Archives For Rethink Church

Here’s a piece I wrote recently for the United Methodist ‘Rethinking Church’ website. Here’s the original link.

I was in the emergency room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother who wasn’t much older than me as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.

What do we do in these moments?

She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end of the pool and have just come up for air. She was smoothing her boy’s cowlick with her hand. Every so often she would shush him, perhaps believing that if she could just calm him down then she might convince him to come back.

It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had played hooky to go to see the Nationals beat the Marlins. I still wore my Curly W Nats hat and had popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like a pastor or a priest.

The mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get hold of her husband. She left me with her boy — and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest. She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.

She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: “It’s going to be all right.”

“What the hell did you say?” I asked, stunned.

I’ve been a pastor for 16 years.

And in that time I can’t tell you how many ERs and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.

Even destructive.

I know people in my congregation who’ve been told — by other people in my congregation — that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.

I know peoplewho’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that a spouse’s or child’s death must be part of God’s plan.

I know people who’ve written God off entirely because when their life got sucky some Christian tried to console them with talk of “God’s will.”

Most of us don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say. We don’t know where God is when life sucks or suffering comes, so we say ignorant things or offer empty platitudes.

There’s a long folk tale in the Old Testament in which a character named Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage. Worse, he loses it all at once. His life disintegrates faster than a dream.

For days, Job is mute with disbelief. His friends show up — no small gesture — and sit with him in silence.

Until Job finally does speak. Then, his friends discover, they aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.

Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation knows the temptation to put a lid on it. And very often our speech about God is the way we put a lid on it.

Questions like “Where is God…?” or “Why is God doing this…?” can become the means by which we silence a vulnerability too harrowing to bear.

Sometimes the vulnerability we wish to quiet with questions is our own.

So we resort to clichés. But just like one-size-fits-all clothes, one-size-fits-all platitudes never fit.

For Job’s friends there’s disconnect between what they think they know about God and how Job describes his experience. So they feel the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it. They offer platitudes.

But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend — to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Instead of saying, “God must be teaching you a lesson,” how about saying, “Tell me what you’re going through. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me. I’m here. I’m listening.”

We don’t need to protect God from our feelings. From the cross Jesus, the Son of God, screams at God, “Why have you forsaken me!?” And God responds to that cross, which we built, with an empty tomb. God doesn’t need protecting, especially not from our candor or feelings of forsakenness.

As much as anything, faith entails the knowledge that you do not need to protect God. We don’t need to protect God because God is not to blame.

Platitudes and reasons suggest God is behind the suffering and the suck in our lives. They suggest a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will. But that is not the world as scripture sees it. As St. Paul describes it, the world is groaning against God’s good intentions for it (Romans 8:22). In the language of scripture, suffering is a symptom of our world’s rebellion against God; it’s not a sign of God’s plan for our lives.

Maybe we conjure a different world, a world of tight causality, because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel. They are.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question “Why?” has no answer. It often does not.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us without warning, for no reason, and from which no good will ever come. They can and they do.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, a reason behind every pitfall in our lives, but think about it: The logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster. Such a god is certainly in charge kind of god, but such a god is not worthy of our worship.

Truth is, God doesn’t use or deploy suffering. God is present with us in suffering. In fact, in Jesus’ cross we witness that God, too, suffers in the brokenness of the world.

So, what do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say, “God has a reason.” Try saying, “There’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.”

The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: “What?”

She blushed and apologized. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say,” she said. But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said, “When his mother comes back in here, don’t. Say. Anything.”

At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.

And the scary thing for us?

What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 long chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial — at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.

It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.

I’ve stood at enough bedsides and gravesides to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain we sometimes make God an anathema, an entity of distrust and spite.

In trying to locate where God is in the midst of the suffering and the suck, we can push people away from him.

For the last two years, I’ve battled my own incurable cancer. I know of what I speak: The only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, would be to suffer without God, for God is with us in our suffering, just as we are called to be with others in their suffering.

As both pastor and patient, then, my advice: When there’s nothing to say, say nothing. Or, do as the Psalms so often do.

Lament.
Rage.
At God.

If faith entails knowing you do not need to protect God, then faith is also a kind of protest against God, who still has not yet made good on his promise to redeem all of creation.

“Where is God in the midst of this suffering?” is a question best turned around and posed to God, defiantly so. “What’s taking you so long, God?!”

Only a God whose power is suffering love could appreciate the irony: faith that looks to any outsider like doubt or, sometimes, even despair.

One of John Wesley’s mandates to his pastors was that they be ‘punctual’ in all things. In fact, this is one of the vows the bishop asked me to make at my ordination- along with another Wesley mandate to avoid unseemly debt, which we all sniggered at, weighed down as we all were/are by student loans.

I’ve been thinking about that mandate to be punctual, to never tarry too long, to never be late. Specifically, I’ve been wondering if maybe Wesley’s point should be applied to more than just church meetings and worship services?

Perhaps JW’s mandate forbids us Wesleyans from being behind the times too?

Just as my vow to be punctual in all things meant I shouldn’t show up late to a Trustees meeting, I wonder if maybe it also means my Church should stop- routinely- showing up late to the marketplace of ideas, should stop tarrying so long in the past that it misses present cultural trends, only to belatedly make an appeal for ‘relevance’ that inevitably smacks desperately of just the opposite?

Alright so I’m a Tamed Cynic, but I’m still a cynic. How can I not be?

For example,  the United Methodist Church has recently jumped on the Bill O’Reilly ‘Take Back Christmas’/Mike Slaughter ‘Christmas Is Not Your Birthday’/Emergent Church ‘Advent Conspiracy’ bandwagon….several years behind the curve.

Before you know it we’ll be putting ‘Lord I Lift Your Name on High’ in our hymnals…oh wait…never mind.

If the UMC truly wanted to get ahead of the curve, we’d ditch the Heifer Project model and praise regular ole materialistic gift-giving as a way both to boost the economy and model the inner life of the Trinity in which Father, Son and Spirit are constantly exchanging gift and grace to one another (maybe that’s a bit heady for Xmas).

Macro-picture rant: the very suggestion we should Reclaim/Take Back Christmas implies that everyone who celebrates ‘Christmas’ (ie, the culture) is Christian. That lie, and it always was a lie, died sometime during the Ike Administration if not at Plymouth Rock. Christmas is the story of the incarnate God revealed in the flesh of a peasant baby to a shamed teenage mother in a small pocket of the globe to the very least of society and was ignored, written-off or outright rejected by…people like you and me.

Not to mention the whole Reclaim/Take Back language suggests none of us participate or encourage the very capitalist system from which we need to rescue Christmas (as if Jesus needed our rescuing…).

So let everyone do what they will at Xmas time. Maybe we Christians should just worry about how we- not others- celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation.

Anyways, here’s a post I could’ve written myself by a Jesus Lover/Cynic after my own heart:

Am I the only one who is shaking my head at what our friends at Rethink Church are doing this season? The marketing arm of the United Methodist Church is now joining in the battle to “Reclaim Christmas.” It was bad enough that the whole Rethink Church thing happened at almost exactly at the same time that famous chicken join (not the homophobic one) launched their “Unthink” campaign in the same font and colors.

It is quite possible that the words “rethink” and “Christmas” put together are almost as tired and loaded as “Christmas” is by itself. No comment yet from evangelical publishing house Zondervan who started using this marketing gimmick on Facebook in 2009. Or from Benjamin Husted and family who wrote a book about it in 2006. Or from Keep Christmas Alive who started it in 2005. Or the RETAILERS (you get that?) who tried to do the same in 1999.

One ally may be a woman that I helped by loading her groceries in her car in 1993. She had this bumper sticker on her 1977 Plymouth. I’d imagine she is delighted. But she’s also likely dead, and the bumper sticker had little chance of surviving the Cash for Clunkers purge.

It is fitting for my church to be 20 years behind on this, because it is on everything else, too.

Seriously friends, what do we really need to “reclaim” about Christmas? For years, I’ve been one of those jerks who has been saying that if we need to reclaim anything it is Advent. It is impossible to understand what a “Christ” celebration means without also understanding why Christ came and will come again. It is impossible to get what the incarnation means without examining that for which your spirit and all creation longs.

Let the kids have Christmas. Let it be a cultural thing. Let Macy’s decorate their store windows on Halloween. Let the city put up a giant tree on public property. Sing trite songs about other dead and gone things like sleigh bells and Yul Brynner Yule logs. And have fun with it.

But, if we are going to claim to be followers of Jesus, we also must know our Christ. And a marketing campaign isn’t going to make that happen any more than “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” made the UMC open and affirming of all people. So let’s save the clever stuff for people selling cars and bunless chicken sandwiches, and let’s get back to the business at hand: promoting personal piety and spreading scriptural holiness. Like Advent, that is something worth reclaiming.

Here’s the full post.