Monday, December 28, 2009

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Almost everyone has heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas, if only by means of the song most of us learned in grammar school (I don’t think K-5/6 is called “grammar school” any more, but that’s okay, because many of them don't teach grammar any more).In any case, the term “Twelve Days” refers to the season of Christmas which stretches between The Nativity of our Lord (December 25, and commonly called Christmas day) and Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on January 6. The Twelve Days boast another six or seven feasts, or celebrations—most of them related to various saints.

Now, we Protestants (and United Methodists are lumped-in there, though with some qualifiers) do not observe all the festivals and celebrations that our Roman Catholic or Orthodox friends do. While we do observe the temporal cycle, the basic seasons of the Christian year—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost—we do not, as a rule, observe the sanctoral cycle (the “saints’ days”).

We observe the temporal cycle because it helps tell the story of Jesus, the times of his life—from the promise of his coming (Advent) to his birth (Christmas) as both King of the Jews and Savior of the world (Epiphany); to be King and Savior means he will suffer and die (Lent) but God will vindicate Jesus (Easter) and pour out the Holy Spirit on those who receive him (Pentecost).

The sanctoral cycle, though…well, let’s just say there are good reasons to bypass most of those days (though we do observe All Saints on November 1). That said, taking the detour we sometimes miss good stuff, important pieces of our history and lessons the saints and their days might teach.

I have found myself, this year, particularly interested in the feast days that fall immediately after the Nativity.

--December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen (“Good king Wenceslaus looked out…”). St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death outside Jerusalem for his witness to Christ.

--December 27 is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. He is, by tradition, the only one of Jesus’ originals not to have died a violent death.

--December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The church remembers those children (and their weeping mothers) who died at the hand of murderous Herod who would stop at nothing to retain his power. He reminds us of all the “powers” in our own day who sacrifice their nation’s children for their own purposes, while the Innocents themselves remind us of those whose lives are taken on account the world’s idolatries and power-lust.

Notice: in the first “four days” of the Christmas season, the church’s celebrations alternate between light and darkness, life and death: Nativity, Stephen; John, the Holy Innocents. It is almost as if the church is saying, “This Child’s birth is not all sweetness and light; it is a matter of life and death.”

Hard to put a bathrobe or cardboard crown on some of these stories, which is not a bad thing to remember as we begin the new calendar year.

Still, if the sometimes and recurring word is dark and dreadful, the ever-answering and final word is always of light and joy. In spite of all, Joy to the World. JOY to the WORLD. Amen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mary is but the first...

of the theotokoi (God-bearers). Jesus said, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother."

Whenever we are faithful in the fallen world, our godless age--which really is a god-filled age, only the gods are not gods--we give birth to Jesus again. Perhaps this year we are every bit as uncomfortable as Mary in her ninth month, but something wondrous is about to happen!

Merry Christmas, and blessings to all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sanctity and Self-Righteousness

I wonder if the sign of true sanctity is this: others seeing virtue in us that we do not see in ourselves. Pride and self-delusion, conversely, is seeing in ourselves virtue others cannot.

I have been thinking about that old saw, the one where the fellow asks another, "Are you a Christian?" The asked man answers, "I am not sure. I believe in Jesus, but as to whether I am actually a Christian...you will need to ask my banker, my business partner, my neighbor, my children, my enemy. They can tell you."

I suspect that pride and self-delusion are at the heart of many of the church's ills...we see in ourselves what others cannot. We imagine ourselves to be humble, loving, serving, when that is not others' experience of us. True sanctity would be the opposite. That is, we would see only our failings, not our "successes"; we would counfess only our sins, not our righteousness (at least we believe in Jesus!). It would be left to others to say whether or not we are actually Christians, which is what Jesus said: They will know you are Christians...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Whoops!

Be nice if I included the link!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF2mikICUAo

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Joel Osteen and the Former Archbishop of South Africa

Gotta tell you, this video almost...almost...makes me rethink my opinion of Joel, his megawatt smile, crocodile shoes and unhappy traveler of a wife.

No, it really doesn't.

BUT...this is a GREAT video. Would love to lead a service like this once in my life.

The man at the 2:40 mark of the video (or so) looks for all the world like Desmond Tutu.

Surely not. You think?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

I Facebook...Therefore I Am

In this strange new era of connective technology--which is not to be confused with anything approaching the theological category of Incarnation (more like the gnostic ether, in fact)--I have finally gotten in line behind the other 350 million or so who have already crossed the cyberborder into the pleroma of Facebook.

Thomas Ray Steagald is my name in those precincts, but I am at a loss as to how to do much there. Don't know the language or landscape. But immersion is the key--this from a former Baptist--and so I will try to learn as I go.

Follow me there if you wish.

Descarte, forgive us.

Oh, and yes, I twitter too...sounds like too much information... but not often. Yes, Robin, I will try to do better.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

I Have Been Away Too Long

Since I last posted I have had a) a brush with death, b) administrative overload, c)deadlines, d) mental fatigue along with abiding grief and e) really bad back pain.

No excuses; just letting you know I have not been lazy.

That said, I find that when I am really, really overloaded I go catatonic. Muscle relaxers aid my retreat.

Still, I have been thinking that every Christian virtue has a kind of "evil twin," if not a vice, exactly, then an anti-matter version: an anti-virtue. Of particular concern to me right now is the virtue of detachment and its dark side.

Detachment is the humble acknowledgment that nothing depends, finally, on me. I can decrease while God increases. I am not indispensable, irreplaceable or that important. Things go on without me and part of what I need to do is get out of the way. Detachment is a corollary to the doctrine of divine sovereignty, I think, the basis of patience and serenity.

At the same time there is a kind of detachment that is not virtuous at all, but is rather a kind of bloodless passivity. Maybe even a kind of cowardice. I am referring to indifference in the sense of apathy. Not caring.

Detachment cares, but realizes the limitations of self regarding the unfolding of the divine plan. Indifference cares not.

The geography of both detachment and indifference is nearly the same: somewhere off-center, at the edges or nearly so. For the former the place is chosen; for the latter no choice is necessary.

I am thinking too that detachment is an active stance and requires real courage and trust. Indifference may be a kind of cowardice, a safe place to huddle and removed from any action, but born of a deep fear that one is not equal to the kind of engagement that a more engaged posture might summon from us.

Similarly, I have been thinking that early in my ministry I had an overabundant sense of my own adequacy, leading to impatience with others who did not honor or share my perspectives and strategies. These days I am burdened with an terrible sense of my own inadequacy--I am not hip enough, savvy enough, technologically proficient enough, smart or wise enough, winsome enough, handsome enough, funny and fetching enough, to minister to this generation. But that self-assessment may be more akin to self-loathing and itself both dishonest, cowardly and lazy.

Then again, it may be a humble confession that my inadequacy is reason to glory in those who are all those things--Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, the new monastics--to detach myself from the panic of translating the gospel to a new generation, content that quite apart from me the Kingdom will do quite well, thank you very much.

How to be detached without being apathetic--now THAT is the question.

Friday, October 23, 2009

In The Presence of Two Witnesses

Paul writes in II Corinthians 13:1 that “Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This principle of Jewish law—that there must be at least two witnesses in all criminal prosecutions—stretches back to Deuteronomy (see 17:6 and 19:15, among other verses). For me, this precedent Paul and Moses established for unhappy circumstances has been an aid for spiritual growth.

That is, I have found through the years that I do well to pay attention when “two witnesses” testify to me about spiritual things. When different voices speak to me at the same time about the same thing, I consider that God is “doubling” the lesson he is trying to teach me so that, dull as I often am, I might clearly see. Or begin to.

It has happened again in the last couple of weeks. One “witness” was something I read in a new book on congregational life by Gil Rendle, former senior consultant at the Alban Institute. The other was a blog entry by Will Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference.

Dr. Rendle writes,

“One of my favorite bromides says, ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you see looks like a nail.’ Similarly, if the only available tool that leaders have is the basic problem-solving process that most of us employ, then the only way we can view (congregational) discomfort is as a problem. A critical challenge congregational leaders face is the need to preserve and protect the discomfort of differences among the people as an opportunity for learning rather than to seek quick solutions that will make winners comfortable and losers disappear.”

He goes on to suggest that a healthy congregation (which is not always a comfortable congregation) is one that 1) receives new members (who admittedly come in bringing with them new ideas and expectations); 2)passes on the faith from one generation to the other; and 3) is in earnest dialogue about what is important. He quotes Dorothy Bass: “When a tradition is ‘living,’ its members are engaged in a vibrant, embodied ‘argument,’ stretching across time and space, about what the fullest participation in its particular goods would entail.” Such ‘argument’ need not be acrimonious; indeed, it must be robust but kind, energized but respectful, truthful but loving.

So what does it mean to be a UM Christian in these days? How can we foster a four-fold mission of teaching/learning, fellowship, worship and prayer? In sum, how can we make healthy congregations so that we can offer a joyful and vibrant invitation, to existing and prospective members, to join together in the glad work of the gospel? How can we become excited again about our faith and faithfulness?

Some have suggested that, in my congregation, it might be hard to do all that—and hard especially to get people excited and joyful again. They say there is still too much distrust, much of it born of unpleasant conversations about unhappy topics. They say that for the last little while we have been kind of turned in on ourselves, occupied with some hurtful and in some cases disrupting matters. Many feelings have been hurt, I am told. Many hearts are still heavy. Some are trying to get over it but still find themselves struggling, going through he motions but still carrying too much weight from the past to face the future nimble and glad.

I am doing my best not to extinguish or ignore those very real feelings. I do not know how deep or widespread they are—as Dr. Rendle says, sometimes those kinds of feelings and the people who have them just disappear. I do not want that to happen here. What I do want to happen is this: that we all of us learn from them.

One of the particular geniuses of Jesus is that he was able to keep together people who had every reason to part company. Natural enemies and competitors together became disciples. Slow as they often were, they each and all realized that being with Jesus was reason enough to stay together. They still had arguments and disagreements, God knows. Jesus never did resolve all of their differences. But forced to live together as a spiritual family, they learned to get along even when their “stuff” collided.

With that already in mind I heard the second voice, received testimony from the second witness. Please take time to read this post:
http://www.northalabamaumc.org/bishop_column_detail.asp?TableName=oBishop_Sermons_Speeches_PWLDXP&PKValue=257.

I am wondering how we can keep everyone together, talking and learning from each other? I do not think I am focusing on negatives or anything like that; I am not trying to make too much of the “trouble;” instead I am suggesting that our hope for these days and the days to come have, as a part of its foundation, a commitment to listen and learn from each other. Dr. Rendle says, “When a system does not know what went wrong, it will determine who went wrong, and quickly.” Blame, one way or the other, is always easier than confession. Speaking is always easier than listening.

I am suggesting our in our place that we do as James counsels us, that we each be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” That, as Hebrews commands, we “lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus…”

I want us to look to Jesus, remembering that in spite of it all he has called us together, is working to keep us together here, to make us learn and grow in faith and hope and love. I hope we can have the kinds of healthy, if sometimes “uncomfortable” conversations, we might still need to have about what it means to be a part of our family of faith right now. I am suggesting we be open to receive each other’s different experiences and perceptions. I am not suggesting a forum; only that we all of us be alert, ready to listen, to learn, to converse, to confess, to forgive—so that we can help one another lay aside the weight, bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ. And thus find our joy!

Friday, October 09, 2009

RIP, John Wesley Winchester

2000-2009

Praying all dogs go to heaven, in the sure and certain hope that God loves what his children love.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

West-Flowing Praise

This is a piece of my sermon for World Communion Sunday. If you would like a full copy, leave me an email address in the comments and I will forward it to you.


Already this day, in all times zones east, Christians have gathered in humble thanks, in genuine praise for the grace that is ours as evidenced in this meal.

Even now, right this very moment, all around us in Shelby and Cleveland County, in the Gastonia District and the Western North Carolina Conference, in the North Carolina Conference and the Southeast Jurisidiction—and that’s just United Methodists—all sorts of churches, all up and down the entire Eastern Seaboard, from the Atlantic to the Appalachians; in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec; in the Caribbean and South America, in Brazil—in Rio de Janeiro, too: happy as they are about the coming Olympics, there is greater, more lasting praise yet, for the wonder of God’s grace as evidenced, as experienced and expressed, in bread and cup on this World Communion Sunday.

Soon, now, we will hand off the unending hymn to those west of us, and they to those west of them, and again and again till it comes back round to us again, where in monasteries and convents, in closets and in school rooms, in hospital rooms and funeral homes, in traffic jams and every other place imaginable people will pray. People will worship.

Indeed, there is a worldwide communion of faith and worship and prayer every day—but tell the truth: some days our own world seems so small. If we are honest we will confess that our sphere of concerns is so insular, our awareness so narrow, and we can imagine that we believe or pray alone, that it’s “me and Jesus,” you know?

Thank God for a day like today when we gather around the Table and purpose to remember that it’s “we and Jesus,” that we are joined with and joined to Christians the world over. That together we offer one unbroken, unending hymn of praise, in different rhythms and keys, in various verses and chorus, in stanzas and descants—praise for creation, for recreation, for Christ, for the grace and unity we know most and best here at this Table.

Have you watched any of Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s new documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea?

In one of the episodes there is a quote from a Robert Frost poem, entitled West-Running Brook:

'What does it think it’s doing running west
When all the other country brooks flow east
To reach the ocean? It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries…'

What a great line: 'it must trust itself to go by contraries…'

The Communion Table is a contrary: it disagrees with the unsettled world. It disagrees with the enmity and division by which we often organize our living and thinking. It runs against the currents of hatred and exclusion, of class and color. It flows opposite our narrow concerns and in that way carries us into the great wide ocean of God’s mercy and grace. Like our praise it runs west, cutting a path through ancient sediments of animosity, crystalline deposits of indifference.

Frost’s poem continues:

'It must be that the brook can trust itself to go by contraries,
The way I can with you -- and you with me --
Because we're -- we're -- I don't know what we are.
What are we?'
Young or new?'
We must be something.'

Indeed we are something—and what we are is the church. Here at the Table we ourselves, you and I, like Frost’s West Running Brook, trust ourselves to go by contraries… and thereby find unity in the Table.

Unity in the Body of Christ. A table set for us in the wilderness, till al the wilderness shall become the Promised Land at last.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Times Takes on Prayer

Please go to www.theolog.org and read my new post there. Steve Thorngate, theolog's editor, asked me to weigh-on on an article in The New York Times Magazine by Zeb Chafets on prayer. Be interested to know what you think.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Prayers and Preachers

It was something of a schizophrenic experience, these last couple of days. I was at St. Mary's Retreat Center in Sewannee, TN, a large meeting place on the grounds of the Convent of the Community of St. Mary, one of the ten remaining convents of Episcopal nuns in the United States.

There are eight nuns left at St. Mary's, and four of them recent transplants--the last remnants of an Episcopal convent and order, the Episcopal Sisters of Charity, which had known the West Virginia mountains as home. Each morning at seven they gather for Mass, at noon for prayer, at five for Evening Plainsong and at seven for Compline. It is sad, in a way, to see these women, all of them older and two of them much older, gathering in a small semi-circle around the Altar to pray, and especially because there no novices among them or any on the horizon. In another way it is thrilling, and humbling, to know that these have given themselves to this place, this life, this prayer and particular service.

The convent chapel is lovely if small, and worshipers look out over the Altar to see the bluff and valleys of the Tennessee hills. On the two mornings I was there I was invited to share Holy Eucharist and breakfast. The hospitality of the Host is also evidenced in these hostesses. Monday was the feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist. Tuesday was the lesser feast of Philander Chase. I had never heard of the latter, but will never forget, I think, that he was the fifteenth of fifteen children, a missionary to the Oneida and Mohawk and, later, an Episcopal bishop.

There is a small cemetery near the entrance to the retreat center, where the dead far outnumber the convent's quick, and I could not help but think that those who come here to live know they have come here also to die, that each of them will lie in that very and very sacred place when the last breath they any of them have for prayer will have passed their lips and wafted like incense toward heaven. Nuns, convents, part-time prayers like me may come adn go, but prayer remains for ever, and the life of prayer will finally claim us all.

I found myself at St. Mary's not only for prayer, however. I was also on hand for a kind of homiletical retreat with eight Baptist pastors, all of them men, from Nashville. They had come to consider their Advent preaching, most of them still struggling to make sense of the lectionary, the worth and rhythm of the Christian year, or if not that, exactly, then at least how to preach the lectionary in their Baptist congregations back home. At the invitation of my old Greek teacher, in the company of a couple of old friends, I was there as a resource for their discussion--God help them and me--but the irony was delicious. I was moving back and forth between two worlds I have inhabited for parts of my life, two ways of thinking and believing that I understand only a little, and both of them my heritage in a way (I was raised Baptist; I am now Methodist, heir to the English reformation).

I have never felt completely at ease nor yet completely un-home in either. I fumble through the Book of Common Prayer (and, more regularly and nearer to home, the Benedictine liturgies at Belmont Abbey) and stumble at the often-unintended parochialism of Baptist life. I love preaching revivals and shudder at the often uncritical veneration of Mary.

It is the story of my life, this narrative of being between ports, and sometimes in a storm. This week there was no storm, only lots of rain, but these last two days I sailed back and forth, trekked as it were back and forth from cathedral to camp meeting, from the Sacrament of bread and wine to the distinctly southern sacramental of preaching.

My friend Bill has been pastor of his semi-rural Baptist congregation for 27 years, more than half his life. How monastic is that? I have been in my current appointment for three months; how itinerant is that?

The word of God, and the challenge of preaching it; the prayers of the people, and the challenge of perpetuating it; the giving of oneself to the life of prayer and the life of proclamation...they are the same challenge, I guess, so whether man or woman, young or old, Episcopalian or Baptist (or even Methodist), living or dead, Christ is and will be all in all, the once and final integration we need for all our various multiple personalities and professions.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Revival on The Way Home from Revival

I have been pondering something I heard on Wednesday night as I returned from preaching the last of four revival sermons at Maggie Valley UMC. I was, as I often do, scanning my radio dial listening for a) oldies rock and roll--the kind I used to play years in ago in a handful of garage bands; or b) a good radio preacher. The former is easier to find than the latter, to be sure, and some of the preaching that you can find is, shall we say (and especially in view of the balance of this email), less than wonderfully edifying.

Anyway, I stumbled by grace onto a station carrying a preacher by name of Alistair Begg, of whom I had never heard, from Parkway Church near Cleveland, with which I am unfamiliar. In a beautiful Scottish brogue (he came to the US with his family in 1983 to serve the Parkway church), he was teaching/preaching on The Epistle of James. To conclude the sermon he quoted an Episcopal priest of the 19th century, Charles Simeon, who is considered by many to be the father of the evangelical movement in England (Wesleyans might disagree!). The link to the sermon in its entirety is below.

What I most want to share, though, is the quote from Simeon--for it has occupied much of my thinking yesterday and today. It is rather stately, typical of British prose, and you may have to chew on it a bit (especially number 3, which I think I heard correctly), but the truth is simple enough: that slander, what I have called "bad gossip," is a sin the Bible takes very seriously. The sin proceeds from the "vain imagination" by which we presume to have knowledge enough and right to judge another's actions or motives. Anyway, according to Mr. Begg, Simeon was writing to a colleague in the ministry when he penned these words:

"The longer I live the more I feel the importance of adhering to the rules which I have laid-out for myself, which are as follows: 1) To hear as little as possible what is to the prejudice of others; 2) To believe nothing of the kind until absolutely forced to; 3) Never to drink into the spirit of one to circulate an ill report; 4) Always to moderate as far as I can the unkindness which is expressed towards others; and 5) Always to believe, that if the other side were heard, a very different account would be given of the matter."

Mr. Begg concluded by saying that Charles Simeon often said to his friends, "Let us sit upon the seat of love instead of the seat of judgment."

I find those "rules" fit not just for an English divine, but meet and right for me, too, day to day. If I can adopt such a posture in all my conversations, it will be evidence of the Peace of Christ--both in and through me. Which is to say, Christ, the Prince of Peace, has given us his Peace, that we ourselves might be peacemakers.


http://apps.truthforlife.org/tfl-pop-up.php?mp3=September-16-2009Broadcast.mp3&title=Only+One+Judge&series=Faith+That+Works%2C+Vol.+3&image=14188.jpg&buy_single=https%3A%2F%2Fstore.truthforlife.org%2Findex.php%3Fmain_page%3Dproduct_music_info%26model_no%3D2594DL&buy_series=https%3A%2F%2Fstore.truthforlife.org%2Findex.php%3Fmain_page%3Dproduct_music_info%26model_no%3D15903CD

Thursday, September 03, 2009

New Post on Theolog

I have written a new piece for www.theolog.org, reflections on the funeral Mass for Edward Kennedy. I hope you will check it out.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Faith and Sight

I visited with Robin today. She is dying of metastasized breast cancer. She is a nurse, and so knows at a clinical level, at head level, what is happening to her. She has seen it all more than once. But she is also, now, the patient, and at heart level wants to believe that this time, in her case, it may be, could be, will be different.

She is dual-relational with herself, in other words, trying to find hope, which is to say, remain hopeful, in spite of the terminal evidence she knows all too well. She quotes the percentages on the new prescriptions, the statistics on the next set of treatments, tries to find some comfort in the facts. The recitation rings hollow even to her.

Hope does not come from facts or statistics, I think, but from the ineffable. Still, humans beings what they are, we try to find our way through the darkness by narration, in the accurate reporting of the news. Our counselors tell us that freedom, even control--or a bit of control, anyway (if even that proves ultimately illusory)--is achieved when we can say in no uncertain terms what ails us. Real comfort, though, and real hope, comes not from expositing the obvious but in the telling of what saves us. Such testimony is dappled with fear and trembling--the grammar of salvation, is no certain or "factual" language--but may ring truer than chemistry or calculus.

I read Robin Psalm 27: The Lord is my light and my salvation;/ whom shall I fear?/ The Lord is the stronghold of my life;/ of whom shall I be afraid?// When evildoers assail me,/ to devour my flesh,/ my adversaries and foes/ shall stumble and fall.//

"That is deep," she said.

It is the same Psalm I read my friend Karen, about whom I wrote in Praying for Dear Life, as she lay dying of lymphoma. I told Robin that I really think I really do believe what I always say to folk: "Because God is God, and because we are God's children, all is well." I really believe I really believe that, all appearances to the contrary, despite the ways things appear and what we are forced to experience and feel--that "though heaven and earth, the Dow Jones and most relationships, and life itself pass away--all really is well."

It is my prayer that I really have such confidence, which means, I guess, that I am dual-relational with myself--uncertain whether my ministrations will finally minister also to me. In other words, I cannot know whether I truly have the kind of faith I encourage in others till I myself lay dying.

At that point I will know whether the hope I have proclaimed as refuge for Robin and others is refuge for me, an undimmed light in that present darkness. And sometime after that, whether my faith will indeed be sight.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Texts and Contexts

Mrs. Morris drilled us in the multiplication tables, morning after morning, one hour per day, right after spelling. I hated it but I have never forgotten them either, at least not up through the tens. For me, it seems, rote is often the most effective form of instruction.

And so I remember, too, how my college and seminary professors were incessant in one particular insistence: “there are texts, and there are contexts.” It is a lesson I teach my own students in turn. Why? A Bible verse, or episode, ripped from its context may seem to teach one thing when, in returned to its nest, it presents a different meaning altogether.

Remember that time the disciples were in the boat? Matthew tells us that they are far from shore. A squall erupts. The boat is getting swamped. They are terrified. Then Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. “Do not be afraid,” he says. “It is I.” Simon Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, let me come to you.” Most sermons I have ever read or heard dealing with this story use Peter’s leaving the boat as an example of unsustained faith: he started out well but lost it. “Give me a church full of damp Christians!” I heard one preacher say. Uh, no.

“If it is you…”? If? Jesus has just given them a word of command and comfort: “Do not be afraid. It is I.” Peter, in effect, says, “Prove it. Prove it by a miracle. Prove who you are and prove it by me.” There is no faith there at all. In fact, in the greater context of Matthew, Peter sounds very much like the Tempter in chapter four: “If you are the Son of God, prove it: command these stones to be made bread.” Context reinterprets our thinking.

Likewise Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” A guy I know keeps a poster with that verse in his garage, just above his free weights. It helps him, he says, when he is trying to push himself to lift more or do more reps. It is a strong verse, he says, and taken out of context he is exactly right. No surprise then when Christians remind themselves one way or the other that they are to be strong, victorious, “overcomers.”

Indeed there are many “strong” images in the Bible. Christian schools love to take them as nicknames: Lions, Eagles, Crusaders, even (though that is not properly biblical). But remember the greater context! For every strong image there are other images: “dove” and “lamb” come to mind. Does any school take those for athletic inspiration? “Go Lambs! Go Doves!”

Even that “victorious” image on my friend’s poster, in context, is as much about weakness as strength, as much about losing as winning. Paul is writing from prison, after all, and says just one verse before, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want, I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Winning or losing, in strength or weakness, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health—I can do all those things in the context of Christ’s strength.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Is it too late, at 54...

to learn something significant about one's self?

Last week I wrote about the dread diagnosis we received, the awful prognosis for our English Bulldog, Chester. The whole thing has hooked me very deeply, more than I might have imagined. In the last couple of days I think I have stumbled onto why--which is to say, why beyond the obvious.

Of course people get attached to their pets--and Chester has been a singular joy for us. Of course people grieve when their pets suffer or die--they are, in very real ways, members of the family. And at a metaphorical level, some of our love for pets may come from the ways in which our pets counter all the the shearing forces, the atomizing and centrifugal effects, of economics and class and race. Even the powers and principalities cannot sabotage unqualified and unmerited love. We love our dogs, and they love us, and that whether we are rich or educated or whatever.

But for me I think it is something even more. Or less.

I began thinking about it this way: next week I am to be a resource person for young ministers in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. They are using one of my books, Every Disciples Journey, as a foundation for their discussion of vocation and the ministerial life. The book attempts to plot the life of Jesus according to the seasons of the Christian Year (sometimes known as the Temporal Cycle), and also the seasons of our own life and ministry as we see them interpreted in and by the life of Jesus. One of the questions the facilitators are going to ask is this: in what season of the Christian Year are you most at home?

My own answer is "Lent." I answer without thinking. But in reflecting on that I realize that Lent is the season of impending death. Shadows gather and death is a certainty: only the timing is in question.

And then I remember: Dad had his first bad heart attack when I was seven. The certainty of death came to live with us after that, sat in the corner of every room--like a grouchy old uncle who did not speak and did not have to: his disapproval was evident and it was only a matter of time. I came of age learning how to live in the valley of the shadow of death, learned to walk and talk under the glare of that grouchy old uncle.

I wonder if I have not created situations in my life to replicate that reality--the prospect of demise, whether of marriage or ministry--so that I would know what to do. Maybe I need that certainty to know how to go about a day, or a life. I do not know what it is like to live apart from death--it is a kind of mistress in my every relationship, personal and professional, demanding more and more attention, more and more energy, more and more of my resources, until she will have me at last.

Chester's death is certain. As is the death of any of the rest of us. He may yet outlive me, of course, but probably not. But the point is this: I think that this particular valley, the shadow of his death, has helped me to see my life in a different light, so to speak. It is not a pleasant place to be--and especially when folk think I am being silly, me a grown man and all, blubbering about my sick dog--but it is familiar. Age has little to do with anything, given that the only real difference between me at 54 and me at 7 is years.

And I suspect Chester's sickness has given me, or will give me, a bit of tonic as I try, keep trying, to understand my own various emotional malignancies, and what I might do to try to begin to get a little bit stronger, a little bit better.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Chester and Me

On Wednesday we found out that our beloved bulldog, Chester, has a very bad bladder cancer. The doctor is saying he has six months at most, which is to say that we have six months at most to enjoy and celebrate him. He has been a most wonderful pet, an important member of our family, a singular joy to us in so many ways. Some days he was all we could agree on. He has tended us when we were sick, brightened our darkest days, and we will do our best to return the grace.

We are all very, very sad. Jacob, our son, had to hear the news alone.

Those of you who have had "sp's," significant pets, know how heart-rending such news and loss is.

The good news is that Chester does not act right now as if he feels all that bad. We are giving him all the Bojangle's biscuits he wants, and plan to keep on doing so for as long as he will eat them.

It is a grace to love something so much that it hurts so much to lose it. It is hell all the same to know that we will soon be without him.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Sounds of Salvation

I do not know what water “standing in a heap” sounds like.

Maybe there is turbulent, insulted groaning as the captured chaos chafes at its restraints: a dread warning and that, free, there will be wave after wave of loss, grief, tears. When the surly water is unleashed, in tsunami and flood, violently scaling its suddenly impotent banks, indeed there is wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Now and then, however, I am inclined to think that captured waters sing—that the deeps, sometimes, like the hills, are alive with the sound of powerful music.

What did the Israelites hear when God and Moses told them to go forward into the Sea? And the Sea was parted and the Children passed through the heaped-up waters? They may have been too frightened to hear anything at all besides their own panicked hearts, the whimpers of the children and aged. Perhaps their ears had room to hear nothing else.

When Joshua and the next generation crossed the Jordan? The waters stopped far above them, at Adam—the city that is beside Zarethan—and so maybe they did not hear anything either. But there must have been music, just as there was the other time, even if the people did not hear it, for God’s redemption is always accompanied by God’s singing, of course, a song sung by God for joy and love over people who have come home.

God is a warrior, the prophet Zephaniah says, whose victory is accompanied by rejoicing and gladness. God’s love is deliverance. It redeems, renews, and at such salvation God too bursts forth, busts a lung singing like a sailor over the redeemed. God jubilates, exults, exhilarates with “loud singing as on a day of festival “(3:17).

God is ever fighting to bring wayward and lost and exiled children home; and God is as happy about it as they when they finally arrive.

Waters heaped up, joining in the song. An image for Baptism, it would seem.

Here is another: in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, as a result of passing, barely, the first test of the Triwizard Tournament—he outwits the Hungarian Horntailed dragon—Harry takes possession of a golden egg holding a clue for the next contest. He opens the egg, only to hear deafening and terrible screeching and squalling. The mystery is unfathomable, as it were, until he immerses the egg, opens the egg under water. The water filters the awful screech, allows the merpeople’s singing to be heard for what it is: guidance and direction.

Just so, baptism is given to us to filter the world’s screech. It lets us hear God’s singing over his children come home. In the water, heaped-up into a shell or a hand, there is unrestrained music, the song of salvation.

+ + +

My first Sunday at my new church, I wept as the organist began to play. She masters a powerful instrument, and does so masterfully. “Surely this is the sound of heaped-up waters,” I said to myself. “Surely this is the sound of deliverance, of redemption, of salvation.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

Left Over Illustration

Please read the post below this one. This little bit is but an illustration I could not could not easily fit into the larger piece and still honor theolog.org's word count. It is too good to abandon, though, so here it is:

I remember Frederick Buechner saying that, about 10 or 15 years after he was ordained, his Presbytery wrote him a letter requesting that he "justify" his orders. He had not at that time served as any congregation's pastor, nor has he since--likening that work, witheringly, to a ringmaster's presiding over the pandemonium that is a circus. But he had written books. He had given many lectures and preached many sermons. He had been chaplain, too, at a prestigious prep school--any or all of which might have assuaged the austere Elders. All he could think, though, was "How does one justify one's ordination?"

Saved by WHAT alone?

Most Christian congregations confess, theologically, that the faithful—and, we should hope, even the unfaithful—are saved by “grace alone.” In point of fact, however, and much like the foolish Galatians, we have turned to a different gospel. Individually and corporately, spiritually and pastorally, vocationally and ecclesiologically, what we really believe is that salvation (read “success”) is the result of “work alone.” Or if not work alone, then work mostly, which, unlike grace and faith, produces measurable results and therefore testify one way or the other to the effectiveness of a minister or the vitality of a congregation.

One practical consequence of this theological eclipse is easy to observe: how many of the mailings crossing a pastor’s desk or filling the inbox of Christian Educators are selling technique? The latest products for programming? Some new skill set that will increase attendance, engender enthusiasm, generate giving?

Eugene Peterson has long-lamented and often written of the temptation and tendency pastors have to substitute technique for spirituality. One result of this dire exchange is impatience: We have to get busy! Another is fear: If we don’t do this and now the church down the road will and we will get, as it were, left behind! Yet a third is the kind of frustrated and, often, quixotic jumps pastors make from church to church when the physical plant, the staff, the program or pulpit/platform is seen as more amenable to the pastor’s goals for his/her ministry. These idolatries and self-deceptions, among others, prompt Peterson to encourage pastors to cultivate a spirituality of both place and incarnational patience.

Now, before readers dismiss this observation as mere curmudgeonliness on my part—frustration born of the jaundiced regard of my superiors—I have to disclose that I recently received a nice “promotion” and partly, it seems, because the quantifiable and observable evidence is that I was “successful” in my last appointment. Looking back, I am not at all convinced—but that is for another blog, when I have more time to reflect on the joys and regrets and many mixed feelings of pastoral transitions.

Still, in this new place—where I am exceedingly thankful to be and thrilled to pitch my tent—I have been trying to locate (so as to avoid if I can) the traps set for all ministers, and especially at the beginning. One of them is this: even well-meaning congregations often believe they will be saved not just by work, but by the work of the pastor—her preaching and personality, his pastoral care and visitation, the winsomeness, marketing and programming that will change the old First Church from “inglory” into glory.

We in the trade are prone to lament our congregations’ unrealistic, unyielding and even idolatrous expectations—but I suspect that secretly we are flattered by it all. In fact, for all our protestations, the most dangerous trap is one that we set for ourselves: many of us desperately want our people to be dependent on us; want the flock to turn to us in every little crisis, to solve their every little problem and sign-off on every little decision. Such regard can, for the moment, assuage a pastor’s insecurities. It can, or so the pastor supposes, validate the call and reward the sacrifice. But John Baillie identified this pastoral neurosis for what it was when he confessed that his "care of others" was often, simply, a "refined" form of self-care.

As I start this new work I am thinking of the Baptizer’s benediction: “I must decrease and He must increase.” But what does salvation by grace alone look like in the local church? I have insufficient experience to say.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Packing and Unpacking

Life among the boxes...that is how it has been for a couple of months now. It is maddening, in a way: that thing I need now, whatever it is--and of late it has been a) my cuff-links and collar tabs; b) the charger for my electric screwdriver; c) my worship planner, and I remember putting it/them in a box just right there at the last minute, one I knew I would unload and see and open immediately--gets lost because the box I packed and loaded there at the last is indistinguishable from all the boxes we packed and loaded at the first, and all of them forming a small mountain range of corrugated peaks and cliffs in one or the other of several rooms.

Remember The Truman Show? It was not a great movie, but it had a great lobby poster. A visual artist had taken hundreds of photos, stills from the movie, and had arranged them in such a way that from a distance, Jim Carrey's face appeared much as it would in a studio portrait. Up close it was a bunch of little pictures, various moments in Truman's life.

I think of that when I look at our boxes. From a distance they are one picture of our entire life, in pasteboard cubes that taken together represent just about everything we are. Up close, though, each box contains only atoms, molecules, cells of our existence.

It is hard to pack up our lives every few years. It is harder to keep track of all the stuff that for one reason or the other we want to hold onto. Gandhi had everything he owned in a canvass pouch. Chances are his pouch is with my cuff-links in one of our boxes, along with the kids' crib toys, their rocking horses and grammar school artwork, their prom dress/prom tux and all Jo's bridesmaids gowns. Of course, I only carry several hundreds of books I have neither read nor will.

My back is aching. My legs are tired. My brain has turned to clay--all from hauling our lives down I-85 about 30 miles. How do snails do it all day, everyday, their whole life long?

Anyone mind if I just retire from here?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Invitations or Insults

I think I have determined a quick and easy litmus test for spiritual maturity: when the challenge is issued--to prayer, to stewardship, to retreat, to service--the question is this: do we hear the challenge as an invitation or an insult? If the latter, our pride says, "What? You think I don't already pray enough? Give enough? Serve enough? You think I am less of a Christian because I don't go on retreat?"

If the former, our humility says, "How blessed to hear a call to more depth and devotion. How wonderful to be given the opportunity to give. How sweet to spend more time with Jesus, to be the flesh of God's Word among others."

Of course, the spiritually immature will hear even this assessment as an insult.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

endings and beginnings

I remember that Seneca said something to the effect that "every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." I am not waxing philosophical, exactly, but here on the Saturday evening before my last preaching Sunday at FUMC, I am experiencing a deep place, a tranquil and at the same time restless moment.

I wonder what it is about me that I make such a "difference," and by that I mean that people to whom I minister for the most part either love me or hate me, or if not love then really, really appreciate and if not hate, then really, really resent. I would like, vaingloriously, to imagine that in the latter case it is because my teaching and preaching unearth the unclean spirits resting comfortably in a place (ala Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum), but I am not at all sure that is true. Maybe a little, or some.

I would take some comfort in that "if they have hated me they will hate you" text, if I had any sense at all that it is on account of the gospel that I experience people's irritation and dismission (if not outright animosity). The word of God may indeed be a two-edged sword, but who's to say, finally, that I am not grinding my own axe and that the gospel is ill-served by my little attempts at prophetic critique.

At the same time, people who don't know me up close find me entirely forgetable... my name being difficult and my face being average, and my charisma being set to low. My cynicism, too, plays a part in all of that.

I am 54. I am moving again. Yes, I have had some notable successes,even here, but there is a good chance the Family Life Center will be mostly empty tomorrow. This last week the UMW did not invite me to their annual picnic, when it would have been a natural time to say farewell. The minutes of the last Church Council meeting did not, except in my own report, say ANYTHING about my leaving, or the church's thanks, or anyone's sadness at my departing. I have gotten all of TWO cards from folk. It is a really strange feeling. I really do think the most of the people here have appreciated, as much as they have experienced, my work. But the only real "vibe" I am getting is negative. So, so strange.

And yes, this is a perfectly dysfunctional congregation.

Still, it is odd... I wonder how Jesus views my ministry. Maybe I do not have enough joy; that is, the news is good, but not good enough in my mind to make me cheerful. That melancholy and dysthemia comes across as condescension and anger... people feel I am never satisfied with them. And perhaps that is true.

In any case, I am on my way to dinner. My sermon, such as it is, is finished. One to go.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Quarters, Minnows and Little Embers

Craddock's story is about the $1000 bill that is the life of everyone going into ministry, the $1000 each is called called to pay and, of a truth, is willing to pay, and all at once, right now, for the joy of following after Christ's summons and example. Christ bids us come and die, as Bonhoeffer said, and we most of us, at least at the start, are ready to lay our life down, give the $1000, for Christ's sake.

Problem is, Craddock says, the reality of ministry is far different than that romantic image. We wind up giving ourselves a quarter at the time. Little pieces of self dying in service to Christ, little pieces of personal dignity and self-esteem paid-out in ministry to and among our people.

Sometimes, being a pastor means eating shrimp cocktail and bar-b-q (usually not at the same meal, though in North Carolina it has been known to happen). Sometimes, being a pastor means eating a plate full of...well...other stuff.

William Self had an image much like Craddock's, only he put it this way: he did not mind the call to be eaten by sharks; to give one's life in such a way was ennobling, after all, like Jesus dying on the cross. But what he actually experienced, in years of pastoral ministry, was more on the lines of being nibbled to death by minnows. That kind of struggle slowly eviscerates, withers a minister and the ministry.

I find myself today thinking about the "burning coals on their heads" Paul mentioned: how loving those who hate us and doing good to those who despise us, accomplishes that humanly satisfying if, on the face of it, spiritually suspect end. Why do I help you? Long-term, To damage you!

Initial motives aside, however, such behavior at least has forensic support in scripture--and the point may be that by loving your enemies in such real ways they eventually can start to cease to be real enemies. Perhaps such a gesture, beginning as it does for spite, can by grace open a door to reconciliation, may even prove to be mutually ennobling in the End.

Withholding a gesture is more like heaping cooling embers, small indignities, on the heart. An invitation to the annual picnic not sent to the pastor, for most recent instance, though the picnickers are a church organization and the pastor is moving in two weeks. After four years of faithful (not to mention, though less importantly, quantitatively and architecturally successful) service, the pastor is despised by the leader of the organization. She feels the pastor has tried to rob her of her power and role; he feels her need for power is at the heart of the congregation's pathology. Such estrangement might seem all the more reason for the organization, a "mission society" no less, to obey Paul's dictum: make nice and heap coals on his head! For him to accept the invitation, likewise!

As it turns out the leader and her group eschewed such eschatological strategy, did not evidence so much as common courtesy, much less Christian charity. What may have been a gracious and ultimately (at least partially) reconciling gesture was withheld--and all the more appalling as the departing pastor's wife wife used to be a member of the organization and the pastor himself has done many things over the years to help the group raise money. The pastor had no opportunity to respond in kind.

Everybody loses in such a moment, even if everyone does not realize it. Every spirit is chilled.

With burning coals there remains at least a chance of folks eventually warming up.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Trinity, Up and the Sacraments

Jo and I were worn out from preparing for our Yard Sale. We needed a little break, too, from packing and loading boxes, from cleaning the parsonage and making ready for Annual Conference. Jo and I love movies, and so one afternoon this week we just dropped everything and went to Franklin Square to see “Up!” the new movie by Pixar and Disney.

A retired balloon salesman, a curmudgeonly old man—and he was cranky because he was old and broken-hearted, alone really--rigs thousands of helium balloons to his house and floats away, trying to leave his heartbreak behind. By a series of accidents he is joined in his adventure by a little boy who is just as sad as the old man, and just as alone. The boy’s father had left the family, had gotten himself a new girlfriend, had promised the boy over and over he would take him fishing or to the game, whatever, but he never did.

The absent father kept promising the little boy big things, big trips, big adventures—but what the little boy remembered best from when his dad was still home, and what he longed for most in his father’s absence, was the other stuff, the “boring” stuff, he called it. Sitting on the curb with his dad in front of the ice cream store, him eating a cone of vanilla while his dad ate butter brickle, counting the red cars one of them and the blue cars the other of them, and who would count the most cars before the ice cream was gone. That’s what he missed: the little stuff.

The boring stuff. The routine stuff, which is not really little at all, or boring at all, or even routine as much as it is the threads of our living, sacred moments woven together in love to make a family, to make life.

I think of that today, this Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate a big message but do it in these little ways. Here we are again at the font, at the Table. We do this stuff all the time, thank God—I sometime think about those lonely and broken-hearted folk, young and old, who would give anything, not just to have communion, at home, wherever they count home, but to be in communion, here at this place, at the curb of Jesus’ gracious promise, to know again the love he has lavished upon us when we gather here.

We can see it if we have eyes enough, can feel it if we have heart enough—that when we come together in faith at the water, when we come with receptive hearts to the bread and cup, Jesus gives his grace to us anew in the memory and presence and peace.

This is our daily bread. This is our customary bath and remembrance. Little stuff, maybe, to some eyes. Boring to others. Routine even to us.

Ordinary—that is what Wesley called the Sacraments: the ordinary means of grace, and by ordinary he did not mean mediocre or characterless; he just meant “customary.” God can come to us anytime, in any way, but God has promised to be here in this way, every time we come to the Font and Table—customarily, ordinarily, routinely God comes to us in these Sacraments.

They are the churches abiding witnesses. Preachers come and go. Congregations are born and die. Traditions grow up and wither away. Experiences fade with time and age into the shadow of forgetfulness. But these witnesses abide. They remain. They alone can heal broken hearts and help us find our true spiritual family.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Holidays and Holy Days

We are in the middle of the Hallmark Cycle, when clich├ęs are accounted as testimony and smarmy marketing passes for a summons to doxology. It is deeply ironic, and not a little troubling, when traditions and congregations that eschew the Temporal or Sanctoral Cycle nonetheless bedeck their sanctuary furniture and walls in red, white and blue; or recognize the congregations youngest mother (a dicey exercise these days), or use the third Sunday in June to score points for certain kinds of theological language.

Do you remember how Scrooge skewered Christmas as a “false and commercial festival, devoutly to be avoided”? He hadn’t seen Mother’s Day yet.

My prejudice against the Hallmark Cycle is based on the observation that, for the most part, these occasions are valentines to ourselves. We pat each other on the back and sing, “For we are jolly good…” whatever it is we happen to be celebrating that particular feast day. Our praise is offered in the “reflexive mood,” as it were, for are we not the Greatest Generation? The best mothers and fathers ever in all the world? The creators and protectors and guarantors both of our world and way of life?

Okay, so maybe I am a curmudgeon, theological, liturgical and otherwise. And, truth to tell, my feelings on this matter have sometimes made for difficult pastoral conversations—if only because otherwise devout church members fail to discern the danger of self-congratulations in the guise of worship. I will not burden you with the true story of a parishioner who came to me with the request that I observe Submarine Day (the ship, not the sandwich) and hope that the choir might learn the Navy Hymn for the offertory? “Want me to preach on Jonah?” I asked. He was not amused.

Or the lady who was livid, furious, apoplectic that I did not give the morning service over to the Boy Scouts on “their nationally recognized” day. Nationally recognized or not, I countered, the second Sunday in February belongs to no one save God and the Christ; we do not give our worship or worship time to institutions and organizations.

The Prayer of Confession at the heart of most liturgies tells a truth far deeper than the pentameters of greeting card poets, but I try to remember that, as Fr. John Shea has written, all humans are wired with the need to celebrate special people, visit special places and celebrate special times. All of us transcribe our individual stories in terms of ancestors, locations and determinative occasions.

Saints, sites, seasons: all humans need them, and in fact the faith we proclaim is full of all of those special, sacred things. What is at issue for the church, however, is the power of lesser narratives to shear believers away from the distinctive Story that constitutes us as a people. If, by our worship, we “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling human beings,” if we trade “the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator,” then that is of more than passing concern. To have “no other Gods before God” is a command both constitutive and prophetic.

That is what I tried to tell the woman who was upset that I did not observe the National Day of Prayer. “We pray three times a week already,” I told her. “We do not need Caesar to remind us about such things. Does the name Nebuchadnezzar ring a bell?”

She huffed, “Well, I think it is the most important day there is.”

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wow, What a Resume!

Sarah Wilke is the new World Editor and Publisher of Upper Room. This announcement is of more than passing interest to me as I, too, had applied for the position. I really did not think I had much of a chance, but found as the weeks went by and my name didn't (meaning, I stayed in the hunt for a good while), I let myself believe that I might get the job, might could do the job, might be just the guy they were looking for.

I made the final eight, as I am given to understand, but was not in the final three--or, obviously, the last one standing. I was okay with it pretty much right away. Again, did not really think I had a shot. That I made it as far as I did after a national search was, in its own way, gratifying.

Now that I read Ms. Wilke's resume, I have no questions as to why I was unchosen. Man, what a resume!

(This is at least the second time I have gotten close to a substantive change in career, only to have lost to a WAY more qualified candidate. No brainer for the institution in question, of course; no less hurtful for me to know they made the right choice!)

Salvation may come by grace, not works--though we act as if it is by "works alone"--but these kinds of positions come by resumes, or at least partly/mostly so. I am a work-a-day pastor who happens to write a little (though my books have been called "laborious," and that benediction from a dear friend!). I am no veteran of publishing.

I would like to have offices in both Nashville and Johannesburg--that said, I don't enjoy traveling all that much. I would like to lead a staff of 81--that said, my management style is more "The Office" than anything else. I would like to be an Associate General Secretary of the General Board of Discipleship--that said, I am not a "company" person at all. The honor would have been great, but the Ring really is beyond my reach.

So here's a prayer for Ms. Wilke, and for the Upper Room, and for all those who hold down significant posts in the Kingdom. Those of us manning lesser duty are no less part of the work, we believe. Or hope.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pistol-Packing Preachers

When I was in college I served a small Baptist congregation a good little ways out from Nashville, TN--in Winchester, of all places.

Get the picture, dear reader. Every Sunday morning, clad in a double-knit suit with piping on the lapels, I climbed into my '73 Monte Carlo with the half-vinyl roof and 8-track tape player and set my tinted glasses and mustached face east, began the hour-long interstate pilgrimage, and through pretty uninhabited precincts, I must say, to bring the good news of the Gospel to a few saintly souls (including "Granny Sherrill," who always, but never sincerely, invited me home with her after church "for a tater," and who "never allowed a deck of cards under (her) roof!")

A fellow named Andy, Andy...something... also went to that church; in fact, he was a general contractor who built the place and threatened another member, who questioned the no-bid arrangement, to a fight: "If he doesn't quit saying I'm not the best Christian in this church, he is going to be missing some teeth! Like my new Cadillac?" (I promise I am not making that up.)

On my second Sunday there, the choir sang a special (or, as they said it, "spatial") in my honor. It had to do with the old Circuit Riders (and most of them Methodist, of course) who, as they made their pilgrim way through the new wildernesses of America to preach the old-time gospel, carried their Bible in one hand and (with sincere apologies to Karl Barth), a Colt .45 in the other (and I mean, of course, the gun, not the drink, though there may have been cold nights when they would have traded the former for the latter). ANYWAY, the choir's song was a kind of valentine to me, and romantic in its own way: "The Pistol-Packing Preacher."

(As an aside: my friend David is a world-traveling, trophy-taking hunter who believes I really, really need a hobby. He knows hunting ain't it on account of the pro-Bambi plank in my personal platform, and finds my deep squeamishness with firearms and boar-blades and killing wild game wildly entertaining. He would absolutely collapse, I mean collapse, to imagine any choir anywhere so clueless as to offer that particular Sunday-morning benediction my way. "Him?" he would say. "Him? A Pistol-Packing Preacher? Bwaa-ha-ha-ha." Whatever.)

I thought about that little church today as I sat in a group of ministers who are about to move. We Methodists still ride, as it were, the circuits of our geographical barriers, and all of us are about to get on our horses, if you please, and "Away!" We were discussing the dynamics of leaving, of serving, of ministry--and there was just so much pain around the table. So many beat-up preachers. Peace-makers, so called, who might wish for the blessing of a Peacemaker to return fire, so to speak, but can't. We have to pray for those who abuse us. We have to love those who betray us and work against us. We have to turn the other cheek...if not the exact cheek we would most like to turn to our congregations, some of us, as we ride into the west or north or south or east.

Anyway, some of these folks were talking about the power struggles, the turf battles, the control issues, the neuroses and character flaws of their congregants (and some of us confessed our own junk, too) that had chewed them up. More than one told about "this one person" or "that one family," and I was reminded of a parable told me by a therapist friend when, in such a time in my own ministry, I lamented having to take on the "bad guys" alone, with little in the way of back-up or support, congregational, institutional, collegial or otherwise.

Of course, he said. It is like the Old West, all the movies you have ever seen. The gentle Townsfolk are held hostage in their own streets and homes, paralyzed with fear of the one old man or the one outlaw family. Every time a new sheriff comes to town, the good people know a showdown is inevitable: High Noon; the Gunfight at the UMC Corral.

The Townsfolk hope and pray that the new sheriff will win the gunfight. They really want to be free. They are really, really tired of being afraid, of being held hostage in their own town.

But then the clock strikes twelve. The man (or woman) in the white hat appears at the one end of the street, sweaty hands trembling--if sometimes, truth to tell, spoiling for a fight, cocky and arrogant, sometimes just as self-important and crazy for control as the Old Man (or Woman) who terrorizes the town. The Man (or Woman) in the black hat appears at the other end of the street, cold, calm and practiced. And at that defining moment, what do all the gentle Townsfolk do? They go inside, close their doors and pull down the window shades.

They do not pick up their own rifles. They do not stand with the sheriff. They pretend not to notice. Yes, they really want the sheriff to win. Still, they have been through all of this before and if the sheriff gets plugged, if they have to plant a new body on Boot Hill, well, the Townsfolk can always find another sheriff. Maybe someday the battle will go the other way. Till then, well, they have to live in the same town with the bad guys, the bullying family, the folks in the black hats.

Lots of sheriffs out there, fearful or pugnacious. Lots of bullies,too, with all sorts of weapons. It ain't the Kingdom of God, Lord knows, but it sure is the church. At least sometimes.

Makes me believe those old Circuit Riders may have been onto something.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Midrash on Moving

Tabloids love the celebrity break-up: Jennifer, Brad and Angelina, say. The bottom-feeders of the journalistic world offer us “candid” photos, breathless “reporting” of all the latest rumors and “expert” commentary on the speculation and gossip. How long the rags will run with this already exhausted story depends, I suspect, on sales.

It would be too easy to blame the tabloids, specifically, and the media more generally, for the atmosphere of acrimony and divisiveness we are forced to breathe on even the simplest trip to the grocery or drugstore. Oh, to buy a bag of frozen limas, or get a bottle of aspirin, without the bombardment of banner headlines announcing another custody battle or war of words between former lovers or spouses or members of the boy band! (“Make that two bottles of Tylenol, please.”)

I am disgusted by such stuff; but I am also complicit. I do not inhale, but I scan the headlines. There is something deep in me—and my only excuse is that there seems also to be something deep in the race—that loves a good catfight. We may not like to be in conflict ourselves but we seem to delight in it otherwise.

And what is it in us that needs this kind of contentiousness? What is it in us that tolerates this stuff, even in the church?

I have been thinking in recent days about poor Corinth. There were big problems in that little congregation—lots of cliques and clatter—and some of the worst related to the preachers who have served them. One group likes Paul, another likes Peter, yet another prefers Apollos (and at least a few of the folk say they don’t need preachers at all because they have Jesus!). One group or the other is so glad when this preacher arrives or that one leaves—but that is commentary only on them because Paul and Peter and Apollos (not to mention Jesus) have no enmity between or among themselves. They don’t double-date, of course. And they have been known to disagree about this or that. Still, they would each and all offer an “Amen” when Paul’s writes, “Is Christ divided? Who then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted. Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

The work of Christ is not a competition. There should be no fodder for the tabloids among us—and especially not among United Methodists, who advocate a connectional polity.

We Methodists believe that ministry is both unified and ongoing. Preachers pledge to go where they are sent; congregations pledge to receive those who are sent to them. Preachers do their best to build on what has gone before and help their successors to continue the work. Congregations do their best to bless each minister as they come and go, grateful for whatever gifts and graces God conveyed through them. Whether plowing, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, all those aspects are of a piece, just parts of God’s constant and continuing work.

Who then is Mike? Or JC? Or Patricia? Or Bob? Or Larry? Or Frank? Or Tom? Or Noel? We are servants, through whom you believed or will, as the Lord assigned to each.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Hope YOU have a happy Mother's Day

Hope your mom saw the strengths you could not and nurtured them.

If she did not aggravate your weaknesses, you are doubly-blessed.

Sadly, there are many out there who are still crippled from their mother's ability to engender self-doubt, to paralyze with guilt, to eviscerate with shame.To this day many question their judgment because they can hear a mother's voice doing exactly the same thing. About everything.

I think those messages, all the moving targets, the withholding of approval and affirmation--"Quit crying! You're not hurt!" Well, I thought I was hurt, I mean I am bleeding--leave folk prone to all sorts of bad decisions, if only because they are unsure as to what constitutes a good decision.

Not to say mothers, or parents, are to blame for all bad decisions...not at all. Only that, unsure as we are as to what constitutes virtue, we can fall victim to all sorts of vice.

Hallmark cards do not give voice to those kinds of benedictions.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Analgesics and Curatives

Facts do not automatically (or even often) soothe the ragged edges of astonishment. Nor do explanations cure betrayal's deep lacerations. To know why something happened as it did, the how's and when's, the where's and to what extent's, may scab the wound--but if what happened should not have happened at all, terrible hurt remains.

Thick applications of explanation, squeezed from a tube of secrecy--and especially if the tube was purposely hidden behind mirrored doors among cosmetic pledges and atomized assurances
--are temporary palliatives, if that.

Time. Mercy. Confession--on the part of the betrayer and betrayed--repentance, all around: that is the recipe, or should I say, "prescription," the only prescription, which can begin real healing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

One of the Sad Psalms

I have been thinking about betrayals--big ones and little ones. From something as small as a broken promise, which feels huge at the time (a friend recovering from surgery laments the fact that friends promised to bring dinner and visit, and have not), to something as colossal as renouncing in fact or in act a marriage vow (which victims may never get over)--there is no dish served colder than betrayal... not even revenge. I have betrayed folk to be sure, in little and big ways. I have been betrayed likewise. All my considerations regarding the second reality are tempered by acknowledgment and confession in the first.

Betrayal is a wicked wound, each and every time, jagged and infected immediately with virulent emotional and relational pathogens: anger, resentment, pride, astonishment, deep deep hurt.

I am reminded of Psalm 41:9, one of the sadder verses in a sad Psalm.

On the face of it, the Psalm as a whole exudes a certain confidence, that God will "protect the poor" and "keep them safe" in the face of their enemies. Even when one lies sick, "The Lord sustains them on their sickbeds." God "heals all their infirmities in their illness." But it is clear that the days in which the Psalmist writes are dark, and darkest of all his considerations is this: "Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me..."

The lyricist will go on to ask God to "be gracious to me, and raise me up," apparently because God is his only ally. Apparently because his desire for recovery is, at least in part, hope for an opportunity for recompense and revenge: "That I may repay them."

A natural desire, with many forms--but vindication against one's enemies, and especially those who were friends when the offense occurred, is the heart of it. For Christians, of course, our vindication comes by means of forgiveness. Forgiveness is harder than revenge; it takes more strength to forgive than to curse. It is also less satisfying, at least in the short term, when what you want to do is twist the knife.

Betrayal, like the desire for vindication, comes in many shapes--but the phrase in verse nine is interesting: "lifted his heel against." Perhaps the Psalmist has in mind the kind of heel-lifting that is requisite to the betrayer's stomping the face of his downed former friend. Or perhaps he means what a betrayer has to do to move his feet in another direction, away from the friend, when his friend has need of that foot, and the person wearing it, back over this way. When Jesus' disciples fled the garden, they in fact lifted their heels against Jesus; but so did others, in many other ways, and so too do we.

Going to secret meetings, cutting secret deals, all the while avoiding the "open road," those paths and steps that would take a heel toward confession and repentance...

Walking to the other side of the road, beyond the pale of a promise, and then cooling one's heels till it is "discovered"...

I am just ruminating.

My friend is recovering from surgery and cannot understand why her "sisters" have not come with food and friendly conversation. I am sure there are reasons, and chances are almost none of them have anything to do with her. I know that after a couple of recent major surgeries a complex of issues kept people mostly away from the house. Some feared to see me in pain, and not because it was me--more because it was pain. My own sister and a good friend cannot stand to see anyone hurt. Some think they are doing you a favor by staying out of the way--"s/he needs to heal," they say, "and s/he does not need me intruding into that. S/he does not need to worry about the house. The family has more important things to do than entertain us..."

It does not make the betrayed--or the unvisited--feel any better when that stuff is in play. A call to explain, which is to say, confession, would help a lot, but confession is so hard for most people--even those who are in the business of calling for it from others Sunday by Sunday. And so it is no surprise, really, that on both ends of the equation people spend a lot of time alone: unvisited, unvisiting. Lots of recovering patients are more or less alone in their recovery, but just knowing that, professionally, did not help me, experientially, escape the kind of loneliness that is so common in such circumstances. Recuperation can be a lonely thing for friends and patients alike. Don't I know it.

And in point of fact one of the coldest, and saddest consequences of betrayals, big or little, is the isolation they cause. The silence: what do we say now? The bewilderment: how do we begin again? If we can muster the faith, hope and love to forgive, how do we begin to build back the bridges of friendship? How do we mend the broken places? How do we heal the broken hearts?

Maybe by eating of each other's bread--a little meal that reminds us of the Big Meal to which we have all been invited, betrayed and betrayer alike, which we each and all of us are. As the 41st Psalmist says, "Heal me for I have sinned against you." But we believe and proclaim that God is gracious, does not lift-up his heel against us, but instead his Son was lifted-up for us. In that forgiveness, in that grace which is greater than our sin, we find there the source to once again begin to be gracious and forgiving ourselves.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Interim Ethics

I am in between times, right now: by definition, I am living an interim life.

Which is not to say the "present" is not full unto bursting with blessings and challenges, opportunities and aggravations. It is just that I am well aware, and somewhat painfully, that I am, as it were, in the wilderness. Not there or there. Only "here," but here is not a place, really, as much as a gap. Between there and there.

When Israel had Egypt in the rear view mirror, the Promised Land was still a long ways off. They were not there or there. And how do you live--what are the ethics--of the in-between places, of the wilderness times?

A metaphor: here we are, barely into Easter's Great Fifty Days, and I am trying to finish Advent essays for a preaching journal. Maybe that is always the case for preachers--our planning carries us away from a given moment toward another moment altogether. A crisis, an emergency, the drudgery or routine of any given day may call us back for a while to this day. Indeed there are some days when we must obey Jesus command, are forced by circumstance to "take no thought for the morrow, for sufficient to each day is the evil thereof."

And still it seems to be a truism that we live, move and have our being in the next season after this, or two seasons, find it hard to stay where we actually are. Budget and calendar, sermon and worship-planning--many days we have to take thought of tomorrow, its demands and deadlines.

Sometimes that same dynamic is evident in preachers who look at their present place of service as a kind of stepping stone, find their energies distracted by imaginations of ministry to come. One way or the other, most preachers--if I am any indication--will find that most of their "out of season" ruminations concern the future. That said, for one preacher I know--actually two--no, make that three--that "other time" is in the past.

One of the guys is getting ready to retire. In most every conversation he is revisiting his places of service and the services he planned or implemented in those places--and the people there among and with whom he did his work.

One fellow is recovering, incrementally, from a traumatic brain injury. On leave for ten years, he drifts back to his days, and his work, before his accident. Like another buddy, who suffers from OCD and crippling depression and was (more or less) recently forced-out of his pulpit, the trips down memory lane are self-defense, I think: a way to manage the loss with the memory. Hope dims, but memory shimmers... like Grizabella, all alone in the moonlight, as the withered leaves collect at their feet, they can smile at the old days--they were beautiful then.

Indeed they were. And in God's eyes, still are, though their lives each in their own way are frayed and stained.

I cannot smile at the old days. Not all of them, anyway. Some handful of them cast me into a time of exile, and after that into a long season of recovery and rehabilitation. I have never since entirely regained my career footing or standing. I am, by my calculations, 20 years behind. Still, my vocational sensibilities have never been clearer.

And so I wait. I journey. I wait. I write. I wait. I pray. I look, and I look ahead. I try to forget what lies behind and strain forward. I press on toward the goal I will never reach, but which indeed has already reached me, has reached for me and taken me. Indeed, Christ Jesus has made me his own. What I cannot achieve by work, and never will; what I cannot regain by repentance and remorse, is given me by grace alone.

Faithfulness--that is the ethics of this and every other interim. Memory and Hope, yes, those are brackets. But faithfulness: that is the heart of the in-between days.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

Across the street from our place of worship, another congregation is in the midst of a fund-raiser: bar-b-q pork. On Good Friday.

A block down, the Volunteer Fire Department's sign announces that they are sponsoring a big yard sale on tomorrow.

One the many Pentecostal churches in town is having a "Hallelujah Service" tomorrow night at 6:00. They have such a shindig every month; at first I was annoyed that they would schedule it for the night before Easter, but then thought, "Maybe that is their version of the Easter Vigil."

I have already today walked the path along which I will lead a few of the faithful at noon--if any there are who brave the chilly breeze and the threat of storms. I did not take out my hearing aids, as I usually do when I walk in town, and so I heard the noise of Good Friday: the truck mechanics changing a tire that was bigger than the the fellow rolling it; a couple of punks in a pick-up truck making lots of gear-shifting, engine-revving noise as they headed, way too slowly for such a commotion but still way too fast, down a side street.

Traffic. Business as usual. Nobody much--even in the churches--taking making much that today God's Son was horribly and ironically enthroned on the cross.

Business as usual that first Good Friday, too.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Break with Tradition

Annually since 1987, with one exception (in the spring of 1996 when I was on leave from active ministry), every Maundy Thursday I have scheduled a Footwashing. I find it one of the most moving stories and services in our faith and worship: Jesus, Word of God and Voice of Creation, silently kneeling, all but naked, before his feckless disciples and washing their dusty and increasingly antsy feet. In the same way he gives his Body and Blood, he bestows this touch as one last act of love and compassion, of utter devotion to them--and he does it in full awareness of their mercurial loyalties.

Their courage will fade like mist. The disciples and the promises they made in the gathering dark--to stay with Jesus, to fight with him, to die with him even--will scurry away at the first glint of Roman steel in Temple torchlight. On freshly-washed feet they will abandon him. With the Sacrament still on their tongue they will betray him. His most vocal supporter will deny him, if with a terrible, truthful word: "I do not know the man." Never did, really. Any of them. Maybe will. All of us. Some Day.

Anyway, the story in John 13 is full of drama and pathos, Jesus the Lord, serving his friends. "Having loved them," the Evangelist says, "he loved them till the end." Who can begin to imagine the rationale behind either clause? And then he gives them the new commandment, a new mandate (thus, maundus, Latin for command, and Maundy Thursday)--that they love each and another just as he has loved them--not just in this kind of moment, either, but from the beginning and to the end.

One could spend an entire evening, an academic career, a ministry, a life, trying to plumb the content and ethical implications of that command.

In the past, on the Thursday before Easter, I have scheduled such a service and gathered those who came in a circle of chairs. I would take a bowl full of warm water and kneel before my parishioners, to bathe one of their feet and dry it with a towel. As I did, I spoke to each of the mystery of God's grace, the cleansing that God's mercy affords. I would sometimes recount some particular struggle they had endured since last we met in this particular way, always with the assurance that wherever they went from this circle, God and we were going with them. The water on their feet signified it.

It is a powerful intimacy. I am aware that, in all likelihood, I am the first one since that person's mother to wash, maybe even to touch, their feet. Tears come. One said it was like baptism, or baptismal renewal.

The Primitive Baptists and the Brethren practice Footwashing as a Sacrament. I believe the rest of us should, too--it is clearly instituted by Jesus. It conveys grace. Alas. Not everyone does. But I do. Many I have served loved it. One family had a "footwashing bowl" thrown for me at a local potter's. Another, after one of my many knee surgeries, gave me a small garden cart to push myself around on it, to ease the burden on my legs.

One of my adversaries in a former church contended that the Footwashing was about me and not Jesus. She said I just did it for attention, for association, for self-aggrandizement. Perhaps she was right. Or right in part--false or theatrical humility can be a powerful sacramental of pride. Still, I have scheduled these services. Tried to exorcise the pride by doing the service. By teaching others to love one another in this particular way--just as Jesus did and commanded that we do--so that we might let the circle of love and service begin to broaden the scope of our love for one another.

Not this year. My people here have let me know they are "uncomfortable" with such intimacy, and increasingly so--nor only with words, either. This is the only church I have ever served where attendance at the Footwashing has dropped during my tenure--and precipitously so. Last year, my mother, sister, wife, and three other people were the only ones to bring their feet to the circle. There 30 empty chairs.

Sometimes grace and compassion means letting people walk or scurry away, or never show at all. Sometimes trying to love as Jesus does means dying, as he did, to expectation or preference.
And so I am not doing it this year. I do not want to be irritated with those who do not come. I do not want to be unloving by asking folk to do what, for one reason or the other, they can't do. If I rise from the floor, as I did last year, with angry and hardened heart I prove my adversary right, and I do not want it to be about me. I want it to be about Jesus. About his love. About our loving one another.

That said, tonight will not be the same. At least for me.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Prayer for Tuesday in Holy Week

O God, make us mindful of our brokenness, that we might be more mindful of your healing.

Make us mindful of our sin, that we might be more mindful of your forgiveness.

Make us mindful of our death, that we might be more mindful of your promised life.

Make us see the Cross, that we might be more able to see the Empty Tomb.

Remind us that we are dust, that we might be the more mindful of your Spirit.

Empty us, to fill us.

Judge us, to save us.

Weaken us, to strengthen us.

Silence us, to enable us to speak His praise alone,

Who suffered such hostility against himself that we might receive all the blessings of Heaven,

And in whose blessed Name these my prayers are said. Amen.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Psalms and Laments

The psalter reading for Monday in Holy Week is Psalm 36:5-10, a kind of midrash on the First Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 42:1-9. In my prayer book, however, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, the Psalm for today is the Twenty-third.

How often I have read these words in hospitals, at funeral homes and funeral services--how often, indeed, have I sung the Scottish setting, a capella, to the tune of Amazing Grace--for the comfort the Psalm mysteriously conveys. The comfort is mysterious: we are most of us long-removed from the kind of pastoral or agrarian context from which the images spring. Still, as I have often heard, there is something about the words.

And yet...often as I have read them for comfort, rarely have I felt the comfort they seem to afford to others. Which is to say, I am seldom without "want." Deep down somewhere I know that what I want is to want God, but most days I am aware of other, lesser desires. I am not in green pastures, but rather in a rocky little field that vexes my spirit and tires my back. The waters near me and beyond in the great wide world are not "still," but troubled and ever more so--if perhaps with the final thrashings of a doomed era.

Which is to say my soul needs refreshing, but it is not refreshed yet. Oh, that God would lead me in righteous paths, not so much for the benefit it might afford me personally (though I would not begrudge it) but so that I might show a more peaceful way, be a light or reflection of light, in the dark lostness of these days--which is to say, I wish God would lead me but for the validation and vindication and sake of his own Name and his Son's Gospel.

This Holy Week, as we walk in the valley of the shadow of Golgotha, may I fear only the evil in me that would kill this man, using rod and staff to torture and splay him. He prepared a Table for his friends, then and now, in the presence of his enemies--and I am too often one of them, anointing his head with his own blood. The cup of his suffering overflows on account of us who fall away time and again.

And still, goodness and mercy follow us. Flow from him and follow us, all the days of our lives. His goodness and mercy seek to save us, to bring us to his Table, to give us what we cannot attain.

Judgment and mercy meet in this Psalm, as do lamentation and aspiration. At least those are the voices I hear.

Terrible Synchronicity

On Saturday evening, while Fast and Furious was setting box-office records, members of our local Emmaus Community gathered for dinner and worship at Pleasant Hills Presbyterian Church on Highway 49 near Lake Wylie, SC.

A forty-five year old woman, on her way to our service--she was both an English professor at Winthrop University and the music director at Plesant Hill--and her three-year-old daughter, were killed by a street racer doing over 100 mph in his Mitsubishi. Broadsided her Mercedes, and no side-impact rating can protect you from that kind of velocity. Later, another kid, a 13-year-old passenger in the Mitsubishi, died.

Four girls in a Camaro, which had been racing the Mitsubishi, fled the scene. Another passenger clings to life.

Glad the movie did so well.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Wait for it... Wait for it...

Over the weekend the family and I went to see I Love You, Man. The reviews were good and there was a bit of buzz, so we went. I laughed hard in places. I was more than a little uncomfortable in other places. Some of the discussions were spot-on, and some were just, well, just talk. The obverting of the "formula" for buddy pictures, with the resultant tensions and jealousies, was interesting, more or less.

And for someone who is as unskilled at "guy friendships" as real estate salesman and hopeful developer Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd), it was more than a little embarrassing for me to watch.

One of the funnier scenes involves the open house where Peter first meets Sydney (Jason Segel), the successful yet emotionally-arrested financial adviser who will become Peter's "friend interest" in the movie. Lou Ferigno has listed his Hollywood mansion with Peter; Sydney has dropped in for the hors d'oeuvres and finger food he knows these kinds of shindigs feature. As they talk, Sydney coaches Peter, helps him recognize a "poser" who is there only to impress his new or would-be girlfriend (at the last the guy says, "The house is nice, but too small." Yeah, right). In the middle of Sydney's tutorial he tells Peter to "wait for it...wait for it..." I will not, for propriety's sake, identify what he wants Peter to wait for... but sure enough, soon enough, it happens.

The phrase is crucial: "Wait for it... wait for it...", and indeed there are many things for which we have to wait. But what I am thinking about today is how hard it is for any of us to do that. And even or perhaps especially for us Christians. It could be that we have been taught that, since we live in the in-between times, in the middle between promise and fulfillment, we ought always be looking ahead. But as Yoda fussed at Luke for never attending to where he was at the moment, for always looking to the future, I think Jesus and Paul would scold us similarly.

"Aspire to live quietly, (and) mind your own affairs...," Paul counsels, and many other places and times the biblical writers instruct us to stay in the present. We are children of the past, to be sure, and our commonwealth is in heaven...but in the meantime, in this mean time, we are to keep our heads and our hearts down, I think. And wait for it.

The phrase has special meaning for me in Lent. I just came from a service where the first hymn we sang was "He Lives," and I am not crazy about the hymn anyway. You ask me how I know he lives? He lives in the Word, in the liturgy of the Table, in the service we render to others, in the fellowship and prayers of the gathered. "In my heart," is the very least of it. Still, why sing that in Lent?

Well, because we already know the End of the Story, I guess. Yeah, well. And because we are "Easter people," as it were. Okay, sure. And because every Sunday is a "little Easter". Maybe not--it could be that Easter is just a Big Sunday, but that is for another essay. I am just saying, it would be nice if we could stay in the present for the present, if we could Wait for It a few more weeks, it meaning Easter. It would be nice, as well as liturgically significant, if we could make ourselves stay put in the season of suffering, not jump ahead of ourselves and instead learn what Lent wants to teach us.

Last year, and you will think I am making this up but I am not--I went to a Good Friday service where we sang, you guessed it, "He Lives." At that same church on EASTER Sunday we sang "The Old Rugged Cross." Our proclamation had been nailed to the chiasm!

Wait for it. Wait for it.

The Day will come, but it is not that Day yet. Till then, Wait. That is the message of Lent.