This Has Nothing to Do With Ministry (But My Mom Will Be Happy With It!)

This week a friend asked me to go with them to the mountains.

I said, Sure! Yes! Amazing!

Then I looked at my bank account. Quickly calculating out my rent check, which will go through any day now, and a couple other bills, I have roughly $55 spending money for the next two weeks.

So, yeah, I’m not going to the mountains.

But I’m making the best of it! I’m QUILTING!

Last year for my birthday my parents and I went in together to buy me a sewing machine. I have used it sparingly since then, getting far busier and more distracted than I anticipated this year.

That same birthday weekend, Mom and I went to the most amazing fabric store in existence, had a laughing fit that nearly killed us both in the parking lot, and then spent all of my money buying the materials for me to make a quilt. And I promptly neglected it, until a weekend when I had time to give it a proper start.

…Well, here we are almost 9 months later and I’ve finally found that weekend. Yay!

So, I’ll try to keep you updated over the next few months as this baby (hopefully) takes shape!

The (Hopeful) Final Product

The (Hopeful) Final Product

It’s not as ambitious as it looks. Okay, maybe it is, but here’s my logic: Each of the 120 squares is made up of 18 identical rectangles. And each square is identical. So, there’s nothing complex about putting this thing together– just cut 2160 identical tiny rectangles, sew them together into squares, and then sew the squares together. This makes a lot of sense as “easy” to me. …But I’ll get back to you in a few weeks, somewhere around rectangle 800 I’ll probably start to lose it.

Step 1: Wash Step 2: Iron Step All of the Above: Don't get burned or burned out!

Step 1: Wash
Step 2: Iron
Step All of the Above: Don’t get burned or burned out!

 

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll also add that I needed something to do with my hands and eyeballs when The Walking Dead (which I’ve started in lieu of Breaking Bad) gets too scary for me. There’s nothing weird about quilting and watching The Walking Dead at the same time. Nothing weird at all. GET OVER YOUR GENDER STEREOTYPES.

 

Sorry I yelled at you ;)

nearness

From the beginning of my spiritual life, at least as far back as I can remember having had much to do with it personally, I have generally conceived of God as being physically present to me. My memory that’s closest to “getting saved” involves sitting on the floor in front of a desk chair, asking Jesus to have a seat in it, and then asking Him to be my friend.

Since then, rarely but often enough, I have felt a spooky sense of nearness, almost always when I am alone (or alone in a crowd), and usually in dark chapels but sometimes while sitting in class or in church or while reading in a quiet park. Little pockets of time and space wherein Christ leans a little closer, a little more densely, and I feel… an elbow against my arm, or a teasing hair pull, not physically but really, still, really. I close my eyes and see Him there, feet propped on my coffee table, eyebrow raised at the dirty dishes in the sink, hand reaching over to still my twiddling thumbs (am I the only person in the world who still twiddles her thumbs? I’ve been teased for this several times recently. Whatever, maybe that gives me hipster status).

I’m so glad for this. I’m more glad for the nearness than for anything else in my life. Because when I go through periods of spiritual drought, the nearness doesn’t pick up its carpet bags and head for higher grounds and more faithful hearts. It gets a little crankier, maybe. But it stays. And that’s good.
And it stays, too, when I go through periods where there are other visitors in my home– Lauren Winner wrote in her book Still about Loneliness coming like an old woman with a handbag and making herself at home on the couch. This resonates deeply with me, probably because of my sense of God’s physical presence.

Loneliness occasionally comes knocking here, but more often my visitors go by names like Doubt and Addiction and Reclusiveness. Doubt is more of a specter hanging about near the ceiling, barely making himself known but flickering in the corner of my eye, while Addiction elbows her way into my eyeline (“SHOULDN’T YOU BE WATCHING RERUNS OF 30 ROCK RIGHT NOW DON’T TRY TO STOP YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO”) and Reclusiveness yawns and drapes herself over my lap: “It’s monk-like, my dear,” she says with a soft sigh, “The most brilliant and holy people you know barely go out.”

With this cast of characters mingling around, you can forget to consult your soul, much less consult God. You can forget the plans that you had for yourself, much less the plans that Jeremiah promised. You can forget the Christ who is hip-to-hip with you there on the couch, or shoulder-to-shoulder with you in the car, or nose-to-nose with you in the bed. You can forget.

But He doesn’t leave.

He stays.

And that’s good.

A Word from Christ

I woke up this morning with a rotten feeling in my heart.

You know when you have a fresh beautiful tomato in your kitchen, and you’re waiting for just the right time that you can savor it in all its God-praising glory, and you reach for it only to notice a cavernous, white-black abscess somewhere on a round red side, a cavity that ruins your appetite and your hopes for any kind of enjoyment-based worship? That’s what my heart felt like this morning.

My heart is rent in two and rent in four and rent in seven times seven by a broken relationship in my life.

A woman I once called sister, a woman I hope to call sister again.
A woman for whom I cry out in prayer as often as I think of her.
A woman whom I have wronged.
A woman by whom I have been wronged.
A woman whom I love desperately,
understand not at all,
and with whom I am broken by frustration.
A woman who I fear–
in my secret hear–
has no feelings left toward me but
pity,
and anger,
and quite possibly hate.

I was near tears this morning thinking of her, looking at pictures of her, and thinking of the white-black abscess eating into our once robust love for one another.  Thinking that it is entirely my fault. Thinking it is entirely too late for anything, even hope. Thinking I should toss myself on my mattress like the Psalmist and cry out in his broken words,

“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul also is struck with terror, while You, O LORD– how long?” (Ps 6.2-3 NRSV)

***

As I sat in my windowless office on this beautiful Sabbath morning (the windowlessness a mirror to my sinful inability to look beyond myself, to be sure), miserable and tweeting (for twitter is somehow a place for small verses and mini-psalms for my ADD brain), the breath of God breathed. The Word of God spoke. The heart of God beat for a second in line with my own and I caught a whisper.

***

There was a poet I heard of once who said that she would be out working in her yard and she would hear a poem coming to her. She would see it on the wind, and she would break into a run, racing and racing to the house, to the pen and paper, hoping against hope she could catch it before it swept past her in search of another poet, a more ready poet. She said sometimes she’d catch it by the tail and force it down onto paper, and the poem would come out backwards, but she’d have gotten it down.

Blessed be the woman who has her thumbs on the iPhone keyboard when the Spirit moves, for this is what the Word said:

“Only Christ redeems, and only well.”

***

My languishing is not for nothing. My terror will not be spilled out for nothing. When my bones shake and my spirit trembles, Christ is with me, and with the woman for whom I shake and tremble.

And Christ is not still, or small, or quiet, though His voice is still and small and comes quietly at 8 AM with no fanfare but my tears quietly rolling and the notification that a Tweet was successfully posted. He says,

“For a long time I have held My peace,
I have kept still and restrained Myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant….
I will lead the blind by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them.” (Is 42.14,16 NRSV)

Christ comes with His redeeming arms ready, His womb fit to burst, His hands poised to create new suns and new paths for me, so terribly blind, to see and walk by. The abscesses will be healed, the cavities filled, the broken things healed up and sealed up once more.

Only Christ redeems, and only well. He needs no superglue, or knives, or antibacterial disinfectant to restore, to heal, to purify. He will not be silent any longer, but He will do the things He has promised. And He will not forsake us. Amen.

Jesus Fan-Fiction

“The grace of the Gospel… says to us, you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you– a sacrifice, a good deed– but rather desiring you alone….

God has come to you to make the sinner blessed. Rejoice! This message is liberation through truth. You cannot hide from God. The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God. God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 108.

This summer at The Hub (our alternative worship service– 7 pm Sundays @ FUMC Charlotte!) we are starting a new sermon series on the B-list characters in the Bible. The second stringers, the gals and guys who don’t get much airtime. I wanted to call them the Best Supporting Actors and Actresses and do a big grand Oscars theme, but this idea didn’t get much traction, especially from the males in the room.

We talked a little bit at our most recent leadership team meeting about midrash– which one gentlemen aptly and hilariously described as “Bible fan-fiction”– how the Jewish rabbis had no hangups about adding to the text, about imagining and dreaming in communion with what’s written explicitly in the Scriptures.

When they encountered one of these characters who only gets a couple of lines of dialogue or are only mentioned in passing, the rabbis sometimes imagined a back-story for them, and a future, and motives, and emotions. If the Bible didn’t say whatever became of them, they dreamed up a long and happy life… or a horrible violent death, depending on their interpretation of the character.

We Christians today tend to have hangups about this sort of thing, but it didn’t bother the authors of the Midrash to imagine for Biblical characters various and diverse ways that the hand of God would shape the rest of their lives.

***

Bonhoeffer’s words above are a part of his chapter on the importance of confession in Christian community. He is telling his readers that the Christian community is a place to drop the act— it’s a place to say, “Hi, my name is Erin and I’m a sinner.” You drop the pretense, you take away the veil, and you expose your festering wounds to the holy air that swirls around the altar, around the body and blood of Christ.

It is there, in that place of deep vulnerability and trust, in community with fellow believers, that you can dare to dream up a healing.

It is in Christian community that your own midrash can begin to form: you can let your community’s hands bind up your wounds and let their prayers wash you clean, and you can also let their imaginations build for you a new future. They can, in the midrash tradition, dream for you a new life in God’s hands. A new future on Christ’s way, carrying Christ’s cross, covered in Christ’s blood. And this imagining is grace.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christ made the other Christian to be grace for us.”

 

We enter into the true Christian community in the hopes that it will be the sort of place where we can pour ourselves out in vulnerability and be offered grace in return. We say, “Hi, my name is Erin and I’m a sinner, a great, unholy sinner.” And we read together of a God who wants us as we are, who loves us despite hating our sin. And we dare to dream together of what a future with that God just might look like.

Wholly Living the Half-and-Half Life of a Pastor

Let’s be honest, being a pastor is probably the most contradictory career there is.

We are to be set apart, yet we’re thrust right in the center of Church activity,

We are to be different (modeling holiness, I suppose), yet relatable,

We are to be a calming, peaceful presence, yet the energetic hub and genesis of great new ideas and activities,

We are to be humble, yet stand in front of everyone and be charismatic and engaging for an hour every week (By the way, a seminary friend of mine, Austin, wrote a fabulous blog on pastors’ words, and the part about sermons is hugely salient– and convicting),

We are to be Christlike, yet human, and

We are to be human, yet superhuman (able to be in multiple places at once, capable of delivering off-the-cuff brilliance in prayers and advice, wise beyond ours years, etc).

Sometimes the contradictions can feel endless.

This is the part where I get uncomfortably real. If you’d like, please enjoy this picture of a kitten and skip this section.

It’s been such a challenge for me to get used to life in the world. I mean life outside of school, where I spent nearly two decades, certainly all of my sentient life until July 2012. Answering emails, planning projects, coordinating calendars.

Life as a student was so blissfully uniform: begin semester, go to class, write papers, study, take exams, end semester.  Repeat until graduation. It was also blissfully stringless— I didn’t have any eyes on me once I got into college. I was my own woman, beholden to no one but the registrar, green-lighted to succeed or fail at my own risk.

Out here, there are strings attached everywhere. I’m having such trouble, my dear readers, remembering when to pluck all those strings, remembering to send my tin-can messages down them, and to whom, and how often. If I want to change the Scripture text the week before I preach, I have to contact the musicians, the lay reader, the bulletin guru, the worship planners… Nothing happens in a vacuum.  There are so many people working together in this world, and not for an individual grade, but for a communal purpose… a Kingdom-sized and -shaped purpose.

I very often feel that I am failing quite massively. I wake up in cold sweats and realize I’ve been crying in my sleep, so deep is my desire to do this job, this calling, this life justice. I feel half a person at almost all times: half a pastor when sitting in my office, wondering if what I’m planning on preaching is decent, and half a person when out having a beer with friends, wondering if this makes me a bad pastor on account of I’m not at home reading the Book of Common Prayer or something.

I have lived all my life feeling like a fairly whole person: A whole Christian (with slip-ups every now and then, but on the whole, whole), a whole student, a whole daughter, a whole girlfriend, a whole writer, a whole friend. Now, though, I am called to this contradictory life. This half-and-half life, where you’re supposed to be human and superhuman, quasi-divine and totally fallen, set apart and yet set right in the middle of everything… naked with all these eyes and ears on me and my stupid, childish words that, in my anxious mind, never get delivered right and never live up to what I had hoped to offer to God and God’s people.

I’m never sure that I’m doing what I’m “supposed to” be doing, that I’m saying what I’m “supposed to” be saying, that I’m going around town or enjoying time at home in the way that I’m “supposed to” be going around town or enjoying time at home.

Eugene Peterson says of the pastoral life,

Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon

“[G]iven the loss of cultural and ecclesiastical consensus on how to live this [pastors’] life, none of us is sure of what we are doing much of the time, only maybe.”*

He then goes on to quote Faulkner, who described writing a book this way:

“It’s like building a chicken coop in a high wind. You grab any board or shingle flying by or loose on the ground and nail it down fast.”*

I don’t know quite what I expected

969018_10100280923479358_1753846395_n

Such a little lady

when I got into this racket; when I said to God, “OKAY FINE,” in the same way I said, “OKAY FINE” to my pup Olive when she nosed her brown eyes into mine at the rescue. I never wanted a puppy- I wanted a grown-up dog with all the training done and no potty-training issues. I never wanted this growing process when coming into the ministry; I wanted to come in with wispy gray hair that holds a thousand pieces of wisdom, and a knowledge of just exactly what to do.

I guess I knew that my life would no longer be that of a layperson, that I would have some level of eyes-on-me and new responsibility, in the same way that I knew my shoes would no longer necessarily be safe from chewing with a puppy in the house.

I guess what I was unprepared for was the drama, tears, and growing pains that come with the training process.

Both my training the dog and God’s training me.

When I dreamed of pastoral life, I dreamed of being a vessel, of speaking God’s truth even when it was hard, of sitting with dying people and helping them army-crawl under that picket fence to Heaven.

I didn’t dream of myself getting so damn in the way. I didn’t dream of having such a strong reaction to what people think of me. I didn’t dream of my self in this thing very much at all; I think I dreamed simply of God: that God would provide… and God is providing, but, and here’s the really honest part, I’m struggling to trust it.

So deep is my desire to do this job, this calling, this life justice, that I’m losing sight of how to do being alive well. How to do personal faith, trust, and obedience well. How to do self-care well. How to do friendships and kindness toward self and hot-tea-evenings on the porch with the dog well.

So, What to Do?

One thing that Eugene Peterson speaks of very early on in his book The Pastor is developing a strong sacred imagination. It is this, he intimates, that will keep you alive, keep you grounded, as the high winds rage and you’re surrounded by flying chicken wire and nails and boards and all manner of such deadly building blocks.

I wrote in a recent post that Jesus is one big contradiction… human and Divine, ever young and ever thirty-three, ever being born and ever dying, Judge and Lover, distant and near, unseeable and so clearly seen in so many ways…

So I guess it makes sense that the pastor, called to be as Christ to her congregation, would also be a contradiction. That this life would be one of halves: A life of “take this cup from me” and “I will go.” A life of  the quiet “Yes, Lord,” and also the gregarious “Good morning, folks!” A life of the mind and a life in the spotlight. Things that don’t go together, things that cancel each other out. A sacred imagination that can hold together the things that appear to be polar opposites, the things that can feel like they’re falling apart.

 

A Tiny Epilogue

Olive graduated to the  Advanced level of obedience class last weekend. This weekend she takes her first test toward becoming a therapy dog. She is also steering clear of shoes after being chastised severely for ruining my favorite Tevas.

I have begun getting my heart straight by seeing someone at the Methodist Counseling Center… something I suggest you all do, whether you think you’re nuts or you’re in denial about it ;)

I am also interviewing spiritual directors, after years of being counseled to get one. Someone to hear these thoughts and say, “Maybe you should try…” Someone to hear these thoughts and say, “Let’s think about this Christologically.” Someone to hear these thoughts, pray with me, and help me to “Go in peace.”

*Quotes from Eugene Peterson’s introduction to The Pastor.

On Being Young in Ministry

I used to really like John Mayer– you know, back before he was mostly famous for being in a Taylor Swift song. Two of my favorite lines of his were these, from “Waiting on the World to Change”:

It’s hard to be persistent
When you’re standing at a distance.

I think those words are so true.It’s hard to be persistent when you’re running toward a target that is– or seems to be– miles and miles off.

I have a bunch of friends who have run their first marathons this month, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like right around mile 3, realizing you have 23 miles left to go. 23 miles and 385 yards, to be exact.

How can you keep up your strength in the face of such a length?

***

In my second semester of seminary, I began a long battle: A battle against exegesis. As a first-year seminary student taking the most basic of Bible classes, I had no ability, no confidence, and no right to make claims on the Biblical text. I was, in the John Mayer reference, standing at a distance from knowledge, respectability, even simple ability at all!

Coming from a history background in undergrad, I believed that the more you quoted and cited sources the more you were believed. You can’t just write or preach something, I thought, unless someone super smart and reputable has suggested it before you.

I thought that the job of the novice exegete was to scour commentaries, find an argument that she agreed with, and extrapolate upon that– uniqueness or ingenuity would not be tolerated.

My very long-suffering New Testament preceptor sat me down as kindly as he could and said, “I don’t want to hear what Barth thinks about this. I’ve read it, and I know you’ve read it. Now, informed by that, I want to hear what you think.

***

It took me months and months to even begin to grasp this concept… this marriage of the ones who are nearer to the finish line, nearer to full knowledge, nearer to holiness, with those like myself who are just getting started, who are teetering a few inches past the starting line and thinking the gulf is too wide for us to have anything of value to offer… certainly not anything that will make it 26 miles, certainly not anything that will be respected, certainly not anything worth bothering anyone else with.

I don’t grasp this, still. How do you reconcile the wisdom of age with the freshness of youth? How do you recognize the youthful in the aged and the wisdom in the youth?
In other words (for I think these are all one and the same question):
How is it that God is all at once infant and 33, ageless and enfleshed, wrinkled and gray-whiskered and baby soft?

***

181019_169000009916762_1342716474_nThis new worship service that my friends have started is a mix of all kinds of beautiful flesh– old and young. We derive our ideas from old books, mentoring pastors, suggestions by laypeople, and even (surprisingly, to my old, militantly-quoting self) our own imaginations.

We, the old and the young, the male and the female, the churched and the unchurched and the quasi-churched, read liturgy from old dead saints, we read liturgy from fresh, revitalizing communities like Iona, and we read liturgies that I wrote yesterday. We sing songs that were written in the 18th century and we sing songs by people who tweet. We do ancient rituals like foot-washing and candle-lighting, and we do modern rituals like instragramming and starting the evening with an improv comedy sketch or a YouTube video.

Graffiti stained glass made out of words describing our grief

We are old and we are young.

We are alive and we are dying.

We are honest and we are terrified.

We are many and we are one.

We are lost and we are loved.

We are naive and we are wise.

We are stupid and we are broken.

We are found and we are aimless.

We believe and we ask for help for our unbelief.

***

How can I speak or write intelligently about the Bible, knowing that I only ever skimmed Barth’s Romans? How can I claim pastoral authority, when I’m only 24? How can I claim anything at all, when I know, my beloved friends and readers, that I am a sinner, the worst of the worst, broken beyond repair, failing beyond failure, suffering under the Pontius Pilates and thorns in my sides and apples eaten that I create for myself?

I am not arrogant. I have not a single thing in my diseased heart to boast in except the little flecks and specks of the body and blood of Christ that huddle there.

I do not believe myself to be holy, or wise, or a good pastor, or even a good friend, most of the time. I do not believe myself to be anything but empty: emptied for the Gospel’s sake. Emptied for the Kingdom’s sake. And believe me, I kicked and screamed and fought that emptying the whole way; I’m still kicking and screaming despite my best efforts, just like I bet you are. We all are.

It’s hard to be persistent when you’re standing at a distance– standing on that starting line covered in the shackles of your own inadequacies.

…And yet in the emptiness that succeeds all your efforts, in the emptiness that comes in when everything you ever believed in about yourself disintegrates… that is where the Spirit has room for dancing.

***

So yes, I’m at a distance. Yes, I find it hard to be persistent. There are days when I’d rather go be a veterinarian and endure the easier burden of having my dog-whispering skills questioned rather than having my faith, my call, my love of the LORD questioned. (And unfortunately, inexplicably, it is usually I myself who am doing the questioning!)

The marathon is long and I’m right at the beginning. I have no authority, no confidence, and certainly no right to speak about God, or Scripture, or Truth, or wisdom. You have no reason to listen to me, and I have no right to open my mouth or even look you in the eye. I am learning, and I am listening– to both the people God has placed in my life and the groans of my own spirit.

And I believe with all my heart that God is speaking through me… that God is using an ass to speak just as it once happened a long time ago, and it has never struck me as more of a privilege to consider myself an empty, stupid ass.

Doubting Thomas/Honest Thomas

This past Sunday my friends and I launched a new worship service here in Charlotte.  It was amazing– and God showed up major. Lots. (points for getting that subtle 30 Rock reference).

We had just over 40 people, mostly young adults, rocking out by lamp- and exposed bulb-light, in wingbacks and on pews, around tables and on couches. We had a candle-lighting area for private prayer, Eucharist, and a healing prayer station with anointing oil and a place to kneel. There was a spoken word/rapped prayer that riffed on the Our Father, and it was good.

There were tears, there was joy, there was laughter.  I was overwhelmed with the spirit/Spirit in that place. That, and stomach pain. I was nearly overwhelmed by a lot of intense, sharp stomach pain. But I whispered weakly to myself, like Mel Gibson’s character fighting through pain to do something heroic in every Mel Gibson movie ever made, “You can burst if you want, appendix; I’m having too much fun to care!” (It didn’t burst, my appendix is totally fine. My heroics, it turns out, are even less impressive than Mr. Gibson’s. Which is saying something.)

We sang songs about love, about hopelessness, about God’s grace. We sang about shaking the devil off your back.  I read from John 20 and preached on Thomas. Would you like to read my sermon?

The Hub- Gathering 1

The Hub- Gathering 1

A couple of thousand years ago, there was a man named Thomas. Very little is known about him, except that one day he met a man named Jesus and he followed Him. He appears by all accounts to have been a very brave man. He left his family, his home, his livelihood, and followed a total stranger. At one point in the stories, all his friends become afraid, because they realize this Jesus is going to get them all killed. Thomas is the one who says, “Let us go and die with Him.” The faith of Thomas is a witness to us. Oh, to have the faith of Thomas.

Now let me read to you the story Thomas is best known for. His friend, his Teacher, is dead; He’s been killed by the government days ago, and now all Thomas’s friends claim to have seen Jesus alive. This is the story of Thomas’s doubt. The story of his courage. The story of his brutal, heartbreaking honesty. The story of a man who would not sing of love unless he was sure it existed:

This comes from the gospel of John, in the new testament, chapter 20, verses 24 to 29.
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (NRSV)

Reprise of Paramore’s “The Only Exception.”

Our man Thomas has got a bad rap. Doubting Thomas, that’s what he’s called. Never mind that that’s not what the disciples ever called him, or what Jesus ever called him. Actually, they called him “the twin”; that’s what Thomas meant in their language. Yet we’re never told that he had a brother or a sister… Some people believe that they may have called him “the twin” because he looked a lot like Jesus… Maybe they were teasing him for looking like their teacher. Maybe they were teasing him for acting so much like their teacher.

In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the disciples allowed Thomas’s doubt to define him.

You know, this service is aimed at “young adults,” that’s what we’ve put on the signs, although all are welcome. The thing about us young adults is that we’ve got a bad rap. I’ve read a lot of books on how to reach “milennials” and the things they say about us are sort of insulting: they say we’re fickle. We’re noncommittal. We’re flighty. We come and go and never settle and can’t be counted on.
Up to 1/3 of Americans consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious, and when you look just at young adults, that percentage skyrockets.

So I guess it’s sort of true that we’re flighty and noncommittal, isn’t it? We’re the generation that invented the “maybe” RSVP on facebook. A third of us transfer colleges at some point during undergrad. I did! 1 in 5 of us identify as having switched religions from that in which we were raised.

So that’s our bad rap.

But back to Thomas. Thomas gets 4 total speaking parts, all in the gospel of John. The first is the one I already told you about, when he says with great courage and conviction to his friends, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” No sign of doubt there!

The second comes after Jesus’s statement that He is going before us to prepare a place for us, and that we will follow. Thomas pipes up and says what probably everyone else was thinking, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Let me pause to ask you something: is this doubt? Or is this a question? If you ask me, it’s not doubt. Thomas doesn’t ask if that’s possible, or if Jesus can be trusted. Like Mary before him, he simply asks how. How can this be for I have no husband? How can we follow you? We want to we believe that we can, and we believe that we will, I’m just wondering how.

The last two times Thomas speaks are in the section I read to you. ”Unless I see the nail marks… I will not believe.” And what does Jesus do in response to this doubt? He extends His hands and invites Thomas to place his hand in the wound in His side, and Thomas exclaims, in the powerful last line we get from him, “My Lord and my God!”

It’s very important, this statement of Thomas’s: at first he calls Jesus his Lord, which isn’t very descriptive. Lord could be simply the title of a man of higher social status. Lord could be just another way of showing respect to a teacher. Lord could mean master, nothing more. But then Thomas calls Jesus, “God.”

Thomas was a Jew, and for a Jew the belief in one and only one God is as essential as breathing. You don’t just go around calling anyone a god. That’s pretty much the gist of commandments 1 through 3. To say these words could easily have gotten Thomas killed. To say these words could have gotten him considered damned by everyone he knew, his father and mother, his old friends, his old rabbi and everyone in his town.

But he says it anyway, because Thomas, I want to suggest, was not a doubter– or at least not for long. Thomas, ultimately, was very brave, and very faithful.

Let me tell you the story of one of Thomas’s friends, another of Jesus’ friends, named Judas. Funny enough, some historians say that Judas might have been Thomas’s middle name, so they had something in common… Judas, you might say, lost faith, he began to doubt. He doubted that Jesus was really God in a human body. He doubted that Jesus could actually save him from his own miserable, narcissistic, self-centered life. He doubted that his life could really change. So he sold Jesus out. He took a list of all the rules Jesus had ever broken, all the things Jesus had said that made him uncomfortable, those things he couldn’t believe, and sold the body of God to the highest bidder.

And he regretted it deeply. He was not smited. No fiery lightning bolt came down from heaven, no angel showed up to make him pay. His own heart betrayed him and showed him his guilt. The gospel of Matthew says that he was seized by regret.

I wonder if you have ever felt the spindly, cold fingers of regret slice through your soul? After all, every day we sell the body of Christ for nickels. When we choose gossip, or hate, or lust, over love. When we numb ourselves with movies or alcohol or flirting with strangers instead of filling that deep chasm in our hearts with the only thing that will truly satisfy.

Judas could not handle it. Matthew tells us that he committed suicide, that he went out on Good Friday, “early in the morning,” and that he hanged himself. It is of poetic importance that I tell you this would have been about the same time that Jesus was crucified. On a cross between two thieves, God was hung on nails and wood by sinners. In a field, alone, the doubter hung himself.

I tell you this story because I believe that it, like Thomas’s is a story of doubt. Here’s a question I heard recently about Judas that I want to put to you: What if Judas could have waited two more days before he hung himself?

What if Judas could have held on for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, what if he could have made it to Easter morning? What if he stood there with Thomas and expressed his doubts, his fears, his unbelief?

You see, the miracle of Thomas’s story is that Jesus does not have an unkind word to say to him. Jesus comes to him and says, “Look, feel, see- I am alive.” He does not mock him for his doubts, or make him say any hail Mary’s or do any pushups. He answers him. Exactly what Thomas said he needed– to see the nail marks and put his hand in Jesus’s side– is what Jesus offers him.

Judas didn’t stick around to ask for what he needed. For whatever reason– fear, or embarrassment, or bitterness that he couldn’t believe what all the other disciples seemed to believe so easily– he couldn’t be that honest with his friends, and he looked for the easy way out– just to get Jesus out of the picture.

Thomas, though, he was not afraid to speak his truth: “I am having trouble believing this stuff. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, and I don’t think I’ll be able to believe until I do.”

Honest Thomas. Oh, to have the authenticity of Thomas!

Here’s what it seems to me we can learn from Thomas: When his faith began to crumble, when he could no longer feel God walking beside him, or hear God speaking to him, he did not run. He did not leave. He did not take the easy way out and just go back home where it was comfortable and safe. The story finds him in the room with the disciples. He says, “I don’t believe right now,” and yet he stays.

And not only does he stay, he asks his brothers for exactly what he needs: “I need to see the wounds, to put my hands in them.” And I think it’s because of the faith it took to stay and the courage it took to be that honest that he was given what he asked for– Jesus’s wounded hands and feet and side.

Friends, if you have come here tonight with doubts, you are in good company. Thomas stands with you, because he has been there.

Brené brown says that faith without vulnerability and mystery is not faith at all. Faith is a risk, a risk that takes honesty and courage, like Thomas had. A risk that takes fear and trembling, like Thomas had. A risk that takes everything you have, like Thomas gave. We have created this space here tonight for you to get honest with God. What will you offer Him? What if your worst doubts are worth more than your most beautiful pretenses?

If you have come here in doubt and fear, know that we, too, stand with you and pray for you, because everyone here has been there. If you are looking at our prayer stations and especially at this meal prepared with trepidation, just know this: Jesus invites to the table everyone who earnestly seeks Him. Just as he invited the doubter Thomas to put his hand in His side, Jesus invites the doubters in this room, including you, including me, to put our hands on this broken body and, by it, believe.

Amen.

Holy Week as Gift

“it’s my first Holy Week as a pastor,” I find myself saying several times a day. My first Holy Week as a pastor, and I feel great.

When I was a kid, I don’t remember Holy Week meaning that much to me, except that we went to church a couple extra times and we had to go shopping for fancy, uncomfortable Easter dresses as Belk or Macy’s.
In seminary, though, it took on a different meaning. There are no classes on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Exams and papers and Hebrew worksheets and parsing all took a backseat as the community, together, gazed backward in time.

That’s what Holy Week is, right? The whole world of the faithful craning their necks around, allowing their chins to drop and their lips and fingers and frantic minds to stop moving for a little while– a little while as we witness, once again, something that could never happen, something fundamentally, physically, intrinsically impossible: the death of God.

We walk behind Him on the cloaks and palm branches, hoping our worship is as good as the children’s, and knowing it’s not. We press our ears to the door and listen as Jesus offers the disciples His body and blood at the Passover meal. We stand with Peter, wide-eyed and ducked-headed, watching the judgments roll down and hearing our denial roll out of our own mouths. We sit with Mother Mary, as she hears the news; we follow her anguished footsteps as she ascends Golgotha. We kneel with John, trying to support her weight as she collapses before her dying son, the dying Son.

Holy Week is the worst week of the year. It is a remembrance of the worst event in human history. It drains you, it causes you to weep, it nearly kills you, if you’re doing it right. And it is beautiful, and wonderful, and a time of great praise to the God who accomplished the impossible- not for His own satisfaction, but for ours.

Sometimes when I tell other pastors of my love for Holy Week, they give me a look like a fourth year PhD student gives a first-year… The look that says, “Oh innocent one, you are so naive. This thing will eat your life and you will come to hate it.”

Sometimes they even say it: “Enjoy it while you can; soon you’ll dread it.”

This, I think, has two possible effects on the impressionable young pastor who hears it:
1) They may becme discouraged. This is the legacy of many seasoned pastors, and I rebuke you for it. Do not discourage those whom God has encouraged. It is sin, it is evil, it is anathema.

2) It has the effect of making me feel very small, very embarrassed, very childish. Remember when you were a kid and you made those stilts out of old tin cans and string? You were only about 5 inches off the ground but you felt like a real stilt-walker, especially when you fell off and the fall was so far!

When you tell me, with your tone or your words, that my youthful idealism, my childlike naïveté, is silly, you make me feel like a kid on tin cans. You make me feel like a greek pledge who is being hazed. You make me feel, essentially, as though my calling was not to be me– for who I am is energetic and joyful and awestruck– but to be something else altogether, something that is killing the church– something jaded and gray and stuck on a hampster wheel.

For a church so often associated with ecstatic experiences and emotional witnesses, we Protestants sure have gotten stoic and dry, bland like white rice and toast. When did we become afraid to lift our palm branches high, to weep in the dark for hours after the Good Friday service has ended? How can we reclaim our roots– reclaim the emotion around Holy Week, the pain and the anguish that comes with watching God, the God whom we supposedly love, die? And, with that, reclaim the overwhelming thankfulness and joy that this God who, to the world, is supposedly still dead, is quite alive and quite in love with me and you?

Friends, go to Jerusalem with Him. Stand with Peter and sit with Mary; they are far better company, even in his betrayal and their grief, than the passionless onlookers today who would have you be as cold as they are. This Holy Week, choose not to be an onlooker but a participant, taking the time to prepare the tomb for Christ, for the Resurrection is fast approaching!

Thanks be to God!

That’ll Preach! …Except It Probably Won’t.

In seminary and in pastor’s circles, a lot of people will judge books, conversations, days, even whole friendships based on how many sermon illustrations they get out of it. If you’re very careful, or if you’ve just been at this racket for a while, you start to look for (and find) sermon illustrations in EVERYTHING. My friends and I will exclaim, about something that seems promising sermon-wise, “That’ll preach!”

The following is a list of some of the things that I’ve said or thought “That’ll preach!” about, but they will not ever ever ever preach in real life. Just, not ever. Ever.

Thing: I offered my dog food and she opted to go outside and eat sticks and poop instead.
Why That’ll Preach: Grace is offered, but we choose the filthy, gross world.
Why That Will Never Preach: You’re talking about poop.

Thing: A friend of mine said that instead of giving up something for Lent, she’s just giving up.
Why That’ll Preach: We should just give up; we can’t do this on our own. We need God’s help.
Why That Will Never Preach: You don’t want to make people suicidal!

Thing: The kindle version of a book I’m reading accidentally transposed the sentence “He was God” (talking about Jesus) to “Fie was God.”
Why That’ll Preach: Sometimes it takes a theologically and editorially sensitive eye to make sure you’re not accidentally making a hilarious heretical assertion.
Why That Will Never Preach: In what sermon would that possibly fit?

Thing: My cat will look out the window for hours on end and pretend to fight the squirrels and birds by clenching her little paws and raising her hackles.
Why That’ll Preach: Are we window-gazers or are we active participants in the in-breaking of the Kingdom?
Why That Will Never Preach: A) All cats do this, and B) You probably shouldn’t admit that you sit around with your cat for hours on end.

Thing: When that child asked if I was the daughter of the preacher.
Why That’ll Preach: Technically, God was the first preacher, right?
Why That Will Never Preach: Take authority, Erin! YOU are a preacher!

Thing: Child in a neighboring vehicle points and stares when he sees me rocking out to Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” in my clerical collar.
Why That’ll Preach: Preachers are people, too! The Gospel doesn’t discriminate against Taylor Swift (I hope).
Why That Will Never Preach: Wow, that’s too embarrassing even for this blog, much less a sermon. Oops.

 

So there you have it, folks. Things that have crossed my mind as “things that’ll preach” but definitely won’t, or shouldn’t, ever. Has this ever happened to you?

On Being a Fully Functioning Adult

One of my favorite jokes these days has to do with being a fully functioning adult.

The other day I tweeted, “I just ate mint chocolate chip ice cream for breakfast BECAUSE I AM NOT A FULLY FUNCTIONING ADULT.” And when the nurse at the doctor’s office asked me if I had taken my temperature at home, I responded, “No, ma’am. Because I don’t own a thermometer. BECAUSE I AM NOT A FULLY FUNCTIONING ADULT.”

People laugh, and they commiserate, because they too were once young and stupid. Which I fully admit that I am– young and stupid, that is. Do I have the resources to go out and get a dang thermometer? Absolutely. There is literally a CVS within walking distance of my house. So why don’t I walk my buns of steel down there and get one?

(All together now!) BECAUSE I AM NOT A FULLY FUNCTIONING ADULT.

Source: gifsfln.tumblr.com

However, every now and then things happen and I think, “Oh my gosh…. are you being a fully functioning adult right now?”

I took my dog to get spayed and microchipped the other day. ADULTHOOD.
This morning, I emailed the guy who’s doing my taxes an itemized list of my utilities for the year 2012. ADULTHOOD.
Last night, my neighbor came over and asked to borrow something that I ACTUALLY HAD in my fridge! ADULTHOOD!

Source: cardigansandsweatpants.blogspot.com

Now. You may be sitting there reading this and thinking, because you are a member of my family or a particularly worry-prone friend, “Oh, Erin. This is not the sort of thing to blog about.” Or perhaps, “Get it together, oh my gosh…” Or maybe even, “I WILL PURCHASE AND MAIL YOU A THERMOMETER, GOOD GRIEF.”

You guys. Thanks. But you needn’t worry.  This is going somewhere.

When I went to college, I was sixteen years old. I was the runt, the baby, the one who couldn’t go into other dorms or hang out at Waffle House all hours of the night because I had a curfew. It was awesome, and I would’t trade those years for all the puppies and rainbows in the world, but it was also a little embarrassing.
And when I went to seminary, I was twenty. I couldn’t have a beer in the pubs with my friends. I was the baby, the child. And my friends were wonderful about it, and never treated me differently besides a young joke every now and then, but there was always an underlying understanding, I think just in my own head, that I was the pipsqueak. The tagalong. The kid sister forced upon exasperated older siblings, who wasn’t really supposed to be there.

When I walked across the stage at my Annual Conference to get commissioned as a United Methodist Elder, no one said, “We now present, at the tender age of 23, Erin Beall.”  No one said, “And now our youngest candidate for commissioning, Erin Beall!” There were no jokes about how one so young could be called an “Elder” (be sure, I had steeled myself for them).

My mother sat in the crowd and smiled at me in a collegial, friendly way, not in a “Dear toddler daughter, stand up straight and don’t twirl your hair” kind of way. My friends stood for me as the bishop put his hands on me.  I grinned from ear to ear and wasn’t even concerned that I looked like a child in a candy shop– no, I was told later by a dear sweet friend, I looked like joy.

Yesterday at church, a parishioner came up to me offering some very sound advice on a change in worship. He didn’t say, “Could you tell the guy in charge?” or “I know you’re just a baby, can you point me to whom I should talk to about this?” or “You know, when you’re a real pastor, you should think about doing it this way.”

And last week a woman three or so times my age called me “Pastor.”

And in my Disciple class the girls revealed to me (I’m very bad at guessing ages, so this was truly a shock), that while I thought they were all in their mid-20s, really they’re all about 7-20 years older than I.  But they’ve never treated me like a child. They treat me like I have wisdom, something to offer, something that matters.

And finally, in one of my most memorable moments from my ministry so far (that was a lot of m’s), when I was set to preach at the 7pm Ash Wednesday service, I thought the kids from my Wednesday night eleventh grade small group would just cancel the small group.  Instead, as I stepped up into the pulpit, I gazed up and there they were, all of them, spanning across the whole front row of the balcony.  They told me later that they waved and smiled, but I couldn’t look at them for fear I might cry.
And after the service, they all but attacked me in the hall. Big giant boys who fish and hunt leaning down to hug me around the neck, telling me what the service meant to them, asking me questions about the ashes (“OMG wait, are they dead people’s ashes?!”). Beautiful, fashionable-to-a-tee girls telling me how much it meant to have me impose the ashes on their flawless foreheads. They stopped a younger kid and asked to take a big, goofy group photo with me. I don’t know how I held my tears until I got in the car.

For the first time in eight years, I’m not the runt, the kid, the one who somehow sneaked into college early and somehow sneaked her way into Duke and has now sneaked her way into this job.

I’m actually starting to believe, thanks to these people– by seeing myself though their beautiful eyes– that I was never the runt, that I was always exactly where God always meant for me to be, and that, somehow, it’s okay if I’m not a “fully functioning adult,” because I’m functioning enough for God to be at work in me. And if it’s good enough to touch the hearts of a dozen eleventh graders, four women in my Disciple class, and that man who treated me like a real pastor, it’s good enough for me.

Source: girls-gone-geek.com