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.

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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'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?