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Covert Christians

Jason Micheli —  March 9, 2017 — 3 Comments

I take an attribute of strong preaching to be the ability to take a cliche or convention and upend it. Here, my Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra, takes John 3 and counterintuitively makes Nicodemus the hero of the story. In a world of 3.16 eyeblack and politically compromised evangelicals, this is a fresh word from this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel:

A Sermon Preached at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

New York, New York

Sunday, May 28, 2006

by Robert Dykstra

John 3:1-10, John 19:38-42

I thought her invitation a bit presumptuous, a bit out of place, though it was benign enough as invitations go. It was an altar call, really, and I havenít anything much against altar calls, though I donít ever remember issuing one myself as a preacher, perhaps for fear of a lack of any response. But this particular altar call seemed a bit unusual, a little presumptuous, a little out of place.

The place was Miller Chapel on the Princeton Seminary campus, back in my days as a student there. Her invitation came at one of the seminaryís brief weekday morning worship services. The preacher on that particular day was a guest minister from outside the seminary community, a distinguished and eloquent African-American woman  ñ I canít even remember her name now. But what I do remember is that at the end of her lively and powerful sermon ñ the way of African American sermons and far more compelling than our usual white-boy-student-sermon fare ñ this preacher issued an altar call to those of us in the congregation. She asked those who wished to commit their lives to Christ to come forward into the chancel for a prayer.

Well, I found this invitation a little odd, a little out of place, a little presumptuous of her. No one can enroll as a student or be hired on as a faculty member at Princeton Seminary without claiming to be a Christian, though I canít fully guarantee that Jesus himself would claim us all as such. You have to say youíre a Christian to get admitted to Princeton Seminary, so whatís up with this preacher issuing an altar call at a place like this, in a place like Miller Chapel?

I thought to myself, No one is going to go forward to commit their lives to Jesus at Princeton Seminary.

I was dead wrong, of course. Of the perhaps hundred or so students and faculty in the chapel that day, a huge throng of worshipers made their way to the front of the sanctuary. In fact, when the procession ended, I looked around and noticed that there were maybe only four or five of us still seated in our pews. The preacher herself looked out on us pathetic holdouts and noticed it, too. So she said straight to our faces, ìYou folks still sitting out there might as well come on up here, too.î

Now it was I, of course, who was feeling a little presumptuous, or, at least, a little conspicuous. Who did I think I was to imagine that I didnít need to commit my life to Jesus, especially when everyone else in that room seemed to think that they themselves did? No matter that, as far as I knew, Iíd been committed to Jesus as long as I could remember. I recall as a boy still in my booster seat asking my parents how God could be everywhere if we couldnít see God ñ asking questions like that and loving how they would reply: God was inside us, they might say; or God is Spirit, they might say.

I remember as a sixth-grader on the cusp of adolescence attending a Presbyterian summer church camp ñ my first time away from home alone for a whole week, a time full of excitement ñ loving every minute, falling in love perhaps for the first time not only with another camper, but fully, knowingly, with Jesus, feeling him in my heart, openly committing my life to him, praying to him, singing songs to him.

As a high school boy I was allowed to become the church organist of our little congregation, and I took this responsibility very seriously, practicing hymns from the same green hymn book you use here at Fifth Avenue, sometimes late into the night all alone in the darkened sanctuary, a room tiny by this sanctuaryís standard but that seemed voluminous to me at that age ñ alone in the dark, the little light on the organ the only one burning. And I felt warm and secure and so at home in the quiet darkness of Godís house. And I still feel that way today, perhaps most at home of any place I could be in a sanctuary like this, especially if all alone in it, especially at night with one light burning.

So in chapel as a seminary student that day, I felt Iíd been committed to Jesus for a long time. But I knew what I had to do, so at the preacherís bidding to us holdouts still in the pews, I slunk up out of my seat, feeling a bit chastised, and made my way with the other four or so of my less-than-devout comrades to pray with everyone else there in the chancel. But I knew by then that I was a little more reluctant to be born again this time after having been born so many times before.

*******

Thereís a part of me that admires the courage of a preacherís altar call to seminarians. Thereís something exactly right about that invitation. But I think itís also true that, as Iíve grown older, Iíve grown even more uneasy than I was as a student in chapel that day with the kind of public declarations of Christian faith that have grown increasingly familiar and have become not a little divisive in our churches and in our nation today. I get nervous about all those Christians who borrow the ìborn againî language from this very passage in John 3 ñ the chapter of the Bible that contains its most comforting verse, ìFor God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…î ñ but Christians who wear that ìborn againî language as a badge of honor, who use this language to fashion a kind of litmus test or entrance exam into Christian faith, into true discipleship, use it therefore as an instrument of exclusion rather than of grace. Thereís part of me that wishes I had resisted the preacherís second invitation that day to the four of us still remaining in our pews, wishes I had stayed put and prayed by myself there where I was sitting. That would have been more the Christian I now want to be.

I think Iím a born-again Christian going increasingly undercover, becoming increasingly private, increasingly stealthy about my faith. Iím becoming more like Nicodemus, a man who knows that thereís great power and great risk in meeting Jesus, a man who does not take lightly such an encounter with him, who knows thereís a lot at stake. I think Iím someone who now prefers to talk with Jesus in the dark of night, in the middle of the night, as when a boy in that empty church sanctuary with just one lamp burning.

*******

Nicodemusí story, of course, moves in just the opposite direction. His moves from meeting Jesus first in the dark ñ Nick at Night ñ to, by the end of Jesusí life, embracing Jesusí body in broad daylight. You see, Nicodemus shows up several times in Johnís gospel, each time appearing more bold, more public, more decisive about following Jesus, about being seen as his disciple, as if Jesusí lesson that first night about his needing to be born again, born from above, really took hold in his life, really sank in. If my story begins with a public love for Jesus in the daylight to increasingly private encounters with him at night, Nicodemusí story moves from a shadowy encounter with Jesus at night to a powerful declaration of his love for him in the light of day. It is Nicodemus, after all, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, the elite Jewish ruling council just 70 members strong, the council that proved finally to be Jesusí undoing, his death ñ this Nicodemus is the man who, with the help of his friend Joseph of Arimathea and at great personal risk, embalms Jesusí body after his death, and he offers this painful and tender declaration of love, this intimate final gift to his friend, no longer under cover of darkness.

*******

The nationís most famous undertaker, Thomas Lynch, lives in Milford, Michigan, a small town just north of Detroit, where he buries his friends and neighbors for a living. He also writes amazing books, the reason heís now our nationís most famous undertaker. In his book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch tells of preparing the body of his dead friend, Milo Hornsby:

Last Monday morning Milo Hornsby died. Mrs. Hornsby called at 2 a.m. to say that Milo had expired and would I take care of it, as if his condition were like any other that could be renewed or somehow improved upon. At 2 a.m., yanked from my REM sleep, I am thinking, put a quarter into Milo and call me in the morning. But Milo is dead. In a moment, in a twinkling, Milo has slipped irretrievably out of our reach, beyond Mrs. Hornsby and the children, beyond the women at the laundromat he owned, beyond his comrades at the Legion Hall, the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge, his pastor at First Baptist, beyond the mailman, zoning board, town council, Chamber of Commerce; beyond us all, and any treachery or any kindness we had in mind for him.

Milo is dead….

[In the hospital where he died,] Milo is downstairs, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM, in a stainless-steel drawer, wrapped in white plastic top to toe….

I sign for him and get him out of there….

Back at the funeral home, upstairs in the embalming room, behind a door marked PRIVATE, Milo Hornsby is floating on a porcelain table under florescent lights. Unwrapped, outstretched, Milo is beginning to look a little more like himself ñ eyes wide open, mouth agape, returning to our gravity. I shave him, close his eyes, his mouth. We call this setting the features. These are the features ñ eyes and mouth ñ that will never look the way they would have looked in life when they were always opening, closing, focusing, signaling, telling us something. In death, what they tell us is that they will not be doing anything anymore. The last detail to be managed is Miloís hands ñ one folded over the other, over the umbilicus, in an attitude of ease, of repose, of retirement.

They will not be doing anything anymore, either.

I wash his hands before positioning them [Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, 9-11].

*******

Thatís what Nicodemus will end up doing, though in the light of day, for Jesus. Setting his features. Washing his hands.

Maybe thatís the direction of faith that Jesus prefers, from darkness to light, from stealthy discipleship to public declarations of born-again faith. Maybe thatís what Jesus wants, itís probably what this story in John chapter three is trying to suggest.

But the more that contemporary American Christians insist that everyone become born again and insist too that we all sign on to a prescribed and unyielding roster of accompanying social and political doctrines; the more, so to speak, that weíre pressured to come up to the front of the chapel: the more I want to seek out Jesus in private, at night, undercover, like the early Nicodemus.

The more they press us to become daylight Christians, bumper-sticker Christians, card-carrying, banner-waving Christians, the more I appreciate those stealthy Christians whom I have known and increasingly want to emulate along the way: Christians who are not always so sure of their status before God, seekers who find their encounters with Jesus to be a risky business, who go about their faith without ostentation and perhaps also without complete assurance, in secret, in darkness, undercover, uncertain. The more that born-again Christians fill the airwaves with their certitudes and self-assurance, the more I want to be that Christian with just one lamp burning in the middle of the night.

ìThe wind blows where it chooses,î Jesus tells Nicodemus there in the darkness, ìand you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.î The wind blows where it chooses. God blows where God chooses. We do not control God any more than the wind.

Your being born, my being born, though we can be reasonably sure that we were once born, was not in your or my control, is not something we can take much credit for having done. We had very little to say about our being born the first time, and we would do well to have very little to say now about our being born again, born from above.

It happened once, yes, your birth; it happens sometimes, yes, being born again. But itís not something to spend much time talking about, not if you want to retain any friends. Itís not something in which to take pride or boast. You didnít have that much to do with it. No, better instead just to get on with the business of living, of loving, of serving, of worshiping, of picking up your friends at 2 a.m. and doing for them what needs to be done, however painful or dismal the task. Quiet Christians, steady Christians, stealthy Christians, modest, unassuming, grateful, lunar Christians. Have you known any Christians like that in your life?

*******

A few years ago, as a promising young theology professor at Notre Dame in her early forties, Catherine LaCugna was told by her doctors ìthat there was nothing more that they could do for her and that cancer would kill her within a few months.î At receiving this terrible news, her friend Kathleen Norris writes, LaCugna ìdid not run away to nurse her wounds but continued teaching. She told only a few close friends that she was near death, and she went on living the life she had chosen. She was able to teach until a few days before she died.î

Reflecting on her friendís life and death, Norris says:

I can scarcely imagine what it meant to her students when they found out what she had done, when they considered that they and the dry, underappreciated work of systematic theology that they had been engaged in together meant so much to her. Now, whenever I recite the prayer that ends the churchís liturgical day, ìMay the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect death,î it is her death that I think of. A perfect death, fully acknowledged and fully realized, offered for others. (Kathleen Norris, ìPerfection,î Christian Century, February 18, 1998: 180).

I think of Norrisí words and of LaCugnaís death from time to time, for they capture the kind of Christian I want to be ñ quiet, steady, faithful, courageous, but, oh, so aware that time is short, the stakes high, the questions we pose to Jesus in the dead of night so very important, with so much hanging in the balance.

Darkness. Risk. Courage. Faithfulness. A stealth Christian. Thatís the kind that, more and more, Iíd like to be.

*******

Remember Thomas Lynch taking care of his friend, Milo Hornsby? Lynch says:

When my wife moved out some years ago, the children stayed here, as did the dirty laundry. It was big news in a small town. There was the gossip and the goodwill that places like this are famous for. And while there was plenty of talk, no one knew exactly what to say to me. They felt helpless, I suppose. So they brought casseroles and beef stews, took the kids out to the movies or canoeing, brought their younger sisters around to visit me. What Milo did was send his laundry van around twice a week for two months, until I found a housekeeper. Milo would pick up five loads in the morning and return them by lunchtime, fresh and folded. I never asked him to do this. I hardly knew him. I had never been in his home or his laundromat. His wife had never known my wife. His children were too old to play with my children.

After my housekeeper was installed, I went to thank Milo and pay the bill. The invoices detailed the number of loads, the washers and the dryers, detergent, bleaches, fabric softeners. I think the total came to sixty dollars. When I asked Milo what the charges were for pick-up and delivery, for stacking and folding and sorting by size, for saving my life and the lives of my children, for keeping us in clean clothes and towels and bed linen, ìNever mind thatî is what Milo said. ìOne hand washes the other,î [is what Milo said].

I place Miloís right hand over his left hand, then try the other way. Then back again. Then I decide that it doesnít matter. One hand washes the other either way [Lynch, 11].

*******

One hand washes the other. Thereís Nicodemus at the end of Johnís gospel washing the hand that once washed his, embalming Jesus.

Nicodemus is not filling the airwaves with endless chatter about his having been born again, though he may well have been thus born. Heís just risking his life, his status, his reputation in this last, quiet, heroic act of love for his friend.

Heís not talking about his birth. Heís living his life. Heís giving his life to the one who so loved the world, to the one who gave his life for him.

Will you?

Cancer is Funny: Blurbs

Jason Micheli —  September 17, 2016 — 5 Comments

MicheliCover_FINALOther than a headshot for the dust jacket, my book with Fortress Press, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo,  is all finished and due out 12/1. Stay tuned and, if you’ve not already, you can pre-order it here. And if you know someone touched by cancer in some way, make sure they get one too.

One of the humbling humiliating experiences of book publishing, I’ve discovered, is asking other people not only to read your book but also to blurb it. I can only liken it thus: “Will you take me out on a multi-hour date? Oh, and pay for it, too?”

I realize there’s no way to share these without humble-bragging, but some of my reviewers went out of their way to provide not only thoughtful but emotional blurbs for Cancer is Funny. I thought I would thank them by giving them a shout-out here on the blog before you can see them on and in the cover of the book.

Drumroll:

“What gets lost in all the stories about the decline of religion is how many people have left church because they find its leaders uninspired and institutionally minded. Jason Micheli is neither. He is as funny as he is smart and both come through in refreshing, irreverent ways in Cancer is Funny. If you’re spiritual but not religious or if you’re religious but have forgotten how to be spiritual, Jason Micheli reminds us that God can be found in the world beyond the Church, even in incurable cancer. And Jason shows us with raw candor that wherever God is to be found, joy and laughter are possible.”

—Diana Butler Bass, author of Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution

“Jason Micheli is one of the most hip, funny, deeply-theological-without-being-boring pastors in my church today.  Jason is an engaging, always substantive-without-being-showy communicator of the faith.  Now that he’s got Stage Dangerous Cancer Jason’s wit, faith, and genius turns even that tough journey into a pilgrimage toward God.  Only Jason could transform cancer into a source of comedy but also a great occasion to teach the rest of us how to think like Christians about life, sickness, death, and God.  Jason is able to do this because he, as much as anyone I know, believes in a living, redemptive God who is with us, in good times and bad. A funny, faithful book.”

– Will Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and United Methodist Bishop, retired.

“Jason Micheli is the bravest motherfucker I’ve ever met. It takes a lot of courage to keep faith with God while you’re saying, “Fuck you cancer, and your little tumor Toto too.” But not only does he keep faith; it deepens because he becomes a theologian of the only theology that matters—the theology of death and life, you know, the theology of when shit gets real. Writing with the wit and brutal honesty of Annie Lamott, Michelli takes his readers on a shakedown cruise of pain, suffering, and discovery where we all meet God, perhaps for the first time. Get this book, bitches.”

– Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, Professor of Religion, Elon University

“Illness creates loneliness but Micheli resists that development by sharing his struggle with cancer. He does so with good humor which is not only a gift because, as he suggests, cancer is only funny in a tragic way, but also the most fundamental quality for a well-lived and faithful life.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Emeritus Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke University

If smart-ass humor is the best evidence of fighting spirit, Jason Micheli is Charles Bronson of cancer patients. He disrupts all the cliches of cancer chronicles: he’s not old or saintly and peddling comfort or resolution. He’s a preacher who’s not at peace, a GenXer who acknowledges that irony is his security blanket. Staring down the barrel of a life-threatening disease, he proves that irreverence can be the flip side of faith.

— JC Herz, author of Learning to Breathe Fire

“Sometimes you read a book you have to finish. Sometimes you know you have to read it again. On occasions you read a book that makes you think, laugh, drop some tears, & want to grab a drink with the author. Jason has done that, plus I have a list of people who will be getting this book as a gift. If you love solid theology, powerful testimony, & a text you will ruminate over, you will love this book.”

– Tripp Fuller, author of The Home-brewed Christianity Guide to Jesus

“Coming to terms with death ain’t easy. And yet, as Jason Micheli says, none of us is getting out of life alive. Thankfully Jason Micheli has given us a surprising book like Cancer is Funny, which, it so happens, is as hilarious as it is thoughtful and deeply faithful. Cancer is Funny is funny. It’s also personal and reflective, urgently so. It will not only teach you about yourself, it will teach you about God too. A riveting journey through the suffering that, as he puts, God may or may not be doing to him- a question everyone of us has asked, or will some day soon. Don’t be fooled by the title. Suffering, it turns out, can lead to laughter because you can’t face death without rediscovering the wonder of life.”

– David Fitch, BR Linder Chair of Evangelical Theology, Northern Seminary and Author of Faithful Presence

“Don’t let the title of this book fool you.  It’s about cancer, and it’s funny, but it’s also profound, honest, and deeply faithful.  Jason Micheli is one of the best theological communicators I know.  This book will move and instruct everyone who has a mortal body and a questioning spirit.”

– Dr. Kendall Souled, Professor of Systematic Theology, Emory University

“Cancer Is Funny is a stunning monument to human perseverance and divine grace amid the specter of finitude. The very fact of its construction, like that of the ancient pyramids or the Taj Mahal, is as improbable as it is awe-inspiring and beautiful. The result is a wonder to behold. Jason Micheli is that rare Christian minister who serves up truth unvarnished, live-blogging with graphic honesty his experience of ingesting deadly poisons designed to spare his young life, against sobering odds, from an unforgiving cancer. Fasten your seatbelts, dear readers. There is turbulence ahead. Prepare to laugh and cry. Prepare to live and die.”

– Robert C. Dykstra
Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Pastoral Theology
Princeton Theological Seminary

“Put down that outdated magazine in your oncologists office! Cancer is Funny will take you on a journey from Jason’s mind all the way to the inner parts of his body that ends up revealing his soul.   Jason lays himself bare so that you can look, laugh and feel better during the often faith-testing, twisted ride that is cancer. What is funniest is that this book will grab you and remind you of what matters in life.”

– Brian Stolarz, Attorney and Author of Grace and Justice on Death Row

 

 

Untitled44Take a random stranger, walking down the street.

Look at them. What do you see?

Do you see a sinner, deserving of God’s wrath punishment?

Or do you see a creature, made by and loved by God?

I recall my Jedi Master, Dr. Robert Dykstra, posing that multiple choice to us as an aside one semester at Princeton. The question was one that had been put to him by the chair of his ordination committee.

His answer was something like ‘I know the first answer makes me ‘right’ theologically speaking, but I think the second answer will make me a better pastor.’

I remember thinking: Damn, slick response.

And: Yup, probably so.

In §2-3 of On the Incarnation Athanasius begins to unspool his case that the second argument not only makes for better pastors, it makes for a better God. He does so by linking together creation and incarnation, cross and new creation all as one single work grace.

In my own little cul-de-sac of the Christian tradition, United Methodism, we spend a lot of time parsing and divvying up, labeling and sequentially ordering, the many forms or  movements of God’s grace.

Prevenient grace.

Justifying grace.

Sanctifying grace.

We memorize on individuated flash cards.

Among Methodist ordinands, there’s even a terrible likening of the ‘stages’ of God’s grace to a house with a front porch as though the mystery of God’s sharing of God’s own life with us is analogous to a Thompson Creek commercial on 106.7 The FAN.

For Methodists, ‘prevenient’ (from the Latin- our lone moment of slumming it with the papists- for ‘to come before’) grace is the work of God which comes before your Christian conversion. It’s the grace by which God gives you sight to recognize and character to accept the (real) grace God does in Jesus Christ the Cross.

Contrary to Methodists, Athanasius would countenance no such divisions or distinctions when it comes to God’s unmerited work among us. For Athanasius, everything, every last single damn thing, is completely gratuitous.

It’s all grace.

Viewed from the Artist’s perspective, it’s all the same grace.

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Before and after make no sense when it comes to grace. Seeing the Cross as the ‘amazing’ grace is to make a category mistake for it obscures that you likewise don’t deserve for the Creator to hold you in existence at every moment of your existence.

Everything, it’s all gratuity.

To so argue, Athanasius roots his understanding of the incarnation where others seldom even give a passing glance, with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

Creation from

Out of

No-thing.

In §2 Athanasius contrasts creatio ex nihilo with the two rival views of his day.

On the one hand, there was Plato who believed that ‘God’ had created from pre-existing materials- which would’ve meant that ‘creation’ in some sense was eternal.

On the other hand, there were those who believed that the Supreme (remote) Being would not have deigned to create the world; therefore, creation was the result of exalted, subsidiary being(s).

The former view, Athanasius argues, would imply that God is not an Artificer, creating from things which did not exist, but is more like a mechanic or tradesman, crafting-not creating- from the stuff around him. And hence something less than thoroughly, sheerly gratuitous.

The latter view, Athanasius points out, renders Jesus something less than divine.

For Christian speech to be intelligible, neither view is acceptable.

The Word which created must not be distinct from the Word which comes in the flesh, but the Word which took flesh from nothing in Mary’s womb must also have created originally from nothing.

Lest grace be something less than constitutive God’s very character, which would make creche and cross something more like a change in God’s mood.

The One God created gratuitously, every thing from no thing.

But the Word was with God, present, at creation.

Therefore the Word is God.

Athanasius-blog-Zachary-Franzen

If so, the salvation wrought by the Word made flesh is but a continuation of the original grace that is creation by the same Word. Or better put, according to Athanasius’ reasoning, ‘salvation’ is a word that names everything in between ‘let there be light’ ‘behold, I tell you a mystery.’

It names it all because the only reason for a creation from nothing is that there can be no reason. It’s all gift. And so the only ‘reason’ is that God desires to share triune life. Just as each moment in Jesus’ ministry is but a part of what it means for Jesus to be incarnate, each moment after creation is an episode in the large, seamless drama of God bringing us into union with God.

So it’s true that, within that drama, there are chapters in which Dr. Dykstra’s first possible answer is demonstrably true. We are sinners worthy of wrath. But if the Word made flesh also made everything ex nihilo, then the bigger, truer, older answer is B.

We are completely gratuitous creatures of the Creator and, thus, loved as precious children.

leperThis fall I’ve been leading a bible study through the Gospel of Mark, a small chunk at a time.

A few weeks ago we looked at 1.40-45:

‘A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” 

Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 

Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 

Snorting with indignation, Jesus dispatched him, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 

The big Gospel takeaway:

Mark makes a point of emphasizing- remember every last detail in Mark is important and intentional- Jesus touched the leper first before he healed him.

Where Jesus should’ve become contagious from leprosy, the leper becomes contagious with the love of Jesus.

The exchange here between the leper and Jesus symbolically illustrates how the order of power has been overturned: Jesus is infecting the status quo.

The symbolic, Kingdom-enacting power of this touch is easy to miss and hard to overestimate. When Jesus says the Kingdom is here among you, it’s in moments like this one.

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A former teacher of mine who always will be one of my theological Jedis, Dr Robert Dykstra, shares his own personal parallel to this Gospel in his book, Losers, Loners and Rebels: The Spiritual Struggles of Boys. m2Md4IhrnTDgSkyCO-I0KSA

No doubt, I resonate with it because like Dr Dykstra I too suffered this particular leprosy and shame, but, unlike him, I’ve never had the courage to share about it.

Here it is:

“By mid-adolescence, I had developed an unusually severe, almost textbook case of acne, though one mostly confined to areas on my back and chest and therefore mercifully hidden under my shirt from the gaze of others. I say ‘textbook case’ because of a conversation I had with a physician friend years later, at age 27, while working as a chaplain in a hospital.

As we talked one day, I happened to mention to my friend that if I ever were to develop a serious infection, I was sure there would be no antibiotics left to treat me because of a tolerance I had developed after so many years of taking them for acne as a youth.

She asked me which drugs I had taken, and as I went through the list and got to the last and, at the time, most potent, one called Dapsone, she casually remarked ‘Oh, the leprosy drug.’

I went to the Physicians’ Desk Reference, the drug bible, and looked up Dapsone, and there it was- the primary drug used to treat Hanson’s Disease, a contemporary form of leprosy. Acne was not even listed there among its possible indications, leading me to speculate about the desperation of my dermatologist.

Though I had suspected it since early childhood, at 27 a doctor confirmed I was indeed a leper.

Back when I was 16, I cringed one day when my minister casually touched my shoulder, because it hurt. He asked why I flinched. I didn’t respond.

He had a long memory however and days later asked if he could see my back. I told him no. He wanted to know why, but again I would not say. We played this game for a while, so great was my shame, until for some reason- perhaps sheer exhaustion but more likely an inner desire to be known- I relented.

We were together in church, in the sanctuary, of all places, when I lifted up my shirt for him. He told me he was sorry I had suffered this alone, that he was proud of me for letting me see, and that he thought it would help for me to see a doctor, which to that point I had not done.

Thus would begin my years of antibiotics and some tangible relief from an embodied source of shame.

Today, of course, a minister’s asking an adolescent to lift his shirt in church immediately raises eyebrows…

But this, I think,  would be the wrong lesson to draw. There is no question that healing for my own leprosy, not only in its most overt form as acne but in its more invidious expression as shame, began long before I took a single capsule of Tetracycline, the first of the drugs, and years before I took the final Dapsone, the last of them.

Rather, the great healing came in lifting my shirt before a sufficiently attentive, caring other, and especially in doing so in the safety of ‘my Father’s house.’

I found with graphic clarity in that particular space and action a God who was as concerned with my body as with my soul. I found acceptance, a sanctuary, for embodied shame.”

 

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked me for advice on preaching…

I’m convinced that I would not be doing what I do today had I attended a church with crappy preaching when I first became a Christian. Or, if I still was doing this (God’s stubborn call and all) then I’m convinced I’d doing it badly had I not first been exposed to Dennis Perry’s preaching.

The best advice I ever received as a novice preacher came from Dr Robert Dykstra (my own personal Yoda).

Dr Dykstra said I should identify a preacher, whose style and delivery I both admired and felt approximated my own desired style and delivery, and to mimic that preacher.

The advice actually included the suggestion that I obtain or transcribe a manuscript of a sample from that preacher, memorize it, and then videotape myself delivering that sermon in the manner of the preacher.

In the same painters learn to paint by copying the works of earlier masters, the thinking behind this advice was that in mimicking a master preacher I would intuitively learn what makes a sermon work.

And then I would be more likely to create one on my own.

This is exactly what I did and to this day my own preaching looks and sounds an awful lot like the preacher who gave me that advice.

Don’t believe me? Listen here.

My preaching may not always be exceptional but I do know what makes a sermon work, thanks to this advice.

To a large extent, preaching is not something that can be learned in a classroom or from manuals or on our own.

It’s a craft. Like woodworking, painting or bricklaying, it’s a craft best learned by imitation and apprenticeship.

It’s no accident that most of the Church’s great preachers grew up in congregations where they listened to the preaching of great preachers.

Thanks to the internet and media libraries this mode of imitation is easier to pull off than it was when I was in seminary. I’d encourage you to find a master and make yourself their apprentice.

 

priest_collarOkay, so some of you give me crap about always being snarky, sarcastic and cynical. So, I thought I’d do a decidedly uncynical series of posts: Top Ten Things About Being A Pastor.

#1: Grace Happens

Before I graduated from Princeton, Dr Robert Dyksta, my theological Jedi master, lamented that I was about to serve in a denomination whose system of appointing pastors ‘contradicts everything we know about psychology.’

I asked what he meant and he replied by explaining how it’s a given that people in congregations wear masks, keep up pretenses and are reluctant to let others see what’s behind the curtain of the self they show others.

He then offered me this wisdom: ‘If you’re going to stay a Methodist, then you should tell your bishop you’ll serve wherever they send you so long as they’re willing to leave you there for at least seven years. It takes that long for people to reveal who they are behind their masks, warts and all.’

In other words, it takes time and patience to see notice grace at work in people’s lives.

But seen it I have and that, by a long shot and then some, is the best thing about ministry.

I could tell you about the woman whom I’ve known these past 7 1/2 years, who seems a completely different person these last few years than the  one I knew the previous years. To be honest, our relationship back then was often marked by mutual frustration. Today I think of her as something of a cross between a friend and a surrogate grandmother. What accounts for the change in her? She credits it with a spiritual discipline she started practicing a couple of years ago, intentionally praying the shema every day and daily committing herself to loving Christ and through him, others.

Grace has changed her.

Maybe that doesn’t strike you as a Road to Damascus type of story but it’s real and it’s just one example of many I could give.

I could tell you about the woman who, having been cared for tenderly by a black nurse, at the end of her life confessed and repented of her racism.

I could tell you about husbands and wives who, after much painful work, have forgiven one another of adultery, abuse, addiction. You name it.

I could tell you about prodigals who’ve come home, mothers and fathers who’ve worked at welcoming them and elder brothers who’ve looked themselves in the mirror to finally confront the nasty self-righteousness in them.

I could tell you about people who’ve come to faith by dirtying their hands serving the poor, and I can tell you about individuals who’ve given over hundreds of thousands of dollars for the poor because God Christ has been generous to them.

I could tell you about people who’ve lost a child.

And lost their faith.

And found it again.

Even then I’d only be scratching the surface of what I could tell you.

Not only was Dr Dykstra right. His point has turned out to be the best thing about being a pastor. If you give it time, you get to see.

I can’t prove God exists, and there are those dark days and dark moods when I wrestle with my doubts and fear I’ve given my life to a fool’s errand.

But what I can prove, what I can point to and say ‘See, there it is,’ what I know without ever a day of doubt, is that grace is real.

It happens.