Archives For Ministry

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.

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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.

10350435_10204746594086950_2925906432646049018_n

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.

This is from Josh Luton of the Apprentice Institute. I encourage you to check out their work and subscribe to their blog, here.

Do. It.

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I walked in and the receptionist greeted me. I didn’t catch her name, one of many sisters who call the convent home.

After a brief wait, another nun came to get me. This spiritual director came highly recommended.

She walked me to the end of a very long hallway and invited me to a seat by the window. She even gave me the chair with a view of the pond and fountain. Generous of her, she is a nun after all.

“I’ll light a candle to remind us of the presence of the Spirit.” Great, I like candles.

Then she read a passage of Scripture. Truth be told, I don’t remember which passage.

My mind was racing. What would she ask? How would she relate? Could she solve my spiritual problem in one session?

After the reading and a brief prayer, she looked up and smiled, “So, tell me about yourself.”

Uh, ok, sure. Fit my whole life (more pressing, my call story) into a 45 minute session and then you tell me something about it?

She waited patiently as I gathered my thoughts.

I tried to give her the high points: background, college, married, divinity school, ordination track in the United Methodist Church, work for a spiritual formation institute.

And then we got into the question that had brought me here in the first place. When we prayed at the beginning she had asked for a word to pray for.

One word.

“Clarity” was the best I could come up with.

Clarity about my call. The ordination process has been anything but beautiful, sure there have been glimpses of beauty, but it’s been a slog for the most part.

After some recent developments, I’ve been wondering what this call on my life is all about.

Does it have to be lived out as an elder in the UMC? What about Christian unity and all that? Why not just become Catholic?

Those are the high points, I won’t bore you with the details.

As I laid out the situation and my desire for clarity to this sweet old sister, I was more than half-hoping she’d reply, “Come home, son, to the true church. Leave behind your failing Protestant trappings. All will be well.”

She didn’t. “How much time do you spend in silent/listening prayer?”

“Not much.”

And we sat in silence and she appeared to be listening intently. Not to me. I was scared speechless by the fact that I work in spiritual formation and I had just confessed to a nun that I didn’t spend much time in silent/listening prayer.

For those new to spiritual formation, a rough definition: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of self and others (Not satisfied? Click through and explore).

Silence should be old hat. It’s a cornerstone discipline.

She asked me to describe God. I choked. I’m a “master of divinity” according to the diploma in my office, and I didn’t know what to tell her.

“Ok, describe your wife.”

“Vivacious, funny, loving, beautiful…” I rattled off in an instant.

More silence.

“I hear God saying ‘Listen to me, Josh.’ Your ministry is an overflow of your relationship. Your relationship with your wife overflows who you are and so will your relationship with God.”

“Just spend time in the presence of God, no agenda. Set a timer and just be.”

Shot to the gut.

And from a nun no less. She was extremely gentle in delivering words that were hard to hear.

The hardest part: I know her words are true.

I’ve got a little altar set up at home. There’s an icon of Christ the Pantocrator and a Bible and a little rug. It’s been set up for a few months and I haven’t been down there more than a handful of times.

Christ the Pantocrator

Don’t get me wrong, I get down with liturgical prayer (Book of Common Prayer, Common Prayer), but sitting in front of that altar and listening just seems like a waste of time.

 

So much so, that you know how many times I’d done it a week after she instructed me to practice silence,

Do you know how much effort it would take to do that one thing? Not much, just sit on my butt for 10 minutes or so. We Americans are pretty good at that, I should be a natural.

 

Why do I avoid it? I don’t know.

Maybe I’m scared God will speak a word that keeps me on this painful path of ordination. Maybe God will speak a word that spurs me to leave the only denomination I’ve ever known. Maybe I won’t hear anything.

Sometimes this whole Christianity thing can get too “do” oriented. Pastors, authors, bloggers, all encouraging you to do more. They’re often good things to do.

 

In the twitter/blog-o-sphere there’s a daily inundation of words. Words, words, everywhere. There’s so much crap out there, so much to take in. So much to be bombarded by.

 

Sometimes you just need silence.

 

In the words of famed Catholic priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen:

 

“What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us. Especially we who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world need to tend the fire within with utmost care. It is not so strange that many ministers have become burnt-out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring, petty ideas and feelings. Sometimes it seems that our many words are more an expression of our doubt than our faith. It is as if we are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people: we have to help him out and, with many words, convince others of his power. But it is precisely this wordy unbelief that quenches the fire” (The Way of the Heart, 54).

Henri-JM-Nouwen

Another shot to the gut. The Catholics really have me on the ropes this month.

 

Joking aside, he’s right, too.

 

Even if you’re not a professional Christian, you may fall into the trap of speaking many words. To the burnout that comes when we talk about God, without spending time listening.

 

The problem? “Silence teaches us to speak” (56).

 

Don’t believe him? (I didn’t at first).

 

Think about a recent event in your life or the life of your community: a lost job, a dramatic life change, a death. How did you or people around you respond?

 

With quick and canned cliches? “You’ll find another job.” “Everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.” “The hurt will heal with time.”

 

Or with slower, measured responses. Maybe with no words at all, just presence?

 

Silence teaches us to speak because it allows us space to be comfortable with silence.

 

Silence helps us tend to the inner fire of the Spirit. My fire has been closer to almost burnt out coals, not even warm enough to toast a marshmallow.

 

Probably not worth speaking words out of. They wouldn’t be words that could warm your fire.

 

But silence also teaches us to speak because it trains us to listen. Regular silence opens our ears to the voice of God (these words are written more out of hope than recent experience).

 

Silence creates space. Space where I learn to strain to hear the prodding and calling of God. And when I open myself up intentionally, I’m more likely to hear that call, even in the bustle and noise of daily life.

 

I’ve voiced the complaint, “I never hear God speak.” When I think about it, how could I?

 

I pray every day, but those words (well-intentioned though they are) are all motivated by me. Even the people and situations I pray for are my desires. How transformative might it be to listen for a word from God, instead of just catapulting more words at God?

 

I took the plunge this morning. It was probably more motivated by the fact I had to confess in the first draft (written yesterday) that I hadn’t heeded the nun’s counsel.

 

I read a passage from the Gospel of Luke and set my timer for 10 minutes (big start, I know).

 

And then I spoke these words, “Here I am, Lord.” And I waited. And stared at the icon. And waited some more.

 

And you know what I heard? Nothing.

 

But it was only day one, and I’m hopeful for the rest of today. For the listening that may come from that time. For the days ahead.

 

I tended the fire, here’s hoping it erupts to a blaze.

 

How much time do you spend in silent/listening prayer? Could it transform your speaking? I’d especially love to hear from He Who Must Not Be Named. I’m sure the dark lord has some keen insights on silent prayer.

 

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis is from friend, former youth and now colleague, Taylor Mertins.

You should definitely check out his blog and subscribe to it here. He even gave me a shout-out in his most sermon, albeit anonymously :)

1. Every Church Is Different

I was blessed to grow up (theologically) under the tutelage of great mentors in Dennis Perry and the Tamed Cynic himself, Jason Micheli. Until I left for college I worshipped at Aldersgate UMC for the majority of my life and had very little experience outside of my home church. I learned very quickly throughout seminary, and particularly while serving at St. John’s, that all churches are different. What I preached at Aldersgate would never work at St. John’s and vice versa. Every church has its own context and collective narrative that must be learned before the rhythm of worship and preaching can begin to be fruitful for both the pastor and the congregation. It takes time, but it is time well spent to learn the story of the people.

2. Being New Can Go A Long Way

When I was commissioned last summer I became the youngest pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference and would become the youngest pastor to serve at St. John’s since 1955. The church had grown accustomed to their pastors retiring from this appointment and were excited to receive a new and fresh-from-seminary pastor. Being new has gone a long way. I have been given certain freedoms to explore different ways of worship, teaching, and discipleship purely because I am still new to this. The laity have been particularly forgiving of my preaching because, I hope, they recognize that I am continuing to learn our collective narrative every Sunday from the pulpit. The atmosphere in church has been exciting over the last year which has encouraged our members to invite others to worship, something that all churches need in order to share the Good News.

3. It Can Be Lonely

The Tamed Cynic himself has written before about the loneliness he experienced in his first church because there were very few people around his age. Lindsey, my wife, and I have had a difficult time in Staunton meet and making new friends outside of church. Part of this stems from the fact that there are simply not very many young people in Staunton. However it is challenging to make friends outside of the church when some people immediately put up a wall when they learn that I am a pastor. It is remarkably important to maintain friendships that began in, and before, seminary but it is challenging when the geographic divide makes it difficult to stay in touch. All pastors need community; their church and people outside of it.

4. Committee Meetings Are Hard

Seminary cannot prepare you for committee meetings. I was never asked to serve on a committee before I became a pastor so I had to quickly learn the functions of each and their patterns of serving the church without any prior experience. Though the Book of Discipline outlines the roles of the committees, every church lives out these responsibilities in different ways. There have been many nights where I come home thrilled about the direction of the church I serve, and other nights where I have felt defeated by what had taken place during a committee meeting. It is so important to remember that all of this, doing church and being the body of Christ for the world, it about God and not myself.

5. It’s Important To Be Involved In The Community

When I met with the SPRC for the first time I asked what they wanted most from their pastor. The collective response was that they wanted a pastor who would be known in the community. I made a concerted effort to make that come true during my first year. For example: I have been quick to introduce myself to people in town as the pastor of St. John’s, I joined the Stonewall Brigade Band (established in 1855!) and play drums with them every Monday night as we perform free concerts in Gypsy Hill Park, and I sent hand written letters to the immediate community surrounding the church introducing myself and asking if there was anything I could do for them. The church is not just the people who gather on Sunday mornings; we are intricately connected with the people in the community. It is therefore important to establish a presence within the community outside of the church.

6. My Vision Is Not The Same Thing As The Church’s Vision

I have come up with a lot of new ideas over the last year and a number of them have become very fruitful for our church. Recently however, I have begun to realize that my vision is not necessarily synonymous with the church’s vision. The people of St. John’s have been doing church a lot longer than I have; they have an established wisdom about what can and can’t work for our faith community. It has been good for me to lead with a passionate vision, but then at other times it has been even better for me to take a step back and let the lay leadership’s vision guide us.

7. Workaholism Is Just One Step Away

Every church has many needs from the pastor: visiting the shut-ins, preparing and leading worship on a weekly basis, ordering the church, etc. Though many might assume that being a pastor is a one-hour-a-week job, it is so much more than that. As someone who is regularly at the church facility there are a number of other jobs that I never imagined would be regular parts of my ministry. I have been a plumber, carpenter, Preschool teacher, preacher, mower, snow-shoveler, counselor, teacher, accountant, therapist, etc. For pastors there is a temptation to let the needs of the church dictate every aspect of your life. It is vitally important to maintain a regular sabbath and share the responsibilities of church with the body of Christ.

8. Less And Less People Know Their Bibles

I often take for granted how much scripture is known by the people of church. There are, of course, the prayer warriors and bible study leaders who know their bibles better than I do, but over the last year there have been a number of experiences that had demonstrated a staggering amount of biblical illiteracy. For example: One Sunday I casually mentioned Jacob wrestling with the angel on the banks of the Jabbok river with a bible study class when they all looked up at me and one of them said, “that’s definitely not in the bible.” Or after preaching about the last supper and then going through the entire communion liturgy a longtime church member said, “I never knew that what we do with communion comes from the Jesus’ last supper!” As the greater church looks to the future of the Christian faith we need to be particularly careful about how we return to a love of the bible and nurture scripturally shaped imaginations.

9. Reading Makes For Better Preaching

Soon after arriving in Staunton I had more free time on my hands than I had initially anticipated. I was able to make all my visits, have the sermon written by Wednesday and take care of my other responsibilities which freed me for having time to read from both the bible and theological works. By the time the fall rolled around I found myself incredibly busy and lost the time to read outside of what I needed on a weekly basis; my preaching suffered during this time. I relied too heavily on commentaries and personal anecdotes because my own faith walk was suffering under the weight of weekly ministry. Only when I had come to a realization of the way my work was affecting my faith was I able to re-focus and re-prioritize in such a way that I found time to feed my soul outside of my regular responsibilities. We become better writers and better preachers by actively reading and responding to God’s Word beyond the weekly sermon or lesson in our lives.

10. I Have The Best Job In The World

A professor of mine from seminary once said, “If you can do anything else outside of ministry then stop right now. Ministry can be one of the least rewarding vocations: spiritually, monetarily, and socially. But if you can’t do anything else, which is to say if you feel so called to ministry that you can’t do anything else, then it will be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.” For some this was a big wake up call and a few eventually dropped out of school, but for me it only refueled my fire. And he was right. Ministry is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend my time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the ability to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or offering the gift of bread and wine to the weary travelers of faith? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s UMC and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

  • Rev. Taylor Mertins~I graduated from Duke Divinity School in the Spring of 2013 and recently celebrated my one year anniversary of serving as the pastor of St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Throughout my first year I experienced numerous mountaintop experiences as well as deep spiritual valleys. I baptized infants and adults into the body of Christ, I presided over the table and shared the bread and wine with the people of God, I brought couples into holy matrimony, and I gave witness to the life and death of faithful Christians. I have learned a lot and am continuing to grow. Below are 10 of the biggest lessons I learned from my first year in ministry. 

Untitled9-1024x682Here’s the sermon from Sunday. Continuing the summer series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the text was the critical pistis Christou passage in Romans 3.21-31.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the widget on the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes by clicking here. For that matter, you can download the free Tamed Cynic mobile app here.

Like black coffee, I’m an acquired taste. I have a tendency to rub some people the wrong way- shocking I know.

In fact, almost 9 years ago to the day, one elderly curmudgeon- bless his heart- chewed me out and tore me a new one as he left worship.

That was my first Sunday at Aldersgate.

Since then his red-faced finger-pointing, clenched-teeth indictments and patronizing soliloquies went on to become an every sermon ritual.

Fortunately, I was able to dismiss his criticism, seeing as how this sweet saint of the Lord typically fell asleep after the opening prayer and was in no position to evaluate my effectiveness as a preacher.

And because I didn’t take his criticisms too much to heart, I was able to make light of them in my sermons.

About 7 years ago, I started using his gripes with me as a foil in some of my sermons. Since I couldn’t out him outright, reveal his name and his character, I instead adopted an anonymous, affectionate handle for him:

He Who Must Not Be Named.

     Sure, I admit it was my passive aggressive way of exacting revenge, to rebut from the pulpit all the gripes I’d had to grin and bear at the sanctuary doors. But it was also good for a laugh or two.

What goes around comes around.

But then it came around again to bite me in the ass.

Because about 2 years ago, someone set up an email address (HeMustNotBeNamed@gmail.com) and a Twitter handle: HeMustNotBeNamed and started sending me mocking emails and tweets from someone taking the name HeMustNotBeNamed.

His (yours?) tagline on Twitter reads: I taught @jasonmicheli everything I wanted him to know. I am here to expose the truth one blog post at a time.

     For example, last winter I tweeted out a preview of my sermon:

‘This weekend we will conclude our marriage sermon series by discussing the current marriage debate in the larger Church around homosexuality.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted:

‘@JasonMicheli I can’t wait for the children’s sermon.’

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In response to a promo for pub theology, HeMustNotBeNamed sent me this tweet:

‘@JasonMicheli if I come to #pubtheology will you buy me a butter beer?’

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And I know this has to be someone in the congregation, is because in January I received this tweet:  ‘@JasonMicheli nice red sweater this weekend. The Mr. Rogers look is good for you.’

 

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So… it has to be one of you.

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Just over a week ago, I published my 1000th post on my blog, and I pushed it out to social media with this line:

 

‘Thanks to Tony Jones for encouraging me to start the blog and trust that if I wrote stuff of substance, readers would come.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli this stuff makes me want to drink something of substance.’

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Then HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli I think you’re brilliant, but I also think you think so yourself.’

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Ignoring the put down, I tweeted to @HeMustNotBeNamed: ‘Thanks.’

 

But HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli But, at times, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Of course, that makes it no different than listening to you preach.’

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Wounded, I responded by tweeting: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed So sorry you’re not able to understand me!’

Sounding like my mother-in-law, HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli I don’t think your deadpan humor really helps.’

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Which just begged for me to up the ante: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed Deadpan humor?!’

HeMustNotBeNamed wondered: ‘@JasonMicheli Does @DennisPerry ever weary of your constant jokes at his expense?’

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Of course, a comment like that is ripe for another joke at Dennis’ expense so I tweeted back: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed @DennisPerry is 65. Everything wearies him at this point.’  He didn’t find it funny, I guess, because HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted: ‘@JasonMicheli Your intellect IS your problem.

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‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What do you mean?’ I asked.

 

 

And HeMustNotBeNamed queried: Untitled15‘@JasonMicheli Why is the intellectual stuff necessary? Why can’t God just come out of the closet and reveal himself so there’d be no doubting?’

 

 

Like a good pastor I asked a clarifying question: Untitled13‘@HeMustNotBeNamed You want God to come out of the closet?’ He didn’t find it funny: ‘@JasonMicheli Haha. If our salvation depends on faith, why can’t God do a better job of convincing us?’

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Serious for once, I asked him: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What kind of convincing would you want?’  He answered: ‘@JasonMicheli Why can’t God write across the sky ‘Here’s your proof. Believe in me. Sincerely God.’ Everyone would be on their knees.’

Then he tweeted a sort of PS: ‘@JasonMicheli After all, no one doubts my existence and they don’t even speak my name.’

 

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If everything depends on faith- on our faith, on our faith in Jesus, then why doesn’t God make it easier to believe?

 

Whether HeMustNotBeNamed’s tweets and emails are meant to mock me or not, it’s a good question.

Maybe, even, it’s the best question.

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I received those tweets a little over a week ago.  And since then, a number of times I’ve sat down at my laptop and tried to sort through a good answer.

 

Parts of each those answers were good, but I wasn’t content with any of them.

 

Because I’m no good at the 140 characters or less stricture, I opted for email.

 

Untitled11     Those responses still are saved in the drafts folder of my mailbox. The first draft was from the following Saturday, June 28.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed,

 

Thanks for your question. Though, your comment about me seeming full of myself makes me wonder if your message was meant for @DennisPerry.

 

Despite what you might assume given my line of work, faith has never come easy for me. John Wesley told his pastors: ‘Preach faith until you have it.’

 

Sometimes I think I need to be a pastor in order to be a Christian. I need people- even satirical Tweeters like you- holding me accountable. I need the Sunday sermon deadline hanging over me to force me to work through what I believe.

 

That’s why I think the notion that you can be a Christian without participating in a church is BS.

 

I suppose this shows I’m sympathetic with your question but doesn’t really answer it.

 

Let me say this:

One of the abiding memories I carry around with me like a scar that’s smoothed over is being at the hospital a few years back with my arm around a mom as she held her son- my confirmation student- and prayed… to God…pleaded…for her son.

 

Who was already gone.

 

Hers was a desperate prayer, a kind of yearning. The sort of prayer from someone who’s wounded and has no where else to turn.

On the one hand, you could say a grieving mother praying for her little boy makes the whole question of belief even muddier: If there’s a God why should she be in such a position? I get that. Trust me, I get that.

 

Leave those questions aside for a moment because I think there’s a way of seeing that mother’s prayer as the absolute embodiment of faith.

All the good examples of faith in the Gospels are from people just like her.

They’re all people who don’t wait for proof. They just bare their wounds and desperation to Christ.

 

Most of the time we do the opposite. We wait to be convinced before we’re willing to lay ourselves bare to God. We’ve got it backwards from the way faith works in the Bible.

 

That mother in the hospital didn’t have the luxury of waiting for proof, but I wonder if any of us ever do.

 

I wonder if it’s not God that’s the problem.

I wonder if we make it hard on ourselves to have faith by our refusal to let go of control and admit we’re every bit as desperate as those people in scripture who come to Christ with their kids’ lives on the line.

Blessings,

Jason

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I never clicked send. It was a good response, a solid answer, but I didn’t face the question head-on.

 

According to my drafts folder, my second attempt came a couple of days later, on Tuesday, July 1.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

I appreciate your willingness to push back on my thinking. Of course, thinking about God is challenging; however, your suggestion that I suffer from a lack of clarity makes me wonder if you’d meant to send these tweets to @DennisPerry.

 

I’ve always admired folks with unquestioning faith, but I’m not one of them.

 

I sometimes worry the unspoken assumption at church is that everyone’s faith is rock-solid firm when I know the faith of the person sitting next to you is just as likely to be hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

 

Remember all that Harold Camping hoopla a few years ago about the world ending on May 21?

 

A few days before that I was in Old Town walking down the sidewalk and on the corner near Banana Republic were four or five evangelists holding poster-board signs and passing out tracts.

 

I guess it sounds bad for a pastor to say but I hate evangelists. At least the ones who think fear is an appropriate medium to share the love of Christ.

 

According to them the world is going to end on May 21. I guess we’ll see if they’re right. I suppose if they are then you’ll finally have the proof you want.

 

I could tell they weren’t going to let me pass by without an encounter so when one of them tried to hand me a tract, I held up hands and said: ‘I’m a Buddhist.’

 

He gave me his spiel anyway about the end of the world and how ‘only the saved will survive.’

 

Since I was a Buddhist, I thought I should feign ignorance: ‘Saved? How do I get saved?’

 

‘By faith.’

 

‘How do I have faith?’

 

And he told me I needed to accept that I’m a sinner etc, etc.

 

Faith for him was really more like agreement.

 

I’ve spent 19 years learning how to have faith. It’s crazy to me that this evangelist thought that could all be sped up just by getting me to nod my head to a list of propositions.

 

Faith is something you live into, not agree to.

 

Maybe because I’ve had those evangelists on my mind, but I guess I’d say that, just like the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospels, I think sometimes its religious people themselves who make faith hard for others.

They make it sound painless, quick and rational.

 

It isn’t any of those things.

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Blessings, I wrote. But I didn’t click send that time either. It was a passable way to answer the question. I’d said what faith isn’t, but I hadn’t said what it is.

I tried again on June 7.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Thanks for sharing your struggles with me. I assume you were only kidding about @DennisPerry getting wearied by me, but- to be honest- @DennisPerry is getting to that age where it’s not really funny anymore to make age jokes.

He’s now so old he deserves sympathy not sarcasm.

 

Actually, knowing @DennisPerry’s workload, it’s difficult for me to imagine how Dennis could be weary from anything.

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed, whomever you are, I’ve been putting off my reply.

 

I couldn’t come up with a good definition for faith, and without that there’s not a really good way to answer you.

 

I think I finally figured out how I want to put it.

 

On Monday morning I spoke to a woman in the community. Her neighbor gave her my number. She and her husband moved here from the West Coast a little less than a year ago.

 

Right after they moved in to their new house, they miscarried their first child.

Two days after the miscarriage they found out that her husband had a rare and advanced form of leukemia.

 

He’s dying and there’s nothing anyone can do.

As she put it to me: ‘He has his bad days and he has God-awful days.’

 

And then she asked if I’d come over and pray with them some time.

Before the End.

 

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear from her- to pray. To God.

 

I probably looked like I was gawking at her, but to be honest I was marveling. How could she pray? Or have faith at all?

Because if faith was just ‘belief’ there’s no way it could survive what she and her husband were going through.

 

Here’s what I realized again on Monday. Faith is more like trust.

The sort of trust capable of saying to God: I don’t understand you; it seems you’re breaking your word to me; still I trust you; I trust you because it’s you, because it’s you and me, even though my heart is breaking. I trust you.

 

Faith. Is. Trust.

 

This is what it means to have a personal relationship with God, a term I normally don’t like because it sounds exclusionary and sentimental.

 

A personal relationship with God means you and God are together through thick and thin…

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I never finished that reply. Even though I’d figured out how to say what faith is, I still hadn’t gotten behind the ‘why’ of the question. I hadn’t gotten at the problem behind so many of our problems with faith.

 

So I tried again, on Friday the 4th.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Snark aside, thank you for your question. I’m embarrassed its taken so long to respond. Even @DennisPerry can type faster than this. Well, not really.

 

I could’ve replied much quicker had I dispensed the standard pastor answers: faith is hard because we’re fallen, sinful creatures.

 

God doesn’t make faith easy or obvious for us because God needs to know if we trust him.

 

Faith is hard because it’s a gift from God, some have it.

 

And some don’t.

 

The problem with the standard pastor answers on faith is the same problem as the standard questions we ask about faith.

 

In both cases we assume that when it comes to God and how God regards us it’s our faith in Jesus that’s important, that’s operative.

 

The standard pastor answers and the conventional questions both assume that it’s our faith in Jesus Christ that justifies us, that makes us right with God.

 

The problem though is that that’s NOT how St. Paul speaks of faith.

 

In Romans 3, probably the most important passage in the New Testament about faith, Paul uses two words: Pistis and Christou.

 

The word ‘pistis’ is the Greek word that gets translated as ‘faith.’

 

But the word ‘pistis’ doesn’t mean ‘rational assent’ or ‘belief’’ and certainly not ‘a feeling in your heart.’

 

It means ‘trusting obedience,’ and so the better way to translate the word ‘pistis’ isn’t with the word ‘faith’ but with the word ‘faithfulness.’ 

 

And the word ‘Christou.’

Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah.

Christou is in the Genitive Case.

 

And the best way to translate it is not ‘in Christ’

The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’

 

When you read Romans 3, you realize Paul speaks of faith in a way that’s very different from how we think of it in our questions and answers.

 

Paul’s not saying we are justified by our faith in Christ. 

     He’s saying it is the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you. 

For Paul, it’s the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah that justifies us.

It’s Christ’s faithfulness that makes us right with God.

It’s Jesus’ trusting obedience, not just on the cross but all the way up to it, from Galilee to Golgotha, that zeroes out the sin in our ledgers.

 

For Paul, Christ’s faithfulness isn’t just an example of something. It’s effective for something. It changes something between God and us, perfectly and permanently. Just like Jesus said it did when he said: ‘It is accomplished.’

 

That’s why, for Paul, any of our attempts to justify ourselves are absurd. Of course they are- because he’s already justified us.

 

What motivates so many of our questions and struggles about faith is the assumption that our justification before God is like a conditional if/then statement: If you have faith in Christ then you will be justified, then your sins will be forgiven.

 

That’s not good news; in fact, it suggests that Christ’s Cross doesn’t actually change anything until we first invite Jesus to change our hearts.

 

But Jesus didn’t hang on the cross and with his dying breath say ‘It is accomplished

dot, dot, dot

if and when you have faith in me…’

 

No, Jesus says ‘It is accomplished.’

Through his faithfulness- not ours.

 

Think about what Paul’s saying:

your believing, your saying the sinner’s prayer, your inviting Jesus in to your heart, your making a decision for Christ- all of it is good.

But none of it is necessary.

None of it is the precondition for having your sins erased.

None of it is necessary for you being justified.

Because you already are justified- because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

 

That’s it. That’s the good news.

And it’s such good news it reveals how our questions about and struggles with our faith aren’t so urgent after all.

 

You can have a mountain’s worth of doubts and you can have faith as small as a fraction of a mustard seed- no worries.

 

Because your justification, your being made right with God- it does not depend on you or your faith or lack thereof.

 

It depends on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.

It’s the faith of Jesus that saves us and we simply get caught up in the story of his faithfulness. We participate in it. We don’t agree to it, nod our head to it or even, dare I say it, invite it into our hearts.

 

And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty.

No, faith is a gift because it’s Jesus’ faith he’s talking about.

And Jesus, as we learn at Christmas, is a gift given to the whole world.

Even you.

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I clicked send. And, so far, I haven’t heard back.

Jack-WhiteI’ve been listening to Jack White’s new album, Lazaretto, incessantly over the last two weeks.

Running, reading, driving.

Cooking.

In case you’re one of those cretans who only listen to pop music or, worse, are still listening to the same 11 Steve Miller Band songs you did in high school, Jack White is the auteur garage rocker behind the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather.

In the early aughts Jack White took a plastic guitar and a 2-man garage band and made blues relevant again. As White truthfully said in Rolling Stone last month (and got crap for it), without him there would be no audience for popular bands like the Black Keys.

As the world gets more pop, an article recently described him, ‘the more rock Jack White strives to be.’ White’s music consistently goes against the grain of what we’re told people want in today’s culture, but as with any good gift- or should we say grace- White’s music points out wants we didn’t know we had prior to the gift.

I often describe Jack White as ‘music you can run to without blushing.’

Nor is he boring. For his last album’s tour, White traveled with two completely different bands, one all-male and the other all-female. Neither band knew which one was performing on a given night until just before showtime. Rather than varying up the same set list of 20 songs as most bands do, White insists the audience shout out requests spontaneously. His new record has hidden tracks and alternate beginnings.

He’s not so eager to please that he’s cringe-inducing lame. Neither is he boring.

And running, reading and driving to him these past two weeks, I’ve been thinking that on those two counts at least Jack White has something to teach the Church. Because on those counts, in particular, we’re frequently guilty as so often charged.

His bands and albums are all a little different, but in each iteration Jack White simply takes an old, supposedly antiquated medium- 12 bar blues- and has fun with it. He happily accepts the constraints of his small, outdated canvas and plays with it.

And by playing with it, he makes the antiquated relevant.

Through sheer fun, the familiar seems fresh again.

This is no small lesson as the Church presently wrings its hands over the trends showing the meteoric rise of ‘the Nones’ who report they want nothing to do with traditional Christianity. Jack White, however, shows that to give up on the tradition would be every bit the mistake it would be to go chasing after whatever the culture tells us they want.

How could they possibly know what they (don’t) want if they’ve not yet experienced it?

Rather our trust in the tradition should be strong enough such that we have the confidence to play and experiment with it. The dichotomy between ancient and contemporary misses the point.

The power is in the play- and so is the engagement.

While this may be a helpful lesson to the Church, it’s not an easy one, for such play is inherently a personal, intimate experience. It’s no surprise then that White writes all his own songs, plays all his own instruments (even makes some of them) and produces all his own records.

Playfulness with a tradition requires the authenticity of

direct engagement with the material.

Christians and congregations, White’s music would suggest, need to be hands-on involved in experimenting with the small, antiquated canvases the saints have given us.

The Church of Jack White is the opposite of passive pew-sitting and pre-packaged messages and praise lyrics that speak to no one so desperate are they to speak to everyone. The Church of Jack White doesn’t want worship songs made to sound like Coldplay but neither does it un-ironically sing antebellum hymns exactly as our forebears sang them.

In odd dress, old sound and against the grain posture Jack White intentionally presents himself as the last true rock musician in a culture that wants ‘None’ of that anymore.

Counterintuitively- or maybe not counterintuitively at all- his very popular appeal is in the promise that he can offer you what everyone else has forgotten.

Therein lies a lesson if we the Church have ears to hear.

Plus, he’s not boring.

 

cake_topper_c-445x287This past weekend I presided at the wedding of a friend and former youth in my church, Taylor Mertins.

While I officiated the worship service, I signed no license from clerk of court nor did I announce during the liturgy ‘by the power vested in me by the State of Virginia.’

That’s because, tired of marriage being a political football, I gave up credentials to serve as an agent of the state when it comes to weddings.

Since the blog readership is about 10x what it was when I posted this over a year ago, I thought I would pull it out from the vault…

 

Two exchanges with congregants have been running through my mind the past week. This may agitate some.

Take a deep breath, give me the benefit of the doubt, and trust that this is all the fruit of a good faith wrestling of theology and conscience.

Exchange #1

There’s an engaged couple in my congregation who recently asked me to perform their wedding ceremony this summer.

Nothing unusual about that, right?

I do weddings all the time. It comes with the territory.

Here’s the thing.

They’re already getting married in May.

In the Caribbean.

When they stand in front of me- in July- to exchange vows of Christ-like, sacrificial love they will already be married.

As far as the State goes, they don’t need to do anything else. Their- secular- wedding in the Caribbean is good enough for the State of Virginia.

It’s just not good enough for them.

For this couple, Christian marriage isn’t the same thing as marriage as its defined by the State.

And how could it be, really?

Christian marriage is marriage in the name and likeness of Jesus, a crucified and risen Jewish Messiah.

By definition that sort of marriage will (or, at least, should) always be distinct and peculiar from the wider pagan culture.

This couple is intentional enough about their faith to sacrifice the time, effort and expense to do, essentially, a do-over in our sanctuary with me presiding in the name of Christ.

I do weddings all the time. And I can tell you that’s unusual as hell.

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

How is it that Christians spend so much time and vitriol in the public square advocating for the preservation of “biblical/Christian marriage” when even this couple in my congregation knows, or at least intuits, that the present legal understanding of marriage bears no resemblance to what Catholics call a ‘sacrament’ and what Protestants call a ‘covenant?’

Exchange #2

Last week a friend, who shall remain anonymous, lamented to me how their child soon will be getting married to their partner in a locality in which same-sex unions are legal.

This friend lamented not their child’s wedding.

This friend lamented that their child, a lifelong United Methodist and who’s been with their partner nearly as long as I’ve been married, cannot have a Christian ceremony.

(I’m not going to get into the arguments pro/con about homosexuality. You can do a search on my blog and read everything I’ve ever written on the question.)

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

What if it was the other way round?

What if my Church didn’t have this position on marriage? What if the United Methodist Church permitted committed, faithful homosexuals to marry?

If it did, then I still wouldn’t be able to perform those weddings because the State, the State of Virginia, would still consider them illegal.

And that, we would say, is crazy.

My Conclusion from Exchanges 1 and 2?

Why in the world is the Church allowing, and in very many cases encouraging, marriage to be kicked around like a political football?

I don’t want conservatives telling me marriage is between a man and a woman when Abraham had more than one wife and Jesus didn’t have any.

And, I don’t want liberals tellings me that marriage is a right. We can debate whether it is in the legal sense, but for Christians, marriage is much more than that. It’s a vocation.

No matter how one feels about marriage and homosexuality, surely Christians should find it odd that we would allow the secular State or the pagan culture to tell us what constitutes the definition of marriage.

Just as we can disagree about homosexuality, Christians can disagree over the particulars of the Eucharist.

But would Christians EVER turn to the State to define the meaning of the Eucharist for us?

Would we EVER think it normal for a government document to be signed by the pastor every time the sacrament of communion or baptism is performed?

Would we EVER waste time lobbying the government to define the Eucharist in terms of consubstantiation or immersion as the proper mode of baptism?

Of course not.

But then every time a couple gets married, I have to sign a marriage license.

And every time I do I’m acting not as a vicar of Christ but as an agent of the State.

And every time, signing that document makes me feel weird because in both the Old Testament and the New prophetic critique of the government is part of the priestly role {See: Jesus, innocent victim of the government].

eucharistwallpaper1024So these two exchanges have prompted me this week to do something I’ve toyed with for some time now:

Today I called the Clerk of Court to surrender my wedding credentials.

This means I’ll no longer able to perform ‘legal’ weddings. In other words, couples whom I marry will be married in the eyes of God just not the State. Couples will have to get a justice of the peace to do that for them.

My priestly role is now untethered from Red/Blue social politics.

It’s another hoop for couples to jump through, admittedly, but then it won’t take them any more time than they’ll spend taste-testing their wedding cake. 

And anyone who does jump through the hoop will be that much more likely to treat their wedding like that couple who’ll say ‘I do’ in July for second time. 

This time in Christ’s name.  

 

 

 

 

 

UnknownWe’ve come out of the gate with gusto at the Tamed Cynic Podcast, being privileged to have conversations with some of the best voices and minds in the Church.

Will Willimon was our first guest on the Podcast and now he’s here for redux…

There’s a question 2/3 in about #’s that points out the curriculum I developed for 4th and 5th graders, Tribe Time, a virtue-based program that spends 2 years on the Book of Leviticus. You can find out more about it here

For those of you who don’t know Will Willimon, he was recognized by Baylor as one of America’s 12 Best Preachers. The Pew Foundation lists him as the 2nd most read author among Protestant clergy, selling over a million copies. Take that Beth Moore.

The former dean of Duke Chapel and former Bishop of North Alabama he currently teaches at Duke and pastors Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.

The very best of my preaching is just a shallow imitation of this master artist.

As a young seminary student, Willimon’s sarcastic, caustic demeanor freed me to be me in the pulpit.

You can find his blog and links to his books here.

Bishop Willimon was our guest preacher this past weekend and afterwards agreed to do a Q/A forum on Church Leadership.

0To listen to my previous interview with Bishop Willimon click here.

Be on the lookout for the next installments. We’ve got Brian Blount, Brian Zahnd, and Robert Two Bulls in the queue.

You can listen to this Willimon interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

UnknownIf you’re in the DC area, stop by Aldersgate (Collingwood) this Sunday to hear Bishop Will Willimon preach.

Actually, stop by Aldersgate Kingstowne at 10:00 to hear me preach.

THEN go over to our Collingwood location for a lunchtime forum with Bishop Willimon at 12:30.

You can get more details here.

I will be convening the forum, and I’d love to be able to pose your questions to Bishop Willimon.

 

You can email me at jamicheli@mac.com.

You can leave it in the comment section below.

Or-better yet- click on the ‘Speakpipe’ to the right of the screen and leave me an audio question.

 

Untitled3To prime the question pump, you can listen to the Tamed Cynic Podcast with Bishop Willimon here.

 

I thought I’d give you these gem quotes from Willimon’s book, Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question.

Bishop Willimon gets away with saying things that would get me in trouble with my own bishop:

 “A Living God gives churches two choices: grow (that is, change) or die (dead doesn’t change.’

 

‘Being surrounded by biblical literalists, neo-Calvinist fundamentalists, and Baptist bigots is a golden opportunity to rediscover the vitality and intellectual superiority of Wesleyan Christianity.’

 

“The baptized have been all too willing to transfer their baptismal responsibilities on to the backs of clergy.”

 

‘What is incomprehensible is that we call this stability-protecting, past-perpetuating institution (the UMC) the ‘Body of Christ.’

All the Gospels present Jesus as a ceaseless, peripatetic.

Never once did Jesus say, ‘Come, settle down with me.’

 

“The test of my ministry is how well God uses me to challenge and to equip every church to make more disciples for Jesus Christ by taking more risks and changing more lives.”

 

“Change, especially when we don’t know where it is headed, opens space for the Holy Spirit to intrude and show us what God can do.”

 

“Whenever Jesus is busy, his work brings enemies out of the woodwork, some of whom are more adept practitioners of the gospel than I.”

 

“Methodism is church in motion. The Body of Christ atrophies when it is preoccupied with self-care…laity are called not to maintain the church, but to be part of the mission of  Jesus Christ in the world. Our great task is not to stabilize or harmonize the People of God but to put the church in motion.”

“Boredom is killing the church.”