Friday, December 07, 2007

So shrill the cry

Advent always presents a paradox for me. Even though I participate in the annual Advent humbug, criticizing the consumerist and materialistic impulses of our culture at this time of year, I also admit I get tired of those voices who want to claim they know that the real meaning of the season contradicts with our usual Christmas preparations. It almost seems that each year these voices grow a little louder. It has gone past the whole giving vs. receiving debate. They call for a simpler holiday altogether; they want less focus on spending and greater emphasis on building relationships with loved ones--or at least a renewed commitment to justice issues, like buying toys for needy children or donating a pig to a slum in Haiti.

To some degree those of us in that anti-consumer Christmas crowd are like the Pharisees and Saduccees who come to the Jordan riverbank seeking John's baptism. We are drawn there not so much because we whole-heartedly want to change our society's self-centered ways, but because we sense, deep down inside, that there might be something to his message. Something about the shrill sounds of John's frustration with the status quo reverberates within us and we think, for a second, there might just be a way to change it. Amidst all the shopping and decorating and grimacing about it all, we wonder if John might be onto something when he tells us that repenting is worthwhile. Something about the possibility of real change--within ourselves, within the world--causes us to stop and listen, if only for a few minutes.

A lot of people say "Jesus is the reason for the season," but I ask: What would Christmas be without John the Baptist? What would the celebration of God's grace in Jesus be without an iconoclast to shake us up a little beforehand, to shake us out of our yearly rituals and annual efforts to "do good"? We brood of vipers! We need this fiery, unpleasant dimension to the holiday in order to remind us that, left to our own devices, we will seek out and create our meanings for life, just as we always find our own "truer" meanings for the yuletide hoopla.

John's message was one of repentance. Repentance, very simply put, means to change direction, to turn around. Perhaps, on our part, the greater act of Christmas has nothing to do with giving or receiving, of looking past all the tinsel and toys to uncover some kernel of altruistic love. The more significant action is to repent. To be sure, God does give to us graciously, and we are urged to be givers, as well. However, repentance is where that must begin, and turning around, hearing the still shrill voice of change, is the ultimate life-giving Christmas activity. We can only figure out the "reason for the season" once we have first learned to open our inward-looking eyes and see what John the Baptist sees. He sees a world in desperate need of humility. He sees a world crying for a better system of peace and justice. He sees a creation that is broken more than it realizes and far more than it wants to admit. Yet he also sees its healing. John sees and foretells creation's promised healing, and he bids us to lay down our pretensiousness and turn around and receive it with him.

Savior of the nations, come; show the glory of the Son!
Every people stand in awe; praise the perfect Son of God.

God the Father is his source, back to God he runs his course;
Down to earth and hell descends, God's high throne he re-ascends.

Shining stable in the night, breathing vict'ry with your light;
Darkness cannot hide your flame, shining bright as Jesus' name.

(Ambrose of Milan)

(image above: "John the Baptist," African Mafa)

Friday, October 26, 2007

the last days of this autumn

The rain of these last two days is surely bringing down the remaining seasoned leaves of the fall, and I'll be sad. It is my wife's favorite season, but autumn always arouses bittersweet feelings in me. I associate it with the end of summer (fun, vacation, no school) and the beginning of another year of work. However, I find the colors of the leaves as they change and die to be so brilliant--even to my colorblind eyes--that it makes me marvel at creation and contemplate my own place in it in a way that few other aspects of nature do. I think Annie Dillard was onto something when she wrote about the complete unnecessary extravagance of it. I've almost driven off the road several times just trying to take in the views because I know they're so fleeting. One day of gusty wind and we'll be left with nothing but gray twigs against the sky. Just a few weeks ago, however, they were ordinary green trees. I wonder if other drivers are equally as taken aback with it as I am. But then I think: they're just leaves! What's my problem? They'll probably be more dazzling next year, as long as there's not another drought. Changing color like this is what deciduous leaves are supposed to do. Why get caught up in it? It's the extravagance, I think. There is no reason for this beauty. And the temporary nature of it is a large part of what makes it beautiful. Thank you, God. But why is part of me disappointed?

I ran across this poem by Luci Shaw and, although it's subject matter is nature of another season, it struck a chord:


The maple seeds have spent themselves;
their wings lie mute and brown and tattered
along the grass. The peonies
have let their bloodied white be scattered,
and all this windy afternoon
I've grieved as if it really mattered.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Dives must be rolling in his grave

It always catches me off guard when, in the course of the children's sermon delivery, the gospel is sniffed out by some young theologian before I've planned to reveal it.

Let me explain my children's sermon from Sunday: I found on-line and printed out photos of Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, two people I thought most people would instantly recognize as wealthy and influential. Even though I figured the kids at the children's sermon wouldn't know Bill Gates to look at him, I figured they may have at least heard of his name. Oprah, given that she's on T.V., might get a few more nods. I also printed out a photo of a random beggar that I located simply by googling "beggar." My plan was to contrast these pictures by explaining that everyone knows Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey but no one knows who the beggar is. Whereas we know the names of famous rich people, we couldn't dare to guess the name of the poor. This is because, I suggested, a lot of people think people like Mr. Gates and Ms. Winfrey are important and worthy of emulation because of all their money and, in the cases of those two, how much good they choose to do with a lot of it. The beggar, on the other hand, has nothing and so no would think of him as important or noteworthy. He is, essentially, forgettable. Then I went on to explain how money and fame do not really matter to God; it is human need that makes someone "important" in God's eyes and therefore compels us to care for all, especially the needy.

I began by showing them the pictures. They always respond to pictures. As I had expected, no one recognized Bill Gates, but some had heard of his name. Then I showed the picture of Oprah Winfrey. Again, silence. So then I had to explain who she was, too. Some acknowledgement in a few faces. Then I showed the picture of the beggar, expecting (and wanting) more silence. A little second-grade boy shouted out, "That's Lazarus!!!" A little stunned, I said, "How do you know his name is Lazarus?" He said, "Because he's begging beside a gate." Alrighty, then. Children's sermon ruined? Of course not, but I did have to make some accomodations.

This child had not been in Sunday School that morning, nor does he attend church very often. His father was clueless as to how he knew. All I can figure is that when he came into church that morning he read and remembered the bulletin cover, which featured a similar photo of someone begging for money. Go figure. Apparently not quite everyone ignores Lazarus.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Coaches vs. Pastors: Sunday is Game Day

It is no surprise to say that our culture is sports-obssessed. It is not a new trend; "national pastimes" have referred to athletic endeavors for years and years. Athletes have always been heroes, not just in America, but in all human cultures, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome and even likely before that. I do think, however, that the amount of money and attention paid to athletics and sports have reached a new level, even in the past few decades. I can't document it, but I am certain that there are more sports groups who do their stuff on Sundays than even when I was a kid.

I notice this most often in my ministry as a parish pastor. I have discovered that the single largest competitor (to borrow a sports metaphor) to church activities, especially worship, is sports. This is true whether the sports activities are drawing people as participants or as spectators. I would venture to say that athletic activity draws people away from church participation even more than Sunday work schedules, which are also increasingly common. Youth, of course, have always had to choose from time to time between youth group involvement and participation on a sports team. Now, however, I find that it is getting more common to find that even the most faithful and committed church members will think nothing of sacrificing valuable church time--week after week after week--to be involved on a team or do something else sports-related. Adults, too, get so involved in their child's sports activities or in their own favorite team's season that they think nothing of foregoing church worship. And it is also true: no college to my knowledge is offering any scholarships for faith acumen. Sports hold sway in this day and age of conspicuous consumption in a way they never have before, in my estimation.

I would be a liar if I said this didn't trouble me. Don't get me wrong; I understand the value of sports and know that participation in them can teach important things such as teamwork, a sense of community, self-confidence, and stewardship of the body. I consider athletic activity--the recreation of physical exertion--to be, like many things, a gift from God. It is good to enjoy sports.

However, I do worry about the character formation that our youth (and adults) receive through sports. In short, what is the end (telos) of sports? If we're spending more of our time submitting to the guidance and authority of coaches and teammates than we do our sisters and brothers in Christ, our pastors, and in service to others, what kind of people will we become? If we spend more of our energies involved in inherently exclusive events like sports, cutting the weaker links from our teams and banishing to the sidelines those who aren't athletically inclined, then how do we ever learn to practice compassion and love for the outsider? If we spend more of our time listening to game strategies than we do to Scripture, how will we learn true humility? Can sports alone truly make us better people, the kind of people God has created and redeemed us to be? I am worried because I think we are more and more as a society answering that last question with an unqualified "yes." I know that a Sunday liturgy may not seem to be the most exciting pastime, but I also have faith that gathering with the faithful on a regular basis teaches us to place our treasure where moths do not consume and no rust destroys. It also forms us to be Christ to one another. We eat together at a table and share our many gifts, rather than play together on a court, lifting up only a narrow definition of "talent."

Perhaps this just sounds like a complaint from a tired, discouraged pastor who is ranting and raving about a new false idol. The last thing I want to do is ruin anyone's good time. But at what point do we need to stand up and say something? Things like Souper Bowl Day of Caring are a good examples of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," but still I think we slowly are losing our youth--and ourselves--to the allure of the sports gospel.

Friday, August 03, 2007

VBS 2007: Breaking the nets in deep water

Last night I completed two back-to-back weeks of Vacation Bible School, which, I've decided, is enough to wear anyone out. The first week we put on VBS ("The Great Bible Reef") for our own congregation and this week we took the show on the road, so to speak, to provide VBS for the children of Glade Run, the children's home that our synod maintains and supports just north of the city. Both experiences were wonderful, but very different. A total of 32 kids came to the VBS at Emanuel's and on our biggest night at Glade Run 52 kids showed up. I had a very dedicated corps of volunteers from the congregation to help with both sites. I think everyone would agree that both experiences were very exhausting, but also very rewarding. The kids at both sites clearly seemed to love everything we offered them. I always manage to find a few ways to critique VBS, but all in all I have to admit that it is overwhelmingly a worthwhile endeavor.

The children learn some great songs, and they love to sing them. They often make requests to sing certain songs over and over. My only regret is that we don't have the time or the energy to teach all of the songs the curriculum provides. (I do have to say, however, that while the songs are catchy, they don't seem to have quite the weight and depth of meaning that the VBS songs from my childhood had).

The curriculum usually highlights very good Bible stories that cover the breadth of Scripture. This year we had Moses in the basket, Naaman in the Jordan River, the miraculous draught of fishes, the healing of the man born blind, and Jesus' parable about the wise man building his house upon the rock. The volunteer who was in charge of Bible storytelling did a fantastic job. I was surprised that the children of Glade Run were more familiar with the stories than our own children were. They also seemed to do a better job of listening to the stories.

The crafts and games, I've decided, are mainly included to provide the kids the all-important opportunity to engage in constructive play, creative efforts, and conversation. All of the kids loved both activities, and both were very, very well-run. There was one game that stuck out. On Thursday, when the focus was on the man born blind who received his sight, one game required the kids to focus on Jesus while walking forward, navigating between two parallel lines of masking tape on the floor. The game's leader stood facing the kids on the other side of the room, holding above his head a big painting of Jesus' face. It was an interesting exercise because their temptation, obviously, was to look at their feet to see if they were stepping outside the lines. With concentration, however, they were able to look at Jesus and follow in the path safely at the same time. I thought it was a good metaphor for parish ministry.

Although I'm tired and need a break, I am very, very glad we went forward with both VBS programs this year, and hope that the volunteers will request that we do it again next year. I know the kids already have.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI and ecumenism

The Vatican released a statement through the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith this week that reasserted a stance that Benedict XVI has made before regarding the primacy of the Roman Church. In what seems to be a clarification regarding Vatican II's position on ecumenism, the Pope is reiterating the necessity of a papacy for the church's structure and sufficiency. Would we expect him to do anything else? Would we expect a Pope to actually come out and say that churches without succesion to the papacy are just as legitimate in the Pope's eyes as those who have remained in full communion with the office since the time of Peter? That would be kind of like a vote of no-confidence in himself. A lot of Protestant church bodies have cried "foul" with this latest release, wondering whether Rome is genuinely engaged in ecumenical efforts. True, the document does sound a little harsh to non-Roman ears (no one likes to hear that their salvation is defective!), but perhaps Benedict is making this statement in order to clarify some issues and mete out some justice within his own house, so to speak. All in all, it is imperative that in these times of religious extremism we seek to point out our similarities and points of common ground rather than our differences. It would look good if our house could work together.

I can appreciate the Pope's need to address theological boundary issues on occasion. My own denomination is engaged in ongoing turmoil over matters of ajudication, authority, and protocol, especially when it comes to issues of sexuality. That being said, it would be nice for this Pope to also release some sort of document or make some overture in the near future that would somehow seek to amend the wounds that this recent one has apparently created. It just sets a bad tone, and it makes those in Protestant circles who lean toward Rome have to work all the harder to cast the Vatican's comments in a less harmful light.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A new bishop

A good deal of my prayer time these last few days has been concentrated on our synod's new bishop, the Reverend Kurt F. Kusserow, and the transition that will now occur in the synod office. Synod Assembly was an exciting, but also draining and emotional time. We had a surfeit of good candidates from which to choose for our next bishop. Their speeches and their responses to the questions were excellent. You could almost feel the Holy Spirit pressing down on us and moving amongs us as we discerned what our synod needed in a leader and in which direction we could go. It wore us out, but I imagine that the stress I felt was minuscule compared to that of the candidates who put themselves and their visions for leadership before the assembly so openly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bishop election

On Thursday and Friday of this week I will take part in our synod's yearly assembly. The chief order for business at this year's assembly will be to elect a new synodical bishop because our current bishop, who has served in this capacity for 20 years, is retiring. I am very excited about this event. I have never been a part of the election of a bishop, not to mention one this monumental. To be sure, the election of any bishop is an important event, but everyone in this synod knows that this election carries additional significance since it will mark the first time since the inception of our synod that its character and direction of leadership will change.

Because I am clergy I will be able to cast votes in this election along with the 500 or so other voting delegates, both lay and clergy. I can't wait to sit and listen to what the candidates will say and what kinds of questions and issues arise for them to address from the floor of the assembly. I have been praying and thinking for a year or two about what qualities I would look for in a bishop of the church. Issues like declining membership, worship renewal, ecumenical relations, and human sexuality have made these times very tense in our denomination. Here are some of the things I will be listening for in the candidates (who could be any Lutheran clergy at this point):

1) a person who is articulate and careful in their speech. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, said that a bishop is primarily a teacher, and I think it is crucial that this new bishop can, like his or her predecessor, teach and preach clearly and accurately. By the same token, I would hope they'd know when to be silent and what topics don't need a lot of verbiage. Honesty and wariness of gossip goes along with this one. I suppose one can tell from the title and theme of this blog that I find this very important.
2) humility. Perhaps it is a personal distaste of mine, but I tend not to trust people who talk about themselves and their own accomplishments and connections too much. Naturally a bishop will need to be confident in leadership, and to a certain degree that will entail touting their abilities, but too much pomposity (and likewise, feigned obsequiousness) is dangerous. Admittedly, this is a more difficult quality to gauge, but I think it comes across in actions and body language as much as it does in speech. "The mind of Christ," a la Philippians 2, is kind of what I'm looking for.
3) someone who knows Scripture backwards and forwards. This goes without saying. It is critical that we have our foundation in God's Word, not in administrative acumen or some theological agenda.
4) demonstrated experience in parish ministry. Ideally, I would hope to have as a leader a pastor who has served in at least two different parishes and who has served in our area of Pennsylvania within the past fifteen years. I would like the next bishop to know from personal experience the challenges of ministry peculiar to this region.

There are many other qualities that I could name...good listener...inspiring speaker...good sense of humor...dedication to ecumenism...NC State fan...but I think that these first four will help me narrow down the pool of candidates to a few I can decide between.

It will be exciting to see how the Holy Spirit guides us over these next few days and, of course, once the bishop takes office and forms his/her staff in August. Go in peace!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ordination anniversary

Today is the fourth anniversary of my ordination. The fourth year is not necessarily a special landmark or anything; it just happens that this is the first year that May 30th has arrived and I've noticed it. So I've reflected on it a bit today.

I have been a little discouraged with my productivity lately. Ministry happens in the interruptions is what they told us in seminary, and I try to remind myself of that as often as possible. Nevertheless, this particular vocation and this context involves so many little unrelated tasks that pull me in a million directions. Sometimes I feel like I'm not getting anything done well. Today I took the church garbage to the dumpster next door (navigating the piles of dog poop in the yard that the back-door neighbor's dog has left there), had an impromptu counseling session with someone who dropped by and needed to talk about some very serious family and medical issues, met with a group about the possibility of my entering prison ministry, purchased gift cards for our Sunday School teacher appreciation day, made and answered about a dozen phone calls, firmed up this Sunday's baccalaureate service with a colleague, proofed a bulletin, bought some VBS materials, communicated with the treasurer about some checks that must be cut before he heads out of town, read one of my confirmand's last-minute sermon summaries, and led a Bible study for which only two people showed up. I tried to get over to hospice to have a visit, but was unsuccessful. I don't really know what tomorrow will bring.

For reflection on this anniversary, here is Martin Luther (from Table Talk):

"A good preacher should have these properties and virtues:
first, to teach systematically;
secondly, he should have a ready wit;
thirdly, he should be eloquent;
fourthly, he should have a good voice;
fifthly, a good memory;
sixthly, he should know when to make an end;
seventhly, he should be sure of his doctrine;
eighthly, he should venture and engage body and blood,
wealth and honor, in the Word;
ninthly, he should suffer himself to be mocked and jeered of every one."

In all my pastoral comings and goings, I suppose I should never forget the danger of taking myself too seriously.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

He is Ascended! Praise Him!

The infant room at my daughter's day care is run by this lady called Mrs. G. She is a middle-aged African American woman who is in total control of the often chaotic surroundings of her nursery. She has honed her skill in caring for "little ones" through her own life experience: she is a mother of three and has numerous grandchildren. Melinda and I have noticed that she is loving and efficient in her attention to all kinds of children. I have seen her simultaneously rocking one child in her lap, feeding another one a bottle, and using her foot to bounce a third child in a swing, a talent it would take me years to develop. No amount of screaming and fussing from the babies ever tips her over. She is good. We love Mrs. G.

Mrs. G is also a faithful Pentecostal and is very involved in her church. She occasionally likes to start up conversations with me about her church and her ministry when I come in to drop off Clare. Usually I just listen and make a comment or two in agreement, but I'm usually in too big of a hurry to engage her in a more involved manner. I'm also wary that, coming from such a different tradition than mine, we may venture into a topic on which we may disagree or that may need more discussion than casual parlance may allow. It's a silly hang-up, I know.

Today, however, I greeted Mrs. G by saying, "Our Lord is ascended!" She stopped for a minute, looking as if she was doing some counting in her head. "Is it already the 40th day?" she asked, shocked at how quickly time had passed. "Yes," I said. It's the celebration of the Ascension of our Lord." She responded, "Yes, our Lord left us and went up to heaven. But he promised to send his Spirit." Then, very matter-of-factly, she added, "And he had best do that, else we'd be in a heap o' trouble!"

Amen! Here was an ascension sermon straight from the mouth of a day-care worker who clearly knows what it means to depend on the "power from on high." It was a statement of faith straight from someone who knows her New Testament and how the divine economy works. Thank the Lord that Christ has ascended and has sent his promised Spirit. Let Mrs. G speak for the church today: we'd be in heaps of trouble if it weren't for Jesus' promises!

Did I mention we love Mrs. G?

(image: The Ascension of Christ, Hans Suess von Kulmbach b.1480)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

"See, I am making all things new!" (Rev. 21:5)

Images like photographs certainly help communicate the gospel, and the picture above is what I'm using for my sermon tomorrow on the Fifth Sunday of Easter. I took this picture myself two summers ago when I was hiking with friends in Glacier National Park in Montana. We were rounding a ridge and descending into a valley when we came into this area which had been completely ravaged by a major forest fire two years earlier. The landscape in this section of the trail looked altogether different from the few miles we had already traveled. The stark contrast of the charred, dead tree trunks with the lush, flowering undergrowth enchanted us. Ever the nerdy pastors, we named it "Resurrection Valley."

Although we think of fires as destructive, we have actually learned that they are one of nature's ways of replenishing and renewing growth. This particular conflagration had consumed a high percentage of the park's lower elevation forest and there were worries that the bleak landscape would disappoint the park's thousands of summer visitors. Not so! We considered ourselves fortunate to view such fascinating scenery up-close, and I'm sure other hikers did, as well. It was beautiful. Almost other-worldly, but beautiful and hopeful. Out of the ashes of death, God raises up new life. From the old life of sin, Christ can and does calls us to lives of love and faithfulness. "And the one seated on the throne said, 'See, I am making all things new!'"

There are many ways to think of God's desire and true ability to make things new among us, but on this day I'd like to think of how agape fills that purpose. Jesus' commandment "to love one another" is new, but it is also renewing. It restores broken relationships. It brings about reconciliation. Agape has the power to transform otherwise hopeless scenarios. In the fire of baptismal grace, agape when it is seen and enacted helps give us a vision of what God's kingdom will be like when he comes to make his home among mortals in the new heaven and the new earth.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Octave of Easter

Once the vortex of Holy Week spits out a bedraggled me on Easter Monday, I find that it takes me a few days to catch up on energy and, to be quite frank, get my moorings on the normal passage of time. I have a hard time remembering how a typical week flows. I often don't know what day it is until Wednesday or Thursday. The Triduum, especially, has a centripetal force to it that causes me to lose track of time, in a way. It wears me out, but it's kind of cool at the same time.

It's cool because I realize, once Holy Week is over, that for about three or four days all I could really concentrate on was Jesus, his Passion, and how it speaks to the life of the community of faith I'm called to serve. The way my brain normally conceives of the passage of time, week by week, is, for the time being, interrupted, and I think less about how I'm using that time and more about what the meaning of it is. That is, it's almost like time is suspended (I even find the distinction between nighttime and daytime becomes blurred) and some manifestation of eternity creeps in. I quite like it. Actually, I imagine that this is a foretaste of how time after the Resurrection will be: an endless concentrating on the love the Father has for the Son in the Holy Spirit, and how we find ourselves bound up in this love...ever praising, ever rejoicing, having ever before our faces the earthly depth and heavenly breadth of this glorious love, no longer burdened by the vagaries of time.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

novus mandatum

For the upcoming Maundy Thursday, a word from Maximus the Confessor (the especially good bits are in italics):

"Love is therefore a great good, and of goods the first and most excellent good, since through it God and man are drawn together in a single embrace, and the creator of humankind appears as human, through the undeviating likeness of the deified to God in the good so far as is possible to humankind. And the interpretation of love is: to love the Lord God with all the heart and soul and power, and the neighbor as oneself....Other than this there is nothing that can make the human being who loves God ascend any higher, for all other ways of true religion are subordinate to it. This we know as love and so we call it, not divisively assigning one form of love to God and another to human beings, for it is one and the same and universal: owed to God and attaching human beings to one another. For the activity and clear proof of perfect love towards God is a genuine disposition of voluntary goodwill toward one's neighbor."

from Letter 2, "On Love"

Friday, March 30, 2007

Crowded House

It's not only the name of a popular Kiwi pop group. It's also what we could name our new back porch!

A few weeks ago, the wind blew our birdfeeder so hard that it knocked it open from the top. I was planning to go out and fix it, but before I had the chance, I noticed that a pair of birds were starting to scope it out as a possible nest site. Sure enough, within a couple of weeks, a very opportunistic set of house finches had constructed a nest inside of it. We decided to leave it alone to see if they'd carry through on raising their young. We were a little concerned because this feeder (now house) hangs just 3 feet from our kitchen window. The door to our back porch is directly next to it, and our grill is right under it. We figured we might disturb them since we have to use that door in order to take our garbage out. As you can see from the picture, they couldn't care less that we're here. Last night the female sat undeterred on her clutch of eggs while I went back and forth between the kitchen and the grill.

Then, this morning, as I was watching them, my eyes were drawn to another spot of nest-building activity just beyond them. Sure enough, in the tree that stands closer than 10 feet from the bird feeder (now house), a pair of robins is now building their nest. We are going to be able to watch two different species of birds rear their young from our own kitchen window. This is all the more fortunate if you consider that our yard--if you even may call it that--is about the size of a postage stamp. The one tree--if you even may call it that--that officially stands in our yard is so close to our neighbors' property that it's difficult to ascertain who actually owns it. All three of our houses come together very close in the back yet there is a little cluster of shrub-trees that manage to squeeze in there. It's all very crowded, yet somehow the birds find it to be prime real estate!

What a perfect image for the way that the grace of God's kingdom surprisingly breaks into the world around us, often where we'd least expect it to make a beachhead. We should be so foolish to think that God can't find an entry point for new life and forgiveness where things look rather bleak and, well, crowded.

"He also said, 'With what can we compare to the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." Mark 4:30-32

Monday, March 26, 2007

Stupid Poverty

When Mary pours out her precious perfumed oil on the feet of Jesus in the presence of his disciples (John 12:1-8), Jesus rebukes Judas' reprimand of her extravagance by saying, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." I have always found this remark of Jesus' to be slightly peculiar, especially since we (especially in this day and age) are prone to associate Jesus' ministry so closely with the liberation of the poor. I understand how John uses Mary as a kind of foil to the Sanhedrin and Judas as well as an ironic segue to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but is Jesus suggesting something more by contrasting devotion with him to devotion to the cause of the poor?

One thing I've recently wondered about in association with this particular text and Jesus' comment is the motto for the ONE campaign ( "The campaign to make poverty history." Several denominations, including my own, have subscribed to the ONE campaign by encouraging members to sign up on the website and look for ways to mesh gospel imperatives with the objectives of the campaign. I am a big fan of Bono's, the chief architect and spokesman for this campaign, but I have always felt there might be some conflict here: namely, how can we presume to "make poverty history" if Jesus himself tells us that the poor will always be around? Am I splitting hairs?

In Michka Assayas' book, Bono in Conversation, Assayas takes Bono to task on this. Granted, he doesn't use a scriptural or religious basis for his line of questioning (he's an atheist or agnostic, I think), but he offers critique of Bono's moral crusade to stamp out poverty (especially in Africa) on the grounds that it can be patronizing to the poor and deaf to their real needs. It is the typical critique most wealthy celebrities with ventures in poverty-striken places receive. I can't find the exact point in the interview, but at one point Bono clarifies the objective of his campaign. He concedes that there will always be poor people around but that we have an opportunity and obligation to do something about the "stupid poverty" (or stupid level of poverty) that now exists in the world. He goes on to define "stupid poverty" as the people who are living in regions with no clean drinking water, who are dying of diseases for which we've long since had cures or treatments. I think it's a compelling delineation. I realize that evidence of disparities of wealth and general human welfare exist aplenty in the Bible (e.g., Lazarus and Dives), and there is a certain degree to which we may say disparities will always exist. We can't boil down the gospel, in other words, into justification for social democracy or communism or the objectives of an NGO, etc. While we care for the poor, we probably shouldn't equate our love of Jesus to something like "do whatever it takes to eradicate poverty." The church's minsitry to and with the poor is much more complex than showering them with possessions and money and technology.

On the other hand, Bono has a point: there now exists a level of poverty in the world in relation to the rest of us that humankind has never before experienced. In Jesus' time, Lazarus (of the parable) had the same chance to die from cholera or smallpox as Dives did. There was a disparity in personal wealth in Jesus' context, but riches and general living circumstances could not keep a dismal, short existence at bay as much as they can now. Look at how indiscriminately the Black Death killed off a fourth of Europe's population in the 14th century. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel talks a good deal about this and how certain societies, in being able to eradicate or develop immunities to certain diseases, substantially elevate their ability to increase their standard of living and overall power relative to other societies who can't or don't. In short, I suppose what I'm suggesting is that when Jesus says that "we will always have the poor with us," he may be have in mind a completely different concept of the poor than we do now.

We may not be able to completely "make poverty history" on this side of the resurrection, but maybe we in the global North do have a moral obligation to sell our fancy communion ware (a la Ambrose) and do something to reduce the amount of "stupid poverty" around us.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Momma Jesus

The gospel reading for last Sunday (Lent 2C) featured the only Biblical reference that I know of where Jesus uses an animal metaphor for himself. Lamenting the wayward Jerusalem, he pictures himself as a mother hen who wishes to gather her brood of chicks under her wing. It is an endearing image. I myself have never had the privilege to witness this common barnyard sight, but I've read a few stories about hens of certain species that have an innate sense to gather chicks--whether they're their own offspring or another's--under the protective embrace of their wingspan.

Plenty of hymns use language that I suppose is borrowed from this image. "Thy Holy Wings, O Savior," by Caroline Sandell Berg (who also gave us the intricately worded "Children of the Heav'nly Father, safely in his bosom gather"), and "Now Rest Beneath Night's Shadow," by Paul Gerhardt are two favorites that come to mind which speak of Jesus' sheltering wings. But why, I wonder, is the image of a hen found so rarely in the symbolology of the church? The lamb gets featured quite a bit, most likely because of its obvious Passover connotations and the numerous times "Lamb of God" is referenced in the New Testament. But if Jesus himself uses the hen as a powerful visual comparison for the way he longs to gather his people close to him, why don't we see more images of a hen with chicks in our stained glass and woodwork in the way we see, say, the vine and the branches or the shepherd?

Is it because the Church is somehow uncomfortable with such an ordinary and dirty farm animal being associated with Jesus? Is it because the hen is just too feminine? Is the one biblical reference too thin upon which to build an elaborate metaphor? I don't know why, but it sure would be nice to be reminded as often as possible that Jesus longs to gather us together and pull us in to safety. I like the thought of a "momma Jesus," a warm figure who is chiefly concerned about protecting us from the dangers of the world and from the dangers we bring upon ourselves through our own flawed attempts at self-assertion. Those of us who have wandered off are probably more likely to run back if we are greeted with welcoming wings of mercy. The repentance and judgment and instruction can come later. At the first, I need the promise of shelter. The Prayer of the Day for last Sunday said it perfectly:

Heavenly Father, it is your glory always to have mercy. Bring back all who have erred and strayed from your ways; lead them again to embrace in faith the truth of your Word and hold it fast; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"I'm still not sure if I understand ambiguity."

I'm steadily realizing what it is about leading a parish that is so challenging for me. I think I am too comfortable with ambiguity, especially when it comes to relationships and decision-making.

Several years ago, during an interview for CPE in seminary, my interviewer asked me what my Meyers-Briggs "letters" were. When I told her, she slowly nodded her head and said that pastors who score very high as a "P" (perceiving) often report having a difficult time governing in the parish. They tended to find it difficult to reach solid conclusions about ideas. At the time, I didn't know what she meant. Now I do.

I am not a huge fan of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicators, but I do think there is some truth in what it uncovers about a personality. When it comes to judgment-making, I have always struggled. I always want to consider every perspective. And then consider every perspective again. And then consult someone about the perspectives. And, in the end, I will still leave the door open to new possibilities. Flexibility can be my biggest weakness.

But then I got to thinking that this is also may be why I like Dostoyevsky so much. Dostoyevsky's novels are entrenched in ambiguity: why did Raskolnikov kill? Is he suffering enough? Has he paid his penalty yet? Who killed Karamazov? Let's consider all of these deep questions and more. My more "J" (judging) friends have read The Brothers K and been put off by it, claiming "nothing ever really happens." Au contraire! So much is happening! His novels are a veritable "P" playground.

The challenges in ministry come, however, when people need decisions made, and when they need "something to happen" and I feel much more comfortable in just letting things happen and seeing where that leads us. It can be a little detrimental to the notion of progress, and a good "P" needs to be intuitive enough to figure out how it's going to happen anyway and then adjust to respond accordingly. The challenge, then, is to hone that intuition and the ability to think on one's feet.