A few weeks ago, was the 29th anniversary of my ordination. Often, people are curious as to how I got to be a pastor. Frequently, I’ve said something like, “I’m still not completely certain I want to be a pastor!” That answer is both a bit true – I’m not always certain about by job, my call, as I don’t always feel like I fit the mold of a pastor – and can be a bit of a brush-off to saying too much more. The truth is, it’s a little complicated.
I grew up in a family where church and a life of faith was important. I grew up going to church and was blessed to have the opportunity to go to a pretty good church. The pastors were good, thoughtful chaps, good thinkers and not overly sentimental. The youth program was good, the choir was good, the organist was fantastic, my relatives went to church there, it was a good experience. My home church was a big-deal in the community and coming from there was a big-deal. A bunch of people came out of that church and became pastors. We heard about it a lot. But I never thought of going to seminary. I wanted to do something. I wanted to change things. I wanted to change the world. Looking back on it now, I find it interesting that I never imagined the church I grew up in as a place that changed anything.
I got a different view of church and the Christian life the summer of 1984. It was the summer before my senior year in college and I was spending the summer working at the FDIC in Washington, D.C. The FDIC had offered me a job when I graduated [I was going to be a bank liquidator] and I hoped that after a bit of graduate school I’d make the hop over to the Federal Reserve. A guy I worked for knew I read a bunch of philosophy and dropped this book on my desk. He said, “You ever read this? If you haven’t, you should. You’ll like it.” It was a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship in 1937 in Germany. The Nazis were in power, the war hadn’t started yet but a lot of bad things had already started in Germany. Bonhoeffer wrote the book as a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, as a commentary about what a Christian life was supposed to be about and what that life entailed. This guy, Bonhoeffer, believed that Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount. He believed that the life of a Christian was to be modeled after the things Jesus said in this portion of St. Matthew’s Gospel. And he believed that this sort of life was risky and that it had the power to change the world. I had never read anything like this and I had never heard anything like this in a church [and remember, I had already spent 21 years in a church…].
My first semester of my senior year, I had signed up for a class – 20th Century Theology – outside of my major. I was sort of a pain in the butt in the class. I didn’t buy most of the assumptions of the rest of the class plus, I had read The Cost of Discipleship! I was a genius in the land of the lost! [you get the point…] We read this one book, A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez. The book, published in the early 70’s, is famously obtuse and poorly translated from Spanish. Gutierrez is a terrible economist and is way too optimistic about Marxism. But here was the thing I saw in that book – the lives of poor people mattered. And these lives mattered not just because they are human beings [which, should be enough] but they mattered because the lives of the poor mattered to Jesus. Somehow, there was a connection between this thing Gutierrez was saying and Bonhoeffer was saying and it changed everything I had ever thought about church.
I remember a lunch with the instructor of the course. He kept insisting [at least my 21-year-old self thought he was insisting] that what we thought in our heads and hearts was what was important. It was most important to believe [a head/heart thing] in Jesus. I kept arguing that that wasn’t enough. You had to love the things Jesus loved and live that way. That was the point of The Cost of Discipleship and A Theology of Liberation. If we actually lived that way, the church would actually change something. I remember this final comment, “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you become a pastor and then you’ll see.” And my response was, “I think I’ll do that!”
And here I am. I’m still not certain I made the right choice, but I’ve gotten more comfortable with the possibility that I’ll never be settled in that thought. But I do think I’ve had an opportunity to change a few things in the lives of some people for the better.
The general understanding of what it means to be a Christian is that a Christian is someone who believes in Jesus. Some people add the addition that we are to believe that he died for my sins. That’s all good and I know you really can’t question what someone says they believe. But over the years, at least over the last 34 years, I’ve come to see that for me I think there’s just a little bit more to it. I had to come to believe that Jesus really meant the things he said and that he did the things he did on purpose. It made all of the difference and it’s why, in my own way, I do the things I do. And I think that’s why I’m a pastor.
Sometimes I wish we could take the “Holy” out of the words “Holy Bible.” Often, it feels like the word “Holy” has made the Bible nearly unapproachable for many people. Too often, I’ve seen people keep the Bible and what’s inside it at a [safe] arm’s length distance. It’s almost as if we’re afraid it will “zap” us if we get too close. We might respect it, revere it even, swear on it, but never really read it and allow its stories to shape our lives. And that’s too bad, because if we actually read the Bible, just read it, we would learn a lot about ourselves.
Let me give you a little example. A week ago, one of the appointed Bible lessons for the Seventh Sunday of Easter we read this little story from the book of Acts that talked about finding a replacement for Judas. [see: Acts 1:15-26] The story takes place after Jesus’s Ascension but before the Day of Pentecost. The disciples of Jesus are sitting around and they realize that they’re one person short. Jesus picked twelve disciples but they’re down a man. It then goes on to describe the end of Judas’s life [which, in the more sanitized version we read on Sunday morning, had been excluded]. The story talks about Judas’s body bursting open and his bowels gushing out. Now that’s a story! And one we, in our holy approach to the Bible sometimes leave out. As we read the whole of the story, we see that the church has a complicated relationship with the character of Judas. For me, one of the reasons it is good to read this is because nearly all of us have complicated, and a little messy, relationships with God and the church. The Bible tells us these stories and acknowledges these messy relationships, if we only allow it to do so.
But there’s another part of the story, toward the end of Acts 1 that is at least as interesting as the story about Judas. So, they need to pick a new apostle and the story describes how they get down to two guys; Justus and Matthias, and they have to make a choice. Notice how they do it. They roll dice! Do you believe it? Something as important as choosing a new apostle is done by rolling dice. What a crazy story!
I’m not proposing we make choices in our lives by rolling dice [although there have been a few people who have read this story, applied the “holy” moniker, and decided that this is a good way to make a big decision – to each their own]. What I am proposing is that we see in this story a whole bunch of very human emotions and decision-making processes. God works with us where we are, and with whom we are and not who we fantasize or wish we were. The books, the stories, are holy because God is in there and we are in there with God. All of the glory and beauty and mess and chaos and ugliness of life are in there. I highly recommend you read it, you’ll be amazed by what you find in there. If you need a little help getting started, let me know. It’s one of the things I do.
There are very few things for which I don’t have at least a passing interest. I think I can trace this back to when I was a kid. We had a few books at home which consisted mainly of Bibles and a set of the World Book Encyclopedia. There was the local library, but you weren’t allowed to leave the children’s section until you turned 12. So, I read the encyclopedia. No kidding. A – Z. I’m essentially self-taught in a little bit of a lot of things. My problem has become time. I don’t have enough time to read all of the stuff about all of the things I would like to know more about.
For me, thinking about God isn’t limited to thinking about traditionally “religious” things or ideas. For me, thinking about God is thinking about astronomy and art [while I’m a fan of paintings, sculpture fascinates me endlessly], architecture and biology, chemistry and physics. Politics and history, economics [of course!], money and banking [which isn’t the same as economics, by the way]. Our family is really into sports [I wish I had thought of sabermetrics], fishing is a little slow for my taste, my friend Liz has taken me quail hunting, but I need to work harder at my aim…. Plumbing, electricity and brick laying have caught my attention [Winston Churchill was also a bricklayer] and I have books about all of them. In fact, I have books about a lot of things. If you know something about something, I’d like to know. I’m probably interested.
Something that frustrates me is that as Christians, as church people, we have tended to separate all of these things out of our religious experience. We think of God and worship and theology as their own, separate category. In some ways, they may be. Theology is its own piece of intellectual knowledge, but it feels that in the realm of the church, we’ve done a superlative job of keeping church business separate from the rest of our world. Too often, we’ve failed to allow our theological imagination to be touched by architecture and physics and biology and even good plumbing. And I think this has had disastrous consequences for us. Too few Christians think seriously about science, so we make few contributions there. Too often, we’ve set the idea of being a Christian over and against other people and created strange categories this way. Too often, it feels like this way of thinking has turned us into compartmentalized people. We think about the world, even mundane things over here and we think about God over there. Is it possible to do both at the same time? I wonder.
What if we thought of our lives, our faith, our Church, our world in a more integrated way? What do you think that might look like? I’d like to know. And if you’ve written a book, I’d probably like to read it.
It’s been a sort of strange week for me. I’ve noticed that the time after major church festivals [Christmas, Easter] tend to be a little weird for me. I think that the frenetic business of those seasons distracts me from the world happening around me. It caught up with me this week.
On Wednesday, I was overwhelmed with the number of community neighbors at our Wednesday evening meal. The number of people hoping for a good meal and a friendly face felt much larger than usual. While I was at dinner I spoke with a guy who got a job in another community but needed a bus ticket to get there. We don’t generally assist with transportation [for a number of reasons] issues, and when I told him he proceeded to use his phone for the online equivalent of a payday loan that will charge him 45% interest. Later that evening I listened to the conversation at the Race Dialogue we are sponsoring and was despairing over how improbable progress in our communities over the issue of race [or anything that makes one person seem different from another, for that matter] seems. By Thursday morning the only thing that got me to work was that I needed to finish Sunday’s sermon, so it could be included in our weekly mailing to our homebound members.
It was good I came to work [other than it is my job and I’m responsible for a lot of things…]. I saw our volunteers helping with our assistance program, welcoming people much different than themselves. I saw Open Doors volunteers chatting and glad to help open up our church to the city. I got an email from a member chatting about Easter Sunday and how she had been telling co-workers about it and about the things happening at Trinity. Most intriguingly, I got an email from a college student I had a conversation with earlier in the week in regard to a theology class.
The student had been required to go to a church and then talk with a pastor from that church. This had taken place on Tuesday. In the midst of the conversation it became clear that this young person had given up on church and didn’t find it terribly interesting but was willing to talk about that. God was the issue, and the way church has talked about God. “I’m ok with Jesus, I don’t think I can believe in God,” she said. I said, “Jesus believed in God. Maybe the place to start with God is where Jesus starts with God and work from there.” I could tell it was a startling way of looking at this question. I got this email:
“I wanted to thank you for meeting with me. I loved how you explained Jesus’ representation of God. It gave me a whole new perspective of God. I enjoyed Trinity’s Sunday worship, everyone I spoke with were genuinely kind people. I have recommended friends/family to Trinity because I think they would really appreciate Trinity’s congregation.
G.K. Chesterton [an early 20th century essayist, social critic, philosopher and Christian] once wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Being a Christian is hard because it opens your eyes to the world in dramatic ways. It can lead to feelings of depression because one sees the world with new eyes and with the palpable sense that I am sharing this world. It challenges our vision and our response to what we see. It’s easy [much easier, in fact] to close your eyes to the world.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus caught a couple of people following him [one of them was St. Andrew]. The story goes this way, “Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ And they said to him ‘Rabbi’ [which means Teacher], ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’” [St. John 1:38-39] As we know, they came to see a lot of things. If you follow Jesus, you’re going to see a lot of things. Occasionally, it will be hard to get up in the morning. But a lot of people have thought it’s worth trying. I agree.
Just as Lent was about to begin, a friend put me on to a little app called WeCroak. The app’s purpose is to put into practice a piece of Bhutanese folk wisdom that says to live a happy life one must contemplate mortality five times a day. So, five times, at random, a message pops up on my phone; “Reminder: Don’t forget you’re going to die.” You tap open the app and you see a quotation that is to remind you of your mortality. Five times, at random, each day.
I’ll admit that for me it started out as a bit of a lark. I annoyed my co-workers when the reminder would pop up: “Reminder: Don’t forget you’re going to die.” As the month has passed, I’ve actually come to enjoy – if “enjoy” doesn’t sound too weird – the messages. I like the randomness, as the messages have popped up at crazy times in my day. The quotes that show up can be a bit of a mixed bag. Some have been goofy, a few just too nihilistic for my taste and a few others I don’t think I understand. Two, in particular have stood out. One was from Joan Halifax, “Woody Allen has famously typified the attitude most of us find amusing and normal: ‘It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ Funny, yes; but the tragic distortion is that when you avoid death, you also avoid life.” The other was from RuPaul [I, perhaps like you, never really thought of RuPaul as a profound philosopher of life…], “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Hmm. That is, in fact, pretty deep.
I understand that this is probably not for everyone. Yet, I will say that it seems that a lot of people are shocked when confronted with their mortality and this surprise, by my observation, has a very debilitating effect on our living. Our denial of our mortality seems to have a profound power over us. Lent begins with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Yes, this is to help us understand our true nature. But it also restores the power of the Resurrection. Much of the fear and terror of death is drained when it no longer has control over us. Resurrection is for people who have died. Resurrection is God’s sign and promise that our mortality, our death, does not have the last word. For me, being reminded five times a day that I will die also unleashes, five times a day, a reminder of the power of the Resurrection and a reminder that it is not too late to reorder my life in its light.
Monday this week [February 26] the lead story in the Wall Street Journal’s Life & Arts section was “Is that Lenten Diet for God or for You?” The gist, if you may, of the article is a question I ask myself a lot. “Am I doing this for God or for me?” Is it really a Lent thing if my goal, really, is to loose 10 pounds?
I think we do this a lot. We have more than one reason for a lot of the things we do, don’t we? [You can answer honestly, I can’t hear you…] We do a lot of things that, on the surface, look like what we would call “good deeds.” Yet, under the surface we’re getting a kick-back for ourselves. In more “sinister” situations we might call this sort of thing “ulterior motives.” Now, don’t get all testy, we’ve all done it. Me too. In fact, we’ve all done it enough that most of us think just about everyone is really up to something we can’t see, at least on the surface. Cynically, we can start to think all things that look like good deeds have something of an ulterior motive.
When it comes to Lenten “disciplines,” this gets really tricky, as the article in the WSJ notes. The purpose of a Lenten discipline is to help you get closer to God, to lead to a deeper relationship with God. [Funny aside: I have a friend who gave up God for Lent. Yep. Gave up God. He spent Lent studying the objections to God by famous atheists. He came out of Lent with a more vigorous and articulate faith in God.] Here’s the crazy thing; our Lenten disciplines, the ones that really bring us closer to God, end up being things that make us better. They help us feel better, see the world more clearly, bring us peace. Crazy, huh? A really good Lenten discipline does make you a better you.
But in all of the complexities of the things relating to our relationship with God we need to either be prepared to 1. Start with God. Or 2. If you don’t start with God, be prepared to be reshaped in some significant way.
We’re about half-way through Lent. I hope things are going well with you. Whatever you’re doing this Lenten season is bringing you closer to God and reshaping you in unexpected ways.
One of my father’s mottos seems to have been, “There must be a harder way.” It sounds crazy, but I am absolutely convinced that, more often than not, my dad thought if something was efficient or time/labor saving, it must have some deep evil attached to it. Dad thought that a certain amount of struggle and suffering was good for everyone.
It feels like, more often than not, we’ve approached prayer [in good churchy lingo, I’d say “our prayer life”] with a bit of this motto in mind. When I’ve spoken with people about prayer, and when I’ve heard others speak about prayer, it feels like we’re trying really hard to make prayer as hard as it can be. It could be because many of our encounters with prayer include some pastor person offering a set-piece prayer – you know, that prayer at church. Of course the pastor has thought it through [mostly] and written it out. That’s sort of what we do in church. But let me let you in on a secret; most pastors [or, at least this pastor] don’t pray that way in private. Prayer is a conversation based on a relationship. People ask, “How should I pray?” Not to be glib, I’d suggest you simply start talking. What’s on your mind? What are your hopes? Your dreams? Your worries? What are you excited about? Start there. And while you’re talking, try hard to remember that God is not singularly faceted being. God doesn’t just want to hear about what you want or need. How fun is it to be in a relationship with someone who only asks for things from you? God is interested in your hopes and dreams. What’s good? What’s bad? Are you bored? Let it all out. Remember this: prayer is one of the foundational pieces Christians have used for as long as there have been Christians to enter into a fuller relationship with God. That sounds heavy, but I assure you, it isn’t. It’s a bit like saying that talking with someone is one of the foundational ways people have formed relationships with others. But here’s the thing, you’ve got to start talking.
Famously, Jesus taught us a prayer. Jesus’ disciples asked the same thing we ask. They wanted a bit of help. In St. Matthew 6:9-13 we can read the basic form of the Lord’s Prayer. Here, Jesus tells us to orient ourselves toward God and toward God’s hopes and dreams in the world. We learn to trust God for our daily needs and find peace and reconciliation for the messes we make [and those that others make as well] and for help to live in an admittedly broken world that has quite a bit of evil lurking around. It’s a great outline for prayer because we recognize the whole outline of our lives here. If you follow this, it helps keep you from getting too stuck in one place.
If you’re looking for a bit more help, there are a few handy things available to you. There are three great apps that are free and can give you a great jumping off point for your prayers. [Honestly, there aren’t things you pay for that are better than these three apps] They are [in order of my personal preference]:
Pray as you Go: I’ve used this for years and it has led me to think about things I would have never seen on my own.
Sacred Space: This is the companion app to the devotional books we’ve used during Advent and this Lenten season. Everything in the book is available in the app and corresponding website.
3 Minute Retreats: Yep. That’s right. 3 minutes. That’s it.
Try it out. If you can, let me know how it goes. Remember, start by talking. It’s no harder than that.
“Behold, I make all things new.” - Revelation 21:5
This is one of the last things God, in the Bible, says. God’s ultimate promise is that all things will be made new. The Revelation sums up what this is all about in the idea of a “new heaven and a new earth.” St. John understands what God is saying in a dramatic, comprehensive way. The last chapter and a half of Revelation plays this out as a new Jerusalem, new robes, new life is played out for John. It’s sort of delightful when he gets a golden measuring stick to measure the gates and walls of the new city [Rev 21:15-21]. Maybe we’ve read the story too many times, so we think we know it. I can hear you, “yeah, yeah, yeah, it all sounds lovely.” But that’s not the point. The point is that it is NEW!! No one’s ever seen anything like this “new Jerusalem” before!
When you stop assuming that you know what’s in the Bible and actually start reading it, it’s rather startling what’s in there. This is as true for pastors and religious professionals as it is for you, my good friends. When you read this little story at the very end of the Bible and go back to the beginning, you start to see that God has been making things new the whole way from Genesis to the Revelation. From Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah and the prophets [to name a few] to Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus and St. Paul the consistent story is that God has been making a new world. And the equally consistent story is that humans have been resisting. How’s all that “new” been working out? It's not a stretch to see that God is making new things and humans keep saying, “well, maybe not so new…”.
Admittedly, I like the idea [maybe] of you being new. Me? I just need a little buffing up. I’ve come to see that most of us, if not all of us, only want to be improved and improved is a way sight different from new. I understand. Improved means improved – we don’t change the essence of something, just make it somehow better. New? Well, new is… new. Unless, of course, you’re a slave or abused or downtrodden [to use a sort of Biblical word] or forgotten or starving or broken [I suspect you get the idea]. But that sort of new can be pretty scary to those of us who only want the world improved. What frightens you about God’s new? Go ahead and say it out loud, at least to yourself. What part of yourself don’t you want changed? In “church-speak,” we like to say that we “hold part of ourselves back from God.” We work to keep God from touching the parts of ourselves we don’t want changed, we don’t want to lose control over. New sounds good in the Bible, until we slowly start to understand that all this time God has been talking to us.
“Behold, I make all things new.”
Change is traditional. That sounds like a crazy statement, doesn’t it? Generally, we think of change as the very antithesis of tradition. But it’s true. The most traditional thing in the world is change. The earth is in a constant state of flux; always moving, shifting and reshaping. Humans, too, are constantly changing. We are constantly experiencing the world and subtly [and, occasionally, not so subtly] changing and adapting to it.
It’s probably for these reasons we resist change so much. We experience the dynamic movement of the world, of our bodies, of events outside our control to such a degree we want to bring order and control. We feel like the world is chaotic and out of control. We want control. We think we need control to make sense of the world. Yet, change is the most traditional thing we experience.
Churches tend to think of themselves as “traditional” institutions. We like to think of ourselves, to present ourselves, as unchanging. When we use the word tradition at church, change is not one of the things that comes to mind. True, the Gospel doesn’t change, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever,” [Hebrews 13:8] and God is always steadfast. But the parts of the Gospel that speak most powerfully move around. The ways we experience the Gospel, the ways it shapes our lives moves around because of who we are, where we are and the situation of our lives. It’s true, “Jesus is the answer.” But what’s the question? And that question seems to move around a bit more than we think it does.
When we worship there is only one, maybe two things we do on a Sunday morning that the Apostles would recognize. Specifically, the Words of Institution at Holy Communion [In the night in which he was betrayed…] and maybe the Lord’s Prayer [but probably not in the exact form we know it] are about the only things early Christians would recognize. Everything else is different. Everything else has changed over time so we can hear the Gospel speak in our lives. Change is traditional. Even in church.
We live in a dynamic world that can be deeply unsettling. Often, we feel out of control of the situation around us. We all know that feeling of just wanting everything to go back to some special time in the past, some time when it felt like nothing ever changed. But change is the most traditional thing in our experience. In this, Jesus promises to be with us no matter where we are, no matter what happens and no matter what goes on in the world. Jesus’s promise is that he makes and ever-changing world safe because he is there to go through the change with us. Because change is traditional.
I’m in Alexandria, Virginia with Rebecca Karcher and Makayla Tedder for a conference on electronic/digital ministry and communication. We got here early and went in to Washington to see the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Both are fabulous museums, both are examples of everything that modern museum is supposed to be; interactive with artifacts and technology. They don’t simply show you old things, they immerse you in a story. The story each place immerses you into is not an easy story to listen to. The story of African-Americans in the United States and Jewish people in mid-20th century Europe is hard to hear and see.
A lot of stuff leaps out at both places. For me, these included these: it’s really easy for humans to dehumanize other humans. Frighteningly easy, in fact. It’s really hard for humans to recover from these things. Really hard. It’s hard to know that the sort of things you see in these museums lurks in the hearts of humans. Somewhere, in the depths of the souls of human beings, lurks the ability to deny the humanity of other people. When that happens, it’s really ugly in almost indescribable ways.
What is also shocking is the near-absence of the church in both stories. Yes, both African-Americans and European Jews will find strength in their religious communities and, yes, individual Christians will act in courageous ways to live out their faith. As an institution, the church is frequently silent.
Part of the purpose of a museum is to help us learn from the past. We may have ignored the pain of others in the past, we may even have caused some of it. But we don’t have to be those people. The church is the carrier of a story of people who are changed by the story of Jesus. The forgiveness of Jesus helps us find our humanity and the humanity of everyone else as well.
Part of the story of these places is the hope of “Never again.” That’s the same hope in the forgiveness of Jesus. We can be new people. We can see other people as, first, human beings valued by God. We may have missed it in the past, but each day holds the promise that the church, that each of us will be able to see the God-given humanity of all people. And we will be willing to work for that vision.