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.

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.

Truth Beneath the Ashes

When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses.

Ash Wed. SchmeerSeveral years ago in Waco, TX, a couple hundred of us gathered for a crack-of-dawn Ash Wednesday service led by a team of seminary students. All kinds of folk—Baylor students, doctors, construction workers, grandparents—gathered at the shoreline of Lent, sleepy-eyed and somber. Fiddle music beckoned, “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy…”

No Ash Wednesday service would be complete without the imposition of ashes and pronouncement from Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We spilled into the aisles, ready to receive the mark of the cross, after which we would turn and mark the forehead of the person behind us. Just ahead of me in line stood a college student, a kind, cheerful young woman named Rae. We waited our turn, then Rae received the ashes and I stepped forward to receive mine from her. That’s when things went…um…slightly askew.

Rae pushed my bangs aside and smudged the sign of the cross on my forehead, according to plan. But as she drew her hand away, somehow she got some of that inky schmeer on my nose. Horrified, she tried to wipe it off and in the process, managed to spread the greasy mixture to my cheeks, my chin and, as best I can recall, one of my earlobes.

Finally there was nothing to do but laugh at this epic Ash Wednesday fail. I hugged poor, mortified Rae and returned to my seat, looking like a coal miner.

But as I sat there blotting my face with a tissue, it occurred to me that what Rae had just done, quite unintentionally, was to paint a picture of how it really is with me.

When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses: As with those ashes tucked conveniently beneath my bangs, either I try to cover up my sin so that no one will see—or I try to pretty up my sin in order to make it appear more respectable. I’m okay wearing my dust in a smart little liturgical shape, along with everyone else. In fact when worn that way the dust actually becomes a sign of my spirituality. But the greasy truth is this: my sin is all over me in blotchy smears from head to toe.

The Apostle Paul also found himself covered in dust one day—sprawled face-down in the dirt of the Damascus road, blind as a bat. But even as he lay there picking grit from his teeth, a promise began to stir inside his heart and mind which later he would put into words for all of us: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

That’s my story. I’m gratefully sticking to it.

This piece also appears at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc.

In the Receiving Line After Worship

Mophead HydrangeaIn the receiving line after worship an elderly man
wants to tell me about his hydrangeas.
They were gorgeous last summer, he says,
but not as splendid as in 1972 when the blue

ribbon at the state fair went to his wife who,
he reminds me, was Miss Butts County
back in the 1950s and whom he still misses
every day,

especially when he eats peach jam on his toast,
which is almost every morning, except Tuesdays
when the VFW guys get together down at the café.

The people behind him in line shift on their feet
and glance at their watches while he, oblivious
to their impatience, goes on to describe for me (in detail)

the attributes of her winning Lemon Zest Mophead,
which he swears was the size of a dinner plate, or maybe
a large salad plate. The hydrangea story is taking forever

and I feel my own agitation rising, until the moment I take
his hand in mine (a gesture of care but also, I regret now to say,
meant to hurry him along) and I feel his papery fingers

which are not at all like a hydrangea, but rather
like a maple leaf in November, all that lush, green vigor
stored deep within itself, just before it releases the limb

and is airborne at last, carried on a breath,
caught up in the glory of all created things,
its final fluttering an ovation of praise.

Red_maple_leaf

Chuck It/ Love It: #2

CC flickr.com/darylljann/4206002971/

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