4 Years at RISE

Image used by RISE on 11/20/16
Image used by RISE on 11/20/16

For those visiting this site looking for post-election thoughts, I apologize for the lack of new material.  As some of you may know, last Saturday I suffered through food poisoning and then, shortly thereafter, fell ill with a nasty cold and an ear infection.  Although the doctor tells me I am now on the mend and have been medicated, I still have a persistent cough and cannot hear properly yet.

Anyway, putting politics aside for a bit, I wanted to tell you why today is a special day for me.  Four years ago today, I attended my first service at RISE United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg.  Back then, I had no idea what RISE was all about nor what I was getting myself into; I was simply following the calling of my heart.  Although I suppose you can say that I first went hoping to win the affections of a certain woman, I ended up finding something else, something unexpected.

Prior to discovering RISE, I hadn’t had a church family for a number of years.  From time to time, I would visit a new church, but nothing seemed to fit.  And yet here I am still, four years later.  Now does that mean I never miss a Sunday?  I’d be lying if I said yes. But RISE has become my home, as it has for others in the community.  Not since high school graduation have I stuck with the same church for such a length of time.  However, back then, the church was chosen for me.

In some ways, you could call RISE the church of misfits, those who do not fit neatly into the rigid and premade duties that some other churches require.  To be honest, it is an imperfect church (though if we are honest with ourselves, every church is) but unlike some places, it is open about its imperfection.  It doesn’t pretend that the folks who go to RISE are the world’s greatest saints, that perfect knowledge and salvation rests with that church, and that the rest of the world is comprised of little more than sinners and heretics.  Then again, if everyone acted and thought in perfect lockstep, there would be no chance for dialogue and no prospect for either growth or change.  Their often repeated mission statement is “mending God’s creation together”.

Although I suppose I could make a specific list, let me just say that I am grateful for not only the folks who lead RISE, but for many of the attendees as well.

Yes, I wouldn’t have predicted many of the journeys that I’ve shared with the RISE community from late 2012 to the present day.  What is next?  Where will we go from here?  Who can say?

The Substitute Pastor

On this most recent Sunday, I attended a United Methodist Church west of Staunton, Virginia.  Let me take a moment to mention that it this isn’t my typical Sunday routine.  Normally, one can find me in the exact same seat every week in the congregation of RISE in downtown Harrisonburg.

However, many months ago I inquired I how could help give back to my church and, as such, I was asked if I would go to other Methodist churches in the area from time to time.  I guess you could say that I would serve as an ambassador for RISE, telling other congregations about our church and asking them for financial support.  As RISE has a large college age population, they certainly can use help from outside the church.  I suppose that I must have been fairly successful at my mission (or perhaps no one else cared to do it) for I have been called into service many times.  I’ve visited churches in Page, Rockingham, Augusta, and Highland Counties.

Although I have to confess I was very nervous the first time I spoke to a congregation where I knew no one, I soon came to enjoy this duty and looked forward to my assignments.  Not surprisingly, no two churches have been alike and, as such, I’ve tried to offer a slightly different message at each so that if someone happened to hear my speech more than once, they might be able to learn something new about both RISE and my spiritual journey.  However, despite the fact that I’ve visited about dozen or so churches thus far, I have to admit that this Sunday was a totally new experience.

When I arrived at the small wooden structure, two members of the church stood outside greeting folks as they entered.  As typical, I wore my RISE t-shirt so that I could be easily identified as a guest from the RISE community.  When I stepped inside, I said hello to the parishioners gathered within.  After doing so, one took me aside and asked what scripture reading I would be including with my sermon.  “What?”  I asked.  Even though I had spoken to many churches before, my talk was only a small part of the service, never intended to be the bulk of the service itself.  In addition, I was told that I was expected to lead every aspect of worship, from the opening prayer, to the offering, to the closing benediction.  I looked around to find any member of the clergy, wondering if I was part of some late April Fools joke, but the woman was perfectly serious.  Therefore, I spent the final five minutes before the service began hastily scouring the Bible I brought with me searching for a suitable passage.  Once I picked one out, it was time to begin.

I wish I could say that every aspect of the service went well, but considering I have had no experience or training in either leading a worship service or giving a sermon, I tried to do my best.  I felt my message wasn’t particularly well-suited for the main sermon, but as it was the only message I had prepared, I didn’t have any other option.  As a side note, during the time when the congregation offered personal prayer concerns, I asked them to pray for my pastor as she has been temporarily suspended from the church as a result of following her conscience.

Once the service was over, following the example of other pastors I’ve observed, I did my best to speak to many of the members of the congregation.  The last fellow who approached me mentioned that he thought he had seen me on TV at some point and I said it was likely as a result of my run for Harrisonburg City Council in 2014.  I added, however, that the election didn’t work out so well.  He responded by observing that it was possible that the result was a better outcome for me.  And, as I thought about it for moment, I realized that it was quite likely that he was right.

On the drive home to Harrisonburg, I thought about this adventure, wondering how the idea of my visiting this church somehow morphed into me temporarily leading it.  I suppose that some people would have been upset by this miscommunication and being asked to serve as an impromptu substitute pastor.  Yes, I have to admit that I was troubled at first; but I’ve taken some time to consider it over the last thirty hours and I have to admit that I appreciated the opportunity…though I wish I had been informed what was going to happen so that I could have prepared and given a far better sermon.  And, as I continued down the road, I thought of a half a dozen different sermons I’d like to give…assuming God ever gives me the chance to preach again.

What an unusual Sunday it was!

A Request for RISE

Good morning readers.

As many of you may know, for the last year and a half I have been attending the RISE United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg, VA.  To tell you just a little about the church, although it serves the entire population, it focuses heavily on the area college students.

Well, at the service last Sunday, the church announced that it is going through a period of considerable financial difficulty.  I’m sure that this comes as sad news to many, as RISE has had a positive impact on the spiritual development of so many individuals in the Harrisonburg community, myself included.

I know that many of us are struggling in the current economy and funds are often at a premium.  However, if you could spare a few dollars to aid this church, this family, I’m sure it would be greatly appreciated.

If you feel so moved, please visit the RISE website to offer what you can or…better yet, stop into the RISE house on 690 S. Mason Street (the intersection of Mason and historic Cantrell).

img_1964 RISE has given so much to so many and so today I humbly ask my friends and neighbors to help support her in her time of need.

Thank you so much!

Thoughts of Guatemala

IMG_2621
A view from a rooftop in Antigua, Guatemala

Even though many of you haven’t been there, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Guatemala and Virginia are markedly different places and, as such, switching from one to the other brings with it a whole multitude of changes.  Therefore, I’d like to share a few observations of the country.

First there is the weather.  As Guatemala is far closer to the equator, the climate in general is much warmer.  For example, while residents of Virginia worried about the prospect of more snow, Guatemala City routinely experienced temperatures in the 80s, 90s, and even hotter still.  However, there are considerable variations, given that a fair chunk of Guatemala sits along the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  In addition, Guatemala has a lot of changes in elevation.  The capital of Guatemala City is very low in elevation while the highlands where we spent the bulk of our time, were typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler.

People complain about the militarization of the police in America, which is troubling, but the police in Guatemala are even more heavily armed.  It was common to see them carrying weaponry typically reserved for soldiers.  In addition, banks and some businesses employed armed security.  I cannot speak for anyone else, but I find it disconcerting to see a man with a shotgun or sometimes two men standing  vigil outside a bank.

IMG_2584Political signs were prevalent in Guatemala.  You could find them on billboards, on the sides of buildings both commercial and residential, even painted on guardrails and rocks!  Although I knew nothing of the various parties, each had a color and a hand gesture associated with it. Lider was far and away the most common.

Many of the basic facets of life that we take for granted in Virginia are rare or unheard of in Guatemala.  Due to sanitary concerns, we did not drink the tap water anywhere, some communities still used outhouses and even in places where plumbing was available, you could not flush toilet tissue.  Gutters were almost nonexistent.  In the villages, many women still cook over open fires; stove construction was one of the motivations for our journey.  Partially domesticated dogs were a common sight roaming the streets.  I was told not to touch any animal due to the worry of fleas.

Communication wasn’t always easy.  Although Spanish was the most prevalent language, others did not know it, speaking varieties of ancient Mayan.  Then again, almost every time I tried to say something in Spanish, I could only remember German; from time to time I accidentally spoke German leaving everyone even more confused.

What $100 looks like in Guatemala
What $100 looks like in Guatemala

Some businesses accepted only quetzales, the national currency of Guatemala, while other took both quetzales and U.S. dollars.  When I exchanged my money, I received Q763 for $100.  Speaking of money, prices varied greatly on products, likely based upon tourism.  For example, I saw signs for a bottle of Coke as low as Q3 ($.39) and as high as Q12 ($1.57).  Nevertheless, the price of most goods in Guatemala was noticeably lower than in Virginia.  In addition, unlike the United States, haggling was expected.  The original asking price of the painting I bought was Q700; we later agreed upon Q300, a considerable difference.

A painting of Antigua. (Still needs to be properly mounted and framed)
A painting of Antigua. (No, it isn’t damaged, it just still needs to be properly mounted and framed)

Although one could find American fast food establishments like McDonalds, we enjoyed traditional Guatemalan cuisine at almost every meal.  Reoccurring elements included: rice, tortillas, black beans, plantains, and coffee.  However, we did have Dominos pizza one evening.

IMG_2583Soccer, or football as they call it, is a big deal in Guatemala.  Fans get very animated, shouting curses at the other team and making gesture that I later discovered were quite rude.  A sizable group of riot police were on hand at the game to make sure that no one stormed the field.  When I purchased a Pepsi, it was poured into a plastic bag, presumably so I wouldn’t hurl the can at the players or the referees.  I was glad the home team won as I didn’t want to see how the fans would react if they didn’t.

Yes, as Americans, it might be easy to look down upon Guatemalan society as backwards, dirty, and destitute.  After all, they don’t enjoy many of the same facets of life that we often take for granted.  I must confess that I greatly prefer my Virginia (except for the cold).  Nevertheless, having witnessed many parts of their country firsthand, even in the poorest villages, the people generally seemed to be relatively happy and they promoted an ethic of hard work and friendliness.  Aren’t these traits universally sought?

IMG_2615Overall, I would say Guatemala is an exceedingly interesting place to visit and I was grateful for the opportunity to join with my church at RISE in this adventure.  It was fantastic to explore and learn about this country.  In addition, I got to connect with a number of people I had only briefly seen on Sundays.  I must confess that if you would have told me six months ago that I would travel to Guatemala, I would have thought the idea impossible.  Therefore, my advice to you, dear reader, is to be open to the possibility of all sorts of new experiences.  You never know where they might lead!

A Week in Guatemala

Hello readers!

I want to let you know that is highly unlikely that there will be any updates to The Virginia Conservative for the next week.  In case you didn’t know, I will be leaving the country tomorrow morning to participate in a mission trip with RISE (my church) in Guatemala.

While I’m gone, I’d like to leave you with this song.  They play it during the church service from time to time and I think it appropriate to the occasion.

See you again soon!

A Thank You Note to Senator Kaine

Picture from kaine.senate.gov

I’ll admit that I don’t have much in common politically with Senator Kaine.  On so many issues, he and I are diametrically opposed.  Nevertheless, I feel it proper to take a moment today to thank Senator Kaine and his staff for their help.

A little over a week ago, my church (RISE) asked me to join them in their mission trip to Guatemala in the early part of next month.  Although honored by the suggestion, I faced several important hurdles, one of which was that my passport expired about four years ago.  Normally, it would be a simple process of getting my passport renewed; it takes about six weeks.  However, in this case I didn’t have six weeks to wait.

I contacted both of my Senators, Warner and Kaine, in the hope that someone would be able to help me.  In response, Senator Kaine’s office set up an appointment for me today at the Washington D.C. passport office as well as sending the necessary paperwork ahead.

Although the trip took several hours and had a few unexpected surprises, such as the parking lots at both the Vienna and Falls Church Metro stops being completely full and thus required me to actually drive into D.C., the overall process was relatively quick and painless; I’d estimate that the time inside took only about ten minutes.  Unfortunately, they could not give me my passport today due to a glitch in their machines and required me to have it Fed Exed to me in the coming days.  I wish that I didn’t have to pay even more, but what can you do?  Nevertheless, I am told that I should have my shiny new passport by early to mid next week.

Therefore, as stated at the beginning, I want to take a break from politics to thank Senator Kaine and his employees for their assistance.  Please know that it was greatly appreciated.

Valentine’s Musings

IMG_2042In previous years my single friends often refer to Valentine’s Day as “Singleness Awareness Day”, often seemingly bitter about the fact that they do not have a person with whom to share the day.  I certainly understand the frustration, as 2014 will mark another year out of many that I am alone.

Yes, it is easy to look at couples with a certain amount of jealousy.  However, this year my perspective has shifted.  If you read this blog in late 2012 or early to mid 2013, you know that during portions of these timeframes I experienced very powerful and, one could argue, life-transforming feelings of love.  A multitude of days were punctuated with great hopes, uncertainty, and terrible fears; unfortunately, the grand adventure didn’t end particularly well.  I snapped the above photo while with the Sarvis campaign in Lynchburg on July 28th, 2013.  At that time, some small part of me wanted my dreams of love to hold fast even though they had already more or less melted away like a pile of snow in a spring thaw.

Like so many facets of life, the whole journey had its positive and negative consequences, but if I could focus on something positive for a moment, that experience led me to a whole host of new friends, political contacts, and a faith community in the form of the RISE Methodist Church in Harrisonburg.  Prior to that time, I had been without a regular church for a multitude of years, and I must say that I was glad for the opportunity to participate in worship with these new brothers and sisters in Christ.

The fact that I could discover love, even a strained, confusing, and often one-sided variety that it was, gives me hope that one day I’ll be able to find that exceptional woman with whom I can share the rest of my life.  This Valentine’s Day message is for her. 1890986_10151961470444077_599885035_n

As I posted on Facebook, RISE has honored me by asking me to join in their mission trip to Guatemala next month.  Although I am looking forward to the opportunity to serve, I do remember that one of my cousins met his wife on such a foreign adventure.  It is important to be mindful of opportunities when they present themselves.  Then again, I hear you often find love when you least expect it.

Friends, if you are single, don’t be bitter about Valentine’s Day.  Do I need to tell you that it is better to be single than to be with the wrong person?  I cannot count how many couples I have seen who are terrible for each other; nevertheless, due to the fear of being alone they make decisions that lead to unhappy marriages, dysfunctional families, and, ultimately, troubled children.  No one deserves to be subjected to an abusive relationship.  And, conversely, if you have succeeded in finding that special someone, remember that despite what the ads tell you, materialism isn’t the mark of true love; love isn’t properly measured by dollars spent but rather the strength of your relationship and your willingness to give of yourself to each other for the happiness of all.

But, then again, you may ask what do I know?  Obviously, I don’t have all of the answers.  Otherwise, why haven’t I found the right person yet?

Best wishes to everyone on this Valentine’s Day, both to the couples and to the singles. And, the next time Valentine’s Day comes around, I hope I can share a remarkable woman with the readers of The Virginia Conservative.

May each of you find that man or woman of your dreams and may you experience a love that surpasses your wildest expectations!

My Address to RISE

This morning, I had the honor to address the congregation at RISE.  I was asked to speak briefly in response to the question “what are you waiting for?”  Although there are, in fact, a number of things that I’m waiting for, not surprisingly I decided to talk about politics.

Although I prefer to speak only using a few talking points, I decided to jot down the entirety of today’s talk.  To follow is what I offered (with a few spur of the moment modifications):

To put it succinctly, I would say I’m waiting for increased dialogue, tolerance, and understanding.  Unfortunately, in our society there are generally two topics that are considered taboo.  The first is religion, which I assume you all are okay discussing given where we are this Sunday morning.  The second is politics.  For those who don’t know me, I work in politics and would like to speak with you about politics.  The exit doors are in the back assuming you feel the need to take this moment to run screaming from the sanctuary.

Anyway, as stated, our society tends to shun discussion of both religion and politics.  Both of these topics evoke strong emotions and our differences tend to drive people apart.  I know growing up here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I developed a deeply conservative set of beliefs and formed my social circles around like-minded individuals.  I was generally friendly to those who agreed with me and didn’t much care for those who didn’t…to put it mildly.  That’s the way I was taught and how I assumed society operated.

After graduating from William & Mary, I worked as a political pollster in Charlottesville.  Once I had been there about a year, one of my liberal managers discovered my political leanings.  As a result, every day he would come by my desk and label me either a Nazi or a Klansman.  It didn’t take too many episodes before my heart became completely calloused; hate for those who were different from me flowed as naturally as the blood in my veins.  It wasn’t merely directed to my boss, coupled with previous experiences, I developed an exceedingly unfavorable view of liberals and didn’t have much use for libertarians either.

But, as time went on, and my adventures in politics continued, my thoughts began to shift.  I reasoned that if God has granted us free will to love him or reject him and to live our lives as we see fit, how could I promote policies that strip away our God-given liberties and surrender this power to the government?  Just as important, how can anyone grow, learn, and expand if he or she surrounds him or herself with only like-minded individuals?  Whether Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or independent are we not all made in the image of our creator, not defined merely by a political label, but by our hopes and dreams for a better life and a better world?

Several months ago, I attended a political gathering that included members of the church I attended growing up.  During their discussion, some attendees expressed a strong hatred for our president and the Muslim community.  After all, as one speaker commented, every follower of Islam is merely a terrorist in waiting, right?   As I sat there listening to this vitriol, I thought to myself, “good God!  Is this who I used to be?”  I wanted to turn to the eighteen-year-old sitting to my left absorbing it all who reminded me of a younger version of myself and yell.  “Run!  Don’t let this poison seep into your soul!”

Generations ago, it was socially acceptable to a hate person solely based upon the color of her skin.  Why is it today that it is still acceptable, and perhaps even celebrated in the media, to hate a person based upon the color of her politics?

Friends, I’m not encouraging you to abandon either your religious or political beliefs or hide them in a box.  Dialogue is important and participation in our political system ought to be celebrated, not scorned.  There is nothing inherently wrong about being a liberal, a libertarian, or a conservative, but hold some measure of respect for those who think differently.  Now, this line of thinking isn’t particularly popular and has led some of my friends to question whether or not I have lost my mind.  You likely cannot image some of the hateful messages I received when, as a long-time Republican staffer, I sought and accepted a job with a Libertarian candidate during this last election cycle.  I’ve also heard it said that Christian virtue has no place in American politics.  Still others think that these are the thoughts of an unrealistic dreamer.

If I may quote the song Dreamer by Ozzy Osbourne.

“If only we could all just find serenity

It would be nice if we could live as one

When will all this anger, hate, and bigotry

Be gone?

I’m just a dreamer

I dream my life away

Today

I’m just a dreamer

Who dreams of better days

Okay

I’m just a dreamer

Who’s searching for the way”

Let me close my thoughts with a few bits of advice from the book of Romans.  After all, its author, the Apostle Paul, experienced an even more radical shift in his outlook on life.

“Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.  Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable.  Do your part to live in peace with everyone, as much as possible.” Romans 12:17-18

And

“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  Then you will know what God wants you to do, and you will know how good and pleasing and perfect his will really is.” Romans 12:2

So, as I stated at the beginning, I implore you, whatever your political persuasion may be, if any, please strive to expand dialogue, tolerance, and understanding.  Yes, differences in opinion are natural, but hatred need not be.  I hope we don’t have to wait much longer for this dream; after all, transformation starts in the hearts of each of us.

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to speak to the RISE community and hope to do so again.

Until Christmas, each week a member of the congregation will offer his or her thoughts on the subject “what are you waiting for?”  I hope you’ll consider joining us next Sunday as we continue to explore this topic.

RISE-iversary

Greetings readers.

On a non-political note, I’m pleased to announce that today marks my one year anniversary of attending the RISE church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Although the reasons which first brought me to this faith community no longer keep me there,  during this last year I’ve found an incredible group of individuals including Amanda, the amazing pastor of RISE.  We’ve had our share of joy and sorrows, our challenges and our triumphs.  We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve learned, and we’ve grown.  Although we come with our own histories and stories, we are bound together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Although I’ve invited you before, for those who live in the Harrisonburg area looking for a church, perhaps RISE would be a good fit for you.  Maybe I’ll see you next Sunday at 10 AM at the Court Square Theater.  Or if you’re not into that whole Sunday morning thing, you could try Tuesday nights with RAISE.

The RISE Contagion

This morning, Amanda, the pastor of RISE in Harrisonburg, crafted the following video for the service.  Personally, I found its message to be quite powerful. 

As we wrestle with the countless struggles of life, in how many moments are our emotions overwhelmed by fear?  I, for one, certainly can relate.  Among the various types of fear, there is the fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, and fear spawned by hate.  Unfortunately, like so many areas of existance, our political environment is dominated by these fears as well.

So, as Amanda suggests, is love stronger than fear?  For those in the Harrisonburg area, I encourage you to join us as we explore this question together.  You can do so for the next several Sundays at the Court Square Theater in downtown Harrisonburg starting around 10 AM.