Thursday, December 11, 2008

I am a truly happy man...

My wife and I watched the Clive Donner "Christmas Carol" the other night, starring George C. Scott in a role, I believe, he was born to play. I love this particular production of the classic, but what struck me as so powerful this time was the moment at the Cratchet's, when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arrive and it is revealed that Tiny Tim has died. Bob comes in late, having stopped by the cemetery, and after a few moments, tears in his eyes, he tells his broken-circle of a family that he is indeed a "truly happy man."

Sentimentality? Only a scrooge would think it so.

Instead, it is a powerful spiritual truth Bob Cratchet voices, one that is evident in scripture and Church History...and not least in the story of Martin Rinkart hymn "Now Thank We All Our God," or "It Is Well With My Soul" by Horatio G. Spafford. In the latter, famously, Spafford wrote the lyric in the face of terrible personal sadness, his family having been lost at sea. During his own subsequent transatlantic voyage, when his ship crossed the same general location where his family's ship had gone down, he enacted with that poem a kind of "in spite of" thanksgiving and experienced, if the lyric indeed by true, a kind of assurance, the peace that passes understanding.

In the case of Rinkart, the Thirty-Year's War had brought Black Death to Bavaria where he worked as a parish pastor. He was performing, by some accounts, as many as fifty funeral a day. In that ethos of sickness and death he wrote, "Now Thank We All Our God, with heart and hand and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in Whom this world rejoices!"

Praise is a choice in the face of grief. No one knows it better than the Psalmists. Thanks is an act of hope in the face of contrary data. No one speaks it better than Rinkart and Spafford. The people of God, and individual believers, have the blessed opportunity and even the sacred obligation to embrace and enact joy irrespective of circumstance. Doxology in the darkest moments of tragedy and fear and grief is neither sentimental hogwash or idiocy--but faith.

This Advent season, like others in years past, I am keenly aware of my many losses. I am quite in touch with my grief and dysthemia--and yet I proclaim, for this Gaudete Sunday and beyond, that I am a truly happy man.

I have work. I have children who talk to me (just today my son called to tell me nothing other than that he had seen a huge hawk, brown and beautiful, on a trashcan beside the road as he made his way to his biology final at his nearby college). I have a wife engaged in ministry and enough writing assignments (and a book deal besides) to keep me busy till July. I have a congregation that vexes me at times, but I know what it is like to be without a place to serve and consequently am so very thankful even for the aggravations (if it lets me stand with God's people at the most important moments of their lives). Besides, I have the prospect of another place of service come July.

Like Bob Cratchet, if I am "a little down"--dysthemics stay in mostly shallow valleys--there are yet those, as Fred Hollywell said to Bob, who have told me they are "heartily sorry." They hear my lament and try their best to understand. They embrace my sense of loss with their own. They do doubt or disdain, and for the most part do not grow impatient with the blues I am given to sing. That, too, is a huge blessing.

And so, this Advent--and not like other years--I look at all my broken circles, the pieces of my life and work, and find myself able to say, indeed choose to say, "I am a happy man. I am a truly happy man."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

King David, meet Thomas Jefferson

A friend used to say, “Whenever you see a church named ‘New Hope,’ there is an old hope out there somewhere. I was reminded of that truism recently when I noticed that we have a new congregation in town, a shaky little fellowship called “Solid Rock Baptist Church.” As I understand it, there was a power struggle at another, larger fellowship nearby and the losers, along with the larger congregation’s now “former” pastor, constituted themselves as a new people, determined to build their worship and practice on the Bible alone, just like Jesus said (and not, you know, like some other folk).

Solid Rock is meeting in a storefront recently abandoned by a group of Pentecostals: the World Evangelism and Outreach Center. In fairness, the church does broadcast its services across the planet via short wave radio. The congregation had outgrown their small strip mall headquarters and Day Care Center/Christian Academy; there were about 80 who began worshiping in a small brick-front metal building constructed in part by their pastor, a second-career fire-baptized holiness preacher who, before his conversion, was a contractor.

Nice man. Intense, though. He has the Bible nearly memorized. His Post-Millenial interpretation of Revelation about got him kicked out of the Assemblies on a heresy charge. He resigned his credentials shortly before the trial was to convene and began his own work. Some like-minded men, members of his former congregation, ordained him, but two of them left WEOC along with their families during the recent construction. There was serious disagreement as to the slope of the parking lot and whether it would properly drain.

Meanwhile, near the “old church” where here my wife serves (planted on a then-all-but-trafficless, now bustling state highway way back in the seventies), no less than three new and exciting fellowships are promised to passersby on big signs here and there along the corridor. Already fifteen denominational and post-denominational congregations flank the road, all of them trying to “reach” and “minister to” the huge and relatively long-lived influx of what used to be called yuppies. With the collapse of the economy, however, as many are moving away, and more, as not so long ago were moving in. The disposable income which was to kindle all this new spiritual fire has mostly disappeared.

“Coming Soon!” signs may soon be replaced by “For Sale” signs, and what does such come and go come and go say of Christ’s Body, the church, or testify regarding the given and abiding Word?

All of this ecclesiastical busyness seems deviantly “sacramental”—which is to say, an outward and visible sign of an inward and unspiritual malady. Frederica Mathewes-Green has summarized the dysfunction in The Illumined Heart. Reflecting on the aftermath of the Reformation she says,

“…the once universal idea that there existed a common deposit of faith had been lost.
The hope of returning to a simple, Bible-based faith was now complicated by the need for
someone to explain what that faith was. Soon many gifted leaders were offering differing
interpretations, and followers aligned with one or another as they found them most

If that dynamic was also true in, say, Corinth, the full consequences were not. She continues,

“The next step was that, if each person can decide for himself whom to follow, each person
can decide for himself what the faith is. The splintering was complete. And since the
current generation is always the one making these decisions, it seemed that the most
innovative, up-to-date ideas were the correct ones…”

The positive side of this reality is that intractable institutions really are intractable and “exodus” may be the only way of freeing its slaves. Additionally, growing up Protestant, and Baptist, in fact, the rending and forming (or reforming!) of congregations never seemed strange to me. At the denominational seminary I attended, students used to say that every congregation we knew or served either had split, was splitting, or dividing up sides and getting ready to. Still, we spun that reality positively: splits aided evangelism, opened doors in otherwise closed situations. Even preachers getting fired, their belongings left on the front lawn and parsonage locks changed, had an upside: persecutions of all sorts had always advanced the kingdom. Blood of the martyrs and all that.

Still, there is something nefarious at work here, I believe. A rejection of tradition, and especially in favor of novelty, may not be an issue of mere “style,” but more nearly of “substance”… a form of idolatry as addictive as any narcotic. Eugene Peterson has noted that when the human heart’s proclivity to idol-making (ala Calvin) is combined with North American consumerism, the sad result is the very kind of soul-numbing market-based smorgasbord that impels people to jump from paten to paten, as it were, that compels religious leaders to do their best and most serious study in terms of what “works” in attracting new folk.

I have noticed another disturbing aspect of the same tendency—this time in my own United Methodist Hymnal. I have long been annoyed that our Psalter is incomplete. There are whole Psalms and sections of Psalms left out (Thomas Jefferson, meet King David. King David, meet President Jefferson). Since most of what has been excised are imprecatories, curses and the like, I assumed some beatnik editor or pacifist professor had demanded the cuts in light of our more "evolved" sensibilities, which are unwittingly literalist and unforgiving of metaphor--forgetting, for example, that in the hymn, "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war," the most important word in that verse is as. And so I was surprised to learn that the evisceration of these hymns of their (sometimes most interesting) parts were a result of John Wesley's own sense that "certain of the Psalms and large portions of others are unfit for Christian lips."

Oh, really?

They were okay for Jesus to say, but not for us? So much for the “whole counsel of God.” So much for the “faith once delivered to the saints.”

Of course, Wesley who also left “descended into hell” out of the creed because he did not personally think there was sufficient scriptural warrant to justify its inclusion. Wonder if he would have had an opinion about the paving at that church?

Hey! I am just kidding! Really! Sort of.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Our Last Best Hope

Does everyone know where they were 67 years ago this Sunday morning?

Some of you were still in the heart of God, of course, not yet a twinkle in your mother’s eyes. Some of your mothers were not born by then either, did not themselves have eyes to twinkle. But there are a few of you in here who know what I am asking. You remember where you were.

For some of you the memory is as clear as the day the Twin Towers fell. You know where you were standing when you got the news, just as well as you know where you were when you heard about the assassinations in Dallas and in Memphis. You remember FDR’s famous line on the Monday following, “December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy.”

About the time church let out on the east coast, a couple of hours later, word began crackling through Philcos of the nation that something was happening, had happened, in the jewel of the Pacific: how at a deep-water harbor named Pearl, the rising of the sun had brought wave upon wave of planes, like bats out of hell, with darkness and death in their wings.
It was 67 years ago today, of course, that Japanese planes and midget subs attacked the US Navy’s unsuspecting and completely unprepared Pacific fleet, our ships and sailors both enjoying another Sunday morning in paradise, snoozing row by row. Ninety minutes later we had been dragged, burned and bleeding and humiliated, into the Second World War.

I did a little research this week, to see if I could find what preachers had been preaching on that morning as the attack got underway. I did not have much success. And so I looked instead at the assigned scriptures for that Sunday, December 7, 1941, in the lectionaries of the day. I didn’t have much luck with that either.

What I do know is last September, when I was inthe mountains reading and praying and outlining sermons for the coming year, when I looked at the the epistle reading assigned for this, the second Sunday of Advent, for this day and date, I found this, from II Peter 3, verse 10:

the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with

And suddenly to my mind came a picture of the USS Arizona, its main tower tilted to starboard and enveloped by billows of black smoke, its might guns useless to defend the ship or its crew or its harbor or its nation, sinking slowly into the sea.

With loud noises, the myth of peace and isolation, of neutrality and national security, dissolved with fire—along with the Missouri and West Virginia, the Oklahoma and USS Tennessee, and 2345 military personnel besides.

Why dredge up that painful past on such a day as this? And especially since, these days, Japan is an ally and friend?
Only to remind ourselves that the things in which we often put our trust—whether the military, political leaders, portfolios, our own youth and health and strength…all of those things pass away. Sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, sometimes with a loud bang, and sometimes with a whimper. Sometimes there is raging fire; sometimes hot embers grow cold. In any case, the season of Advent continually reminds us of our idolatries and presumption, and that a kind of reckoning is coming.

The season of Advent, beautiful as it can be, is a dark season, really—a reminder that try as we might we cannot save ourselves, that things will not naturally get better, that neither optimism nor denial are appropriate preparations for the coming of Jesus.

Advent always looks back, even before it looks ahead. It proclaims the provision of God, of course, but it names the presumptions of God’s people, we who day by day do not put our first, best hopes in God. The season of Advent confesses the sin of God’s chosen, and then God’s grace to choose them again. Advent always calls us to ask ourselves: How did we get into such a mess?

The season of Advent answers, over and over again, that we get into this mess, that mess, most every mess, by placing our faith in other than God. The season of Advent calls us to confess that sin—Advent, until lately, has been considered a penitential season—and to repent, to begin again to put our trust only in those things that last…the Purposes of God, the Presence of Christ, the Guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Advent calls us to sad remembrance and honest confession and humble repentance, to resolute recommitment to build only on the firm foundation of God’s eternity…because all else is fleeting. Passing. Impermanent.

Money. Power. Beauty. Health. Life as we imagine it, or craft it for ourselves. How quickly it can all pass away.

And so Peter says, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?”

Indeed, what kind of persons ought we to be?

Hopeful…waiting for new heavens and a new earth…

Peaceful and obedient… striving to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.

Patient… regarding the patience of our Lord as salvation.


After that Sunday, I am sure all sorts of people were saying all sorts of things… pundits and politicians, hawks and doves, saber-rattlers and doom-sayers, and preachers among the lot.

But the Psalmist has a word for us as we remember—a word that is set for today but is applicable every day—“Let me hear what the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to the people.”
Indeed. It is a prayer worthy of Advent. Let us hear what the Lord will speak, for the Lord’s word will stand for ever.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

all saints

I have been trying to think of a definition of “saint,” or if not a definition, then a characteristic, anyway…and I have about decided that saints are those who come to the place where they welcome, are eager, even, for God’s judgment. They do not fear eternal fire or annihilation, but long for purgation, for cleansing, for the completion and healing that can only come by God’s ferocious grace and fierce mercy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pax Christi...

I interrupt my prayer time to scribble this thought, preceded by a memory...

A few weeks ago, one of the little boys in our congregation--and all of his family more or less new believers--just after I announced the sharing of the Pax Christi among us, turned to his mother and said, "What am I supposed to do with a 'piece of Christ'?"

The phrase haunts me. You do not have to affirm Transubstantiation to believe that in the bread and wine we each of us are given a "piece of Christ" as well as the peace of Christ. But the phrase is polyvalent, for it reminds me not only of Eucharist but also of St. Paul's reminder that while we (together) "are the Body of Christ," we are individually "members of it." Which is to say we each of us are "pieces of Christ."

And so I am thinking of both discipleship and ministry. It may be that the first step, the first and on-going practice of discipleship is the imitation of Christ--going as Jesus goes, learning to see as Jesus sees, to love as Jesus loves and speak as Jesus speaks; to die as Jesus dies if it comes to that, in hopes of rising as Jesus was raised (Frederica Mathewes-Green has suggested--though these are not her exact words--that Christians are those of whom it is a compliment to say, "They never have an original thought"). But the imitation of Jesus, and also of Stephen, Paul and the saints who lived cruciform lives--all of them live with Christ's words on their lips, die with his forgiveness on their tongues--is toward this end: the imago Christi. The imitation of Christ forms us into the image of Christ

We imitate Christ until we become him--a piece of him anyway. Evangelicals have long said words to this effect: Christ has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet; we may be the only Jesus a stranger or neighbor sees today. We are a piece of Christ, sharing the peace of Christ.

Perhaps in their own way Sacramentalists say the same thing--that the pieces of Christ received become a part of us so that we become a part of Christ, a piece of Christ's peace in the world.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Politicos and Their Coins

I have a new insight about the very familiar story concerning Jesus and the Herodians and Pharisees' attempt to "entrap" him, which is to say their desire to confine him, marginalize him, isolate him from at least half of those who are following him.

The story is simple. The Pharisees, who were religious, and the Herodians, who most probably were not, conspired together to ask Jesus a "hot-button" political question--whether or not to pay taxes to Caesar--and to our ears the question sounds more practical than political, a matter of degree rather than of conflicting allegiances. But for the Jews of Jesus' time, especially the religious and political, it was an incendiary as questions of homosexual unions or abortion. And whichever way Jesus answers, if he answers either "yes" or "no," he will offend one side or the other among the debaters. The Pharisees and Herodians know that--in fact, they are counting on it.

That Jesus answers differently and better is clear.

But here is the thing. It occurred to me today that whereas our attentions naturally go to the answers, and especially to the more comprehensive, spiritual answer Jesus gives--and most of our preaching deals with those things--it escapes our attention that adversaries and enemies do much the same thing in our own day. That is, they pose questions for us--should gays be ordained? are you in favor of abortion? can one be a Christian and a member of the armed services?--not because they are interested in answers themselves, but because they are trying to divide (in order to marginalize) believers. Either way we answer we offend someone; we are drawn into political squabbles; we find ourselves isolated.

Joseph Bottum has recently argued that the Mainline died when it was irretrievably politicized. It is a cliff Jesus avoided in this text, a ledge to which our enemies try to lead us over and over again, in the name of the "common good" or lip-service to faith's role in the court of public opinion. But beneath the innocent query there can be a diabolical agenda, and divide and conquer tactic that would be worth many coins both to Caesar and to religion's self-important detractors.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Never mind...

Remember Emily Litella, the Gilda Radner character who constantly misheard things and blasted away about what she thought was at issue ("Why all the uproar about violins on TV? Violins are lovely instruments!"), until Jane Curtain set her straight, often impatiently. Emily would respond, "Never mind."

Sometimes she said another thing, too.

All that to say, about a week after my last lament about being dropped, apparently, from Amazon, I was told by a friend that he had seen my post, went to Amazon, and found my books sitting there as always. I followed suit, and sure enough... they were gone for a while, buried deep in a new grave and a stone rolled over them, but they have risen from the dead.

Okay, so that is a little over-dramatic. But they are there all the same and I am pleased.

In other words, Never mind.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Literary Life: The Underbelly

"The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book --
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seeminly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs."

The poem is by Clive James. Perhaps I should know about whom he is licking his sweet lips, feasting on the failure of a competitor or adversary. I know not. I was just reminded of it when I realized that Amazon, AMAZON!, no longer has copies of either of my books.

So I jumped to the NavPress website, thinking to contact someone about this outrage—after all, the second book, Every Disciple’s Journey, has been out only 13 months—there to find that my first book, Praying for Dear Life, is on the clearance shelf.

Clearanced. Remaindered. What is the difference?

Stephen Donaldson once said something to the effect that the only way to hurt someone who has lost everything is to give him part of it back, but broken.

I am not overly depressed about it—just about usual—and I guess I knew that soon I would hear from the publisher that neither book has sold well enough to warrant a reprint or new addition or whatever and so I if I wanted I could order multiple copies and a fraction of the cost. I will do that when the letter comes.

Still, that AMAZON is no longer carrying them, new ones, used ones, otherwise. I do not even have the honor of my books in great unsold stacks as Clive James’ enemy’s. Nope. My just seem to have disappeared into the ether or otherwise.

Being a writer is such a wonderful dream and a reality. But having nobody read what you write is almost worse than never having published at all. Almost.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Letterman and Me

“It seems unlikely that now, after years and years of trying under a wide variety of circumstances and advantages and disadvantages, that suddenly I’m going to prevail,” Mr. Letterman said. “You can’t go through life fooling yourself. You have to be honest with the situation. That’s fine.”

The above quote was, and I trust the editors will forgive me, from the New York Times, summarizing an interview David Letterman gave to Rolling Stone. You have to be a big shot for the Times to do a story about an interview you gave to another publication. Anyway, he is talking about his realization that he will never catch and/or pass Jay Leno in the late-night race for viewers.

It struck me as terribly poignant, somehow. Comes a time when he, when I, when we any of us have to face the reality...and in my case, at least, the reality is that many things I once thought would happen are never going to happen. That is no slam on God's providence or God's people--just the awareness that some are blessed to succeed in ways that I am not. I am not to be a part of the greater work of the Kingdom. I serve, but not on the front lines. More like chaplain to the rear guard.

Just today I read about a young pastor, 27, who started a church two years ago and now has 4,000 per Sunday. Critics fume--but I suspect they are mostly envious. He does not do things as I do, but I had 125 in my service Sunday. He does not do weddings or baptisms or funeral, does not visit folk in the hospital. Neither did Paul, or Jesus for that matter. I do do those things, and there are good reasons to think pastors should. But I cannot do what he does. He maybe could, but does not do what I do. He has a great work. I have this little work that affords me time to stand with people in the most important and most dire and most celebratory moments of their lives. I am pleased to do that, am honored to give Holy Communion to folk and call their names as I do so.

I do not discount what I do. I choose to believe Jesus is present in the 125 as much as in the 4,000--in the Upper Room as much as on the hillside, as it were. But I had long imagined for myself something in between the one and the other. Maybe even on the high side of in between. But as Mr. Letterman has said, I have to be honest with my situation.

'Maybe you should teach," someone said. Maybe you should do this or that. Yeah, well, I am soon to be 54. No time to enter into academics. I am running out of time in other ways, too. Meaning, there are only a few days left for starting over or moving on. Either way I am kind of stuck where I am, in a rocky little garden with a mostly dull and rusted hoe. I am not saying I do not see a sprig here and there, a verdant shoot of spirit and life. But one blogger, Mark Crumpler, called me a "garden-variety" pastor. Yep. I have to be honest with my situation.

It is not what I would have expected. I think I could do a bit more for the Kingdom or, absent that, the Church. Instead, I just do what I can. And try to choose, try to work, against bitterness.

My dad died bitter, mostly because his life and marriage and kids did not turn out the way he expected, wanted or would have chosen. When I die I pray that I will die at peace--that if my life was not what I expected or would have chosen, it is what I wanted: to give it as I could for the sake of Jesus.

Wesley prayed, "Let me be employed for you, let me be put aside for you." Which is to say, Let me do a great work for you, or let me do a little work and thank God for those better able and suited to do the greater works. And let me not fool myself into thinking I know better who or what I am than God.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Tables and Turtles

You know what I saw this week?

I was on my way to a meeting in Gastonia--to consider, along with a number of my colleagues, what do to in the face of a brother-in-ministry's unconfessed and unrepented sin (and I have been on the other side of that table, long years ago now, but I still have not lost the metallic taste in my mouth and that I am now on this side of the seems a terrible and acknowledged irony)--and there was this poor box turtle trying to cross the Dallas highway. I feel bad when I see turtles on the road. My first impulse, often answered, is to pull over, dodge the traffic and rescue the poor creature. This time I could not find a place to pull over.

Not to worry… one, two, now three cars slowed down and drove carefully around, and I thought the turtle would make it, only then somebody in a champagne colored GMC truck sped up and veered to the right to hit the turtle. Killed him on purpose. Got pleasure, I guess, from that turtle's plight and death.

And all I could think, apart from the demonstration of our perversity, insensitivity and actual sin, is that that is exactly what we do to each other sometimes when we repeat a rumor, or pick up the phone to spread the gossip--or meet at the table . That is just what we do when we turn a deaf ear or a cold shoulder to a brother or sister.

Today we gathered again at the Table, not for judgment but for grace. Not to consider the sins of a brother or sister but only our own. We gather to confess our own sin, we who have no defense other than God's grace and mercy--that is our only plea. We gather as a family, and as a family we realize that when one of us suffers, all of us suffer. When one of us rejoices, all of us rejoice. When one’s heart hardens, it is hard for all of us. Hurt people, don’t you know, hurt people. Hurt people hurt people. When one of us gives or receives a cold shoulder, all of us are chilled. When one sins, we all bear the consequences. But when one forgives…

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Shame on me!

I realized this morning that the only thing that surprised me about the terrible tragedy in Knoxville on yesterday--when a jobless man went on a rampage in a local church killed some people and meant to kill more, apparently on account of their liberal views and his own situation--was that the youth were doing a version of "Annie" when it happened.

I mean, I understand that these were Unitarian Universalists, but what does it say about me and my acculturation that I am not surprised by rage, shotguns, shootings in churches, only that churches are doing "Annie" on a Sunday morning?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Of Two Minds

In my United Methodist tradition, at least in these latter days, there is a phrase bouncing around when serious debate is engaged: "of two minds." We seem to be a denomination cloven or, more charitably, ambivalent. The joke is that we are the "untied Methodist church," no longer blessedly bound, at least not as Charles Wesley rhapsodized.

Our official, "united" stands are achieved democratically, by vote of our quadrennial General Conference, but among the delegates, in the agencies, out in the pews, we are possessed of "two minds" (at least) about many of the salient issues before us.

For example, while we are a "peace" church we have many hawks among us--and a bunch in between the pacifists and the militarists who deep in their gut are convinced that while we are against war, of course, there may be a just time to fight one (we are by far mostly agreed that the present one was not). We are an integrated denomination but one of my own congregants ceremoniously walked away from our fellowship when I did not denounce Jeremiah Wright's thunderations (when in fact some of what Dr. Wright said and, later, did could hardly be called prophetic preaching or prophetic symbolism; it was more like hate-mongering and derogating gesture), but instead allowed as to how I myself and, I imagined, many of those who worship with us had heard at least as bad from white preachers through the years (and for my own part, one of them my dad, though not so much his sermons as in his conversation and attitudes). In point of fact, I said, we had most of us heard much worse.

We United Methodists are of two minds, like most everybody else, regarding homosexual couples and marriage, and ordination. Of course, on either flank of our ranks are folk who aren't ambivalent at all. Those in between them, most of us, choose to believe that the folk advocating for clergy ordination and marriage for gays do so from pastoral, theological and relational foundations: they read Holy Scripture through the lens of agape love and social justice, and what they see leads them to this position, advocating as best they understand it for those long on the margins, the disenfranchised, the ignored.

At the same time we believe that those who defend the historic position of the church in these matters--that homosexual practices (though not orientations) are disqualifications for the ordained ministry because they are and incompatible with Christian teaching--do so from pastoral, theological and relational foundations. They read the Holy Scriptures through the lens of inspiration and authority and their best understanding leads them to conclude that, in C.S. Lewis's words, tolerance is not the same thing as love, that not every opinion, experience or behavior is bless-able, even when those seeking the blessing are themselves professing Christians. "Test the spirits," they say, "to see if they are from God."

"Exactly!" say the folk calling for change. "See if this is not a fresh movement of the Spirit."

I myself am of two minds on the subject, which is to say I can argue, in rudimentary form, both sides of the debate. I am, as the book of James describes it, "dipsuchos aner," a "double-minded man," and yes, sometimes unstable and tossed as if at sea when fouls winds gust from one direction or the other (James 1:6-8). The good news, though, is that Jesus did not talk much about these topics and so I feel some freedom to follow his example. I am sure there are circumstances that would make me take a more urgent approach, one way or the other. But for now, like many--perhaps most--United Methodists, and like the denomination itself, I am of two minds. Which is to say that while my "official position," should anyone ever ask, conforms to the "vote" of our General Conference (nor can I even begin to imagine Wesley himself thinking any differently on the matter), for good or ill I do not lose a lot of sleep over it.

I DO lose sleep, though, over another--and to my thinking more fundamental--issue, one that strikes at the foundations of our theological house, and not just United Methodism either. At issue is what might be called the "current" church's anthropology and ecclesiology. What is the Christian understanding of persons, of individuals, but also of the community of persons we call the church. What we believe about those doctrines has implications for soteriology, too--our view of salvation--and also for ethics. I am concerned that we have a deep "double mindedness" about who we each of us are and what we all of us are all about.

What brought the crisis to a head, or at least to the forefront of my thinking, was a vinyl sign I recently saw posted in an empty lot announcing plans for the construction of a new congregation near here. "The Champion Christian Center," is going to be built next door to an existing Lutheran congregation, "Christ the King." It is possible, of course, that a passerby might see the new construction as an extension of the existing church's ministry: Christ the King's new Family Life Center or Educational Wing, the place where Champion Christians are formed.

Careful observers, however, will see at the bottom of the sign a different web address than Christ the King and also this phrase: "Expect to Win." On the sign itself is a picture of a young man with fists raised high in the air, and the message is unmistakable--come here to be a winner!

On the steeple of Christ the King is a cross, of course. The cross is a sign of failure. Of weakness. Of suffering. Jesus' hands were not fisted, except perhaps around the nails. His arms were not raised high but stretched out. As Terry Holmes has put it, "How can we serve a Lord, the symbol of whose failure is above our altars, on top of our churches, on our stationary and around our necks, and claim to be strangers to failure?" He recounts, ironically, the story of a candidate for bishop who was asked, "How do you handle failure." His answer was, "I don't recall ever having failed."

Sitting there side by side, each in their own way--with steeple or sign--what these two churches sentinel in historic terms is the contrast between theologia crucis, "the theology of the cross" and theologia gloria, the "theology of glory." The debate between proponents of these various interpretations of the gospel has been long and intense. Those who advocate the former see the suffering of Jesus as both expiation and example, and so the crosses above the altars of their churches still suspend Jesus between heaven and earth, his blood-streaked face contorted in perpetual agony. Those who worship with an empty cross on their back wall, or no cross at all, often see the resurrection as, in effect, canceling the death and suffering of Jesus--and ours, too, as we live by the power of Easter's glory.

The church is of two minds about Jesus death and resurrection--and about discipleship. Perhaps Paul's letter to the Romans, his counsel to "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep" signals along with everything else the fact that the argument was already joined.

Whether or no, it seems that the debate is especially relevant today--though we are mostly talking about other things. Are we to take up the cross to follow Jesus with weeping, or lay it down (or wear it only as jewelry) and follow with rejoicing. If the theologia crucis in its extreme forms may be interpreted, superficially or rightly, and therefore dismissed as a masochistic vestige of medievalism with a resulting emphasis on suffering, poverty and guilt, the theologia gloria may likewise be construed as a happier, feel-good, be a winner with Jesus gospel, a sign of these times when prosperity, atomistic individualism and winning at all costs and are the highest orders of the day.

While folk on either flank are unambivalent about the choice, perhaps those of us in the middle see a need for both theologies, held in responsible tension, for reasons theological, pastoral and relational--not superficially interpreted in any way but deeply rendered. That to say we need to do away with both the cross as invitation to masochism and the cross as strategy for acquisition.
Instead, the aged, the sick and dying, need the theology of the cross to remind them that our faithful suffering and even death is of value and abiding importance--what a prophetic word for a world that craves health and vitality along with other prosperities. And in a world where failure and the abdication of personal responsibility is often given therapeutic absolution,the young need the theology of glory and its call to courageous faith and joyous daring.

Or should it be the other way around?

I am of two minds about it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Prayer, Place and the Poor

In the newest Christian Century (July 1, 2008) there is a wonderful article by Sarah Coakley--a professor at Cambridge after having taught at Harvard, and an associate rector in Anglican parishes in Massachusetts and Littlemore, Oxfordshire--called "The Vicar at Prayer." It is directed primarily to English Anglican priests--"pastors to the nation"--but there is much ecumenical wisdom and urgency as regards "the disciplined long-haul life of prayer, of ongoing personal and often painful transformation."

Coakley contends that while prayer is the work of all God's people, the pastor must lead in this work, "the clergy putting this task first in their hierarchy of 'business.'" She quotes Evenlyn Underhill, a letter to Archbishop Lang on the eve of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, that "the greatest and most necessary work (Lambeth) could do at the present time for the spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church would be to call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently, to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer...God is the interesting thing about religion and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend him."

Without the "daily public witness of a clergy engaged, manifestly and accountably, alongside their people" in this work, "the church at large runs the danger of losing its fundamental direction and meaning." In sum, "The loss of disciplined clerical prayer in a busy age is fatal: for the priest herself, for her people, for ecumenical relations and even for national life. Its absence is--quietly but corrosively--devastating."

It is in prayer, Coakley says, we truly discover who the poor are--and not as a theoretical discernment from the position of privilege. And through prayer we are invested--in that we invest ourselves and, I suppose, God invests us--in our various places of service. The North American penchant to mobility (evidenced not only in parishioners but also in clergy, either by self-promotion or as a result of systemic expectation) deadens our commitment to our places of service and the people who dwell there. There is a deep truth there I think that needs to be sounded: that only prayer unites us to a place. Only prayer unites us to a people. Not program, not stuff, but prayer, and that because prayer unites us to the One who is creator of every place and God of every heart.

These are dark days for me in many ways. But even this week I have seen the clouds part a little, by the grace of disciplined prayer. God's well is deep, but I have too much in my hands to take up my bucket and draw. For long months now I have been parched of spirit and have turned only to the dried and rusty taps of institution and old aggrievement. Prayer, manifest and accountable, is the uncorroded bucket which allows me to come again to the fountain of living water instead of to a mere memory of moisture in the broken cisterns of my own spirit.

God, grant me the grace, the zeal and faith, to pray with my people in this place. Nothing but this "greatest and most necessary work" has power to at the present time to renew the spirit of the United Methodist Church and its clergy, or at least let me say this United Methodist church and its clergy.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Memory and Hope

I forget who it was that said it--maybe Ken Callahan--that in a church memory and hope are both crucial, and the greater of the two is hope.

I can understand, I think, what he is saying. It is important to look back, to remember who and whose you are. It is paramount to recall "the rock from whence we are hewn" and to see ourselves as chips out of that old block. But all the more important to look ahead, to anticipate (without applying restrictions) who we are called to be and will be, by God, which is to say by God's grace and activity. Where there is no vision, the people perish, and vision is a by-product of hope.

I would assume that the same might be said for ministry. But what if one has lost hope? Or is losing hope?

Today I stood in a place thick with memory. Painful memory. The wounding was some thirty years ago and still it felt fresh today, a jagged knife to my heart, a spurt of anger and a flood of grief, a raw and irregular gash in my spirit. Tiger played with a double stress fracture over five days; over three decades I have been limping with double-breaks to my heart and torn ligaments in my spirit. I ache, still, I groan for old injury. Some days I can barely get off the couch.

The person I was with is privy to the story, said, "I keep hoping God will wipe your memory of those things..." I said, in words I have never used before, "All God seems to have wiped away is my hope." Which is not to say I am completely hopeless; just hopeless about many things and most of them related to the church. To my church. To my feckless and faltering ministry.

And what shape does ministry take if the minister has lost hope, despairs about whether sermons or lessons or buildings or activities have the power to effect transformation? What if nothing seems to matter, that all hearts remain hard and unresponsive, if all heads remain unconverted, and the preacher's least of all? What if preaching becomes a burden instead of a joy, the desire for new members a kind of artificial buttress against the inevitable.

Wesley said something to the effect that he never worried about whether the Methodist church would cease to exist, either in Europe or America, but he was very worried that Methodism would exist "only as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power." His fears may be founded, after all, and what's more: many Methodist ministers, I fear, have form and no power, which is to say they have memory and no real hope, no real conviction, nothing much other than despair.

Another friend says I seem to be more "serene" than I used to be. More resigned is more nearly the truth. Unwilling and, more to the point, less interested to kick against the goads of my situation.

Terry Holmes once observed the irony of current Christianity--that we want to be "winners," successful, etc (and just today I saw a sign for a new church, a church, whose motto proclaims, "Prepare to be a CHAMPION!"), when we follow one who was an abject failure, the symbol of whose failure graces the top of most every steeple. But we have taken the failure and turned it into strategy for success... idolatry is like that, I think.

On the cross Jesus lost hope. Right now I need to remember that crucial lesson.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Vow of Silence

I am thinking of taking one... a vow of silence, that is. This because I am told over and over again, in one way or the other, to keep my thoughts to myself.

My kids, of course, never want me to say anything to them other than, "Sure you can have some more money." The silence I am vowing in this instance has more to do with the fact that I have no more money than anything else.

My church members sometimes want me to speak only "smooth things," as it were, and if platitudes are all I might offer, moralisms masking as the gospel, little ditties on this and that, then I ought to take a vow of silence.

More to the point today however is this:

Various editors have rejected me enough now that I have to conclude that I have nothing very interesting to say. Which has left me to examine myself to see whether I write because I think I do have something to say or only because I like the idea of seeing my words and name in print. Maybe I should just shut up till those ambiguities are cleared up.

Recently, I wrote a piece that I rather liked. I sent it to about twenty of my "friends" in the "business," some of whom had in various times and ways commended my work, asking for their opinions and suggestions as I tried to ready the piece for submission to a journal I have written for once and perpetualy long to write for again. The only response I got--the only response I got--was from the most arrogant, self-important (and, damnably, successful) scholar I have ever had the duty to endure. Or maybe he is only that way to me. To others he is, apparently, a resource and a blessing. He neither likes nor respects me, however; I disappointed him both scholastically and morally, and for thirty years now I have been chilled by his Texas shoulder with most every chance meeting or conversation.

Note to my former professor: I am SORRY already. Can you in your Barthian sensibilities find it in your head or heart to forgive me? To treat me with a little hospitality?

So why did I even bother to send my stuff to this guy? Only, I guess, because I really do respect his knowledge, his expertise, his success, and like a starved child hoping for the least attentions of his distant father, I keep hoping that one of these days something I do or write will garner a blessing ("have you no blessing for me, Father?" I guess not). Ironically, his wife read one of my recent books and liked it. He has refused to read it. Excuse me, has not yet had time.

His email regarding the piece excoriated me, suggested that the "good editors" at this particular magazine would "laugh me to scorn" over such an offering--as much as he he had already done, I suppose. I prayed so hard over those next nervous weeks, unseemly prayers, I guess, for a measure of vindication, that the piece would be published just to give me a bit of satisfaction over my old foe.


But it was close. The rejection I got was a "good one," if you could call it that. The piece got a serious reading but the editors "finally passed." I forwarded a copy to the guy, swallowing one last gulp of bitter, humble pie, and I am sure he gloated at what amounted to a confession (no, that is too strong; he most probably did not smile gleefully but frowned, shook his head with a "how typical" kind of "duh," this being one more evidence to him of my fecklessness and culpable ignorance (could you not see that this was unworthy?!) and confirmed not only in his eyes either but also by both the email from the editor and, I guess, the silence of the others to whom I sent the piece).

So I am thinking of putting away my pencils and parchment. I do not need to do this to myself time after time. I already know I am a joke.

But every time in the past I have done so, made this same kind of vow, determined neither to write nor to submit anything ever again--and certainly not to share anything in advance--there comes after a while this urge, like an obsession, like a demand that I try it all again, put something down on paper, string together a couple of thoughts with a strand of metaphor and hope.

A fool for Christ? Just a fool? Who knows for sure.

How I wish I could inhabit in my own sensibilities that remarkable verse from Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: "It is indeed the smallest of things to me to be judged by you or by any human court. Indeed I do not even judge myself."

Well, okay. Good for him. For my part, I am just the opposite.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


Late on Tuesday night, as the votes were counted from Kentucky to Oregon, we finally got some clarity on this thing… The pundits were proven wrong, some of them, but the voters had the power, not the media, and they made their choices.

As far as I am concerned this whole process has lasted way too long: the heated rhetoric, the disrespect back and forth, the confusion as to whether all the votes got cast and counted. There were conspiracy theories, behind-the-scenes dramas, advisers forced out of various camps because of their indefensible shenanigans, pretenders falling by the wayside one by one then trashing or endorsing their former competitors.

But finally it seems to be over, at least for this election cycle. I am talking, of course, not about the Democratic Party’s attempt to nominate a candidate before their national convention in August—not about the battle between Hillary and Obama—but about the battle between the Davids, Archuleta and Cook. I am describing the soap opera and spectacle known as “American Idol.”

Call it what you will, a big old-fashioned talent show, repackaged and promoted as something revolutionary and new—but it is not new at all: anyone remember Ed McMahon and “Star Search”? Same premise, but not nearly the same phenomena.

Even with this year’s ratings down somewhat, the national singing bee still grips the popular imagination, dominates water cooler conversations, overwhelms the entertainment media each spring. And, I must confess, the idolatry even seeped into parsonage. We would gather around the TV as if it were the Oracle of Delphi and we were awaiting the divine word.

I was pulling for Brooke White, the seemingly sweet and really leggy blonde who one night, memorably, forgot the lyrics to her song. “She’s a human!” I said. “Not a robot!” Jo was pulling for the younger David…Archuleta.

Jacob said it was a no-brainer the older David…Cook…would win. On Tuesday night over 97 million votes were cast, tying up phone lines and air waves from east to west. David Cook did in fact win, by 12 million votes, 56% to 44%—Jo and I called Jacob in Atlanta to offer our embittered congratulations—and if it had been a real election the national press would have been screaming, “Landslide! Mandate!”

That American Idol has played itself out against the backdrop of the parties’ nomination process—or has it been the other way around?—has seemed eerie to me in a way, a commentary on art as life and life as art, everyone smiling for the camera and hoping for the blessing of strangers, all the principals hoping one way or the other to be America’s Idols…

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Question

A couple of Saturday nights ago I heard a preacher put the question this way (and I am increasingly convinced it is in fact the question for all of us in United Methodism): When did we stop expecting transformation in our lives? When did we quit preaching for and expecting conversions? When did we give up the quest for holiness of heart and life?

I do not know when it was, quite frankly, but I think he is right. We have long-since abandoned that notion that church—which is to say worship, prayer, Bible study—is a means of personal and societal transformation. We have instead prayed to the “lesser” gods of therapy, education medicine and even Oprah to work the miracle. Despite the inarguable benefits of each (except maybe Oprah), all have proven woefully unequal to the task of real transformation. Meanwhile in the church we have ceased expecting anything like personal or (on account of it) societal transformation, perhaps because we do not see or feel in ourselves any need to repent (we sometimes see that others need to!), so that confession and testimony are lost languages among us, as much a relic as Mayan.

He said one evidence that we have lost our expectation for transformation is that we have no joy in our faith. Joy comes from knowing we are saved. Salvation accompanies the knowledge that we are indeed forgiven. But to know that we are forgiven suggests a prior knowledge: that we are sinners, that we are not what God wants us to be, that we fail to do what God wants us to do and instead often do what God prohibits. But somewhere along the line someone convinced us that we were not sinners at all—that we do not need change but instead only understanding, acceptance and affirmation. After all, “God loves us just as we are.” No wonder we have lost our expectation of transformation, our joy, our ability to speak of sin and salvation.

John Wesley would be aghast. He began his renewal movement in the conviction that the Church of England of his day was spiritually dead. One of his lay preachers put the matter succinctly: “In their services and prayers, members of the Church of England make ample use of the word “faith.” It is just that no one seems to know what the word means.”

Wesley called his people from a dead faith to a vital piety and social holiness—holiness of heart and life—and not one without the other. His followers met weekly for Bible study, for prayer and accountability. The goal was simple: transformation. The theological word is sanctification, which means the work of the Holy Spirit to make us more and better than we are—in short, to make us over into the image of Jesus.

That is to say, God may love us just as we are but God loves us too much to leave us there. “Just as I am,” may be the place we begin journey of faith but it is not where we are to end.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Caesar and Ascension

Perhaps I am the only one annoyed by the National Day of Prayer. Don't get me wrong: I am all in favor of prayer. It is just that I don't need Caesar telling me when to do it... and maybe Caesar isn't in fact telling me to do it on Thursday, but it feels that way and so I feel caught in this web, this this unholy cross hairs of God and Country, syncretism and civil religion. One of my constituents is really, really bent with me that I am not having a special NDP service, etc.

Meanwhile, Thursday May 1 is also Ascension Day and I would bet (if our tradition allowed betting) that if my people take note of either "celebration" it will be the NDP and not AD. What is wrong with this picture?

I am thinking of setting up the distinction between the secular "holidays" and the liturgical "Holy Days" on Sunday. It is Eucharist for us, a time when we taste and see that the Lord is good, and as an appetizer the truth that the secular calendar is a celebration of "us" one way or the other while the liturgical calendar celebrates God. This may seem patently obvious, but I cannot iterate how many times I have been fussed at over the years for not giving due justice to the scouts, the veterans, even--and I am not making this up--the submarine crews who fought in WW II--but I do not know that I have ever been scolded for giving short shrift to Ascension Day or the Feast of St. Stephen.

This year the intersecting of "rival" calendars may be too much for me to ignore! I do not want to pick a fight or appear Quixotic...but it seems something fundamental is before us, something crucial about identity and spiritual politics. Every people needs its special places, its special persons, its special times (call them shrines, saints and holy days); what is sad is that in evangelical America we seem to know more of our national shrines, saints and holy days than we do our faith's.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Should you be interested, and I cannot imagine why you would be, check out, go to the show info tab, click on guests, find the show for April 1 (either ironically or appropriately enough) and hit "watch." Thirty-four minutes in, after an interview with a fellow discussing Mid-eastern politics and the end of the world (Oh, brother!), former Miss America Deborah Maffet (1983) interviews me concerning Every Disciple's Journey, my recent book from NavPress.

I would be interested in your feedback.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Thomas, redux

I am still thinking about Thomas, called "the twin," according to John, and my twin indeed though we are inversely related. By that I mean, Thomas demanded to touch Jesus ruined hands before he would believe that the Crucified had been raised; he said he would not accept the testimony of his friends unless he could put his hand in the wound in Jesus's side. He needed to see for himself, thank you very much, before he would believe.

So we know what Thomas thought of the other disciples--that they were untrustworthy.

I am wondering, though, what the other disciples thought of Thomas. I mean, have you ever found yourself in a situation when someone who should have did not trust you? You tell them this or that and they do not blink, do not smile, say, "Well, I will have to see for myself," or "You may believe that baloney, but not I." When I share good news with people, which I often do, when I tell them about my deepest beliefs and commitments and they do not trust me... I can feel my breathing get a bit shallow, feel my hands beginning to make a fist (not that I would ever use them; I am much too much a coward for that), feel my heart hardening. Thomas may be the twin of all skeptics, but in the Upper Room on the evening of Easter week I am one of the unbelieved apostles.

And so I need Jesus to touch my hands, to unfist them. I need Jesus to reach into my chest and massage, soften, my hard heart. If I am going to keep sahring this good news with folk, and if they are going to continue dissing me, not trusting me, humoring me or just ignoring is going to take a touch of Jesus for me to keep at it.

And that is the gospel truth.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Oprah and Me

Harpo was one of the Marx brothers, right? Harpo is also the name of Oprah’s production company. Gotta be a connection.

I admit that I have never gotten it, meaning Oprah herself or her show or her celebrity. I will say that at one time I had hoped she would choose one of my books to feature on her book club. Not anymore. Not since she decided to become our new instructor in matters of the spirit, the guru/dean of a new on-air seminary featuring as faculty the current crop of Shirley MacLaine wannabes: Mariannne Williamson, for one, and Eckhart Tolle, the latest and greatest.

Oprah and Eckhart are all the rage on the internet, offering a “webinar” about how dumb—excuse me, unenlightened—the rest of us are who still cling to “belief.”. Quoth Oprah: If God for you is a “believing experience, it is not really God” because God is a “feeling experience.” Jesus came to show us Christ-consciousness, because we are all capable of being Christ. The “real” God is not restricted to any religious expression, nor is God a jealous God. Oprah dates her break with her own Christian roots to a sermon wherein the preacher described God as “a jealous God,” a perfectly biblical view, of course, meaning that God wants us for himself and does not want us worshiping other, lesser things—like, for instance, new age ideas for God (which are old age as they can be: early Christians called these same notions Gnosticism, meaning, God as an idea. Against them Christian have quoted John, “(God) became flesh…”)

Anyway, people are up in arms. There is a revolt going on, a “reject Oprah, boycott her magazine” kind of thing.

I just find myself wondering whether all the people who are mad at what Oprah is teaching right now are in a Bible study themselves, learning why this silliness she and Eckhart are spouting is neither new nor even very interesting. The Secret, The Prayer of Jabez, Your Best Life Now—all of these books espouse demonstrable idolatries, and yet even Christian people often do not recognize them as such because they have so little in the way of biblical foundation to serve as lens by which to see them for what they are. “Try the spirits to see if they are from God,” John counsels, but many can’t. No surprise then when the unsuspecting are trapped in Oprah’s “web.”

It is left to the Church continually and urgently to offer the faith once-delivered to the saints: the historical, particular, incarnation of “the real” Christ, crucified, dead and risen—alive among us and unbound by any lesser ideas of his redemptive purpose—that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Easter II

My old sermon--I do not preach old ones often--held up pretty well this morning and there is, I think, a significant thought therein. The Gospel text for the day was the appearance of Jesus to the disciples sans Judas, and Thomas' demand to touch the hands of Jesus and put his hand in Jesus' side.

I mentioned that Thomas was our twin, when we demand proof but do not show up where proof might be found. And that Thomas is my twin, in many ways, but that he and I are inversely that I need Jesus to touch my hands, to unfist them and make a tear in the flesh of them so that generosity might pour out; that I needed Jesus to place his hand in my side to massage my hard heart so that it was not so cold and hard.

Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Friday, March 07, 2008


I really do try to get my formatting correct--indentions, paragraphing, etc. Sometimes it will not show-up in the actual post, despite multiple attempts. Sorry. And if you can advise me, please do!

Here, O My Lord, I See... (A Communion Meditation)

There is a eucharistic hymn in the United Methodist Hymnal, and perhaps in others too, whose first line is: Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face..."
And in truth, our faith since Easter afternoon when Cleopas and his friend took the very first Walk to Emmaus is that just as they did, all subsequent pilgrims have "recognized him (Jesus) in the breaking of bread." Which is to say, in the breaking of bread, the sharing of the cup, we recognize his grace--that, "having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them--just as he loves us--to the end."
In the breaking of the bread we recognize his fealty, his loyalty, his faithfulness to the purposes of God, no matter the cost of that fidelity.
We recognize his ability to take ordinary things and make them extraordinary: whether bread and wine into his own body and blood; or men and women, into saints and servants, the flesh of his Word, themselves means of his grace and beacons of his Kingdom.
We recognize Jesus in the Holy Meal. That is the good news.
The bad news is that Here, in this Meal, we also recognize ourselves, or may. We see in the dark mirror of this broken bread and blood-red wine the truth of our own lives and condition. For "it was on the night he was betrayed" that Jesus instituted this meal.
"Yes, my own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me." These words, from the forty-ninth Psalm, have often been used as a lens to implicate Judas, but in truth the betrayal of Jesus is not limited to him, or even to Peter. In fact, all of his familiar friends, in whom he trusted, who ate of this bread, fell away. Despite pledges of faithfulness, loyalty and loving devotion, they all of them betrayed him.
Jesus' enemies can refuse him, or accuse him. They can accost him, or arrest him. They can lie, then try him. They can convict and condemn him. They can berate and beat him. They can scourge him and spit on him. They can crucify him, kill him, bury him deep in a hole...but they cannot betray him.
That special privilege is reserved for us. For only those who love him can turn on him. Only those who know him can say they never did. Only those who have pledged faith can recant that faith, only those who sit at the Table can get up and leave the Table, to go into the night, to do what they are going to do quickly or otherwise.
Only those who are close enough to kiss Jesus can give him the kiss of death.
And only those who are on the receiving side of Christ's extraordinary gift-making can render those extraordinary gifts ordinary. Trivial. Meaningless.
In the breaking of bread, here, O my Lord, I see Thee face-to-face.
And here, O my God, I see myself so as to hide my face.
According to Mark's account of Jesus' last night, after he had announced that "one of you," one of his familiar friends, one of his disciples would betray him, they each of them asked in turn, "Lord, am I the one?"
The answer to that question is...yes. We are all of us the ones.
Jesus feeds them anyway. Knowing all of them so well, knowing so well all of what was coming, he fed them anyway. Washed their feet. It was on freshly washed feet that Judas went to the High Priest. When Simon denied him--said, and of a truth, that he did not know the man--it was with sacrament on his tongue that he did it.
Jesus fed them.
Jesus feeds us.
He gives this meal even when we fail to discern the fullness of its meaning, even when we fail to receive.
He shows himself to us in the Meal, shows us who we are, too, knowing that we do not fully recognize either, but in hopes that when we see ourselves as we are we will see all the more clearly who he is.
And so may God grant us grace, as he did to Cleopas and his friend on that Easter afternoon long ago, that the scales may fall from our eyes and we may recognize him, recognize ourselves, see all he would grant us to see, in the breaking of this bread.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Ray Stevens was Wrong


Ray Stevens was wrong, I think. Everything is not beautiful, not in its own way or in any way we can imagine. Maybe some things are more beautiful than we are willing to see, some people more beautiful than they first appeared to us to be: the person who grates on our nerves and we dread to see approach, with the passing of time and the sharing of circumstance, becomes a wonderful friend. Couldn’t have seen that coming, wouldn’t have imagined it…some things, some people, are beautiful even if we can’t see it at first, but not everyone is beautiful. Not everything.

A young man, too young, is struck down by a cancer that seems a family curse almost: his dad and his mom both died before their time and now it will soon be his time, and there is nothing beautiful about it. His new grandbaby will never know him. His children are terrified, for him, for themselves in a few years. Nothing beautiful about any of that.

A young family, shredded by the infidelity of the mother; another family, cleaved asunder by the infidelity of the father: and the sins of the fathers and the mothers are visited on the heads of the children—if not theologically then relationally, and for how long will the cycle continue? Perhaps to the third or fourth generation, all that confusion and bitterness, anger and hurt bleeding onto other people and relationships… these wounds that do not heal cleanly, not even with the unguent of time or counseling or otherwise. Nothing beautiful about any of that, either.

A child dies. A parent loses memory. Soldiers are killed on far away battlefields, and if sometimes that kind of sacrifice is beautiful in its own tragic way, if there are times when war enobles a nation or a people, it is not always so. Sometimes the rush to war only diminishes those who fight, and I speak not only of the battles waged on foreign soil, either, but these fierce little wars we fight in the boardrooms and in our bedrooms, in the church parlors and fellowship halls…these wars diminish us each and all.

There are things worth fighting for, to be sure, but sometimes we fight just to fight; sometimes we fight because we are in the habit; sometimes we fight because we, too, have lost memory that our first and final task as followers of Jesus is to love our enemies, to forgive our debtors, those who trespass against us, our offenders; we sometimes forget that we are to bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ, that we are to love one another as Christ has loved us, that we are to see others as Christ sees them…but sometimes we don’t do that, don’t try to see others as Jesus sees them. Many times we screw our eyes shut to anything beyond our pride and prejudice because we don’t want to see beyond our own prejudice and pride.

Which is to say, sometimes we just won’t see the other side, just can’t see anything beautiful in the enemy, in the neighbor, in the friend or spouse. Which is to say we are so blind, sometimes. Can we all of us just confess that. Blind, sometimes because we will not see, other times because we can’t.


Jesus and his disciples are strolling the streets of Jerusalem when they see this man, blind from birth. The disciples, with all the sensitivity of a brick, begin debating the man’s condition, its causes, its effects: Did his parents sin? Did he?

They are so much like us, we are so much like them: if we can figure out a way to blame the victim, then we do not have to feel so bad about it one way or the other. Lung cancer? Well, if he hadn’t smoked all those years. She was raped? Well, if she hadn’t worn that short dress. Killed while driving under the influence? I always knew that kid would come to ruin. If we can blame people for their own problems, we can be satisfied that we are not like that, can keep ourselves aloof, condescending, can relieve ourselves of responsibility.

Oddly, Jesus refuses to see things that way, or people, refuses to debate cause. He just gets on his knees in front of the poor man, spits on the ground, makes some mud, rubs it on the man’s eyes…And in this whole wonderful story, which runs the length of John, chapter nine, that is my favorite moment, my favorite detail: Jesus, making mud with his spit, smearing that holy goo on the eyes of the blind man.

You know what this looks like, Jesus on his knees with the man?

Remember way back in Genesis 1 and 2, you have there two stories of “creation,” or if you prefer two versions of the one story, and the first of them is that majestic poem whose meter and verse we have known since childhood: In the beginning, when there was nothing but darkness and void covering the face of the deep, God created the heavens and the earth. There is darkness here, too, the blindness of the man, and also of the disciples.

Later in Genesis, later in creation week, comes the other story, how God got down on his knees in Eden, the garden he had planted to the east, scooped some of that damp, new earth into his hands, rich soil of the misty new world he had just made from nothing. God brow furrowed, beaded sweat as God patted and rolled and formed the first human—his fingerprints are all over Adam and all over us, too, all the days ever since…though there are some who can’t see it. God made us with dirt from the garden and sweat from his brow and God breathed divine breath into the little mud man, and there was life as well as light, but Adam was a lonely soul till God also made Eve.

God rose from that creation moment with us in the grain of his palms, the residue of all Eden’s children under his nails, and he has never been able to wash his hands of us entirely, not with the water of the flood, not even when blood poured from the hole where a roman nail pierced the flesh the creating Word had become.

And here, in John 9, Jesus kneels, scoops up dirt and with the spit of his mouth makes mud. Once again, there is creation, recreation, light. The man can see. Really see.


I wish Jesus would do that for me, truth to tell. The last few verse of this great chapter in John are scary ones:

Jesus said, “I am come into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Now some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin. But now that you have said, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Which means my sin remains because I am the one who so often says, I see, which is to say, I know. I understand. I have this figured out.

I am like Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night—get it, by night? Because he is in the dark? And Nicodemus says, in effect, “I see,” when he is just as blind as he can be. Nicodemus says, “We know you are a teacher come from God…” and just by saying it that way Nicodemus, a really, really religious person, an elected official, a teacher of Israel, proves that he knows nothing.

Do you get it? We are the really, really religious people. We are the teachers. We are the officers of the church. And we are the ones who best be careful, lest we think we know. The only time Jesus ever said, “You need to be born again,” he was talking to a man like us when he said it. Not to an atheist, not to a pagan, but to a man like us, who thinks he has it figured out, that he is righteous, that he can see.

We best be careful, then, lest we think we see…in fact we see little if anything, most days. We do not see the horror because we have contented ourselves as to explain it, at least to our own satisfaction. Neither do we see the beauty, when there is beauty to be seen.

Listen! The Pharisees, the folk like us, could only see what was wrong with what Jesus did: he healed on the Sabbath! They could not see what was amazing and right and good: that he healed!

So maybe Ray Stevens was right after all, well, at least about this one thing: There are none so blind, as those who will not see…
If only Jesus would stop by here and put mud on our eyes.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

No Trespassing


A call came into the office this week. An individual needed to “talk to a minister.” It was a cold call, which is to say the caller did not know me and I did not know the caller.

That kind of call comes now and then: someone is in some kind of trouble, is having some sort of crisis, and for some reason the caller imagines that “talking to a minister,” even if that minister is a stranger, will afford them some kind of help. And so they find the number in book, of some church they have seen here or there, and they call.


When such calls come I am invariably apprehensive. Who knows but what the caller is mad at God, or angry at the church, ready to take out a .45 caliber vengeance on the preacher foolish enough to answer their summons.

Beneath that obvious fear, however, is a more subtle one, perhaps a truer one: not that they will be able to hurt me, but that I will not be able to help them. Whoever places such a call reaches out, reaches out to a stranger, clearly needs something, some kind of help, but I am never sure what they want, less sure of what I, of all the people they might have called, can give them. I am not at all confident that any word I have to say will be of any benefit, lasting or otherwise.

And so, mostly, I listen. Which is to say I usually go when I am called. But I try not to say much, for fear of setting the caller off, for even greater fear of their feeling foolish that they called me.


This call came on Ash Wednesday. There had been a death in the family, such as it was. The caller just needed to talk…and so I went, praying God’s protection for the both of us. I called Jo, my wife, on the way. I left word with Tabitha, my secretary, before I left—described exactly where I would be, you know, just in case.

When I got there, the house smelled of animal urine and neglect. The caller sheepishly moved a pile of trash so that I could sit down, and so I did, horrified at what might be happening to the seat of my pants. I started listening. The conversation was difficult. There were long gaps of silence. Now and then I asked a question, said a word or two, to nudge the dialogue along, but mostly I was silent.

On either side of the silences the caller spoke of death—not just the family member’s that morning, but of other deaths: parents, friends, siblings, faith. The caller spoke haltingly of life’s futility, of a lack of accomplishment, of loneliness. The caller spoke of that especially: of deep and, indeed, disabling loneliness. Of how unfriendly our town was and is. Of how inhospitable and unwelcoming we were and are. Here the caller picked up tempo a bit as hurt and anger and resentment stoked the accusations.
But as the caller rattled-on—there was far too little energy to call it a rant—I remembered what I saw as I had turned into the driveway: no less than six “No Trespassing” signs posted here and there in the small yard and on the filthy house.

No Trespassing signs in the yard, and in the living room, a deep lamentation on account of loneliness. Quite apart from that particular conversation I have decided that that is an apt metaphor for the human condition. We are all of us so lonely, in a way, and yet we keep holding each other at bay, warning others to keep their distance, doing our best to be self-sufficient or let on like we are. We do not speak of loss or loneliness, do not let our hearts or our heartaches be seen. And when trouble comes, we keep that to ourselves too, or perhaps we reach out to strangers, if we reach out at all. Some of us, anyway.
Others of us, and especially those of us here, in church, are not so very isolated as the caller was, do not have to depend on the kindness of strangers. And still, even we feel the disconnect, the sense that we are alone in the crowd, that no one knows the trouble we have seen or even if they do they do not much care. Even among folk like us there is this fear, I think, this deep question: to whom can speak of death, or of life? Such conversations are not always welcome, nor are those who would seek them.
Deeper even than that observation is this one, and perhaps I make it because the call came on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent: Such, I believe, is our relationship to God. We go to great lengths, spend great energy in our self-sufficiency to put up the No Trespassing signs so that God will see them. Put them on our hearts, on our lives. We don’t need You here, don’t want You here; we warn-off God.
But then, when trouble comes, we wonder why God seems so distant. So disinterested. So far away.

I am not one usually inclined to quote Anne Graham Lotz, but I remember that on the Thursday morning after the Twin Towers fell, Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed by Jane Clayson on CBS’s The Early Show. Asked “Why would a loving God let this happen?” –which, I must say, is the typical boneheaded question people ask to justify their smug anger at God or the church.
Ms. Lotz said words to this effect: for years we have shaken our fist at God, have worked very hard to expel God from our national life, the public arena, the marketplace…and God, being a gentleman, has done as we have demanded.
Now, whether or not you agree with her assessment of the particular causes or effects of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, the insight is a powerful one, I think, and especially for us beginning our observance of Lent. Could we not, should we not confess that we have spent great energy shaking our fists at God, expelling God from our lives?
Or if you do not see yourself in that harsh picture, exactly, could we not, should we not confess that we have sweetly marginalized God in our quest for self-sufficiency, winked at God week to week but gone busily about our business in order to make our own life and meaning?
Could we not, should we not confess that we have all of us placed No Trespassing signs here, there, everywhere, all over our driveways and homes, which is to say on our ears, over our eyes, around our hearts? In our offices and, sadly, even in our churches?

And could we not, should we not confess that often, when trouble comes or fear or death, we have wondered where God is after all. Where is God? Perhaps, as Don McLean sang it, God caught the last train for the coast.
Which is to say that God, being gentle—being just—perhaps has done as we asked and left us to our self-sufficiencies and spiritual dissipation.
The Good News, of course, is that God is not just gentle and just, but also gracious and fiercely merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who relents from punishing (even if, as Paul claims, that punishment, that wrath, is God’s letting us go our own way). God is ever more ready to hear than we are to pray, ever more ready to forgive than we often are to confess.
But Lent is a season of confession. And so what better time than now to take down those No Trespassing signs—to invite God back into our homes, and by that I mean our lives, dirty as they may be with the trash and waste of this world. We take down the No Trespassing signs and we reach out to God who may, at first, seem like a stranger, but we really need to talk to God, you know. Death is all around us and we need to talk to our God.
And maybe we take down the No Trespassing signs we put up against each other. Maybe we reach out to one another and answer one another’s call, and tell the truth and listen and there may be long gaps as we talk but we talk about death and life and how we can befriend and be friends to one other against the loneliness we all of us have known. Maybe we talk to God, talk to each other, answer the call and listen…

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Better on a Birthday

If one of the blessings of being a pastor is that I get to be with people at the most important junctures of their lives—good and bad—one of the curses (at least for those wired as I am with aural fixations) is that many time folk are not often if ever able to express ­­in a more than a pro forma or perfunctory way what my presence, my ministry, means to them. I want, even need, to hear such a blessing from those I serve, but my need is not binding. And in fact the served cannot always discern the impact the servant has had in a given situation or setting. Perhaps with a season of reflection, with passage through other junctions, they may—but even then chances are it will remain a private conclusion.

Left in the silence, and woven-through with tendencies to both pride and despair, I find motive and opportunity to drape these episodes either with banners of self-congratulation or palls of self-loathing: my ministry made all the difference; my ministry made no difference at all. Either extreme is in its own way a kind of hubris, a toxic and ultimately idolatrous self-regard whose only effective antibody is humility, a recognition of the incarnational and sacramental nature of my work. But such humility is the product of a holiness I have not yet attained, and so I bounce between the rock and the hard place, between bedevilment and the deep blues. The word of blessing I so desperately hunger to hear—an echo of the Word I so fervently hope to hear: Well done, good and faithful servant—is, rarely, forthcoming.

But on Friday last some of those words came—and publicly, which too seems a part of the remedy.

Some of those to whom I have ministered told me what it meant to them for me to be there, and in almost every case long enough after the fact that the word was ripe, seasoned, refined with time. Some friends told me what it meant for me to be a friend to them—and not in the blush of first attractions, but in the aftermath of long experience, good times and bad. Students were able to tell me lessons they had learned under my tutelage. Editors talked to me of my writing meant, and in a way that was not superficially cordial or complementary.

This grace came to me under the specific sign of a surprise birthday party, a “This Is Your Life” kind of affair on my fifty-third. Everyone was in on it—family, friends, parishioners. Some of them have serious repenting to do. But I was and remain so thankful. They are thankful that I was and remain so gullible, so clueless and na├»ve. I believe what people tell me, in other words, and in this case, that quality proved a double-benefit as Jo, my wife, and Bethany and Jacob, conspired with others to bless me beyond measure. I mean, sometimes you just have to trust what people say.

I have to admit I have been feeling down. I said as much to Jo more than once over the last few weeks. My knee surgeries (a total replacement in June of 2006, and then, 13 months later, a revision of the replacement and the difficult rehab that followed) have left me feeling both old and decrepit. My books are not really selling. My church is rather small—leaving me feeling that my ministry is rather insignificant. All told, I had been feeling more and more irrelevant as my birthday approached. I was taking it pretty hard, turning 53, harder than I when I grappled with and lost to 50.

That morning I went to the Abbey, prayed with the monks. It seemed a good way to start my birthday. I met Jo at the shoe store to get some new clogs. She dropped me off at the theatre where my son, sick as he said he was of “lovey-dovey chick flicks” had given me a coupon for a “man’s movie.” We went to see Aliens vs. Predator. Spare me the dialogue and nothing else besides!

Soon we would be heading out for what I thought was a birthday dinner. My family had led me to believe—actually , I came to my own conclusion and they did not disagree—that we were going to a dinner theatre or some such. But Jo made a point of saying she wanted to stop by the church just for a moment, to say hello and a quick prayer with the Emmaus folk—five young couples who are covenant discipleship partners.

Even when I saw all the cars in the church parking lot, I just assumed that some other church members were doing some other something in the fellowship hall—which they were, in fact: having a party for me—but I still did not make the connection.

If all of that proves I am gullible, the icing on the birthday cake came before we even got to church. We stopped by the CVS on the way, in reality to arrive at the far parking lot so that I couldn’t identify the “special guest’s” cars but ostensibly to get some hair pins for my daughter who was having a bad hair night. I decided I wanted to get a chapstick (and they saw no reason to prevent me from doing so), so in Bethany and I walk—only to see my best childhood friend Jeff at the check-out.

Jeff lives in Memphis. He was in fact in town for the party—Jo had arranged for him to serve as MC for the ceremonies soon to begin at the church. But in a classic case of misdirection, he had called me earlier in the morning to wish me a happy birthday, to tell me he was in Phoenix, probably would not be able to call later (we usually trade birthday phone calls at night). I would later find out that he had not been in Phoenix at all but in Lake Wylie, SC, a few miles from my home. And there he stood, big as life. He looked at me and immediately laid his head on the counter, trying to hide behind the cash register. Too late.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

My daughter, in on the plot, turned to go back to the car, to tell Jo and my son Jacob that the surprise was ruined, that Jeff was in the CVS. While she was gone, Jeff, a banker and therefore a good liar—and quick on his feet besides—told me he had a layover in Charlotte on his way back home from Phoenix to Memphis, had decided to try to surprise me by coming out to see me. This logic and argument seemed plausible to me—later I am thinking, Does one fly so far east of Memphis as that to fly back west? Possibly, but Atlanta would make more sense. Besides, he had in fact dropped in on us one time before in just such a way. Still, I did not connect his presence to my birthday or my family’s excursion. I just believed what he said.

“Wow, you almost missed us,” I said. “Jo and the kids are taking me to the theatre or something and I would have hated it if you had missed us.”

“I was willing to take the chance,” he said. Then, he said, “I really need to go to the bathroom.”

“Well, we are on our way to the church for a second… follow us and you can use the john there while we say hi to our friends…and then you can go to the airport from there. I’ll ride with Jeff,” I said to my family, thinking that I could have a few minutes with him anyway. All agreed. On the short way I showed him my latest scar, tried to catch-up quickly on all the news since he and we would be leaving in a short while.

Then we get to the church and I see all these cars…but I still don’t draw the obvious conclusion. No wonder car salesmen love to see me coming. Only when I walked in and saw the balloons did I realize.

After “Surprise!” and “Happy Birthday!” I greeted folks as they quickly ate some of the birthday cookie and drank some drink. I told everyone that Jeff’s presence was accidental, that he was on his way home from Phoenix to Memphis and took a happy chance to come see me. Wasn’t it fun, that coincidence? We nibbled and jabbered for a few moments, me working the room, talking to the 70 or so people who were there. Then we went to the sanctuary where two things occurred.

The first was that, as I sat in a chair in front of the group, people from my past took turns speaking (they were behind a door with a microphone). They told of who I was to them, what I had meant to them. Jo hoped I could recognize the voices, which I did, and then when each person appeared I told the assembled who the person was to me—where I had met or known or served them.

There were a good number of my ministerial colleagues, a few former church members, my two best friends in ministry—one of whom had driven from Atlanta just for the occasion. Several more had planned to be with us, I found out later—my old New Testament professor from Nashville and a long-time friend, co-author and colleague from Murfreesboro, TN, as well as my therapist/friend from Atlanta—who had to cancel at the last minute. The most of those who did not make it sent letters, which Bethany read to alternate with the “voices.”

The letters were memorable, with great lines, and the best of both from my nephew who said I was his hero without even knowing it and partly because I remained true to and did not give up on people who should have loved me better than they were able to or did.

That deeply touched me. And God knows I have tried to do that.

Then there was a Power Point presentation my son had concocted: “Tom Steagald: The Man, The Myth, The Minister.” The first part was mostly photos, with his captioning, focusing on my childhood and adolescence—my fashion sense and the evolution of my facial hair. The second had to do with my “career” as an athlete and musician. The third was some pictures of my ordination, me preaching and directing choirs, etc.

Then three short video clips, two from friends in Florida and the last one from my editor, Liz, who is, besides my wife, the most wonderful and terrifying woman I know and my good friend besides. “Teachable,” she calls me, which basically means I roll over and do whatever she says.

I only lost it once—when a letter was read from a couple whose baby had died on Super Bowl Sunday 22 years ago, while I was serving their church. They spoke of what my ministry had meant to them during that time, and it is through that lens that I began reflecting on what I was experiencing through the various testimonies and such.

“You have heard your funeral,” one of my friends said, and it is true. Perhaps I will die before my next birthday—maybe Jo had an inclination she needed to do this just now. Or perhaps I will merely pop the DVD in the player next January 4 and every year thereafter (and also when I am blue with self-loathing or peacock-proud with self-congratulations).

Those who were there are to be commended for enduring 90 minutes of such stuff. Most said they enjoyed it and that they knew me much better now.

John, my friend from Atlanta, left pretty quickly after he made his speech—had to get back for a meeting the next day. Jeff had to excuse himself pretty quickly, too—he really did have a plane to catch back to Memphis. But others stayed till the end. I prayed a prayer of thanks for the places and people that it has been my honor to serve. And then we were done.

Still, my thoughts are whirring. I am wanting to reread the letters. To watch the video of it all. To keep exploring what it means to have people celebrate you in all the aspects of your life, knowing full well the many times and many ways you have failed but loving you still. It was an amazing night. A singular moment.

Short of disease or injury, I think I will never forget it.