Saturday, March 28, 2009

Following the Directions at Panera

I know I am a curmudgeon. I wish I were more tolerant and serene, less judgmental and way less prone to agitation. Not likely, given my schematics.

I pray as I do mostly in hopes of re-wiring, pleading with the Good Electrician to remodel me. My wife assures me she has, over the years, noticed real change in me...I think she means for the better (as in, more light, less heat), but maybe she is pulling my leg as I often pull hers (which is to say, I am a better actor than pray-er, a dimmed and low-watt bulb).

Anyway, yesterday, after about five hours of study at Panera, I packed my stuff and waited in sure and certain hope for Jacob, my son, to collect me after he got off work. It was raining. Nasty--nothing like the poor folk in Fargo were experiencing (I needed no sand bags), but it was really wet and damp.

Computer case and briefcase slung over my shoulder, and conscious, as I always am, of trying to stay out of people's way, I took my interim stand just outside the front entrance. For about ten minutes I played doorman, opened the glass doors for people scurrying in, head-down against the elements, also for people covering their heads, bracing themselves to bolt for their cars. I could not help but see the traffic jam inside.

A sign that greets everyone entering Panera, with an arrow and words, indicates that the line for ordering forms to the left. Beside it is one of those movable floor posts, made for theatres, airports and such, with nylon strapping at the top that uncoils, stretches and attaches to another post a little further on--to make a lane. At my Panera, the strap cuts the lobby in two: the left side is the pastry display, the free samples and the cash registers. The right side creates a path for exit. Also, the coffee is there.

For the 10 minutes or so I watched, everyone entering the lobby went to the right--against the sign's counsel--and formed the ordering line there: the Great (pedestrian) Wall of Panera. It kept people from the coffee. It created problems for people trying to leave. More than once I heard "Ex-cuse me, please!" from frustrated folk as they tried to make for the exit. Several irritated stares were exchanged: Hey! I am in line here! Yeah, well, you and the line are in the wrong place!

Vicariously, Pharisaically, I was irritated too, even though I had no dog, really, in the fight. I was already outside. But more than once I thought to go in, to tell the people in line, "Get over to the other side of the strap. Read the dadgum sign! Can't you see you are clogging things up? What is wrong with you?"

Yeah, boy, I have changed a whole lot. The prayers of a righteous man may avail much, but much prayer has not availed to make me the least bit righteous.

Okay, so maybe the folks came in all wet and bothered and did not see the sign. Or maybe it is not all that big a deal where they stand while they wait and on a rainy afternoon we all need to cut each other some slack. Or maybe it is just that people look at other people quicker than they read written guidance...and if someone is standing over there, that must be where the line forms and so I will fall in behind them and stand there too. Of course, I then become a reason for those arriving after me to stand in the wrong place, and all of this congestion and irritation could have been avoided if the first folk had read the sign and done what it said, or if the next person in line or the folk after them had read the sign and stood in the right place so that the folk coming after them would have followed their example and been in the right place and things would not be so unpleasant inside as the rain falls outside...

And why is it that we look to each other first, always look first to what everyone else is doing instead of following the directions that someone wise and experienced has written for our instruction and comfort?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Best of Times, Worst of Times

I am always glad to hear when someone has read something I have written and found it to be helpful or meaningful. Doesn't happen too often--either because I have so few readers or have written such unhelpful and unmeaningful stuff or both. Today, though, I had such a moment...

In my study group, one of our older members told of another group in which he takes part, a kind of mentoring and support group (ours is a lectionary study group), and that one fellow in that group has been going through a terrible time. He seems to have been charged with or accused of some impropriety and has been away from ministry for a while, though now he has finished a time of counseling and renewal and may be preparing to re-enter the fray. Anyway, my friend told me this morning that in a recent meeting the damaged pastor confided to him that he had discovered a book that really helped him: Praying for Dear Life, by yours truly.

Tears came to my eyes immediately, both remembering my own prodigality--some 15 years ago now--and knowing that the book the fellow read was born out of similar tragedy and hope.

I lost so much. I gave up so much, really. In truth, I threw so much away. But the horrible aftermath of that debacle was so intertwined with hope as to conceive the book I wrote some years later. Tragedy and hope, like egg and sperm, joining and gestating in the darkness of exile, birthed and raised in the wilderness between liberation and promise.

It is my baby, that book, and I am proud of it as parents are proud of their kids. When no one can see how special my baby is, I grieve--for the book and myself. But on those rare occasions when others seem to appreciate it as I do, a least a little, it makes my day. The best of times.

I said more or less all that to my friend.

He got a funny look on his face and said, "Well, now, I will have to unmake your day." And he proceeded to tell me that the damaged fellow had no idea who I was or that I was a colleague of his only one district removed. In other words, we are in the same conference of ministers, attend the same meetings, are supervised and superintended by many of the same people, and yet he had no idea who I was or where I serve or anything.

I thought of that logion of Jesus: prophets are not without honor except in their own home, but of course I am no prophet, or the son of a prophet. I am just a "herdsman," a "dresser of sycamore trees," which is to say, I am a garden-variety pastor, one of the little guys, and so no surprise that though he pitches his tent only a little ways over from me, he does not know who I am.

What is a surprise is that he has read me (when many, even of my friends, haven't). What is a grace, and the profoundest of joys, is that what he has read, apparently, has spoken to his heart --my spirit bearing witness to his spirit that we are both children of tragedy, children of hope, children of God.

Monday, March 16, 2009

I have already decided

that next year I am going to give up the Internet and my cell phone for Lent. This, after reading in Kathleen Norris' Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life that "broadcast and Internet news media have emerged as acedia's perfect vehicles, demanding that we care, all at once, about a suicide bombing, a celebrity divorce, and the latest developments in nanotechnology. Advertisements direct our attention to automobiles; medications to combat high blood pressure, hemorrhoids, and insomnia; the Red Cross; a new household cleaner. When the "news" returns, there are appalling segues, such as the one I witnessed recently, the screen going from "Child Sex Offender Search" to "Gas Prices Rise." It all comes at us on the same level, and an innocent from another world might assume we consider these matters of equal importance. We may want to believe that we are still concerned, as our eyes drift from a news anchor announcing the latest atrocity to the NBA scores and stock market quotes streaming at the bottom of the screen. But the ceaseless bombardment of image and verbiage makes us impervious to caring. As Thomas Merton predicted, our world has been flattened, and we've been had." (128-129)

Faith, Hope and Haste

I do not have to understand it all right now.

I do not have to understand it all right now.

I do not have to understand it all right now.

I keep telling myself all that, but I get so frustrated sometimes, trying to put it all together and immediately. I am reading Brian McLaren (Finding our Way Again), Kathleen Norris (Acedia and Me), Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence), Eugene Peterson (The Contemplative Pastor) and the lections for Palm Sunday. I am still thinking about Dr. Gil Rendle and his comments about adaptive leadership, positions vs. interests, and the challenges facing the "bi-modal" church.

All of these great thinkers and writers are, it seems to me, writing from very different positions (except perhaps Tickle and McLaren), but diagnosing the Christian past, the present ethos and the days ahead in remarkably similar terms. Peterson's book can only be described as prescient, as he wrote it 20 years ago or more, while the other titles are very recent.

I wonder, reading this stuff, whether I have either the skill set or the insight to do any more than chaplain the dying mainline. I know they say that prayer, listening, attention--all of those things more than problem-solving activity; which is to say, faith and grace more than works--are called for in these unsettled and unsettling days. And yet, as Norris writes, "it is always easier for us to busy ourselves" than to be.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Law and Gospel, Or, Only in Paul's Dreams

This week's lectionary texts are among the richest in Holy Scripture. We have the first of three accounts of the "10 Commandments" in Exodus/Deuteronomy, the "noting but Christ and him crucified" in I Corinthians, the so-called natural revelation/special revelation in Psalm 19, and everybody's fave, Jesus' cleansing of the Temple in John 2.

Interestingly, in the other gospel accounts, the episode of Jesus' zealotry for the purity of Temple worship comes late, at the beginning of Holy Week, and serves as one of the primary motives for Jesus' enemies to move against him in a final, murderous way. In John, the story is early, just after his first sign (turning water to wine), as if the second clause to the preamble of ministry's agenda (miraculous grace, withering judgment).

There are many, many points of convergence in these stories. Right now I am interested in the fact that God's command to have no other Gods "before me" might be suggestive of the clutter we put in between ourselves and God. For fear or comfort, the human tendency is to mask the divine, to carve it into manageable shape, to render it in lifeless stone, to turn to mediators both human and inanimate (priests, horoscopes, tarot cards, formulas and periodic tables) who/that can interpret the mystery and make it less frightening).

Churches, Temples--created to carve out essentially empty space for God to fill and for us to experience God--are gradually filled with stuff (related to faith or not) but in every case the result is that we shield ourselves from the terrible and wonderful intimacy that is crucial to true epiphanies or real experiences.

Later in the Exodus text the people of Israel--already terrified by the signs they see of God's presence on Sinai, fire and smoke and the thunder of God's voice--put Moses "before God": you go talk to him and tell us what he says (vs. 19). Moses tells them not to be afraid, but they are anyway. And so we remain. Half-disbelieving, half-afraid. And so we protect ourselves either from disappointment or Reality with the "stuff" we put as buffer between ourselves and the Almighty. If no one can see God and live, no one can really live who has not caught at least a glimpse of God, but as Willimon and others have suggested, pastors spend a good bit of their time and energy protecting their people from God--and so pastors and their people are often mostly dead.

The Temple is filled with idols and junk during the time of Hezekiah and Josiah...cluttering the space with things that apparently were meaningful or important or pleasant to the people (feel free to make your own joke here), but were between the people and God. I think, too, of the walls in Martha's kitchen... she is doing stuff for Jesus but that keeps her from being with Jesus. Those who give themselves to the business and busyness of the church are doing things for God, but many times these things are "before" God, not just in terms of priority but also proximity: a shield, a buffer, in between us and God.

Interestingly, the critique of John 2 is addressed to the priests...the preachers. Those of us who are so busy about the stuff that we protect ourselves and our people for the terror and wonder of worship.

We proclaim nothing but Christ and him Crucified? Only in Paul's dreams!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Water Torture

Yesterday, as I do the first Friday of almost every month (and would to God it were more often), I went to Belmont Abbey to pray with the Benedictine brothers there. Before the hour of mid-day prayer, I met with three friends to discuss "The Great Divorce," C.S. Lewis’ powerful meditation on the afterlife. He attempts to evoke, not heaven itself, but the "valley of decision" between what is either purgatory or hell, and the Mountain.

In a vast gray shadowland there is a train station. Ghostly residents of these precincts board a vehicle for passage to the valley. The ride is unpleasant as the vehicle (and the people) grow larger (though they remain unfinished, "man-shaped smudges") and the stakes are incredibly high: whatever the ghosts ultimately decide in the valley interprets the shadowland "backwards." That is, the lonely, gray expanse will be seen in retrospect to have been either a place of purgation (and therefore preparation for the Mountain), or of retrenchment (thereby effecting ultimate and indeed eternal separation from the Mountain and its inhabitants). Those who choose "reality"--who leave the shadows and start for the mountain--soon "thicken," come to see glory only redeemed eyes can begin to comprehend.

Over and over again the task is clear: to become all that we are created to be, all that God would ultimately make us, the only thing we have to do is lay aside our lives as we have made them, our idols as we have formed them, our lesser desires as we habitually choose them. Over and over again, however, the ghosts (those who have arrived on the bus), most of them, anyway--are unable to do those things. They refuse the entreaties of the Spirits, will not believe the promise, refuse to take their journey to the Mountain. They consider the Spirits untrustworthy, the promise a lie, and for those reasons regularly and even hastily choose to return to the shadows, even under the threat of coming Night.

To live, all we have to do is die--give up what we think makes us who we are so that God can remake us into what only God can. We set aside pride, rights, exclusive devotion to less than God; we begin to want, just begin to desire God for God's sake (and not God for others' sake; we do not, for example, desire heaven to be reunited with Aunt Minerva, but to be reunited with God. Then, but only then, do we find that Aunt Minerva is there with us). That seed of loving God at the expense of ourselves, at the expense of other, lesser things--Lewis says our desires are not too strong but too weak—begins the transformation.

Lewis says it is a choice made many times each day. God says to us, "Thy will be done," and we reply either, "Yes, my will be done," or "No, THY will be done." In every moment, we are turning either toward God or away from God, toward joy or away from it toward something far less substantial, even unreal. It is in fact the reality of the valley of decision that is so off-putting for so many.

Then it was time to pray with the monks. As we entered the basilica, near the rear doors to the nave, there was a small bowl, hewn from rock, with holy water in it ("How do you make Holy Water?" the old joke begins. "Boil the hell out of it."). I dip my fingers in and mark my forehead with the sign of the cross, remembering my baptism and being thankful for spiritual friends and good books and a place to pray and men who have given their lives to this place and this kind of praying that a poor Methodist preacher might find a place in the choir.

I sit in the cool of the loft, preparing myself for prayer, praying to be able to pray, when suddenly I am aware of the cross on my forehead. There is moisture there, still, and it begins to feel strange...which is to say it begins to, well, burn on my forehead. It may be the breeze of the entering monks and others, the the cool of the river stone that forms the chancel, but something has caught the last bit of unevaporated water on my forehead and it irritates, annoys, begins to drive me crazy.

I think to reach up, wipe it off, as some say they have to remove the ashes on Ash Wednesday because they “make my head itch”--but I determine to let the water and the breeze do their full work on me, making me mad if they will, but I will not try to remove them… Conversely, I think of the man in The Great Divorce with the lizard on his shoulder, the lust in his heart, the touch and fire that would remove them but he fears the pain.

We begin mid-day Prayer. There is plaintive chant. There are Psalms. There is a reading from Jeremiah: "Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord."

The cross burns me as if branding my skull. I want to shout in the silence. "O My God, make haste to help me…O God, be not far from me"—but his presence is indeed a refining fire and I seem unable to endure this least evidence of his mercies or judgments. If I cannot endure this little water torture, this cruciform touch, this gift of water and the spirit, how shall I see him face to face? How shall I endure his appearing?

I have no source, no plea, no hope but in God himself. Let me hear what the Spirit says. Let the water and the blood do their horrible, wonderful, painful, healing work. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Lenten Synchronicities

I am working on a new book. I have been thinking about the two primary gestures of Lent: giving up and taking on. The first gesture is referred to as mortification, and while the second does not have a traditional name that I know, it is easily identified as a means of "bearing one another's burdens, thus fulfilling the law of Christ." Self-denial and other-love. Something like that.

As I have been working through some of these general issues, I have also been reading Kathleen Norris' new book: Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life. Unpromising title behind--possessing descriptively what it lacks evocatively--the book is a treasure and not least because it talks about the theological dimensions of commitment to place, to people, to vocation. This emphasis corresponds nicely with similar sentiments I have seen in Eugene Peterson, particularly in his Under the Unpredictable Plant: A Study in Vocational Holiness. In that book, Peterson suggests that ministers, poisoned by the culture in which we serve, toxically imagine that movement and mobility are the hallmarks of "success," whereas faithfulness requires an almost monastic devotion to a particular place, a particular people, and a particular role among them. Additional thoughts to this effect are in The Contemplative Pastor.

In any case, Norris has helped me this week to see that marriage, of all places, is a locus in which both of the classic gestures of Lent find more than seasonal expression. Her husband, a poet afflicted with deep and "well-defended neuroses," and terrible physical ailments besides, helped her learn this truth. She writes, "I did not yet comprehend marriage itself as a form of asceticism and was slow to grasp what it would require of me" (102).

Earlier she had said this: "Imagine for a moment that the people you encounter at home, work, or school, are the very people (my emphasis) God has given you to pray with, eat with, and play with for the rest of your life. And you are supposed to thank God for this, every day, several times a day. This is what monastic people take on. And what they've learned from this particular form of asceticism, in attempting to live in peace with themselves and others, may constitute their greatest gift to us. How radical to think that we can best know ourselves by embracing commitment, not rejecting it; by relating to others, of callously relegating them to the devilishly convenient category of 'other."

In Marley and Me--the movie version--after the first baby as come and Jennifer Anniston's character is trying to do her work and be a mom, she is increasingly frustrated, says something to the effect that she is "losing what used to make me me." Of course. It is hard giving up dearly beloved parts of oneself for greater love of vowed commitment to others. It is if anything harder to take on the burdens of others, some of whom never think or know how to thank you, and in that way fulfill the law and evidence the sacrificial love of Christ.

One need not mention the occasion of divorce in the sitcom, Two and a Half Men: Mommy left because Mommy has a right to be happy. As Norris says, "There are situations, as in the case of abusive relationships, where seeking a change is the right course of action. But often it is acedia that urges us, for no good reason, to fantasize and brood over circumstances in which we will be affirmed and admired by more stimulating companions. Whatever the place of our commitment--a monastic cell, a faith community, a job, a marriage--well, we are better off just walking away" (25). Lord knows, many do.

But loving one another, and not just when it is easy--which it almost never is--is a place to learn something more of the love of God and of how to be more godly. Whether it is Hosea learning from wayward Gomer, or the many for whom the problem is polar opposite--it is in marriage, I think, and family life (and in church life, too, if Luther is to be believed) where both gestures of Lent have their sharpest daily definition, work to chisel our souls, and not just seasonally, into something more like the selflessness and embrace that is the heart of Christian and real marital love.

The color of passion--not just attraction but steadfast devotion and even suffering--is purple, after all, and that is the color of Lent. But purple paves the way to white, to victory, to purity of heart, even as Lent prepares us for Easter.

+ + +
In Bible Study last night, my friend Buddy Smith suggested that in rereading I Corinthians 13 we substitute Paul's descriptions of love (kind, not jealous, etc) for the word "love" itself in that chapter. For example, Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not (kindness, gentleness, boastlessness, etc), I am a noisy gong..." What a great way to repreach that text!