Proud Trees

What good is the tree
standing straight up
from root to treetop?

There is no prize
for pushing upward
with unrelenting force

How much better
to wind back and forth
finding the hidden pathway

learning the weight of the wind
and the pull of the rain
to arch your back in the middle
and sigh with relief

Leave me my here and there’s
my not yet decideds and my
limber green growing limbs

The oak may cleave the sky in two
but when I am finished
I will hold the stars in my open hand.

D. Burns, 2019

Central Cabin Number Five

My call to ministry came in a ramshackle little building with creaky floors and windows that let the bugs in: Central Cabin number five.

I’ve been asked countless times by committees and curious individuals just how I ended up sensing that God wanted me in pastoral ministry, frequently enough that I’ve honed my story into conveniently bite size pitches. The polite small-talk-at-a-party answer involves a joke about God being more stubborn than I am, which is true. The heartfelt join-me-in-ministry answer tells the story of a college kid touched by his work as a camp counselor, also true. The professional please-ordain-me answer centers the whole response in a divine encounter, definitely true.

What I rarely tell is the whole story.

While I had considered going into the ministry previously, I started working as a camp counselor at Judson Collins Center with my plans firmly set in alignment with the engineering degree I had begun at my Texas college the year prior. I had wanted to find an engineering internship for the summer but no one would hire me and so, without anything else to do during the day, my church invited me serve as a lay delegate to Annual Conference. The Judson Collins director was there and, apparently in desperate need of male counselors, made sure to meet me and practically hired me on the spot. I filled out an application, stopped by the next week for an interview, and it was official.

When the camps began, I was responsible for a cabin of elementary school boys from drop-off Sunday midday until pick-up on Friday afternoon. What began as the only gainful employment which would take me was suddenly everything I had ever wanted to do in the world. I was in my element and I loved it, so much so that I started thinking again about going into ministry. But I knew the difference between having fun and being summoned – and I hadn’t heard God do the latter just yet.

That came the last night before sending the final campers of the season home. I had gotten all of these rowdy third and fourth graders to bed and was laying dutifully awake awaiting the first all-cabin bathroom break of the night. To fill the time, as I made a habit of doing, I prayed for each of the campers by name, mentally working my way one cot to another, all the way to the other end of central cabin number five.

And when I did that night, I heard God speak.

It wasn’t a call to pastoral ministry just yet. Instead, the voice I heard said to pay special care to the final day with these campers. They were held closely in the divine grasp while at camp, I understood, and far less so when they left.

I let their names pass through my mind again and wondered for the first time about the lives they would return to. It felt like a non sequitur when the disconcertingly divine experience continued with an unquestioning call to ministry – a spoken affirmation that I would go to seminary and become a pastor. And though I stubbornly got my engineering degree first, I listened.

Later that night, I understood how it all fit together.

There was a young man in that cabin who had driven me absolutely crazy: Miles*. He didn’t get along with the other kids, was slow moving making us perpetually late to activities, and (worst of all) couldn’t tie his own shoes. I spent the whole week tying his shoes everywhere he took them off, which he did with frustrating frequency. I was more than ready to send him home to wherever he came from.

So of course he was the one to interrupt the joy of my newfound call to ministry with quiet sobs from his cot.

He told me that he didn’t want to leave camp, that he loved all of the camp activities and – most especially – he loved the Bible studies. I was surprised but thankful; he had picked the one camp activity that could be duplicated absolutely anywhere in the world, and I told him as much. But Miles disagreed.

His parents didn’t take him to church, he said. I could send him home with a Bible, but they wouldn’t read it with him. And when I realized that no one had ever even taught him to tie his shoes, how could he be wrong? I sent him home the next day with a youth pastor on a church bus and we were both distraught to see him go.

God is everywhere and, yet, some places especially so. The invitation to care for campers was just a particularization of my broader call to ministry. There and now still, the call to ministry for me is most faithfully the work of making places like that camp – places where the Miles in all of us can experience the presence of God and never want to leave.

Central Cabin number five was dismantled a few years ago. It was old and in disrepair, but it still hurt my heart to see it go. This morning, I got the news that Judson Collins would be closed for at least the 2020 camping season. With all the most faithful rationale I can muster, it still hurts my heart to see it go.

I imagine that there must have been no choice, though the hurting heart always and often wrongly imagines that there must have been. All I know is this: I don’t know where else Miles could have gone but I suppose he did have to leave.

Perhaps he found another faithfully crafted place or built one of his own. Perhaps this should always be the response when we lose a place we love.

God is everywhere and, yet, invites us to make places where it is especially so.

Broken Prayer

I can
not bel
ieve it the
re’s been an
other mass shoot
ing at a church and
i wish i under
stood why
but most
ly i pray
to one
who know
s the pain of
death and i know
it won’t fix the politic
al impasse but it
might fix just
one thing
and i
ask:

please
can you
put my
heart
back
tog
eth
er
?

D. Burns, 2019

unFinished

When I was younger my father
replaced the trim on the front door
but left it unfinished.

Not that he intended to leave the job
half-done but was surely summoned away
by something important.

Its incompletion taunted me until
with brush and anger and indignation
I silenced it in paint.

I do not recall if my father thanked me or if
with belligerent job-well-done wisdom
I silenced him also.

Only I know I didn’t see the trim later when
I walked through the door to the living room
and the hospital bed.

When I learned that completed checklists
don’t make dying any easier and that every end
comes in the middle.

That there is no wisdom in finishing when
it’s time to pack up the toolbox and attend
to something important.

And that fathers should teach their sons
that the work is never-ending but that life
isn’t.

D. Burns, 2019

New.

Can the soul be made new?

Or is it like dirty laundry
overflowing the basket in the bedroom
and heaped in piles on the floor
wrinkled and waiting.

Telling stories in spots and stains
of mischief and mishap,
accidents we’d rather forgotten,
tears in need of mending.

Our best, worn first, now crumpled and used
the closet empty with too-small and out-of-style
reminders of who we once were
we can neither donate nor discard.

So pile it up.
Carry it down
the creaky stairs.

Toss it in.
Set the dials,
let it run.

There is time enough tomorrow
to ponder the philosophic and esoteric
to ask if anything is ever truly new
and not just laundered versions of the worn.

For now, let the water be enough
and the tumbling agitations do their work.
Lift the damp and weary soul from the wash
and let it dry.

D. Burns, 2019

Quiet Words

As I’ve paused today to wander through my Facebook feed, I’ve seen a lot of responses to President Trump’s remarks from yesterday – clips from newscasters, screenshots of clever tweets, political cartoons, and personal responses from my colleagues in ministry. I’ve struggled with how to cast my own voice into the social media fray, feeling once again the joyous and burdensome weight of pastoral responsibility. How can a gospel-centered response be proclaimed in the echo chamber that so rarely creates opportunity for honest conversation and meaningful personal growth?

Oftentimes, I choose instead to remain silent. I tell myself that there are venues better suited for conversation. I tell myself that disagreements on social media are more likely to break relationships than foster learning from one another. I tell myself that my voice would just be a quiet whisper, hardly meaningful on a larger scale.

This is all essentially true.

And yet, there are times when silence fails us.

There are some stances that must be taken, even in the echo chamber. There are some times when every whisper of a voice is needed in proclamation. There are some words that must be spoken over and over again in an attempt to stand against speech that degrades or divides.

In response to President Trump’s reported comment, the president of the council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church wrote: “As United Methodists, we cherish our brothers and sisters from all parts of the world and we believe that God loves all creation regardless of where they live or where they come from.”

When any person, from any position, seeks to diminish the personhood of any of God’s creation, we must speak out.

We must speak with love and in support of love, in every place we may be heard – in every place where love is lacking or maligned, in every place where people are diminished or oppressed, in every place that does not shimmer with God-given hope and drip with possibility for redemption and reconciliation and resurrection.

We must speak love.

Fear in the Pulpit

It wasn’t until I arrived home from church Sunday afternoon that I heard the news: there were 26 members of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas that wouldn’t come home from their church’s worship service that morning.

As a pastor, I felt a terrible sense of fear settle deep in my spirit. My congregation is not so different from that faithful group of believers in Sutherland Springs. Could the same happen to us? For the first time since becoming a full fledged clergy, I thought back to a conversation I had with a pastor in the wake of the church shooting in Charleston. She pointed out that she sat and sang and preached all while facing the congregation, giving her a clear view of the church’s front doors. In the case of a similar tragedy, she would be the only one to see it coming.

Now a pastor myself, albeit in a different church, I stand in the same place.

Our response to Sunday’s tragedy has come with the swiftness of a country accustomed to mass murders. As we did after Las Vegas and after Orlando, we retreated to our political base where we either offered up thoughts and prayers or adamantly demanded stricter gun control laws.

This time, I’m not happy in either camp. Yes, I have and will continue to pray. Yes, I support common sense gun regulation. But rather than political platform, I have retreated to the front of the sanctuary – and have found a different message there.

Standing at the pulpit, I can see our unlocked doors and cannot help but celebrate that anyone can walk in. Every week, I pray that we will be joined by visitors – even strangers – and I pray for them. I pray that they will stay long enough to feel at home with us. I pray that they will sit to hear our songs and our prayers. I pray that they will pause long enough to experience the presence of God.  I realize now that they may not; they may come armed and ready only to stamp out the gift of life.

But I need not fear because it is a gift that cannot be taken from us.

This past Sunday morning, I looked out at the congregation as we sang an old hymn written by Charles Wesley called, “Come, Let Us Join our Friends Above.” With joy and celebration, we fearlessly proclaimed the third stanza:

Ten thousand to their endless home
this solemn moment fly,
and we are to the margin come,
and we expect to die.
E’en now by faith we join our hands
with those that went before,
and greet the blood-besprinkled bands
on the eternal shore.

As a Christian people, we know that one day we will come to the margin – the thin border that marks the end of life – and we, too, will die. Whether at the hands of wickedness or any other, whether we plan for its arrival or are caught by the unexpected, we expect to die. But death does not remove from us the gift of life.

There in death, we will grasp the hands of those who went before us and step out onto the shore of eternal life. As is proclaimed by the author of Hebrews, we are given freedom from the “fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15).

The debate continues, as it should. Neither we nor God want a world where mass shootings are commonplace or even exist at all. It is our work as Christians to bring about the kingdom of God on earth and we know that murder has no place under God’s rule. We are to set about changing hearts and, if it helps, public policy.

But please don’t mind me if I stay here in the pulpit just a minute longer. I need the fear to drain from my spirit as I hear Wesley’s words echo through this place once more.