Archives For Ministry

When I Hate My Job

Jason Micheli —  September 26, 2016 — 4 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgI’d made it as far the Jersey line, headed to Princeton for a week-long con ed course on philanthropy. Just shy of the bridge, ordering coffee at Peets, I received a text about a 12 year old in my son’s school dying (actively so) of the same two syllable word that my son still worries is going to kill me.

His is in the brain.

They don’t say dopio at Peets.

I changed my order to a double expresso and turned around south down Interstate 95. Just yesterday Facebook timeline reminded me it’s been 24 months since I wore my clergy collar and tossed slow straight fastballs to the lineup on my son’s coach-pitch baseball team before I dusted myself off in the 5th inning to lead a prayer vigil at my church for Hannah Graham.

A neighborhood girl.

They found her body a few days after the game.

15 years I’ve pastored and in those years… just as many funerals where the casket measured about 48 inches.

Or less.

I fucking hate my job sometimes.

A truer, holier sentence I cannot write, for I take the suffering of children to be profane in the truest sense of the word. It’s a stain on any notion of God’s sovereign goodness and to hate my vocation from such a God, to hate it with the perfect hatred of a prophet like Amos, often seems to me the most righteous of priestly postures.

Sometimes I hate my job.

As often (or, more specifically: on those occasions) I feel just as pissed off at God. I don’t believe God is the reason behind everything. But I DO believe, as the Cause of everything, God is at the very least responsible. Morally, if not directly, responsibly.

If there was such a thing as a believer’s thesaurus, then “Pediatric Oncology” would be a synonym for atheism. Especially when the name of the hospice nurse is written on the dry erase board. J’s bed was decorated with 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of printer paper scrawled with sharpie- written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“God doesn’t make mistakes.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

J wrote them before his hands palsied, because of the brain tumor, and he couldn’t write anymore. His mother told me he stopped being able to speak on Wednesday. Yesterday he lost control of his eyes. Today his breathing grew as shallow as the eyes of his family gathered around his bedside.

I wrote a book called Cancer is Funny that’s due out in a handful of weeks. But I didn’t laugh today. Part of me, initially at least, wanted to take back my 70K plus words about cancer as I held J’s mother’s hand, after wiping the spittle from his mouth and helping to bath him, and traced the cross on his forehead with my other hand. This shit isn’t funny at all, I thought, while consoling and counseling and praying.

Maybe, I wondered, the premise of my book was all wrong.

Or, maybe my premise was my perspective alone. And, of course, it is only my perspective.

Except…

The comedian George Carlin in some long ago album argues that anything can be funny provided that in the story there is something that is grossly out of proportion.

Anything can be funny, Carlin asserts, so long as the narrative incident has something in it that is ridiculous and exaggerated.

J’s bedside today wasn’t ha-ha funny but something seemed out of proportion: God.

Our faith in Him.

Holding J’s mother’s hand in one hand and holding his dying body in my other arm, taking my cues from the Sharpie-scriped faith pictures around me, I prayed about God’s Kingdom and God’s Power and God’s Will-Be-Done, and I thought how our collective faith seemed pathetically disproportionate to the reality before us. Our faith, I thought, seemed at best like a mustard seed against a mountain.

My nose ran onto his blanket as I prayed.

Or, possibly the malproportioned sizing went the opposite direction. Our claims about God’s loving goodness sweep too broad, offensively so, considering the concrete reality of J’s small, shallow breaths.

Maybe, irrespective of my book, that’s what makes cancer funny- not because it causes us to laugh but because it makes us a cause for laughter.

Derisive laughter.

Maybe George Carlin is right.

Maybe all you need for (black) comedy is a giant effing gap between what is and what, in God’s good world, ought to be. Maybe that’s the gross, out of of proportion exaggeration of which Carlin speaks. Maybe this world, where children die and mothers mourn them, as measured against the naive eyes, lofty claims, and stained glass language of our God-speech is the exaggeration that should leave us red-faced and laughed at in this world.

The joke is on us who so often suppose that God is in control, that everything happens for a reason, or that God wills our suffering for some mystery that will be yielded to us in the fullness of time. Believers deserve to be the object of laughter, such laughter it seems to me is the most thoroughly Christian reaction to the lie that Death is anything but the Enemy.

People of faith deserve to be scorned with laughter and ridicule, righteously so. Unless, all the world’s bitter laughter and the pain which it occasions really is born by a God emptied of all power and pretense and poured out in suffering. As Paul all but says in 1 Corinthians 15, the joke is on us if the joke we tell is not true: that in taking on our humanity, Christ suffers in himself the exaggeration, the malproportioned gap, between what is and what ought to be and in dying defeats Death.

38681_1409539809500_674056_nIn most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Some may want to “Make America Great Again” and others may want to “Lean Forward” but all agree that our Adjusted Gross Income is our own damn business.

Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God. Or not.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues: rp_faith4.jpg

If you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re screwing or how much they earn in salary…almost everyone will opt for Door #1 to the boudoir.

We’re even more reticent to be called out for our recalcitrance regarding Door #2.

Recently, my friend and apprentice-turned-colleague Rev. Taylor Mertins wrote a blog post (you should subscribe) on Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 6: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith…” In the post, Taylor asserted, with a blandness necessitated by the obviousness of the observation, that clergy are not immune from being captivated by and captive to the Mammon. As an example, Taylor cited the “Appointment Workbook.” It’s available for viewing on the website devoted to the United Methodist Church in Virginia.

Said Taylor:

“If you click on the link you will have access to a list of all the pastors in the Virginia Conference, how long they served, how many new people are attending their churches, how much their churches are required to pay in apportionments, what percentage of the apportionments have they paid, AND their annual compensation. This is good and important information for the life of the church, but the fact that the entire list of pastors is not organized by name, or region, or new disciples, but by salary, shows how we have wandered away from the faith.”

Taylor promptly was bombarded with complaints that clergy are immune to the idolatry scripture says is at root in all of us and that, regardless, he should never criticize or cast aspersions upon the capital C Church.

To channel Stanley Hauerwas, I call bulls#$% on such bulls@#$.

One would think the Gospels themselves, where the clergymen-called-Pharisees plot Jesus’ undoing and one of his disciples betray him to that end for a bag full of cash, should be sufficient corroboration of Taylor’s point. After all, if Jesus was fully human it stands to reason Jesus’ people, preachers included, are less human than Jesus and, so, susceptible to sin. Indeed since in those same Gospels Satan shows himself most acutely wherever Jesus is at work, it stands to reason that the Church especially, where Jesus is at work, more so than any other place or institution in the world, would be ground zero for the Enemy’s infections.

Never mind how the refusal to criticize the Church, honestly and in love, smacks of the very institutional inauthenticity for which so many of Taylor’s generation (and mine) have written off the Church.

There is a problem with Taylor’s post, however, deserving of a rejoinder, but the problem with his argument is not his assertion that clergy can be captive to idolatry of Mammon (we are) or that the Church is sinful (it is). We are, all of us, sinners who apart from Paul’s mighty “yet” of Christ’s cruciform love deserve God’s wrath. Of course, our s#$% stinks.

The lack and error in Taylor’s argument, vis a vis the Appointment Workbook, is not in accusing Christ’s clergy and Christ’s Church of being comprised of sinners. Not only is that not news it’s the freaking good news! No, the strike against Taylor is that he doesn’t go full monty on the Hauerwas. He doesn’t connect how odd and dysfunctional it is that clergy salaries in the United Methodist Church are available to the public but the salaries of laypeople in the United Methodist Church, who determine the salaries of their pastors, are a secret not even Donald Trump’s Russian Hackers can ferret out. Taylor’s correct that our Appointment Workbook betrays a captivity but he doesn’t go far enough in smashing the idols.

The problem isn’t (simply) that pastors measure themselves and their future appointments according to pay; the problem is that those whom the pastors serve in those appointments do not have to make themselves accountable in like fashion.

What Taylor’s post missed is the lack of mutual vulnerability in our congregations when it comes to money. Pastors’ salaries and the appointment process are but the rattling chains of a deeper captivity. Christians in the Church think that how much they make and what they give should be “between them and God” which is to say “It’s none of your damn business. It’s mine.”

Every fall United Methodist clergy gather in “Charge Conferences” where their clergy’s salary is discussed, debated, and voted upon by a committee of (not necessarily informed) lay people. Even in the best of church settings (like my own, for example) it’s an awkward experience, having your worth sized up in front of everyone like you’re a 4-H cow or the #2 pitcher who might not be worth ace money next hot stove league.

Considering the circumstances- even making modest salaries- clergy feel compelled (if only in their head) to justify their pay and prove their usefulness. But no other church persons gathered there for such conferences ever get asked to stand, a la Hauerwas, and reveal their own income. And that’s the problem Taylor missed.

The red-faced shame among clergy about the Appointment Workbook is but a symptom of the larger secrecy which exists in our churches around money.

The problem exposed by the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals the Church’s possible idolatry; it’s that it reinforces the extent to which, in every other part of the Church’s life, clergy aid and abet their congregations’ secrecy about money.

The “wandering away” Taylor points out isn’t that we know this about clergy and their income; it’s that very often this is the only thing we know about money and income in our churches.

What I mean is –

In most mainline churches, congregations convey and clergy uncritically receive the mandate that pastors should not know what their parishioners give to the church.

The thinking always goes…If I know who gives what then I might not minister to people equitably.

This is a rationale whose obtuseness, I think, could only be produced by a latent idolatry to Mammon. Having served in the same place for 12 years, I know, for example, the parishioners who’ve cheated on their spouses, who’re alcoholics and drug addicts, who don’t talk to their kids or whose kids don’t talk to them, who suffer from PTSD or who inflicted it. I know the Democrats and the Republicans, the abused and the abusers, and who thumps their bible to keep their doubts at bay. I recognize the hand-writing on anonymous notes and I’ve trimmed the grape vine so it’s as fast as my iPhone.

I minister to all of them. It doesn’t even occur to me to triage them according to merit.

No one would ever suggest I shouldn’t know the addicts in my congregation because then I might treat them differently. Why should addiction to Mammon be any different? The many pastors who espouse a “see no evil” attitude over their congregants’ giving would never likewise argue that they should remain ignorant of all of their congregants’ other imperfections and particularities for fear of ministering to them inequitably. So what does it say about us our relationship to money that we don’t believe our pastor should know how much we’ve got and how much we’ve given? If learning every other secret about our flock makes us better shepherds, what does it reveal about us that we think money is the one secret better left alone?

The problem with Taylor’s post then is that he didn’t go far enough. The problem with the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals a secret; it’s that it helps perpetuate a different one.

Crackers & Grape Juice Silhouette Tagline InvertedEric Clapton may to change the world, but Jesus doesn’t call Christians to do so.

According to John Nugent, Social Justice Christians and Heaven Obsessed Christians both get the Gospel wrong. We’re not called to give people Jesus so they can leave this place when they die nor are we supposed to roll up our sleeves and make this world a better. Instead, argues Nugent, Christians are not to make the world a better place. Rather, we’re called to be the better place God through Christ has made possible.
I really enjoyed my conversation with John about his new book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. Try this quote on for size: “The most dangerous religion is not Islam nor is it Atheism but it is a form of Christianity that uses Jesus’ name to keep people happy but doesn’t call them into a community that displays God’s Kingdom. 

Be on the lookout for future episodes. We’ve Rob Bell scheduled for an interview this week and we’ve got a couple of episodes with David Bentley Hart in the queue waiting for editing.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

So…

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Fools Rush In

Jason Micheli —  September 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

liturgica-e-sacra-canzoni-da-chiesta-gesuThough I wont be preaching on it, the lectionary Gospel for this Sunday is Luke 14.25-33.

Going through my closet recently I found a box of all my sermons from my first year of preaching while I was a student at Princeton. As you’ll see, rookie Jason wasn’t all that good but maybe I was clear.

There is a scene in the black and white film, The Gospel of Saint Matthew, in which a wild-eyed, long-haired, dark-skinned Jesus shouts at a crowd these very words from Luke’s lectionary text for this Sunday: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” 

The visual effect of the scene is to render Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher who seems so reasonable when Joel Osteen is presenting him, as someone whose intensity we would associate with Islamic fundamentalists. When you hear preachers and politicians talk out both sides of their greasy mouths about “family values” this election year, I’ll be very surprised if you ever hear them mention this bit of scripture from Luke’s Gospel, corroborated by Matthew in his own. This is the sort of scripture that, rather than bringing comfort to the disturbed, gives heartburn to all of us who have domesticated discipleship, reducing it to Jesus-flavored strategies to help us better endure our domestic families.

Of course, you expect a preacher like me to explain what Jesus meant here as clearly as Jesus would have been able to explain it if he’d had the benefit of a Princeton education. Meaning, you want me to tell you ‘Don’t worry. What’s going on here isn’t as radical and offensive as it sounds.’

Almost.

But not quite.

Remember, we killed Jesus not so he could save us from the wrath of his Father. We killed him because of the teachings he taught, the company he kept, and the stories he told.

This morning is another stop along the way as Jesus journeys inexorably to Jerusalem. To his cross, and maybe to ours as well. While on the road, Jesus has stirred up stories, roused rumors of a Messiah, and managed to attract quite a crowd.

The people gathered in Luke 14 are people who have come to him. Unlike the 12 disciples, these are not people Jesus has called. Unlike other Gospel scenes, this crowd surrounding Jesus is not a hostile one. For whatever reason, it is an eager one.

Perhaps they’re curious to see if this strange rabbi will put on a show at his next stop. Perhaps they want a front row seat for his next miracle. Everyone loves a parade. For this excited crowd it’s Jerusalem or Bust as Jesus fulfills all the hopes and dreams of the People Israel.

The bottom line is this: they don’t have a clue as to why Jesus is going to Jerusalem. They have no clue what lies in store for Jesus, and they certainly have no idea what discipleship, following Jesus, will entail.

They’re like enthusiastic children, waiting for their religious recess from the troubles of the world. So, before taking another step in Jerusalem’s direction, Jesus needs to sober them up. He needs to give them words that taste like strong, black coffee. A reality check. He needs to pause and advise them to read the fine print attached to our baptisms: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

The word ‘hate’ here that Jesus deploys is an example of scripture’s wonderful texture. It doesn’t convey what you hear in it so don’t get your panties in a wad. It’s a Hebrew idiom, meaning to de-prioritize. Think: “God loved Jacob but hated Esau.” Unless God’s an incredible jerk, “hate” here doesn’t mean how we hear it today. What Jesus is saying then isn’t as harsh as it first sounds but that hardly means it gets any easier to swallow because what Jesus is saying is that belong to the community of Christ’s Kingdom affects the way we belong to others, especially those to whom we most belong.

What Jesus is saying is that, in our vast and tangled network of loyalties, if we are to be disciples than our loyalty to Christ’s Kingdom must be paramount, even if such loyalties conflict with our bonds to family, friends, work, lifestyle, tradition, or nation.

Are you sure you want to follow me? There will be hard choices and constant challenges and conflicts of interest- even crosses- for each of you. Think about what you’re doing before you stay with me. 

Jesus is not telling us to abandon our families; he didn’t abandon his own. He is candidly telling us something I suspect is even more difficult for us: to make this unremarkable, inefficient, and often uninspiring community called Church your surrogate family. And to make it your primary one too.

All this scary Jesus-talk reminds me of the baptismal liturgy in the hymnal. The covenant of baptism cues me to ask the candidates or the parents questions like ‘Will you renounce evil and repent of your sin? Will you accept the power God gives you to resist evil? Do you promise to put your whole trust in Christ’s lordship?

During such a service, we tend to just through the motions and recite the words. After all, it’s a big day and a pretty ceremony, but really what we’re doing is the same thing Jesus commands in Luke 14. We’re asking the soon-to-be-baptized to read the fine print. There’s a kind of cruelty about baptizing babies against their will.

Before you go further in the faith are you sure you know what you’re getting into?Are you sure you want to give your child to a family even more dysfunctional than the family you gave them? Do you know what this means? You’re not joining an organization. You’re giving away your children to a new family. You have to be Christ now for others now. That may roll off your tongue like honey but, remember, Jesus got himself killed for being Christ. 

I believe this same sort of reality check is why we go through the Great Thanksgiving before we share the sacrament. Every Lord’s Supper, before we spill any crumbs on the floor, we have to say things like “Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ so that we may be for the world the Body of Christ…and make us one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back.”

If we’re going to be regulars at Christ’s Table, we need to know what we’re getting ourselves into. If we’re going to take a seat at his table, then it makes sense to prepare ourselves for a long, raucous, unpredictable meal.

Annie Dillard, in her book Holy the Firm, asks Christians if “we have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blindly invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are like children, playing on the floor with chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill on a Sunday morning.”

We’re like kids playing with dynamite. We’re playing with potential poison that we call repentance and conversion. Maybe Annie Dillard’s right. Maybe if we stopped and really dwelt on what we’d get ourselves into if we took it seriously, then we’d need to be strapped down in these pews against our wills every Sunday morning.

This is TNT.

None of you knows what God might call you to do. You never know when God might, after years of vacant-minded churchgoing, finally decide to wake your butt up and draw you into something with which you’re uncomfortable, to somewhere from which you can’t go back.

And that should feel as threatening as a loaded gun pointed at you.

And Jesus said:

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and estimate the cost…”

Building towers, making war.

Consider the cost, Jesus warns, because, if you do this discipleship thing right, it just may be a cross.

I’ll leave you with this bomb from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Discipleship without costs is always Christianity without the Living Christ. There may be trust in God, but if there’s no cost there is no following Christ and, thus, it’s only your own way of choosing.”

Boom.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Earlier this month the United Methodist Church continued its decades-long impasse over homosexuality.

Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the United Methodist Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.

Namely, ordination.

Ministry.

Our baptismal summons.

Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.

rp_images1.jpegIn the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,

Barth reiterated the fact:

there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.

More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.

In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.

Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.

I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.

rp_barth-224x300.jpgToo often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.

We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.

We baptize to build an alternative polis in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.

What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.

This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.

Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.

Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we are all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.

This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.

If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.

I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.

I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.

Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.

rp_barth_1_3-300x250.jpegOnce we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’

 

I’m closing in on my 11th year of serving this particular congregation and more so every day I’m convinced there is fruit in ministry that only becomes possible with a longer measure of time.

For instance, a few weeks ago I confirmed about 30 students in our congregation many of whom I remember from their baptisms and from their Day School years here at the church. The students from my first confirmation class 11 years ago are now in the midst of starting their careers and have since blossomed into adults.

These are all blessings only made possible by the patience and passage of time, blessings our Methodist system of itinerancy rarely affords pastors.

Yet of all those, one such example is at the fore of my thoughts tonight.

Last week I was privileged to spend several hours at the deathbed of someone in my congregation, a woman whom, for several years several years ago, I would’ve ended any mention with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless her heart.’

Today Shirley died.

And like Jesus, I wept.

I don’t cry over most deaths. When you’re a pastor, you get used to death, coming home so often as you do with blood on your clothes. I cried over.

I can be honest about the rough edges of our relationship because to pretend otherwise would be to dishonor the grace-filled trajectory of our relationship ultimately took.

She was a thorn in my side and, to my chagrin, I could not avoid being so in hers. She was for me the personification of what pastors and non-churchgoers lament as ‘church politics.’ She was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, was insufficiently enamored with John Wesley (true), couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of her church…”bless her heart.”

My- less than pastoral- thoughts generally ran ditto but in the likewise direction.

She has the distinction of being the first parishioner in this particular parish to point a shaky finger at me in frustration and then storm out of my office, slamming the door so hard it knocked my Karl Barth portrait off the bookcase.

And the softie in me hopes no one ever takes that distinction from her.

Yet with all that ‘history’ between us, something after the first few years changed between us. She first made peace, I think, that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and decided to make the best of it.

She then started earnestly to listen and read my sermons, stealing them from the pulpit lectern (sometimes before I’d preached…teaching me to have a spare copy handy) and concluded that even I’m not Billy Graham I’m not without some gospel IQ. Comments on my blog followed after.

When we adopted our first child, she was the first person to articulate that adoption is the first form of Christian life, and thus natural, making her one of the only people not to ask us when we were going to have kids of our ‘own.’

She was the first person in the congregation to call me when I was in the hospital last year to tell me she loved me. And when I went to see her this week last in the nursing home in Richmond, she said it to me again. Weak, emaciated and slightly agitated, she smiled when she saw me. She grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.

Pulling me close, with her only eye that would open on me, she asked said the same thing to me: ‘I love you.’

(* If I was in a different temper I’d insert a diatribe here about how our United Methodist system of itinerancy actively prevents moments like this, moving pastors before relationships can come full circle, but that’s a grouse for another day.)

I sat there quietly amazed that 10 1/2 years ago I was about the last person she would’ve wanted next to her in those moments yet all the more amazed that just a few years since there was absolutely nowhere else I’d rather have been.

It would take me a while to track back through all the deaths and burials I’ve been a part of since I started out in my little parish back in Princeton. Whatever the number, it’s a lot. Children, parents, men no older than me. They cover the gamut from tragic to the welcome blessed rest, with some well-loved congregants sprinkled in along the way.

Seldom, if ever, has a death hit me the way as has this one.

I’m not quite sure what’s behind this effect.

Is it that I saw in her someone much like myself, someone who as Martin Luther described was ‘at once sinner and justified?’

Is it that, in both the good and the bad, there was absolutely no pretense about our relationship- something that can be rare in congregations?

Is it that she (or our relationship) was a genuine, identifiable proof of grace, that tempers can ease and relationships can heal?

Is it that with her I’d experienced both how petty church politics can be but also how easily such pettiness pass into irrelevance if we let it?

Probably, I suspect, it’s a little of all the above which is but another way of saying:

‘Shirley was like family to me’ with all the complexity and joy the word ‘family’ entails.

And though the me from 11 years ago would’ve laughed at the thought, I can now honestly say I will miss her like family. I used to joke, derisively, that she was like my mother. Now that she’s gone though I think that’s exactly right. With whom but your mother can you have a complicated, sometimes difficult, but ultimately life-giving relationship?

GC2016-logo-color-hi-resThe United Methodist Church’s global gathering began yesterday in Portland, Oregon. As it kicked off, over 100 United Methodist clergy symbolically came out of the closet in protest to the denomination’s current disciplinary language regarding homosexuality as ‘contrary to Christian teaching’

I sympathize and support Adam Hamilton’s proposal, which recommends the United Methodist Church create flexibility in its language for this issue to be worked out at the local level in congregations and conferences. One of the ways I think that local solution manifests itself is by pastors and and parishioners being open and honest in dialogue about how they view the subject. Too often its not just gay clergy in the closet, it’s straight clergy’s views.

To that end, I offer a perspective on how Christians can reflect on the inclusion of gay marriage and gay ministers into the Body. In seminary I was friends with several gay Christians who possessed obvious gifts and calling. I’ve seen one of the most gifted potential ministers leave the United Methodist ordination process before it left him, and I’ve known too many church members feel the need to hide their true selves or their children.

But the welcome I believe the Church should offer is more than just a trite appeals to ‘love’ and ‘inclusivity’ that too many progressives commit.

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke?

Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons?

Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit.

But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side.

It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness?

Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.

In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others.

Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another.

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational.

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires.

Conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification.

But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways.

It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings.

I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

39164Facebook alerted me that this post has its 2 Year Anniversary today.

It’s important to note what I failed to note previously.

The question is posed not to me, but to Francis Spufford, the author of the dynamite book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, who gives what I think is a terrific response to the question regarding his writing style:

“Why do I swear so much?

To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness.

But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony.

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m f@#$%^& embarrassed.”

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m offing embarrassed. Perfect answer.

Perhaps more revealing about the above quote is that while swearing makes few appearances in Church, irony abounds. But truth- emotional truth- more reliably resides with the former than the latter.

Spufford’s Unapologetic is that on two counts. It’s an unapologetic defense that Christianity entails a good deal more than believing in fairies. It’s not even- primarily- about belief Spufford argues. It’s also not a traditional work of apologetics- the rational defense of Christian doctrines. Beliefs. Ideas.

More like compass and map, Spufford thinks that Christianity gives us the tools to name truthfully our emotional experience in the world– tools, he points out convincingly, atheism lacks wholesale. Secular materialism, after all, can offer a rival explanation for the origins creation, but what it absolutely cannot do is offer any sort of hope.

The fallacy at the heart of new atheism, Spufford observes, is the assumption that if we could just do away with God, Christianity and the Church- accept that there’s probably no God- then we could all just get on with enjoying our lives.

But, Spufford counters, enjoyment is just one of many emotions.

“The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product…to say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying mountains should only have summits…This really is a bizarre category error…What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. It amounts to a denial of hope of consolation, on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1500 years ago and it’s still cruel.”

Unapologetic is bracingly honest and laugh-out loud funny and I couldn’t commend it enough. In chapter 1 he deconstructs John Lennon’s utopian song, Imagine (‘the My Little Pony of philosophy’).

And in chapter 2 gives a clear-eyed acronym for what Christians mean by that freighted word Sin:

HPtFtU:

The Human Propensity to F Things Up.

Neither Thomas Aquinas nor Richard Dawkins have anything as simple and jarringly true as HPtFtU.

Atheists may have a rival explanation for the universe’s origins. What they do not have is language to reveal how it is that very often our lives are not what we want them to be while nevertheless being the product of all the wants we chose along the way.

12243486_10207332160440258_4824375795530545494_nI preached this weekend for the first time in almost a year – since I found out I had Mantle Cell. The warmth of the congregation was overwhelming, including a mortifying standing applause, which more than adequately masked over what was a so-so sermon. My text was Paul’s closing to his letter to the Philippians, 4.10-23. 

You can listen to it here below as well as in iTunes here. Better yet, download the free blog app here and you’ll get it automatically.

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

It’s been 10 months since I last preached here.

When it was announced that I’d be here preaching this weekend, a member of the 8:30 service emailed me to remind me to wear my robe so, actually, it feels like old times.

Whether it feels weird or like old times, Dennis wanted me here this weekend because he thought a guy with cancer could emotionally manipulate you into giving more money on commitment Sunday.

But I tried telling him- there’s no way even guy with a rare, incurable cancer could get more cash out of the 9:45 crowd. You should get a puppy. Or an orphan. I said.

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a most appropriate day for me to be here, given our scripture text today. After all, Paul writes to the Philippian Church after he’s been locked away under house arrest, not with cancer but with a charge of sedition.

And while he’s been away Paul has grown concerned that, after all his hard work, his congregation has fallen under the influence of a false teacher.

A teacher who may have had a warm, FM voice and a thick, white Kenny Rogers mane and the theological acuity of Joel Osteen but a preacher who’d led them astray nonetheless.

Paul fears.

So it’s fitting I’m here today because, when it comes to Philippians, Paul and I have some things in common.

Paul never came back to the Philippians. After he wrote this letter, it was curtains on Paul, but it looks like I will be back, sometime after Christmas. After 10 months and exactly 64 days of chemo and 2 dozen blood transfusions, my latest PET scan was all clear.

I was so excited that I posted a picture of my PET scan online before I realized the picture also showed the positronic outline of my man-parts.

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Naturally, I received a few complaints about the appropriateness of such a picture- that’s fair, I thought. What struck me as unfair, though, below the belt, was one message I got registering surprise that my man-parts were so ‘ample.’

By the way, if any of you see the bishop, tell him I’m still waiting for his apology.

I have one more bone marrow test coming up in December, and I’ll have to do a day of chemo every couple of months for the rest of my life. I’ll never be ‘cured’ and Mantle Cell doesn’t go into remission like other cancers so it’s not a Miracle, but it’s the best news we could have gotten, and it looks like I’ll be back after Christmas.

Today, though, is as good a day as any for me to come back. Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty- plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-ass insurance claims.

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in today’s text I’ve got so much to thank my church for.

The Philippians fed Paul.

The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, you all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with  us. You’ve helped us my medical bills and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car. And Dennis Perry became not my colleague but my pastor. He was with us the night I learned I had cancer, he prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for me all during my treatment.

     You all have done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is-

I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.

One thing cancer taught me: when you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way too.  And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back, and you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that this has happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and (dammit) you responded by giving us so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay you?

I physically can’t write that many thank you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want any of you barfing in my car. I even tried repaying one of you by driving you to your vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything you’ve given? Balance the scales?

I could spend another 10 years at Aldersgate and it wouldn’t do it. I could work so hard for you that you’d just need to look in my eyes and, in the words of the immortal Bryan Adams, you’d see that everything I do, I do it for you.

But, I’d owe you still.

I can’t ever repay everything you’ve done for us.

And what you’ve done for us isn’t even the most important thing you’ve done.

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Unlike Paul-

     This past year, I’ve not been able to say ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.’

When you have cancer, everyone- EVERY SINGLE PERSON-  tells you ‘to kick cancer’s ass.’ But it works the other way around. It kicks yours.

The last few months I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt ’thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith, and Paul’s ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’- it sounded to me like an empty cliche, like naive optimism, like hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness.

I may have a few things in common lately with Paul and the Philippians but not with the ‘I can endure all things through Christ…’ part.

Unless-

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about you: ‘I can endure all things through you who strengthens me’ 

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel ‘I am the Light of the World,’ looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them ‘You are the Light of the World.’

And when we profess ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ ‘up there’ because he’s here. Now.

And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: ‘I will be with you always unto the end of the age.’

You see-

Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church.

There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.

So maybe-

Maybe when Paul says ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ Maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’  And maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…’

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can Ali. And so would Gabriel and Alexander.

     We can endure all things because you’ve been with us.

You’re with us.

More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

Hickman_line_catheter_with_2_lumens

When you think about it, in scripture, ‘with’ just might be the most important word. In scripture, ‘with’ is much more important than ‘for.’ *

‘In the beginning,’ says scripture, ‘the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.and without him not one thing came into being.’

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So at the very end of the bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.’

According to the bible, ‘with’ is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for the all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again- Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: ‘It was kind of you,’ he says, ‘to share in my distress.’

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry. In my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer- our cancer- yours too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

The money and the ministry, they’re just the means by which the Philippians shared in Paul’s suffering. They’re the way they were with him.

And that’s all they are here. The money you give, the ministry you do- they’re just the means by which we share in the distress of people like me and, by extension, share in the distress of our community and the pain in our world.

It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but what Paul and I are ultimately thankful for is that our two churches are like family. They’re with us. I offer it you in the name of that other family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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* I owe this section on the importance of ‘with’ in scripture to Samuel Wells‘ new book, A Nazareth Manifesto.

 

Letter to Seminary Me

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2015 — 4 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgSeptember 10, 2015

Dear Jason,

The leaves are beginning to yellow and the morning air starting to cool, which means you still have years to go. You’re only a few weeks into your seminary experience and already- trust me, I know- you’re overwhelmed.

By feelings of inadequacy. Suspicions fed by the fact that all of your classmates appear to hail from either Texas or Wheaton (sometimes both, in succession) and, thus, were called by God to the ordained ministry when they were still carrying their Hardy Boys lunch boxes with them to the second grade.

And you- I won’t tell anyone- you’re still not sure if you’re called.

In fact, the word itself, ‘called,’ secretly embarrasses you, smacking as it does of certainty and solid conviction.

I won’t lie, Jason, and tell you you’re more than adequate for the ministry. You’re not, truth be told and the intervening years between you and me will only bear that out in sometimes painful ways. In the years to come that sense of inadequacy will revisit you every time you catch the congregation’s reflection in the rounded edge of the brass communion cup or whenever you realize how fleeting and short-lived are sermons. Ministry will strike you often as ill-fitting as your oatmeal colored robe which weekly will make you feel like an imposter, play-acting at someone with more faith and virtue than you.

The truth is, however, you’re more adequate for ministry than you are for Teach for America, law school, or working on a dude ranch out west- endeavors for which you’ll be submitting applications before your first semester of seminary comes to a close. No seriously you will, convinced as you are that ministry is a terrible mistake, either God’s or your’s.

I may not know you as well as I think I do (you’ll soon discover that’s painfully true of almost all clergy), but I do know you better than any other creature so I know you’re going to be less eager to hear this than I am to confess it: you’re not perfect. And here’s the deeper cut: you’re not nearly as smart as you think.

You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them.

It’s the furthest thing from your radar now, given that in a few weeks you’ll be checking to see if your LSAT scores remain viable, but in a few months time the bishop, who will be up shit creek without any other options, will ask you to pastor a small but actual church.

Doubtless you’ve already heard the cliche about seminary, about how seminary doesn’t prepare you for ministry. It’s true in the spirit in which the critique is made. Seminary equips you to parse pistis Christou and to unpack bold-faced but dusty terms like perichoresis, yet seminary is surprisingly mum about the practical, nuts and bolts of herding a church and, more vexing, church people to the next step in their life.

Allow me.

Perhaps you can learn from and avoid the gaffes I’ve made. 

For example, if kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insist on filling those ridiculous little communion cups themselves, then suggest they need to do so at the altar instead of far away in the sacristy. Their shakey hands carrying stacks of tiny cups from such a distance all but guarantees that some of the wine- I mean, grape juice- will spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the trays containing the cups.

When you preside at the table the next morning and solemnly attempt to lift the lid from the blood or our savior you will, for a chilling second or four, lift high both the cross-topped lid and 5 brass trays of thimble sized chalices until the collective weight of the messiah’s blood breaks the sugary seal, spilling red off-brand Welch’s all over the embroidered white altar cloth and making it appear as though you’d just repeated a once-for-all sacrifice and desanguinated Christ on that very table.

Speaking of the sacrament-

When you allow your congregation to don bathrobes and perform a Holy Thursday drama ‘for the community’ (i.e., their wives and grandchildren) against your instincts (it is a bad idea) then at the very least insure that the bread if not unleavened is not from the crunchy, dreadlocked, organic bakery adjacent to your church. For when Jesus, the soon-to-be-fatally-betrayed Passover, takes that bread and delivers his lines and breaks the bread, the somber mood of self-sacrifice easily will be ruined by the ping, ping, ping BB sound of 15 varieties of seeds, nuts and flax falling from the honey lacquered crust onto the silver tray.

You’re going to make mistakes.

When you get to be my age, Jason, you’ll realize that some of your missteps aren’t so much mistakes as things just look different with a longer view of them.

Give it a dozen years and you’ll see how an even bigger cliche than the one about seminary not preparing students for ministry is the cliched anti-institutionalism that determines so much of your cynical posture towards the big-C Church.

By the time you’re my age the curtain will have been pulled back and you’ll be forced to admit that the big-C Church is led by people no different than you and who may be even more well-meaning than you. Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you. The last thing the big-C Church needs is more accommodating company men who mistake the organization for the mission.

Even some of what seminary does teach you, it does so only partially.

Seminary will prepare you to offer words other than ‘it’s going to okay’ the first time you encounter a sobbing mother holding her third grade boy in his hospital bed as the reassuring beeps on his monitors grow ever longer.

Seminary will teach you even how to reflect on why ‘it’s going to be okay’ is a profoundly unChristian lie to tell, but seminary won’t prepare you for how overpowering will be the temptation to offer some such lie that will at least comfort you.

If even this warning isn’t enough to avoid the lie when the moment comes to you, then brace yourself for the slap that mother rightly will deliver across your scared, shit-eating grin. Really, maybe its best if you don’t avoid what I could not, such humbling I suspect is necessary if you’re to depend upon what you insist your parishioners give in their own lives: grace, a mercy and kindness that’s in no way deserved.

Don’t worry. Not all your gaffes will be so heavy.

For instance, when the psych test required by the ordination process raises a so-called ‘red flag’ by implying that you ‘may have difficulty working with women’ its probably best if you not reply to the ordination committee that you ‘get along great with chicks and can work fine with the dames so long as you don’t have to beat them off with a stick.’ 

And when you see the equal parts horror and disgust register across their collective gasp, don’t try to make it better by opining that ‘a self-serious lack of sense of humor could also be a red flag…’

I’m giving you pearls here, Jason.

And when you’re inspired to write a blog post one day (you’ll learn what a blog is) about the audacity of the doctrine of the incarnation entitled ‘Jesus Farts,’ don’t.

Even if the offense taken and the pious outrage feigned registers all the way up to the bishop and only goes to prove your point that docetism is a heresy alive and well in American Christendom, the juice is not worth the squeeze.

And when an exiting worshipper smiles and, for the first time in your ministry, tells you ‘Your sermon was great…you remind me of Joel Osteen…I just love him’ I’d suggest you just smile and thank her.

Just like Joel O would do.

As ridiculous as the comparison is (I hope), it won’t be the only time you’ll receive such feedback and, take it from me, most people don’t know how to react when you respond with ‘Joel Osteen is a crypto-pagan, heretical snake oil salesman only the worship of America could produce.’ 

Live and learn, Jason, but don’t kid yourself about the big mistakes.

They’re not seminary’s fault.

The truth is you’ll become a pastor not long after you became a Christian. You’ll still be working out your faith even as people look to you for answers and, more ridiculously, pay you to sound like you know what the hell you’re saying.

As a result, in the beginning at least, you’ll put on the role of pastor like an ill-fitting costume and play at someone you think you’re expected to be rather than be yourself.

You’ll search for a pulpit voice to go with that robe and underneath both you’ll stash away your authenticity. You’ll avoid expressing your actual thoughts and opinions. You’ll bite your tongue on the words, four lettered and all, that come quickest to you. You’ll hide the scars that could be lessons to teach others. Because, you’ll presume, that’s what pastors do.

Pastors put on Christ and, in putting him on, they cover up their true selves.

Only after you’ve spent enough time in one place, where of course the real you eventually will seep out, will you realize how people (even- especially- church people) seem to prefer the real you. Prefer pastors being real.

I’m not sure the world needs more pastors, no matter what the demographics say, but I am convinced the world does not need more inauthentic ones. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you won’t need to now.

Another result of your ordination following so soon after your confirmation is that it’s only after you’ve lived for a dozen years or so as a Christian that you’ll begin to have the appropriate patience for others who’ve done the same or longer. Only then will you cease being so judgmental and uncompromising about the faith (you are), for you will have learned that if Christianity could be lived in this world fully and without compromise or corner-cutting then we wouldn’t need Christ.

In that due time you’ll realize that when Christ commands you to love your enemies he’s not primarily speaking of those abstract enemies on the far side of the world whom you’ll only ever encounter on the pages of the Washington Post.

I think he’s meaning someone like the parishioner who will write complaints about you to the bishop and pass around petitions against for the bishop but who nevertheless will put one hand in the other and reach out to receive the host from your hand. The former form of enemy love requires only finger-wagging moralism and maybe a political ideology that’s already comfortable for you. The latter, to your chagrin,  requires discipleship.

Cross-bearing.

But in time you’ll discover a willingness to carry it because you’ll accept that, as Stanley Hauerwas says:

‘…the church is constituted by ordinary people. By ordinary I simply mean people who [attempt to] keep their promises. They are ordinary people keeping ordinary promises, and it is just such people who make the church the church.’

It wouldn’t be my plan for the salvation of the world, but it’s apparently God’s plan and it requires patience, on his end and ours.

Knowing you as well as I do, Jason, I’d say patience isn’t a bad catch all bit of advice for you as I have it on good authority (your future wife) that you can be a know-it-all jackass.

One of the effects of your smarty pants bearing, of believing you always have the right answer and thinking you know how best to express it, is that in the years to come you’ll be impatient with those unlike you. And in ministry you’ll often grouse about how so few church people can articulate what they believe about God and where God’s work (aka: the Holy Spirit) intersects with their own lives.

Let’s be honest, Jason, the last place you’d ever want to work is a church where people are aggressively articulate about their faith, where they hyperventilate ‘Fatherweejus’ prayers and volunteer how ‘the Lord laid it on my heart…’

And, regardless, eventually you’ll wonder if maybe all this time you’ve mistaken people’s reticence about their faith for a lack of thoughtfulness or conviction. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe all those people you judged to be inarticulate already knew something you will only learn once you learn you have cancer. Maybe, as Peter DeVries writes:

‘…only the superficial and the slipshod have ready answers’ when it comes to suffering and God and his evidently incomplete work in the world.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘WTF? Did he just drop the C-word on me and then move on, without comment, to a cryptic quote from an obscure book I’ve never read?!’ 

I did, sorry.

But you will. Read it. After you learn you have it.

You’ll read just about every cancer book you can find. You’ll pore over them like you’ve just made an unexpected career change from ministry to cancer because as soon as you hear you’re stage serious sick and just after your oncologist tells you for the first time ‘There’s no cure…the best we can hope for is a long remission’ it will seem as though you’ve been given a job you’re completely unqualified and unprepared to perform.

Actually, there’s no ‘as thoughs.’ That’s exactly how it feels.

I know. As Rob complains to his Mom in High Fidelity: ‘That’s some cold shit.’ Sorry to bear bad news to you, but I think it’s better if you hear it from me first than from the kindly, clumsy doctor who first broke the news to me in stuttering, half-step sentences that set off weeks of panic attacks in me.

Breathe.

And then try not to worry too much about it. You’ve got plenty of time before then. Besides the doctors all tell me there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your particular brand of cancer; trust me, I must’ve asked them a hundred times by now. So don’t go raiding the vitamin aisle or eating organic.

It’s just one of those things. Explain it how you will: a defect ground down deep in the DNA, the will of God, bad luck or bad karma, shit happens. Either way, the game of life has dealt you a piss poor card, but yours can still be a winning hand.

Silver lining-

When the sword does fall and the C-word jumbles all the puzzle pieces that comprise life as you will know it, you will meet that day with few meaningful regrets. If not now then later that will strike you as gravy.

More so than the stab of regret, what cancer will inject into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.

Karl Barth, who by next semester will become one of your Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.

Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism will strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess.

There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk.

Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that in remaking God according to our image we forsake the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.

They’re both right so far as it goes, yet lately I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments.

I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.

Rather than fashioning God in our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.

Cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.

Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth- I do that plenty), I think my experience these past 8 months, 7 nadirs and 40 odd days of chemo-poison allow me to see something of God I could not have seen before.

Something you cannot see yet, Jason.

Without intending it, in the years to come, you will shortchange the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there.

If you’re honest (you won’t be) your selective focus will owe in part to the fact that you don’t think the world or the Church needs another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, your emphasis will owe to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. You won’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.

The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…you will preach in some form nearly every Sunday.

Discipleship, you will press and not let up, is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary.

Discipleship, you will preach and teach, requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing. And you’ll emphasize this definition of discipleship not just in your preaching but in how you allot your time, how you design programs for the church and how you conceive of its mission.

Now that I feel a shell of myself, with thinned out blood and an off balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone, I can see how incomplete and partial has been my take on the faith.

In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross.

It is simple. He lived a fully human life, the life God desires of each of us, and we- the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me- killed him for it. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quieting exonerating ourselves from it.

Here’s what I mean when I say that I’ve shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I can see from the chemo chair:

How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?

Or the dying?

Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death- not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry- then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.

Only now, with stage-serious cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I presently am.

When it comes to you, Jason, this question will hit with the equal and opposite force of that aforementioned mother’s slap:

How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry?

Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor- even if his followers frequently do- because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in your least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”

In the years to come, you will spend considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the ‘love is patient…’ pericope which concludes it. You’ll point out how Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthinans and especially not to love stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.

When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 your persuasive efforts will prove futile.

But as much time as you will expend steering people away from this passage, you will spend surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts- a hand here, an ear there, an eye- then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.

Let someone else speak Truth to Power.

Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked.

I’ve freaking got cancer.

I don’t have the energy to feed the hungry.

And, frankly, I don’t have the peace of mind right now to be a peacemaker.

But if Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit’ is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.

Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps its better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. We’re called to live this life, our particular life, the life God’s given us, as Jesus might live it if he were us.

The question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life?

The question is: who would you be if Jesus were you, with all the particularities and pressures of your life?

Who would you be if your life (with cancer and fear, pain and panic attacks) was the life God gave Jesus to live?

In time, Jason, you’ll discover how that’s as relevant a question for pastors as it is for every one else.

Blessings,

Jason

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgPentecost

My theological muse, Stanley Hauerwas, likes to say that ‘Methodist means mediocre.’ As an example of what might warrant such a woeful aesthetic assessment, one need only thumb through the United Methodist Hymnal.

Though my musical skill stops at appreciating how Ryan (not Bryan) Adams is a songwriter second only to Bob Dylan, even I can point out how many of the ditties on offer in the UMH are cringe-worthy on any number of levels.

For instance, there are the songs that sound, quite simply, crap-in-your-pants frightening to the uninitiated, who could never decipher (much less stomach) their minutiae of biblical allusions. Chief among these, in my estimation, is the communion hymn ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

I remember first hearing this song as a teenager during those initial months when I was forced to attend church against my will. Back then I had no faith and I possessed precious little more of the faith’s story.

Listening to 300 suburbanites sing (with eyes as bright as their polo shirts) about being plunged into a tub of blood, the nascent theologian in me was struck with this crisp, cogent thought: ‘WTF?!’

Not incidentally, I should point out, the author of this Kubrickesque hymn, William Cowper did, at the time of its writing, suffer from, in the euphemism of his day, ‘madness.’ Making all us who persist in singing this ‘praise’ song a little like those vacant-eyed twins in The Shining.

Similar on this score is the hymn ‘O Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,’ a Methodist favorite. Though not as terrifying as ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood’, ‘Fount’ does contain the so-cryptic-as-to-sound-silly verse: ‘…here I raise my Ebenezer…

Despite a 6-figure seminary education which informs me that the object in question is Samuel’s memorial stone between Mizpeh and Shen from 1 Samuel 7, this doesn’t prevent me, whenever I sing ‘Fount,’ from picturing a bearded, square-jawed, performance-enhanced Samson-type bench-pressing an old man who resembles the husband from American Gothic.

His name, I’ve always assumed, certainly must be Ebenezer.

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In addition to the cryptic, there are those songs that just sound plain creepy, such as my personal favorite, #367 ‘He Touched Me.’

If you haven’t heard it, ‘He Touched Me’ is a hymn which contains so many double entendres you’d be justified in glancing down at the bottom of the page to see if it was written by the artist formerly (and once again) known as Prince.

Though it was once covered by a 54-inch waisted Elvis Presley, who was no stranger to innuendo (‘Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’), and though its allegedly about Jesus and Faith, ‘He Touched Me’ actually sounds, any impartial listener must agree, as though its narrating a slumber party at Jim Bob Duggar’s house:

‘Shackled by a heavy burden/’Neath a load of guilt and shame/His hand touched me,

And now I am no longer the same/He touched me, Oh He touched me,

Something happened and now I know…He touched me…’

We might as well wear Cosby sweaters while we sing it.

In this vein (no double entendre intended), ‘He Touched Me’ is a precursor to that genre of songs that are ubiquitous in Contemporary Christian Music.

I like to call them ‘Jesus-In-My-Pants’ songs.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Draw me close to You/Never let me go

I lay it all down again/To hear You say that I’m Your friend

You are my desire no one else will do/’Cause nothing else could take Your place

To feel the warmth of Your embrace/Help me find the way bring me back to You

You’re all I want/You’re all I’ve ever needed/You’re all I want/Help me know You are near

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Mediocre means, one can surmise, kitsch.

In the UMH there are the cryptic and the creepy songs, and then there are the clumsy ones, songs as shallow and obvious as an AM commercial jingle, hymns so literal and earnestly unsubtle you’re half-surprised when Tang and animal crackers aren’t served after you’re done singing them.

The absolute worst among this latter group is #558 ‘We are the Church.’

Though its second verse sounds like the Democratic Party platform with a treble cleft attached, hymn #558 merely makes the same point Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign:

corporations churches are people too, my friends.

Refrain:

I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!

All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!

1. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.

(Refrain)

2. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colours and all ages, too from all times and places.

The first time I was ever asked to sing #558 I was a new Christian and a newer undergraduate at UVA. I was worshipping at a small United Methodist church near campus. When we did a once-through the sing-songy music (to ‘refamiliarize’ ourselves) I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stepped into Vacation Bible School.

Or ingested drugs.

When the school-marmy music director offered to demonstrate hand motions we could perform along with our singing, I laughed out loud. Guffawed.

I couldn’t stop myself.

And then I spent the rest of my college tenure worshipping at the Episcopal Church down the street where even if they no longer believed in God at least they did it with style.

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Or, on second thought, maybe he doesn’t say it.

Maybe I said it and forgot I did. Maybe I’m just projecting my own smarty pants posture onto him.

One thing I’m sure of- Stanley Hauerwas likes to say

‘Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.’

It is.

‘It’s just a bite here and a nibble there,’ Stanley says, ‘and, before you know it, you’re missing a leg.’

Not long after I became a Christian I disliked #558 for its tweenage verse and meter. Not long after I became a clergyman I objected to it on a deeper level; that is, if it’s possible for hymn, which makes the Spice Girls’Wannabe’ seem profound, to yield something like a second naïveté.

As a minister, I recoiled at what I took to be ‘We are the Church’’s romanticized ideals, for there’s nothing quite like ministry to make you wish, every now and then, that the Church was not the people.

There’s nothing like ministry in Jesus’ name to make you wish that the Church was made up of anything but Jesus’ people.

After all, a brick and mortar building was never known to leave anonymous notes about the pastor’s choice of clothes in the offering plate. A steeple has never drafted a complaint to the bishop nor has a stained glass window ever once challenged its pastor to a fistfight in the fellowship hall on Mother’s Day. That really happened.

An organ has yet to call or conduct a church council- a credit which should make you appreciate traditional music. Church mice might be a nuisance, but when it comes to turds they’ve never once forwarded their pastor emails from their favorite batshit crazy right wing organization.

It’s no secret in the United Methodist Church that every 4 years hymnal committees debate the appropriateness of a hymn like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ given its violence-espousing imagery. But, considering how ministry is like being nibbled to death by (feral) ducks, it’s surprising how every quadrennium a song like ‘We are the Church’ escapes the red pen.

I suppose it’s because, like any song, no matter its musical merit, how you hear it depends on where you are. On your stage of life.

Now that I have cancer I can see how I’ve always hated ‘We are the Church’ not because it’s insipid (it still is) but because it’s sincere.

I’ve mocked and hated hymn #558, and others like it, for reasons that have nothing to do with musicology or theology and everything to do with…me.

With my heart.

I’m what you get when you mix together equal parts DNA, life experience and Gen-Y culture. Until now, I’ve pretended to be cool and detached, always ironic- always- and forever feigning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which are just unofficial adjectives for ‘superiority.’

Me and many others in my generation are like Jane Austen characters.

We’re just keeping up a different pretense: cynicism.

The Church can’t be the people, I’ve never dared take to its logical conclusion, because I don’t need those people, and that would mean I don’t need the Church.  

Chemotherapy, it turns out, eradicates not only your marrow and all attendant health but pretenses too.

When your eyebrows have gotten as thin as the blue-haired lady that sits pulpit side in the 5th pew and when you passed out last night in the kitchen because your blood has no hemoglobin left in it and when there’s a distinct possibility your life expectancy will be short-changed by a couple of Andrew Jackson’s worth of years-

It’s hard to be cool and detached.

There’s nothing, really, to be ironic about.

And there’s no point in pretending to be self-sufficient. You, it’s obvious, ain’t.

Now that cancer has me back to being ‘just’ a Christian and (for a time anyway) no longer a clergyman, I realize how much, when you’re in ministry, you view Christianity like a referee. And referees aren’t paid to blow the whistle in the middle of play and point out what’s going right.

As a pastor, you’re captured, in a good way, by who the Church could be, what the Church could do, but the shadow side of that vision is to notice only who the Church is not, what the Church is not doing. Before long, you have pastors complaining how ‘their people’ (always a fraught construction) don’t pray enough, don’t give enough, or don’t serve enough.

To no exceptional degree, in one direction or the other, that was me, often wearing black or white on a Sunday but, really, acting as though I’d been ordained to wear both. And carry a whistle.

However occasional or, even, warranted, it’s hard for such complaining not to calcify into cynicism.

That was me.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. I’m not saying I’m a different person now, that cancer’s changed me. I can’t say that. I’m only now nearing the halfway point in my treatment, and if I have any complications- which my doctor tells me are more likely than not- then I’m still somewhere shy of the middle.

So I’m not implying I’m a completely different person; I’m only suggesting that, thanks to cancer and if only for a time, I’ve traded in my collar for my parishioners’ shoes.

I’m just an ordinary Christian. Like them.

And, standing in their shoes, I’ve discovered something like admiration for the people that make up the Church. My church.

Only now do I appreciate, for example, how hard it is- how much trust it requires- to answer truthfully and concretely when someone asks you what are your prayer requests.

Something pastors do all the time. Something I always took for granted before. That anyone does supply a prayer request is, I think now, a small miracle. Or, an act of faith of which I’ve been found wanting.

People outside the Church often criticize, with some justification, that the Church is filled with inauthentic chatter, people always talking about things that don’t mean anything. Of course there is a lot of that in the Church but there’s a good deal less of it, I believe, than there is everywhere else in our lives. Now that I have cancer and I’m no longer busy refereeing other people’s Christianity, I realize:

Church people are among the only people who genuinely want an answer- and wait for it- to the question ‘How are you?’

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the church’s ministry rather than its referee, I’m learning that the hardest part in accepting an offer of help, a gesture of support or an act of compassion is accepting it. Accepting that you need it. Accepting that you (I mean, me) need these people. The church.

All of which gets back to my problem with hymn #558, ‘We are the Church,’ and how my problem with it is really my problem.

Grace, in the jargon of the faith, isn’t just a gift you do not deserve.

It’s a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.

This is why the Gospel stories are all told from the hindsight of the Resurrection and necessarily so.

You don’t know how broken you are until after God’s made you Easter new. Sin has no meaning until after the Risen Jesus speaks ‘Peace’ on Easter morning.

Grace is a gift you didn’t know you needed until after you received it, and, in that sense, I suspect that what I’ve received these past 4 months (4 effing months!) is a gift my church gives to people all the time.

I just didn’t realize it. Or, appreciate it.

The same church about whom I would sometimes grouse for not praying enough or giving enough or serving enough is the same church (and by church, I think we’ve learned by now, I mean people) that texts me several times a week for prayer requests and leaves food at my door and offers to help with the medical bills and doesn’t bat an eye when I barf in their car and throws my boy around in the pool because my chest port cannot get wet and pretends not to notice (so as not to embarrass me) when I tear up  at a bit of bad news.

And that’s just this past week.

I mean-

One woman in my church has sent me handwritten, snail mail cards every day- every day- since I got sick, and another, just for shits and giggles- and giggles if not shits are in short supply these days- has persisted in posting cat pictures on my Facebook Page. I don’t even like cats.

I’ve been at this church for 10 years and I feel like I’m only now seeing who they’ve been all along.

And who they are, in large part, are better Christians than me.

Every year this time of year, the time between Easter and Pentecost, someone who’s recently taken to reading their bible always expresses surprise to me how much the New Testament’s few Easter stories are characterized by doubt and disbelief.

‘…but some (as in, not just Thomas) doubted…’ Matthew and Luke and John all anticlimactically testify.

But it has to be that way.

The Risen Christ’s wounded hands and feet can never be for the disciples proof of the Resurrection because the disciples themselves are the (only) proof of the Resurrection.

Our faith, the truth of it, is corroborated by its end.

By what it becomes in us.

And I suppose that’s a better problem to have with a hymn like #558 because the people do not just comprise the Church. They themselves are the proof of the Church’s faith by what that faith becomes in them.

They are, warts and all and despite my better judgment, the gospel.

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Dear friends, HEWHOMUSTNOTBENAMED and random visitors,

As you may already know, I’m going on my 10th year at Aldersgate Church and in all that time I’ve taken 1 paternity leave, several long potty breaks and, count them, 0 vacations.

Working with a man like Dennis Perry, a man whose name will go down in history with names like Michael Scott, Gomer Pyle and Roscoe Peco Train, I simply couldn’t afford to take time off of work. I cared too much about you all to allow you to suffer long under Dennis tired, broken body, diminished mental faculties and antiquated job skills.

I couldn’t even get away and let Dennis ‘phone it in’ at work because even then, I knew, the phone in question would be a rotary phone.

Just think, there’d you be, waiting as long for Dennis to complete a thought as it takes to dial a number with a 9 and a 0 in the area code. People of Aldersgate, I just couldn’t do that to you. I love you too much.

Fortunately for you all, Hedy’s arrival on staff has made me as irrelevant, ineffectual and archaic-seeming as Dennis has proven these past many years, which is lucky for me because, now, like Bilbo Baggins, I’m going to be away for a while.

If you skipped church last Sunday, are not on social media or were just trapped under something heavy this week then you might not have heard already that I have the ‘C’ word.

No, no that ‘C’ word. Don’t be so vulgar. This is church.

No, I have that other ‘C’ word.

Cancer.

The irony in all this is the first thing that hit me too: this past year Aldersgate has had a healthy, in-shape pastor and his name was Dennis Perry. I’m never exercising again.

To make a long story short, I’ve suffered abdominal pains since the early fall, pains I chalked up to too much coffee in my stomach, too much fat in my diet or too many church people in my schedule.

That most of you didn’t even know I was suffering such pains, I attribute to a virility that makes Lee Marvin look like Judy Garland.

Last Thursday I had a CAT scan of my abdomen, which showed that my pain was caused by an intussusception, a rare condition (for adults) where my small intestine had inverted and was ‘telescoping’ in on itself. Ali and I met with a surgeon on Friday morning who explained the surgery and warned us as well that she was concerned about what could be causing the intussusception.

The surgeon had hoped she could do the procedure laparoscopically, but when I woke up on Monday evening, feeling like someone had gone at my gut with an electric Thanksgiving knife and a battery acid chaser, I suspected it had been a bigger surgery.

In fact, they removed about 3 inches of my intestine to correct the inversion, and they also removed from my small intestine a 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, whom I’ve since taken to calling- affectionately- ‘Larry.’

Let that sink in: 10 by 10 inches. I can now say I understand what women go through in child birth, which I think should make me even more appealing to the ladies (if such a feat is even possible).

A 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, unlike a real baby, however is not an occasion for cigars and balloons.

The pathologist took initial slides of the tumor immediately after surgery and on Tuesday the oncologist told Ali and me that, even without the exact biopsy results, he knew:

I had a lymphoma that fell somewhere among 5 rare cancers of the blood.

You can imagine how we took that news. I went to the doctor last week thinking I had a gall stone or an ulcer. The idea that my body, which has always been a source of pride in me and arousal in women- the idea that my body was now trying to kill me was a complete shock to us. The idea that if I do nothing at all I’ll swiftly be dead was an even bigger shock.

We cried.

A lot.

I made lots of apologies for all the ways I’ve been a crappy husband because I assumed we had all the time in the world.

Finally, we dried our eyes and told our boys, Gabriel and Alexander, that Daddy has cancer, which is what was making his tummy sick, that I’m still sick and that the doctors are going to work to make me better but it’s going to take a long time and I’ll be sicker in the meantime.

Today is Friday. We met with the oncologist last evening. It turns out:

I have Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare, non-Hodgkins form of B cell lymphoma that typically only organ music-loving people the age of the 8:30 service get. Its spread through the GI System and bone marrow.

 

I like to think I’m unique in all things and it turns out I am in diseases as well.

Because it’s a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I’ll be fighting it likewise. I will begin 4 two-part phases of aggressive chemotherapy this coming Friday- not much of a break I know.

Each phase will last approximately a month. The lymphoma has spread to the rest of my system so I’ll definitely be hospitalized again for the first phase as the oncologist wants to monitor my kidneys. Hopefully, hospitalization won’t be necessary for the succeeding treatments. At the end of the 4 phase treatment, it’s likely I will need to undergo bone marrow transplants as well.

All in all, I think its safe to say 2015 will be an exceptionally crappy year for the Micheli household. The Nats better freaking make it out of the first round because I’m not going to have much else going for me this year.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be around much for the next 6 months.

I hope you continue to be around for us though. I’m not normally given to sappy, sentimental nonsense, but I can’t tell you how fortunate we feel to be going through this in a church and a community we’ve come to know so well. Already so many of you have been key to getting us through the dark nights we’ve had. We’re going to need you and we’re not the type to ask so don’t wait for us to ask. Just continue to do what you’ve been doing.

ImamPastorI like to yank Dennis’ chain but without him I’d probably still be in the corner crying and sucking my thumb.

I couldn’t have made it through this week without Dennis and I won’t make it through the weeks ahead without him, so cut him some slack. And even though you know I won’t be preaching for quite a while and you know he’s likely to bore you to tears, please show up at church anyway.

It might not surprise you, but my biggest fear- the thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night with panic attacks- has been about my boys. I don’t want to put them through this and I certainly don’t want them to lose me or the family they know. You can help on their end too. When you see them, please don’t ask about me or my cancer.

Please just treat them like normal kids because a normal life for them is my biggest goal in all of this.

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I miss you all. I really do, and I wish I could be there today to say all this to you. And don’t sweat the God thing, people. Please. I never believed before that God does mean-ass stuff like this to people so I’m not hung up on God doing it to me. I don’t believe there’s any mysterious ‘reason’ other than the chromosomal one that cancer- however rare- is happening to me, and I don’t believe there’s a bigger plan behind all of this other than the same plan God has for all of us: to love and glorify him through Christ. I’ve just got to figure out how to do that given my new circumstances.

Finally, don’t pity me.

Cancer’s not all that bad.

For example, just as I was drifting off before surgery I heard one of the surgical staff say aloud: ‘We’re definitely going to need a bigger tube for the catheter…’

See, some dreams do come true. Even amidst nightmares.

– The End. 

PS:  I hope to hell not. 

lightstock_35237_small_user_2741517A bit ago I reposted an article asking folks what they want in a sermon. I thought this was a very thoughtful response I received from a friend in my congregation. I offer to you here, with his permission, in no self-aggrandizing way:

What do I want in a sermon?

What I want is clearly not what everyone wants, and the fact that we at church have you pastors at the same time for so long is a terrific asset for the congregation.  It allows different styles to be present in the same location.

So, what do I want?

I want someone who literally struggles with the cynic inside my head.

I see tremendous hypocrisy, which includes myself, throughout our society and community – and throughout our faith.  So, I want someone who is able to identify those same things and point them out in a constructive way that reflects our faith.

I want to be challenged intellectually.

But I don’t want to be challenged to the point where I feel utterly stupid and shamed for my lack of wits.  I was unchurched after I left home in 1988 and moved back and forth between my Mom and Dad’s houses when things were going very badly at my Mom’s home with her second husband.  I started looking for churches again when I was stationed in Germany, after I spoke with a Jewish Rabbi, in 2004.  I attended some traditional and nontraditional services.  Some felt hokey and some felt familiar, “nice,” but maybe boring.

I don’t go to church to hear that I should love everyone.

I know that I should love everyone.

I want to hear how I should love someone who I otherwise would pass by.  I want to hear that Jesus is more likely to be the grumpy half-crazy homeless guy that I’d see on the way to work downtown than anyone else that’s in my daily life.

I want to be challenged, and sometimes that means offended.

I want that.

That’s tempered with not wanting a shock-jock turned preacher – or a preacher that is so full of himself or herself that any semblance of approachability and humility have transmogrified into this puritanical, holier-than-thou, give all your money to the church, “holy man” who is the knoweth and the beginningeth and endeth of all things Jesus.

I don’t want a fire breathing, Bible-thumping preacher man, who tells me that the only folks who get saved are those that are baptized in this church or that one.

I want a sermon to help bridge the gaps.

Between the Christian factions – or to at least help us understand what makes a Methodist sermon different than a Catholic or Non-Denominational one.  That desire goes back to learning bits and pieces about our faith – but through current happenings.  It doesn’t have to be about ISIS, but it can.  It doesn’t have to be about politics, but it can.

When we bought our home, we bought it to be closer to our church and to a particular school.  We want to stay and we want to be part of this community.  I want to be continually challenged.  If I’m not, I tend to wander and stray.

At the risk of your reaching critical mass (get it, “mass”…) of mental acuity and sheer mathematical arithmetical genius, I had only found a small handful of clergy that I could relate to (I guess that’s not just until I found Aldersgate, as it is still the case.

I could tell you a story through these three clergy – one Rabbi, one Catholic, and one Evangelical Preacher… I found bits to identify with each and something to take away.  It’s raised questions that I’ve asked and questions that I haven’t.

I still ended up in the Methodist tradition that I was baptized into back in the Chicago area.  Maybe because of tradition, but maybe also because I’ve found someone like you all.  We are happy here and what we are getting is exactly what we want.

Hopefully that’s helpful.

Thanks for asking.

– JF

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517I know all the words by heart such that even now they’re at the edge of my lips ready to take the jump.

It’s not an accomplishment; it’s the trade. .

Well over 100 times now I’ve stood in the center of a sanctuary or in the middle of a funeral home chapel or at the head of an open grave on the fake plastic grass under an uneven tent or even a few times in a ‘sitting’ room and in front of all number and manner of mourners I’ve recited verses as inextricably linked with my character as ’…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ belong to the chorus of Henry V. 

     My lines, if not bald-faced lies or pious candy, signify a great deal more than nothing: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

Sitting here in my kitchen, staring at the baby blue folder folder whose top sheet is labeled ‘Preparing for Your Surgery,’ with my surgeon’s frank Army countenance (‘We won’t know what we’re facing until after your surgery’) ringing on repeat in my head- and my wife’s, it suddenly occurs to me that in all those 100 plus times I’ve never once stood by the dead and looked out at the living and proffered a follow-up question:

Do you believe this?

Do you believe (any of) this? That Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That those who trust in him (even though they die) yet shall they live? Are these just lines? Do you believe it? Really?

I’ve never thought to ask because, for one practical reason, the United Methodist Book of Worship doesn’t instruct me to ask it. For another very intuitional reason, it would seem boorish.

Funerals, after all, are usually emotionally bare (as in, vulnerable not sparse) ocassions with a higher likliehood of truth-telling breaking out compared to the rest of the working week. And if the Pew Surveys and Gallop Polls are to be reckoned accurate, then the priest or pastor who dares to ask ‘Do you believe this?’ should be ready for roughly half the grieving gathered to answer ‘No.’

No, we don’t.

Believe much of any of this.

Indeed I’d wager that the number of those responding in the negative would increase the closer you crept to the front pews, especially on those ocassions where the caskets are shorter or the left behind’s hair less grey, those ocassions where circumstances still seem to demand the wearing of black or where the shoulders are stooped not from age but grief.

I bet, if I asked, I’d hear more no’s up close near the front. And so I’ve never asked the question because neither my ecclesiastical script nor good manners suggest I do so. Jesus does though, in John 11, after speaking the lines whence this funerary quote gets lifted.

The dead Lazarus’ sister, Martha, gives the Gospel’s best example of tearing Jesus a new asshole: ‘If you’d only come when I called, Jesus, my brother would still be alive.’

Jesus responds with a resurrection rejoinder that ends where I begin whenever death enters in: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

And then Jesus, unlike me, follows up with the question: ‘Do you believe this?’

     Maybe, like Jesus, I should ask it too, propriety and piety be damned: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because, obivously, it’s a question meant for the living. Jesus isn’t asking what Lazarus believed. Four days dead, serene and sealed in the tomb, nobody cares anymore what Lazarus believed. Not God. Definitely not Lazarus.

No, Jesus is asking Martha what she believes.

When Jesus tells Martha about the power of the Resurrection, what Martha doesn’t get is that Jesus isn’t talking about a power available to us only after we die. He’s not talking about a one day down the road or even on the last day.

He’s talking about a power available in the present, today, in the here and now.

Because if you believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed Death then Resurrection doesn’t just make heaven possible, it makes a bold life possible too.

Because if you believe that Death is not the last word, then we have the power to live fully and faithfully.

And we don’t have to try to live forever.

Here’s what I’ve learned after those 100 plus ocassions delivering my lines for other people:

     When you’re staring at a euphemistically hued folder from your surgeon and when the -c- word has made a grim if hopefully premature intrusion in to your not-yet-graying-life and when wildly melodramatic Lifetime movie-type voices chatter in the back of your head, you don’t much give a damn about forever.

      Longer is all you want. Longer will do. Longer with….

And here’s what you notice:

Martha’s ‘Yes, I believe’ doesn’t guarrantee a happy ending for her brother.

The size of Jesus’ tears outside Lazarus’ grave suggest even Jesus was a little shocked the dead guy walked out newly alive, but, even after all the trouble, Lazarus will die again, of old age and natural causes, or post-op infection perhaps or maybe of a broken heart.

Martha says ‘Yes, I believe’ and no doubt she does, but, seen from Jesus’ POV, she doesn’t grasp at all what it means to believe.

She and Jesus are speaking past each other. He’s talking about his very Being; she’s talking about the Last Day. Even our strongest beliefs barely scratch the surface of what’s True.

In case those first two observations strike you as dissatisfying, here’s the last thing you notice staring at a baby blue folder embossed with the caduceus and your name in hasty yellow marker.

 A God who works by Resurrection is, by definition, a God of surprises- light from darkness and all that- and a God of surprises is, by definition not a genie in a magic lamp.

     The antonym of Resurrection isn’t Death; it’s Predictable.

Perhaps then that’s the best reason not to add to my familiar script and pose that question to mourners: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because even when the answer is in the affirmative, even where the faith is as strong if uncomprehending as Martha’s, ‘Yes’ is still a complicated answer. Now that the shoe gown is on the other foot body, I regret any of the times in those 100 plus that I might’ve implied anything other.

 

quote-well-the-themes-for-me-were-and-remain-sex-and-love-and-grief-and-death-the-things-that-make-us-thomas-lynch-116137I spent the day with a couple nervously standing vigil by their boy’s bedside in the PICU.

Their son, confirmed by me years ago, is only a few sizes and grades ahead of my eldest.

I can’t say much more than that, pastoral privilege and all.

What I can reveal:

Right after I left that family, I collected my youngest son, Gabriel.

We got in the car. Closed the doors. Buckled our seat belts (‘I beat you Daddy’).

I turned on the ignition. Looked in the rearview mirror at Gabriel behind me; he was wearing my faded UVA hat and smiling.

And I started to cry, suddenly feeling like I’d gotten into my car wearing someone else’s shoes.

Life is so infuriatingly fragile.

This isn’t something my boys have taught me.

My boys have no notion that while God may be good and gracious, life is seldom fair or forgiving.

It’s not a lesson my boys have taught me. It’s more like a lesson my job has taught me, a lesson I wasn’t in a position to learn until I had children. It’s more like now that I have skin in the game my vocation won’t let me forget just how fragile are my boys’ own skin and bones.

They’re here today…(down in the basement playing Legos, actually).

But tomorrow? The day after tomorrow?

I bring my work home with me.

I watch my boy turn his bike out the cul de sac for the first and I close my eyes to wait for the inevitable sound of screeching brakes.

I can’t drive by a car accident without imagining my own impending, parallel nightmare.

Standing in line at a roller coaster with my son, I can’t look at the twists and turns of the track without imagining my boy in the statistical margin for error.

Death is a big part of what I do.

The resurrection proclamation requires the dismal trade to precede it, make sense of it. 

If I punched a clock, several many hours of every year would be taken up by people mourning the sudden absence of someone who’d made their life whole.

I bring that absence home with me.

Or rather, like a nurse who comes home wearing a uniform with blood stains on it, that absence follows me home and there it gestates into something else: my own fear of absence.

Theirs.

And while if you caught me in a different mood I might say I’d prefer not to bring this part of my work home with me, it’s more true to admit that this near constant dread of their absence has woken me to something else, their presence in my life.

The sheer- as in flimsy– grace- as in unwarranted gift– of it.

Just like someone who doesn’t realize the pain of unbelief until they begin to believe, the fear of losing my boys calls out the greater joy of having them. 

Life is frageelay.

It wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. 

While We Were Yet Dogs

Jason Micheli —  October 16, 2014 — 1 Comment

LifeTogetherI continued our community-themed series this past weekend with a sermon on Matthew 15, the passage where Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a b@#$%.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can download it in iTunes here.

 

How are you doing? How was your week?

I’ll tell you- my week was insane, crazy busy, exhausting. Sound familiar?

For example, just the other evening I spent a couple of hours at Mt Vernon Rehab sitting and praying with a family as their loved breathed her last few hours. It’s not like a ‘real’ job but still, that kind of thing, it’s emotionally draining, you know.

And then the next morning, after I sat in the Kiss-and-Ride line for about 53 minutes to drop my boys off for school, I went by the hospital to visit a few church folks. After that I stopped by the office here where our handful of regular pan-handlers gave me their latest sob story before hitting me up for a handout.

The day just got better and brighter from there though because then I had a district clergy meeting I had to attend where for 2 hours of eternity the powers-that-be harped on everything we were doing wrong, everything we were missing and how the future of a denomination in decline rested solely on our shoulders. So it was a fun meeting but, hey, at least it was long.

That afternoon I tried to respond to the like 500 unread emails in my inbox and I spent about an hour helping Dennis log in to his computer.

And after listening to him tell that 1 joke he likes to tell, I tried to carve out a little time to research this week’s scripture text and after that I schlepped everyone over the Waynewood to coach Gabriel’s baseball team.

All the parents on the team know I’m a pastor so they’re all as cloying and emotionally needy as church people so it was anything but relaxing.

So that evening I stopped at Starbucks, hoping for just a little quiet time to myself- a chance to recharge spiritually and gather my thoughts. I hid at a little table in the back where the homeless riffraff normally nap.

But, because I’m an idiot, I was still wearing my clergy collar, which is basically like wearing a sandwich board sign that says ‘Open for Business.’

Sure enough I hadn’t been sitting there for a minute- 60 seconds- when this woman comes up to me and sits down across from me.

Sits down. Doesn’t ask just sits down. Sure, she looked anxious and desperate and poor, but talk about pushy and rude. She didn’t even ask.

And then she says to me: ‘Father (I get that a lot with the collar) I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ That’s what she said: ‘I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ Which is just a passive aggressive way of saying ‘I’d like to make my burden your burden instead.’

Like I said, I was tired and feeling frayed and just needing not to be needed so I was little brusque with her.

     I said to her:

‘Look, not now. I’ve got a ton of people on my To Do List and they’re all more important than a b!@#$ like you.’

mt15_26

 

No, of course I didn’t say that to her. Don’t be ridiculous. I know you think I’m like the Slim Shady of pastors, but I’d never say something like that to a stranger. And neither would you. I mean, we only talk that way to the people we love. Not in a million years would I talk that way to a stranger in need.

 

So how come Jesus does?

 

     “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.”

     Jesus says.

If that didn’t make your sphincter tighten up a few notches when you heard it read, then you didn’t really hear it. You didn’t really hear any of it. Even my 3rd grader refers to this as ‘the mean Jesus story.’

Read it again. Jesus doesn’t just call her a dirty word. At first he ignores her completely, like she’s worse than a dog, like she’s not even there.  And then, after the disciples try to get rid of her, Jesus basically says there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU. I don’t have any spare miracles for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

For SOMEONE LIKE YOU I’m all tapped out. And when she doesn’t go away, Jesus calls her a dog.

The bread (of life) is meant for the children (of God). For the righteous. For believers. For the right kind of people like me.  It’s not meant for DOGS LIKE YOU.

Jesus, the incarnate love of God, says to her.

And you can be sure that in Greek to her ears ‘dog’ sounded exactly like ‘witch’ with a capital B.

Just like in 1 Samuel 17.43 when Goliath taunts David with that word.

Just like in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus preaches that you ‘never give holy things to dogs nor pearls to swine.’

     Now, like a pig, Jesus refuses to give anything holy to this woman and then calls her a dog.

 

Don’t you just love passages like this!

I do.

It’s because of passages like this one that you know the Jesus story is true. It has to be true. It’s too messed up not to be true. Think about it- if the Gospels were just made up fictions, then this passage today would never have made it into the Bible. Just imagine how that conversation would’ve gone. Just imagine the pitch among the writers:

     Hey, I’ve got this new idea for the story- whole new angle. 

     I was thinking we do a change of scenery, put the hero in Gentile territory, have him rub elbows with the undesirable type. 

    And then we have this woman come to him looking for his help. Just like the woman with the hemorrhage in the first part of the script. But I was thinking…what if we go the other way with it? You remember how we had that first woman grab at the hem of his garment for her miracle? 

     And how he looks around for who touched him so he can reward her faith- because that’s how compassionate he is. So this time I thought we could change it up. Have him ignore the woman completely. Pretend like she’s not even there. 

     But get this: we don’t stop there. I was thinking that after she refuses to go away- because she’s just so wretched and pathetic and everything- we can have him call her a b@!$%. 

     Yeah, a b@#$%. Isn’t that a grabber? Keep the audience guessing. He’s unpredictable. Is he going to respond with the love and mercy tack, or will he turn a cold shoulder and throw down an f-bomb?

You see- that would never happen!

     You know the Gospel is true because if it were just made up, this story- along with the cross- would’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

It never would’ve made it in the Bible. There’s no better explanation: Jesus really treated this woman like she wasn’t even there, not worth his time, and then called her a dog. So if he really did do it, then why? Why did he do it? How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus?

 

It’s true that Jesus is truly, fully God, but it’s also true, as the creed says, that Jesus was fully, truly, 100% human.

So maybe that’s the explanation.

Maybe this Canaanite woman caught Jesus with his compassion down.  He’s human. It happens to all of us.

And it’s understandable given the week he’s had. Just before this, he was rejected by his family and his hometown friends in Nazareth. That’s rough. And right after that John the Baptist gets murdered. And everywhere he’s gone lately crowds chase him more interested in miracles than messiahs.

So maybe this Canaanite woman catches Jesus in a bad mood, with a little compassion fatigue. Sue him. He’s human.

Except the way Jesus draws a line between us and them, the way he dismisses her desperation and then drops a dirty word on her- it sounds human alright. All too human.  As in, it sounds like something someone who is less than fully human would do.

So how do we explain it?

mt15_26

You could say- as some have- that Jesus isn’t really being the mean, insensitive, offensive, manstrating jerk wad he seems to be here in this passage.

No, you could say, this is Jesus testing her.  He’s testing her to see how long she’ll kneel at his feet, to see how long she’ll call him ‘Lord,’ to see how long she’ll beg and plead for his mercy.

He’s just testing her faith. You could say (and many have). But if that’s the case, then Jesus doesn’t just call her a dog. He treats her like one too and he’s even more of jerk than he seemed initially.  WWJD? Humiliate her in order to test her? Somehow I don’t think so.

 

Of course, if you worked for the National Football League, then you could just blame it on her. Blame the victim.

You could suggest that she deserves the treatment Jesus gives her, that she has it coming to her for the rude and offensive way she first treats Jesus. After all, she comes to him- alone- a Gentile woman to a Jewish rabbi, violating his holiness codes and asking him to do the same for her.

Just expecting him to take on sin. For her.

So she gets what she has coming to her for bursting in on his closed doors; alone, approaching a man who’s not her husband, breaching the ethnic and religious and gender barriers between them and then rudely expecting him to do the same.

If he’s rude to her, then you could argue that she deserves it for treating him so offensively first.  And it’s true that her approaching him violates social convention. It’s true: she not only asks for healing, she asks him to transgress the religious law that defines him. All true.

But that doesn’t explain why NOW of all times Jesus acts so out of character. It doesn’t explain why NOW and not before he’s suddenly sensitive about breaking the Jewish law for mercy’s sake.

So, no, I don’t buy it.

 

     Jesus ignores her.

     Tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

     And then he calls her a dog.

 

A contemporary take on this text is to say that this is an instance of Jesus maturing, coming to an awareness that maybe his mission was to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike.

That without this fortuitous run-in with a persistent Canaanite woman Jesus might have kept on believing he was a circumscribed Messiah only. That she helps Jesus enlarge his vision and his heart.

I guess, maybe. But that doesn’t really get around the insult here.

Jews didn’t even keep dogs as pets- that’s how harsh this is. Dogs were unclean, scavenging in the streets, eating trash, and sleeping in filth. And in Jesus’ day, ‘dog’ was a racist, derogatory term for Canaanites, unwashed unbelievers who just happened to be Israel’s original and oldest enemy. Even if she helped him change his mind that doesn’t explain away his mouth.

What’s a word like that doing in Jesus’ mouth?

     How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all but sounds a lot more like us instead?

 

 

mt15_26

Of course, that’s it.

This is Jesus acting just like us.

To understand this passage, to understand Jesus acting the way he does, you have to go back to the scene right before it where Jesus has a throw down with the scribes and the Pharisees who’ve just arrived from Jerusalem to check him out.

Rather than attacking Jesus directly, they go after the company Jesus keeps. They take one look at the losers Jesus has assembled around him- low class fishermen, bottom feeding tax collectors and worse- and they ask Jesus the loaded question:

Why would a rabbi’s disciples ignore scripture? Why would they eat with unclean hands (and unclean people)?

Their pointing out how Jesus’ disciples were the wrong kind of people was but a way of pointing out how they were the right kind of people. Good people. Law-abiding people. Convention-respecting, morality-keeping,  Bible-believing people.

And Jesus responds with a scripture smack-down of his own, saying that it’s not obeying the rules that makes you holy.

It’s not believing the bible that makes you holy.

It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you, Jesus says.

It’s what comes out of the mouth. And whether or not what comes out of your mouth is the truth about what’s in your heart.

That’s what makes you holy, Jesus says. Pretty straightforward, right?

Except the disciples don’t get it. They think Jesus is just telling a parable, turning the tables on the Pharisees to show how they’ve got it all backwards; it’s Jesus’ disciples who are the right kind of people and the Pharisees who are the wrong kind.

The disciples don’t get that Jesus’ whole point is that putting people into ‘kinds of people’ in order to justify ourselves is exactly the problem.

The scene starts with the scribes asserting their superiority and the scene ends with the disciples assuming their superiority.

 

Turn the page. What does Jesus do next? To drive his point home?

He takes the disciples on a field trip across the tracks. Into Canaanite territory, a place populated by people so unclean the disciples are guaranteed to feel holier than thou. And there this woman approaches them, asking for mercy.

She’s a Canaanite. She’s an enemy.

She’s unclean. She’s an unbeliever.

She’s all kinds the wrong kind of person.

But on her mouth, coming out of her mouth, is this confession: ‘Son of David.’

Which is another title for ‘Messiah.’

Which according to Jesus should tell you a bit about what’s in her heart.

But the disciples don’t even notice. The’ve already forgotten about what Jesus said about the mouth and the heart.

So what does Jesus do?

     He acts out what’s in their hearts. He ignores her because that’s what’s in their hearts. He tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU because that’s what’s in their hearts.  And because that’s what’s in their hearts, he calls her a dog.

     What comes out of his mouth is what’s in their hearts:

I’m better than you. I’m superior to you. I’m holier than you.

mt15_27

 

Speaking of hearts-

That word on Jesus’ mouth is so distractingly shocking to us, we almost miss that she doesn’t even push back on it.

She owns it. And then she doubles down on her request for mercy:

     ‘Yeah, Jesus, I am a dog. I am a witch with a capital B. I am worthless. I am a loser. I am undeserving. I am a sinner. I am the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, but- hey- have mercy on me…’ 

     Is how it reads in the New Revised Jason Version.

She embodies what Jesus says in Luke’s more white-bread Gospel, when Jesus says:

‘Who is justified before God? The religious person who prays thank you, God, I am not like that sinner, or the person prays Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 

     You see-

That’s what Jesus points out by play-acting, what he wants the disciples to see, what he wants us to see when he praises her ‘great faith.’

She doesn’t put up any pretense. She doesn’t try to justify herself over and against any one else. She doesn’t pretend that her heart’s so pure or her life is so put together that she doesn’t even need Jesus all that much.

No, she says: ‘Yeah, I am about the worst thing you could call me. Have mercy on me.’

After the scribes and the Pharisees have not gotten it and thought that it’s their fidelity to scripture that justifies them. And after the disciples have not gotten it and just flipped the categories and thought that it’s their association with Jesus that makes them superior. And after Jesus so plainly says that what makes us holy is whether or not what comes out of our mouth is the truth about what’s in our heart.

     She tells the truth about her pock-marked heart and she boldly owns up to her need.

     And Jesus calls that ‘great faith.’

 

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If that’s great faith, then what it means to be a community of faith is to be a place for sinners.

mt15_27

So the good news is-

     If you’re not fine but feel like everyone else is

If you’re selfish or petty or stingy

If you yell at your kids too much

Or cheat on your spouse

Or disappoint your parents

If you lie to your friends or stare at a loser in the mirror

If you gossip about your neighbors

Or think the worst about people you barely know

If you drink too much, care too little, fail at your job

If you think any one who votes for the other party is an idiot

If you’re a racist or an agist or a homophobe

If you’re a barely tamed cynic who thinks you’re smarter than everyone else just about all the time

If your beliefs are so shaky you’re not even sure you belong here

If you think the insides of your heart would make others throw up in their mouths

If you think you’re worthless, the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, that you warrant the worst thing someone might say about you…

Then the good news is: this is the place for you. Because Jesus Christ came to save sinners.

     While we were yet dogs, Jesus came to take our pock-marked hearts and fill them with his own righteousness.

To make us holy.

But he can’t do that until what’s on our mouths confesses what’s actually in our hearts.

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means that this is not a place where we put up pretenses, hide behind piety, pretend that we’re pure of heart, use our beliefs to justify ourselves over and against someone else.

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means this is not a place to act self-righteous or judgmental or superior or intolerant or in any way at all that suggests we think we’re the right kind of people.

Of course the bad news is-

That’s about the last thing people think of when they hear the word ‘church.’

sign_of_jonahMy colleague, Hedy Collver, has been posting her thoughts and illustrations on the Book of Jonah lately.

You can and should check out her blog here

Given its size, it’s surprising how much I’ve preached from Jonah over the years.

Here’s a very old sermon from Jonah 1.11-2.1: 

I once pastored in the same small town as a man named Robert. His was the Presbyterian church three blocks down. It was a typical small town in that there was a small church on every corner, a church for every two or three who might want to gather.

Robert and I didnʼt have much in common at first. Except- we were the only two pastors in town who werenʼt fundamentalists. He was older than me. Where

Iʼd just graduated from seminary, ministry was a second-career for him. Where he had twin daughters and a minivan, I had a dog and still ate ramen noodles for most meals.

 

Even so, we became friends. We confided in each other. We commiserated with each other. We advised one another.

As I said, we were at small churches in small towns, where week-to-week, no matter our effort or our skill, our churches were just barely getting by. The margins for error were thin. One bad Sunday or one light offering plate were enough to sink our churches.

 

During the time I pastored in that town, Robert went through a dark, turbulent period. A series of deaths in his congregation had eroded his attendance. His younger families had moved away. Giving fell, and the church soon couldnʼt pay its bills.

 

As congregations sometimes do, they took it out on Robert. They cut his already low salary. They blamed him for the churchʼs decline and for everything the church wasnʼt.

 

We had lunch one day at a smokey BBQ joint. Rain beat against the windows so hard it was difficult to hear. He looked terrible. His eyes looked tired. Heʼd lost weight. His hair had thinned. He looked like anxiety had swallowed him up.

He picked at his food and told me he was afraid he was going to lose his job.

He was afraid that even if he kept it, he couldnʼt afford to feed his family. Things

at home werenʼt good because he never was home. He said he was overwhelmed. All he could see were problems with no solutions. He felt battered from every direction.

 

I listened and didnʼt really know what to say. I offered something bland like:

ʻHave faith. Youʼll get through it.ʼ

ʻThatʼs just it,ʼ he said.

And he had genuine, honest-to-goodness fear in his eyes.

ʻAll this has shown that I donʼt really have the faith I thought I did. I thought I did, I thought I trusted God, but that was because I didnʼt have to.

Everything was going great.

Now itʼs not and Iʼm scared to death.ʼ

 

Thereʼs a story in the Gospel-

 

Jesus and the disciples are in a boat sailing across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus falls asleep in the boat and a storm sweeps down on the lake. The boat fills water. The waves batter it from all sides. The disciples are frantic, convinced theyʼre going to die.

And Jesus keeps on sleeping.

They shake him awake and scream: ʻMaster, weʼre going to die!ʼ

Jesus yawns and calmly stretches. Then he rebukes the wind and he tells the waves to cease their raging. Then he turns to the disciples and he says: ʻWhy are you so afraid? Where is your faith?ʼ

Storms drag things to the surface.

Lack of faith.

Anxiety that hides underneath when things are calm.

The truth about ourselves.

Storms drag things to the surface.

Just about two weeks ago I jogged up the stairs to the ICU at Mt Vernon to see Ray Pace, a friend of many of you. When I got there, a nurse was sitting at the bedside with files and papers on her lap, consulting with Mary, his wife.

 

She was asking Mary questions about feeding tubes and do-not-resuscitate orders and gently walking Mary through the likelihoods and probabilities of the coming days.

 

After the nurse left, I sat down next to Ray and I rubbed his shoulder and I talked to Mary. She told me about Ray, about what he was like before I met him, before illness took much of him away.

Iʼve been there many times when families have had to make hard choices about how to care for and how to say goodbye to someone they love. And because theyʼre hard decisions to make, oftentimes families donʼt make the right ones, or the best ones.

And I told Mary I respected her choices, that their love was strong enough for Mary to do what seemed hard so that Ray could enter the next life with the same dignity heʼd lived this one.

 

Mary wiped her eyes and she said: ʻYou know, Jason, it is hard, but heʼs been with me.ʼ

ʻHeʼs been with me.ʼ

And when she said it she didnʼt point next to her, to Ray. She pointed up, straight up.

ʻHeʼs been with me,ʼ she said, ʻand heʼs been closer to me than ever before.

Heʼs really there and thatʼs been wonderful.ʼ

When Jesus preaches on the mountaintop, he tells the crowds that those who hear the Gospel and donʼt act on it, donʼt make it a part of their life, donʼt ingest it and embody it- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on sand. And the rain falls and the flood comes and the wind blows and beats against it and the house…falls apart.

 

But those who hear the Gospel and act on it, those who make it a part of their everyday- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on solid rock. And the rain can fall and the floods can come and the wind can blow and beat against it but the house will hold.

Storms-

Storms reveal what weʼve built our foundation on.

I once had a lawyer in my congregation.

That by itself is no small hardship.

But Pete was an alcoholic, a severe one. Heʼd been drowning himself with a bottle for nearly forty years. His addiction was so bad that his skin had grown sallow. His eyes were yellowed, and his belly was distended.

 

He was the kind of guy whoʼd always demanded to go in his own direction no matter how destructive it might prove.

 

Heʼd thrown everything important in his life overboard just to hold on to the one thing that was killing him. His drinking had left marriages and children and friends in its wake. It eventually sunk his career and wrecked his reputation.

Rehab after rehab, intervention after intervention and his friendsʼ desperate pleading- none of it had persuaded him to change. Because of what alcoholism had done to my own family, I always found it hard to minister to him.

 

I went to see him one day in Charlottesville where he was in the hospital. His body was slowly shutting down after a lifetime of abuse. He kept the curtains in his room pulled tightly shut and the lights turned off, and it took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness that surrounded him.

 

That visit- it was one of the only lucid conversations I ever had with him. We talked about UVA and about baseball. Just as Iʼd learned to do as a boy in my own family, we danced around the obvious.

 

I was surprised when Pete cut me off and asked me to pray. Heʼd never asked me to pray before. In fact, when Iʼd offered at other times heʼd refused. He gave substantial amounts of money to the church but that was it. He didnʼt want to let God into his heart or into any other part of his life.

 

I started to pray and he interrupted me. He stopped me. He looked at me ferociously and he said: ʻDonʼt you dare pray that I get out of here.ʼ

I asked him why and he told me that, there in the hospital, it was the longest heʼd ever been without drinking, that it was the first time he could remember that heʼd talked to his wife and his daughter sober, that even if it meant he died it was the best thing that couldʼve happened to him.

 

If you read carefully, after he disobeys God- after he runs away from God-

Jonahʼs story is a series of descents:

Jonah goes DOWN to Joppa to charter a boat.

Jonah goes DOWN into the ship.

Jonah falls DOWN to sleep.

 

And when they throw him overboard, Jonah sinks DOWN into the depths of the sea.

In other words, the more he tries to control his life, the further Jonah falls, the deeper he sinks.

Hereʼs the thing-

When Jonah hits bottom, when he sinks down to the roots of mountains and he gets swallowed whole- when Jonah hits bottom, he prays for the first time.

 

He prays the long prayer you find in chapter 2, and the prayer is not composed from his own words. Itʼs made up of snippets from the Psalms.

And if you go back and connect the dots and read those Psalms Jonah prays from, the surprise is that theyʼre Psalms of Thanksgiving. Every one of them.

When the storm strikes, when Jonah sinks and hits bottom, when Jonah gets swallowed up and is surrounded by darkness- he responds by saying: ʻThank

You.ʼ

 

We think Jonah needs to be saved from the storm and from the fish, but the storm and the fish are what saves Jonah.

 

Sometimes the only thing that can save us is to be thrown overboard, to hit

bottom, to experience darkness, to lose everything we thought was important.

We resist storms in our lives. We do everything we can to avoid them. We come to places like this and we pray for God to rescue us from them. But sometimes…sometimes the storms can be our rescue.

 

Thereʼs a scene in the Gospels-

The crowds are pressing in on Jesus, and they ask Jesus for a sign.

For something that will make it easier to believe.

For something they can hold on to that will make following him worth it.

For something they can point back to later on…when the storms come.

Jesus, give us a sign, the crowds ask.

And Jesus sighs and he says: The only sign Iʼll give you is the sign of Jonah, who was swallowed up in death and darkness for three days and three nights and yet was saved to live again.

Thatʼs the sign Iʼll give you, Jesus says. Thatʼs the only sign you need.

The sign of Jonah:

The sign that victory can come from what looks like defeat.

The sign that you can never sink so low or fall so far that God canʼt lift you up.

The sign of Jonah:

The sign that light can still shine in the darkest of nights.

The sign that when all hope seems lost God will still provide.

The sign that, sometimes, what looks like a storm can be our rescue.

 

In preaching, I work hard never to make myself the hero of a story. The rules of rhetoric require it. Even with those anecdotes where I did say or do the right, bold thing, I will instead labor to make myself sound like a d@#$, putting those right, bold words in to someone else’s mouth. I don’t want listeners to think I have a messiah complex and thus miss the message of the actual Messiah.

But that doesn’t mean someone else can’t flatter me in a sermon.

My friend, Taylor Mertins, recently shared a story about me and my family in his sermon on Exodus 2. While embarrassing, it was warmly intended and warmly received. You can check out his blog here, and here’s a post he wrote this summer for Tamed Cynic on what he learned during his first year of ministry.

Without permission, here it is:

newjudaicia4

Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

Exodus-Chapter-2-The-Child-Moses-on-the-Nile

Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him.Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

grouchoThe sermon for the ordination service 2 years ago included a recurring jeremiad against cynical pastors who mock the church with a capital C.

In my hubris, my first thought was ‘Shit. Is he talking about me?’

My next thought was of Woody Allen.

Woody has a famous joke from Annie Hall about how he’d ‘never want to belong to any organization that would have him as a member.’ I think it’s originally a Groucho joke (wag of the cigar, wag of the eyebrows).

A variant on that line of reasoning is my own struggles with being a pastor; namely, I don’t want to belong to any guild that would have YOU as a member.

Sounds harsh, I know, but what it comes down to in reality is just how incredibly, to-the-bone, reverently unfunny are most pastors.

I remember my first area clergy meeting when I pastored my first church part-time. All the pastors were making obvious churchy jokes, most of which had to do with church potlucks (do churches still do those?) and were no more sophisticated than knock-knock jokes. I mean, what I wouldn’t have done for just one fart joke.

I remember making a sarcastic remark (How in the hell did it take the Israelites so long to get to Canaan from Egypt?) and having everyone stare at me like I’d just expressed impolite concern for the casualties in Palestine.

And then I remember thinking to myself: ‘What am I doing here? I don’t belong here.’

By and large, pastors are hysterically unfunny.

Genuine humor requires openness, surprise, authenticity and a lack of fear over your listener’s reaction.

All of which are qualities required by faith but none of which are qualities encouraged by ministry.

Instead pastors tend to gravitate toward the telegraphed, not-going-to-upset-anyone variety. In addition, most pastors are sinfully over-serious, advocating for social justice or eternal salvation.

Sadly, pastors are just extreme versions of most Christians.

We’re NOT funny, and color me guilty on that score too.

Not funny as Christians.

(And you’re tempted now to cite Jeff Foxworthy or some lame ‘Christian comedian you should just stop reading).

I know plenty of church people who are piss-your-pants funny outside of church but inside church they’re completely different people; or rather, they somehow believe we expect them to be different people.

I don’t say this just to be cheeky. It’s a profound theological problem. After all, we know the end of the Story, of history.

No matter how things look now in the world or in our lives, God wins in the End. Things work out. There’s another version of reality other than the one given to us by the world.

Jesus is King of the whole Earth now- that’s the Gospel.

How could that NOT make us snarky, irreverent and cynical over all the parties, people and powers who think they’re in charge?

Christians are people who know that every King, President, CEO has no (eschatological) clothes.

If that doesn’t lend itself to irony, sarcasm, ridicule, satire and plain old joy I don’t know what does.

Maybe our lack of funny corresponds to having lost sight of our core story. Maybe we’ve substituted good news for legalism- which, by definition, can never be funny.

Maybe this is why Jews and gay people are almost always funnier- they know there’s more going on in the world than meets the eye.

Maybe our lack of funny reveals a lack of faith in that fact.

All of this is prompted by an article in the Huffington Post, Irreverence Is the New Reverent

Here’s the money quote:

It is this fear of irreverence that I believe deprives the Christian community from learning what it really means to be faithful. Irreverence shows the world how to be real, prophetic and passionate.

Irreverence says it like it is. It’s the child who calls out the emperor has no clothes. It’s the uncouth teenager who wears his boredom on the outside. It’s the hippie activist who won’t shower until world peace reigns. Irreverence gives the Church permission to engage in full-blown lament amidst the hardships of life.

10152516_10203475660394402_4518280596461113629_nThis is from my friend Teer Hardy. You’d be a fool not to check out his blog here

May 6, 2014

To Whom it May Concern:

 

I am formally withdrawing from the ordination candidacy process of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Although I feel called to ordained ministry, at this point in my life I am unable to enter into an itinerant system.  My wife is a college professor and her work requires her to be in a specific geographical area.  In addition, with the addition of a child to our family and the desire to adopt a child, the reduction in salary would place additional financial hardships on my family.

 

I do not take my call to ministry lightly, nor was this decision made overnight.  This is something that I have been discerning over the past nine months, and I pray that God will honor this decision.

 

I want to thank the committee, district, and conference for the support given to me over the past three years.  I will continue my studies at Wesley Theological Seminary and eagerly await the next opportunity for ministry.

 

Peace and Blessings,

 

Teer Hardy

 

From high school through today I have felt a call to ministry.  Although I ignored the call for quite some time, it is a call that I take seriously.  When I finally acknowledged and responded to my calling I enrolled at Wesley Theological Seminary and eventually began working fulltime in a local church.  This all began three years ago as I sat at my pastor’s kitchen table and talked about callings and ministry over longneck PBR’s.

 

Three years ago I entered into the United Methodist ordination process and three months ago I withdrew myself from the process.   Three years ago I had ambitions to become an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, and while I still want to be ordained, it will not happen within the UMC.  I had serious questions about whether or not I wanted to jump on this crazy train after General Conference 2012, and those questions began to grow into larger more complex questions as I learned more about the Christian experience within my own denomination as well as learned what was outside the friendly confines of the UMC.  But I still continued onward, thinking that I could change the system from within and be the change I wanted to see in the world.

 

My time at seminary showed me that the system I was pledging being vetted to join was larger than any government bureaucracy I had experienced.   From a governing body that only meets every four years to an ordination process that would possibly have me ordained after the next presidential administration, I began to realize that this was a far cry from the ministry I wanted to be engaged in.  When I am meeting with someone over coffee or on a bike ride they don’t care that I have a piece of paper saying that I am certified by the UMC to be a pastor. When I am serving the poor in DC or leading a youth retreat they do not care that I took exactly 9 hours of UMC history, polity, and doctrine in seminary.  What they do care about is that I love them just and Christ loves me.  What they do care about is that I listen to them, and help them come to know the God who has loved me and continues to be a source of strength for me.  What the do care about is that I all of this authentically because I love them and not because it’s my “job”.

 

The letter above is what I sent to the local committee on ordination.  I am not happy with with what I sent them because it wasn’t the whole truth.  Yes, at this time my family is not in a position for me to take another pay cut while paying back loans for a Masters Degree required for ordination.  But even if that were not the case, I don’t think I would have continued with the process because of the fact that I had to write that letter.  At no point throughout this process did anyone take the time or give a damn about really wanting to know how I was equipped for ministry.  My appointed clergy mentor taught me that once you’re in the system you’re in, and the most important thing once you are in is to not be late for meetings.  WOW, I thought ministry was suppose to be sharing in the work of Christ, boy was I wrong!

 

Instead of wanting to talk about my concerns or connecting me with a clergy member who might have had the same concerns the response I received from the committee was a request for a letter.  A letter that “would go into my file”.  The letter that was requested of me is ultimately the reason I decided to leave the ordination process.

 

Ordination and our Christian vocation is not something that can be boiled down to a checklist, 4 hour psychological exam, or open-ended questions with only 1 acceptable response. Our Christian vocation is one that enables us to serve others in the name of Christ regardless of titles we give ourselves or the office in which we hold.  It took me 3 years to figure this out.