May 25, 2012 Permalink
The pitch to become a follower of Jesus often runs something like this (from those of us who preach): What do you want out of life? What’s your dream? Want to trade in your crummy life for an awesome one like I’ve got with my smoking hot wife (Talladega Nights reference intentional) and super cute kids? Just look at our family picture for the love! And then come to Jesus and you can have an awesome life just like us!
The appeal is often that Jesus is the path to a “better” life, in some cases the means to an end that has already been established by us. And of course you can make a case for all the ways that a life of following Jesus is better than the alternatives. Jesus said He came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. There is so much to be said about the joy, peace, and whether overused or not, yes even “purpose” that comes along to a life with God.
Yet if “better” is a fair word, it is at the very least a truncated account of what a life with Jesus has looked like for a lot of us. Not that Jesus hasn’t brought meaningful, good changes to our lives…but perhaps it hasn’t meant that all the dreams you had for yourself have been fulfilled now because of your faith. Perhaps you thought you knew where life with Him would take you—a certain idea of the kind of job we would have, home we would live in, spouse we would marry, kids we would raise, success we would earn. But what about when Jesus is not a magic carpet ride to get you “there,” to that place that you already wanted to go?
What if following Jesus meant that some dreams had to die that were painful to let go of? What if the fairy tale didn’t have the end that you wanted? What if in beholding the loveliness of Jesus, you became all the more disenchanted with yourself along the way?
I want everybody to follow Jesus. I just don’t always know that everything about that life is going to get “better” in the way that we might expect. I know things about him I can’t unlearn or un-know. He is the truth. If and when life doesn’t seem like it is “working” at all (much less “better”), the beauty of Jesus is still the truth at the center of things. An anointed life can still be a hard life, and you may well come to moments when you would just assume give up because you are just so tired or discouraged with your life or with yourself.
But you don’t cash in your chips. Not because the life you’ve got now is objectively better than the one you started out with. Did Jesus offer you some kind of 30-day money back guarantee on any of this? You keep going because you can’t deny the truth of him and you can’t deny the gravity of grace. And like Peter, it is ultimately as simple as this: “Where else can we go?”
When life is not “better”, the gospel offers nothing if not the absolute certainty that you are loved. Not an offer of a life without chaos or ambiguity or pain. But you will never again know a life without love. How would you escape it?
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If there is a way that the life you are given is better, it is insofar that it is better to know love than to not. That’s the sweetness that doesn’t leave you even when your world is not “better,” but rather bursting into flame.
(Now if you will excuse me, Olan Mills is here and we have to take some awesome pictures to remind you that our lives are awesome and yours can be too!)
May 24, 2012 Permalink
I am a man profoundly blessed with mothers and fathers in the faith.
I have a wonderful father who has beautifully reflected the love of God in my life. He’s also an administrative bishop in our denomination. And one of the things I appreciate most about him is how he, now at 66 years old, is so completely supportive of me and my ministry. Especially considering the era that he grew up in within our tribe, the way that he is able to embrace not only me but many young pastors–his openness to learn and grow and change and do things differently, is just unbelievable. He will never know all that it has meant and continues to mean to me for him to always be in my corner. Renovatus does not have a more enthusiastic supporter. He and my Mom have adopted this wonderful perspective of being spiritual grandparents to our young church, and it is a thing of beauty.
And of course I have been blessed with spiritual fathers and mothers and grandparents as well–people like Dr. Rickie Moore and Margaret Gaines. I’ve received a lot of encouragement from current leadership in our denomination, including people on our current executive committee and council. That means the world. I have remarkable mentors at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary. There is a long list of wonderful ministers in my home state of Western North Carolina who have made an incredible mark on my life—I would not be doing what I’m doing today without them! It is because of their legacy that one of the hallmarks of Renovatus is our claim that “we are your grandmother’s church. And your great grandmother’s church. And your great great grandmother’s church.” I don’t take any of these remarkable people for granted, and I want my life and ministry to honor them.
All of that said, I have become increasingly aware of how often this not the case for young leaders, especially among pastors. I have never been more acutely aware of just how much young ministers, especially within my tradition, are longing for the blessing of spiritual fathers and mothers, and yet feel it is withheld from them. These are things that I have observed for years, but was hesitant to speak to. Mostly because I felt like I was too young. And because I have always been blessed with such fathers and mothers in the faith, I never wanted to be perceived as that young whiny pastor begging to be noticed by his forefathers.
But at this point, I’m 34, which is on one hand not old at all. But I often think my 34 is like an NBA 34–guys like Kobe Bryant and my beloved aging Boston Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) who might be still young in broader culture, but 82-game seasons made their bodies age very quickly. I have often said the Church has aged me in dog years. The point is I am not quite so young of a son anymore, and feel comfortable to speak about these matters more so as a peer.
I see a pronounced Saul streak among a lot of pastors and leaders. If they see a young man or woman with a call and anointing on their life, instead of celebrating and cultivating those gifts, they feel threatened by them. They are afraid the day might come when the crowd sings, “Saul has slain his thousands, David has slain his ten thousands.” Because of their insecurity, they eat their young.
When their sons and daughters come asking legitimate questions–if they see the world differently–they are judged, labeled, discarded. Many sons feel like people are rooting for them to fail rather than succeed. They can tell when they walk into the room and feel not the tenderness of spiritual fathers but the hostile gaze of competitors. Any open weakness is blood in the water. Any question is a challenge to authority. Any way they do ministry different is a perceived indictment against the fathers’ way of doing things. Because they are threatened by their sons, the fathers will believe anything negative they hear about the sons, because believing the worst rather than the best about your sons is what insecure leaders do. You don’t give the benefit of the doubt to “the competition.”
Many of my little brothers and sisters don’t hold up well under these experiences. To the extent that I have little brothers and sisters, because the self-protective streak among some of my peers is so pronounced that their anointing and gifts are often aborted. This of course by men who would unilaterally agree that abortion is murder in the created order, but have no problem aborting spiritual sons.
I can feel the defensiveness rising up already, especially within my tribe where you get an easy amen for talking about how kids today just don’t have honor and respect for authority. The disposition is, “if I felt honored by the sons and daughters, then I would honor them back.” I do in fact believe that my generation and the one behind me has lacked honor at times, and I try to speak into this wherever I go. But ultimately, sons and daughters will always test the boundaries in the ways all children do to find out whether or not they are truly loved, and that is not unique to any generation. The failing of the fathers is this: it is unrealistic to judge your spiritual sons and daughters as if they were your peers.
The fathers would often say that if they were asked for a blessing, they would give it. And of course the sons are not explicitly asking for the blessing of spiritual fathers—but if you had any sense you’d recognize that just beneath the surface that is all they are asking for. That many of the challenges and questions and even arguments are those of sons and daughters that desperately want to know if they are truly loved by their fathers.
Insecure leaders of course can’t recognize this, because they are too busy nursing their own adolescent egos, trying to figure out whether or not they are being appropriately honored and deferred to. Not because they are evil but because they are blinded by their own insecurity…when their sons come asking for bread they are given a stone. When their sons come asking for fish, they are given a serpent. All in the name of Jesus.
I can’t speak to how it works in other traditions, but I can tell you what I’ve seen at times in my own: sons who show up to hear about how young people today don’t do enough of this or that, or how bad they are for not putting the denominational name or logo on their church sign. Daughters who show up to hear their gifts and calling mocked and minimized. I’ve seen preachers work a crowd up into a near frenzy attacking sincere attempts by their sons to reach their own generation with the gospel they have received. And don’t miss that—they are not attacking their peers, they are publicly shaming their sons and daughters (the handful of them in the room to begin with). But boy, we sure taught them a lesson! And the fact that it was said loudly and got applause must mean their rebuke was anointed by God. There will always be people who will cheer when sons and daughters are publicly ridiculed for the same reason there was an audience at the Colosseum in Rome to watch Christians fed to lions—the sheer mob instinct that turns bloodshed into sport (it is hard to believe there are people who could confuse this with the Spirit of God).
When sons and daughters don’t want to come around for such a reception, it doesn’t mean they are rebellious. It is in fact the sons and daughters who love and esteem their fathers the most that are most unable to bear their rejection. They keep their distance not out of indifference, but of heartbreak.
Of the sons and daughters who have survived, I see many more reasons for encouragement than discouragement. For one, I am impressed by the extent to which so many of them simply want to know God. It is precisely because they hunger for God and the things of God are not be easily pacified with mediocre men who talk endlessly about denominational politics, who got this church or that church, who is getting preferential treatment or being slighted by leadership. They are too interested in God to care about any of that. It is not insolence that makes them unsatisfied with these things, it’s anointing!
I’m a little too old and a little too tall at this point to come knocking at your door looking for a blessing that I’ve already been given. But I will look you eyeball-to-eyeball as a peer and a pastor whose lived enough and dug out enough of a work of my own at this point to plead with you: stop eating your young. Don’t be so threatened by the world that is changing around you that you turn your own flesh and blood into an enemy. Don’t be threatened by the offspring that is your only hope of survival in a volatile world.
The concerns that the gospel cannot thrive in North America among the generation that is coming up is greatly exaggerated. Culture will never get so dark nor will the world become so difficult that the Church cannot thrive. The world is not the biggest threat to the gospel in our time. The much larger threat is insecure spiritual fathers who do not bless their sons and daughters.
God’s people are resilient and can bear up under a lot of things. But the moment that within a church or movement sons and daughters are looked at as competitors? Turn the lights out; game over.
May 22, 2012 Permalink
There was a season in the early to mid-90’s when there was a popular (and dreadful) series of novelty t-shirts that all the guys were wearing called “Big Johnson.” Do you remember this? They were sophomoric t-shirts that not so subtly touted the size of one’s genitals with crude, witless metaphors.
I would say at one point, the majority of guys at our school owned a Big Johnson t-shirt. Which leaves open really two possibilities: One) there was a secret virus unleashed upon the public, entirely undetected by science, that targeted only 12-19 year old males resulting in gargantuan genitalia, or two) this was just another display of juvenile adolescent insecurity that really had nothing to do with large genitals (and might actually indicate the opposite), hence more a statement about redneck parents who let their kids wear such shirts than anatomical abnormalities. Science and sheer statistics and probability would make option two seem far more likely.
We can all see how the perfect storm of adolescent insecurity would make high school males want to find identity with silly “mine is bigger than yours” rhetoric. If only this kind of juvenile comparison was limited only to boys in the 90’s! But it is of course indicative of plenty of grown men and women, unfortunately even in ministry. Comparing size is never a good idea, especially when the actual measure is faithfulness.
You would think by now that in a world as stupid as our own, we would have learned long ago that whatever is bigger or more popular is by no means best. If you don’t believe this, then please explain to me the phenomena of the Kardahsians, Jersey Shore, and Nickelback. And yet it would be equally faulty to assume that something is somehow more pure, holy or “deeper” because it is smaller. We all are responsible to steward whatever influence we have for maximum impact within the communities we serve. Crass popularity or lack thereof does not make us automatically either successful or unsuccessful, and we should not have our identities wrapped up in these matters regardless.
Yet there is an interesting twist to all of this. I have found that our endless insecurity over whether or not the world deems us appropriately successful is often not overt. Many of us have sense enough not to wear an ecclesiastical big Johnson t-shirt, but our obsession with comparison comes out in more subtle ways. To quote Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.” When we over-insist that ministry isn’t all about this or that, it often betrays the fact that we are ironically quite wrapped up in unhealthy comparison.
Let me give you some examples that are common in vocational ministry:
1) the pastor you can’t have coffee with without hearing the same endless rant about how “it’s just not about the numbers and production.” Why is he/she always talking about this? Translation: I’m insecure about my church not being bigger.
2) The pastor who’s always talking about how “it’s not just about theology and head knowledge.” Translation: I’m insecure about my lack of theological education.
3) The guy who runs the discipleship program who is always telling anybody who will listen about “how dumb/shallow the institutional church is.” Translation: I’m insecure because I didn’t advance in the last institutional church I was in, and my feelings are still hurt.
4) The worship leader who is always talking about how nobody “gets” their artful music. Translation: I’m insecure because I didn’t get a record deal or a slot leading worship at a big conference.
Whenever you spend as much time tearing down other ministries and/or talking about what church isn’t rather than painting a constructive picture of what your ministry actually is…it’s not prophetic critique. It’s not incisive cultural commentary. It’s thinly veiled insecurity. If in fact you are doing something that really is bold or different, then someone is going to notice (even if everybody doesn’t notice), and there is no reason for insecurity—you celebrate the lives that God is already changing and keep doing what He’s given you to do.
The really sad thing is that on the other side of this self-protective cover, we often aren’t doing anything different at all. We are just navel-gazers attempting to publicly talk ourselves through our own insecurities. If we are doing something meaningful for the kingdom, people will be able to tell what that is without us constantly telling everybody “it isn’t about _________ or ___________.”
I say this as a person who pastors an incredibly “niche-y” church, but with no insecurity about this. I assume if you come to our church you won’t need me to tell you what we value with long rants about what our church is not about. You’ll be able to tell pretty easily what we are about by what we are actually doing.
May 16, 2012 Permalink
One of the delightful things about growing up Pentecostal is that moment when a tongue and interpretation–that cherished time where we try to give room for the Spirit of God to sovereignly speak in a worship service–goes awry. We assumed that God could only talk to us in King James english, so that’s what we came to identify with the voice of God. Interpretations often began with something like, “Yay…yay I say unto thee…” One of the funniest stories I ever heard was about a guy who got up to interpret after someone spoke in tongues and said, “Yay… yay I say unto thee…be ye not askeered, for I the Lord your God have also been askeered.”
Of course this is funny for many reasons. The attempt to somehow formalize “scared” to the non-sensical “askeered” is funny enough–though it does sound like something that could appear in KJV, right? And of course the idea that the Lord would tell us not to be afraid because…He has also been afraid?! It works on a lot of different levels. As funny as that is, perhaps this points to the great problem among Christians (especially in North America) today–we are askeered, and we serve a God who is also askeered.
In my favorite all-time Bruce Springsteen lyric:
Fear’s a powerful thing
It can turn a heart black you can trust.
Take a God-filled soul,
fill it with devils and dust.
There is in fact nothing more contrary to God and the things of God than fear. God is love. Perfect love, according to I John, drives out all fear. Love and fear cannot co-exist. And yet fear is the permanent disposition of many Christians right now–askeered of this group, askeered of that group. Askeered of terrorism, cable television, homosexuals, immigrants…whoever “they” or “them” are at the time. Askeered of all the ways the world is changing. Askeered for their families, askeered for themselves. There seem to be so many things in the world of which to be askeered.
The problem of course is that Christians theoretically believe the worst thing that could happen in the world has already happened in the torture and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. We killed the Son of love. It cannot get any worse than that. And yet we believe that God overcame even that terror through resurrection–which means there is nothing left to be afraid of. Orthodox Christian belief is that the resurrection of Jesus changed the world–which is why in Matthew’s account there are earthquakes and storms and dead people walking around the Jerusalem. It signaled the beginning of a whole new world. Of course horrible things would still happen. And the world would continue to suffer violence and chaos at times until the Son of love comes again to restore the creation, which the earth itself is longing and sighing for (Romans 8). But ever since the resurrection of Jesus, the world has been set on an unalterable course toward renewal and restoration. This is why Christians believe they don’t have anything to be afraid of–because we believe the resurrection has already changed the world, the world just doesn’t know it yet.
Theoretically. The truth is, a lot of people haven’t got that memo, which is why we are always askeered. And why we are always reacting out of fear. Is there a more reactionary organization in the world than the Church? How odd. You would think that there would not be a more secure, proactive people in the world than the people of God. And yet whatever crises, whatever shifts in culture, whatever things turn–we are always the people running around in panic as if the sky is falling. Didn’t the sky already fall, and God’s response was resurrection?
Fear’s a powerful thing, baby. It will turn your heart black you can trust. No matter how good or well-intentioned you are, fear taints everything and everybody. Fear is holiness in reverse. Nothing good is accomplished out of fear. And yet we still attempt to do kingdom work out of a motivation that only works for demons.
I have spoken negatively before about the cultural approach to “cool”–detached, image conscious, emotionally disengaged–which has no place in the body of Christ. But there is a different connotation for cool–calm, un-rattled, unmoved, confident, secure. And in this sense, I propose we all sign up for the ministry of cool. The world smells our fear like sharks smell blood in the water. It doesn’t matter how “bold” our rhetoric is or how boisterously we talk–people can sense the fear that underwrites our speech.
Because we are afraid, we are always reacting. Instead of keeping to the agenda that we have already been assigned–the agenda that is “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” the agenda already been set by the resurrection–we are always playing defense. We are reacting to this group, these words, this news. And unfortunately, it is very rare that anything constructive can be said or done for the kingdom of Jesus out of a posture of defense.
People who believe in resurrection don’t have to be defensive about anybody or anything. Isn’t that the very means by which Jesus brought our salvation, His willingness to face the world without self-protection, even to the point of the cross? The very moment that we begin thinking in terms of what we might lose…or worse yet, what “they” might take from us, fear has taken hold.
When you have a gift which neither men nor devils can take from you, nobody other than Jesus has the authority to control the agenda. How many times is Jesus asked a question, only to refuse the premise of the question? How many times to people attempt to rope him into “current events,” to weigh in on the alternatives offered to him? The world needed him to be a zealot, a pharisee, a sadducee. And yet over and over again, Jesus refuses to have the conversation people are having in favor of the conversation they so desperately need. He repeatedly refuses to take the bait that is offered to Him, and instead speaks to the issues of the heart that run so much deeper than the superficial questions that are being asked.
He was able to do this, of course, because His own sense of identity was so secure. Though he was unique as the only begotten son of God, He was not the only person God had called “beloved.” Many times in Scripture God called His people beloved. But when His Father proclaimed, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” Jesus was the only person who really believed what God said about Him and lived in response to that all the time. He was so secure in His identity as God’s beloved, that He never forgot who He was.
We are not nearly so secure in our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters. So when the world around us begins to shift, we clench our fists and our teeth. We forget who we really are. We wonder what the world might take from us. The more insecure we feel, the louder we speak. But it is not the voice of power, but of panic.
Contrary to popular opinion, especially in the Church that calls Jesus Lord, God is not askeered. So we don’t have to be either. The world is drunk on anger, blame and condemnation. ”It’s all your fault…no, it’s all your fault!” We are so accustomed to people speaking out of their fear, that nothing can be said in that spirit (even about God or Jesus) that can rise above the chaos.
This is not the time for labeling, blaming, condemning, conserving, protecting, defending. For those of us who really believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, this is the time to speak with tenderness, compassion, confidence, love. It is not the time to answer every question that is asked us or accept the terms that are given to us by the world. When the wrong question is asked, we offer better questions. When we are given a multiple choice test, we answer in essay. When we are asked for a clear answer, we respond with a parable. When we are asked for a position, we give our testimony.
That’s too naive, you say. These are complex times. The world is a different place now than it was then. We, of course, are smarter than Jesus. We assume that the world needs a different or perhaps more sophisticated response from the Church than what was offered by her founder. It’s a novel idea these days that the same manner in which Jesus inaugurated the kingdom is the way the kingdom should be built today. This kind of kingdom building does not require great intelligence, skill, money, political power or influence. But it does require fearlessness.
There is nothing in the world to be afraid of if Jesus Christ is resurrected. It is precisely because He is not askeered that you don’t have to be askeered.
May 14, 2012 Permalink
Well, it’s finally happened.
We have often run the risk of allowing Christian faith to be co-opted into a civil religion of one brand or another, a mere prop for a larger nationalistic project of building a certain vision of “America.” Within civil religion, theology doesn’t matter a great deal because it is only a means to an end. When there is another end other than the kingdom, doctrine serves the purpose of serving “the greater good” of a particular nation-state rather than being an end to itself. The most notorious contemporary examples of this in American culture, at least at one time, were mainline Protestants. There have many times where mainline Protestant bodies have lost their prophetic edge and become a polite, comfortable place for bourgeois religion that fails to either threaten or inspire anyone in particular.
But in recent years, evangelicals have moved towards civil religion at a breathtaking pace. We have accepted the categories given us by the world, that we are broken down into two categories: conservatives and liberals. We are given a narrative in which these labels supersede any particulars of Christian faith as to how we understand who the people of God are in the world.
In recent days, I have watched with interest the fallout of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney speaking at Liberty University’s commencement, which comes on the heels of mini-coronation ceremonies from other evangelical leaders. To be clear, I don’t condemn Liberty for having Romney speak at their commencement. They have had big name “liberals” speak in the past as well. I am responding to the larger sentiment/reaction coming from the ground of “he is really just like us.” One of our most famous megachurch pastors explained in an interview why he thought Mitt Romney, a mormon, really is a Christian. One of the leading Christian evangelists in the world came just short of doing the same, while calling President Obama’s faith into question. It’s an interesting development, since evangelicals and Mormons have had historic enmity with each other, with evangelicals adamantly insisting that Mormonism is a cult, a perversion of orthodox Christian theology.
I have no problem with the fact that many Christians find Mitt Romney a more suitable candidate than President Obama, or feel like he better represents their values. I also understand why many Christians would find President Obama to be more suitable than Mitt Romney, depending on what issues they are most passionate about. To say Jesus is Lord is a political claim that has real life implications for all of our decisions, including the ones we make in the voting booth. So whether Christians choose to vote or not vote and who they choose to vote for, their faith should inform that as it does all of their decisions. But I am not passionate enough about anything in our fractured, reductionistic two-party system to get riled up one way or the other about which party or candidate to get behind. At this point in my life, the project of bringing the kingdom of God into the world in our local cities and communities is too urgent and too different than the concerns of our political process for me to be too entrenched in any of this.
But we’ve been moving in a direction for some time now, where the political platforms given to us are more determinative than theology for people of faith. I saw it four years ago, when a prominent “Christian voting guide” included not only the traditional evangelical concerns of abortion rights and gay marriage as a litmus test in telling us which candidates took the appropriate stands on the issues–but also made it clear that real “Christian” candidates were in favor of tougher immigration laws (?). Or the many times in recent years where I’ve heard evangelical leaders make it very clear that the “conservative” approach to business and economy was the good one, where as “liberal” approaches to economic policies were evil.
It’s no surprise then that evangelical leaders are now going a step further than simply saying a candidate is the lesser of two evils, or this candidate better represents these particular concerns–to now signaling that regardless of theology, this candidate is “one of us.” Because we know “us” (the Church”) from the world by where they fall on our conservative-liberal continuum. We don’t care what anybody believes about the trinity, because we don’t believe what a person believes about the trinity makes a difference in real life. More potently, we don’t believe the trinity can change the world. Who cares whether or not a person partakes of the eucharist, because the body and blood of Jesus is of course trite in comparison to our political platforms–that is where the power is.
We don’t care about theology anymore because we are no longer concerned about being Christians in any particular sort of way. Jesus is unable to save the world, thus the best hope we have now is to embrace across theological lines in service of the true god of conservative civil religion. The stakes are too high to be concerned about doctrine when there are far more pressing matters at hand.
If I sound wound up about this, I’m actually not. And I certainly don’t want people who have signed up for conservative civil religion to sign up for a more liberal civil religion, because neither will bring you to the kingdom of God and thus neither will change the world. I am quite thankful for this new development, because the more we degenerate into civil religion, the more authentic Christianity can stand apart from all of the parodies. I actually think it’s a gift.
This is not an angry editorial written with clenched teeth. No, this is much friendlier. I was just in the neighborhood and wanted to roll down the window and tenderly say, “You do realize you people are making up a new religion, right?”
May 14, 2012 Permalink
This piece is an old one of mine, but it feels more relevant than ever and has been on my mind. So I’m sharing it again today.
I could pretend that I don’t love you anymore. I could yell and scream and break things. I could dramatically walk out like you and I are on a movie set, and say something pious as I slam the door. I could manufacture looks of disgust, or better yet I could turn my eyes away. But you know me too well, don’t you? You know that even when I’m petty or enraged, even when I lash out at you with self-righteousness indignation (is there any other kind?)—you always have my heart. Even when you are in tatters, your gown ripped and your make-up smeared, a clownish parody of what you once were—you are still beautiful.
So I write you less as a scorned lover, and more as a heartsick old fool, wearing my displaced affections like medals. And I want to talk to you with the detached wisdom of a professor or the elegant rhythm of a poet, but I always end up stammering when I’m close to you. Why bother to go through the machinations of fury and distance when you see through me every time? You see me wearing my rage and my confidence like a silly fake mustache, a failed disguise for my broken heart.
So I’m writing you today, honest to God trying to avoid bravado and forced swagger, knowing that I am in you and you are in me. I want to write you off, I want to cut you down to size. I want to tell you that you cannot be the bride Christ came to save, to tell you that you missed Him already and that He’s moved on to a more authentic love. But I know that you are still the bride, and I know He hasn’t moved on from you. So I’m stuck here, chained to the radiator, loving you under part compulsion and part real tenderness.
You’re still seductively pretty. But for the life of me I can’t figure out what’s happened to you, to your charm and courage and grace under pressure. There’s a mad and hopelessly wonderful jungle around your house, full of danger and opportunity. Why are you trying to burn it down? You used to know that when the people around you were at their angriest and everybody was looking for someone to stone—you would just go walking through them with no weapon but your own fragrant perfume. You didn’t just charm, you disarmed—you could walk through a room and make it go silent save for the clang of swords dropping to the ground. You brought tenderness into the war zone and wine to the party. What happened to you to make you start acting like them—screaming and demanding and posturing.
You still look the same from a distance, but up close I know something is bad wrong.. Something is different this time around. I don’t know who you are. Whenever I’m at denominational meetings, and we are trying to find somebody to blame for our sinking ship…I don’t just see the individuals. I see you in all of your collective horror. I’ve seen your outrage at political rallies, festivities that talk about “values“ without words like “kingdom” or “cross.” I heard your protests when “they” started infringing on our territory (Muslims and Mexicans and lions and tigers and bears), and you felt like you needed to stand up to them instead of laying down your life for them. I noticed when your rhetoric went from “good news” to yet another kind of paranoid propaganda.
Let’s not be coy here, honey. We’ve lived together for too long, and we know each others secrets and habits and fears. We share ideas and we share clothes, we drink from the same cup, for Christ’s sake. But didn’t you think anybody would notice that your knuckles started getting bloodier than your palms? That the blood on your hands was theirs and not yours?
It’s not that I don’t think you’ve still got answers to give. It’s not that the world outside needs you any less. But right now the chemo seems more toxic than the cancer, baby. We came here to this place to lay down our lives, but the corpses in the back yard are more from our swords than from our crosses.
Do you think me naïve? You think I don’t know there is an enemy to fight? On the contrary, lover, I’ve seen the monsters under the bed. I know that there is a force of evil in the world that is greater than the sum of its parts. I know we’ve got dragons to slay. It’s just that they don’t scare me.
It’s too late in the night to speak falsely now (in the words of Bob Dylan), so I’ll risk more honesty than can be afforded on an average Sunday: I know the world is a volatile, dangerous place. There is a part of me, cold and scientific, that expects the world to blow itself up. It’s not prophecy, baby, it’s pure arithmetic. We are endlessly creative in finding new ways to conquer and destroy. The more people learn to manipulate chemicals and machines, the worse our chances get.
But if I’m honest, that doesn’t really scare me either. If more war breaks out tomorrow and the rockets red glare becomes nuclear and dirty bombs are bursting in air, and half the creation is maimed—I still believe that the creative power of divine love would rise from the ashes. God already died. Terrorism is not nearly so frightening as blood and water gushing from the side of the creator, and even that terror of terrors was swept up in resurrection life. I am not afraid of the horrible things human beings might do to me or do to one another.
But I am afraid of you—still the most powerful thing in the universe, still the world’s great hope. You are still the Church, honey. Nobody has the power to create or destroy quite like you. Sometimes we have seen the world around us exploding, and when we do we groan with the creation for the restoration that is to come. But what if you go up in flames? What if the salt loses its saltiness? What if you take the oil from your own lamp, once chaste and patient virgin, and throw it on someone else’s face—and strike the match? The apostle said that the weapons of your warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God. But you’ve been firing them in the dense fog, you don’t who or what you are aiming at. You’ve been flailing punches instead of turning the other cheek.
God help us, you’ve been beating your plowshares into swords.
You know I’m no cynic—I’ve loved you too long for that. This is love animated by grief. I still believe in you despite all of your vices. You can still dazzle me. You can still dazzle the world, bride of God. But things are feeling as insane in here as they are out there, honey. And I don’t know what else to do except to remind you of the time you were lovely.
May 13, 2012 Permalink
It was a fairly recent and surprising revelation that I am not very good at having friends.
It was surprising because I try to be polite, kind, and deferential to my friends. Then again, I guess I attempt to be polite, kind, and deferential to a lot of people. I’m an open enough person as to not try to manage my image too tightly these days, friend or no. Sometimes people will tell their preachers that they would like to know what they are “really like” outside of preaching. And I always tell them I’m more myself when I’m preaching than I am in any other time, so you are more likely to really know me through the sermons than you would from coffee (not that I wouldn’t like that).
But as I get older, open as I am about 90% of my life as much to enemies as to friends, I am aware of how guarded I am about the remaining 10%. I am a promiscuous lover of people—that is to say, I don’t just act attentive to whoever I’m talking with, I’m really with them. And I’ve learned the art of being with and being attentive to a lot of people in a very broad rotation. It is the life of the ministry in short, with the ever moving boundaries of work and play and life. I did not know how much I was cheating to live this way. That being available to everybody, sincerely motivated as that might be, gets me out of being available to particular somebodies. Relationships with everybody are easier than with somebody, but makes for a decidedly more lonely existence.
That is especially true within the peculiar confines of pastoral work. I’m not complaining at all, grateful as I am for the life I’ve been given. But I am used to being needed. I am used to people not caring so much about me so much as the gift in me—and I do not begrudge it. One of the delightful things about audaciously claiming to speak for God is that people connect to God in you—they are drawn to you because they are in fact drawn to Him. That’s not sad, that’s beautiful. It’s the privilege of what I get to do.
But knowing another person is also a privilege—being known is another category of privilege. My life is wrapped up in my calling in ways that I cannot and should not entirely mitigate—I am called to use my gifts to serve. But finally I had to decide I would not sacrifice somebody on the altar of everybody.
Compared to ancient cultures, we don’t understand friendship at all. Facebook has single-handedly watered down the word to where it almost seems better to come up with another word to represent the reality the phrase signifies. Friendship means everything and nothing in a digital word. I get it—Google+ gives you circles by which you can quantify and categorize your friends more precisely, and I hear Facebook is providing comparable opportunities. Gotcha.
But into what circle does one place the kind of friendship St Thomas Aquinas described when he said true friendship is based on unselfish love, “the constant, effective desire to do good to one another.” How many relationships like that are sustainable? Or for that matter—desirable? The constant, effective desire to do good to one another is hardly a passive task. Being available to particular persons is demanding and risky, which is why I have generally preferred making myself available to everybody. Everybody will not and flatly cannot demand the kind of affection from me that requires my life to be wrapped up in that of another person. Emotional investment is minimal, and that arrangement is generally permissible in our culture by all sides. And quite frankly, the amount of hurt that goes around from ministry relationships (and maybe all relationships) where we’ve put ourselves out there and got our heart broken doesn’t really seem worth the effort.
But what about friendship that captures you in the real-time drama of someone else’s weeping and rejoicing? What about a friend for whom you would take a bullet, not out of some general Christian ethic or some sense of nobility, but because you genuinely cherish their life more than your own?
A friend for whom, if they were in an accident, you would run all the red lights until you got to them?
It is far easier to insulate myself with many superficial relationships than to embrace the vulnerability required to have that kind of friendship. There is something so terrifying about putting yourself in a position where you are subject to be laughed at or pitied or condescended to or God knows what else, since so few people are allowed access to what’s in your heart. I can’t recall if in the Summa or elsewhere Aquinas ever spoke about the risk of such friendship, but it is considerable.
But in that unselfish love, in that constant effective desire to do good to one another—risk melts away. And in place of all that guardedness and political image management, the only question that remains is: what will do you the most good in this particular moment? For you to be well, for you to be safe from harm as far as I can keep it from you, for you to thrive and be everything you are meant to become—in what way can I support you? In what way can I carry you? In what way can I lay my life down for you? It’s a love without contingencies, a love without constraints, it’s love without a back up plan. Not a crass “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”, not I’ll serve your best interests if you serve mine. But I’ll do good by you and for you—always. Whatever that means and whatever that requires.
We have many mediums now where we can quantify and categorize our friends. And of course relationships from within each of our circles can have appropriate value and meaning.
But it would seem that to have even one friendship like that would be enough to make a man unspeakably rich.
I hope to be a great preacher, a great leader, a great writer. But to be a really good friend? That would really be something.