Let It Be: 2014

Snowy tree-lined road at sunrise.

Call them resolutions, aspirations, intentions, whatever. I pray that a year from now these will have been true of me in 2014:

1.  She lived in and led from the roominess of God.

“The Good Shepherd leads his sheep out of the tight and tiny boxes in which we lock ourselves into his spacious pastures.”
~ Timothy Radcliff

“All that is true, by whomsoever it has been said, has its origin in the Spirit.”
~ Thomas Aquinas

2. She wore her own face.

“Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces…”
~ May Sarton, “Now I Become Myself”

“The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation… and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but their own vulnerable selves.”
~ Henri J. M. Nouwen

3. She was mindful of each moment.

“We spend a long time wishing we were elsewhere and otherwise.”
~ Robert Farrar Capon

“The present moment, like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, has become an endangered species. Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline.”
~ Philip Simmons

4. She practiced stillness.

“I learned…that inspiration…comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness…The imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering.
~ Brenda Ueland

5. She operated more often from love than from fear.

“Our fear is in the service of all the little ways we have learned to protect our false self. But love is really who we are. We’ll never see the love we really are, our foundation, if we keep living out of our false self of self-protection and overreaction. We must remember that ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ (1 John 4:18).”
~ Richard Rohr

6. She chose joy.

It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation…
~ Mary Oliver 

7.  She finished that dag-nabbity book!

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
~ Thomas Mann

Good and gracious God, let it be.

photo cc flickr.com/photos/18_2rosadik36

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.


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!
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.

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 . . .

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.