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What’s NEXT: Almost Parting Thoughts

The NEXT 2014 conference was centered on three words: Lead / Create / Discern. However, the three words I moved through in that time were:  Awe / Inadequacy / Humbled.

Awe

There are so many great ideas, leaders, conversations that I was awed by the creativity. I could not help but imagine God looking down on creation again, and again, and again and thinking, “It is good.”  In a conversation that could have been about all that was wrong, it was instead about all that goodness, the opportunities.  The combined generative creativity was awe inspiring.  There was not denial here about the death in the life of what it has and does mean to be church.  But that wasn’t the word that was made flesh.  It was not not-true that the church is dying, but it also was not true. Is not true.

Inadequacy

I can’t help it.  I feel so very ordinary, uncreative, and yes – inadequate – next to all these innovative leaders and passionate followers. Don’t rush in to console me please. I know I have gifts too – I’m not completely unqualified for the calling to which I have been called.  I will be challenged by this, and I will find a way to grab hold of something – or something will grab hold of me – in a way authentic to who I am and who my community is, God knows what God is doing. But I guess what I mean to say is…

Humbled

I feel humbled when I’m surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, a chorus of dedicated and loving people. I look around and think: the church is in very good hands and to anyone who thinks this tomb is empty… or that it is even a tomb. I say ‘stand back’ because some abundant life is going to trample all over that doom and gloom. I am humbled like the Psalmist who utters, “who am I that you are mindful of me.” And even while we are talking about the church that is next… what struck me was how much this church is right now. Springing up. Something new. Seeking the welfare of the city.  Exile? It never looked so good.

And then this happened… in a service of prayer little slips of paper full of all our fears were read out loud.  And I realized I’m no more afraid, no more attentive to my own inadequacy, no more paralyzed by the sense of what might happen if I fail big in a place that doesn’t seem like it can handle one more failure than everyone else in this room.  We are humbled by each other, united by fears, and led to hope.  That was the final word.  Hope.  I found this most strongly in our weakest moment when I felt united by our fears, and convicted by the sense that all of that fear wasn’t holding the Spirit of God back from leading us. Not. One. Bit. I’m ready for what’s next, are you?

Stop, Look, and Listen: the call of an ashy God

Last year I wrote about the “imposition of ashes” (you can find it here).  This idea still is sitting with me this year – that the we are meant to be imposed upon.  Ash Wednesday (Lent, discipleship, Jesus, God… take your pick) is not meant to be convenient but is meant to be an interruption of our normal routines and responses.

So I’m sitting with this thought this morning even as I see and hear about friends, colleagues, and neighbors who are dispersing ashes to people on street corners.  The part of me thinks the church needs to get out from behind our walls loves this.  The part of me that is dwelling on imposition struggles with it.  What happens when me make our rituals convenient?  Are we simply hawking jewelry for people who have no interest in making time to be imposed upon?  I wish, in asking this, to wrestle with it for myself (but with you) so please don’t hear this as simply belittling those outreach efforts, by all means keep dispersing and reaching people where they live – the gospel desires to be preached and practiced in a myriad of ways.  I simply wonder where is the line of when the church places convenience as a greater priority to the depth and work of discipleship – which is entirely inconvenient.  Jesus’ calls to discipleship require people dropping nets, abandoning family, and leaving work undone.

And the church struggles with this.  Our desire to be relevant and our fear about declining numbers makes us think of ways to reach people who not otherwise be willing to engage in rituals of communal faith.  We recognize that small spirit led moments may lead to deeper engagement that would never happen without a chance encounter on the street corner.  We also feel the call that the church is more than a building and we cannot make everyone come to our home court and fit our cookie cutter images of faithful practice.

But when Jesus bids up pick up our cross and die, to drop our nets and follow… immediately, and to be one who walks in the way of him who has nowhere to lay his head Jesus is calling us to something radical and life-stopping: a full-on interruption of our way of being.  Such a stopping (I’m not saying pausing… I’m thinking full-on stopping) is about as counter-culture as you can get these days.  Our lives have no time for stopping.  I read an article recently about the side-effect of “convenience technology” thanks to my friend and colleague MaryAnn McKibben Dana (who has lots of life transforming things to say about Sabbath… another “stopping” moment that is life-giving) that speaks unexpected but wonderfully to this (you can read it here).  My summed up version is that when technology makes things faster we sometimes lose its deep fulfillment.  The best analogy the article offered is that we can hike up a mountain and get a wonderful view and a sense of accomplishment.  The same view can be had by driving – but do we really get the same sense of fulfillment when we eliminate the sense of journey, of struggle and experiences, that hiking to the view offers us?

What happens with drive up ashes?  I am not saying it isn’t significant… but I can’t help but feel it has lost most of its deeper meaning as the ritual beginning to a season of lent, of repenting (turning and re-orienting) and following in the way of Christ as he travels to the cross… and beyond.  Easter without Good Friday means nothing.  Good Friday without Palm Sunday is not nearly as unexpected.  Holy Week without the journey is – to me – lacking in its holiness. Christmas Eve is my favorite evening of the year, but Lent is my favorite season.  Something of its ashy somberness appeals to my soul.  My most profound understanding of God is one who brings life from death – and experiencing and engaging the death is as important (if not more important) than the life. There is so much death we cling to we must find ways to part with it.  And I believe this requires that we stop.  That we look the death in the eye and name it for what it is, and then we must let it go.  This is the way to abundant life.  And the way this ashy God invites… no imposes upon me to stop, alters my understanding of grace and connects me to resurrection life in a way that no triumphant assembly ever can.  It is entirely inconvenient, and that is well with my soul.

Thanks be to God.

A Journey of Discovering Myself

If you have been around me for very long at all this won’t come as a surprise to you because you’ve probably heard me say it.

I’m a strong introvert and something of an academic.  I grew up happily playing in the sand by myself during recess.  I read books by the light of my closet until 2 am every night.  (Unless my parents caught me and made me go to sleep.)  I started out college as a secondary education / math major.  I then changed to Philosophy with the intention of going to seminary and on from there to do PhD work… still teaching but at a different level.  I was on the road to stay true to who I think of myself as being: an introvert who prefers to only know and hang out with a small very close group of friends and have esoteric debates just for the sake of it.

Then very early on in seminary my plan went all amuck.  I felt called to have the kind of conversations I love in school rooms… in the church.  I felt called to walk with an entire community – rather than a small group or classroom through conversations of faith that were hardly esoteric but real and on the ground rubber meets the road theology.  Stints as a missionary in the Philippines and hospital chaplain exacerbated that – they forced me more out of my introverted and academic shell.

I preached about that in my former church and people said, “No way you are an introvert… you talk so much!” (I do, guilty as charged.)  But I’m an expressive introvert.  I need alone time but in a small group of people I’m quite capable of thinking out loud and ad nauseam, and then needing to take a nap to “recover.”  So yes, I’m an introvert.  But how, they asked, did you feel comfortable preaching in front of 450 people?  Well it’s a journey.  You do not step out of a closet where you were reading and immediately jump in front of a crowd with all eyes on you.  One step at a time.  God found me and God challenged me.  God challenged me to do what I was meant to do for a living, not what I was good at.  God challenged me to go far outside of my comfort zones, to walk in cultures I hadn’t experience, and to people I didn’t know.  And I’m still not good at it – but I’m better.  I have been stretched and once stretched I did not return to where I started.

So why am I saying this?  I’m saying this because earlier today I put on my clergy robe and stole and accompanied a friend (I would likely have not gone if it wasn’t for her, thanks Marci – friends do that for you) to the House chambers of the Idaho State legislature where we sat silent in the gallery with many others.  Sat a silent vigil to let them know that we would not forget that they would not let us speak to why we believe it is essential that Idaho seek to protect the basic human rights of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors.  Now I don’t even like to call myself Reverend or Pastor (let alone Rev. Dr., I’m just plain Andrew in my congregation) because this shy introverted academic starts feeling all pretentious when I do so.  So what was I doing in full religious professional get up at the capital being a strong (?) advocate for social justice?  This isn’t me… is it?  Truthfully I’m not a good one.  But I’ve stopped being willing to be silent in the face of injustice for the sake of keeping the peace.  That kind of peace isn’t worth keeping.  So I’m out from my own closet.  I’m out to add my voice to others who are out of their closet, and many others who aren’t yet.  I don’t do it because I’m comfortable doing so… I do it because my discomfort in being a social advocate is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in comparison to the fear with which my brothers and sisters are forced to live their lives because their very humanity is put in question.  I do it because God says to me, “Yes you are your brothers – and your sisters – keeper.”

Does it come natural?  No.  Am I good at it?  No.  Am I trying?  Yes.  Because the world can’t afford not have us all try our best to put our voices forward for those who have had their voices stripped from them.  Have I offended some of my friends and companions along the way?  I’m sure of it.  And no I am not proud of that.  I wish there was another way.  On top of being an introverted academic (and not doing a good job of either of those these days– thanks be to God) I’m also a people pleaser.  But my frustrating and challenging journey with God keeps taking all the things I say that I am… and challenging them.  It’s why I call this blog Wrestling with Discipleship.  Like Jacob wrestling with God… I have come out limping.  And I think I am the better for it.  God took my names for myself and gave me a new one.  I didn’t get here overnight, and I’m not anywhere near where I might one day be.  Who knows where God may take me, what God may do through me, and what I might help to make come about in this world.  I hope… I hope its light.  Not light for me – but for those around me.  That I may not limp alone… but that we might limp together – no longer quite who we imagined ourselves to be at the beginning.

I know I will not always be right (thus the limping), nor will I always correctly interpret why God has chosen to make me limp (thus the need for others to journey with me, and make me go where I wouldn’t otherwise go).  But this much I think I do know.  The world is a better place when we are willing to open ourselves to encounters that change us and move us and challenge us than it is when invest in armor to protect ourselves from whatever (or whomever) may come our way.

Thank be to God.

A New Year’s Eve Reflection

I tend to think that most nostalgia about the past is born of poor and selective memory (we mostly only remember the good parts or remember how we imagine it was).

On the flip side there can be memories so painful we become stuck in the horror of it all, unable to imagine goodness. Such memories become too powerful and infest our minds stealing the real joy that is there.

Somewhere between these… Life is.

There will almost always be reasons for great joy and heart-wrenching anguish. There will be stories of hope and transformation amidst ongoing struggles with injustice and systems of power and abuse so deeply rooted they seem too entrenched as to be immovable. Our daily lives are a mix of wondrous mystery, dis-eased anxiety, unnoticed miracles, and unaddressed abuse to self and others.

I understand we cannot remember it all. But on a day of remembering may we seek authenticity: lament and praise. Claim hurt and hope. Notice milestones lived and paths yet untaken. May our memories of the past be whole so that our hopes for the future may be realistic, and may we avoid hyperbole – either with perfection or perdition.

Tomorrow is not a clean slate, but it is a new day where new choices and new directions may be taken (as all days are). Let us make the most of it – in deed and not words alone. Happy end of 2013 to you all, and a Happy New Year!

Illuminating Peace (day two)

You can find the first Peace reflection by Joanna Dunn here: http://pastormomjdunn.tumblr.com/post/69525010066/illuminating-advent-peace-yesterday-we-started

Joanna challenged us to let there be peace on Earth by beginning with ourselves.  How are we agents of peace?  I have voices swirling in my head that remind me that we cannot be agents of peace if we are not at peace within ourselves.  When we are filled with anger and strife we spread those things.  In fact the monk Benedict made it a part of his monastic rule (law) that you could not leave a monastery and go to another because you were unhappy.  Why?  He said that while you may think you are leaving to get away from the problem, in fact you are simply taking the problem to a new place.  The problem resides within us.

But… I say… But it’s tempting to move on to greener pastures.  It’s easy to want to identify how others are a part of the problem.  It’s easier to see the toothpick in my neighbor’s eye (to quote Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew) than to think about my role in all of it.

For true peace to reign on earth we have to start by finding God’s peace within us.  We have to be willing to look deeply to our own soul’s discontent, unhappiness, and anger.  This is why peace is not simply the absence of war.  Peace requires to the ability to be comfortable in our own skin; comfortable with the people around us.  Peace is not subjugating our own inner turmoil and keeping it reigned in, just as peace cannot be achieved by subjecting other people to our ways and views.  This is not peace.  Peace is relieving that turmoil and letting it go.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

What burdens are you carrying?  What makes you weary?  How are we prepared to come to terms with this, to give it up, and to rest in the one who is peace that we might become agents of peace?

Illuminating Advent: Hope (day 1)

We began this week reflecting on Hope.  Each Monday of Advent our devotional will be a synopsis of the sermon from the day before and then Joanna and I will continue through the week with a conversational devotion continuing those thoughts in various trajectories.  So how does scripture illuminate hope, we asked yesterday in worship?  When we illuminate the darkness two things happen.  We being to see what something isn’t – that isn’t the bogey man under our bed, it’s my dirty clothes.  And we begin to see more clearly what something is.  So what did we see about the hope that is routed in Jesus Christ?

This hope in Jeremiah 33:14-16, Romans 8:18-25, and 1 Peter 1:3-9 wasn’t a promise that life would be easy.  Even those who have the first fruits of creation, Paul tells us, still groan in labor pains with all of creation. We are still waiting for something not yet fully realized.  Our hope is not a panacea that promises an easy journey.  Our hope also doesn’t promise an escape from this world to some idealized place removed from here.  Jeremiah reminds us that the messiah links our past, present, and future.  Hope is dirty and rooted in earth.  God intends not to redeem me – God intends to redeem (all of) creation.  Nothing is getting scrapped (God reminds God’s self of that with every rainbow).  Hope doesn’t promise us escape and it also doesn’t promise that we can just sit by as bystanders because God’s work is incarnational – God’s work is in-the-flesh – and this reminds us that God works through human agency.  God called Abraham and Moses and Ruth; God calls Mary, Peter, and Paul.  God came in flesh: rooted not just in earth but working with all creation as partners in love and care.  God calls us.

So if hope is not about ease, retreat, or having our work done for us, what is hope?  Is there anything left to make hope have substance?

I think the essence of our hope in Jesus Christ is two-fold.  It’s that God’s creation is one.  We are all inter-connected; we are all called into neighbor-love in which we understand all that exists – people, earth, stars and sea – to be our neighbor.  We are not alone, nor are the tasks before us ours alone.  Our hope lies in a God who gathers in all of creation and binds us together in love.  We are not alone.

The other aspect of this hope is that God just doesn’t give up on us.  The parable of the prodigal son gets us in touch with our own elder brother bitterness.  Why do good if even the good-for-nothing younger brother that squandered his inheritance is rewarded in the end?  This is the wrong question, an understandable one, but the wrong one.  Flip that script.  The good news is that God doesn’t give up on us.  There is nothing we can do that makes God love us less.  There is nothing we can do that puts us outside of God’s grace.  There is nothing we can do that puts us beyond the reach of hope.  God doesn’t give up.  This is our hope.

I leave you, again if you were here Sunday, with this story.  My son Warren loves playing video games (he gets that from me) and he gets extremely frustrated by them (sadly he gets that from me too).  He annoys Caroline and me to no end with his whining about them.  I take the phone away or turn off the PlayStation. I tell him to either stop letting the game bother him or stop playing.  But he won’t.  He is determined to prove his efforts to win aren’t futile.  (Subject to futility anyone?)  Staunching determined.  He just won’t admit defeat.  So there he is – in tears with puffy eyes and contorted limbs – playing.  (I’m not exaggerating here.  And this is what he does for fun?)  And then I realized there is something of God in this.  No creation isn’t a video game.  God isn’t simply controlling us like a giant APP on God’s iPhone.  But God is engaging us day after day hoping it all goes right, vexed that it doesn’t and yet unable to give up on us, unable to give up on creation, unable to imagine that it is not futile but in fact is the groaning and moaning of labor that is birthing something we cannot yet see but know to be a reality.  So day after day God engage us again. Generation after generation God – lamenting the brokenness of creation – endeavors to work it towards good.  And this – this God contorted and weeping with loving frustration is our hope, because the maker of all that exists is so determined to make it all work to good that God is not capable of giving up on anyone or anything.

We are not alone.  We are bound together.  We are the people of a God incapable of giving up on us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

A Gettysburg Address, of sorts

A week ago an idea was put forth by a seminary colleague of mine: the Gettysburg Address sermon.  November 19th marks its 150th Anniversary.  It is considered one of U.S. history’s greatest speeches, and its only 272 words long.  If one of the greatest speeches ever was 272 words why do we need so many many more?  So the challenge was put forth.  What if on November 17th, in honor of this great moment in history, we preached sermons that were only 272 words long?

The challenge intrigued me.  I want to do it.  I’m not preaching this Sunday so I cannot now, but I imagine I will take the challenge at some point in the near future.  It is amazing what happens when we begin to make sure every word counts in what we say.  It’s the opposite of the way I preach now (I don’t write sermons out so I don’t know how many words I use).  And maybe for this reason alone I consider it a good idea – we need to change it up now and then.  After all God is always doing a new thing!

However, the subject of the remainder of this post isn’t the idea of a sermon of 272 words; it’s actually the Gettysburg Address as the sermon.  What happens to these words when we preach them in our churches?  What happens to these words when the battles which we reference are the wars of words and theology and scriptural authority that occur and split and mangle the Body of Christ today?   When the grave yard in which we stand is our own empty pews?

—-

About church splits there are many theories.  The diversity is too great to hold our deep convictions about God together in unity.  Questions about power, authority, and whether we are bound together by sets of laws or by a common vision that will not let us go.  The role of tradition and how we honor the past without becoming its slaves.  And how we pass on our convictions while also granting freedom of conscience?

These questions plagued our nation, and they haunt our understanding of church today.  When I teach Presbyterian history I talk about the civil war.  Whether we admit it the church has always been formed by the society around us and this was true of slavery.  The church split even as the nation split.  We could not, however, simply fight a war and establish unity again (yes I’m over simplifying).   But it took the church over 100 years to end that rift, if we even did.  And when I think on that I think – maybe the literal battle fought by blue and grey wasn’t any dirtier than the hundred year’s war the church fought.

Is there another way?  Is unity worth the blood and tears?  Apparently Lincoln thought so.  But he also thought it gave us responsibility.  Responsibility to make that sacrifice worth it.  Responsibility to pass on the gift of freedom, the gift of shared experience in freedom, the gift of people invested in being freedom for the generations to come.  Does this preach in our churches today?  I don’t know yet… but I have a sense it does…. There shall be a new birth of freedom, indeed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


It should be noted that the post above is divided into three sections, each 272 words long.  Not exactly the assignment but I still enjoyed the process.

Love: Strong enough to hold us

I’m thinking about divisions, polarizing conflict… discord.  This week we shared that a church in our presbytery is seeking to leave the denomination.  Every week I engage in at least one conversation (every day?) where there are passionately held convictions that are in conflict.  We fight (and I do mean fight) over laws and interpretations of laws both ecclesiastical and political (and social as well).

I do not wish to speak to any of those particular conversations.  I do wish to think about how we exist as communities in conflict.  There is something very ‘Holy Week’ about such a conversation.  The community around Jesus in Holy Week is very much in conflict.  Jesus becomes the lodestone to radical shifts in meaning.  “You have heard it said… but I tell you…”  There are various reactions to these shifts… from those in favor but clearly not understanding the shifts fully (like Peter) to those very much against the shifts who require the death of Jesus to end the conflict.  In such weeks stability often becomes more important (of ultimate importance?) than wrestling with conversations that create ambiguity.

I like to call this the yellow brick road phenomenon.  We wish to have a clear road before us to our destination.  Anything that makes that “way” murky is tossed aside.  Anything that clarifies it is embraced (sometimes without question).  And I can see the allure of this… I feel the allure of this.  And yes, I hear words like “the way is narrow” (Matthew 7) and know that there is some truth to clarifying the way we should go.  I also hear words like “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9)  I hear Daniel told to go his way because the words are to remain secret and sealed.  (Daniel 12)  Some knowledge is just beyond us. In fact it is knowledge of good and evil that the garden says we were not to receive.  Much woe comes to the world when we require drawing lines around what is good and what is not.

It is enough for me to travel with people… knowing we shall differ in outlook and truth but also knowing that the love and care that unites us is stronger than all that.

Let us – from whatever conflict we are in, whatever truths we hold – join in that prayer at least.  That love is indeed strong enough to hold us.