance. She has tried to teach me to meet people where they are rather than forcing them to come to me. She hasn’t always been perfect at practicing it but she has always worked to instill that in me and my siblings.

In a recent TedTalk entitled “Love, No Matter What”, Andrew Solomon shares a saying his mother used to tell him:

“The love you have for your children is like no other feeling in the world; and until you have children, you don’t know what it’s like.”

I can’t know if that’s true yet. I don’t have children and I’m not positive I ever even will. But I do know how much I love people and I know how much my mother loves me, my brother, and my sister. I know that she has made mistakes in life because she is human. I know she has had uncontrollable setbacks because this is a broken world; and I know that there is nothing that could compromise her love for me.

I’m grateful for her. I’m grateful for her life. I’m grateful for her love, and I’m grateful that she has passed on to me, a genuine love for people. I hope I will always be an emotional basket case just like her, crying when my heart aches for others. I hope that I am able to love others even half as much as she always has and always will love me.

Midweek Music 04.13.16

And So It Goes | Billy Joel

We’re in the midst of a sermon series at the church called “Vinyl Theology” that challenges us to see and hear God in all kinds of music. This is going to be a special series for me to experience for obvious reasons. In addition to that, I’ve been on the side of the road in experiencing bits of tragedy and pain here and there over the last week. I say “side of the road” because I’ve not been directly involved or affected by any it but I’ve been present as people have been grieving and sharing their stories and experiences. Of course even when we aren’t directly involved, we are affected when those with whom we “do life” experience unexpected changes, good or bad.

This week, we have two memorial services at the church; one for a 7-year old and one for a 4-year old. I can’t comprehend it. I have an 8-year old nephew and a 4-year old nephew that I adore. I’ve had moments of transference as my mind uncontrollably places them in those shoes and I weep. I don’t see them nearly as often as I would like and yet I can’t imagine life without them. I don’t want to imagine life without them.

It was in high school that I first felt a calling to ministry. Recognizing what I was feeling was helped and nurtured by my youth pastor at the time. I loved that guy and I loved that I was challenged to love God and share that love with others. I loved his wife too. I was on the worship team with both of them and I spent most of my high school years in awe of their talents, their passion for God, and their ability to love people. Jeremy was one of the first people I reached out to after my divorce; it was the first time we had spoken in at least 4 years. I found out that his wife had Huntington’s and I was heartbroken. This week, he started a blog and I read his first post. I wept after I read it.

Billy Joel wrote “And So It Goes” when he was going through a breakup with his girlfriend at the time. It seems like a such a small experience compared to the deaths of children or being forced to watch your significant other succumb to disease but if there is anything I’ve learned about pain, it’s really not our place to tell people about what they can and can’t grieve or how they are “allowed” to grieve. All I know is that when I hear this song; I see, hear, and feel God amidst pain.

So I would choose to be with you
That’s if the choice were mine to make
But you can make decisions too
And you can have this heart to break

And so it goes, and so it goes
And you’re the only one who knows


 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Midweek Music, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

 

Midweek Music 03.16.16

My Song in the Night | Traditional American Folk Hymn

There is unequivocal beauty in the Passion story. The fact that God, because of the great love God had for us, descended from heaven, took on flesh in the form of the Son, and sacrificed himself for us. I find the world to be a dark place more often than not these days. Maybe that makes me pessimistic, maybe it just makes me realistic. Either way, that is how I view it. But I take comfort in words like the lyrics in this song. May it be a comfort to you as well.

O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night,
Come to us with Thy tender love,
my soul’s delight.
Unto Thee, O Lord, in affliction I call,
My comfort by day, and my song in the night.

O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night.
Come to us with Thy tender love,
my soul’s delight.
My comfort and joy, my soul’s delight,
O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night.

My Song in the Night (Arr. Mack Wilberg; performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir)

My Song in the Night (Arr. Paul Christiansen; performed by the Salt Lake Vocal Artists)


 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Midweek Music, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

Midweek Music 03.09.16

Every Breath | Gungor

I just love this song. We’re doing it this week in worship at Keller so it’s in the forefront of my mind and I felt like sharing it.

Every breath
Every moment life beats in my chest
Springs up from your hand
Creation resounds
With every color and every sound
Your love is calling


 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Midweek Music, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

Midweek Music 03.03.16

Child of God | Mark Miller

I was introduced to the music of Mark Miller 5 years ago. I was immediately captivated by his way of capturing powerful text and setting it so simply and beautifully to music. I had the privilege of meeting and working with him a little over 2 years ago for the first time. Since then, I’ve been able to work with and correspond with him on occasion. In that time, he and his music have shaped my philosophy on ministry and music as well as the church’s responsibility in regards to social justice.

Last year at a conference that I was attending and Mark was leading worship, I had the opportunity to hear him lead one of his most recently published songs. “Child of God” is the simplest yet most underrated message to and for the church. That next weekend, I took it back to my church and played and sang it for the congregation. It was a message that I felt needed to be heard immediately. The political climate in this country is terribly divisive right now. There are certain politicians claiming Christianity while standing on a platform that tears down people of varying cultures, genders, faiths, and creeds. That is not love. That is not the message of Christ. This is:

No matter what people say, say or think about me
I am a child, I am a child of God

No matter what people say, say or think about you
You are a child, you are a child of God

You can listen to a better recording here but there is no video.


 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Midweek Music, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

Midweek Music 02.25.16

The Light That Has Lighted The World | George Harrison

Happy Birthday to the quiet and underrated member of one the greatest bands ever whose life was far too short.

I’m grateful to anyone, that is happy or free,
for giving me hope while I’m looking to see
The light that has lighted the world


 

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Midweek Music, feel free to follow it along with the posts.