2015 Reading Round-Up

This year I embarked on my biggest ever reading goal: 160 books.
I made it (as of December 30th) to 173. image1

My major thematic goals for this year included reading some classics I somehow made it through a Georgia public school education without reading (The Color Purple, Catch-22, A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, One Hundred Years of Solitude), some theology classics I somehow made it through a world-class seminary without reading (Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline, Cone’s God of the Oppressed, Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation), and some new genres (fantasy, high fantasy, and-oddly- Scandinavian murder mysteries).

I also tried to invest in books by authors of color (Angelou, Cone, Bhutto, Marquez, Gutierrez, Morrison, Walker, Shire, Ishiguro) and books dealing with racially-charged issues (Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart, Ward’s Men We Reaped, Alexander’s The New Jim Crow), as well as books about feminism or with a feminist bent (Truly Our Sister, Men Explain Things to Me, Why Not Me?, Lean In, Sisters in Law) and innumerable books by female authors (among others, let me life up for you Benazir Bhutto, Marilynne Robinson, Tana French, Robert Galbraith, Emily St. John Mandel, Rachel Held Evans, Lily King, Pema Chodron, and Liane Moriarty).

Despite these efforts to branch out, I still spent the bulk of my reading in familiar genres: fiction (90+), memoirs/biographies (25+), and theology (25+). I was proud to find that interspersed here and there were 8 books of poetry, 5 books that could be broadly categorized as sociology or psychology, and 3 books that were straight up history.

So, why am I writing all this down? Partly for myself, because I like to do a book round-up at the end of each year. But also partly for anyone who, like me, makes relatively outlandish reading goals every new year and/or anyone who is always looking for new books to add to their own reading list(s).

So, without further ado, here are my winners for my favorite books I read this year, broken down by category. I highly recommend any and all of these books to any and all people, except that very last category, which I filled with books so bad I nearly couldn’t finish them. Enjoy!

Best Fiction: Ernest Cline, Ready Player One
(honorable mention: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven)
Best Memoir: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
(honorable mention: Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking)
Best Non-Fiction: Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me
(honorable mention: Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow)
Best YA: Laura Ruby, Bone Gap
(honorable mention: Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda)
Best Poetry: Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth
(honorable mention: Daniel Ladinsky, Love Poems From God)
Best Theology: Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance 
(honorable mention: James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree)
Best Series: Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn trilogy
(honorable mention: Pierce Brown, Red Rising trilogy)
Best Other/Non-Categorize-able: Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy
(honorable mention: Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic)
Biggest Pleasant Surprise: Anna North, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
(honorable mention: Hugh Howey, Wool)
Book that Won’t Leave Me Alone: Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking
(honorable mention: Lily King, Euphoria)
Best Newly Discovered Authors:
Kazuo Ishiguro
Brandon Sanderson
Tana French
Ernest Cline
And finally……….

Biggest Let-Downs (Don’t Believe the Hype! I Could Barely Finish These!)
:
Jennifer Niven, All the Bright Places
Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance
Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Mary Kubica, Pretty Baby
Mary Kubica, The Good Girl

 

So, there you have it. For more books I read this year, including reviews and ratings, see my Goodreads page here: https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2015 (and friend me!).

 

Some ways that I (and you!) might consider investing in new and diverse authors next year are….

  • More LGBT authors and books on LGBT history, issues, etc.
  • Ethnographies (anthropological and sociological studies into specific cultures, tribes, and peoples)
  • Memoirs by people of other religions, nationalities, races, and socio-economics than you
  • Books of different media, such as graphic novels and books of photography
  • Books from a genre you’ve never before been interested in (ever since failing to fall in love with JRR Tolkien as a child, I’ve given fantasy a wide berth. But thanks to some cajoling from wise and funny friends, I gave it another try this year, and could not be more pleased!)

 

Happy reading, friends!

Advertisements

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.

A Thought

Some people have been saying things to me lately like, “When are you going to write a book?”  Which is baffling, and flattering, and head-inflating, and humbling, all at the same time.

The answer is, most likely, not anytime soon. I’ve been meditating on two thoughts:

1. The oft-quoted quip whose origin I confess not to be certain of, but it goes something like this, “She who never quotes will never be quoted,” and,

2. This excerpt from the preface of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s magnificent essay Love Alone Is Credible:

It goes without saying that the following essay contains nothing fundamentally new, and that it seeks in particular to stay true to the thought of the great saints of the theological tradition: Augustine, Bernard, Anselm, Ignatius, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Thérèse of Lisieux… Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them.

 

So I am trying to slow down and listen. I feel a little head-over-heels sometimes, with so much I feel called (truly, called) to do and say, but I also am acutely and, frankly, painfully aware that I was pretty disorganized, anxious, and distracted in seminary and missed a great deal of the basics. When called upon to read Augustine, Anselm, and John of the Cross over my three frantic seminary years, I skimmed and boiled down to what was needed to make a B+ on a paper.

Part of this was necessary for survival, just the nature of the beast of graduate school. But I think that at least part of the nature of the succeeding beast, your first few years of ministry, is to play catch-up. I feel I’ve been sent on a run– a very important, lifelong sprinting marathon of a run– without my shoes tied, and now’s the time to bend down (while still running, I suppose) and try to get the knots in place.

I appreciate your interest in my journey, and will continue posting here– hopefully more often!– with the things I’m learning, doing, seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing, screwing up, hating, loving, enjoying, and bearing with.

In the meantime, lovers of God, I listen to you and to the chorus of witnesses, for it is through you that I will come to know something of this Being I address when I cry, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”

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.

The Abbey: In Which a Bishop & an Abbot Struggle to Put Up with Me

The following are 3 (the first 3 of at least a few more, I expect) excerpts from my journal over my long weekend at Mepkin Abbey, which I have written about previously here.

*****

Friday, February 8th, 7:00 pm

My stay at the Abbey this time is very different from last time. For one thing, they’ve instituted semi-mandatory orientation tours so that you don’t go around confused and anxious the whole time… like I did last time. Father Stan, the Abbot, lead us around paths and roads he knew so well that he walked backwards the entire time, looking at us kindly, and never once had to glance behind him to see where he was going.

He told us that the monastery was designed and built around these enormous live oaks, that in the process of building, they only had to take down one tree. “God took down a few others,” he added in an offhand sort of way.

I suppose I half-expected that I had romanticized the whole monastery experience in my head and that it really wouldn’t be that great in reality, or the second time around.  Well, I certainly romanticized it and it is slightly different, but that does not lessen its greatness.  Brother Paul has put on a few pounds (but then so have I!) and Brother Theophilus has exited the novitiate and is now a full monk with a very full beard, but Father Christian could still outrun and outthink me, at age 98.  The monk with the perfect pitch who serves most often as cantor smiles at me broad as ever. The African American gentleman always raises a playful(?) eyebrow at me, and Brother Robert helps me with the pages of my Psalmbook and hymnbooks, which are indecipherable without aid.

*****

8:12 pm

My accommodations are different this time.  I essentially have a whole house to myself, complete with 4 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and two tiny but full baths, where last time I had roughly 20 square feet total.  It’s nice, but I am terribly far away from the rest of the monastery.  You don’t have to make any turns to get from the house to church, just follow the main road.  But it’s a long way off, about a five minute’s walk from the last cottage on the road, and so too from the last lights.

Of course there must be no lights along this remote part of the road, lest the stars be obscured.  I appreciate this in abstract theory, but in the distilled reality of stepping out into the void alone in the night, I find my appreciation dissolving rather rapidly.

The monks are kind enough to provide flashlights in each guest room, though mine was all but dead.  On the dark asphalt, it gave a glow so feeble, it looked like a shallow puddle of melted butter in a deep black pot. Not going to cut into the heavy veil of this darkness. As I am occupying this whole house alone, I went from room to room in search of brighter light (this, I imagine, is something like a metaphor for church, but I will leave that to you to parse out, dear reader).  My first and second tries were as pitiful as my given flashlight had been, but the third glowed bright as a handheld lighthouse.

So, off we trekked, my new flashlight and me, finding the night to be darker than I have ever known it to be. This little halo bobbed along on the cracked asphalt in front of me; I followed nervously, tossing my head back and forth like horses do when they get uneasy.

It occurred to me that I might be less uneasy if I could see a bit more of what was around me.  So, I swung the beam of the flashlight to my right and followed up and out along the trunk and limbs of a Mother Willow-style oak.  What was revealed was rather less heartening than I had hoped: mere feet above my head, even inches in some places, long fingery branches dripping with spidery Spanish moss hung eerily, reaching toward me.  Take it from me, if you ever have cause to wander around coastal South Carolina after dark, don’t shine a light up from the underside of one of these mossy oaks. Even M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t recreate the terror I had in that moment.

I tripped and galloped my way toward the nearest cottage, where two more puddles of light were just flickering on, signaling that fellow travelers were entering the road.  I was flooded with relief and tried not to feel silly, a child afraid of the dark.

Jesus 101: Church is that place where one frightened person can be comforted by nestling up close with other frightened people– even strangers– and all their little flickering lights join together to show the way.

So here’s the interesting part: At Compline, the 7th and final worship service of the day, the thing which I was braving darkness and coyotes (or, as it turned out, owls that sound like coyotes) to get to, the monks prayed Psalm 91, which proclaims that she who trusts in the LORD “will not fear the terror of the night.”

And do you know, I didn’t, after that? On my way back to my little house, though alone and cold, I found that I didn’t even have to use my flashlight for most of the journey. What before had been black as coal now had a blue tint, lit somehow by those cloud-veiled stars.

My eyes had adjusted in the dim church, and what before had been suffocating blackness was now navigable, even beautiful.  What’s more, my heart had adjusted in that prayer-soaked pace: what before held terror and isolation now invited wonder and deep, mystical communion with God.

*****

Saturday, February 9th, 4:14 am

I continue to fail miserably at keeping up with the monks.  What page they’re on, what book they’re in… I grin sheepishly down until a brother (most embarrassingly, it’s usually the Abbot, Father Stan, or the retired bishop, Father Victor) steps over to flip pages, points, and return to his stall.

Yesterday I discovered that there are very faint vertical lines to the left of stanzas that call for evil, cursing, or judgment upon enemies (of which there are a distressing number in the Psalms), indicating that they not be sung. I appreciate this, from a theological perspective.  I do not, however, appreciate how fine and faint the lines are, such that I generally don’t see them in the dim church light, and carry on alone asking God to hate someone until a brother (again, usually the Abbot or the Bishop!) rushes over and stops me, as kindly as he can.

All told, it rather gives me reason to want to pray those hateful prayers over the editors of the books….. This, I assume, is not great Christian love.

 

More to come…….. and if you’re interested, I’ll be putting some of the poetry I wrote during my visit on my “Arts” page.

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.

You Know You’re a Pastor When…

Welcome to the first installment of “You Know You’re a Pastor When…”

Please comment and leave me your hilarious additions and maybe you’ll see yours included in the next installment!

You know you’re a pastor when… you’ve eaten your body weight in leftover Hawaiian bread.

…your phone’s autocorrect knows words like “salvific” and “Hauerwas.”

…you treat Saturday as a “school night.”

…you’ve refrained from cutting someone off in traffic because you know your hospital clergy tag is in your back window.

…you caught yourself singing “The Summons” when you woke up this morning.

…you get excited to the point of making weird high-pitched noises when you find a volume of Barth’s Dogmatics you don’t already have in a used bookstore.

…you have felt genuine remorse for throwing away a tissue with consecrated grape juice on it.

…you open your Hymnal to page 881 when reciting the Apostles’ Creed before the congregation JUST IN CASE.

…(similarly) you write out the whole Lord’s prayer in your prayers of the people JUST IN CASE.

…you know what I’m talking about when I say this: BWGRKL.

…light, fun reading means cracking open Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

…you have to close your blinds to watch any movie over a PG rating for fear a church member will see.

…you put on sunglasses and a hat to buy beer.

…you write “Non-profit” when your online dating site of choice asks where you work.

…you have surreptitiously put a ring on your left ring finger when entering a room full of young, cute conservatives/fundamentalists/evangelicals. JUST IN CASE.

What about YOU? When do YOU know YOU’RE a pastor?

Reply and let me know!