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.

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.

Homosexuality, the Supreme Court, and Jesus

Listen.

Before I even get started, let me confess this: I have not been reading up on, researching, or even talking in depth about the issue that I’m going to write on today. This is my gut, hanging out there in the wind. So, here we go.

***

Today the Supreme Court hears the second day of important legislation regarding same-sex marriage.  Marriage equality.  Gay rights.  Whatever you want to call it.  Here’s what I want to call it: Civil rights.

As a United Methodist pastor, I am bound in some measure to our Book of Discipline, which declares the “practice of homosexuality” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  This statement, while harsh and blunt, is essentially true: historically, Yahweh-believers from Moses to Paul to the current Pope have declared that homosexuality is not godly. Or holy. Or righteous.

…Meanwhile everything WE do, my dear straight readers, is so godly, holy, and righteous. (sarcasm)

Here’s my question to the church: just because we have historically taught this, does that mean it is still to be taught today? Hear the salient words of two pastors of FUMC Austin, in a February 2013 letter to their congregation right before they voted overwhelmingly to become a reconciling church:

“Between these two positions are those of us for whom the moral status of homosexual relationships is not fully clear. Although those in this group are uncertain whether homosexual relationships represent God’s ideal for persons, they believe such relationships are permissible when they take place within a lifelong covenant of love and mutual fidelity. Just as divorce does not represent God’s ideal will for persons, even so, under certain circumstances, it is recognized by the Church to be morally permissible. Rather than forcing persons to live a celibate life following divorce, the Church permits persons to remarry, even though scripture speaks against this. Just as this has been seen to be a loving course of action for divorced persons, so also it should be seen as a loving course of action for the Book of Discipline to allow homosexual persons to live within a covenant relationship rather to be restricted to a life of isolating celibacy.” (Source)
 

Is homosexuality God’s ideal? Perhaps not.  It’s just like any parent who doesn’t want their child to pick the hard road, the road where there will be more temptations, more dangers, more people against them.  But is homosexuality a deal-breaker for God?  I just don’t think so.

How can we say that anything is a deal-breaker for God? To say that gives that thing power over God. 

Yes, Paul says that homosexuality is immoral. But Paul also says that NOTHING can separate you from God’s love. This includes, presumably, homosexuality.

***

But enough on that. Because I’m not setting out to change the church– at least not this morning; I haven’t even had my coffee yet.

My beef today is with America.

As a Christian, as a pastor, I am called to be not of this world.  However, I am in it. Like the pastors who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and like Isaiah who spent his days shouting and crying out for justice for the oppressed, it is the duty of the Christian to help right wrongs where she sees them and is able to help.

It seems to me that this country, though it has long since moved away from legitimately being considered Christian, and though it has long since left God in its capitalist, politicking dust, still attempts to hold true to its philosophical (if not its religious) ideals: freedom, equality, justice for all.  The pursuit of happiness and all that.

We know that the government does not make decisions based on Christian values (as much as certain sectors would have their constituents believe).  So, then, they ought to make decisions based on their philosophical values.

If freedom applied to the slaves, why should it not apply to LGBTQ individuals enslaved by heavier taxes because the federal government does not honor their marriage? If equality applies to women, why should it not apply to men who love men? If “liberty and justice” are really “for all,” then why should anyone be excluded from this– let’s face it– legal institution of marriage? (For, in most cases these days, the church is the farthest thing from anyone’s mind when they plan to enter into marriage.)

The arguments heard in the Supreme Court yesterday were, sadly, laughable. Justice Kennedy argued that it is too soon to decide such an issue, since it has only been around for about 5 years. (what?!)  Justice Kagan valiantly defended reason against sheer stupidity when the lawyer defending California’s Prop 8 (proposition against same-sex marriage) said that the fundamental purpose of marriage is procreation, even going so far as to begin debating the odds of both individuals being sterile, even in aged couples….. Lunacy.

***

I can’t help but wonder where Christ stands in all of this.  If you want to talk about the “teachings of the Christian faith,” it seems to me that the best place to look is the Gospels, the accounts of the life of the Son of God.

Where could Christ be found in divisive situations? Most frequently, among the poor, the outcast, the diseased, the shameful, the reviled.  Jesus spent His time with those who had little to no political voice or standing, no respectable place in society.  Jesus, it seems to me, turned always to stand with those whom the world sought to devour.

So is homosexuality “of God”? I don’t know. Is it a sin? I don’t know.  Is it God’s will for individuals? I don’t know.

But what I do know is this: Nothing can separate you from the love of God, not any sin, not anything; not homosexuality.

As the Church, we should do all we can to present God’s love to all people, for so lamentably often, we are exactly the thing trying to stand in the way of God’s love to people we fear, don’t understand, or revile.

In Christ, though America seems struggling to catch up, justice and freedom are really true, really enacted, really freely given, by God’s grace. 

May we all have more love as this debate continues, and may God’s grace prevail.

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!

Hyperbole: A Post with the Phrase “Rage Burrito” in It

My mother sometimes gets mad (in a loving sort of way) at me for speaking in hyperbole, which I often do when it comes to my feelings on things.
“THIS IS THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE,” I shout down the phone line when recounting how I got a free cookie from the cute sandwich artist at Subway.
Or, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me and I feel like death wrapped in a rage burrito,” I’ll say when talking about plans falling through or having a stomach bug.

“Erin,” my mother once said gently, “if you say EVERY day is the best day or EVERY thing is the worst thing then when it actually IS the best day or the worst thing, it won’t mean as much!”

I get that. I do. But, dear mother, we shall have to agree to disagree.

 

Why so serious? My cousin and I playing serious at Christmas.

Why so serious? My dear cousin and me playing serious at Christmas.

When I was younger, though not much, I suffered from a great deal of anxiety and a fair bit of depression.  Oh, it’s okay, I feel much better now; don’t panic. But I awoke every day with a pretty paralyzing sense of dread and fear.  Everything seemed insurmountably difficult. Every activity, from things as simple as finding parking spaces downtown to filling out my FAFSA forms, seemed like an Olympic marathon for which I had not trained.  Everything that went the tiniest bit wrong was a catastrophe, the end of the world, and I was going to die, or worse, from it. (Note: I didn’t even know what “worse” could be, but there was a category for it in my mind, so my funny little mind made its come in that category!)

When you come from a head-space like that into a new, brighter one, it teaches you the meaning of being born again.

I have never experienced anything quite like the slow yet surprisingly easy transition from darkness to light.  It was very like emerging from a cave and blinking at the bright sun, trying to remember what color is and how to see.  I tripped along on feet that had long been shackled, but I was free– and it felt like new life.

 

So it would be easy and very cliche to say that I now enjoy every day, live life to the fullest, and see the positive at every moment. But that’s idealistic, and stupid, and impossible.

You can’t enjoy every day. No one can.  I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t. I don’t think when He was on the cross He was thinking, “Now how shall I find the enjoyment of this moment?”  I still have flashes of panic, days where the dark reaches its scritchy little hands out to beckon me back into the cave.  There are days that jut suck in all of our lives.

My new life tells me this: Acknowledge the suck.  Acknowledge your feelings– even the bad ones. Hell, especially the bad ones.

If something feels awful, say that it’s awful. Lie on the floor and moan. You’ll feel better, or at least you’ll have gotten it out into the atmosphere and no longer just in your head (your head is typically your worst enemy).
If something feels like the best thing you’ve ever felt, say it. Do a dance alone in your living room. Who cares?
Let your body speak what your mind and heart are spitting out.
Be hyperbolic, be inexact, be over-the-top.

I really envy three-year-olds for this sort of thing.
A three year old falls down: THIS IS THE WORST DAY OF HIS LIFE.
He eats a really delicious chicken nugget: BEST DINNER EVER, BEST MOM EVER, BEST DAY EVER.
And they don’t just think this, or make a mental note to write it in their journal or blog that night.  No, they shout it. They run around. They scream and cry. Everyone should know! Everyone should be in on this! Get a load of how much I’m bleeding! Look at these chicken nuggets!!

There’s an old Avett Brothers song that says, “I’m broken-hearted, and I think the world should all be broken-hearted, too.”

 

Christ said He came to give us life, and life abundant.  Life abundant is not a life trapped inside your head.  Life abundant is not a life where we accept the mediocre, and it most CERTAINLY is not a life where we see and experience AMAZING things like sunrises and getting a new pair of shoes and listening to a child pray… and call those things “pretty cool,” “okay,” or “fine.”  It is not a life where we see and experience terrible, heart-wrenching, gut-churning, life-ruining, or even just bum-out-ing things from school shootings to cutting your fingernails down to the quick and then trying to type a long blog post… and call those things “pretty rough,” “doing okay,” or “fine.”

You have been given this life to live abundantly. Why hold it in? God’s not going to run out of wonderful things or start withholding them from you if you acknowledge their wonderfulness too much.  And God’s not going to applaud you for holding your pain inside, forcing a smile, toughing it out. Those are American cultural values, not the values of Christ, who screamed in anguish from the cross that the God of whom He was a part had abandoned Him.

So when things suck, scream. Cry. Kick. Shout. Lie around. Moan. Don’t put on pants or makeup for days. Eat ice cream and order in Chinese. And pray. Shout to God all your sorrows.  Don’t worry about sounding like a 3-year-old. God likes little children, remember? Tell everyone at Church. Because the Church is the place where everyone carries a piece of the burden until it’s not so heavy anymore. (….And church ladies make really good banana pudding, which is good for heart-healing.)

And when things are wonderful, or even just sort of cool, grin! Sing. Dance. Whistle. Call your friends and shout about it. Because the Church is the sort of place where people share one another’s joys.

By conventional terms, no, this is probably not the quantifiable, measurable best day of your life. But yours is a life given to you to be lived abundantly.  And God is with you. So it is the best day. It really, really is.

Really.

Really. Really.

John Howard Yoder, He Came Preaching Peace

Christians whose loyalty to the Prince of Peace puts them out of step with today’s nationalistic world because they are willing to love their nation’s friends but not to hate their nations enemies are not unrealistic dreamers who think that by their objections they will end all wars.
On the contrary it is the soldiers who think they can put it into wars by preparing for just one more….

[Christians] love their enemies not because they think they are wonderful people, not because they think their love is sure to conquer them, not because they fail to respect their native land or their rulers, not because they are unconcerned for the safety of their neighbors, not because they favor another political or economic system.

Christians love their enemies because God does so, and commands [God’s] followers to do so. That is the only reason, and that is enough.”

Devotion: In Which I (Embarrassingly) Use Bieber Fever as a Metaphor for Disicpleship

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6.24)

Well, that stinks.

I mean, we all get it that there are certain unhealthy things in this world to which we should not devote ourselves, things like wealth, fame, alcohol, and Republicanism (threw that one in as a joke… everybody calm down).

But there’s a lot of really wonderful stuff in this life– and in this job– that I would like to serve as a master, stuff that would benefit me, that would benefit the church, that could benefit the world, maybe even benefit God and God’s Kingdom.

I could serve work as a master, spending all day back-bent over my computer or zipping between hospitals, throwing myself in sum into this odd and wondrous calling, to the exclusion of all worldly callings, and would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

I could serve homemaking as a master, spending all my free time cleaning and cooking and making my life neat and orderly and lovely. I know that a clean home means a clean headspace for me, so I would have more freedom for meditation and prayer and study at home, and thereby would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

I could serve relationships as a master, spending all my cell phone minutes on calling my family and my old friends, doing the familiar give and take and relishing our shared memories, and in that shared time between beloved friends, would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

I could serve righteous indignation as a master, campaigning for the rights of animals, and women, and the poor, and the homeless, and the uninsured, and would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

And I could serve even prayer and meditation as a master, rising with the sun to fulfill my duty, to check “Pray” and “Read Scripture” off my ever-lengthening To-Do list, and would not the Kingdom of God be upbuilt?

There are good things we want to serve as masters.  But serving the things of God is not the same as serving God.

If a wife loves only the sexual fulfillment she gets from her marriage, that’s not the same thing as loving her husband.  That’s just loving sex.

And just because I loved a certain professor’s teaching style in undergrad and took at least one class with him every semester, that didn’t mean I loved him.  I just loved his work.

I think it’s funny that we Christians have co-opted the word “Devotion” to mean reading the Bible/praying.  We do “devotions.” We call them our “morning devotions” or our “evening devotions” or our “daily devotions.”
They are numberable, they fit on 1-3 pages in a pocket-sized book (whose cover is undoubtedly a water-color sunrise or a still photo of a babbling brook), and they last no longer than 10-15 minutes.

What a bastardization of that word.  It’s almost sinful.

Devotion is that thing you feel when your chest feels like it’s going to pop open as if your sternum was a button held on with one last thread.  Devotion is that things that makes your head light and your eyes teary for no reason, and you can’t think of anything else, and you can’t eat and you can’t sleep and you can’t tear your mind’s eye from the object of your devotion.

Devotion is that thing 14-year-olds feel when they gaze upon their posters of One Direction and Justin Bieber.

Have you felt about God the way your youth feel about Justin Bieber lately? (Put that on a bracelet… It’s the new wwjd: HYFAGTWYYFAJBL?) They adore him.  They spend all their free time thinking about him.  They ponder his eyes, his hair.  They have memorized ever word he’s ever written.  They consider his humble beginnings and wonder at his future.  They gather together to discuss his daily activities and the places he’s been spotted that week. Sound familiar?  Sound like anything you do– or would like to do– RE: God?

Serving the things of God is not serving God.  This is a sermon for myself today.  Though my work is ministry, just doing work is not the same as serving God as my master.  “Doing” a “devotion” is not the same thing as being devoted. 

In a moment of boldness, let me quote and amend John Wesley:

“Do all the good you can [out of love for God]
by all the means you have [which you have been given by God and for which you are thankful to God]
in all the ways you can [which God will show you]
in all the places you can [where God will send you]
at all the times you can [even if it doesn’t fit into the 10-15 minutes you blocked out at 6 AM for your “Devotions”]
to all the people you can [whom God loves and calls just as much as He does you]
as long as ever you can [out of abiding devotion to God].”