Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Work of Christmas

The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God… One week later, was the world truly any different? Was there a giant jump in the sheep futures market? Did the bears’ claws all fall out or did the wolves go on strike? Were social systems turned upside down so that instead of being considered gypsies, tramps, and thieves, shepherds became instant media darlings? I wonder if any of those certain poor shepherds suddenly found Caesar seeking out their advice on agricultural policy or J Lo wanting to marry them. Methinks not.

Probably those shepherds returned to their fields where they lay, to the same old smelly sheep, and the same big bad wolves, and the same stifling social ostracism. In other words, back to the same old same old. Back to the real world, where visions of angel choirs happen only after ingesting certain poor mushrooms and infant kings are decked out in the latest from Herods ‘R Us and not swaddling clothes. Under such circumstances who would blame them if they simply went on with life… and little if anything changed?

Most of us wouldn’t. Change the details around a little and those shepherd’s experience mirrors our own. Candlelight highs have given way to the flatline existence of daily survival and the strains of angel choirs have given way to the strains of muscles and joints as we grind away to earn our daily bread. Hey, hasn’t anyone noticed that the Prince of Peace has come to dwell among us, or are we too busy pushing and shoving in order to get that last after Christmas bargain?

No, it’s back to the same old same old for us. Back to the real world where I have lost count how many times in almost 23 years of ordained ministry I have either dealt with the reality of death (including my own dad’s memorial service 14 years ago) just before or right after that sacred date of 12/25 upon which no one, not even death, is supposed to dare to tread.

The Church in its wisdom has always known that the glow of Christmas gives way very quickly to the work of Christmas. December 26 is St Stephen’s Day, as we commemorate the first Christian martyr. December 27 is St. John’s Day, the day we commemorate the beloved disciple, who was also believed to have been martyred. December 28 is the day we commemorate the Holy Innocents, the victims of King Herod’s (and his modern analogues) fear and paranoia.

The glow of Christmas is over. The work of Christmas has begun. A baby’s cry quickly gives way to a mourner’s cry. Swaddling clothes are exchanged for grave clothes. The sweet smell of hay yields to the putrid stench of death.

The glow of Christmas is over. The work of Christmas has begun. The manger will be retooled into a cross and many will rise and fall because of it. That is what crazy old Simeon told Mary that day in the temple courtyard. And he promised her that a sword would pierce her own tender mother’s heart in the process. Such a deal I have for you, Mary… the glow of Christmas giving way to the work of Christmas.

The work of Christmas… The work of the incarnation in our hearts and in our lives retooling God’s dwelling within us into a cross-shaped throne from which God’s reign is extended to world. One life at a time; one day at a time. That’s the formula. That’s the game plan. It is a process of slow but steady infiltration. It is like water slowly but surely dripping a path through solid limestone. One life at a time; one day at a time. For each life and each day are of special importance to the Creator of time and space who cradles eternity in the palm of her hand.

One life at a time; one day at a time. The glow of Christmas is over. The work of Christmas has begun.

I am the Unlikely Pastor; welcome to my world and God's richest blessings for the New Year. Peace out.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Something About Mary

The lead all of a sudden wwent taut pulling her off balance and practically jerking her shoulder out of joint. A brief cry of pain and surprise escaped from her lips as the lead escaped from her grasp. On the other end, the donkey, weightd down with her hastily gathered clothing and supplies, was refusing to budge, As a sudden wave of nausea overtook her, she thought to herself, "This is as good a place to stop and rest as any."

She rode out the wave of nausea and opened her cache of supplies to find the matzah that she had packed for just such an occassion. For its part, the donkey stared blankly and inscrutably off into space.

As she pecked at the the matzah in front of her -- she never really liked matzah much -- she remebered how her girlfriends who were married and had begun raising their families had said that it helped their bouts with nausea. So she pecked and hoped for the best. A few pecks and a sip of water later, the wave began to roll on through and her insides slowly began to settle. With the relief came the calmness to reflect on the events of the past few weeks.

"Don't be afraid, Mary," the angel had said to her. Don't be afraid? Who was he kidding. There was a reason that the rabbis taught people to fear visitation from the divine realm. Lives ended up being turned inside out and upside down. All she had ever wanted out of life was to marry, settle down and raise her family, and grow old together with her husband and plenty of grandchildren. Joseph wasn't the most handsome guy she had ever met, and his social skills were, shall we say. a bit lacking; but one look into his eyes, and she saw straight to the depths of his soul, and she knew that beneath the rough and awkward exterior lay a kind, gentle, decent man who would care for her and their family -- and that was really all she could ask of any man.

As their engagement had progressed, she had grown to respect, and yes, even to love him. But how could she explain all of this to him? She had rehearsed it a million times in her mind. "Joseph, dear, I'm preg... Joseph, I'm preg... I'm going to have a bab..." But the words just wouldn't come out. They stuck in her throat much like her nausea asuaging matzah. How could she tell him? How could she break his heart like that? He deserved so much better than this. And how would he react? There was no telling. The wave of nausea gave over to a wave of sobbing. "Don't be afraid, ha!" Easy for you to say Mr. Divine Messenger. "Favored one," he had called her. What had she ever done to seserve such favor? The donkey continued to stare intractibly off into space.

She dropped to her knees. How can this be happening to me? Who am I? Just a simple girl with simple dreams, no more; no less. I don't merit this. I didn't ask for this. I'm not even sure I really want this. But God wants this for me, and so what else is there to say except, "Bring it on! I am the Lord's servant, let it be as God desires." Now that we've got that matter settled, how about favoring me with a little help in breaking the news to mama and papa and getting my dear sweet Joseph to understand, please?" She really needed to get away, to take a step back from the whole experience and clear her head.

So she she hastily thrown together a few provisions and headed off to Elizabeth's under cover of darkness. Elizabeth had always been her confidant, her mentor, her spiritual and life coach. She had girlfriends, but to Mary, they too often seemed shallow and so wrapped up in themselves. Mary had alwys been possessed of a very deep and serious persona, and Elizabeth with her years of life experience had always proved a ready source of strength and non-judgemental guidance. She knew that she would need to tap deeply into that vein now. If anyone could provide wisdom and counsel, it was Elizabeth.

She felt something cold and wet against her cheek. The donkey was softly nuzzling her. She patted the donkey, staring into those soft brown eyes which suddenly seemd to be filled with knowing compassion. She rose to her feet, the nausea completely gone, the tears leaving a a saalty trace on her cheek, and once again taking the lead in her hand resumed her journey.

Her last thoughts were of the angel's words, "With God nothing is impossible." There was hope in her life and her world after all. Hope which enabled her to respond, "I am the Lord's servant. Let it be as God wants." Hope which had turned he world upside down and inside out. Hope which grew deep inside her, and would be born into the world. Hope for all humanity. With God nothing is impossible. Hope lives and breaths; dies and is raised to life again. With God nothing is impossible. Only hope...

Mary's story is our story. Theo tokos, God bearer. We are the bearer's of God to the world. It is through us that the Word, present from the beginning of time, becomes incarnate anew. And who are we that we are so favored? We didn't ask for this. We're not even sure we really want it. But this is what God deeply desires for each of us. May we like Mary be given the grace to realize that even tough our lives will end up turned inside out and upside down, that there is hope in the world after all. And amy we like Mary be given the caourage and the faith to respond, "Bring it on. I am the Lord's servant. Let it be as God wants." Amen.

I am the unlikely pastor, welcome to my world and have a "Mary" Christmas.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Narrative of a Sacramental/Preaching Event

(The following is an essay that was written for my first Doctor of Ministry class. Here I offer it to the general public for comment. I am the unlikely pastor and welcome back to my world.)

This essay presents a dilemma. Worship/preaching events by their very nature are formative events. Singling out a particular event is tantamount to singling out which particular snowflake in a large pile was the key to the formation of the drift, or which ripple of a stream’s current eventually eroded the coarse rock into the fine gravel which makes up its bed. From a young age, legs dangling off the folding metal chairs at Springdale Presbyterian Church (Springdale, Ohio); to singing in the Junior Choir directed by my 5th Grade teacher, Mr. Whipple, at First Congregational Church (Madison, Ohio), to recruiting high school classmates to provide special music for our worship services at Calvary Presbyterian Church (Logansport, Indiana), to eternity and beyond, worship/preaching events have shaped, molded, contoured, hammered and forged who I am and who I am becoming.

With that caveat in mind, two interrelated events emerge as places where one might pause to erect a “historical marker”. They are interrelated only in as much as without the occurrence of the first event, the impact of the second presumably would have been limited at best, if it would have had much impact at all. The Holy Spirit indeed works in mysterious and inscrutable ways of which we are granted only fleeting glimpses. Now we see through a mirror dimly…

To the task at hand: I was confirmed on a Maundy Thursday. I’m not sure if that is standard Presbyterian order, but it was the case for me and my 12 classmates. We fought the good fight; we finished the race. We showed up week after week sweaty and tired from long days of school and athletic practice. We stomached the interminable class sessions and skated through the obligatory inquisitional dinner with the Session. All this we endured in an effort to gain the final prize – admittance to the Holy Sacrament, a participant’s seat at the Lord’s Table. After years of watching the cube of bread and “shot glass” of grape juice go passing by without so much as a sniff; after years of hearing Jesus’ words repeated, “I am the vine; you are the branches; apart from me you can do nothing;” I was ready to do something. I was ready to be a part, a branch of my own producing good fruit for my Lord.

It was a special moment, but not one without irony. This sacrament that was so important and life-giving, this sacrament that I waited on and longed for, this sacrament was only celebrated quarterly and on special occasions (i.e. Christmas Eve and Maundy Thursday) – a whopping total of 6 times a year, whether we wanted to or not. If indeed this sacrament, this eating and drinking, was so vital to my spiritual connection and well-being, why was I being forced onto a starvation diet? Congregational Teaching –vs. – Congregational Practice created in me a sense of sacramental dissonance.

That dissonance began to resolve as I began college at Valparaiso University (Valparaiso, Indiana) and began worshiping regularly in the Chapel of the Resurrection, the structure which towers over the heart of the VU campus. The choirs, the music, the processions, the liturgy – the sheer size and scope of worship in that space – and above all, the practice of weekly celebration of the Eucharist, struck a much more harmonious chord with my spirit. I was particularly struck by the practice of coming forward to the chancel area to receive the sacrament – God calling the gathered community forward to strengthen us for service in the world, nourishing us at the Holy Table, and sending us out to love and to serve.

My freshman year I was particularly graced to sing in a choir that provided the music for the principle Sunday worship service the majority of the time while classes were in session. We sang Psalm settings and antiphons, settings of the appointed “Alleluia verse” for the day or season, and provided some special music while the rest of the gathered community communed. It was my first experience with a liturgical choir, one woven into the fabric of the service itself and not simply tacked on or crammed in wherever convenient. Singing in that choir kept me physically in worship at a time when a major part of me was headed out the back door. It kept me in worship long enough for my sacramental dissonance to resolve into a more harmonious and soulful celebration of Christ’s presence. However, without that initial sense of sacramental dissonance sounded out by my earlier experience, the impact of worshiping in the Chapel of the Resurrection and of singing in that choir would have been blunted.

Today I still live with a certain amount of sacramental dissonance, as Lutheran teaching and Lutheran practice on the congregational level have not kept pace with each other. None of the congregations I have served to date have felt the need for weekly celebration and sustenance. While I have never understood the logic of such a spiritually anorexic attitude, I have learned pastorally to respect the bound conscience of those who differ in such matters, and continue to pray that one day our differences will resolve and Christ will indeed be all in all.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Reflections of Ancient Rome

The following reflections were presented to my congregation as my annual letter in the bulletin of reports for our 2011 annual meeting. I offer them to you for what they are worth. I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world. Peace out.)

Grace to you and peace from the one who is, who was and who is to come.

 As I shared with the Council at our January 18, 2011 meeting, I am still in the process of digesting all that I experienced on my recent study trip to Rome, and will be for some time to come. Using Jesus parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25 as a backdrop. I reflected with the Council on the resolve of those early Christians in Rome to minister to “the least of these”, those whom proper Roman society had abandoned.

 The early Christian community in Rome was located far from the gleaming white marble-clad seats of Roman power. The vast number of early Christians in Rome lived in the swampy marshland that existed on the other side of the Tiber River. They were numbered among what we today call “the working poor”, primarily employed in janitorial positions, in slaughter houses, and as longshoremen off-loading the barge loads of wine, oil, grain and other produce and tribute that fed the Roman economy.

 They didn't have much. But what they did have they shared openly with one another and those in need. It was Roman practice that if for any reason and at anytime a family decided that they did not want a child, they were free to simply abandon it outside the city walls, leaving it to die of exposure. Those early Christians would take these abandoned children into their own homes do what they could to nurse them back to health and if successful, raise them as their own. Many of these children died. In touring the catacombs it was sad to see the disheartening number of tiny graves dug out of the volcanic rock indicating the burial site of a young child or infant. But at least for the latter part of their life they received the love and care that they needed. What you do for the least of these...

 

Another site that we saw was an island in the middle of the Tiber River, the site of a modern day hospital, but at one time home to a shrine to Aesculapius, the god of healing. It was there during outbreaks of small pox and plague that Roman families would abandon their sick to their fate. The early Christians would rescue those left for dead and take them into their own homes, attempt to nurse them back to health, and if successful continue to support them in whatever way they could, adopting them into their own families. What you do for the least of these...

There is a pattern here that can be instructive for us if we have the will and the wisdom to discern it. Who are those whom our society abandons to their fate? How can we take them into our community and share our life, our love with them? How do we in our life together minister to “the least of these” that populate the margins of our day to day experience? There is a pattern in the early Christian witness that can be instructive for us. Do we have the will and the wisdom to discern it?



Friday, October 29, 2010

Voting the Bible

Recently, I have been receiving all sorts of urgings from folks I know to "vote the Bible." Not exactly sure what to make of them. Does the Bible speak with a clear and unequivocal voice on the issues we face? Are they urging me to vote in accordance with a certain set of narrow predetermined criteria traced back somehow to the Bible's pages? Is this what Christians are called to do, proof-text voting?

My take is simply this, Biblical faith is intensely personal but it is never private. Biblical faith is lived publicly; therefore, as much as I hate politics, Biblical faith is political. It involves making choices in the realm of politics rooted and guided particularly in the prophetic literature and culminating in the person of Jesus. Issues of social and economic justice; how those who live on society's margins are protected and cared for; decisions made out of compassion rather than fear; how we care for God's creation so that it may sustain us as God intended; how differences are settled with respect and dialogue rather than vitriol and force.

These are among the principles that guide me as I vote for candidates. Do these coalesce into a certain political agenda? Perhaps, but I'm not really interested in labels, just being faithful and true to the path to which I feel called to follow. It may not be the path my "biblically voting" friends had in mind, or it may be, it is simply how I feel called to walk this world following the path of Jesus my Lord and Savior. I am the Unlikely Pastor, welcome to my world.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Appropriate Religious Speech

"Lord, take my hand and lead me, along life's way." The words to the old, familiar hymn sang into existence a very, clear and vivid memory. It was of her face, so confused, lost, and afraid. Her eyes seemed distant and longing. She was dying, her family gathered around her bedside at the nursing home. She was 99 years old, just a month or so short of 100. She had been in her life's final stage for awhile, but she always seemed to pull up at the last moment. Sadly, there would be no last minute heroics this time, she was played out. It showed in her pallor, in her breathing, and in those far away eyes.

Into the room wheeled her 98 year old brother. He was the elder statesman of the congregation, a true wisdom figure if there ever was one. His last few years had been pretty tough. He had survived a massive bee attack, several nasty falls, and had recently had his leg removed just above the knee due to poor circulation and wounds that would not heal. He wheeled himself straight toward her bed and the crowd parted as if Moses himself had raised his staff.

He took her hand in his and muttered a few words in German. Then without hesitation his shaky voice began to sing, the words were unintelligible to me, by the sound it was indeed German words he was singing, but the tune was clear and unmistakable, "Lord, take my hand and lead me, along life's way..." It was a holy moment. When he finished, he kissed her hand and then pushed back to join the rest of us who were gathered there. Her gaze still seemed distant and longing, and the confusion and lostness still registered on her face, but somehow she seemed a little more relaxed, a little less afraid, a little more ready to take the next step in her life's journey. It was indeed a holy moment.

As we sang that same hymn at nursing home devotions yesterday, those events of the not so long ago past came to mind. I can't help thinking about the world in which we live where religious speech is misappropriated and twisted into hate speech and to used to justify all sorts of bigotry, prejudice, and heinous actions that defy description (although the modern media falls all over itself to try). Perhaps religions critics are right. Perhaps religion is simply an infantile manifestation of wish fulfillment which humanity will be better off outgrowing, and the sooner the better. Perhaps...

Or perhaps the key can be found in the simple faith and actions of a humble 98 year old man who sang to his dying sister words of comfort, peace, and a living hope. Lord, take my hand and lead me along life's way...

I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bent

10On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." 13Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

 14Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath."

 15The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"

 17When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, NIV)

He bent over backwards to get this Jesus fellow here, and this is the the way he is repaid. No one knows the sacrifices that he made, the strings he pulled, the favors that he called in: all to get Jesus to be at his synagogue on this Sabbath. Jesus was such a hot commodity, everyone wanted the honor of hosting him. The crowds; the notoriety; the bragging rights... He was bent on getting him there... For a solid month it was his singular focus. All that only to have Jesus mock him and all that he believed by healing old bent over Sarah on that day of all days. Why, God, why? He couldn't believe it was happening... the Sabbath defiled on his watch... after all the trouble he had been through... now he was bent...

It hadn't started out that way. Actually it began as a pretty ordinary Sabbath day. Nothing too special about the gathering crowd. A few unfamiliar faces, onlookers, and curiosity seekers mixed in among the faces of the usual suspects. And of course there at her customary position at the edge of the shadows slouched old bent over Sarah. She was a fixture hanging on the fringes of his congregation. She'd been all crippled up and stooped over for as long as he could remember. Some whispered that she was possessed by a demon. He really didn't place much credibility in those rumors, but he kept his distance all the same. One could never be too careful.

He was proud of his little worshiping community. Nothing to showy or notable about them. They were just ordinary people living out the command of their God, just as their ancestors had done before them. And sabbath keeping wasn't just living out any old command; it was living out the command. It was the command which marked the Jewish people as special and chosen by God. No other nation, to his knowledge, kept anything like the Sabbath, a day of holy rest to honor God. No other nation went to such scrupulous lengths to safeguard this special day. The other nations had their festivals, their rituals, and their sacrifices, but they had did not have the Sabbath, a day when even the stranger in their midst was bid to lay aside their weekly burdens and rest. It was a Sabbath to the LORD; a remembrance of the Creator of all that is, of God's sovereignty over all Creation and of God's deliverance of the Jewish people who once were allowed no rest as slaves in Egypt, but who had been led out of slavery by God's mighty hand and set free. The Sabbath was all about Creation, freedom, and rest. And the Jewish people worked very hard to preserve that Sabbath rest. 39 types of work were extrapolated from the Torah and forbidden; and the rules were scrupulously enforced. This was their identity as a people, as God's people, they were talking about. So violations and violators were not treated lightly. 

Jesus already had a reputation of playing loose with the Sabbath laws, of dancing around the fringe, poking and prodding and pushing. He was a little wary. But nothing had prepared him for this. It was a blatant disregard of all that he held sacred. He was happy for Sarah, he really was. To see her stand upright bouncing around in praise and thanksgiving was quite a sight. But not on the Sabbath.

Healing was a form of work clearly forbidden by Sabbath law. He couldn't remember which number 1-39, off the top of his head, but it was there all right. Somebody had to stand up and be counted. If the Sabbath observance is profaned, disregarded, violated at will, then who are we? Whose are we? Too much was at stake. He felt compelled to speak out.

And the ultimate indignity was to have Jesus turn it back on him, like somehow he was the bad guy here. True enough, unbinding animals and leading them to get a drink was permitted: it was humane. But by extension to allow for the unbinding of people? No, it didn't hold water in his estimation. Animals needed water. People, for the most part, could be healed at another time. No, not the same at all.

Yet, here he was, watching Sarah dance and sing and praise, like she was a young girl again. And while he wanted to be happy for her, for her release, for her freedom; he felt captive to the the Sabbath laws, bound by his people's tradition. He was bent...

(The biblical story was retold from the perspective of the synagogue leader in order to emphasize the importance of the Sabbath law in Jewish piety. This was not some trifling incident, but a major challenge to what had become a cornerstone of Jewish identity. It is easy on first blush to lose sight of that. Jesus tied into the part of the tradition that saw Sabbath keeping as a celebration of freedom and deliverance. The ensuing discussion ultimately was left with two questions: What keeps us bound and bent over and unable to celebrate with others? How are we enabled to free and release others from that which binds them?

I didn't take this tack, but I wonder if this text may somehow give some insight to those who are so angry and upset by recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions to allow for the ordination of LGBT people living in "lifelong, committed, monogamous relationships," what we straight folks are allowed to call "marriage." Is this a case of folks being so bound by the tradition, a tradition held in good faith, that they can't celebrate with others? A question worth contemplating, IMHO. I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.