Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Smile of a Pharisee

I see them all the time, those knowing, Gnostic grins, condescending and self-serving, and I guess the reason I notice and react, badly, is that more times than I would like to admit I sport the same, think the same, communicate the same: if only you knew as well as I, if only you believed as I believe, if only you had the kind of relationship with Jesus that I have (when I, at least, know far better than any of that; which admission is in its own way Pharisaical; is there no escaping the trap?). And we Pharisees have our proof, God knows: texts and tracts, diplomas and credentials, statistics and long-range plans.

Nouwen says that Prodigals cannot help becoming Elder Brothers, and perhaps disciples cannot help becoming Inquisitors, or at least "experts." The fundamentalists on the right and the fundamentalists on the left are all of them Fundamentalists. Pharisees, all.

And so the Will Graham crusade is coming to town. Will is the son of Franklin, the son of Billy. And though our UM churches have as a stated goal (as if it needs to be said), "Intentionally relating unchurched persons to Jesus Christ," we look down our collective noses at this form of evangelism, content ourselves that we are not emotional or manipulative or whatever--as if all crusades are created equally--and meanwhile we languish. We are adrift between prosperity and damnation, not wanting to preach either, not sure what to preach to invite others into the fold. The Baptists and Wesleyans are on board and the Methodists are not, all of us looking at each other and all of us smiling the smiles of Pharisees...

For Presence's Sake

I have a friend, a crusty old bishop, who snorts that in many of today’s congregations the de facto job description for “pastor”—that is, what people seem to expect and therefore what pastors, anxiously, try to provide—is “presence.” Mere presence, he says. Pastors are to “be there,” in other words, wherever there is and for whatever the reason. Today’s pastor, he says shaking his head, is “a quivering mass of availability.” But, he concludes, “the pastor who is always available brings nothing with her when she comes.”

A pastor’s days are filled with important things, the bishop says, and in truth there are plenty of important things pastors are expected to do: there are meetings to attend, visits and calls to make, favor to curry and fires to put out. But, says the bishop, if pastors are always available (quivering or otherwise), and always do only the important things, they will never have time for, nor will they do, the crucial things. The crucial things are prayer and study—those first, of course—and only after that visits and counsel; only after that sermon and Bible Study preparation. The important things come only after the crucial things. Why?

To have anything worth a Sunday morning saying or hearing, pastors themselves have to take time to listen. They have to ask, “What is God saying to me?” before they ask “What am I going to say to my people.” That kind of listening is hard and time-consuming work. Moreover, to be “present” to a situation, really present and not merely present to people and circumstances—bringing something more than clich├ęs and quivering—requires time apart with Jesus. As precedent, remember how often Jesus himself went away alone in order to pray.

In sum, to shepherd the faithful, the faithful pastor must spend time with the Shepherd, must tend to his or her own faith. And so next week, if God allows, I will be in the mountains praying, studying and writing. We have friends who are gracious enough to leave a key under the mat of their beautiful vacation home and every year (with the approval and blessing of our Staff-Parish Relations committee), I go away alone for a week or so—not for vacation, though the setting is pristine enough for one—but to slow down, to focus, to do the hard and intentional work of listening to God. I read God’s Word and I ponder what I read. I write down what I think I may hear and reflect on pastoral moments and circumstances. It is a spiritual exercise and absolutely necessary for me if I am going to be an effective pastor (or at least as effective as I can be).

It is hard to leave home—and it is sometimes harder to come back—for there is lots of important stuff I could be doing here every day. But crucial work awaits me there—the work that by grace will allow me to come back with ears more keen to hear, a heart more ready to serve, with a word that, I hope, is worth the saying.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


yesterday I was 477, 481st in sales at I am 512, 979th. OH NO!!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

At Long Last...

I mean that.

It has been a long time coming, what arrived recently at my house: a package from the warehouse where my freshly printed and bound books are stacked neatly on shelves, awaiting the orders sure to come. The label on the box said NavPress and I knew the treasure in side, thirty copies of Praying for Dear Life: A Reason to Rise, Strength for the Day, Courage to Face the Night.

As I have mentioned in other posts, it has been thirty years since I knew I wanted to write and had some reason to believe I could. It has been twenty-eight years since I first read Buechner and knew that spiritual memoir, especially as refracted through the Bible (or vice versa) was the kind of writing I wanted to do. It has been 26 years since my first little book was released, a pretty feeble collaborative with a couple of friends of mine from seminary (and while Lauren Winner says we cannot refer to our books as little, this one was little, as was the second booklet, a worship resource written solo, a few years later). It has been six years since the idea for this book came to me in a Bojangle's in Monroe, NC, the day after Christmas and the day before I was rushed to the hospital with something called labrynthitis (chronicled briefly in chapter 1). It has been two and one-half years since I took an armload of proposals and partial manuscripts to Calvin College for the Festival of Faith and Writing, where the first person I saw was an editor named Rachelle Gardner who read it and asked to see a bit more. I was crazy nervous, and even more so when I saw her left eye-brow arch-up and she invited me to sit down (see her take on this scene at

It has been nineteen months since I started doing serious rewrites and fourteen months since the final manuscript was finally handed in...and why it has taken so long, I do not know, but now I have a box of books on my kitchen table and great thanksgiving in my heart that this part of the journey is behind me. Though, truth to tell, like the Israelites when they finally reach the promised land, I sometimes look back fondly toward the wilderness. It was such harrowing fun working with Liz Heaney. Harrowing, and fun. It was so frustrating waiting for Rachelle to answer my emails, tell me the latest, but there was always good conversation to be had. It was a struggle, but I have learned so much.

Will I do it again? Well, I have a manuscript that NavPress will publish next year at this time and then, who knows. Terry said it would depend on sales, whether NavPress would want me to do more. For me, the question is more internal than that. Have I said all I have to say? Maybe. maybe not. Wherever the road before me leads, the road behind has led me here, and at long last there are books on my table with my name on them and Buechner's below mine and I know of twenty that have sold and of a few I will give seeds cast from the hand of a patient sower, or I could hope as much, hoping some of them find fertile soils, that the reviewers (if there are any) do not gobble them up like crows, that other books do not choke them off too soon and that other more luminous works do not scorch them to death.

I am thankful to have come this far.

PS It was on September 11, the anniversary of the attacks which will remain a part of our national identity--allowing us, sadly, to imagine ourselves evermore as innocent victims and undaunted overcomers, American Adams all over again, as the author said--that I received the package from NavPress. I wonder what that confluence means?

Monday, September 11, 2006

I Come to the (Olive) Garden Alone...

I have gotten rather hooked on that “all you can eat” soup and salad deal at the Olive Garden (breadsticks are included, too!). How they make a profit off us guys who order every soup every time is a mystery but I don’t worry about it. Instead I stick a napkin in my collar and go to work. Now and then I carry a book to pass time between the servings; usually, discreetly, I observe my neighbors.

The other day I had a fresh bowl of minestrone in front of me when something made me glance over a couple of tables. There was a family of, oh, about twelve, just beginning to celebrate a birthday it appeared. What I noticed next, though, was that each of the four kids was playing with a hand-held computer. I had almost no time to get indignant (we told our kids to put theirs away so we could have conversation!) before I looked again to see that of the eight adults at the table, five of them were talking on cell phones.

Maybe you have seen this kind of thing yourself—a family, even a group of friends, but everyone at the table is talking to someone else or living in another world. They are “together,” if you look at it one way, but at the same time separated as they can be. If we are honest we might all of us confess that we felt this kind of thing, too—that even among friends and family, sometimes geography is the only thing we have in common.

On the one hand I can understand and in some ways even bless the hunger for something more than we might be experiencing at any given moment. Though this desire is without doubt the root of more than one of the Deadly Sins, at the same time we all of us have the disquieting sense that there is a Conversation yet to be had which is more crucial than the ones we’re in. There is an Adventure awaiting us that deserves our immediate Attentions. We long for Friendship deeper and more life-giving than the often codependent ones we have now. And so we take the call, play the game, turn away from the ones who are with us—in the often unspoken and mostly unconscious hope of the Other. Augustine meets Verizon, if you please: this generation’s wireless version of our wired-in restlessness.

Still, the Incarnation demands that we see this moment and this people as the place where Jesus is present—when two or three or twelve gather together—and therefore it is a call, a spiritual obligation as much as it is a challenge, to put down the games (electronic and otherwise) and to switch off our phones. We turn back—repentance in this case is also reconciliation—to listen, to watch, to pay attention to this word, this conversation, this very moment.

While the Bible tells us that strangers may be angels and far away lands the precincts of promise, the corollary is that if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, members of our own family, folks in our circle of friends, even people in our classes and congregation may be the flesh of God’s abiding word, and this very place a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. If so, whether at Olive Garden, old First Church or the dinner table, we hearken to other siren voices (or eat only alone) at our spiritual peril.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Post-Partum Depression

These are the good times, as our good friends at the Catchup (sic) Advisory Board would say, but I can't help this nagging sense of sadness around the edges--and maybe more nearly in the heart--of things.

My counselor friend, Todd, says I have dysthemia, a recently named emotional condition, a kind of neurosis, actually. The difference between a psychosis and a neurosis is this: whereas psychosis says "two plus two equals Raleigh, NC," neurosis says, "two plus two equals four,but I am not happy about it." Dysthemia, then, manifests itself basically this way: there is no day so bright that I cannot find a dark cloud somewhere on the horizon or over my head.

If I have 150 in worhship, for example, I wonder why it is not 160 or 200 or why the Joneses are not in their usual spot. It all feels personal, too--an intentional slight or insult that God, the universe, my church members are perpetrating on me.

And so I have this article which came out in Christian Century. I am thrilled, right? Except I am worried I will never be published there again, that the people I most want to see that I had an article published in Christian Century did not see it (and why is it considered poor form to send out an announcement?), that there is no link to the article (though there are links to other articles in the issue, dated August 22)...see how it goes?

It is pretty maddening, actually, and not only to me. My wife gets pretty tired of it, all in all. One of my two best friends in ministry (and why do I have only TWO good friends in ministry, his dysthemia asked) is a district superintendent in Georgia, and he gets annoyed too: "If you are not happy NOW, with a book and an article and endorsements by Buechner, Winner, and Long, you will NEVER be happy." I guess he is right, but my publisher misspelled one of the endorsers' names on the inside flyleaf and left off Tom Long's altogether. "I did not really know who he was," the girl at the publisher said, so WHY NOT ASK ME I replied, but only to myself.

Perhaps this is what the Fathers meant by sloth--distraction. Or maybe it is related to despair. Or lust. Or envy. I cannot sort out or untangle all the ways sin is active in my dysthemia and dysfunction, or whether I am guilty or sick, but the effect is the same.

And so now at least five members of the editorial and marketing team of my publisher have jumped ship in the last couple of weeks. I am afraid that my little book with float away with the rest of the flotsam. I need to go to the home office to meet some people, as I now know NO ONE who works there.

My book is coming out! Yeah!!

But there is a depression that comes with it, no extra charge.