A couple random, non-cohesive thoughts on books, Jesus, Nazis, and emergent worship

books

I continue in my diabolical effort to catch up on what feels like an entire mountain range of books– those that I was assigned in seminary but only skimmed, or skipped entirely; those that came out or were recommended to me while in seminary which I purchased or noted on my Amazon wishlist for later; and those which have come out or been recommended to me in the past year of trying [only sporadicly successfully] to be a fully functioning adult. It adds up to … well, let’s just say I can’t even bring myself to put them all up on my goodreads “to-read” shelf because you’ll judge me and/or think I’m insane.

Anyhow, I’m actively working on about 10 books right now. Anne Lamott said in an interview once,

“Reading various books at once is sort of like doing an enjoyable Stations of the Cross.”

This struck me as stupidly brilliant and also indelibly true. You put one down and pick another up, entering a different stage, a different scene, in an ostensibly different journey, and after a while of reading all of them together you realize it’s all one big journey, after all… we’re all on our way, together, to Golgatha. To Resurrection. To Christ.

Hmm… what was this post supposed to be about?

Jesus and quarters and collars and priorities

Yesterday I was sitting in a line of cars waiting to be released from a hospital parking garage by an attendant who had her mind firmly set on getting her $3 from each and every person coming through that line. From far ahead, I heard her: “No credit cards. Cash or check only.” As a person with no checks (they’re in the mail, okay?) and no cash (there were some quarters in my cupholder, if push came to shove, but that was it), I was nervous.

Then this thought occurred to me: I’m wearing my clerical collar. She’ll for sure let me off. I was visiting congregants. Win for the clerical collar!

And then that sneaky Jesus sneaked in and sneakily said the sad, sneaking truth: If ever I’m in a position where I am tempted to use my clerical collar to earn me something– a free pass, respect, attention– then that is the time to instantly, without passing go or collecting so much as two quarters from my cupholders, take the collar off.

Conversely, whenever I’m tempted to take my collar off in order to earn me something– protection from mockery or questions, cool factor around friends, gratification of my laziness– then that is the time to instantly put the collar on.

It seems to me that this is the meaning behind the “go into your closet and pray” but also “if you’re embarrassed of Me then I’ma be embarrassed of you” dichotomy I’ve always noticed in the teachings of Jesus. I think if you’re tempted to pray in public (or whatever that metaphorically relates to in your life) to make a big deal out of it, get thyself into a closet. But if you’re tempted to pray in your closet because you’re embarrassed of your faith or otherwise don’t want to be seen engaging with Christ, then get thyself out into the street on your knees. It’s not a one-size-fits-all commandment regarding closets. It’s a one-truth-fits-all commandment about intentions and priorities.

Anyway. Yeah, so that was one thing I wanted to say.

and finally, nazis

Speaking of catch-up books and the “one size fits all” theory (look, I’m making connections a little bit), I’m reading a book on Naziism that was assigned to me in not one but two classes I took, one on Barth and the other on Bonhoeffer. Did I read it in either? Nope. Though I read the introduction at some point, because I underlined something. #modelstudent #IgotanAinboththoseclassesthough #mystery

The book seeks to explain how on earth an entire country could get caught up so utterly (and so rapidly) in the rampant, raging, horrific racism and violence of a party which, less than 5 years before Hitler’s rise, comprised only 6% of the voting public.

There is a quote that strikes me: an intellectual Nazi Party member, Carl Schmitt, spoke early in the Nazi rule of “what Nazi society would look like” when it came to fruition. Here’s the author’s succinct analysis of Schmitt’s vision:

“[Nazi society’s] two constituent qualities were ‘homogeneity’ and ‘authenticity.'”

The reason this struck me is that “authenticity” is a big word for emergent worship. Our service, The Hub, claims an unbelievably clever (friendly sarcasm) acronym within our own name, where the H in “hub” stands for “Honest.” Honesty, authenticity, self-knowledge and self-expression within the presence and the grace of a God who created you unique and expressive– these are central tenets to the emergence, millennial style of church. 

So Schmitt and the rest of the Nazis got it utterly and completely wrong. (This is not news to you, I hope.)

Homogeneity and authenticity are mutually exclusive concepts. Homogeneity is where authenticity goes to die. One cannot be authentic to one’s individual and unique self if one is forced into a box with everyone else.  One size fits all is a cultural illusion, whether in the ethnicity of a nation or in our worship styles or the ways we seek and find God.  Though our essence– having been made in the imago Dei– is identical, and our calling– to resemble as perfectly as possible Jesus Christ– is identical, nevertheless in all of our particulars and aesthetics and likes and dislikes and personality types this statement must be true: We were not created by factory molds. Homogeneity is nowhere in the creation plan as we have received it.
At the Hub, we seek a community wherein your truest self is welcome– even if that truest self is weird, or a bad singer, or mentally ill, or terribly broken. We seek a worship space wherein you can lift your hands if you want or you can sit quietly and journal; you can sing or you can pray; you can participate or you can let us participate for you. Whatever you need, whatever is authentic to you– because we know you’re not like us, and that’s why we love you.

so, in conclusion:

Screw the Nazis.

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.

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.