: extremely or utterly foolish asinine
: of, relating to, or resembling an ass

This is the only term that I can conjure to describe this meme that has been around for quite a while. I have actually seen this shirt worn by a person. I am sure had I seen this back when I was in High School that I might have worn it myself. However, now all I can do is shake my head while my heart breaks. My heart breaks when I hear well meaning people saying and sharing this to explain the downright atrocious and heinous acts of Friday in Newtown, CT.
When something this terrible occurs we each want an answer to the, "Why?!" of desperation that we each ask. We want to make sense of something that is senseless. We each want to be able to fully understand that which is incomprehensible. There are times when the only thing we can say is, "I can't fully understand this tragic and evil act." Among the hardest things to do as a leader, Pastor, parent or any other person who is supposed to give the answers is to not be able to give an answer. But there are times when to say something that is not accurate can cause more damage than good. 
Following this senseless killing spree Former Governor Mike Huckabee went on a show and said the shootings we no surprise since we have, "systematically removed God from our schools." This implies that God was okay with 20 babies and 6 adults being slain since he was not allowed to the party that we call public schools. I challenge someone to provide me clear evidence for this theological position. 
We do harm to people and harm to The Church when we perpetuate these views. How do we simultaneously tell parents that this happened because God is not allowed in our schools but run to him for strength and hope. To hold to this theology makes God complicit in the senseless act of a mentally disturbed individual. 
There is hope in Christ. On this beginning of Advent Week 3 the theme is joy. It is in these terrible times where we can most separate joy from I happiness. There is no happiness to be found in days like Friday. There is nothing happy about thinking of twenty babies being shot. Nothing. However, joy--that which the angels heralded--is rooted in Jesus. In these terribly frightening times we find our hope in him. We believe--with great faith and expectancy--that every tear will be wiped and every heart will be bound. We believe that all things will be made right.
So, no. God did not cause this. So, no. This did not happen because God has been expelled from our schools.

God of mercy, peace, joy and love, we pray that you will comfort the hurting. We pray that you will bind up the broken. God of hope, grant it to us today.

***Side Note:I challenge the premise that God is not allowed in the schools; he is. I attended public school. At my public high school I founded a Christian club where we basically held church services at our school. Granted it was back in 1997 when the club was founded but so far as I am aware that club is still active at Dudley High School in Greensboro, NC today...fifteen years later. God is not barred from schools; we just can't force kids to serve or worship God while at school.***

What seems to be missing in this whole debate surrounding "#My2K" and the taxes is the reality that the Bush Era tax cuts were sold to us as temporary. Now everyone feel entitled to keep them in perpetuity. I am an advocate for allowing the tax cuts to expire for everyone. We can't continue down this road that continues to divide us. If, after allowing them to expire, we need to look at rewriting the tax codes to help out the middle class then let's do that. However, we must all admit that we will all have to bear this burden together. The current course is clearly unsustainable. However, for folks who want to say that "Obamacare", Medicare/aid and Social Security alone are what's "the drag" on this economy I simply disagree.

Folks on "my team" have to be willing to bend and folks on the other side of this debate must be willing to bend. Democracy is the art of compromise. If we come to the negotiation table with all of the things that we are not going to give on then we just as well have stayed home.

We had an election and, as the saying goes, "Elections have consequences." Folks on the political right must get the point that they lost and with that lost should come the realization that "the American people" did sign off on the President's plan on getting us back on track. However, folks on the political left must understand that the Constitution gives the House of Representatives "the power of the purse" and since that body is under the leadership of the GOP we can't expect that they are going to give everything and we give nothing.

We need adults in Washington who are willing to lead for the good of this nation and not for the good of our respective political parties.

Let me finish with a quote from a great American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. :

"We must learn to live together as brothers or die together as fools."
MerryHallowHappyChrsitmasWeen! This seems to be what has occurred this year. Before Halloween was over, we were all ready for Christmas. Don't hear what I am not saying, please. Our best friends absolutely LOVE Christmas. They love to decorate. They love the times with family and friends. They love to give gifts to folks as an expression of their love and appreciation for them; there is nothing wrong with that. I love Christmas, too.

I fear, however, that we have lost what Christmas is to be. I fear that we, the Jesus people, have exchanged the beauty of Christmas and have become the Mammon people. We completely pass over Thanksgiving. We forget that we are to thank God for each of the many blessings that we enjoy. We should take Thanksgiving as a time to spend enjoying our families and friends. Instead we make Thanksgiving Day more of "Thanksgiving Afternoon"--to borrow a term from Michael Slaughter. Not only do we shorten the time that we get to spend with our families; we make it impossible for folks who work in the service industries to spend with their families. The other day I was remembering that my mom often cooked holiday meals the night before the holiday. I was thinking it was because she always cooked SO much food. But when I went further back into the memory bank, I was reminded that was not the only reason. You see, my mom worked in the service industry as a cook. She often had to cook the day before because she was required to work on Thanksgiving day. These folks do not get the opportunity to spend the times with their families because we really *must* get one of the twenty 32" televisions that will go on sale on Black Thursday.

Am I saying that we should not shop for gifts? No. I am suggesting that we, the Jesus people, take a long look at our part in the commercialization of Christmas. I really cannot be annoyed or surprised by folks who do not claim to be a Christian indulging in the God of this nation: materialism (Mammon) but when we are complicit I think we should pause and check ourselves. I am suggesting that when we do give gifts and shop we never allow that to overshadow the incredible miracle of Jesus. Jesus. This God-man who--as we profess--left his celestial home to descend into this (in comparison) hellhole we call earth. This guy, Jesus, came so that we might be reconciled to God. Jesus. The miracle descended so that we might have hope from our despair. Jesus came so that the most lonely and depraved person might know that he or she is someone worth dying for. On this day we celebrate that. On this day we re-align our perspective back to that.

I pray that you nor I  lose sight of this incredible gift. I pray that we do not blur the lines of capitalism in the West and the Bright Star from the east. I pray that you nor I ever are guilty of trading the incredible gift of salvation for the mammon of capitalism and greed. I pray that this season we pause and have a different kind of Christmas.

The challenge(s):

  1. Join me in committing to have a different kind of Christmas. Go over to Amazon and get the devotional, A Different Kind of Christmas, and let's commit to begin it the first Sunday of Advent (December 2, 2012) and read it into the New Year.
  2. Commit to not shop on Thanksgiving Day; spend the time with your family. Also, maybe if we do not all flock, like moths to a light, to the stores next year service-sector workers might get to spend at least Thanksgiving with their family and not have to go into work.
  3. When buying gifts, make efforts to be creative. Instead of giving another senseless gift that will soon lose its luster, maybe give a gift/buy a gift that will help to bring real lasting change...for time to come. Here are some of the places where I would suggest giving in another's name: (Click on the images to get more information)

I know that we can have a different kind of Christmas. I know that we, the Jesus people, can beat back this take over of Christmas. We can--and must--resist the allure of mammon.

Happy Thanksgiving!
When you love folks the imprints of them will forever be on your heart. I have been so blessed to do life with so many amazing folks. About three months ago I left a community of believers at Christ Church to join the team of a new group of believers at a fine church in Charlotte.

Three months later, the imprints of so many folks at Christ Church--especially the Fairgrove Campus are still on my heart. The Campus Pastor is one of my best friends on this planet; tonight I joined his wife (another of my best friends) and son (my godson and heart) over at the FG Campus to clean and reset the chairs. When I walked into the foyer of that campus where I worshipped for almost three years I was immediately struck by the smell of the campus. I know that sounds weird but those smells flooded my nostrils which then prompted me to remember so many great memories there. When I came to Fairgrove I was a wreck. I was an emotional and spiritual wreck.

Kelly and I moved to Hickory after a very low point in my life. Low point in my spiritual life, personal life and  ministerial life. Weeks before moving to Hickory I was on a downward spiral emotionally. I was in deep depression and my anxiety was the worst it had been before that point or since that point. I recall being a mess in the Children's wing of FG while talking to Jess. I remember cussing and being at the end. I remember feeling like my life was over; God could never use me again for his Kingdom. 

I decided that I would not serve in a leadership capacity until I was healthy and in a good place in my personal walk with God. I initially served on the Levite Team at FG; it was the team that served by cleaning the church on a weekly basis. This was such a great thing for me. I looked forward to going over on Saturdays; often alone. I would go over into the sanctuary and vacuum, pray and get into a good place with God. Then while cleaning the bathrooms, I would think of all of the folks who would use those bathrooms. Some of them may not know the hope that was so possible with Christ at the center. Slowly I was remembering who and whose I was. 

The best thing that ever happened to me there was my lifegroup. My lifegroup filled with such an eclectic group of folks. We did not have tons in common. We probably would not have chosen randomly to be in the same group. But week after week...little by little, we started to know each other. We started to be real and not care if we were crying in front of each other. We got a chance to experience what community was. We learned to get through our differences and love each other. I have served in many leadership capacities over the years but leading that life group rates among my highest honors. I learned from them. I was challenged by them. I was loved by them...and continue to be. 

As we continue to make this transition from Christ Church to University City, I am struck with the reality that I have to look with fondness on what God did in my family and me at Christ Church. I must be grateful that I was able to be healed there and serve there. I must come to the reality that now I must press into University City. I have been reluctant to let go. I have been scared of what is in the future. Tonight, however, I am convinced that I must be "all there" at UC. I must look with anticipation toward the new folks with whom I will do life. I must trust that God has called us to serve, love and lead at University City. There are folks who will love us and share life with us in Charlotte. I told Jess earlier tonight that I am scared to truly move on. However, this week, God has reminded me that fear is not from him and it is not for me. 

So this week, this month and this year, may we be thankful for all that we have been through. May we be grateful for all of those who have touched our life. May we look--with anticipation, hope and faith--into the future for all that God has for us. May we live loved. May we live with passion and in such a way that it is always difficult for us to leave. May we have a furious love for others. May we share our lives with folks and love deeply.

To do those things makes it hard to leave. But the alternative is far worse. We are never known; we never know. We are never loved; we never love. We never take risks with relationships; we never experience the beauty of deep and abiding relationships.

So, go, as will I, headlong into the future and the calling that God has for you. Go into the great unknown with the confidence of a child who leaps into his father's arms.
I just finished watching the movie, "Blue Like Jazz". Wow. It was such an incredible film. I identified so much with "Donnie"; the player who was portraying the life of Donald Miller. I did not grow up in Texas but I did grow up in church. I was your stereotypical black kid raised in church. I went to Sunday school. I was the President of this, vice-president of that. Founder of a HS campus ministry. I sang in the choir and I was always good for a good "shout" at church. I knew all of the answers and spoke the correct lingo. I was an absolute TOOL! Some friends of mine joked that I had a "rebuke quota" that I had to fulfill because I was all of the time calling folks out for something that was counter-biblical. It is strange to look back upon that kid I was back in high school because he is so unlike the kid who I am today. Back in high school I think I knew who God was. I think I had a head knowledge of this God guy. But I did not yada God. I knew about him like I knew about MLK, Jr. I did not know him intimately. Then Camp WOW and college came around.

Interestingly, I went to an evangelical bible college in High Point, NC. Formerly named John Wesley College--JDub (Laurel University now). It was a very small bible college but it helped to shape me into who I am today. At this school I was taught how to think. This was largely the work of Dr. Ron Selleck. This man was brilliant. He taught so many classes. He was witty, clumsy and oh so wise. He never let us get away with giving the answer that we thought was correct without giving some thought behind it. He helped me to think...really think about what I believe. But, since it was a bible college there weren't that much to get into. Of course we stayed out past curfew and sneaked a cigarette or two down by the pond but there wasn't too much going on there. After all, most of us were training for ministry and were already serving in one capacity or other in ministry. I think JDub coupled with my experiences at camp really helped to open my eyes.

While a camp counselor at Camp WOW I met some of the most incredible people of my life. My fellow counselors was an eclectic group. For the first time I met folks who did not share my beliefs. Some did--probably most did--but they were still different from my own. My eyes began to awaken to the reality that not everyone saw things in the same light as did I or my friends back home in Greensboro. Not everyone thought that you should wait until you were married to have sex. Not everyone thought that Jesus was the only way. The only truth. Nor the only life. Not everyone thought it was bad for two girls to love each other. I was forced to see that my Christian bubble was just that; a bubble.

I really don't know when it happened exactly but I began to ask questions. I began, also, to get embarrassed to be associated with Christians. Some where along my journey I began to distance myself from the fundamentalists that I--at one point--had been a member. At some point I began to wonder why my church annually had a silent protest against abortion but we rarely (if ever) helped out the poor in our city. At some point I opened my eyes, asked questions and for myself, found Jesus.

I was surprised to learn that the Jesus I found was not so much concerned with American dominance but with loving and restoring the lost and broken masses. I learned--and am learning--that Jesus is so in love with everyone who is far from him. In my searching I found that Jesus was, in fact, not represented by the guy on the corner at Belle Chere telling gay folks why they were going to hell but by the kids at Awaken City Church who feed and befriend homeless folks each week. In my longing, striving and searching, I found that Jesus was to be found as I walked along this path and allowed love to prevail.

I admit that there are still days when I am embarrassed of Jesus or more accurately, of me and the masses like me who deny and defy Jesus by my actions--or more often lack thereof--each day.

I love Jesus. I love his bride, the Church. I want only to represent him well and not bring embarrassment nor shame to his name.

 I knew I wanted to write a blog post today but I did not think it would actually be tomorrow when I actually sat out here and wrote it. Instead of writing the blog I went over to my bro's house and watched the Panthers win their second preseason game against the NY Jets. It was lovely!

Today has been a rather bitter and sweet day for me. Today was my final Sunday at CCFairgrove. We started going to Fairgrove back in 2010. That was, without a doubt, one of the lowest points of my life. I was a mess when I came there. I was depressed and filled with regret, dread and bitterness. So when we got here I was determined to just be. I did not have desire one to develop any new friendships--at that campus or any of our campuses.

I was content to have our best friends and the three or so other couples who we considered friends whom we met because of them. That did not last long. It became clear to me:--after some time--"Ray was not built to close off himself emotionally from people." So, today when the closing song was sang, it dawned on me that I would not worship (on any consistent basis) with these people whom I have grown to love.

It dawned on me that I would not sit in the congregation and hear my best friend share his heart with passion and total abandon. It dawned on me that I would not get to go over to the children's wing and get my four-year-old godson. He would not see me outside of the door and run to me saying, "Hey Ray!" in that cute southern drawl that I have grown to love. The reality that I would not get the chance to make inside jokes with Camille during the service hit me like a truck load of rocks being poured! I wouldn't get the chance to get one of those trademark Camille "Umph. Umph." before and after church on Sunday. I remembered that I would not hear "Mom" say to me--with her trademark and special smile--"Hey Raymond!" as I walked down the hill onto the patio. On Sunday, I will not get the chance to do the awkward turtle and when it is really awkward do the dual awkward palm tree with Chip. Next Sunday when I am at University City, The Deals will not be there to give me hugs! The kids will not run up to me and say, "Ray-Ray!". I won't see my lifegroup at UCUMC! Next week, my brother Shaun will not be there to give me the much anticipated jab about me being a liberal or Obama being all wrong for America. There are so many things that I will miss about Christ Church-Fairgrove. I am most sad that I will not get to see all that God has in store with that great campus. The atmosphere is infectious. The people are engaging and friendly. The Campus Pastor is my best friend who I have seen grow exponentially! I will miss--so sincerely--the folks at Fairgrove who have rocked my life.

I don't even want to think about what happens when we actually move at the end of the month. Then the reality of the distance between my closest HKY friends really comes into reality. The Smiths. The McGees. The Drums. The Cravens. The Chatfields. The Deals. The Anthonys. The Hoyles. Alex "D-Tron". The Jessmers. Betty O. My Lifegroup friends. My Engage friends. There will be distance--not much--but distance nonetheless. The dynamics will change. The friendships will not end but in all reality, things will change. That is the harsh reality when we move; when we change up things. I look forward, however, to the challenge of maintaining each of these relationships.

Although I am saddened, scared and anxious I am confident that God has opened this door over at University City. Thinking about all that God wants to do in and through me there excites me! So, while I leave here with the aforementioned feelings, I run forward to this new chapter with excitement, eagerness and faith in God.
Thank you, CCFairgrove and Christ Church proper for touching my life. Thank you for being a harbor for this battered ship. Thank you for showing me how to love, trust, forgive and live again. God has used you as a vessel and all that I have gleaned and learned from you I will take it to Charlotte and share with the folks there. I will forever love Christ Church and most especially CCFairgrove.
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Earlier today I read a great post on Ron Edmonson's Blog entitled: What Every Senior Pastor Needs From His Staff (of course I'd add his or her staff...) The post was written by guest blogger, Eric Speir. Eric gave some great advice to staff pastors and other staff members on supporting the Senior or Lead Pastor at his or her church. Here are his suggestions:

  • Is committed to the same vision he is.
  • Will overlook his bad days.
  • Will pick up the trash when he needs you to.
  • When you say you’re praying for him, then actually do it.
  • Has his back, instead of talking behind it.
  • Can help solve problems and be team players.
  • Can think BIG!
  • Can laugh and cry with him. 

These are great reminders. I have served in a few staff pastor positions in my decade plus in ministry but I have never served as a Lead Pastor. I imagine it is a tough job. I imagine it gets lonely and one filled with pressure. Although I have not served as a lead pastor, I have served as a staff pastor. So after reading this post I thought, "What does every staff pastor or member need from the Lead Pastor?" Here are the top five things I think we need:
Every Staffer Needs a Lead Pastor Who...
  •  Will give him or her room to fail.  I remember when I first started in ministry I worked in youth ministry. Frank Bishoff was not the lead pastor but he was the student pastor. He gave me permission to make mistakes and did not take off my head when I made them. He demonstrated grace and direction. Lead pastors must give their staff enough room to fail and not feel like failure will mean that are kicked from the team. If your staff feel like they have to always be atop their game or you are going to come down on him or her then you're doing it wrong.

  • Will be committed to his/her soul as much as his/her gifts. I will never forget the words that John Held, my Pastor when I was at Living Way Christian Fellowship in Greensboro (Living Way Church today), told me upon taking my first full-time ministry job out of bible college. He said, "Ray, you are a gifted man. People will see that and be drawn to it. Be sure that people care more about your soul than they do your gifting." At the time I did not understand, fully, what was meant by that. I do now. Pastors need gifted and talented people. There is nothing bad or wrong about that. However, Lead Pastors should never neglect the care for the souls of the staff member. After all, you are not just his or her boss; you are also his or her Pastor. If you are not shepherding and mentoring him/her then who is. Never forget that you are the Chief Shepherd at your local church. If you are not praying for your team; you are doing it wrong. If you are not getting up with your staff to talk soul and not shop; you're doing it wrong.
  • Will praise him/her publicly and correct privately. There are few things that I can think are more basic in leadership and managing as this. People in general do not like to be rebuked or corrected before other people. Doing such can create a climate that breeds resentment and distrust. The staffer needs to know that his or her Pastor will acknowledge the things that he or she does well and--at times--tell others about it. Again, Frank Bishoff has been the best example of this that I remember. Anyone who has ever served on his team can attest to this. He sings your praises in an effort to encourage and not to flatter. When there is the need for real truth that happened...behind closed doors. If you are just correcting publicly and never praising, trust me--as a staff member--you are doing it wrong and creating resentment. Praise publicly; rebuke privately.

  • Will hear him/her. I am not talking here about simply listening politely--or not so politely. But really hearing what s/he is saying. Now, hearing does not mean acquiescing to the suggestions of the person. Hearing mean you are going to remove the defenses. Actively listen and hear. I know you are actively listening when you remove the distractions. I know you are actively listening when you are not trying to formulate a response while I am speaking. You hear a person, when you can understand the motive and the "heart" behind what is being said. When I feel like I have been heard, it really matters little to me if--after suggesting something--my suggestions are implemented or followed. If a person has to continually repeat him or herself while talking with you then you are doing it wrong. Lead pastors should actively listen to the team member.

  • Will lead with grace and humility. Nobody wants to follow a person who is so sure that s/he is God's gift to humanity or at the very least the community where s/he leads. Don't read what I am not typing. (See what I did there?) You probably are a gifted leader with great ideas and great vision. However, those gifts and visions are from the Gift and Vision Giver; we should't boast in these. When you are convinced that you have all of the answers and you are the key to the success of that vision you very well might be doing it wrong. Just as Moses needed the team with which God surrounded him, you need the team with which God has surrounded you. If you have hired competent and gifted leaders then get out of those leaders way and allow them to lead. Certainly they should lead within and respect for the vision and parameters you have set  but once you set those, let your team do what they are called and gifted to do: lead. Staff members get frustrated when they are micro-managed. If every decision, from the color of the carpet to the theme of the checks must first be approved by you then you are doing it wrong. Lead pastors should serve with humility and grace by honoring, respecting and serving his or her team.

Let me say a few words of caution here, in closing. I believe that every Lead Pastor MUST be given the honor and deference due his or her office. Staff members must not be guilty--as I have been--of undermining or tearing down his or her Pastor. These suggestions really are offered in humility with the hopes that they will engender open dialoge and service to the bodies to which we were each called. A staff that is free from resentment, strife and ill-will will be an unstoppable force in sharing the hope, peace and love that is found in Christ and him alone. 

Last week I was challenged to look around to see the evidences of God's grace in my life as opposed to all of the crap. This seems to be a theme in my life of late. I must say that it was really great taking the time to see all of the areas where God is moving in my life. It was great to pause and see that God was at work both in my life and through my life. This week's challenge is similar to that one.

There is a Chinese Proverb that says, "Don't curse the darkness; light a candle." On Sunday I had one of those incredible conversation with my best friend that I only have with him. With him I was able to be raw, vulnerable and unapologetic in my bluntness. We talked passionately about theology, politics, ministry and life in general. Those talks always lead me into deep thought. It is one of those things that I love but I hate. I love them because it gives me time to pause, reflect and to be introspective. I hate it for the same reasons. My tendency is to become very introspective and over think everything. Initially it led me to "curse the darkness". I began to have a pity party with me as the only invited guest. It was ridiculous. But then on Monday I got a phone call. I initially was confused. I thought to myself, "I am pretty sure I am not the Pastor on call today" because for some reason I thought the number was from our "on-call" number. It was a call from a person who wanted me to give an acquaintance of hers a call. After talking with this acquaintance my whole perspective changed.

Where I had been focusing on poor ol' Ray, my perspective changed to another person. When I shifted from me to "we" I began to see the evidences of God's grace. I began to see things differently. Then I was struck by a simple yet incredibly profound revelation. It dawned upon me that whenever I spent time focusing on me--where I was the center of my life--I focused on the problems. On another level, I focused on the darkness and I cursed it. However, when I put the Gospel--and its call on me--at the center of my life that all changed. I saw that my life is most useful and effective when it is spent lighting candles than when I curse the darkness.

See the thing that I love about this proverb is it does not disregard the darkness. It does not tell me to think positively and the darkness will flee. No. It says, in that darkness while it surrounds me to light a candle. When I light that candle my perspective changes.

Will you join me this week in this challenge? Can we commit to lighting candles in the darkness?
The sun shines and warms and lights us and we have no curiosity to know why this is so; but we ask the reason of all evil, of pain, and hunger, and mosquitoes and silly people.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

While reading in Gospel Coach by Scott Thomas and Tom Wood today, I was reminded to take sight of the evidences of God's grace happening all about me. My tendency is not to see the evidences of God's grace in my life, (or the sun that shines and warms and lights)  but rather it is to see the areas that are not going well--the areas I don't understand or that with which I am not in full agreement (the evil, pain, hunger, mosquitoes and silly people). I was challenged to see the areas where God is moving. I was challenged to see all of the great things that Creator God has allowed me to join him in doing. Today, I was challenged to say no to seeing all of the problems in my life but to reflect upon the things that are going well!

I asked my best friend if he would join me in a challenge for a week--I pose the same question to you: Will you join me in a challenge? This week, can we be conscious of God's grace in our lives? The authors say:

To see evidences of God's grace, one could start by reflecting on the list of fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). How has God demonstrated himself through the fruit flourishing in your life? How have others illuminated the gospel through demonstrations of the fruit of the Spirit? You may find evidences of God's grace in places you've never looked.  (Gospel Coach, pp 180-181)

This week while at work, instead of complaining about the boss, can we look for evidences of God's grace? This week while at home, can we complain less about our spouse of kids and look for evidences of God's grace? This week, can we enjoy the warmth and light of the sun without constantly wondering about the things that we don't understand? Can we, for just this week, lean into love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? I know we can! Do you accept the challenge?

This week, may we be people of the Gospel. This week, may we live loved and love freely. This week, may we be the change for which the world waits!
Independence Day! Each year as a nation we remember that we are free. We take time to pause and reflect on freedom. Back in 1776 there were men who threw down the gauntlet and bravely declared that we, on this day, declare that we are free from imperial oppression.

However--as a black man--I can never think about this day without thinking about how odd it is that those men would declare their freedom while denying freedom for my ancestors. It makes me think about me, today.

In what areas am I blind to the contradictions in my own life? I know, for instance, that I am a man who believes that we should do all that we can to care for this one earth that we have been given. All the while driving a 1998 Nissan Maxima that most certainly adds to the destruction of our ozone layer. From one side of my mouth I declare that I believe all Americans are equal and deserve equal protection under the law. But I am afraid to go all the way with that conviction when I am talking with my friends who I know do not fully embrace such a belief. Finally, I say that we are each made free in Christ yet I am constantly held paralyzed by my own fears and anxieties.

Today, as I pause to thank those imperfect men for their courage and their convictions, I also pause to ask God to free me from my own contradictions and biases. Lord, may the freedom that we celebrate be fully realized today. May your kingdom (your rule and reign) come fully on earth as it is in heaven. May all people be free and live into the calls and destinies that you have ordained. May we, free men and women, never feel secure or rested in our freedoms until we have done all we can, said all we can and sweated all we can for another's freedom.

Happy Independence Day. Live into your freedom that--I believe--is most fully realized in the finished work of Christ on the cross at Calvary.
One of the most tangible evidences of grace in my life, outside of my wife and family, are the friendships that God has blessed me to have. I am not sure if it is just me because the way I am wired but it overwhelms me. I have not been built to simply have surface relationships and be okay with that; I just haven't. There are relationships that I know have been orchestrated and ordained by Creator God. Particularly here in Hickory. When we moved here nearing two years ago I never thought we would have the relationships that we have. Sure, before we moved here our best friends and their families lived here so we knew that we would have those meaningful relationships but within that relatively short time, we have developed very real, deep and meaningful friendships with others. This, in the age of social media and low touch, is nothing short of the grace of God from where I sit.  It amazes me the friends that we have here. We don't have just our friends who we had before we ever moved here. We have other friends who are incredibly blessed to have. Friendship that really are beyond the surface and that excites me.

I have learned, however, that in order to have a good friend, you must be a good friend. Think about it. Nobody likes a moocher. Nobody. The same is true with friends. Don't just take. Give. Don't wait for your friend to call. Call. When there is a strain on the relationship, be the first to call out the elephant and make it right...quickly. The key to being a good friend is being a good listener. Take the time to value a person by listening and genuinely caring for them. Kelly and I joke that our best friends are stuck with us. We have divulged too much to them, and they to us, to ever let anything severe our friendship. So if you look about and say you don't have any friends, ask yourself if you are being a friend.

It breaks my heart when I read or hear folks say, "I don't trust people and that is why I stick to myself". We were not created to stick to ourselves. We were created to be in community. We were created to be vulnerable and take a risk on letting in folks. One of the wisest and godly men I know (My former Youth Pastor and Pastor) always said that a lone ranger is a dead ranger. He was right back in the nineties when I first heard him say that and it rings true today. We were created to sharpen and provoke one another. We were created to challenge and provoke one another toward love and good deeds. Take a chance; let someone in. You will not be disappointed.

I told my best friend earlier tonight, "If we ever doubt God's grace on either of our lives, we need only look to our wives, Boog or each other." And the same is true with you. Look around you. Look into the faces of those whom you love and love you and know that you are blessed.

May we each find a Proverbs 17 friend. May we each live in grace. May we each live loved and extend love.

On Father's Day I find myself thinking, like most folks, about my dad. I remember growing up that I would call dad, "madeddy" (I will let you figure out that one; it isn't that hard, promise). I guess I could sit here and write all of the things that I wish dad had done differently, but I honestly do not spend much time thinking about that. My parents were separated for most of my life growing up and that was, for me, normal.

I can remember dad coming to pick up my siblings and me to take us down to Reidsville to spend the summer or weekend with him. I was always so excited to go down to Reidsville. I think mainly because it was in the country and we pretty much had carte blanche when we were there. I always remember my dad being pretty chill and laid back. He rarely got flustered and bent out of shape. He always was good for a laugh. He was a funny guy and seemed to be King of the "TP" or trailer park where he lived.

My favorite memories of dad, however, are the memories that I have with him since I have been an adult. He is one of the easiest people to talk with (if you can get past his southern drawl) and is as wise as he is funny. Some of the toughest times in my life as an adult, I have been able to rely on dad. He has always been there to talk. When I have an issue with my car; dad is there to fix it (normally paying for the parts and all). When I got my first two speeding tickets in college (within the same week) dad paid for the attorney to handle it (reminding me that he would, "Only do this shit once foe any legal matter"). When the girl whom I thought I would marry broke up with me, dad was there...listening and willing to give advice if I needed it. More than anything, though, he listened. He was there when I needed some real advice about the woman who I was blessed to marry. It was in those conversations with dad that he told me to, "start how I intend to finish"; advice that I remember and apply to this day. Every couple who asks me to officiate their wedding will hear my dad's advice during our pre-marriage counseling sessions. Most recently, dad was there during the most depressing time that I have ever experienced. I remember being so despondent and hopeless. I drove to Reidsville for the night just to talk with dad. I just needed to be in the same room with him, hearing him talk to me. Seeing the concern on his face when he saw me so down was, oddly, what God used to kick start me back to reality.

My dad may not have been the poster dad for some. He might not have been all each of my games growing up. But, to me, he is the most incredible dad. He is incredible and I love him so much. John McKinnon, I love you and will forever cherish you as my father and as my friend. Thank you for doing the best job that you knew to do.

Happy Father's day, madeddy!

Here are some of my pictures of dad. Man, I love my dad!

About an hour and a half ago I left the first ever protest I have ever attended. It is hard to believe that was my first protest but it was. I have never before decided to take the time to stand firmly for or against anything. After all, "what good will it do?" has always been my attitude toward protests. I must admit that I was skeptical about the whole thing. Not only was I skeptical, but I was super anxious and conflicted about attending. I really did not know what to expect. I know the protest organizers were billing this a "peaceful protest" but "How could they ensure this would be the case", I wondered. I mean, how could they ensure that the emotions--the raw and hurt emotions--of so many would not manifest in hatred of another kind against the "counter-protesters"? It is easy to assume that the "straight allies" who were there to show support for the maligned and opposition to Pastor Worley would not get too charged because, at the end of the day, we are not the ones who are being hated and harried, but our homosexual brothers and sisters are. There is a point where folks doggedly proclaim, "Enough is enough!" and feel like violence is their only way to be heard. Dr. King said that violence is the voice of the unheard. There is little doubt in my mind that we have drastically and consistently missed the point that many of our gay brothers and sisters try so vehemently to make. Alas, the protest did remain peaceful and had a surprisingly upbeat and congenial feel. 

I attended the protest, as I said above, to say I reject this hatred. I went to the protest to--by raising my shaking and nervous voice--give people permission to raise their equally shaky and nervous voices. I went because for too long, the loudest--and often most offensive--voices have hijacked the message of our loving and merciful God. I went to the protest, finally, because I felt so prompted by the Holy Spirit to say to my LGBT sisters and brother, "I apologize for how the 'Church' has treated you". One voice--in the crowd of so many other voices--may seem insignificant, naive or pointless but I know it is not. 

I lost track of the numbers of people who shook my hand and said, "Thank you." The first random hug that I received was from a lady whom I'd never met. No words were exchanged, just a silent 10-15 second hug and then she continued to walk. As I think about that incredible moment, there are tears in my eyes. What did that hug mean? What was she communicating in that hug. Does she know how sincere the words that I hastily wrote on this board mean to me? Does she know that this is not some gimmick but I really, truly--from a deep place--mean each word? These are all the questions that swirled through my head during that embrace. My mind now drifts to the kid--who could not have been more than 19 years old--who simply shook my hand and said, "Thank you, Reverend." I wonder if that kid, since he called me Reverend, grew up in a church similar to Pastor Worley's that left him feeling such despair and loneliness. Did his Pastor or Youth Pastor ever sit down with him and allow him to ask the scary questions? Did this precious boy know how much God wants him? Does he know how great of a price that Jesus paid for him? I wondered, "Does he know?" Then I heard the street preacher guys. My heart sank. I was pissed. I was sick--pukin' sick. (See what I did there?)

These guys--motivated by only God knows what--were spewing toxic, hate-filled "words from God". From one side of their moths they spoke of love and from the other, they argued with and belittled the gay protesters (they, of course, belittled me, as well). As I walked behind these guys, saying nothing, I prayed for God to touch them and their hearers. I prayed for God to allow people to see that all of "us" are not like "them".

The Gospel must be good news. Our actions and sermons should not build barriers. I trust--as it were--“the hound of Heaven” will convict folks of his or her own sin. I endeavor to always be the arms of God. I believe that love—in fact—is greater than hate. 

STR8 against H8,

Ray S. McKinnon
Tomorrow in North Carolina folks will fulfill their civic duty and vote in the primary election. I hope every person will vote. The right and duty to vote are so important to me. Today folks are still fighting for this right that so many of us take for granted. They fight to get the chance to voice their preference for leaders. 

North Carolinians will also get the rare privilege to vote  for or against Amendment 1 which reads:
Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.
So much has been said for and against this amendment. I have personally been involved in discussions, ad nauseum, on this topic. Frankly, I can't wait until the whole thing is over. I tweeted yesterday that I could not wait until May 9, 2012. Then I read a post today on John Shore's blog that gave me a different perspective on that day. 

The person writing was a guest poster to John's blog (it is great, by the way). He essentially talked about what Amendment One means to his family. He talked about how he will feel on May 9, 2012 after the amendment passes (as the polls seem to suggest that it will). As I was reading this guy's post tears began to fall from my eyes. My heart broke as I began to think about this guy's anguish. The tears were there for another reason, too. These words cut me as a butcher cuts the day's game:

I know your readers are not the kind of people to support such an amendment and the animus it represents. Nonetheless, there may come a time when a Christian asks you, “Why do gays and lesbians hate us so much?” Should that happen, I hope my thoughts here will come to mind. I know the difference between you and your readers vs. those who promote these laws. However, most of my gay and lesbian friends do not. It’s a good week to hate Christians. But know I love you and your readers. I guess it’s because I don’t really think of you as Christians, but as people who believe in Jesus.
"...there may come a time when a Christian asks you, 'Why do gays and lesbians hate us so much?" My eyes and cheeks filled with tears because these people think that I hate them. They think that I, a Christian, hate them. I do not. I suppose, however, I understand their animosity. They think, that we hate them so they hate us back. We often say we don't hate them but the reply from them is, "That is too yellow for rain..." My heart is for all people to experience the joy and peace that is available when hope is present. 

My prayer for each of my brothers and sisters to live as the sent ones. That we will hear the voice of Daddy, God and boldly speak and go. So, when you cast your vote--however you choose to vote--please remember the day after. To quote a friend, "...If the amendment passes or fails you still are commanded to love your neighbor-that includes your gay and lesbian neighbor."

This post is not to sway you for or against the amendment. I honestly believe that my sisters and brothers will cast votes that are in line with her or his convictions. I pray, that no matter how we vote, we remember the day after.


I have often wondered why it ticks me off so badly when a person says that I am all this way or that way. You know, "You are a partisan Democrat." Or, "You are a Calvinist." Or, how about this one that I have gotten a lot lately, "You a pro gay-marriage." Now, the reality is each of those are true to one extent or another. It is true that I identify more with the political left. It is also true that my understanding of scripture could lead folks to conclude (as I once did) that I am a Calvinist. Finally, I do believe that every American should have equal treatment under the Constitution, which is the only document that should guide our civil law. With all of that said, my positions are so much more nuanced than any of those general labels could ever really explain. Let's unpack just those three.

"Partisan Democrat"

I am a Democrat but it is probably fair to say that I am no partisan. I make no apologies for being neither a Democrat nor someone who is ideologically progressive but I am no partisan. I have had the high privilege to cast a ballot in three presidential contests. I have voted for the Democratic nominee two of those three times. In the congressional races in which I have had the privilege to vote, I have voted for the Democrat four out of the six elections. In one of those elections, I not only voted for the Republican but actively campaigned for the Republican, serving as a County Coordinator. In countless of the local and judicial races I have cast my vote for a non-Democrat candidate. What is my point? I am Progressive and will, more times than not, vote for the most progressive candidate on the ticket. A partisan will always vote for the Democrat and will never give a candidate from a different party a glance. I am convinced that the things that make me a progressive are biblical. That is to say, I am a Progressive because of my understanding of scripture. Matthew 25, Micah 6:8 and Proverbs 31:8-9 have largely shaped my worldview and sense of responsibilities as a citizen of the world and more specifically, America. When I wail against the injustices of the marginalized, it is out of a conviction to live out these verses. When I speak for my gay brothers and sisters, it is out of a conviction that the loudest (and often most hateful) does not get the final word on the Lord whom I cherish so deeply and exclusively. When I speak about the incongruousness of proclaiming a banner of being pro-life, but then rail against the very policies that will ensure that poor people will not have to turn to abortions, it is from a conviction that we should be people who live as "the sent ones" who give hope and not further despair and death. When I speak against the death penalty and wars that merely generate profit for corporations, it is from that conviction that does value life. You see, I am not a partisan Democrat, but I am a proud member of the Christian Left.

"You Are A Calvinist"

If you'd asked me when I was in college if I would be a staff pastor at a United Methodist Church, I would have told you, emphatically, no! Alas, I am a staff pastor at a United Methodist Church that I absolutely love. Doing a quick run through the famed "TULIP" (Side note: Reformed folks did not come up with that acronym) I would assert that I do believe that mankind, from the core, is totally depraved and, in and of him or herself, would not choose the highest and best. The sticking point with me has always been the idea of unconditional election. (Although, at this point, I still adhere to this point in Reformed Theology) Not the idea that mankind has no role to play in his or her salvation but the other part that would seem to suggest almost double predestination. That essentially means that God ordains those who will eventually receive his grace but also pre-damns those who were not predestined for salvation. I do believe that the substitutionary atonement of Christ at Calvary atoned the sins of those who ultimately places his or her faith in Christ. That is to say that his sacrifice on the cross was limited to those who accepted that work.  I further believe that those whom God has chosen for salvation can not, ultimately, resist the grace of God. I believe this efficacious grace will be applied to those whom God, in his sovereignty, chose. Finally, I do believe that those who have been chosen by God, will, ultimately, persevere in the faith until the end of his or her natural life and will ultimately be united, in glory, with the lover or his or her soul. I affirm these things but I am not as sure about them as I was when I was under the apt leadership of my Pastor in High School and College. My lack of assurance (and not of my salvation...see what I did there?) is not because the Pastors, under whom I have sat, since Pastor John, have somehow been lacking or deficient. Quite the contrary. They have each challenged my previously held dogmas. Ten years ago, my hands were clenched and I was sure that I had a firm grasp on what was and was not the true interpretations of the Scriptures. Today I sit with an open hand seeking to hear my daddy's voice. The father of my denomination said these words that are so apropos: "Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may." -John Wesley 

"You Are Pro-Gay Marriage"

The issue of homosexuality has been something that I have wrestled with ever since about 2006 when one of my dearest and longest held friends called me and, effectively, "came out" to me. That day the distance between "them" and me vanished. No longer could "those people" remain "those people". "Those people" received a face and a name to me. Their face was a familiar face. It was a face that I'd grown so familiar with. A face that I remember sharing memories from elementary, middle and high school. It was the face of the last woman I kissed before I kissed my wife. It was the face of the woman whom I shared countless hours in prayer and study. It was the voice that gave such incredible advice and words of wisdom. That voice, became, for me, the voice of "those people". That voice, for me, became the voice that was being muted and drowned. It has been said to me, "Ray, Tonetta is the exception. You can't base it all on her." Maybe that is true--though I highly doubt it--but the truth remains that "those people, indeed, have faces now for me. But, further to the point. I am not so much pro-gay marriage as I am pro-equal treatment under the law in America. My nuanced view on this topic will have the government out of the business of marriage altogether. Each person should have to get a civil union (hetero or homosexual). I am not for "gay marriage" as many of my sisters and brothers within the gay community would like, either. I want for the church and the state to be separate as the founders clearly intended. In that, I mean the government should in no way seek to shape or determine ecclesiastical (church) policies or polity and neither should the Church bring pressure upon the civil government policies or polity to somehow force folks to live lives that are in keeping with acceptable Church doctrine and teaching. I further believe nothing is necessarily gained when we attempt to legislate morality. Should individual Christians be involved in the political arena? I think he or she, emphatically, should. Here in America we have a republic. Because that is true, each member has a duty and rare honor to speak with his or her representatives to ensure said representative represents his or her values well. The rub for me, however, is when we use scripture to tell the civil government why one group of Americans should not be afforded the same rights that other Americans are afforded. Just as I would not be okay with the government passing a law that requires faith communities to marry couples whom they have a conviction would not be in keeping with its understanding of scripture; I am not okay with the church subjecting the civil government to its convictions. It was recently asked of me if I would marry a same-sex couple if I was asked. I told the person that I would not. For several reasons I gave the answer that I gave. The primary reason is I am not settled on that issue personally. Also, the church where I serve, though we fully embrace and love all people, we do not believe that same-sex marriage is in keeping with scripture. Finally, in the state of North Carolina, where I reside, same-sex marriage is not legal. It isn't now and if the marriage amendment fails to be accepted into the North Carolina Constitution tomorrow it will still be illegal in this state.

You might be able to tell from reading all of that why, at times, I feel like I do not fit easily into the boxes that I am often placed within. Though I am Progressive, some of my progressive brothers and sisters question my progressive bona fides. Though most would say that I am Reformed, my unease on the most essential point--unconditional election--I doubt Marc Driscoll or Dr. Piper and certainly Al Mohler will not have me in the solid Reformed category. Finally, though there are many points that my gay brothers and sisters would probably appreciate and consider me a "straight ally" there are some who would lump me with all the others because I am not settled on same-sex marriage (civil unions are a different matter altogether).

At the end of the day, I want to have open hands and an open heart before God. I want the good news to be, good. I want to live as a sent one offering hope and grace. Offering mercy and truth. My heart breaks (and maybe it should not) when folks form opinions about my motives or my commitment to God because I do not share the same convictions that he or she shares. My former Pastor wrote a post the other day regarding Amendment One. I made a comment on that post. He said: 
I have observed the debate taking place on the internet with regard to the Marriage Protection Amendment – to include seeing see those I love in the Lord (and who I know have a deep and genuine love for God) advocate for what I view to be the wrong side on this issue.
One of the things that I have grown to respect so much about Pastor John is  the thought that he gives to not only his sermons, but to (unlike me, sadly) the posts that he makes of Facebook. In his reply (where we obviously disagreed) he was very clear to not intimate that folks like me did not lack a "deep and genuine love for God". I want to model that. Though I disagree, vehemently, I do not want to question one's motives. I want to always fill in with trust and not suspicion. 

Pray for me, as I pray for you to live loved. Live on mission and, by all mean, live as the sent ones!

He's risen. Those two words mean everything to us, the Easter People. The fact that he is no longer dead is what makes all of the difference to us. The fact that the cross was not the end for Jesus of Nazareth ensures that the thing that was meant to destroy and silence us will not be the end, either. The power that raised Jesus from that borrowed tomb is the same power that lives within each who have called on Christ for rescuing. That power is what helps us to overcome every hurt, habit and hang-up. That power is what gives us another "first day"or that gives us thirty years. That power--the power that swallowed death--is where we find the very source of our hope. That power lives within us. So tomorrow as we--the Easter People--sing our songs and eat our ham--let us remember the power. Let us remember the source of our great hope. The greatest joy for us, The Easter People, is that the one who intercedes on our behalf is alive; he lives! Thanks be to God.

 It stands to reason, doesn't it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he'll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ's! (Romans 8: 11, The Message)

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