You Have to Really NOT Want It

 

This post is part of an assignment for a Church History class. All quotes are from:

John Chrysostom, Graham Neville, and T. Allen Moxon. Six Books on the Priesthood.                   London: S.P.C.K., 1964.

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For more info on St. John Chrysostom,    click here.

St. John Chrysostom’s apologetic writing Six Books on the Priesthood is a pretty frank discussion concerning the vocation of ministry.  In short, it is a lengthy dialogue about all the reasons someone should not answer such a call lightly…actually, it is a pretty scary look at the many, many, many challenges faced by those entering the priesthood.  Don’t get me wrong, St. John holds the vocation of the minister in very high esteem which is exactly his reasoning for highlighting all of the reasons he is not worthy of it.  Sure, we might be tempted to say, “Well, that was eons ago and so much is different now.”  Is it though?  Even the lightest skimming of this work would reveal that the challenges of ministry, personal and political, have not changed all that much.  We, as a priesthood of many, still find ourselves navigating tricky political waters and we are often overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility and expectation that comes with faith leadership.  All of this is highlighted in Six Books on the Priesthood; but, there is a powerful component to a minister’s qualifications that jumps off the page when I read through this work and it is profound, purifying humility.

St. John makes it clear that anyone entering into ministerial leadership should probably have no desire to do it or, at least, no desire to be famous for doing it.  He compares ambition to slavery and explains, “I think a man must rid his mind of this ambition with all possible care, and not for a moment let it be governed by it, in order that he may always act with freedom.” [1] The idea here is that when we are motivated by ambition, we are also motivated by the fear of losing our authority or power and that is the recipe for slavery to ambition.  Without ambition, the minister is more able to make choices and engage others with a fearless dedication to God’s will and not to the political manifestations of personal ambition.  What does this mean for us in 2016?  Well, we are living in a time of mega-churches, sparkly prosperity gospel, and political leadership that is directly linked to religious affiliation and all of these are the shackles of modern, ambition-driven, faith.  If you don’t believe me, take a moment to look at the ways religiously motivated political leaders bend their standards to maintain power or even overlook blatant actions by those in power that are best labeled, “What would Jesus NOT do.”  On a pretty large scale, we are witnesses to the damage ambition is doing to our faith and its leaders.

[1] John Chrysostom, Graham Neville, and T. Allen Moxon. Six Books on the Priesthood. London: S.P.C.K., 1964. Page 81
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On a smaller scale, we can look at how the slavery of ambition is stealing the freedom of congregational ministers.  I should offer the disclaimer that I am going to be Presbyterian specific here; but, I wager you can all generalize this out to other denominations.  In the Presbyterian church, anyone who wants to enter ordained ministry has to jump through a multitude of hoops and each hoop is held firmly by human hands.  As we seek to progress through the steps, there is always a very real possibility that a group of people who simply don’t like us, our views, or our identity itself could block the progress.  So, the dilemma begins to take shape.  We want to progress (ambition) and we know that we need to achieve majority votes to do so (slavery).  So, can we be true to our faith, our call, or even our understanding of the Gospel without rocking some people’s boats?   I doubt it.  I am pretty convinced that St. John Chrysostom would doubt it also and would go so far as to imply that the judgement of those who find themselves on the receiving end of boat rocking can be pretty fierce.

Again, we find ourselves in an atmosphere that is ideal for imposing the slavery of ambition upon those in church leadership if only to maintain our own sense of predictable calm.  When you combine the total weight of the macro-political environment and the micro-political, you get a paralyzed leadership afraid to speak to current events that may be risky and even more afraid to awaken the anger of those in power who disagree.  In the complexity of this environment, St. John offers a path forward that is amazingly simple; it would seem that the antidote to all of this is purifying humility and a true distaste for fame.  Political religion is a home to those who seek power and fame, and continually seek to preserve both, and that is the basis for their inability to remain consistent.  In St. John’s mind, “…if he does not want to achieve fame in this position of authority, he will not dread its loss either.”  That’s right, the ultimate freedom is the willingness to lose everything in glorifying God’s truth.  This is the freedom that unchains the minds and the mouths of ministers and leads to an altruistic engagement between leaders and those they lead.   Alas, St. John reminds us just how difficult this really is when he writes, “I don’t know whether anyone has ever succeeded in not enjoying praise.”

Of course, there is also the constraining way that we have come to view ministers themselves that leads us to counterproductive engagement.  We want ministers to be famous.  Many up and coming ministers view self-promotion and notoriety as an expectation.  Many congregations have decided that the perfect, charismatic, preacher is the key to their survival.  We have made humility a vice and taken it away as a possibility for ministers.  To complicate things even further, we hold ministers and faith leaders to a set of oppressive standards that are land mines of disappointment waiting to explode at the slightest mistake.  “Everyone wants to judge the priest, not as one clothed flesh, not as one possessing human nature, but as an angel, exempt from the frailty of others,” is St. John’s way of expressing the burden of expectation we place on religious leaders.  Anyone who undertakes the journey toward spiritual leadership is likely to experience a dissonance between the reality of humanness and the expectations placed upon them by others.  I am fearful, based on my own experience, that this may be the catalyst for a sense of unworthiness that drives a wedge between the minister and his or her faith.  We simply cannot exist in a sinless purity, only one has ever been in that state and he would seek to remind us that we are recipients of God’s grace for this exact reason.  Again, it is the presence of humility that offers the answer here.  Humble leaders know that they are imperfect and capable of wrong, that is what binds them to those they lead in a mutual understanding of grace.  However, we would do well to begin embracing the imperfection of our leaders before we rip them away from their sense of self-worth.

One other item that gives this aspiring minister pause is the weight of responsibility that comes with accepting God’s call.  In his apologia, St. John makes an observation about his own fears that is as terrifying as it is eloquent:

I am afraid that if I receive the flock from Christ plump and well-fed and then damage it through ineptitude I may provoke against me God who so loved it that he gave himself for its salvation and redemption.

No pressure right?  When we are called to ministry, we are called to a responsibility for the entirety of the flock God entrusts to us and that is an overwhelming thing to think about.  Who would want that?  This is exactly the point; it seems the height of arrogance to think for a moment that we are capable of such a daunting task. So, is this yet another of St. John’s impossible job duties?  Perhaps; but, it may also be yet another place to inject humility in an effort to overcome the challenge.  In fact, I can’t think of a greater lesson in humility.  Earlier, I referred to a “priesthood of many” and this is one of the great virtues of Reformed faith.  We understand the task of feeding the flock as a collective effort and not simply the task of one person.  Of course, this only works when a minister is humble enough to admit that this task cannot be accomplished alone.  The very presence of human beings in the work of caring for the flock make it prone to error and ineptitude.  I think the open question that is left unanswered by St. John in this statement is whether or not God’s grace is bigger than any mistake we are destined to make.  I like to think so.

It is not possible to cite every point or explain every idea we find in Six Books on the Priesthood and I, in a burst of humility, admit that I have barely scratched the surface here.  However, thstormyis is a work that offers guidance to those who seek to become ministers as well as those who work with, listen to, and support ministers.  For me, and for this post in this moment, I think the points that are most challenging and illuminating are a need to lack ambition, to not want the job as a matter of speaking, and a powerful need for humility in both approaching the role of the minster and the work of the minister.  You have to not want it and you have to be sure that you are not going to be perfect at it.  In my mind, the calling from God outweighs our sense of “why me” or “please not me.”  I mean, how arrogant is it to refuse the call of God?  Even that moment, the first instance of call, has to be met with every ounce of our humility.

 

Stating Your Faith

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The process of becoming a minister in the Presbyterian Church is a pretty extensive and intense set of milestones and evaluations.  Rightfully so, by the way, as we are a denomination that values educated and informed clergy.  Part of this process is the development of a Statement of Faith which essentially boils down to a one page expression of everything you believe.  This statement aims to be theologically sound and personal at the same time.  I can tell you that this statement is really, really difficult to create.  Think about it for a minute and then try to express the totality of your faith in one page.

I have learned through the process of writing my first one that my faith sounds better coming from my mouth than it does flowing from my pen.  I like to think that I am a pretty adept writer; however, when it comes to creating something as internal and deeply personal as an expression of faith, I am not quite so eloquent.  The pressure of being both true to one’s self and theologically correct leads me to speak, on paper, in a voice that is not my own.  There is a tendency to try to say everything I THINK I should say at the expense of saying everything I KNOW to be true in my experience of faith.  The result, in my case, was a first statement that was a disjointed collection of bullet points that had no connection to my own experience or my own voice.  Discussing this statement with mentors and professional ministers was a brutal (I use the word lovingly) exercise in understanding that expressing faith is difficult and essential to the journey toward ministry.

People tend to feel faith more than we talk about it and certainly more than we write about it.  By not engaging others about the core understanding of our faith, we don’t really get the opportunity to be tested or to simply express what we believe.  This internalized bubble of faith creates an echo chamber that never requires us to challenge, sharpen, or critically examine what faith means or what we believe.  It is pretty eye-opening to suddenly realize that I have never had to answer many “why” questions about my faith. Try it for a moment.  Pick the most basic belief you have and then ask yourself why you believe it.  Choose the most basic action of God that you can think of and then ask yourself why God did it?  Take a moment to reflect on words like “grace,” “salvation,” and “sin” and then write down how you define these concepts.  If you really want to dance around the border of heresy, write a paragraph explaining the Trinity and everything you believe about the Triune God.

I am not a person who grew up surrounded by the language of church and I spent a good deal of time fighting against it; so, for me, turning my experience as a convert and as a person who relied a great deal on my internal feeling/understanding of faith is no small task.  And yet, as a future faith leader and minister, it is reasonable to accept the fact that I will be called upon time and time again to do this.  Some may see this as a very human exercise in denominational bureaucracy; but, what task can be more illuminating or revealing than actually expressing what we believe and why we believe it?

I have no doubt that I am going to stumble and trip over the creation of this statement many more times.  That being said, I am certainly going to keep working on it.  Why? Because it matter and because faith that is never examined never strengthens.

Welcome to Mifflin Ave

welcomeI had the great honor of speaking to the congregation of the Mifflin Ave United Methodist church this past Sunday.  The pastor of the church is a friend from college, Kelly, and she invited me to share my conversion/call story.  What stands out to me from this experience is the immense feeling of welcome that came from the congregation.  There is something really special about being among a group of faithful people who truly embody the call of Christ to welcome strangers and to love our neighbors.  Let me be clear, they did not do anything special or make a deliberate effort to be a welcoming group; in fact, this warmth is just who they are.

Of course, I was there to tell my story and my story is founded in feelings of rejection and the eventual reconciliation offered by a loving God.  It almost felt a little off to be talking to this group about rejection when it was clear that they simply did not have the capacity to reject.  I know that there are times when we tell stories of rejection or disappointment more as a reminder of the reality that there are people outside the walls of our churches who need us and this was one of those times.  If I were to offer a prayer for the Mifflin Ave. folks, it would be that those who need them the most can find their way to them.  I would pray that the welcoming feeling that emanates from each member can find its way to seep through the walls of their sanctuary and fill the shadowy spaces outside.

I knew Kelly in college and Kelly knew me when I was a devout atheist.  At the time, I never gave her the credit she deserved for the fullness of her open and welcoming faith.  Seeing her now, after all these years, I am so proud to know her and simply amazed that she has taken up the cause of building a truly welcoming church in the universal sense.  She may not know it; but, she is a pioneer and an example for spiritual leadership.  She is also a very devoted and outstanding mom.  I can now say that I count her among the most important friends I have and I look forward to working with her much more in the future.

My visit to the Mifflin Ave. church taught me that the work of inclusion is more than breaking down barriers and fighting discrimination; it is also recognizing and celebrating the people who have already done the work of inclusion.  It is about acknowledging the good when we see it and contrasting its power with the relatively feeble energies of exclusion.  The kingdom of God is justice and peace and nothing proves that more than standing in front of a congregation that is dedicated to being both the people of justice and the makers of peace.

I thank God for my Sunday at Mifflin Ave. and I will be forever grateful to Kelly and the congregation for their kindness, hospitality, and unyielding grace.

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Iowa

DSC_0124 Each August, I return to Dubuque, Iowa to begin for the on-campus session of something we call “intensives.”  This visit marks the start of my second of four years on this journey.  This year, in a burst of adventure, I decided to make the 12+ hour drive from PA to IA.  (Did you know that there is an RV/Mobile Home Hall of Fame?  Well, like me, now you do.)  The drive was metaphoric in the ways that most overused metaphors about roads, driving, journeys, and so forth are…There is a great deal of uncertainty that takes hold when you approach a solo road trip of this magnitude.  This was the first trip by car on unfamiliar roads, through unfamiliar places, and in utter solitude for over twelve hours.  I would love to tell you that I used this time for self-examination and thoughtful introspection; but, mostly I was singing and car dancing.

It is easy for folks to think that going away for a two week campus visit is easy and nothing but fun and social interaction.  Yes, there are friends here and there are amazing professors and engaging classes; but, there is also a sense of loss each time I make this journey.  I miss home.  I don’t like being away for 2 weeks.  I also know that the same challenges affect the people back home.  There is a consistent longing to return home and to be with the people you love and the people, like my husband, who represent the core of strength that makes this sacrifice possible.  Those of us who choose to take this journey can often let the busyness of it distract us from the sacrifices that our loved ones make and there is a real chance for those around us to feel left behind.

The truth is that no matter how many classes I take or friends I make, the core of my life is found in the husband and the family that are the sources of unconditional love and support around me no matter what is going on.  These are the folks who can be asked to sacrifice the most and they deserve love and recognition for that sacrifice.  For them, time away from home or time devoted to reading and study can create a sense of loneliness that those of us swept up in the work may not always recognize.  Even our cats take note of the change in routine.

There is that old, overused, platitude about absence making the heart grow stronger and, as my trips to Iowa have taught me, it happens to be true.  As much as I learn and experience during the two weeks on campus, the most important thing I learn is to appreciate the love and the support that awaits me when I return.  I am blessed in many ways; and yet, the most precious blessing I know is love.

The Quality of Mercy

MercyI believe I have already spoken about the tragic death of my brother-in-law that resulted from a shooting in his tattoo shop on March 13, 2015.  I am sure that I have also conveyed that this event forever changed the lives of a wife, three kids, and everyone who knew Kevin or my sister.  As a brother, this event served as a further strengthening of the bond between two siblings who were already very close to one another.  For me, this event and the days following became a catalyst for answering the call to ministry and to dedicating my faith work to peacemaking and the eradication of violence in all its forms.  On July 18th, we will attend the sentencing phase of this journey as we sit and await the judgment of the court as to the amount of time the person who pulled the trigger will spend in prison.  As a big brother, a minister, an uncle, and a citizen of this human reality, I am offered a chance to observe and to engage this terrible chain of events from a diverse set of perspectives.  In the end, this is very much my sister’s story and so much of how she has dealt with this has framed my understanding of what it means to survive and to be a person of peace.

I could speak to the creation of the Croney Foundation that Sis founded to turn this tragedy into a call to act with generosity.  I could speak to the fearless and remarkable way that Sis has faced each day devoted to making the world a little better than it was the day before.  I could speak to my sister as a mom who made it clear that this tragedy would not be an excuse to give up and who leads her family every day toward strength and hope.  All of this is true and all of this is amazing to everyone blessed to be a part of it.  There is something else that stands out as equally remarkable in all of this.  As we approach the sentencing of this man, I have also seen the unyielding capacity for mercy that shines in my sister.  I have heard her express deep sympathy for the mother of the convicted gunman and even for the gunman himself.  I have listened to her talk about the tragedy of two lives ending because of this terrible moment; a husband is killed and the man who killed him loses his freedom and is condemned to live with the knowledge of this action forever.  Sis and I, even as voices of mercy, are not saying that there should be no punishment; however, that doesn’t change the fact that single moment of violence has altered families forever on both sides of the courtroom.

Sis and I have talked openly about the moments we spent during the trial trying to see some glimmer of remorse and the reality that we did not see it.  Even so, even in the face of a seemingly remorseless shooter, Sis makes it very clear that forgiveness has already been given.  As her seminarian brother, her Jesus man as she would say, my sister has become a lesson in the very core tenants of the Christian faith.  We are called to forgive as we have been forgiven, to love as we have been loved, to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us.  These ideas are some of the clearest proclamations made by Jesus Christ and they remain some of the most difficult to follow.  We, as humans prone to sin, often place conditions on who deserves love, or forgiveness, or grace.  We decide that what is unforgivable to us must also be unforgivable to God and we are tragically mistaken.

The enduring grace of God, the reconciling mercy of God, and even the ultimate forgiveness of God are gifts freely offered to the people of God.  We may not have seen elements of remorse in the coldness of a courtroom; but, that does not mean remorse is not possible.  More than that; however, if we are going to end the cycles of violence that plague our culture, it is important that we begin to examine what role we play in being voices of mercy and forgiveness.  The tricky part of the message received from Jesus is the absence of criteria.  There are no conditions placed on the call to be merciful or to love and this removes our ability to offer mercy and love in comfortable pieces.  In fact, following this commandment is made more meaningful when we do so in difficult and challenging circumstances.  Someone has to love first, to show mercy first, and offer forgiveness first and our ability to do so is a powerful way to interfere with the cyclical violence we see too often in too many places.

I have been argued with, called out, and even mocked for what people consider an overly simple response to the tragedies of our world.  I am fine with that.  I ask you; however, when we walk among the shadows of violence, is there any light stronger than mercy, or peace, or love?  If we determine that our response to violence is to thirst for vengeance, aren’t we just casting our own shadows and blotting out the light we have been so freely offered?  The commandment Jesus gave us to love, to be merciful, and to forgive is a seemingly simple thing; and yet, it remains the most complex process of human self-awareness we wrestle with each time tragedy occurs.  You can choose to love or you can choose to hate, you can forgive or you can seek revenge, you can show mercy or you can take it away; but, you must ultimately understand that by choosing one of these things over the other, you tip the balance of light and darkness in this world.  My sister knows this in ways more profound and personal that I can do justice.  If she, in the face of true and powerful darkness, can choose mercy, then I am certain all of us can get there.

May the peace of Christ be with you all.

Praying WTF

Head in HandsYeah, I said that.  Look, there are times in life when things are simply a little too insane to fully wrap our heads around.  In these moments of trial, when violence is out of control, when the political structures are just completely nuts, and when there appears to me a compounding of disaster on disaster, I often turn to the Psalms.  The Psalms are some of the greatest WTF prayers we have in our Christian tradition.  The Psalms can be thought of as direct conversations between God and his people and some of those conversations are pretty challenging.  Yes, there are Psalms of victory, gratitude, and celebration; however, there are also Psalms that offer some of the most intense and raw expressions of anger, lament, confusion, and feelings of abandonment in the Scriptures.  They are documented proof that there is nothing we can feel or say that God can’t handle.  There are really great books written about how to use the Psalms in our daily prayer life and I would highly recommend an Amazon search on praying the Psalms.

For me, in times of personal distress and in times of deep disillusionment with the state of the world, I often feel like screaming WTF when I sit down to pray.  However, I have come to understand that a nice loud Psalm prayer is just as good.  For example, when I am feeling embattled or persecuted, I turn to Psalm 56 and I loudly exclaim:

Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;  all day long foes oppress me; my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me.  O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.  In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me?

You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.  Are they not in your record?  Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call.  This I know, that God is for me.  In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust;  I am not afraid.  What can a mere mortal do to me?

Psalm 10 asks, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

Psalm 13 asks, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?”

These are mild compared to the Psalms that ask the Lord to strike down enemies and to inflict pain or revenge upon enemies.  I suppose these types of intense words make us wonder, “WTF,” in their own way.  That being said, the power of the Psalms can be found in their expression of our primal reactions to injustice, violence, and persecution.  It is hard to create in ourselves an initial reaction of grace or peace; so, as a flawed people, we often respond to intensity with intensity.  These are  our WTF moments.  These are the moments we wonder aloud, or inside, what God is doing, why evil seems to be rewarded, or why nothing makes sense anymore.  All of this leads to one of the great challenges of faith which, simply put, is being able to tell God when you are pissed off or when you just can’t stand it anymore.  It is okay to be angry and it is okay to scream your WTFs out loud to God.  He’s God!  He can handle it.

Of course, once you have WTF’ed to the high heavens, it helps to consider the other side of the Psalm praying secret.  The Psalms, even the seemingly violent ones, are all anchored in the idea that God will care for his people.  He will reveal his face and he will be present when the time is right.  God listens when you are pissed off and can’t take it anymore.  He listens to your intensity and then he sends out his Spirit to be with you as you recover and as you begin the work of healing.  God is always in the healing after people have inflicted terrible pain on one another.  The Psalms are about refocusing your faith and placing your problems and your intensity at the feet of a loving and listening God.  They are a collection of affirmations, of faith statements, that take in to account all of the rawness and brokenness of what it means to be a human in challenging times.  They are the spiny, de-fluffed, no sugar added, prayers of God’s people and their honesty is a gift, a proclamation of faith, and a way to channel our most intense energies.

So, take a moment to say WTF when you are feeling overwhelmed or depressed or just plain mad.  Learning to pray the Psalms is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and your mental health.  Granted, therapy isn’t bad either; but, taking a few moments to find some Psalms that speak to you is also a good beginning.

Peace be with you.

 

Are you going to stop swearing?

swear-wordWhen I first began to tell people that I had decided to answer the call to ministry and begin seminary, the most common question I got from friends was, “So, are you going to stop swearing?”  I had no idea that I had been such a prolific curse artist and was kind of thrown off by this question.  In the interest of full confession, I do indeed swear from time to time in a way that suggests I have a thesaurus dedicated to the use of colorful language.  I also admit that I often, when asked about why I use colorful language, quote a line from the movie Inherit the Wind when I say that, “language is a poor enough form of communication, we need every damn word we have.”  That being said, as I was asked about swearing, whether or not I would still drink wine, or if I was suddenly going to become “boring” as some suggested, I started to realize that this question had nothing to do with language, liquor, or boringness.  People were ultimately asking me if I was going to change in to some person they would no longer know and could no longer relate to.  In the frenzy of activity that surrounds the call to ministry, I had forgotten to take a moment to realize how much my journey would impact others and; as it turns out, how much I would change.

When people hear the words minister, pastor, preacher, reverend and other titles, an image comes to mind of some super hero of piety who is incapable to relating to them.  I try to tell friends and family that this is about as far from the truth as it gets.  God has a pretty solid record of calling screw ups to do very solemn things.  I am no different.  Clergy are not people who live in a state of perfection that separates them from the general population; in fact, clergy represent a collection of individuals called to serve God in the midst of their imperfection.  One of the great pressures of becoming a religious leader is the new standard that we are suddenly held to.  I can’t tell you how many times I have let a colorful word slip out or expressed a frustration only to be told by someone around me, “that isn’t very pastor-like.”  Well, if you are looking for Saint Do No Wrong Ever While Glowing With Perfect Pastorliness, then you are looking at the wrong guy.  I answered the call to ministry because the world is a difficult, broken, cynical, and hurting place and I know that because I am a difficult, sometimes broken, sometimes cynical, and sometimes hurting guy.  I answered the call to ministry because I believe God’s love and the salvation and grace offered by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ are the answer to the problems of a broken world and to my own brokenness.

One of the struggles of my own journey, and I suspect of other ministers, is a sense of unworthiness.  As a gay seminarian, this is a pronounced struggle.  Being held to unrealistic standards only serves to further complicate our struggle for worthiness.  The truth of our faith is that we are offered salvation and God’s loving grace without any demand for worthiness.  Forgiveness is offered freely and we need it often; so, worthiness is not the determining factor, faith is.  More than that, people in general often struggle for worthiness in a whirlwind of shame, guilt, and self-imposed standards of perfection.  What God tells us, what the life and death of Jesus Christ tells us, is that we are indeed worthy for no other reason than the miracle of our creation and the power of our faith.  Worthiness is the initial gift from God and shame, guilt, and perfection are the weapons of a weary world aimed at tearing down our connection to our God-given worthiness.

Because it has been asked, let me get back to swearing for a minute.  Many years ago, I was listening to NPR and I heard an interview with a minister who was asked about swearing and specifically about taking the Lord’s name in vain.  I don’t recall his exact words; but, the basic message he gave was about how we actually take the Lord’s name in vain aside from the idea of cursing.  He said that we take the Lord’s name in vain every time we judge one another in His name and every time we become self-righteous enough to suggest that we speak for God directly while we condemn other people.  I am not going to lie, I still swear; but, I pray every single day that I can be humble enough to understand that I am not called to judge others or to dictate who is and isn’t worthy. I pray for the wisdom to see beyond our simplified notions of what cursing is and I pray for the courage to call out the actions of those who seek to blaspheme by works of separation and condemnation.  I ask God to make me a channel of peace even if I get a bit colorful about it.

The truth is that the call to ministry has changed me in ways that may make me less recognizable to my friends and family.  I am not the same person I was before I said, “yes,” to God’s commission and I thank God for it every day.  My life no longer has room for cynicism; well, mostly.  Negativity is no longer something that I am willing to accept as normal.  Hope is a real thing to me now.  Peace is not just a nice thing to talk about; it is a central force in my everyday life.  I have learned to value community, empathy, justice, and grace in ways that were not possible before this call and I become a little less afraid to proclaim these values each day.  The world looks different and the problems of this world no longer seem quite as insurmountable as they did before.  Faith has not led me to surrender my identity, my quirks, or even my occasional glass of wine; in fact, faith has led me to begin the work of fully embracing the fullness and the truth of who I am and why I am called to serve…wine, swear words, quirks and all…

God doesn’t want you to stop being who you are.  He created you and he already knows when you mess up.  God wants us to be fully ourselves within the framework of a faith that makes our decisions a little bit different and our outlook a little more intentional.  Embracing hope and grace and love and peace make it difficult to tear each other down or to choose actions that destroy instead of the actions of unity.  Faith makes it harder to judge and easier to love, harder to condemn and easier to reach out in peace.  So, I have changed and I pray that you have too…

Peace be with you.

Little Country Church and the Loss of Identity

empty-churchAs a supply preacher, I travel to many different churches as I go out each Sunday.  The majority of the churches are small, country congregations that stand out as a reminder of the struggles faced by churches as congregations dwindle, finances run low, and buildings become burdens.  This past week, I preached at a church that will soon be closing its doors.  There were about 7 people in attendance.  They have no piano player and sing their hymns without music.  They have no fancy screens or high tech bells and whistles.  They are also deeply grieved by the reality that they must dissolve their congregation and give up their beloved church.  When I go there, it is a regular location for me, I am struck by the tinge of sadness that colors their services.  However, I am also struck by how warm, welcoming, and vibrant they remain in the midst of this ordeal.  They are a lovely group of people who find themselves affected by the trend that pulls people away from attendance and financial support for mainline churches and it is a devastating thing to witness.

What will always baffle me about the struggles of this church is the fact that such a loving group of people find themselves dissolving amidst the wave of anti-organized religion sentiment that has been growing for some time now.  What I want to tell people is that denomination does not dictate what churches do or what they stand for; in fact, we represent the Body of Christ in ways that ultimately transcend denomination.  That being said, Presbyterians are only different in our adherence to a sense of tradition that places thoughtful engagement with Scripture and with God at the center of our worship.  I also want people to understand that he Presbyterian denomination was born out of rebellion against the tendency to keep the people away from engaging directly with Scripture and with God.  For a denomination that seems so highly structured and rigid to some, we are actually a people of freedom and a people of revolutionary reform.  Our denominational nomenclature does not change the fundamentals of our faith any more than non-denominational fervor does.  Christ remains the head of the church in the Christian faith no matter where you look.

What these small, country churches teach me is that denomination is about community in a way that promotes the greatest adherence to the teachings of Christ when he tells us to love neighbor and to be a people of service. When I see folks grieving for the loss of membership and financial support, I don’t think they are grieving the loss of buildings or pining away for the “good old days.”  When I see folks grieving, I believe they are mourning the loss of community and the loss of their sense of identity as that community.  This is what fuels my tears when I stand in front of these congregations.  Granted, there can be community outside of church walls and outside of denomination; but, when you begin to understand how churches and denominations forge identity, you begin to understand how deep the loss is for these congregations.

I am a small town native and I have developed a powerful affinity for these little country churches.  So, I grieve with them and pray for them and do my best to give them a sense of peaceful worship in the midst of painful change.  I hope that you too will pray for them and reach out to them.  They are a part of our Body and they need us.