Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Slow Pastors: We Need Some New Role Models

I always fancied myself an electric razor kind of guy, but I recently made the move toward a five blade manual razor—the Gillette Fusion ProGlide, to be exact. My world already feels too rushed. Why must I make shaving as efficient as possible? It’s nice to slow down, to feel the gel on your hands, massage it into your skin, and then to hear the crackling sound of sandpaper as the razor is pulled down.  It beats the electric sound of buzzing anyway.  I wonder if hipsters buy classic shave sets and vinyl because they just want to slow down. A manual razor seems to be a step in the right direction for me. 

God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. We worship a patient God. I think of the work that the ekklesia project has done on ‘slow church.’ “[This] is the God who walked with his people for forty years across the wilderness, sat with his people for seventy years in exile, attends to the impoverished and down-and-out, considers the lilies of the fields, loves this world enough to become human, died on a cross rather than kill, and took three days to be resurrected.” (See Any God who calls humans to be God’s hands and feet is surely not in any hurry.

Lent is a time to slow down. It’s a time where we remember that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. That’s striking, right? Jesus spends 40 days alone before any ‘real ministry’ takes place. Jesus calls us to go into the wilderness, too, and to become slow and to waste time (in the eyes of the world).  We give up technology that we might look each other in the eyes and develop the gift of truly being present. Other Christians adopt diets that make us remember that food takes time—plants must grow and animals must graze.  Pastors, if anyone, must learn that slow can be a  good thing.  Oftentimes our biggest accomplishment is a well-formed prayer after a visitation or a good paragraph in a sermon. A slow week at church does not feel like an opportunity for more time in prayer, study, and writing—it’s torture; I pull my hair out until I find something ‘productive’ to do, like help someone.

That’s partly because all of our current Christian pastor heroes are not known for being slow. We endorse the ‘Rob Bells’ and in the United Methodist Church, the ‘Adam Hamiltons.’ I read people like Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas who ‘have no unpublished thoughts.’ It’s about volume—the number of worshippers, the number of mission projects, the number of original theological thoughts. We look up to the kinds of people that make us wonder, “How do you do so much?” None of these things can be accomplished by going on ‘prayer walks,’ right?

During Lent I remember the unproductive Christians—the fathers who ventured out to the wilderness, the mystics who lived in convents, the Christians who waste their time by staring at rocks. I remember people like Julian of Norwich. She found God in an acorn and it changed her life.  Yes, an acorn. As she held the acorn in her hands she wondered, “What can this be?”  And God spoke to her, “It is everything which is made. For God made it. God loves it. And God preserves it.”  Paying attention to it, she learned how God paid attention to her. Holding it, she learned how God held her.   Julian writes, “Love was its meaning.  Who reveals it to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.” You can't notice an acorn if you drive everywhere.

The mainstream church needs heroes like Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, which is a group home for those with mental disabilities. Vanier's community was less about consuming God and more about kenosis, self-emptying vulnerability. L'Arche is about learning to love one another. Vanier writes, “Love doesn't mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”  Vanier didn’t build a legacy by packing stadiums with his sermons. He participated in the slow formation of a community that became a part of Christ’s subversive kingdom.

We need more exemplars like Julian and Vanier. Although, I presume that Vanier is ok with being ‘relatively’ anonymous. These are the people who are doing the patient, enduring work of God in our world. They are the ones who challenge us to become incarnate in a community, even if we did not choose it, and learn to love its strengths and weaknesses. Where are all the slow pastors? No, really, where are they?  Maybe we are too busy to find them or don’t want to move slow enough to notice them. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Broken Lent

I broke my Lenten discipline. I mean this literally—the Rosary I decided to wear during Lent snapped in my sleep. I have always flirted with Catholicism and Orthodox spirituality. Catholic and Orthodox mystics are more interesting than most Protestants I have run into.  We are so concerned with written words that we forget that we have five senses to drive us into the presence of the divine.  We are allowed to use images, icons, beads, and candles. Really, it’s ok. I've learned to try anything that might help me learn how to pray, even a Rosary. I rarely prayed through the Rosary in one sitting, but every time I noticed the cold beads pressing against my skin I was compelled to throw a prayer dart to heaven. It worked until it broke. I am not surprised that it has been around for a few hundred years.

I didn’t “Hail Mary;” at least, initially. I used the Jesus Prayer in lieu: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Sometimes, I prayed through virtues or fruits of the Spirit.  Strangely, a few days later I found myself praying, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Maybe it was for the thrill.  It felt perilous, or at least mischievous, for a Protestant to utter ‘hail Mary, full of grace.’ After a while it has become cathartic. It’s been nice to know that Mary is waiting to intercede on my behalf when I falter.  I ask my friends to pray for me—so why not ask the theotokos, the mother of Jesus?  She’s lived it all—lowliness, joyfulness, sorrow, loneliness and regret.  I won’t discriminate; we are the body of Christ, the communion of saints. Any words will do when I have none.  

We memorize liturgy and prayers so that we will have something to say when words disappear. What do you say when you sit at the bedside of a loved one or gather at the Jordan River? We say things like, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Written prayer is therapy.  Unfortunately, Methodists are not taught to memorize prayer or Scripture.  I haven’t memorized nearly enough Psalms.  I am learning that I need to have resources locked away when my heart isn’t communicating with my mouth.  Nor are Methodists encouraged to ask a saint for prayer.  Where are we supposed to turn when we forget how to pray? We're out of luck.

Our individualized culture supposes that the best prayers must come from our own hearts.  Or, if we can’t think of the words ourselves then something must be wrong. I am reminded of a story that Lauren Winner shares in her book Still. She writes,

“A four year olds notion is that a prayer is about God, rabbits, deer, Santa, and turkeys. At seven, prayer is when you ask for something you need, like water or rain or snow, then at twelve, the child begins to speak theologically: prayer is how you communicate with God and even ask God for forgiveness.

Older children understand that prayers come within themselves. The older child knows that the child is the author of his own prayer.  I realize I am supposed to think that this is an advance from the younger child’s idea that prayers come from God or from heaven.  But I do not think it is an advance. I think it is something those children will unlearn, later, if they keep praying. I think they will come to know that the youngest children are right. I think they will come to know that their prayers do not, in fact, come from within themselves. I can participate in prayer (or not) show up to pray (or not) but I am not the author of my prayers; when they come, they come from God (76-7).”

Lately, I haven’t been the ‘author’ of many prayers.  I’ve used prayers from Scripture and prayers from saints. Most of the time Scripture and tradition have already said what I want to say with more eloquence, poignancy, and honesty.  This Lent, I am relearning the notion that I must be the author of my own prayers. And that's ok because sometimes the well has run dry. Maybe you’ve never been vacant and empty, but one day you probably will. And then you’ll learn that prayers in a book and intercession from Mary are still prayers because all prayer comes from God.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Holy Land

Jesus descended into the pit

Israelis wear skinny jeans, separation barriers between countries are heart-rending, and it’s ok to go to a bar in Palestine. These were a few of my surprises during my trip to the ‘Holy Land.’ Of course, there were larger and more significant spiritual surprises, too.  Pastors often hear the phrase “the Bible comes alive in the Holy Land ” but I didn’t completely buy it because I succumb to pride. I changed my mind when we were immersed into the cave where Jesus likely spent the night before he died. We read Psalm 88, “I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down into the pit.”  I realized that I had never really read Psalm 88. 
Time-space is important to God because God chooses particularity. And if God did not choose a specific time, land, or people then we would not really know God.  It’s all about revelation. That’s how our God works. Yet, too often we forget that God did not choose to become incarnate in the United States of America.  Jesus wasn’t born in South Georgia (like me).  The Word became flesh, Jewish flesh, and pitched his tent Nazareth, Capernaum and Jerusalem.  It was a blessing to see the particularities of where God chose to reveal Godself—the people, architecture, and geographical distinctions will deeply affect the way you read Scripture.   

Some insights are fairly insignificant, but still interesting—David was able to easily spot Bathsheba (and likely, many other women) bathing on the rooftop, Jesus probably got really tired walking up all the mountains in Galilee, and there really are palm trees all over the place. Other insights are more profound.  A city on a hill is beautiful and can be spotted from miles away, Jesus went way out of his way when he travelled to Samaria to minister to those on the fringes, and one really can move mountains (after all, that’s what Herod did with the Herodion).
Seeking refuge from the rain

Bishop Goodpaster reminded us of the contrast between the magnificent Herodion and the humility of Shepherd’s field (Jesus’ birthplace).  On our first day in the Holy Land we walked through the remains of King Herod’s fortress, the Herodion, a fortress fit for a king. Shortly after, we drove a few miles down to The Church of the Nativity and Shepherd’s field.  It began to rain hard and we sought refuge in a cave like the stable in which Jesus was born. Don’t miss the paradox: our king takes refuge in a cave, while the worldly king reigns on top of a mountain.  That’s what our God chose. 

Along the way I gained a greater appreciation of our Jewish roots.  We need the help of Israeli and Palestinian Christians lest we continue to create Jesus in our own image. Or, is this just me?  I am prone to create God in my own image and force Scripture into my established cultural biases. Just ask my wife how many times I said, “That’s not how I pictured it.” Our tour guide, Deeb, took us to the Mt. of Beatitudes and read us ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’  This native of Jerusalem then told us that the kernel of Christianity is, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” It was the closest Deeb came to preaching.  Jesus’ words continue to be the greatest challenge for that small piece of land in the Middle East.

 I am a little less likely to plop Jesus down in Western North Carolina.  My white, North American lenses have become a little bit thinner and Jesus no longer looks as Aryan as he did before. And this is really significant. I think of the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman—you know, the ‘half-Jew’ who was despised by the Jewish people.  Jesus says rather bluntly, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is of the Jews.”

I’m glad that I’m continuing to learn that I, too, really don’t know.

The wall separating Israel and Palestine

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Transfiguration of the World

Most of you know that I just got back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  A pilgrimage is not a tourist trip nor is it a vacation. We didn’t go to see the sites, but we journeyed to experience something of the presence of God. Bishop Goodpaster reminded us the Holy Land was supposed to mean more than a few nice pictures and olive wood sculptures. Words and pictures are just a shadow of the real experience of that place. That’s why I took more pictures at Disney World than the Holy Land.  A pilgrimage is about moments of holiness.

This morning is transfiguration Sunday—the Sunday before the beginning of Lent.  Let me remind all of you that transfiguration means change or transformation. As I reflect upon my pilgrimage, I can easily locate myself within this text. Today, we remember the moment of holiness felt by the disciples Peter, James and John. 

Peter, James and John hiked up Mount Tabor with Jesus. It was likely not an easy journey, but like any pilgrimage the three disciples experienced something marvelous when the reached the top. Jesus was transfigured—or changed—and became radiant, shining like the sun.  Elijah the prophet and Moses, the representative of the law, appeared beside him. It was a moment of holiness that interrupted the pilgrimage of the disciples. Peter quickly piped up, and said “unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three houses; one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  It’s part of our nature to want to contain and trap an experience of the holy. We have moments in our lives that we wish could last forever and we desire to build houses that will contain them.

I’m reminded of the day we sat by the Sea of Galilee at Sunset. We were at the traditional site where Jesus multiplied loaves of bread and fish and fed thousands. Some of us waded out into the water, others put our feet in the water, and all of us were transfigured just as Jesus transfigured the loaves of bread and fish. I felt like Peter—“Jesus, it is good for us to be here—let us make a house for you so that we never have to leave.”  It’s our human nature to try and bottle up experiences and places so that we’ll never have to let them go.

Places are important to God and they always have been.  Throughout the history of our faith, God has chosen to be found in houses, churches, and sanctuaries.  Our Jewish ancestors visited the Temple to find the living presence of God and to offer sacrifices. Later, they read Scripture and sang Psalms in synagogues, just like we are doing this morning.

That’s why churches, synagogues, and mosques overwhelm the Holy Land; they are the large boxes that try to mark and contain the sacred.  During the Middle Ages churches were placed on any piece of land that could be connected to the New Testament. There are houses for everything and anyone in the Bible. Gorgeous sanctuaries were constructed in Bethlehem at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth and there is a beautiful chapel surrounding the Samaritan’s Well.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher overpowers the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb.  The places of worship were beautiful—gaudy, even—filled with gold, lights, incense, and a mystical transcendence that will transport you to the divine. Jesus shone brightly in these places in the radiance of transfiguration.  Think of Peter—“Jesus, it is good for us to be here—let us make a house for you.”

And I am reminded that the Jews in Jerusalem believe that God’s very presence can be found in the remains of the Temple wall—the Wailing Wall. Every day the Orthodox Jews visit the wall to experience the presence of God. Yet, I am struck that Jesus did not want to have a house built for him. And this is where Christians radically diverge from Orthodox Jews.  Christians believe that God’s presence has invaded the world through the Holy Spirit. In other words, God is not trapped inside of a wall, but can be found right here, too, in this sanctuary.

Right when Peter mentions building a house for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, God interrupts him. Luke tells us that God interrupts him because Peter had no idea what he was talking about.  And God says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen, listen to him.”  In other words, “Peter, you don’t get it.  I am doing something new.”  This interruption is the challenge of Jesus—a radical reorientation of faith in which Jesus Christ actually becomes the house of God.  He is the physical meeting place between the divine and human, the perfect sacrifice, and the complete worship of God.
With Jesus, we no longer have to go to a church to meet God. God has come to us through Jesus and honestly, Jesus is more concerned with what takes place when you step outside of the Church. Listen to the voice of Luke.

The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him.  A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child.”…[And] even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father.

There are two moments of transfiguration in this story, right?  There is the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, where he turns bright like the sun and shines radiantly. Then, when Jesus comes down the mountain there is a second transfiguration as a boy meets Jesus and is healed and changed.  The transfiguration of the child is the reason why Jesus left the mountain, came to earth, and ended up dying on a cross.  There is no way Jesus was going to stay in a house on top of a mountain, when the whole world could be transfigured.

Danielle and I, and thirty other young clergy went on a pilgrimage to be transfigured. And we saw something radiant and bright that made a change in our life.  But I also think that Jesus wants us to come off the mountain and share that change with the world. Jesus continually reminds us that coming down from the mountain is more important than staying on the mountain. As a Christian, I found it incredibly sad that the most beautiful houses of God are located in a place that is 2% Christian. The early Christians constructed beautiful sanctuaries that marked moments of transfiguration, but the real transfiguration must also take place on the streets in the lives of normal people.  What’s the use of a house of God if, if no one will ever go in and out of it? 

Jesus, it is good for us to be here—let us make a house for you.  That’s still our mentality, right? Most of us want to stay in the comfort of the house of God, even though Jesus tells us that the moments of change and transfiguration also take place outside of the church. I have said this before, and I will likely say this again—transformation doesn’t only take place in a Church building.  And this is the point: are you more concerned with church attendance or the transfiguration of the world and your life?

Hiking down Mt. of Beatitudes
Let me close with one last experience from our trip.  Almost unanimously, one of the most beautiful parts of our trip was our hike after seeing the Mount of Beatitudes.  Most groups that travel to the Holy Land do not have the opportunity to take part in this hike down the mountain.  It’s too steep and most groups aren’t as mobile as we were.  Plus, it’s more convenient to drive, right? I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t exactly looking forward to a hike—I was tired and my feet hurt.  Yet, we were able to hike down the Mount of Beatitudes as the sun was setting.  It was a hike that Jesus was most likely familiar with as he walked back and forth from the Sea of Galilee.  When we reached the bottom of the mountain we gathered at the Sea of Galilee and each experienced a holy moment with God. I shared that experience a few minutes ago.

And as I reflect upon our trip I am reminded that the hike down the mountain is not always appealing.  It’s muddy, slippery and sometimes inconvenient.  We’d rather stay on top of the mountain. Jesus, it is good for us to be here—let us make a house for you.   But Jesus reminds us that transfiguration also takes place outside of a church on top of a mountain.  In fact, the most holy moments of my trip took place outside of a building. 

God wants to transfigure your life. God wants to transfigure the world. And sometimes the greatest transfigurations take place when you are at the bottom of the mountain. It’s good for us to be here, but it’s also good for us to be out there.

A holy moment on the Sea of Galilee