It seemed so easy on Easter Sunday, didn’t it? I don’t mean the worship service. That took weeks of planning and practice by our chancel choir, musicians, contemporary music ensemble, the arts team, and a host of volunteers. I don’t mean my sermon. I worked hard to make it relevant, funny (but not like I was trying too hard to entertain), heart tugging (but not saccharine) and pithy. I don’t mean the packed-in crowd that made it feel like church was the cool thing to do and we don’t wrestle with how to provide ministry to busy people with volunteers who are also busy people.
What seemed easy was our certainty. We sang Christ the Lord is risen today! Al-le-lu-ia! Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!and Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes…I may have even fist pumped the air. Without a hint of doubt we responded to the proclamation, “Christ is risen!” with the exclamation, “Christ is risen indeed!” It was glorious.
But we aren’t always that certain, are we? In our heart of hearts we respond to “Christ is risen!” with a question mark, “Christ is risen? Indeed?” Part of our difficulty may be that we can’t quite reconcile the mechanics of the story with what we know about science. Faced with a miracle we do what we always do, try to find a rational explanation. But more troubling are the days when we don’t see any evidence that Christ is risen. We hear “Powerless love conquers loveless power” (William Sloane Coffin) on Sunday morning, and then watch the news Sunday night.
I want my faith to be bold and unabashed. More often I follow Jesus the way I enter the ocean – testing the water one toe at a time. I think God has room for lots of ways of following – tentative and reckless, full of exclamation marks and littered with question marks. I am grateful, though, for those glorious moments when a life of faith feels like when we’re all singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in a packed sanctuary.
God doesn’t need to brag about us to his golfing buddies. He doesn’t need to post pictures of us on Facebook or write about us in his Christmas letter. He doesn’t need us to do well on the SAT’s or get a promotion or have an important job or provide him fabulous grandchildren so that he has something to report at Rotary during “happy dollar”.
Of course, there is the story in the Bible about God pointing at one of his most loyal servants and bragging about him to the heavenly court. It went something like, “Look at Job. See how obedient he is. He does everything I ask and more.” That made Job a marked man and a playing piece in a game between God and Satan. And things went badly for Job, really badly. Job’s three friends show up with comforting words suggesting that Job must have done something to deserve his plight, he must have offended God in some way. This part of the story is merely a set up for the main point. In the final scenes, God makes a speech telling off Job’s friends for speaking about God in inaccurate ways and telling Job to stop his whining. He basically says, shit just happens. In a scene brimming with divine inspiration and worthy of Steven Spielberg special effects, God asks Job and his friends from the whirlwind, “Did you set the stars in heaven? Did you create the snow? Can you ride a sea monster?” Clearly, God does not need us to fulfill his ego needs.
What a relief. To be beheld without agenda. To be granted the freedom and space to just be. No need to defend yourself against expectation or dodge another’s definition. No pressure to squeeze yourself into a particular shape.
The writers of Anatomy of Peace say our hearts are at peace with another when we are able to see that person as a person, someone whose fears, hopes, dreams, aspirations, inspirations are important as our own. Our hearts are at war when we see the other person as an object, as someone who is a vehicle or impediment to our goals and agenda. Our hearts are at war when our identity is wrapped up in someone else, when we need bask in their reflected glow or hide in their shadow.
God’s heart is at peace toward us. God doesn’t need us to be any particular way in order for God to still be God. That gives God the freedom to love us completely, without artifice, without condition, without defense. That is grace.
Is it time to call it quits on “us?” We’ve been on again off again for almost two years. Even from the beginning we were more than just a fun little fling, more than a mere distraction. Even before I met you I knew you. It seems that you’ve been a part of my life forever.
I thought we had real potential. I imagined what it would be like to reshape my life so that we could make a life together. I knew it was a risk. I knew not everyone would be supportive. I knew I would hear warnings and stories of others whose hearts you broke.
I’ve seen the warning signs. You’re intent on keeping your distance. I can’t always reach you when I want you. You have secrets you don’t share. We make plans and you don’t show up. I fool myself into believing I’ve accepted you as you are, that I’ve adapted to your inconsistency. Then you disappear for weeks at a time and I’m hurt all over again.
Monsters of insecurity lurk under my bed. They come out on sleepless nights and whisper what I fear is the ugly truth – that I’m just not good enough for you.
And yet, when we are together, really together, I come alive. That’s what brings me back to you, over and over again. With you I discover the world and myself.
Please, dear Novel, just tell me, do I keep writing or is it time to hit “delete?”
What does it say about me and about our society that I barely noticed when the news ticked off another shooting? This one was in a school in Northern California. But whether in a school, church or shopping mall, in California, Texas, or Virginia – the shootings are all starting to blend together. I met a colleague for coffee yesterday morning. Instead of discussing sermon series, outreach ideas, and best practices in supervision, we talked about responses to active shooters in the sanctuary. We sat in a Starbucks and discussed the limits of hiding and wondered if hurled hymnals take down a shooter over coffee and muffins. The news of deaths and injuries hadn’t made us loose our appetites.
I don’t want to be fearful. I don’t want to be on guard. But I also don’t want to be complacent or apathetic. I don’t want to forget or ignore that the four people who died have left gaps in the lives of those who loved them. Families, and churches, and communities will have to learn now to live without them. Those who are injured may face weeks and months of rehabilitation. Their bodies may heal but their spirits may remain wounded.
I don’t want to grow accustomed to a world where mass shootings happen and congregations and schools and libraries have active shooter drills. I don’t want to tell my nephews’ children someday about the world before everyone was afraid of going into public places, like I tell my nephews about the world before cell phones. I will continue to lament the deaths, the injuries, the fear.
I will turn my lament into action. I will work now so that future generations wonder aloud what it must have been like to live during these days. These days when assault weapons are easy to get and treatment for mental illness is hard to pay for. These days we spend more on incarceration than education. These days when politicians try to pull us apart to win elections instead of bring us together to do good. I will let news of another shooting embolden my commitment to bringing about God’s realm of peace and wholeness for all.
“Why is the outside door to the fellowship hall locked?” I asked, within a few weeks of arriving at the church I served a number of years ago. The response: “Because people we don’t know might come in.”
To many first time visitors the fellowship hall door looked like the front door of the building. It was a glass double door that faced the parking lot off of the main road. Insiders knew that the actual front door was on the other side of the building that faced the parking lot off the less trafficked street.
I asked the obvious question, “Why don’t you want people you don’t know coming into the building? I thought you wanted to grow?” Then I learned that the ladies who came before church to set up for coffee hour would leave their purses in the kitchen when they went to worship. One Sunday someone came into the building while the congregation was in the sanctuary and stole the ladies’ purses. After that they took what seemed to be a reasonable precaution and locked the fellowship hall door. I suggested they lock their purses in my office, in their cars, or take them into worship with them. We would leave the fellowship hall door unlocked, put up signs showing the way to the sanctuary, and even have a greeter there on Sundays we expected more visitors.
The shootings at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Texas make it tempting for churches to hunker down and be on the look out for folks who don’t quite belong. It’s important for churches to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of those who enter our doors and participate in our ministries. But let’s not let vigilance replace hospitality, nor permit fear to thwart love.
We were all in the same position – head and shoulders on the white paper table cloth that my friend and I had purchased at the Shop N’ Save, along with sandwiches, our knees bent, wearing our eclipse glasses and watching the discs in the sky. We had traveled to be in the path of totality and had all wound up at Jokerest Memorial Park in Festus, Missouri. I had come with a friend. The family with whom we shared our make shift blanket had come from Evanston. The five of us, along with the hundred or so people in the park, watched together as the moon slid in front of the sun. We pointed out to one another the changing shadows as the sun shone crescents through the leaves. We remarked at how bright the day was with only a sliver of the sun, and yet how different the light was – subdued somehow. Someone pointed out the pink and gold tones along the horizon all around us; we were surrounded by sunset. We noted the change in temperature and exclaimed when the cicadas began to hum. And then, with our heads and our shoulders on the white paper tablecloth and our faces pointed toward the sky together we took in one breath as the moon clicked in place in front of the sun to be rimmed with a silver halo. We all applauded. My eyes filled with tears. I knew, as I lay on that white paper tablecloth with a friend and with strangers, that we were on a planet spinning through space together, mere specs in the solar system which we did not create and cannot control, united by our common humanity.
A woman across the aisle and one seat ahead of me on the Metra train from the suburbs into Chicago was telling her friends about recently tattooing her eyebrows. She pointed to her brows’ exquisite arch and fullness. As she described the aesthetician drawing every brow hair I rolled my inner eyes and felt entirely inadequate. I hadn’t showered. My face was naked as a baby’s bottom but not nearly as smooth. I could feel a stress zit popping out on my right nostril and knew that a lighted mirror would reveal pours big enough to swim in. The bounce of Eyebrow’s leopard print hair scarf made me acutely aware of my upper arms. I tried to remember if I had put on deodorant.
Eyebrow was surrounded a swarm of young women heading to a party, to fun, to an adventure together. Their French tip manicures fluttered in the air, their perfectly white teeth flashed and the sun glinted off their lip gloss. They all drank white wine out of cans. I wondered where they learned all that, all that art of being female.
I glanced down at my chipped pedicure and calloused heals. I pulled my sweater to hide my paunch. The salad I made for the party had leaked all over the inside of my backpack. Eyebrow was the queen bee of a girls’ night out. I would walk into a room of friends and strangers alone, again, and would want to leave as soon as I arrived.
One of the swarm made a joke and Eyebrow kicked up her right foot in glee. I saw a flash of white on the sole of her stylish platform sandal. It was a perfectly square sticker, a price tag from a discount shoe place, from DSW or Nordstrom Rack. I had found the chink in her perfection. I rolled my eyes at my glee at finding it. I extended forgiveness to her, of which she had no need. And to myself, of which I did.
In Big Bend National park they found neck bones of an Atamoseurus that weighed 1000 pounds each. The neck bones weighed that much, not the Atamoseurus. They also found bones of the Quetzalcoatlus – the largest flying creature to ever have lived. Its wingspan was 36 feet and it weighed just over 500 pounds. A model of its skeleton hovers over visitors at the dinosaur outpost in Big Bend National Park. Visitors would catch it out of the corner of their eyes and start, “Wow. What is that?” and gaze up at the giant predator with a new appreciation for what chipmunks feel when a hawk soars overheard. I turned to a total stranger for reassurance, “Jurassic Park was fiction right?” I didn’t want that thing coming after me if it had missed lunch.
Quetzalcoatlus , Big Bend National Park
I tried to imagine the desert landscape of Big Bend 130 million years ago when it was a marine environment, and 72 million years ago when it was an inland flood plain, and the 55 million years ago when it was volcanic highlands. I could empathize with the dinosaur deniers. It seemed impossible that this this baked landscape could ever have been lush and humid and sticky; that it ever smelled like moldy murkiness thick with mud and decaying leaves and rotting fruit, instead of hot sand; that giants lumbered among lush vegetation instead of insects and rodents scuttling among the yucca.
I think about the people I know whose personal landscapes weren’t always what they are now. Ralph can’t get out of a chair now but used to hike the Appalachia mountains. Debby’s acute mind shines through when we talk about politics but she forgets that her husband has died. Marge’s life used to revolve around the addictions of her son. A 12-step recovery community has helped her let go of the cycles of blaming and saving. Liz has created a new life following the death by suicide of her husband.
What other landscapes are buried beneath the current contours of the lives of the people around me? If I dug just a bit deeper what evidence of a whole other era would I discover? Would I be surprised by who they were or would I finally understand who they are?
I can see forever from the top of the South Rim Trail at Big Bend National Park. I’m reminded of the first time I snorkeled in the ocean. When I put my face in the water and opened my eyes the expanse, unstopped by pool walls, startled me so much I had to swim back to where I could stand and get my bearings.
Here, forever stretches not just in terms of geography but also in terms of time. I’m accustomed to trying to imagine what the landscape looked like before the subdivisions and Starbucks and Midas Muffler shops chewed up the prairie where my hometown Parker, Colorado now is. I tell people that I remember when Highlands Ranch, a large suburb of Denver, was a real ranch, with actual deer and antelope playing among the cattle. Here, in the desert corner of southwest Texas, my imagination stretches back to prehistoric times when this area was a muggy swamp populated by dinosaurs.
Everywhere I hike national park posted signs remind me to stay on the trail, that the ecosystem here is fragile. And it is. But this place is also timeless, enduring. It has survived to be home to the bravoceratops and the mountain lion, the gryposaurus and the javelina. This place has adjusted to climate changes and accommodated new species. People are like that – both easily broken and infinitely resilient.
Life changes us. There are the cataclysmic events of death, divorce, and trauma. The seismic shifts of falling in love and new vocational calls. And there’s the seemingly inconsequential events that shape us — the sarcastic joke that makes us wince, the bid for friendship that is never answered, the affirmation of a talent we haven’t yet explored. These moments are like the steady stream of the Rio Grande that carves a canyon in desert rock. There are things that change us forever. And we persist.
I wanted to go to the Monday night Bible study the day after Easter. This was remarkable. Easter Monday, as I call it, is usually a treasured day off after the marathon of Holy Week worship services, the work of planning Easter Sunday, the energy expenditure of the larger than normal crowd and then the inevitable let down Easter night. But I didn’t want to miss it.
I suppose a pastor should always want to go to Bible study. We are, after all, the religious nerds of our community, unusually committed not just to our own spirituality but to religious institutions as well. But honestly, I’ve been just as glad as anyone for a break from a long-term study. I’ve felt the glee of a second grader getting a snow day when I’ve cancelled a study because of inclement weather. I look forward to holiday breaks and summer vacation.
One of the dangers of being clergy is the blurring of the lines between what we do for a paycheck and what we do because it is authentically who we are. I’ve gone through periods not sure that I would go to worship if I weren’t paid to be there. I have preached the “Good News” as much to convince myself as to convince the people in the pews. Sometimes I’m not sure if what I am saying is really what I know to be true or just something that sounds good.
To realize I wanted to go to Bible study was a gift. Something is happening for me in that group. I am growing and deepening spiritually. I am the leader of the group, but also a co-participant. We share deeply from our own lives and ask important questions of the text. We take the risk of not sticking with pat answers. We sometimes disagree. I learn from the stories that others share and the wisdom of the gathered community. People share their life experiences, and together we ponder deep questions.
This experience reflects and shapes my leadership. The image of leadership that I most often see lifted up is of someone standing at the front of the pack, a bit at a distance, pointing the way with a confident arm. A strong leader sets the vision and answers to the questions. The leader is never unsure, is always unwavering. These days, I am not leading from the front, I’m somewhere in the middle. I convene the group, make room for questions, share what I know, ask what others know, admit when I’m wrong, confess uncertainty, and trust that the Spirit will move among us and not just with me. I am leading from the midst of the gathered people. Is that really leadership? I’m not sure what the leadership gurus would say, but it feels right to me. And it’s good for my spirit.