Discerning Vocation: The Rob Lee Edition

The United Methodist Church is a lot like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, any secret trying to be kept will most undoubtedly get out and be amongst friends and colleagues before I have a chance to share with those I love most. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) So when I get a text from a pastor friend asking about my transfer paperwork, I know it’s time to let you in on what’s happening in my life.

I have submitted a request to the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church for a transfer of credentials as an ordained clergy person from another denomination. I received word from the Assistant to the Bishop, the Rev. Amy Coles that my paperwork has been received by my district.

I know this may come as a huge surprise to you betting folk who thought I’d end up a priest in the Episcopal Church. My love of liturgy has not changed. But my conviction that the Wesleyan way is the way for me is more solid than ever. There is something so convincing about the Wesleyan Movement that those who know me best (looking at you Nathan Kirkpatrick+) convinced me that this was a move worth exploring with the Board of Ordained Ministry. I’d like to thank my current pastor, Dr. Mary John Dye for her kindness, and my church, Broad Street UMC for their support all these years.

Nothing has been set in stone appointment-wise, and I will continue my work at Appalachian State on faculty for the foreseeable future. In January I hope to meet with the transfer/executive committee to prepare for this shift, and I ask for your prayers in that regard. Again, this is a brewing potion (See the above Harry Potter reference) that will take time.

May God, who inspired John and Charles a long time ago continue to inspire the people called Methodists. Thanks be to God. — The Reverend Robert W. Lee, IV

A Funeral Rite for a Pet

Funerals Are Important

The Opening Collect

Grant almighty God that through the wisdom of the ages and our present condition we might see the importance of your created order. You made the stars of night and threw them in their courses. You enabled the magnificent rhino to have a horn and the majestic whale to breathe in its course. May we your people be mindful of the course of our lives intertwined with your creatures great and small. Amen.

A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (8:18-21)

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St. Luke:

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

The Gospel of the Lord.

Praise to you, Lord Christ.

Reflection on Pets:

I have always questioned anyone who doesn’t believe that animals and the entirety of Creation are not part of God’s plan for redemption. To do such requires a lack of imagination and realism that God who created the polar bear and the poodle wouldn’t want to bring them near when God’s reign is made known.

Today we hear from Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus, a place of geographical uncertainty in today’s time. I don’t know about you but I am thankful that animals saddled up beside me as Jesus did with Cleopas (the character in scripture not my guinea pig). For in this saddling beside us Jesus understands our grief and opens the scriptures to us in that period of mourning.

Moreover I wonder if you like me have found the empathy of animals. How they come near to you when you can’t seem to make sense of things, how they love you when you are weary and bruised to the bone.

It is this very reality that convinces me that if we are to be raised from the dead than the whole of Creation will be as well. For animals are a taste of Eden’s glory and our future reality.

This hope gives me strength to lay to rest my pet. This strength gives me purpose to move forward and love more deeply.

Amen.

The Prayer of Committal

God of the sparrow and God of the whale,

We commend to your gracious love the spirit of our beloved pet N. For you, in your infinite love gave us these creatures as exemplars of joy, and harbingers of peace and tranquility. Their empathy exceeds the limits of our own, so grant that we your people may learn from them and find them in our company on the last day. Amen.

A Blessing

Life is short, and we have little time to gladden the hearts of those who journey with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God almighty, the Creator, the Redeemer, and Sustainer be with you and remain with you always. Amen.

What’s in a Name? A Eucharistic Reflection

The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

I have celebrated the Eucharist countless times in a myriad of parishes across this country, but nothing could prepare me for the conundrum I found myself in with Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. You see they have a rather famous Sunday School teacher there, a former president named Jimmy Carter. For many, President Carter represents the best of political values and a storied post-presidency. Even though he was vilified during his one term in office, I find it amazing that the man accomplished so much in one term and remains a humble human being in spite of being “in the spotlight.”

Being raised as a presidential history buff I remember learning about Carter, so to meet him was remarkable and a blessing—but that wasn’t the conundrum I faced. I have met some pretty amazing people in my lifetime, but I haven’t been the celebrant at a table with the former President of the United States of America in the congregation. I was left with a question: What do you say when he comes to the table?

Now for many this may seem like a silly question, but I like to call people by their first name when I serve them the body and blood of our Lord if I know what it is. That being said my mom and dad raised me right to remember that if you’re in the room with someone like President Carter, you refer to him as I just did or with a respectful “Mr. President” when he is talking to you. Even when my parents come up to the altar I call them by their given names, “Rusty, this is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” Still this felt a little different.

So, when President Carter came up to me I had a choice to make, who is he in the eyes of God and the hope of the Eucharistic feast we are partaking of? If the Lord of time and space was present he would call President Carter by his given name, and I’m sure President Carter would respond in kind.

I took a deep breath, he came up to me and I said with as much gusto as I could muster, “Jimmy, this is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” He looked at me, smiled, and said “Thanks be to God.”

After the service the former president came up to me and told me that he appreciated that I called him by name, and that I had preached without fear of his presence in the room. (Little did he know I was an anxious wreck.) Stephanie and I had dinner with him and found him and his wife Rosalyn to be some of the humblest people we have ever encountered. It wasn’t a competition for the president on who had the most accolades, or who had the most experience. He would clearly win in that arena. It was an inquisitive human being asking me about reading Reinhold Niebuhr, about my experiences at Duke with Stanley Hauerwas, and other theologians he had read.

The point I’m reporting back is that we need more of this. We don’t need the opulence of millionaires running our country—a peanut farmer from the middle of nowhere Georgia did us well, and we would be remiss to forget his legacy.

In one of his newer books, titled “Faith: A Journey for All” President Carter writes, “To me, Jesus Christ is not an object to be worshipped but a person and constant companion. I pray in is name to the Father, and I seek through him to understand our present world and to better comprehend my own duties and responsibilities in dealing with daily life. I have no doubt that Jesus is living now, not simply that once upon a time Jesus existed. I look on him as the epitome of love, of all that is good.”

May that love embrace us, call us by name and bring us to that table with the saints of glory. Thanks be to God for this experience. It is one I will never forget.image2

Sermon: The First Anniversary of Charlottesville

Charlottesville. Charlottesville. Charlottesville.

The 12th Sunday after Pentecost

August 12th, 2018

Grace The Plains Episcopal Church

The Plains, Virginia

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

John 6:35, 41-51

May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I love my wife Stephanie, and one of our more recent hobbies has been to fall asleep listening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on our Google Home. Audiobooks are best when read in a British accent. As we neared the book’s completion one night (which we’re still not done because Stephanie falls asleep and we have to start over) I was taken aback by a particular line I hadn’t read since grade-school. After the great fight between Lord Voldemort, the antagonist who took the form of a professor, Harry, the orphan, lightening scarred protagonist asks the headmaster Professor Dumbledore why Voldemort couldn’t touch Harry Potter. Dumbledore replies, “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin… It was agony for [Voldemort] to touch a person marked by something so good.” Hold onto that as we move throughout today’s sermon, we’ll get back to it.

With events in history, you don’t really recognize its significance until you reflect and remember the circumstances of such an event. August 12th 0f 2017 started out like a day for me that I could get excited about. I was officiating the wedding of two dear friends, Marcus and Taylor. I arrived at the venue early, put my stole and robes on, and sat with Marcus and his groomsmen and listened to them tell stories. That’s when the news flashed across the screen of my phone: “Charlottesville, Charlottesville, Charlottesville” I knew I had a wedding to do, I knew I had a job to perform, this couple were close friends and deserved my full attention. Whatever was happening in Charlottesville would have to wait until after the ceremony.

If you’re like any good American, you remember where you were when Kennedy was shot, when Martin King was assassinated, when the Challenger exploded, when the Twin Towers came crashing down, when the stock market recessed, when Dylan Roof shot 9 black worshipper at Emanuel AME, and dare I say—we all remember when Charlottesville happened. These events are engrained in our memories as much as they are into the fabric of our collective nature. We cannot undo these horrors, but we can remember, we can reflect, we can recollect, and we can risk the horrific nature of these events for a better tomorrow.

Today we hear words from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and John’s Gospel. Now if you’re like me you find Paul problematic sometimes, but I found the words to the church at Ephesus particularly striking in light of today’s anniversary. Paul writes, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Paul continues later in the 5th chapter that we heard in our hearing, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Recently I was having dinner with another pastor and this particular pastor doesn’t agree with how I handle things from the pulpit. This pastor said that I should be more principled and less partisan, less ready to engage in the politics of today to protect my reputation. Well that pastor is wrong. We need Christians willing to be engaged in the politic of today.

Now before you get up and leave, hear me out. I’m not endorsing a candidate for political office, I’m not saying you should have voted for Hillary or Trump, what I am saying is that to shy away from the fact that a rally of hate is happening one hour from here in Washington DC is to neglect the very good news and Gospel of Jesus Christ. You see we have this image of Jesus in a bubble. He’s super white, he has flowing brown hair, and he’s standing at the door waiting for you to open it for him. But I came by today to say that particular Jesus is an image created in the name of an American god. One that values the 2nd amendment over children’s lives. One that values oil production and transport of that oil over the care of our climate. One that values white lives and all lives over black life itself.

Jesus was inherently political. The bread you take, the wine you drink is the body and blood of a person who died as an enemy of an Empire, at the hands of capital punishment for the sake of his crimes against said government. Jesus cared about children, about life, about beauty, he was a Palestinian Jew who wondered if life could be better if love was more triumphant than an empire. Empires fall, love does not. Charlottesville happens, but the response of love can be resounding over the hatred of white supremacy and zealous nationalism.

Now I can hear it your head that love is nice, but it doesn’t work against members of the Klan. But let me sync our definitions of love for the sake of today and the significance that it holds. Love is not flowery, it is not a romantic romp through a field of flowers. If you’re anything like me the things and people I love most in this world are people who love me back enough to call me out on where I fall short, to love me back enough to challenge me, to love me back enough to know when to embrace and when to refrain from embracing to borrow from Ecclesiastes.

You see that type of love can change the world. That type of love is found in John’s Gospel as we see that the bread of life is both then and there and here and now. Love personified for we of the Christian faith, made whole in the oneness of the Eucharist. That type of love, can leave a mark. Ahh, Church, do you see where I am going with this? You see in the past year I’ve met Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who died last year in Charlottesville. And from what Susan has told me of Heather, Heather was an incredible lady trying to make a difference in this world, and though evil took her and countless others in our march toward equity and justice it was agony for evil, and evil will not win the war.

Let me, if you will, re-write the Harry Potter line for today’s anniversary of Charlottesville:

“Christ died to save you. If there is one thing evil in this world cannot understand, it is love. Evil didn’t realize that love as powerful as Christ’s leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone from sight, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin… It was agony for evil to touch a person marked by something so good.”

“Though the world seems oft so wrong, God is the ruler yet” the old hymn goes. Though we are here feebly struggling, Heather, Martin, Malcolm, those affected by white supremacy through the ages are free from their bonds and their oppression in a land across the Jordan. So now, we must make heaven come to earth. We must bring the Kingdom and reign of God to this place and this plain for the sake of our future. Because the world is literally on fire and we need a God who can fix this mess, and by God we are all that’s left to help make that kingdom realized.

When I was at the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation in High School, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a famed theologian taught me about realized eschatology. It would take me going to seminary to understand what he meant. He meant that we are the people, the very hands and feet that help bring about God’s reign here on earth. We are the people, we are the change, we are the voices that stand up to the bullies and evil of Charlottesville because we have something they don’t: love. They will know we are Christians by our love. Let that love leave its mark like it did with Harry Potter, let that love die to save you. Let that love be consumed in Holy Communion and sent out into the world that Christ died to save.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

A Dispatch From the Hospital Room: an Update on the Reverend Rob Lee

“Make it your business to lead a quiet life.”

Dear friends,

As I write this, I’m sitting in the emergency room at Davis Hospital in Statesville. It’s been one year almost to the day since I was thrust into a national conversation surrounding race and Christian thought. It has been one of the most challenging and gratifying years of my life.

Today I’m writing about my health and some concerns that we have regarding my travel. I’ve been nonstop for the past year, traveling from California to Massachusetts to New York City to Washington DC. We have made some progress with things and for that I am proud. But that isn’t to say it hasn’t taken a toll on me.

My breathing capacity is compromised due to a recent tear in my lungs and honestly I am at my whit’s end. My wife and I, in consultation with a myriad of doctors feel it’s best if I start practicing self-care. Frank the poodle agrees too.

To further this, I have been receiving nasty emails from people whom I once respected and people I don’t even know about my comments surrounding Duke Divinity School in my last blog post. This has taken a toll on me as well. This isn’t to say I can’t “take the heat” from my friends and foes, “but after a while you get tired of the bull” as my mom eloquently put it. I have lost friends and colleagues who all thought I was grandstanding on my views about race, a friend I love dearly doesn’t talk to me anymore because of this past year.

It’s with all this in mind, and in an effort to be transparent, I will not be taking any more speaking engagements or interview requests beyond that which is already on my calendar for the foreseeable future.

I am pursuing a PhD, teaching my classes at Appalachian, and working on marketing strategies for my book. I am also discerning my place in a denomination for continued practice of my ordained ministry— that list alone would make anyone tired and I’m starting to feel the side effects of that.

So, I’m going to borrow from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and “make it my business to lead a quiet life” for the time being. I will continue to pursue book endeavors and hope to be preaching again in pulpits across this country in the new year. I hope that we will continue the good work started and I will continue to share book news, life news, and my thoughts from this platform. I just won’t be traveling to do it.

I hope you will understand and find some sense of empathy for my situation. I am forever grateful for your continued support and I look forward to fulfilling everything that I love doing most. The book will be released April 2, 2019, and we will be pursuing with a full tank on the beauty of what God has in store.

Please pray for me.

With every good wish,

Rob

The Rev. Robert W. Lee, IV

A Portrait of Elaine Heath

I WORK REALLY HARD to recognize my place in this world. I am a white, cis-gender male with an interesting connection to history. But before all that came to light I was at a student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. That’s why I’m writing today, out of great concern for the institution where I laughed with friends, I cried over papers, and ultimately found God amidst the mess. To say that any divinity school experience is easy is a frivolous pursuit, but to say that Duke’s engagement with theology is easy is absurd. You see Duke Divinity has always been a place of diversity of thought, culture, and personalities. As far back as I can remember I have always seen Duke as a place where this was addressed in healthy, and sometimes not so healthy ways. I was excited when Dean Elaine Heath took the helm when I was in seminary, I thought it would be a chance for progression of thought and forward momentum for an institution I deeply love.

Now we’re here, two years since taking the helm at Duke Divinity School she is being replaced by Greg Jones, a former dean who prides himself on “traditioned innovation.” While I reached out to Dean Jones and committed to pray for his success and for the success of Duke, I feel like we are either going back to the future or forward to the past. For those who claimed Elaine was “a puppet for white males to control” I can assure you that was not the case. In fact, those who sought protection for themselves and other groups might soon find it worse off than where we once were. Just ask LGBTQ graduates who studied during 1997-2010.

Elaine Heath was a Godsend to Duke and we didn’t know how to handle it. We did not know how to receive the gifts and graces she had because we were guilty of being a complacent institution with poor dynamics of communication and transparency. These facts are not Elaine’s fault, and to suggest they are part of her doing is preposterous.

Out of all this, none of us, alumni, students, faculty, and staff win in this debacle. We may find ourselves deeper in the hole of institutional decline because we failed to recognize the gifts of someone who wanted to help us be better. That’s the problem with Duke University Divinity School: We live in our own bubble.

Let me tell you a story about Elaine Heath. It was a year ago this month that I turned my resignation in to a North Carolina church and found myself at the center of a firestorm of epic proportions. Elaine was the first from Duke Divinity’s faculty to reach out to me and offer support and prayers. I will never forget sitting in the entryway of my condo in Boone where I lived at the time with tears streaming down my face as she prayed for my wife and I as we navigated new and uncertain territory.

She endorsed my book, she listened carefully to people, and most importantly she fought for the wellbeing of students whether those students know it or not. She did so much “behind the scenes” work that wasn’t appreciated. After a hospital stay for my bipolar disorder she was instrumental in re-integrating me to the community with prayers and fervent support. For that I will be forever grateful.

I didn’t always agree with her, but I trusted that the God who called her was completing a good work in her and with our institution. It’s sad to see that Duke didn’t recognize that as well. It’s sad to see that we are moving away from a beloved albeit shattered community and further toward institutional brokenness that so many places of higher learning have succumb to. We can and must be better. We can and should be more careful to place blame without knowing the facts behind the walls of the ivory tower. We are Duke after all, and lest we become another historical site for those who wish to study the history of religion, we must trust that God was working through Elaine Heath for a better and more brighter future. On behalf of a broken body of alumni, students, faculty, and staff, I’d like to echo the refrain I’ve heard time and time again from countless places: Thank you Dean Heath, you have no idea the difference you made.

Dusty Bulletins and the Grace of God

God of dust and rainbows, help us to see without dust the rainbows would not be.- Langston Hughes

I CLEANED OUT our study today. It’s a task that I’ve been meaning to do for some time now but never really got around to doing it. You could say this year has been something of a whirlwind for me, but I poured through each piece of paper on my desk and went through it. Most of the paper went in the trash. Other treasures, I found were tax documents I’ve been looking for since last tax season, bills that still need to be paid (Public theology can be quite feast and famine for our family) and finally something that I think I’ll treasure most: Church bulletins.

There’s the bulletin from Madison Avenue Baptist Church and The Church of the Epiphany in Tempe, Arizona. (Who would of thought that Tempe would have a rocking Episcopal community?) There’s the MLK bulletin from the King Center and the bulletin from a friend’s wedding whom I love dearly. But I came across the bulletin that haunts me most: the bulletin from the Sunday after Charlottesville, where I preached at the church of my childhood. It gained national attention and eventually led to my resignation at a parish in North Carolina. Who would have thought that a sermon titled “The Providence of a Silent God” would garner such attention?

We live our lives by these bulletins, at least preachers do. We spend our time and effort making sure there are NO errors in grammar, spacing, and hymn numbers. We spend countless dollars on ink and paper to make sure the people of God in a gathered community have the opportunity to worship faithfully and effectively with the bulletin as our guides. Quite literally you can chart a church’s history by their bulletins. You can see what potluck was up on the calendar, or who the rose on the altar was dedicated to that day. It made me wonder what in the world am I going to do with these bulletins.

I think I’ll hold onto them for a while, I’ll put them in a box and put them away. I’ll pull them out and show my future children and grandchildren that their father/grandfather was a public theologian who had the opportunity to preach from some pretty incredible places, but most importantly he learned the value of trusting in a God who inspired authentic worship across the North American continent and beyond. I will tell that old, old story of Jesus and his love with these bulletins. I will tell everyone that will listen that God was our help in ages past and is in fact our hope for years to come, and I will hold nothing back.

These days have been hard, but by the grace of God I came out on the other side with my wife and poodle intact and found God there in the daylight. I was in the belly of the whale and found that the altar of God is found in these pages of bulletin paper, some are well done, some well… could use some work. But ultimately, I have found in these pages that the people of God are a restless and rambunctious bunch, ready for the hope of tomorrow, ready for the next bulletin to hastily discard on their way out of worship. Perhaps now you’ll appreciate a bulletin, perhaps now you might hold onto one that means something to you. They are, after all, the record of God’s people working in the world. Thanks be to God that by that incredible grace we are still working.