Monthly Archives: April 2016

Messy Church; Gritty Grace

“This is nothing new or surprising, but in many conversations lately, I have decided that the Church is best when it is a place where grace is both freely given and freely received.”

I have had this quote swirling around in my head for over a week.   It was from another pastor friend on Facebook and to be fair I think she is talking about mutuality and no-strings relationship in which the giving and receiving happens equally on both ends and I couldn’t agree more with those aspects.  So I’m not really talking, from here on out, about disagreement with that sentiment… but its going to sound a bit like exactly that.

When I read that thought initially it just didn’t quite sit right with me.  Not in a that-isn’t-true kind of way… but in a that-is-a-little-too-pretty kind of way.  I’m a gritty church guy.  I have a theology of ambiguity.  I am an admirer of existential angstiness in the likes of Kierkegaard and his modern equivalent in Peter Rollins.  I have a quite low Christology, in that I am far more interested in how Jesus teaches us to be human than anything else about him.  And I desire to do the dirty work of really investing in this world with little care of what heaven is, if Heaven even is… its really rather irrelevant.  Heaven isn’t a game changer.  Incarnating divine word/love is.

I tell my community early and often… that church, like family, is messy.

We love pretty scenes of the infant Jesus in a manger with blue-clad (angelic and pristine) Mary kneeling over him… in truth the stable straw (if you have to believe there even was such) is mixed with afterbirth, sweat, and tears… it isn’t easy birthing the promise of new life.

So I thought about it and decided my version might go something like, “I think the Church is at its best when it’s exhausted from trying to be in relationship to each other, widening the limits we place on love.”

The Church isn’t the church when it gets it right.  The Church is most the church when it’s trying in spite of how it gets it wrong.  Its gritty work, this Church thing.  I’ll say it again… that is why I call this space “wrestling with discipleship.”  Discipleship follows, and endeavors to be that which it follows, in our case Jesus.  But one isn’t a disciple because you ARE Jesus.  You are disciple by your commitment to following in pursuit of Jesus’ way.  Its like Jacob wrestling with God.  We are all wrestling with God – it’s the essential nature of discipleship.

I love the Church and I love churches.  Not for their perfection.  Haven’t found one of those yet.  I love when I see a community truly seeking – body, mind, and spirit – to be Jesus to each other (all the others).  And, all good theology aside, that isn’t free.  And that isn’t easy.  And there is nothing cheap about it.  We walk away from it limping.

So while it is a wonderful thing to behold grace mutually and freely given and received.  Grace is most itself, the Church is most itself (I think), when it’s given in the face of rejection.  That is why I find no more gracious utterance in all the Bible that the words of the prophet Hosea, “My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  How can I give you up… My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hosea 11:7-9)

How easy it would be to reject those who reject you… but the greatest claim of grace is the refusal to respond in kind.  Grace is at its best perhaps when its not our first inclination.  Like God in Hosea, we have to be reminded by that churning gut of gritty love that we are free to choose another way: God’s way.  And return welcome in the face of rejection, love in the face of hatred, mercy in the face of judgment, and embrace in the face of apathy.

I leave you, then, with these final words, oft quoted by me because they give great voice to my ecclesiology:

I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.

–Flannery O’Connor, from a letter written in July 1955, published in The Habit of Being, page 90.

Ministering in the Muck of Life

Many, many years ago while I was in my residency chaplaincy I was working a weekend shift. At Grady Memorial Hospital weekend shifts were rough. In those days you worked basically 48 straight hours as the only chaplain for a 1,000 bed hospital (with attached children’s hospital and clinics) and the only level one trauma center for 5 million people. You had a small room with a bed, and laying down in it pretty much guaranteed that your beeper went off. I can recall one such weekend when I worked 9 straight deaths, mostly through the Emergency Room. That was a lot of grief, a lot of hard conversations… a very strong sense of ministry and I liked it – but you didn’t “like” it.

One of those cases was a mother who was going to bury her second son and only remaining child. She was deeply upset that he had died and pretty much had to believe it was someone’s fault and without any good target she blamed the hospital. They called a meeting and asked everyone she charged as having done something wrong to be there with their supervisor. I was one of those people along with the doctor, nurse, and social worker – the meeting was run by the Patient Advocacy folk and she was present. I was the only person who showed up. The other departments only sent a supervisory rep. My department’s supervisor wasn’t there and so I went along with one of the staff chaplains as actiing-rep.

When that lady looked around the table at a bunch of people who weren’t there… the blame pretty naturally fell on my shoulders. I sat there and listened as she outlined how I “left Jesus behind that day” and all the grievances she could think of that made it my “fault” her son had died. I got more and more emotional (as I think anyone would in such a situation… or maybe that’s just my pride thinking) and I remember the head of the Social work saying, “Ma’am it looks like the chaplain (no-one called me by name) is fairly distraught and would like to get to speak, can we let him say something to this?” She said no. And so I sat there. And said nothing. And heard her grief turned into blame of why I was horrible chaplain. Intellectually I have always known why that happened. But it still didn’t make it emotionally easy.

There are some stories that are deeply painful from which we learn important life skills. More than once in that year of residency I remember saying, “I don’t want to learn this way…. I don’t want to learn from this anymore.” You do not wish to go through horrible experiences. And I do not believe we are directed to such in order to teach us. But it would be a sadder story yet if we didn’t learn what could along the way. And today I randomly triggered on this memory because I think I learned far more that day than I ever imagined. Some days you just hold your tongue, you stand in the crap and let people dump on you. And when they are done. You let them go in peace. Its the only gift you can give in that moment, and it isn’t a teachable moment. And I guess in such light I’m glad I went, ill-advised as it was, to that meeting.

oh… and after you do that – you go download with your therapist! 😉

A Swirl of Thoughts on Child Abuse

This is Child Abuse Prevention Month. It makes me swirl with many thoughts and I’ll record some here:
I seek to raise awareness not fear. This is hard to accomplish on the subject of child abuse but I remind myself we should not fear fear either… and some levels of fear are healthy. We can be afraid and not be oppressed by it.
I remember when working as a chaplain in Atlanta what it was like being called to the children’s hospital when abuse was suspected… it is hell for everyone, and there may be no more painful moment than realizing that the perpetrator loves the victim… truly does, but is still a perpetrator of abuse.
I have been dragged in personally to investigations that turned out false and they were hell… but its no reason not to attend to suspicions of abuse – in the world of regrets I’d rather regret too much vigilance than having allowed abuse (thus being the abuser) through neglect. This is hard… I think we are all more enabling and/or ambivalent towards protection than we like to admit. We are convenience driven and seeking protections of vulnerable persons (in any setting and in any way) is inconvenient.
A friend shared a quote from a movie (Spotlight) that has stayed with me, “It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a village to abuse a child.”
I have sat in so many security conversations around buildings that continue to imagine the great threat is a random person off the street. This does happen, however, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics tell us that 90% of abuse of children happens from someone that child knew. More over they are often people who are friendly, caring, approachable, and trustworthy — even more, in leadership. This is what creates the setting for abuse. The very things that make us feel safe are often the very structures that support the abuser. Let us think about that long and hard and question where we focus our efforts on creating greater awareness and safety.
Education! Know the signs, know the people, ask the story – be willing to risk fear and confrontation for the sake of wholeness!
My son has a strong sense of shame. He’s goofy and class clowny and gets in trouble and then feels horrible about it. My greatest worry is that this makes him keep information to himself if he thinks it will get him in trouble or cause him shame and that worries me to NO END about how easily that makes him a target of abuse. So much energy trying to make sure he will always talk to me and that I don’t jump to authoritarian disciplinarian so he will keep talking to me. We need to do this with all the people in our life…. because life is not meant to be left alone – and when we are, we become easy targets for abuse.
There are windows in every door in most buildings now. We do background checks on volunteers making them sure we fear them. We have two adult rules… and… and… and… its all worth it! No matter that IT IS inconvenient. And no matter that it does create openings for for letting fear rule our lives. Somehow we must live in that tension where we recognize the healthiness of that fear while still living a life of hospitality and openness to the “other.”
I will not give up on either value – I can do no other.

Pieces of Me: Revealing Privilege

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

–Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects

I’m just not going to have a good day.

The day started when my friend Jerrod Lowry (I haven’t met him in person so that’s presumptuous on my part) posted a selfie of running in the early morning dark.  Jerrod is a Presbyterian pastor in Utah who happens to be serving on a national search committee and finds himself in Louisville at the moment.  He went for a run because… he’s awesome like that.  Attached to his selfie he wrote, “if you don’t fear running in an affluent neighborhood, then we don’t live in the same universe. How to run in a way that seems non-threatening or could be mistaken for mischief?”

His post was apocalyptic for me.  Not that I haven’t thought about it before, this very fact occurs to me while I am running frequently… but it holds no actual power over me.  Its just a thought that wanders in and out of my head… and I have the privilege of letting it wander out.  Jerrod’s post hit me hard today.  Apocalyptically.  In that sense that apocalypse uncovers hidden realities in our world.  And what I saw beneath the covers was a type of hell that is all around me… but I don’t walk (or run) in it.

Jerrod is a person of color.  I am not.  And he is absolutely correct. We live in different worlds.  The same space… different dimensions.  I run at night, and people worry about me (I don’t worry about myself because I live in a privileged bubble of safety.)  But what they worry about is me getting hurt because someone cannot see me.  They are worried about negligence… what they aren’t worried about is that I will be perceived as criminal because I’m running.  They won’t. They don’t have to, because I’m white.

I recall another friend who is also clergy once talking about going into the bathroom at church late at night and having to check all the stalls to make sure they were empty before she knew it was safe to use the bathroom.  OMG.  I grew up with three sisters, I have three daughters… but this too was an apocalyptic moment for me.  Because I have never done so nor thought about it.  Because I’m male.

I have another clergy friend who was telling me about his interview process with a church.  It was all going well until they casually asked about flying him in with his family.  He had no children, and he wasn’t married.  And the interview ended.  Right then, right there.  They lost all interest in him.  I cannot even fathom such a thing… because I have cute little blond-haired, blue-eyed rugrats and a wonderful wife and most churches hope (no matter how “progressive” they may be) that someone who looks like us, likes them. Because we’re a comfortably cisgender, heterosexual, affluent, traditional family.

I could go on like this all day… I get a call to sit across from a legislature as an advocate.  Not because I’m the most knowledgeable advocate… but because my title and attributes of my being grant me authority that this legislator will listen to regardless of the message.  Because I am power.

I can pray in public because I’m Christian.

I can move around the country from place to place without fear because I’m a clearly born and raised in this country Euro-American.

I can shop in any store because I belong to the upper classes so they won’t shun me and the lower classes can’t risk doing so.  I can even chose to be unaware of this reality (and in many ways I am because I’ve played off my privilege in a thousand ways I haven’t recognized) because… I’m protected by the societal norms I don’t see,  even and particularly when I claim they don’t exist.  If we do not name and see the devil?  The devil gets power unchecked.

And that is what gets me. That’s what makes me mad.  Because I’m lost.  I don’t know what exactly to do with all this except to name it and try and refuse it and try to get others to see it… that’s the one thing I feel I know I can do is name and claim it.  But…

Another friend, Laura Cheifetz, posted an article shortly after Jerrod’s post.  The writer of that article is a person of color saying that talk about privilege isn’t real.  The article, as I read it, essential posits that racism and sexism and oppressive system to non-normative peoples is just in their head and they need to get over it… and, again as I heard it, Laura is pretty much being told she is perverting the gospel when she advocates for her own inclusion and equality. And telling her that… or Jerrod… or anyone of my other brave friends who trudge upstream in society is a kind of sick sin I cannot help but get tear-my-hair-out frustrated by… I cannot sit aside and not say something.  Because my silence makes me as guilty as anyone else.

I know that people who don’t want to see and admit to structural, systematic, and societal sin of oppressive prejudice of all kinds will run that article up a flag pole to champion their cause.  “See,” we will say, “this is a person of color who shows us that if you work hard and act right there is no racism or oppression.”  And we can go back to shoring up our white male Christian cisgender affluent educated… privilege.

Friends.  It’s real.  It doesn’t mean it’s universal.  It doesn’t mean I’m a horrible person or that you are.  But it’s real.  And by my very breath I participate in it.  And by my calling I am obligated to help bring down the dividing walls of this hostility.  And I don’t know how to do that (thank God it’s not up to me alone) so I will try to do the only thing I know I can… invite you to reflect on its reality. I get our need to feel defensive.  I get our need to say “I didn’t do it.” I get why we lament what seems like the loss of our rights when what we have lost was the super-rights we never should have had.   I get how hard it is to “put yourselves in someone else’s shoes.”  I get that its easy to worry about the ways we feel oppressed and make that our way out of caring and working for the next set of oppression… and I get that life is hard EVEN with privilege and sometimes so hard it doesn’t feel possible we have any advantage at all.  And it can both be true that life is hard… AND that the deck could be even more stacked against you.

So to everyone I wronged through ignorance,

to everyone I wronged through acceptance,

to everyone I wrong through ambivalence,

to everyone I wrong through maintenance,

to everyone who runs in a universe apart from me,

I apologize.  I repent.

And I will keep needing the reminder to keep repenting.  Speaking. Transforming.

Help me help us change what it means to be me and what it means to be you in the world.  Because I do love you.  And I love me.  And that is the way it should be.  But equally.  And we should all get to go running in the dark, and use the bathroom without fear, and have, or not have, the family of our choice, and sit across a desk from people with power because our voice matters whatever the body that incarnates that voice.

I am having a bad day.  But don’t help me have a better one.  Because my day is still worlds away from so much grief and hardship. The only way my day gets better?  Is to make OUR day get better. And the page isn’t big enough to contain that OUR.

The Devil is real.  And like the Wild Things of Maurice Sendak’s greatly prophetic book, we need to name them and claim them and tame them “with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”  So let’s do some staring, and naming, and claiming, and let’s go for a run — together.

Reclaiming Evangelism

Cross-posting this opening article I wrote for the NEXT Church blog to start a month long conversation on evangelism and our need to be reclaimed, and reclaim, the practice of sharing good news.