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.

Advertisements

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.

A Day in the Life of a Pastor

Source: memebase

Source: memebase

Wake up at 4am, vaguely worried about something I can’t remember. Attribute it to the fact that the Board of Ordained Ministry is coming up…….. in two and a half years BUT STILL.

Call my father, ask him to talk me off my anxiety ledge.  He jokes with me about how all my problems will be solved when they elect me the new pope. We laugh. I feel better, am able to get out of bed, even take a shower! Plus 10 points!

Head to work! Pull out in front of another car and duck my head hoping my extra chins will hide my clerical collar, while holding up a hand in apology.

Stop in Panera, where a man waits respectfully for me to fully vacate the coffee bar area before he approaches it, as though I am one of those nuns who are so cloistered that if a man touches them, they get defrocked, or melt, or something.

Hear a snippet of a story on NPR about “home funerals” in which the speaker bemoans funeral homes as being clinical, sterile, and unwelcoming; thus, she says, the best option is to have a funeral at home.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Think for a while about the fact that church is no longer an option for many people, or even a category in their brains.
Consider crying.
Consider quitting ministry before the Church doesn’t even exist anymore.
Laugh at my silliness and lack of trust.
Get out of the car.

Joke with coworkers and realize I work with the best people in the world.

Read a long comment on a progressive blog which begins with a quote from a Casting Crowns song. Laugh, then nearly cry.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Begin a response to a friend on facebook RE: the “messianic secret” motif in Mark. Delete everything. Begin it again. Delete everything again. Give up. (Sorry, Brad!)

Source: reactiongifs

Have lunch with parishioners; struggle against revealing too much.  I just want to be best friends with everyone, but it turns out people don’t exactly want to know that their pastors break and bleed and suffer and sometimes lie on the sofa in sweatpants and wail. Or, conversely but still in the TMI realm, that we sometimes sing silly songs to our puppies about how they are a little bear dressed up in a puppy costume. Come on, that’s adorable.

Put on an additional cardigan because the world is freezing. Come and get me, boys; I look so irresistible in this clerical collar and multiple cardigans.  Ow ow, am I right?

Source: reactiongifs

Accidentally click a link to a terrible, terrible blog while googling translations of Ezekiel 16. (Seriously, don’t try this at home, kids. And especially not at work, like I was). Flush with embarrassment, and consider curling up and dying. Have to email our IT guy to apologize and explain. NEVER LIVE THIS DOWN INSIDE MY OWN HEAD.

Run into parishioners in the hallways and realize I love them more than I ever thought possible.

Source: reactiongifs

Call a friend. Spend a long time talking about the theological merit of a Christological view that really only takes into consideration the Passion.  Do we have to suffer to be like Christ? we ask. We (as liberal feminists who dislike pain) want to say no, but deep down we both think “maybe-probably-I dunno.”

Do my Disciple work. Realize I’ve forgotten everything I learned in seminary about the synoptic Gospels. Briefly consider just throwing the idea of “Q” at my Disciple ladies (that’s right, I have an all-girl group. YOU JEALOUS? You should be.) so they’ll spend all our time talking about that and think I’m smart. Realize this is the opposite of good Disciple-teaching.  And good person-being.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Walk the dog and call my mother. She says, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” We nearly cry together. I tell her she is one of the great lights of my life. We do cry together. So, you know, the usual.

Go to Disciple. Feel pastoral, pastorly, pastorish, and LIKE A PASTOR. Laugh to the point of crying.  Don’t even worry about being off topic, because if Jesus was present anywhere in my day, it’s here. Pray.

Watch some trashy reality television on the couch with the dog and cat. Consider reading my Bible. Fall asleep.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Lather, rinse, repeat.
Thank God.

Pray, Cry, or Drink: A Sermon-Preparation Post!

Dear readers,

I’m preaching this Sunday!!!!

If you recall, I once wrote a post entitled “The 12 Steps to Preaching a Sermon (A VERY Informative Guide).” Maybe you should read that post before you read this one, because this post will be something like a follow-up to, or an elaboration of, that one.
Maybe. I always write thesis statements and introductions before the actual paper/blog post so there’s really no telling if that’s going to be true or not. But if you go read that other post then my statistics go up because you’re clicking my links and viewing other pages, and then I’ll feel really good about myself. So, it’s your choice. Make my day, or be selfish.  (I really hope you all get it when I’m joking.  Love you….)

***

I solicited some advice from friends on how they prepare to preach in the day(s) and/or week(s) leading up to Sunday. Here are some of the answers I received:

“Pray. A lot.”
“Cry?”
“Go on a bender.  I’ll come over and help; I’ve got liquor.”

**Author’s note: The above were intentionally listed from best advice to worst.

I solicited advice from these same beautiful, hilarious, broken, Godly people on what to preach when you’re afraid of/distressed by/unsure about your Scripture.  Here are some of the answers, from the same respective people, and again listed from best to worst:

“Consult God, and then Barth.”
“Just go up there and preach universalism, who cares?”
“Just read Anne Lamott’s twitter feed from the pulpit. #that’llpreach”

***

As you can tell, all my non-preaching readers, preaching is hard. Writing a sermon is hard.

But it is also wonderful. You know all those things you think about saying to people– good things, smart things, funny things, helpful things, sweet things? Most people don’t ever in their lives get a public place to say them. The preacher gets that, most every week! The possibilities are endless; you can help people and bring joy to people and celebrate life and improve the world with your words.  That is the joy of preaching.

The terror of preaching is that your mind doesn’t only operate on the plane of good, smart, funny, helpful, and sweet things. You also think mean things, snarky things, ugly things, things that tear people down while masquerading as helpfulness.
One of my favorite lines on the new Taylor Swift album (stop judging me. That’s an ugly thought you’re having right now.) accuses an ex of being “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”

***

Preachers have great power to be incredibly cruel under the guise of honesty and helpfulness.

So I get why my friends suggested I pray, cry, and drink copious amounts of, erm, unpastorly liquids.  But no matter what you do, Sunday will still come, and you will still have to open your mouth and give your people something.  It’s up to you to make sure that you’re not cruel, or dippy, or insincere, or flippant.  But the good news, I reckon, is that God can make living water flow even from a rock.  And can turn bitter water potable.

….Well. I guess this post is over on that note. Do I really have to go write my sermon now? #pastorproblems

EPILOGUE:

I’m going to take my first person’s advice: gonna go talk to Jesus and Barth, in that order.

On We Go: In Which I Compare Myself to a Hobbit and Ministry to a Dangerous Adventure

Well friends, here I am on the other side of yet another ministry milestone.  I’ve conducted my first solo funeral.  

I felt inadequate, and totally covered in the Spirit, and utterly ungraceful, and totally covered by grace, and desperately unprepared, and totally covered by the years of training and the springs and springs of Christian love that God somehow digs up out of my dusty, barren patch of a soul.

Source: imdb.com

Source: imdb.com

If you’re a facebook friend of mine, you may have seen that I recently noted that I’ve begun reading (for the first time) the Lord of the Rings series, starting, as per friends’ advice (demands?), with The Hobbit.  I guess I should clarify that I’m not reading them exactly; I’m listening to them on audiobook.  But it’s unabridged and it’s so I can work on my knitted Christmas presents while “reading.”  So I tell myself it counts.

I noted also on facebook that this book, though I’m only just about halfway through the first one, is already chock full of sermon illustrations.  I keep having to pause the audio (read by an old Englishman who is so English that he rrrrolls his R’s when he’s rrrreally into a good scene) to write down quotes.  Here’s just about the best one I’ve gotten so far:

Our little hobbit friend is fretting about having forgotten his hat and his pocket-handkerchief– whatever that is– when setting off on the epic adventure chronicled in the book.  In response, a dwarf (I think? Correct me if I’m wrong) says to him,

You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.

This is how I feel, very often, about starting out this journey in ministry.  Totally inadequate, as though I’ve forgotten something very essential, like wearing pants or brushing my teeth, before coming to this part of my life.

Obviously I was chosen for a reason, just as Gandalf chose Bilbo– although also like Bilbo I feel like much more trouble than I’m worth.  All this morning I keep popping into other clergy’s offices to ask, “Should I have the bagpiper play before or after I give the benediction?” and “When should I put my hand on the casket? Do I have to say the ashes to ashes part?”

I sometimes imagine that God is embarrassed of me when I just totally fumble around like a fool… like She’s up there groaning and moaning, “Get it together, girlfriend!”  I don’t think that’s accurate, though.  I think more likely She’s amused; “You goofball,” She says, clucking her tongue appreciatively.

Like Bilbo I keep stumbling around and getting lost and needing much help… and very occasionally thinking of something helpful to say or do but then getting self-conscious or flubbing it or just generally saying and doing the wrong thing.

But like Bilbo I carry on.  Because, like Bilbo, I often have this conversation with myself:

‘Go back?’ he thought. ‘No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!

It’s the only thing to do.  And the further I go, the more I learn, and the more I’ve experienced and practiced, and the more I will have to offer God’s people.

But here’s hoping I don’t find a ring-like object anywhere along the way that so OBVIOUSLY brings with it mischief and possibly doom (….I really have very little idea what these books are about, but based on the snippets of the films I’ve seen it looks pretty mischievous and doom-y, and since every time Elijah Wood looks at the ring with his little hobbit eyes, he looks terrified, I imagine it’s mostly the ring’s fault).

 

 

… That being said, though, here’s a note for all you current seminarians out there:

Keep your notes from your worship/preaching classes about funerals in a well-labeled and accessible document.  Nothing like scrambling around and being ultimately unable to find them 24 hours before the service begins.

 

Up With the Birds

I’ve got this thing for birds lately.Image

I know, I know, they’re disgusting, carrying diseases and whatever, but hey, so are humans.  I’ve decorated my office with all these pictures and sculptures of birds.  I sketch little knock-off Picasso doves in my journal.  Everywhere I go, I carry a little dove with me.  It’s weird.  I get that.

Now, note, it’s not all birds I’m into.  I find owls quite disturbing, for example.  And parrots are too large to be cute.  Have you ever looked at a parrot’s feet?  It’s like looking at proof of evolution: that thing used to be a dinosaur.  (just kidding, please don’t fill up my inbox with creationism arguments!)

I think I’m into doves because I have righteous indignation on their behalf.  The fact that they have been enslaved for magic tricks and the like is so upsetting to me.  But I also feel righteous indignation on behalf of the Holy Spirit, who calls doves Her mascot, in a way.  I feel that for every cross hanging in a church, home, or office, there should be 1-2 doves, as well.  After all, God’s grace far surpasses humanity’s instrument of death. (For the record, I have 6 crosses and 6 doves—and counting.)

But back to the birds.  I think birds feel freer than I can even imagine feeling.  They hunt, eat, sleep, groom, mate, fly.  They do not do the mundane things that we humans do… refreshing our email browsers obsessively to see if anyone’s commented on our blog posts and other such egocentric, time-wasting, silly, silly things.

ImageSometimes I feel like the best verb to describe the daily life of a Western, middle-class individual such as myself is the verb “to slog.”   We are slogging along as though up to our navels in so many feet of thick Georgia mud.  We wade, we plod, we slog through emails, voicemails, snail-mail, texts, calendars entries, coupons, spam, meetings, waiting in line for lunch, waiting in line for the bathroom, waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting at traffic lights, waiting for Friday, waiting for Christmas, waiting for summer, waiting for something—anything— different.

A bird never slogs, at least not in her natural state.  Birds flit, float, fleetly flee, and fly (got those verbs from the song from the Sound of Music. You’re welcome for getting that stuck in your head, by the way).  Birds soar and swing, dive and climb, take off and land.  They have such cooler verbs than we do, you guys.

Image

Sometimes I think about the incarnation in terms of verbs.  I mean, we associate “God-in-Heaven” with verbs like float, and… well… what other verbs do we associate with Big Papa God?  Listen?  Help?  Judge?  Smite?

Dare I say that we don’t think of our God as a God-in-action (at least not positive action)?

But in the incarnation, we no longer have a passive listening/floating/”helping” (whatever that means) God-in-Heaven.  We have a breathing, walking, talking God-on-earth.  We have a God who sneezed.  Who burped.  Who maybe sometimes got tongue-tied.  Who scratched His backside when it itched.  God-on-earth kicked rocks, laughed, jumped, ran, and worked with His hands.  And carpenters, you know, they don’t exactly have soft hands.  We have a God who got splinters. Who maybe sometimes caught His thumb with a mallet.  Who gritted His teeth with irritation and maybe a little pain.

If I could live a life where I never had another hangnail, or had to check another email, or had to fill up a gas tank again, I would take that in a heartbeat.  This slogging is rough; it chafes and is exhausting.

I think that’s why I love the birds, because they can just fly away from their problems.

But God chose not to fly away from us.

Instead, God became one of us.

Could you imagine a free, soaring dove trading her wings for a pair of clumsy legs and thumbs?

It reminds me of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, where Ariel trades her life as a mermaid for legs for the chance to fall in love with the man of her dreams.

Is it too reductionist to say that God did something similar?  Traded glory for guts.  Traded Heaven for this ruined planet.  Traded distance for terrible intimacy.  Chose to walk around with us smelly, sinful, disgusting, disease-carrying humans.  Chose to slog with the rest of us.  All for the chance that we might fall in love with Him.

But that’s not all that my doves remind me of.  They also remind me to live as freely as possible.  That I don’t have to slog.  That in sacrificing His own metaphorical wings, Christ made it possible for us to find that same freedom.  Think about your verbs today, friends.  What are you doing with this body that’s made in the image of God?  Not some faraway God-in-Heaven but a God-right-beside-you.  A God who’d do—and did—anything for your love.  A God who made you as free as the birds, just as God is.

Image