Self-Care: Self-Service Self-Salvation (21st Century Pelagianism, Come to Roost)

I have something to say, and you’re not going to like it. I don’t like it either.

All the self-care talk ruling the church conferences and retreats and seminars– just as it is in the corporate world, according to my corporate friends– amounts to something dangerously close to a false gospel. Let me explain.

I’ve come into the ministry at a time when… to put it quite bluntly… many (if not most) clergy in many (if not most) denominations are burnt out (if not thinking of quitting), overweight (if not obese), drinking too much (if not alcoholics), spiritually depleted (if still spiritual at all), and either completely overworked or hardly showing up at all.

“These are bad things!” churches everywhere said, when they noticed. “We must teach our clergy better skills, give them coaches and help them become fit, healthy, centered people so they can get back to work!”

So, here came the SELF-CARE SELF-SERVICE SELF-SAVIOR.

Would you like to be a healthier, more effective pastor? Thou shalt eat better!
Would you like to have a more satisfying spiritual life? Thou shalt work out!
Would you like to work more efficiently? Thou shalt take your Sabbath (however long, whenever, and whatever you want to do)!
Would you like to be more centered emotionally? Thou shalt… well… drink less, problem solved!

The problem here, which we all know but seem to have forgotten (I know I have), is that if you want to be a better person, a better pastor, you can’t do it yourself. You have to, as our Anonymous friends would say, turn your will over to the care of your Higher Power. You can’t muscle your way into health, growth, and happiness. You can’t army-crawl your way into Thy-Kingdom-coming.

You can’t do this. Only God can.

How many times have I tried to lose weight? I might succeed for a time, but then put it all back on again the next time there’s a crisis. If I rely only on my own mettle to make it happen, where is my faith? No wonder I fail.

How many times have I tried to get emotional/psychological help? I make progress, but if I’m relying only on myself and this other human being to talk my way into health, and not also on God, how can I expect true growth?

How many times have I tried Sabbath-taking as a means of solving my problems? Doesn’t it just feel like an extra lazy Saturday, to sleep and watch TV? Or perhaps for you it’s an extra busy give-the-spouse-a-hand-with-the-kids day, so that you end up working more than you would’ve if you were at the Church…

Here’s the thing… we have committed our lives to serve God. Not ourselves. We’ve committed our lives to standing up and saying, “I believe,” “I trust,” “I hope” …. in God, not in Dr Oz or a health initiative or my Planet Fitness membership.

Talk of eating and exercising as salvific (for our ministries if not our own bodies/lives) says, “I trust in myself, my muscles, my willpower,” and not in a God who has a great deal invested in our little created bodies.
Talk of Sabbath as our personal time to solve our problems and make us centered and catch up and rest negates the command for which the Sabbath was given: “Keep it holy.”
Talk of getting emotionally healthy without a strong component of prayer, of partnering with God (not just some random human with a masters degree) to help you break the patterns of the past, ultimately says, “I give my ‘life’ [read: career] to God, but not my heart, my mind, or my soul.”

It is right to eat well and exercise, but not for the purpose of saving our failing hearts or increasing our curb appeal when our pictures go up on church websites. It is right because God says your body was wonderfully made, and that your body is an instrument of prayer, of healing one another, of serving the Church.

It is right to take Sabbath, but not in order to get more sleep or do more yard work or watch more television. It is right because God says to do it, God commands that we revere God, God asks us to take 24 hours on a Saturday or a Friday or a Sunday to stop creating, stop rummaging, stop hoarding, and just breathe in God.

It is right to get emotionally healthy, but not for your own sake, or on your own. It is right because God has gifted and called you– you, with all your unique “baggage” and language and hopes and fears. You get healthy through prayer and meditation, hand in hand with a God whose dreams for you are bigger than even your own, much less your therapist’s.

Friends, let us not fall into the trap Pelagius set for us. We cannot create our own salvation, for our bodies, ourselves, or God’s Holy Church. She will not consent to our feeble attempts at salvation, for She has Christ resurrected at her heart. So too we should not consent to them either. We must have Christ resurrected at our hearts. Only then, with His power, His boldness, His will, His big dreams, His scary passion, His deep and abiding love for God’s creation, which includes you and me…. with those things and not our own, we will be truly cared for.

The Church needs pastors who truly believe in the power of Jesus Christ. The Church needs pastors who truly believe that there is something beyond this life of eating and working and drinking and gnashing of teeth. The Church needs pastors who hope, and pray, and rely on something– someOne– other than themselves.

* * *

Have you come across resources that are good for integrating the self-care stuff with Jesus?

My church is currently doing a series called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality that I think integrates it well.

Share resources, friends!

Seasons & Grace

I do not have a favorite season. In fact, I find the seasons, proper, rather tedious– fall with death falling over it like a pall, winter with its deep chill that clutches your throat and leaves you unable to take a deep breath for three months, spring’s false hopes and late freezes, and summer– especially here in the South– with its sweatbees, sweat stains, and sweating your mascara down your face.

So yeah, I’ve got beef with the seasons.

But my favorite times of the year are these: Those two weeks between summer and fall, and the two weeks between cold and warm (the latter happen somewhere in the middle of spring, and can’t be counted on as regularly as the former).

Right now, we’re in those two weeks between summer and fall here in North Carolina. What I find so marvelous about these two weeks is the utter shock with which they come. We’ve gone all summer enduring 80 and 90 degree temperatures (thank God for no days over 100 here this year!) and that hideous humidity that drives even the birds to pant in the shade of dense foliage. All summer finding cool respites like swimming pools and central air conditioning, and then one day, like a surprise birthday party to us all, there it is: The Great Lifting.

***

When I was a child, I remember harboring a weird theological worldview in which God never planned out the seasons; their changing was simply God’s responding to human prayers. All summer, poor God would listen to us complain-pray for cooler temperatures, so God would graciously send down fall and winter… at which point, of course, we would begin to pray for warmth. So God sent down spring and summer. The cycle of complaining went on for millennia, but in my feeble but somewhat Biblical conception (read Exodus, amirite?), this God continued to answer prayers, abide with us, and send us heat and cool when the cool and heat we’d previously asked for turned out to be not what we wanted.

***

I think about this every year at The Great Lifting.

You know what I mean by this. One morning, you’re out the door for work and it’s the same old, same old summertime air: steamy like a bathtub even after the water has drained away, hot like soup, and sticky-damp like babies’ skin. And then, the very next morning… it might be the exact same temperature as the day before, still 86 or whatever, but something has lifted. You walk outside and the air goes down easier, like you don’t have to chew it this morning. Perspiration doesn’t dot your forehead immediately. The feeling that a moist blanket is suffocating all of us is gone… you can almost see it floating away into the sky.

It’s not cool yet. Again, it might be the exact same temperature, and tomorrow it might get back up to 90. But something has changed. Everything has changed.

***

This is how I see grace.

Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.

You are still the same person, when grace finds you. You are still doing the same job, thinking the same dirty or sweary or angry thoughts, walking around in the same shoes that give you the same blisters. Nothing has changed. But something has been lifted. And everything has changed. You are not longer suffocating. You are no longer fighting for air. You are no longer dying.

When grace finds you, you expect a great lifting. You expect that YOU will be greatly lifted, somehow, above all the politics and problems and hipster nonsense of this life. You expect that you will float a few inches off the ground, that you will smile sweetly at the barista who gives you the wrong coffee and happily talk for an hour to that neighbor, classmate, or woman in your office who won’t shut up.

Grace is not a lifting of you; it’s a lifting off of you. A lifting off of the horrible, life-threatening, sweltering, heavy pall: your penchant for sinning, your aim toward death, your ignorance and turning away of God. You are not lifted yet, my friend. But now, a thousand pounds lighter and able to breathe, you may be able, somehow, soon, to float.

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 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.

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

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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.

In Your Light We See Light

Psalm 36 has a line that says, “In Your light we see light.”

I even like the Latin translation of it, though I generally understand about 1% of Latin: “In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.” Isn’t that pretty?

I think what I like about this line is that it doesn’t make any sense.  It is nonsense. In light, light is seen? That’s like saying, when you look at the color blue, you see the color blue. When it’s hot out, we feel hot. When the wind blows, we feel the wind blowing.

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

If I were sitting in a dark room (not a cave… I don’t feel like dealing with Plato this early in the morning), and someone turned a flashlight on me, what would I see?
I would see everything the light is illuminating– the floor, my hands, the dust swirling in the air as the beam illumines it, possibly the white-hot bulb in the center of the flashlight, if I squinted really hard.

Would I be seeing light? I think I would just be seeing the things the light allowed me to see. Things that were always around me, it’s just that now I can see them, thanks to the light.

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

We think about God illuminating our lives a lot. God comes in and illumines your heart: You see what a screw-up you are. You see how filthy your soul is. You see how desperate the world around you has become. God’s light has the purpose, in the common mythology of modern American Christianity, of making us see us.

If that were the whole story, the Psalmist should have written, “In Your light, we see ourselves.”

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

If I were back in that dark room, with that flashlight turned on me, I would see myself, yes. I would see my knees and my dirty hands and the great distance that divides me from the one holding the light. The light certainly has that self-sight as one of its tasks.

But what if we changed the vantage point?

If you were also in that dark room, in another corner, and you were looking at this scene– a light being shone upon me– what would you see? A beam of light. A long cone of light traveling from the mouth of the flashlight to engulf me in a shimmering pool of gold.  You would be able to see the light itself, as an entity itself, as a thing to be seen, if only you look at it from another perspective.

You know how when you’re on the beach or in the mountains and there are clouds all around but the sun is peaking through… and every so often there will be that perfect situation where you can actually see sunbeams cascading to earth? Isn’t that magical? You can see the rays of the sun. It’s captivating. It’s probably my favorite thing in nature. Watching the long fingers of the sun drip lazily to the surface of the planet somewhere in the distance, caressing it, warming it, tickling it.

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

The light of God does not exist to show us ourselves. It does not fall upon us for the sole purpose of convicting, or accusing, or even inspiring. The light of God falls on us because otherwise we would have no way of knowing what light is.

Sometimes I wonder about people who were born completely deaf– they have never heard anything in their lives. I wonder how sound is explained to them. How would you explain sound to someone who could not, had not, never would hear it? Or colors, shapes, trees, the incredible way water ripples, to someone who was blind?

Go on, try this in your mind: Describe the color blue to someone who can’t see anything. It’s impossible. I seriously spend a lot of time thinking about this and am inexplicably very concerned by it.

 

In Your light we see light. In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

 

We are blind. We sit in that room, on the couch or behind the desk, taking calls and marking endless appointments in our calendars, completely in the dark, and we think that we are experiencing all that life has to offer. We don’t even know what we don’t know. We don’t even know that we’re missing something. We have to be told that there’s something called blue out there. We have to be told that there’s something amazing called water ripples that are a glory and a wonder to behold.

God’s light is that thing that tells us. God’s light comes upon us to show us another way of living. To show us that we’re missing a sense. That we, ourselves, our lives, are sans-sense, perhaps even nonsense. God’s light shows us what light is, that light even exists.

 

How precious is Your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.
They feast on the abundance of Your house,
and You give them drink from the river of Your delights.
For with You is the fountain of life;
In Your light we see light.
In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.

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.