Earthquakes and Elections: Discovering the Unshakable

“In 1952, at the threshold of the Cold War, Harry Emerson Fosdick…spoke these now-famous words: ‘The highest use of a shaken time is to discover the unshakable.’” 

My November 9 blog for Baptist News Global is posted on their website here.

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Beginner’s Mind

i-QK5Vx7L-1636x1152Tomorrow morning I’m going to slip a clerical robe over my shoulders and drape a green liturgical stole around my neck. I will line up behind the choir, along with the other pastors and liturgists, process up an impossibly long center aisle in a neo-Gothic sanctuary and take my assigned seat in the divided chancel. Later in worship I’ll climb a circular set of stairs into a pulpit as high as Rapunzel’s tower.

This is new for me.

And I love that.

I’m crazy about this new adventure because, for one thing, it’s grounding me in the reality that the gospel is true and transformative in every culture—including worship cultures. The heart of God beats in country churches and cathedrals, in darkened theaters and beachside pavilions. The Spirit of Christ is at home among hand-clappers and genuflectors; the Good News sings through guitar amps and organ pipes.

I also love this moment because it offers me a chance to experience again the childlike delight and curiosity of a beginner’s mind. Nothing blocks the spiritual path like the assumption that we already know, or that we have nothing more to learn. Yesterday one of the other pastors at our church kindly led me through the considerable choreography of a worship service at First Baptist Church of Washington DC. My awkwardness reminded me of the ballroom dance lessons Tim and I took years ago: “Step here…turn here…cross the floor and pause.” I imagine there’ll be some missteps tomorrow, but what fun it is to learn!

Mostly, by taking a chance on the unfamiliar, I’m invited again to rely on that which is most true—to rest in the essence of faith. I love the way Richard Rohr puts it: “God’s life of love is being lived within you, and you must simply learn how to say yes to that life. If you exist on a level where you can see how ‘everything belongs,’ you can trust the flow and trust the life.”

Good and gracious God, let me find you in all people and things…and be found by you in every moment. That is enough.

Seriously, Everything?

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Grandma Lucy, 1960

I come from church-goers on my mother’s side. (I also come from hell-raisers and Alabama moonshiners on my father’s side, but that’s a different devotional.) For years my great grandmother, Lucy Modenia Spanagel, was a pillar of the Mt. Vernon Methodist Church in Birmingham. In most of the old photos of Grandma Lucy, she’s wearing a simple housedress and apron—her “everyday” clothes. But a few pictures show her dressed to the nines with white cotton gloves and a fancy hat—her “church” clothes. For Grandma Lucy, as for many from her generation, the practice of wearing Sunday Best to worship arose from a genuine desire to honor the Lord.

I have a young friend whose faith inspires me and who, like a growing number of worshipers, is decidedly more casual in his attire. Once, when an older man in the congregation chided him for “disrespecting God,” I overheard my friend’s gentle response: “I’m trying to honor God by offering my real self,” he said. “Not just my Sunday self.”

I wondered later if my young friend had been reading Psalm 103: “Let my whole being bless the Lord. Let everything inside me bless his holy name.”

Everything inside me? Seriously, everything?

This flies in the face of the sacred Southern aphorism: “We may think it, but we do not speak it!” But what if “speaking it” is the very thing God desires most from us? Not the endless (and futile) polishing up of our shiny selves, but the offering up of our whole selves.

Let everything inside me bless God’s holy name. Sure, the happy, thankful parts of me are going to find it easy enough to sing. But what about the other parts—can they also bless the Lord? According to Psalm 103, you bet they can:

~ The exhausted part of us can sing praise to the One who “renews our youth like the eagle’s.”
~ The part that’s angry at injustice can bless the God who “works righteousness and does justice for all who are oppressed.”
~ The part that’s suffering can sing to the God who “heals our sickness.”
~ The part that’s guilty can sing to the God who “forgives…and removes our sin as far as the east is from the west.”
~ The part of us that’s weak can bless the One who “knows our frame and remembers we are dust.”

As Henri Nouwen puts it:

The discipline of the heart makes us stand in the presence of God with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame, our sexual fantasies, our greed and anger, our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes, our reflections, dreams and mental wandering, and most of all our people, family, friends and enemies, in short all that makes us who we are….

We tend to present to God only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer becomes very selective and narrow. And not just our prayer but also our self-knowledge because by behaving as strangers before God we become strangers to ourselves.

Who can say where God lands in the “white gloves vs. flip-flops” debate in worship? As with most things that really matter to God, I imagine it comes down to the heart—and not just our Sunday heart. Our whole, real, raw, angry, anxious, unpolished heart. This is the best offering of all.

This piece appeared first in a shorter version on September 14, 2015, as a devotional for Baptist Women in Ministry.  http://bwim.info 

Easter Fail 2015

5437335840_6ffbe4d95aSo for starters, there was a veritable Easter parade of technical snafus (microphones not working, video issues, missed cues, etc.). In our second service we had to stop mid-way through the first stanza of Christ the Lord is Risen Today because there was an entirely different hymn projected on the screens. The audio in the wonderful baptism testimony video was out of sync, like a Godzilla movie.

But all of this pales by comparison with the moment in the 8:45 service when, near the end of my message, as I accelerated toward the mighty Empty Tomb Crescendo, I invited a sanctuary full of pastel-clad worshipers into “everlasting, ever-living, ever-praising DEATH!”

Happy Easter, y’all.

Okay, so I was excited and momentarily lost my train of thought. It happens. I knew I’d committed more than a minor fumble when the congregation, which up to that point had been nodding and supportively amening, did this simultaneous little head-tilt—a collective ruh-roh. A few of them actually gasped. Some laughed out loud. I think even God probably offered down a sympathetic “Bless her heart.”

The Devil’s favorite lie
Later, as I kicked myself in my office, my friend and fellow pastor, Sharyn Dowd, gave me a hug. “Don’t take it too hard,” she said. “All the screw-ups in worship today were because of that swipe you took in your message at the penal substitution theory of atonement.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“I’m sure of it,” she said. “Penal substitution is the Devil’s favorite lie for keeping us anxious and ashamed our whole life. We were just getting pushback.”

The crucifixion of Jesus is a great and holy mystery. Because of our genuine need to make sense of this mystery, the Church has offered a number of theories about Christ’s death over the past two thousand years.

In the words of Inigo Montoya: Let me explain. No—there is too much. Let me sum up:

Atonement Theory (sorely abridged)
The New Testament does in fact say, “Christ died for our sins.” (1 Corinthians 14:3b, Galatians 1:4, Romans 4:25) This claim is not up for grabs. The real question for two millennia has been: How do we interpret that claim? Most atonement theories are based on bona fide biblical metaphors for the cross: the “military” metaphor; the “obedience” metaphor; the “ransom” metaphor and the “sacrifice” metaphor.

The “penal substitution” atonement theory, which comes out of the sacrifice metaphor, is not in the New Testament. It’s been around for about 500 years—ever since Martin Luther misinterpreted 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be a sin offering, who knew no sin…” Luther interpreted this verse in terms of punishment rather than sacrifice: God treated Jesus, who knew no sin, as though he were a sinner.

Unfortunately, penal substitution became the prevailing Protestant view of atonement after the Reformation.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, in a recent sermon on John 3:16, takes a hilarious (and harsh)
romp through the penal substitution atonement theory:

“…God had this one little boy – and he loved that little boy so much… but he had to KILL that little boy because you stole a candy bar, or lied to your mom, or felt up your girlfriend or maybe you used swear words or looked at dirty pictures. The important thing to know is that God killed his little boy rather than punishing you, because let’s face it, someone had to pay and you should feel so grateful about all of this that you believe and (most importantly) you behave. But the good news is that if you believe all of this and if you try really hard to be good then when you die you get a special all-inclusive vacation package called Eternal Life.”

Ouch.

Love Wins
Bottom line: The notion that what God mostly is is ANGRY with us is as mistaken today as it was 500 years ago. As Richard Rohr puts it: God loves us, not according to our capacity to be good; God loves us because God is good.

The Love of God is the one eternal reality. When everything else has passed into shadow, what will remain is Love. Love never ends, never fails, never stops, never dies. Fortunately, the news of Easter is so powerfully transcendent, it can bear any of our botched attempts to communicate it.

Happy Easter, y’all.

Monks and Mediation: What some Benedictines taught me about conflict

Chapel steeple, Monastery of Christ in the DesertSeventy-five miles north of Santa Fe there’s a high desert canyon so ancient, so primordial, I half-expected to see pterodactyls in the sky instead of hawks as I steered my rental car along 13 miles of single-lane dirt road. The road runs along the Chama River where elk graze along the banks, and beavers big as bear cubs drag sticks from the woods to their dams in the greenish water.

At the end of the road is the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, where some 25 Benedictine monks from a dozen countries around the world share their lives with one another, and with the guests who come throughout the year to pray and work alongside them. Hospitality is embedded deep in Benedictine practice.

The robed, sandal-shod brothers gather in a beautiful adobe chapel seven times a day for prayer, starting with Vigils at 4:00 a.m. and ending with Compline each evening at 7:30. They pray the Psalms, all 150, over the course of each week, then start over again. They sing all the psalms, even the “cursing” ones that call down the whole gamut of affliction on the heads of the psalmist’s enemies. I can report that Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks feels perhaps a wee bit less appalling when set to Gregorian Chant.

The monks not only pray; they also labor four hours a day and invite their guests to join them. My assignment the first day was pulling weeds in the cemetery with Brother Will from Atlanta and hauling rocks in a wheelbarrow with Brother John Baptist from Malawi. Other guests worked in the hops field. The monks brew and sell their own beer, called Monk’s Ale. “Brewed with care and prayer” it says on the label.

Trouble in the Canyon
I came to the Monsatery a week before their 50th anniversary celebration. In the gift shop I bought a history of the community, commissioned for the occasion. The monastery got its start in 1964 when an intrepid Benedictine monk named Father Aelred from Rhode Island stumbled upon the remote canyon by happenstance and was hooked. He and two close monk buddies from New York set up three tiny tents on the banks of the Chama and made a go of it. In the face of blizzards, floods, land disputes, wild animals and near-fatal injuries, they carved out a primitive observance of monastic life in the tradition of John the Baptist.

Fast-forward eight years to 1972. The monastery has grown! From three monks to four.

However, relationships between them have deteriorated to the point that Father Aelred and his one-time best friend, Father Gregory, are no longer speaking. They communicate now with each other only through notes passed to the other two monks. Things continue to go downhill until one day Father Aelred asks the groundskeeper to drive him to Santa Fe. Without a word to his three brothers he catches a bus out of town. They never see him again.

Ain’t for the Chickenhearted
I talked with Brother Andre, a spunky monk from Connecticut, about this. “For crying out loud,” I said “All you guys do is pray and seek God. How did things get so sideways?”

Brother Andre just grinned and said, “Yeah, well…”

Then he told me about a monastery in the Midwest where the brothers were in revolt against the abbot. “They said they’d rather see the monastery close than work with him,” he said. “They had to bring in a mediator.”

“Geez,” I said. “I’m torn between despair for the Church in general, and relief over the size of our occasional flair-ups back home.” Brother Andre grinned again, the skin around his eyes going all crinkly. Then he summed it up for me in a pronouncement worthy of a bumper sticker: “Sister,” he said, “Christian community ain’t for the chickenhearted.”

There’s a grace note at the end of this jangling story. Because the Spirit of God works just fine in spite of human silliness, the Monastery is a beautiful, thriving community today. I’m sure squabbles still flare up over this or that. But love pings around the place like a pinball and bounces off the red canyon walls.

And every night, as the monks wrap up their prayers, their liturgy includes mention of “our beloved founder, Father Aelred,” making no reference to his defection forty years ago. Instead, they bless his memory and thank God for all the gifts that have come since.

Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.

Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.

This piece originally appeared September 4, 2014 at http://www.abpnews.com.

Chuck It/ Love It: #2

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CC flickr.com/darylljann

I offer today the second installment in the Chuck It/Love It series—in recognition of my alternating desire to chuck the Church over Niagara Falls and announce my undying love for the wobbly thing on the JumboTron at Turner Field. (Entries are from my journal spanning twenty-plus years and three churches in three states. Names and identifying details have been changed.)

Chuck Church
“Nobody here has forgot the church. We just wish we could.”
~ Romulus Linney, Heathen Valley

Today I visited with Tad. He and his partner, Rob, have been part of our church for about a year now. Tad and Rob sometimes hold hands in worship, which sends some people into complete apoplexy, I know. But today I didn’t want to talk about any of that. Today I wanted to know Tad better; to hear more of his story. His life story. His God story.

We sat with the sun on our shoulders as he told me of the day when his mother, father and four of his five siblings severed all ties with him because he is gay. Nine years went by. Then Tad’s father became gravely ill. The children flew from all parts of the country to be with him in his final hours. At the hospital, as everyone gathered around the father’s bed, Tad remained in the hallway, just outside the door. His sister, the only one who’d remained close to Tad, bent down and whispered in their father’s ear: Daddy, Tad is here, too.

The father opened his eyes and declared to the family and to the universe: I have no son named Tad. Then he died.

Tad also told me, with tears dripping off his chin, of how in high school he’d had an under-the-radar boyfriend; a secret he eventually revealed to his youth pastor in their extremely conservative church. Two years later the boy died in a motorcycle accident. After the funeral the pastor told Tad that his boyfriend’s death was God’s punishment for their wicked relationship.

“Your friend died in his sin,” he’d said, “but there’s still hope for you, Tad.
If you’ll simply turn straight and stay straight, God will find it in his heart to love you again.”

Love Church
Recently Marlo called me about getting together. “I think maybe God is trying to get my attention,” she said. “This is new for me and I don’t know what to think about it.”

“Come on over,” I said.

I first met Marlo several months ago on a Sunday when her 23-year-old daughter, Kelsi, introduced us after worship. Kelsi’s speech and cognitive abilities are impaired because of brain trauma she suffered as a child after falling from a tree. But Kelsi is brave, hopeful, resilient and, what’s more, last summer she collided with Jesus in a beautiful way while hanging out with other twenty-somethings from our church.

Everyone else in her family is adamently non-religious. So when Kelsi started bringing up her new-found faith at the dinner table, Marlo decided to come and see for herself what snake-oil fakeries these Baptists might be peddling to her daughter.

After worship Kelsi dragged Marlo to the foyer to meet me. Because of her brain injury Kelsi has absolutely no filter. Whatever she’s thinking is exactly what comes out of her mouth:  “Pastor Julie, this is my mom. She’s an agnostic. So you have your work cut out for you. And my father isn’t here today because he thinks church is a big crock.”

After such a poetic introduction I was happily surprised a few months later when I got the call from Marlo asking if she could come see me.

I’d barely closed my office door when she threw herself on my red floral couch and said with obvious agitation, “I can’t explain it, but every time I’m at your church I get the feeling that God is tapping me on the shoulder. In a Baptist Church, for God’s sake! My friends think I’m nuts. I don’t know whether to feel relieved or mortified.”

She described how, during her first time in worship, when we came to the Passing of the Peace she panicked and didn’t know what to do. Turning to the elderly man next to her, she stuck out her hand and blurted: May the force be with you.”

I love Church.

Chuck It/Love It: #1

IMG_1206As anyone knows who’s been around Church for more than twelve minutes, the whole thing is a seriously mixed bag. I’ve been a pastor for twenty-seven years and every week I have two alternating thoughts:

This is the best life imaginable!
and
Could I make it as a barista?

This I know for sure: Every church on the planet includes some of the pettiest, crabbiest, gossipiest people who ever drew a breath. And every church on the planet includes people whose faith and generosity and down-to-the-bone kindness make God, I’m sure, want to go galloping Gangnam style up and down the golden streets.

So in honor of this crazy duality and in acknowledgment of my ongoing, simultaneous desire to chuck the church off the top of Sears Tower and plant a big, sloppy kiss on its beautiful, pimply forehead—I offer today the first installment in the Chuck It/Love It series.

Entries are from my journal and span twenty years and three churches in California, Texas and Georgia. Names and identifying details have been tweaked.

CHUCK CHURCH
Today somebody slipped a copy of Sunday’s worship guide under my office door, covered in notes made with a red pen:
You need to tell the teenagers not to talk during the offertory.
Too many announcements today. 
The chandeliers need dusting.
The benediction was four minutes late.

No signature. Just, “A concerned church member.” 

The next sound you hear will be me banging my head against the nearest tree.

On the other hand . . .

LOVE CHURCH
Last night a woman in our congregation, Lydia, graduated from Hope House after completing her residential treatment program for alcohol addiction. I was thrilled and honored to be invited to the celebration, which basically consisted of an A. A. meeting followed by cake and punch.

There were maybe twenty people there. No one was smoking but there was a thick smell of smoke in the air. The woman in front of me clutched a package of Pall Malls as if it were a life preserver. She’s been at Hope House two weeks.

As the honored graduate, Lydia got to lead the meeting.
Hi, I’m Lydia and I’m an addict.
Hi, Lydia!

So this is an A. A. meeting, she said. But mostly I want it to be a gratitude meeting. Would anyone like to share some things they’re grateful for?

A young woman named Moira described what a calming presence Lydia’s been in her life. I told Lydia how grateful I am that she’s part of our church and that she’s a gift to all of us. D’Shauna, who has a gazillion piercings, including a pencil-size spike through her chin, announced that Lydia’s pep talks have pulled her back from the brink more than once.

Then Kari stood up, who’s also at our church and one of my favorite people on earth.
Hi, I’m Kari and I’m an addict.
Hi, Kari!

She said how much she loves Lydia’s courage and kindness and amazing hugs. Then Kari, an avid runner, said:  “I was jogging over the freeway overpass this morning. And as I did I thought of how, not that long ago, I used to want to jump off that overpass. And now, thanks to my Higher Power and my church family, that’s the farthest thing from my mind.”

I love Church.

And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of His love appear.

~ Henry Vaughan

Absorbing Chaos

Dennis C. Golden, president of Fontbonne University in St. Louis, once recalled a visit years ago with a friend who also was at the helm of a university. During their conversation, Golden’s friend described her role as college president in terms of three specific functions.

Basically, she said, I get up every morning and I do three things:  

Absorb chaos.

Give back calm.
Provide hope.

Ministers everywhere will recognize something of our own calling in those words—especially the part about absorbing chaos. Serving Jesus in the church and in the world involves the inevitable sponging up of all kinds of ugliness and pain:  Anger. Gossip. Secrets. Shame. Betrayal. Pettiness. Addiction. And, as most of us have discovered along the way, absorbing chaos takes a very personal toll.

One Thursday in the not-so-distant past I joined some pastor friends for lunch at an Atlanta bistro. We get together every month, ostensibly to discuss books but largely to prop each other up. I was feeling particularly raw that day about some conflict in my own congregation over changes and challenges we’d been facing for a while. My friends at the table were already familiar with the situation, but I shared some updates as we ate.

While scanning the dessert menu, I mentioned that I had a doctor’s appointment later that day. “I need something to help me sleep,” I told them. “My chest feels tight and my heart keeps racing.” Sympathetic nods all around.

From the far end of the table one of the pastors spoke up: “For what it’s worth, I swear by trazodone. My doctor prescribed it for my anxiety five years ago and it changed my life.”

“Have you tried amitriptyline?” another friend asked. “When my depression was at its worst last fall, my doctor put me on that.”

“Yeah, but it dries out your mouth,” announced a third.  “I couldn’t preach while on amitriptyline—it gave me cotton mouth—so I’m giving St. John’s wort a try.”

There was a brief silence, then we all burst out laughing at what a beleaguered bunch we seemed to be. But here is a sad truth: of the ten pastors at the table that day, seven had required medication for anxiety and/or depression, and only two had not experienced some traumatic episode of conflict in his or her church.

Absorb chaos. A person can sop up only so much ugliness before his or her soul begins to turn rancid. Maybe that college president should consider adding a fourth bullet point to her job description: “Wring out sponge.” There are plenty of good sponge-wringing avenues:  prayer, worship, meditation, exercise, therapy, good friends, etc. Why do this? For all kinds of reasons, but I’ll name two:

First:  God has given you and me a name and it is beloved, not beleaguered. You and I were meant for more than a depleted, soggy half-life.

And second:  God has given us a name and it is creature, not Creator. Christ already absorbed the sin and chaos of the world—received the poison and shuddered as it killed him. Why in the world would we feel the need to let it kill us, too?

So for God’s sake, and your own—lift up your sponges. (Say it with me: We lift them up to the Lord!) Lift them up and squeeze till your knuckles turn white. This is a faithful act.