Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Retreat, Part 2: A Walk in the Dark

So I set an alarm for 5:30 a.m. with the idea of doing yoga and prayer before Lauds at 7:00. I said to myself, if I happen to be awake at 3:00 I will go to Vigils, but otherwise, Lauds will be good enough. Then at 10:10 p.m. I went to bed. Which is ridiculously early for me.

I slept in chunks, drifting in and out of dreams and wakefulness. I know this is a fairly natural way to sleep, actually, so I am not troubled by it. I had some interesting dreams, though most have fled from me now. As you might anticipate, I woke up at 2:47. Ha! said I. That is not 3:00! I'll go back to sleep. Which I did. Until 2:55. Ha! said I. Still not 3:00. I'll go back to sleep. Which I did. Until 3:01. Well, I could have said that wasn't 3:00 either, but the point was becoming obvious. I got up, dressed, and headed to the chapel.

It was dark and a little drippy out, but not unpleasant. As I started out, there was a light across the field, which I took to be most likely the chapel. The phrase "I looked, and I saw…" popped to mind. Not that going to chapel at 3:15 a.m. is like a biblical vision, but there it was.

For a moment or two I became anxious. I was walking in the dark in an unfamiliar and remote place. What if there were wild beasties out here? Well, I guess there would be worse ways to die than being on the way to worship.

As I walked I looked back at the retreat house, which was softly illuminated from within. I noticed a shadow across the wall as I walked. Surely, that wasn't my shadow? I looked to see what might cause enough light for it to have been, and there was nothing. Then I noticed a flashlight back by the door I had come from -- ah. This other person made the shadow, no doubt. I thought I heard someone say "Wow!" which I took as the person being surprised to see another person, that is me, on the road ahead. The person with the light was walking pretty quickly and caught up fast. I thought we might walk together, so I stopped and waited. Upon approaching the man said, "Good morning!" and I replied in kind. Then he sped past me, walking at a fast clip. A little surprised, I fell in, but found I couldn't keep up! At least not at the speeds I was willing to go. I mean, it was clear that the man was not interested in having a walking partner, so why impress myself upon him? I suspect he was one of the monks. So, content with my own gate, I watched as he moved on ahead, his light cutting the darkness, his form silhouetted. I was nevertheless comforted by that passing light, leading the way, and serving either as another target for any wild beasties or someone to assist or at least report if I were attacked.

Along the way, the lights from the gift shop began to fill the space. As the man's flashlight was now long out of range, I was somewhat comforted by this light, although as an amateur astronomer accustomed to darkness and ever vigilant about light pollution, I was somewhat annoyed by it, too. I wondered if there were some spiritual significance to my being attracted and repulsed by the light. Wasn't that part of the reading from Toward God last night? I think it was. Wasn't that part of what I had talked with KK about re: our spiritual lives last week? I think it was.

As I turned onto the monastery campus, I heard a cow or some other animal lowing in the distance. "Wow," it seemed to say. Aha. My traveling non-companion had not been so impressed with me, which made more sense. I laughed.

All that, just on the walk over to the chapel.

The service of Vigils was longer than Compline, about 40 minutes. Mostly psalms read antiphonally, with a reading from Acts and a meditation on the humility of Pope Francis thrown in. I enjoyed the psalms, even read in that odd way of monks. I think they do it that way so they have to think about every syllable, being more conscious of the words and the Word. I wonder if it works. No singing this time. Ah, well.

I made my way back, behind what I think was a different fellow with a flashlight, again noticing the darkness and distant lights, but this time with the words of the psalmist in my head, "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."

Monday, September 21, 2015

On Retreat, Part 1

I am in my room in the retreat house at Holy Cross Abbey outside Berryville, VA. I'll be here for most of the week, Monday evening (now) through Friday morning for study leave. My hope is to work on sermon themes for the rest of the year, do some reading, praying, and yoga.

I got here at about 5:30, later than I had planned -- big surprise. When I arrived at the retreat house, there was no one anywhere around. I followed a sign to the bulletin board whereon I found a list of retreatants, a place to check that you had arrived, and information about how to behave on during your stay, which is mostly quietly. So I signed in. It indicated my room number, but there was no key or anything. I wondered down the hall and found my room standing open, as were several others. A very simple room, as one would expect, with cinderblock walls, a single bed, reading chair, desk with chair, a couple of lamps, and that's about it. Oh, and a crucifix over the desk. I went back out and got my stuff from the car, and a few other retreatants showed up in the parking lot. Having been told to keep silent mostly, we all just nodded to each other. I dropped my stuff off in the room, and as it was getting close to dinner time, made my way back to the lobby and what I believed to be the dining room.

It is a very alien way to be welcomed, all this. I mean, the Benedictine tradition of welcoming any visitor as Christ is posted inside the front door, but the front door isn't really marked, so even where to enter the building was a guess. Maybe if I had arrived before 5:00 someone would have met me, but I don't think so. It's all very undirected. Okay.

We did get a bit of welcome and introduction at dinner. Not introduction to each other, but to the process for meals. Wait until everyone has arrived -- there are eight of us on retreat this week, apparently. Grace is said, then help yourself to the food. Eat without talking. Father James will read something to you while you eat. When you are done, rinse your dishes, and reset your place. Some of that doesn't apply to breakfast though, as you're on your own. So we ate while Father James read from the book Toward God, a passage about meditation, why it's hard, and how to improve your chances of actually doing it. It was a good reading and I'd like to get my hands on it to see it again. The food was simple -- soup, sandwich, salad -- but good. Once Father was done reading, we kept eating, not speaking and not much looking at each other either. I mean, even for an introvert it was just so awkward. I guess I'll get used to it.

Compline is at 7:30. I was bold to ask a woman in the lobby who seems to have been here before how to get to the abbey chapel. She was very helpful in directing me and letting me know it's an easy walk and how long the services last and so on. So I dinked around until 7:12 and headed out. In the rain. Thanks, Jeff and Barry. It is in fact an easy walk and took about 10 minutes. Got to the abbey church and the sidewalk split, leading to stairs on either side up into the church porch. I was getting a little frustrated already at having to figure everything out myself and said out loud, "Everything is a decision." I started to the right, saw that there were branches hanging over the stairs so that I might brush into them, so I turned and went to the left which was open to the raining sky. Why this made more sense to me I don't know. Another fellow came behind me and went to the right, so we entered the porch almost simultaneously.

The inside of the church is long and narrow, about 2/3 choir and altar and 1/3 nave, with a bank rope between the two parts. Obviously it was designed with the monks in mind more than visitors in the congregation. Makes sense. It was dimly lit, dark wood panel ceiling, dark wood pews. Three of us guests were there for the service, but we weren't outnumbered by monks by much. Five brothers arrived just before 7:30.

The liturgy was done exclusively by the monks. Sentences of scripture, responsive psalm, litany, brief scripture reading from 2 Thessalonians. Another litany. All these responsive readings seemed… artificially stilted in their delivery. Father James was the liturgist, and all the brothers re-spond-ed with ver-y hea-vi-ly punc-tu-a-ted de-liv-er-y. And very monotone. I remember when I was at the abbey in Atchison, Kansas, that the monks' responses sounded like the Borg collective. This had some of the same staccato rhythm to it without the benefit of numbers to give it depth. At the end of the liturgy, they sang a chant to Mary. This was by far the most passionate and natural sounding part of the service. While I don't venerate Mary myself, their song was beautiful and their devotion apparent. Would that all their liturgy was expressed with as much heart. I don't mean to judge… although I guess that's what I'm doing. Hmm. Well, I will try to be open to what is happening with the odd intonation of the rest, but I suspect I will be looking forward most to their singing.

One of the other retreatants offered to let me join him under his umbrella for the walk back, which was kind. It was a golf umbrella, so there was room, but my slicker worked well enough on the way over that I trusted it for the walk back, and said thanks, but no thanks. Introvert, and silence, and all, you know.

Now the next thing is whether I will make it Vigils at 3:30 a.m. or wait for Lauds at 7.

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for this place, for this time, for these people, for this opportunity. As the Rule of Benedict inculcates hospitality as to Christ, so, O Christ, be welcome in my retreat, in my work, in my heart. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Growing Pains

Here's a sermon I preached on Sunday, September 29, 2013. We had a little dust-up in a congregational meeting the week before, and it was a hard week for a lot of us, to be honest. I thought at first I wouldn't address it directly, but as the week went on I felt compelled. This is the result, most of which came to me in chunks and pieces. Some of the chunks are just phrases, so let the reader understand.

The scriptures for the day were 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and Mark 11:15-19.

If you find it edifying, give glory to God.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

We’ve been talking about Noah and the ark. Many modern scholars think of this story as mythological, that is carrying truth but not necessarily factually accurate. We’ve been talking about it as an historical event, but it could go the other way. Either way, whether the story is accurate or just truthful, we can use our imagination to fill in some of the gaps, like what it must have been like for the family in the ark. 

We know the Noah was a righteous man, but it doesn’t say anything explicitly about his family. They may not have held his faith, and that would make the devastation that much more terrifying. Regardless of their faith, any humans in the midst of such a disaster would be shaken to the core and compromised emotionally. All those humans in a floating zoo as everything they ever knew was literally washed away would surely have been overcome with fear, grief, and despair. They may have taken turns at it, but you can bet they all broke down at some point or many points, and they almost certainly took out their desperation on each other from time to time. The story does tell us that even Noah, the one righteous man on the planet, had some issues after the experience. When it was all over and they walked out on dry land, safe and sound, Noah started a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and passed out.

Even faithful people are prone to negative and unhealthy responses to radical change like economic upheaval, war, violence, social shifts, or more personally, loss of a job or loved one, change in marital status or health. Even members of a faith community can deal with painful situations with painful methods and painful results. (besides the above, CHANGES at CPC in attendance, membership, finances, cultural support, ministry direction and style  - REACTIONS - fear, anger, pain, despair, sin  - RESPONSES - withdrawal of personal investment, resorting to gossip, avoidance, manipulation, self-medicating, judging and/or blaming, lashing out, speaking the truth without love, and emotional dumping, and that was just me on Monday this week!)

*about Jesus clearing the temple*
Having a good day until he got to the temple
money changers and merchants - taking advantage of worshipers
misunderstanding what was most important in that space
underestimating the claim of God on their lives and practice
Jesus was filled with “righteous indignation” 
and let loose with an angry outburst right there in front of God and everybody,
like a flood, he cleared that place and started teaching how they were supposed to serve God

Fear, hopelessness, anger, pain, sin, brokenness - these things are part of the human experience. They come to all of us. But they do not get to have the last word.

This place, this ministry, and this church family -- all of us! -- belong to the Lord Jesus Christ! And that makes all the difference.

It’s not that we can’t bring these things to church. Some people seem to think Christians aren’t supposed to get mad, especially at each other, or aren’t supposed to get sad, or afraid. And if you do you shouldn’t bring it to church. All that does is keeps us from having meaningful ways to be engaged with each other when we have those strong feelings and reactions. On the contrary, this is EXACTLY the place to bring them! And to name them, out loud. Engage one another and the Lord with them. But they are not the last words here.

Where there is fear, Christ is our fortress.
Where there is hopelessness, Christ is risen in victory.
Where there is anger, Christ brings justice and reconciliation.
Where there is pain, Christ brings healing.
Where there is sin, Christ calls us to repent and offers forgiveness.
Where there is brokenness, Christ makes all things new.

And because Christ gets the final word, and because we are Christ’s Body, bound to one another by His blood and grace, we bear one another’s burdens, and share one another’s pain, and we listen deeply to each other, and we lift each other up with the promises of God. No one of us can say to another, “I have no need of you!”  

That’s what was happening in Corinth, a church with a very diverse congregation
When things starting going wrong, they started to disagree about things
When they started to disagree, they started to mistreat each other
When they started mistreating each other, they stopped loving each other
When they stopped loving each other, they lost focus on Christ
When they lost focus on Christ, things starting going wrong!
Paul calls them out of that downward spiral, 
reminding them they had to work it out, together, as Christ’s body with love (ch 13)

Life, even the life of faith, is filled with disappointment and brokenness. Even when we honestly pour out our fears and our hopes, the things we want to change often don’t, and the things we don’t want to change often do. It’s like the old saying, a man marries a woman hoping she will never change, and a woman marries a man hoping he will, and both are usually wrong. But that doesn’t make it any less a marriage, any less a promise to stay with it for life, for better or for worse.

There are times when we get it wrong, and say the wrong things, or say things in the wrong way, or the wrong place, or try the wrong things. We just will! That is when we must remember the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of his heavenly glory and was obedient to God even to death on the cross in order to win our salvation. We ask God and one another for forgiveness. We seek reconciliation and healing for broken relationships. We extend love and grace to one another. Because in Christ, 
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

We believe that nothing happens outside the time and providence of God. The Lord is working His purposes out among us, and He works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. At such times, when nothing seems to be going right, we must listen for the quiet leading of the Holy Spirit, that still, small voice of peace and wisdom, and we must cling to and demonstrate our love for one another, just as God in Christ loved us and gave his life as the sacrifice for our brokenness.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

End to End

Here is the sermon I preached this morning (12 May 2013). It is the culmination of about six weeks of preaching on the sacrament of Baptism. While most of these have been fairly doctrinal sermons, today's was narrative, stories that reflect some theology. It's been growing in my brain for a few weeks, so I'm glad to get it out into the world. I hope you will find something meaningful in it.

The several sections are supposed to evoke some of the symbolic meanings we attach to baptism as Presbyterians. When John Calvin wrote about the sacraments in The Institutes of the Christian Religion he described a metaphysical connection between a symbol and the reality to which it points. So in the spiritual realm and through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, the communion bread is connected with the reality of Jesus' body on the cross, the thing it symbolizes. So also, the wine is spiritually connected with Jesus' real blood. When a believer eats and drinks the communion elements, that one is participating in the reality of Jesus' crucifixion in the realm of the spirit. This has benefit of lifting believers to Jesus' presence, rather than dragging Jesus' body across time and space to be where the believers are. It also avoids the unpleasantness of actually eating anyone's flesh, even if it is Jesus'. Further, it spares Jesus the indignity of having his body consumed, digested, and ... shall we say "passed through the system" every time communion is celebrated. In the case of baptism, there are several symbolic meanings for the water, and by the Holy Spirit, the baptized participates in the realities to which they point.

Which brings us to the sermon, "End to End - Take 2." The "Take 2" is added because I used "End to End" for the sermon last week, thinking it would be this sermon, but it was something else. Here we go.

* * *

He was waiting. Still. He’d been waiting for a long, long time -- seemed like all his life! Maybe it was. He’d gotten used to the place, of course, although it felt like it was continually getting smaller the longer he was there. At first he thought of it practically as an infinite space, but now it seemed to be closing in around him.

Sometimes he wondered what would come next. Would this life just continue forever? It seemed unlikely, but he could hardly imagine anything beyond this. Could anything exist without the water, without the cord, without the steady thumping thing he heard all the time? He also heard things that seemed to come from outside, whatever that meant, but how could there be anything beyond the MomSpace continuum? And yet, as he got older and older, he felt like he would have to leave this life, and probably sooner than later. It was starting to feel like a compulsion, that he had to leave, that he MUST go.

Then one day it happened. With a determination he didn’t really understand, almost in partnership with the MomSpace, he put his head down and started to push. It was hard and it took a long time, but he pushed and pushed and pushed and….


And like every human being, born of woman, he passed through the waters into a new life.

What was taking so long? Why did she have to sit in this strange place? It was bad enough she had had to leave the MomSpace, but she had adjusted to the new place. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, being so big and bright and drafty, but the Faces took good care of her. But this place, this was a whole different thing. For one thing, it was full of Faces, everywhere she looked, all sitting in rows, and she didn’t recognize most of them. The light was different, too, and there was a lot more of it. Really, really bright lights and hangy-down lights on top part, and soft and colorful lights on the side parts. And the sounds! At one point all the Faces stood up and starting making sounds together. It was pretty and soothing, mostly, but that never happened at the other place. 

And what was with this outfit? Usually the Faces put colorful, warm, comfortable cloth on her, but this was just all white and kind of scratchy. I mean, WHITE? Really? Don’t they know what will happen to that after lunch? she thought. And speaking of lunch, why were they off schedule? It must be that Face in the weird black dress. It just kept talking and talking. This was all so strange.

Then finally, something happened. Her Faces gathered her up and they all moved to where the talking Face was. Finally, some action, she thought. Hey, is that water? I like water, she said to herself. It reminded her of the MomSpace and of the times when the Faces put her in water and rubbed the dirt and gunky bits off her and…. What’s the talking Face doing with the ….


And like countless others souls, she passed through the waters of baptism into a life of faith.

Oh, that had not been a good idea. Sure, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but … well, no, that wasn’t true. He had known it was a bad idea from the start, but he just wanted to try something that was bad for a change.

His room seemed unreasonably bright, even with his eyes closed. And loud. He had never noticed that his clock made so much noise. He rolled over and opened his…

wwwooooOOOOAHHHHHHH!!! Ow ow ow uugh. SHhhhhhh! Oh, my head!

How had this happened? He was one of the good kids, after all, wasn’t he? But he had always been, and frankly he was tired of being good. At least that’s what he thought. I mean, it’s hard when everyone else expects you to be perfect because you always have been or because they need you to be so they can brag about you or because… ugh.. he didn’t even know because why. But when their team had gone to the championship, and Butch had said he knew a guy that could help them celebrate in style, he thought that sounded pretty good. Didn’t he deserve it? He had worked so hard on the team to do his part in getting them to the top and had worked just as hard at his classes to keep his grades up. He deserved to have some time off from being good, he had told himself. So after he had taken a shower and told everyone he was going to bed, he snuck out and went to Butch’s. Everyone was there, including the guy who had brought the booze. Everyone was there, except Butch’s parents, of course. So they partied to celebrate being champions, being the best, being good. 

And it was fun! At first, any way. Then things started getting a little crazy, and a little fuzzy. He started to remember some of what he had said, propelled by his big red solo cup. The more he remembered the more ashamed he was. Some of it was pretty rude and just down right mean. Then there was a point after which he didn’t remember much of anything. Just a flash or two of stumbling home…. throwing up in the neighbors’ bushes… Hail to the victor!

He sat up, reached for the water bottle on his night stand, took a sip, then poured a little on his hands and rubbed it on his face. “Oh my God!” He said it out loud, but he wasn’t being vulgar. It was the beginning of a prayer. He rolled over, on his knees, face down on the mattress, and started again to pray. How many people in his hungover state have repented because of the headache and queazy stomach, swearing off the drink forever. But that wasn’t his heart. He wasn’t just ashamed of getting drunk, but of being out of control and for saying such hurtful things to other people, about other people, people he cared about. He knew better. “Oh my God, this is not who I am. You have made me a child of God and taught me to love, to treat everyone else like a child of God. Please, Jesus, forgive me.”

And like countless penitent sinners, he was washed from his sin, as pure as snow.

She turned on the radio, tuned to that New Agey station that played the nondescript kind of music that was supposed to calm your spirit, the kind you were supposed to meditate to or do yoga to or something. Not that she had time for anything like that, even if she knew how. Plus, she figured that meditating in traffic might not be a good idea. She just wanted something that would help her feel a little bit of peace on her commute.

How long had this been going on? It seemed like forever. Maybe it was. It had seemed like a great opportunity at first, full of possibilities for advancement and maybe for making a difference in people’s lives. And the pay sounded like more money than she could imagine. But that was a long time ago. Now she knew that advancement was for brown-nosers, yes-men, and unprincipled toadies who played the system. Making a difference was for chumps. It wasn’t quite the official policy of the company, but it might as well have been. As for the money, well, it was pretty good when you were just coming out of college, but now with a family, two kids, a mortgage, and all, well, that hadn’t really worked out the way she had expected, either.

The rain fell harder, and the traffic tightened up even more. The wipers beat, not quite in time to the trippy music and just out of sync with the throbbing in her head. She felt so trapped. She knew she should be thankful for what she had, and she knew there were real-life slaves out there, but she felt like she had gotten pretty close. A corporate slave, paid but not enough to escape the mounting debt, spending more and more time at the job to make ends meet. No different than all the other cogs in the machine, though, right?

She had asked for some time off, so she could spend some quality time with Tom and the girls. They were growing up so fast, and she felt like she was missing it. And when was the last time she and Tom had a night alone -- you know, really alone, just to be lovers again? So she asked for the time off, and her boss had denied it. “Can’t spare anyone right now, after the last round of layoffs, and all. We’ve all got step up… blah blah blah.” “You can’t expect a person to keep up this kind of pace!” she had said, almost breaking right there in front of him. “Person? You aren’t a person, you’re an executive!”

wwwooooOOOOAHHHH!! Wait, WHAT??

An SUV in the oncoming lane hit a puddle and the water splashed hard on her windshield, snapping her out of her unhappy revery. But something was changing in her. She was remembering some other old stories, too. Things she had learned in church about justice and fairness, about keeping the sabbath day holy, about folks who left their nets and followed Jesus, about the providence of God. She was remembering something about the questions of ultimate meaning in life, about identity, destiny, and purpose. She remembered that she didn’t owe her soul to the company store, because it already belonged God who had bought it with a huge price. And she wept hopeful tears.

And like the Hebrew children crossing the sea out of slavery, she passed into a new life of freedom.

Body of Christ
The alarm went off. Again. He groaned as he reached for the clock, slapping at the buttons. Then with more effort that it really deserved, he sat up to start his day.

aaaaaahhhhhUUUUHHHHHHHH!!! OOoooow.

All he had done was stretch. When did sleep start making him stiff and sore, for God’s sake? It wasn’t just that he had been working in the yard yesterday. He knew he’d pay for that, but it was like this most mornings any way, whether he pushed his body the day before or not. He was still surprised at how many things popped and creaked when he stood up, twisted a little, shuffled off to the bathroom. Shuffling? Crud, when did he start shuffling, for God’s sake? Probably when he got that gout in big toe. Whatever. All he knew was it was a lot more challenging just getting up than it used to be. Oh, sure, there had been tough mornings when he was young, but those were the morning-after-the-night-before. Now it just happened, even when he behaved himself. One thing would start hurting, and when he tried to compensate for that, something else would pinch. When he shifted for that, then another part would start yelling. He longed for the halcyon days of youth when his body seemed to work like magic.

Well, he wasn’t quite dead yet. He managed his morning routine and headed off for the church. It would be a busy day. He enjoyed the Sunday School lesson on Romans 12, especially the insights from all the other members of the class. Then after getting a cup of coffee, a quick meeting with the pastor to make sure everything was ready for the service and for the session meeting later that week. When the bell rang out the hour, he headed for his pew, the same one he had been occupying for decades. “I’ve got it shaped to fit my body,” he would tell people with a twinkle in his eye. 

He loved it here, really. Oh, sure there were good days and bad days in the kingdom of God, as the preacher said, but on the whole he had always liked being in church. He liked the architecture. He liked the stained glass. He even liked the organ music AND the guitar music. But mostly he liked the people. As the prelude began, he began turning his attention to what God was going to do with them all there today. When it came to the first hymn, he stood and sang. He didn't think of himself as a good singer, but he was singing for God, and he figured God had made his voice and had heard worse. So he sang the best he knew how. He listened to the sermon. It was on a familiar passage, and there wasn't much about the sermon that was new to him, but he was always glad to hear about God's grace, forgiveness, and love, and that God was making all things new.
Then came time for his part. Just as the young family with the baby was making their way to the front, so did he, taking out the pages that had the liturgy and his lines. While the pastor read her parts about why they were all there, he looked around at who actually was there. Some of them were old, old friends. Some of them were just old! Some were new faces he didn't know very well. Some were the elders and deacons, mostly younger than he, but now leaders in the congregation, even though a few of them he had taught in Sunday School when they were little. He knew many of these people and pretty well. This one had had cancer and survived. That one had just lost her husband. That couple was expecting. That one had just quit her job to start doing social work. They all had stories, and most of them had pain, but here they were, all sitting together in this room, because God had invited them.
ooOOOOOOoohh, he said to himself. I get it! It's just like my body this morning. DIfferent parts have aches and pains, but when it comes down to it all the parts are stronger together than they are on their own. We aren't perfect by any means by ourselves, but because of this water, when we come here and do this, it is just what God has in mind to strengthen us all.
He suddenly became aware the pastor was looking at him! So was the couple. Oh, it was time for his line: "Madame Moderator, on behalf of the session, I present this child, whose parents have brought him to receive the sacrament of baptism." Then he watched as the pastor poured water into the font.
And like all disciples in every time and place, he knew he was part of the whole Body of Christ.
Death and Resurrection
She was waiting. Still. She’d been waiting for a long time now, although it just seemed like all her life! Maybe it was. She’d gotten used to the place, of course, although it felt like it was getting smaller the longer she was there.
She wondered what would come next. She knew this life couldn't just continue forever. She had heard the stories, of course, in scripture and in culture, but she could hardly imagine anything beyond this. Could anything exist without the body, without everything she had known and called "real" all her life? What is real? And what would it be like to pass from one reality into another? And yet, as she got older and weaker, she knew she would have to leave this life, and probably sooner than later. It was starting to feel like a compulsion, that she had to leave, that she MUST go. But she was unafraid. Baptized into the faith as a wee child and raised in the faith all through her life, she was ready one more time to take God's hand and follow into the undiscovered country.
Then one day it happened. Having said her goodbyes to the ones she loved most in this life, and almost in partnership with the universe, she closed her eyes one last time, and she breathed her last.
And like every human being, and like all who are born from above of water and the Spirit, she passed from death to life eternal, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, beheld the Mystery of faith made sight.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, the One God who calls us into life. Amen.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Looking Back and Looking Up

I notice that it is almost exactly two years since the end of my sabbatical. I also notice that I never really blogged much about what I learned or how it affected ministry once I got back. Well, it hasn't been a very smooth ride since then, and I haven't had the ... desire or fortitude or whatever to write about it. Having written a little bit earlier tonight, I might have opened the gate.

One thing I discerned on my sabbatical was that folks at Catoctin were working hard at their respective ministry tasks, but the efforts were not bearing a lot of fruit. People were frustrated after putting a lot of effort into a thing and then no one or just a few people would show up. There was at the same time an expectation in the church that everyone had to attend everything. So some people either came to things and resented it or didn't come and felt guilty about it. Neither of those is really healthy. We were also doing ministry in lots of different directions without any single goal or purpose in mind. Some great programs were being offered, but our intentionality was low. That made it seem like we were very busy going in 100 directions at one, or as Scotty once said on Star Trek (when the Enterprise was being forced into a circling maneuver by an alien, with the engines set for Warp 10), "we're goin' nowhere mighty fast."

Another thing I discerned on my sabbatical was that the session needed to shrink and refocus its attention on finding the spiritual center for the ministry of the church. We were a collection of committee chairs doing good work, as noted above, but without a sense of the larger whole. We also had enough elders to have a quorum for a congregational meeting. My thinking was that if we reduced the size and freed the elders from the necessity of chairing a committee, we would be better equipped to deal with spiritual leadership. This turned out to be on other people's minds when I got back, but for different reasons. The nominating committee had failed to fill any of five positions in the incoming class. Not one. Zero. For a long time I have said that God provides the resources for the ministry God wants to have done. If they aren't there, then either someone isn't listening or you don't need that ministry. That's the positive spin on it, any way.

In an earlier post ("Matheology") I mentioned reading Simple Church, a book about simplifying and focusing the ministry of a congregation around the single task of making disciples. This has since become the center post of our work as a session in the last two years. We did in fact cut the size of the session from 14 to 8, removed the requirement for elders to chair committees, and in fact did away with our committee structure as it stood. We have endeavored to develop a simple process for growing disciples, although the work is far from finished. You will see that this is fitting in with my last post, too ("Wrestling with Angels"), about the new way of being the church. Since being back, I have found that this is a very difficult task, for which I feel pretty inadequate. But we keep at it. And God bless the elders on session for their determination.

I discerned on my sabbatical that it is a wonderful thing to take a sabbatical, and everyone ought to do it. I learned when I got back that not everyone thought it was wonderful that I got a sabbatical when they assuredly did not. That, along with some junk that went on in staff and personnel matters while I was away that didn't sit well with a lot of people, led to a very uncomfortable spirit in the congregation. It was like everyone felt like a bear with a sore butt. This lasted almost exactly a year after I got back, and then it seemed to dissipate, at least for a time. It may also have been that folks were expecting me to leave once I got back. It had happened a couple times before, so even if they weren't consciously aware of it, the family system remembered and was anxious. Maybe.

While on sabbatical, I imagined a ministry at CPC where we became less about program and more about worship and peace. This seemed to be a way that people could experience a little of what sabbatical is like even if they don't get the full 3-month package. We would focus on prayer and praying together, on ministries of contemplation and healing, on quiet and awe in the midst of NoVA's crushing demands. To be honest, in the hubbub and bruhaha of the last two years, I had pretty much forgotten that I had even mentioned this, until one of the elders mentioned it at a recent meeting as something we should go back and explore. In light of my earlier post tonight, I think she is right.

So here's the confessional bit. When I left for my sabbatical, I was entirely spent. I was crushed in body, mind, and spirit. Not because things were awful, but because I had been at the work of ministry without a significant break for 20 years. When I got back from my sabbatical, I was full of hope and dreams again. But there have been a lot of days in the two years since when I have felt like a whipped puppy and a lot of days when I have felt like most people just don't care that much about church and faith and whatnot - you know, the things I've devoted my life to. So, contrary to all that I know to be healthy and falling back to some old patterns of thinking from my youth, I have let myself become guarded and withdrawn. I have let fears and resentments take root. I have often felt stuck in ministry rather than planted. These behaviors do not promote a healthy self, healthy relationships, healthy ministry, or a healthy congregation. To some extent, Percival's answer to the riddle of King Arthur's decline in the movie Excalibur, "The King and the land are one," applies to the pastor-parish relationship. It is hard to have a healthy church if the pastor isn't healthy, and it's hard to have a healthy pastor if the church isn't healthy. The pastor withdraws because people aren't engaged in church, people withdraw from church because the pastor isn't engaged. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. May God forgive me, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But nothing happens outside the time and providence of God. Not that it is necessarily God's will that we have gotten into a spiral of disengagement, but certainly God can work in and through it and redeem it. We are, or at least I am in a situation where faith is possible, as Bonhoeffer called it. I don't think I'm misusing that line too badly. Here...
“If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. … The first step places the disciple in the situation where faith is possible. If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
May God do that transformation thang on me and on CPC, to move us from where we are to where we need to be. May we have the courage to follow where He leads. Then perhaps the good lessons of this pastor's sabbatical may grow to bear fruit for the kingdom of heaven.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Wrestling with Angels

I am recently back from the Bicentennial Reunion at Princeton Theological Seminary, a four-day event with various lectures, workshops, panels, and worship. And lots of good food! I very much enjoyed being back on campus, seeing some dear old friends and meeting some new ones. The lectures were challenging, the worship was mostly excellent, and as I mentioned to some, I haven't had to think so much in a long time.

The keynote lecturer was N.T. Wright, a popular professor, theologian, writer, and former Anglican Bishop of Durham, UK. He spoke, mostly from his recent book, on the topic "How God Became King." Over three days he made the point that since the Enlightenment of the 18th century the church has pretty much misinterpreted the Gospels by ignoring the claims Jesus makes about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. He made a good case and offered several correctives for how we should then read the Gospels, emphasizing some things more than usual and others less so. At the root of it all, I took away the sense that for several generations Western Christians have failed to take God's sovereignty seriously and it is now time to do so.

Among the workshops and such, the last was a panel discussion with six of the presenters from the week, including PTS's retiring president Iain Torrance, an African-American pastor and social activist, a Korean pastor who had escaped from N. Korea to the U.S. as a teenager and returned to S. Korea as a missionary, an Hispanic pastor and teacher, Kenda Creasy Dean who specializes in youth ministry, and one of the brass from the Gallop Poll. All of them addressed the question of the church's current and future relevance through their various lenses and demographics of interest. The recurring theme was that the church as it exists in the U.S. now is not equipped to reach the changing population and culture in which we live and must change dramatically in both theology and practice of ministry. Kenda's assessment was particularly grim, that the theology that Christian youth come away with is nothing like the Gospel we know from Jesus, that they get their theology from parents and church, and that by the time they reach their 20s their religious affiliation is, in 9 out of 10 cases, insignificant.

All of this served to focus for me the struggles we have been having at CPC. While much of what we have been going through is a product of our particular system, it reflects many of the themes I heard at PTS last week. Our ministry has not worked to connect people with an authentic experience of the life-giving Gospel of Jesus. Our young families are choosing cultural imperatives over fulfillment of their baptismal vows. Our leaders are overwhelmed, standing between their own cultural and church commitments while trying to chart a path to a new model of ministry; but like Abraham and Sarah, it is a journey to an unknown land leading to an unlikely future of promise.

As pastor, I feel that I am as much in the dark about where we are going and how we are to get there as anyone else in the church. I am a product of the same dynamics described by Wright and the panelists. Plus, I suffer from a neurotic conflict avoidance that has made it remarkably difficult for me to confront people, issues, my self, to try to keep things on the rails. Even if I were to push some of these families to get back to church, what would I have to offer that would be relevant, meaningful, transforming? At the moment, not much. And yet, everything. We have the Gospel of Christ! We just don't seem to have a good delivery system. There are certainly times when I look at what the church offers and what the culture both offers and demands, and my sympathies lie with those who choose, if not for the culture, against the church.

So, we need to find a new way of doing things and of telling the Good News. Something radically new, yet grounded in the Scriptures. Maybe it starts with worship. And prayer. And relationships. We can't force a "Holy Spirit moment" of course, but we can plow the ground for it. Prayer opens the way. Our relationships need to be deep enough that we trust each other in front of God and everybody. Then our worship can be a true work of the people, a community experience of the Holy Presence of God in Christ. Everyone can bring something to offer in worship, as in 1 Corinthians 14:26. Worship would be much less liturgical, moving away from the printed word to multisensory experiences of the Word. More open prayer. More silence. Less sermon, more guided meditation. More art, music, drama, and texture. Less of the preacher, more interaction among worshipers and between them and Christ.

This sort of thing would take a lot of getting used to. It will not appeal to everyone, especially many who have grown up with the old system of clergy providing "church" for people to receive. That's pretty much anyone who grew up in church in the last 300 years. But it could create the sort of worshiping community that will connect with (if not attract) a new generation of believers. Might even transform the current generation, or at least some of them.

Isn't that what we're supposed to be about?

Friday, March 25, 2011


I was reading a book the other night. I know! Me, reading a book. No, seriously, it's called Simple Church, and it's about streamlining the way we "do" church to provide clarity about our mission, movement for people toward spiritual transformation, and alignment of our resources with those goals. Very thought-provoking stuff, and I'm really diggin' it.

Along the way, I started having some thoughts provoked. The line of thinking was something like this: People who have been in church all their lives will wonder why they need spiritual transformation when they've been in church all their lives. Well, that's a fair question. Do they? What does it mean for a disciple to undergo spiritual transformation? Well, since God always wants to move us from where we are to where we need to be, and since none of us is perfectly aligned with the will of God (good Reformed theology, there), everyone can stand to have their spiritual lives transformed into something deeper, broader, more meaningful, more fruitful, more faithful, whatever. Obviously, those who are not following the will of God because they make no effort at it will need a greater transformation to fulfill the will of God than someone who is making a stab at it. Or at least they have more room for improvement.

That's about the time I started to graph it.

The purple line is God's will, or God's righteousness. The blue line is how close a disciple gets over time. The green line is how close (or far) a non-disciple is over time. So a person's personal righteousness might be described mathematically as:

∆ = (X,Y)g - (X,Y)p
where ∆ is the difference between two corresponding points on the graph,
(X,Y)g is the X and Y coordinates on the God's will line, "g", and
(X,Y)p is the X and Y coordinates on the person's will line, "p".
Since this would be done on corresponding points, the X coordinates will be the same, so we might also write it as ∆ = Yg -Yp.

So for the disciple, ∆ is relatively small, and for the non-disciple, ∆ is relatively large.

Spiritual transformation, then, would be some function, ƒ(X), such that ∆–>0 rapidly.

Now, for the disciple, the change in the difference, that is ∂∆, is relatively small, but for the non-disciple, ∂∆ is quite large and obvious. Even though the disciple is actually closer to the will of God, the change in the life of the non-disciple would be much more dramatic. The goal would be for both people's lines to approach the God's will line asymptotically, that is getting closer and closer as the graph moves on further in time (the X-axis). Well, I'm assuming here that one can never fully match the will of God, otherwise the goal would be ∆ = 0.

It's been a long time since I've played with this kind of math, and that's all this is, of course, is playing. This has no real mathematical value, and I'm sure my terminology is full of errors. It may, however, illustrate a necessary process in spiritual development for the mathematically inclined.

I also then wondered if a straight line of slope = +1 is the best representation of God's will and righteousness. Perhaps God's righteousness is a straight line of slope = 0. Maybe God's will is parabolic. I don't know. Maybe I'm over-thinking this.

Lastly, I was just now, as I am writing this, trying to define ƒ(X). It looks like it is a parabolic function, or maybe hyperbolic. I really don't remember the formulae for either of those. Again, I suppose it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that ƒ(X) is an intentional function applied to the data starting at a particular point. The second graph shows that the data for both the green and blue lines is somewhat random and haphazard until ƒ(X) is applied. After that, each line follows a more predictable and intentional trajectory. It is this intentionality that should be characteristic of church planning and programming.

Of course, I made up the data here to make the graph do what I wanted to show, and in real life the data would still be bobbing up and down, regardless of how intentional one was. My point here is, as I said before, to express a lesson in spiritual formation with math. Hey, it helped me, and it was fun.