Friday, September 19, 2014

Does God have a plan?

I was at a gathering of professional church leaders this week and heard a speaker making a strong case for the fact that God doesn’t have a plan for us. He seemed to be reacting to people who like to explain whatever happens by saying that it was all a part of God’s plan. The idea that God has a plan for each of us can be comforting when your cancer goes into remission. But it’s downright disturbing when it has spread into all your vital organs. It’s hard to see how the God of goodness and love could plan such a thing. And if that’s what it means to say that God has a plan, I would agree with him.

That’s why some of the clichés used by Christians drive me up a wall. One is, “There but by the grace of God go I.” It’s used when we see someone who is struggling in life and we take comfort in the fact that our lives may not be great, but they’re not as bad as the miserable-excuse-for-a-life that poor slob is living. Saying, “There but by the grace of God go I” begs the question, “Why would a God of grace decide to give you a life of ease, while inflicting a life of suffering on someone else?” It doesn’t make sense. How could the grace of God be dispensed to some but withheld from others like that?

Another cliché that drives me up a wall and onto the ceiling is, “God is good… all the time.” This is something I always hear when things have gone well in a person’s life. “We got the offer we wanted on the house. God is good…” And then someone will nod in agreement and finish the thought, “…all the time.” All the time, God is good. I don’t have a problem with the statement. My beef is with the times we use it. I’ve never heard those words spoken by someone whose life has just gone down the toilet. And yet, if God is good all the time, that would include those times when we’re one flush away from losing everything.

So, if that’s the sort of thing we mean when we say that God has a plan for us, I would agree with the speaker. But then he supported his point with the story from Acts 1, where the apostles needed to find a replacement for the vacancy left by Judas. They decided to do this by saying a prayer and casting lots. I think the speaker’s point was that it’s ludicrous to think God has a specific plan for us. It’s all just a crap shoot. 

I've been thinking about this for several days now and have decided that I can't agree with him. If anything, the story from Acts seems to refute his point. As it turned out, God did have a plan for the apostles. It didn’t happen for his followers according to their timeline, nor did it happen in the way they had expected. But God chose an apostle to round out the twelve. His name was Saul. (After God chose him, he became known as Paul.)  

I don’t think it’s true that God doesn’t have a plan for us. But I do believe that we can’t possibly presume to know what that plan is. Such presumption always gets us into trouble because we can’t get around assigning our very human way of thinking to God. We assume things should go a certain way based on the bias we have for whatever works best for us. This puts us in the position of judging God’s performance according to how well God is meeting our expectations. We blame God when tragedy strikes, or we pat God on the back when things go well. But God is so much bigger than that. We can’t presume to see the ways of creation as the Creator does. So how can we possibly presume to understand God’s plan?

Of course, this also means we have to admit that we ourselves have no control over God’s plan. We can’t make it unfold the way we would like it to no matter how hard we try. The fact is, it will unfold, often despite our best efforts.

What I want is to be a willing participant in God’s plan. I want God to use me in accomplishing his will. I learned from Martin Luther that God’s will is going to be done with or without my help. But it’s a lot better for me when it’s done with me than when it’s done despite me.

God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do. I can’t begin to imagine what that is. I liken God’s plan to a swiftly flowing stream. It’s headed somewhere, but I have no idea where that might be. It’s always moving, always changing. I can sit back and watch the stream flow by, or I can jump into it and be a part of it. When I find myself in it, I can resist it and expend untold energy trying to change its direction. Or I can be open to where it takes me. I can give myself to the stream and allow it to pull me with it. That takes openness and a lot of trust. And it’s what I’m trying to do these days. I might bump up against some rocks from time to time, I might be thrown upon the shore, or thrust into the depths so that I’m gasping for air. But all that is a part of what it means to be in relationship with a God who has a plan.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jesus' Ice-Bucket Challenge

I remember the low raspy sound of a man grunting in exasperation because he couldn’t use his tongue. He resorted to communicating with a pad and pencil. I was too young to recall the sound of his voice before he got sick. But I do remember what it was like to watch a once vibrant man who threw a softball and ran around the bases go to needing the assistance of a cane to get around, and then a wheel-chair. I remember how the simplest tasks in life became impossible for him to perform. Most of all, I remember the sadness in my mother, as she watched her husband, just a 45 year-old man, lose the use of his body. Because I was a little girl at the time, I didn’t realize the cruelest part of the disease. While my father’s body was wasting away, his mind was functioning perfectly, so that he was fully aware of what his disease was doing to him. It was more than he could bear and he wanted it to end. When I was in first grade, his prayers were answered, and he died.

The letters A.L.S. have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But I’ve rarely heard other people talk about it. And now, for the past few weeks, all that has changed. I’ve been hearing people talk about ALS more than I ever have in my life.

If you’re not on social media, you may not know what I’m talking about. It’s called the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge. And what happens is that a person who is challenged has the option of making a contribution to the ALS Association or they can dump a bucket of ice water on their head. Most people choose to do both. And then they challenge their friends to do the same. Every day, I’ve been watching videos of celebrities and Facebook friends dumping buckets of ice-water on their heads. It may sound like a gimmick, or just something trendy to do, but apparently it’s working because contributions to the ALSA are way up. Over the course of one month, they have topped 100 million dollars. Awareness about ALS among the public is up, too. How can this not be a good thing?

Because of my personal connection, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. And in many respects it reminds me of the gospel lesson for this Sunday, Matthew 16:21-28. (Yeah, preachers find that pert near EVERYTHING reminds them of Sunday’s text.)

Peter has just experienced his bright, shining moment. When he’s asked who he thinks Jesus is by none other than Jesus himself, he rises to the occasion. “You are the Messiah!” he declares. Jesus is pleased and he praises Peter up and down, calling him a rock. But then Jesus starts talking about what it means for him to be the Messiah and it wasn’t what Peter had in mind at all. He’s going to be arrested and killed? “No way”, Peter says. “That’s not what I meant when I said you were the Messiah.” And just like that, Jesus comes back at him and shoots him down. In a few short verses, Peter goes from rock star to Satan.

First Peter was smokin’ hot, and then he gets cold water thrown on him. No doubt it caused some steam! (Oh, forgive me for that.)

When we talk about throwing cold water on something, the expression usually refers to a downer. We’re flying high and everything’s coming up roses and along comes someone who throws cold water on us and ruins all our fun. That’s what the expression means, and Jesus certainly threw an ice-bucket of water on Peter. But we don’t only use the metaphor of cold water to turn a moment of elation into a sobering confrontation with reality. We also use cold water to awaken people and shock some sense into them. There’s nothing like splashing a little cold water in your face to startle you from your sleep-walking so you’re ready to pay attention. And it seems that what Jesus has to say in this gospel text does that, too. His words are like cold water in both ways. To those who were waiting for him to come into his glory as a powerful hero who will defeat their enemies, the vision he lays out for his Messiah-ship is a real downer. But that’s not why he tells his disciples that he’s headed for a cross. He sees that they’re living in la-la land and he wants then to wake up to reality. He’s inviting them to see the truth that will change their lives.

“There is a cross in my future”, he tells them. “And if you want to follow me, there will be a cross in your future, too.” Of course, this applies to us, as well. If we want to follow Jesus, there is a cross involved.

What does that mean to you? I mean, what does it really mean? Not, what have you been taught it should mean because you’re a Christian? But what does it really mean to you to take up your cross and follow him?

I’ve struggled a lot with this over the years. One thing I can tell you for sure is that I can’t buy into the Jesus paid the price for my sins thing. For starters, that concept wasn’t a part of Christian thinking for the first thousand years of Christianity. What came to be known as the satisfaction theory of atonement was the creation of a man named Anselm.

Beyond knowing the history of the concept that Jesus paid the price for my sins on the cross, the whole idea doesn’t make logical sense to me. I believe in a God of unconditional love. So it makes no sense to me that God would only be able to forgive us on the condition that first he kill his son to pay the price for our sins. Really, does someone have to be killed before God can forgive? I think that’s the very thing Jesus came to refute in the way he lived. This idea that when things don’t go our way, somebody has got to pay, was what he gave his life for. He could have cursed those who crucified him, and he would have been justified in doing so. But instead, he forgave them. His followers seemed to get that, because after Jesus died, they didn’t do what the followers of great leaders normally do under such circumstances. Not one of them sought to avenge his death. They understood that this is what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

A lot of people think that taking up a cross means we all need to suffer, or that we should all try to be good little martyrs. But I’ve come to see the cross in other ways. I see the cross as evidence of the absolute humanity of Jesus. I see it as a symbol for defying the ways of power and violence that so dominate our world. I see the cross as a model for resistance of the status-quo. I see the cross as evidence of our human propensity to eliminate the voices that call for justice, mercy, compassion and love. I see the cross as putting to death the ways of death that keep us from truly living so that we might be resurrected to new life.

How do you see the cross? The key to following Jesus is found in the cross. This is not a sidebar to the life of faith. It’s at the very center. “If you don’t get that,” Jesus says, “then you don’t get me.” Our lives as followers of Jesus are shaped by the cross. It’s where God’s love conquers the world of power and violence with vulnerability, mercy and grace. It’s where death leads to life.

There is a challenge in Jesus’ words: “You say you want to follow me? Well, this is how it is. There is no following me without taking up the cross.”

Every day on Facebook I see people challenging one another to dump a bucket of ice water on their head for a worthy cause. And one by one, the challenge is met with enthusiasm. What would it mean for us to rise to Jesus’ challenge -- to take up our cross and follow him?

It’s more difficult than dumping a bucket of water on your head. It’s not something you can video-tape and post on the internet. When we’re baptized, water is poured on our heads and we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads. When we die, the sign of the cross is made over our bodies. And in between those crosses that mark us and set us apart as Christ’s people, there is the challenge of the cross that meets us every day of our lives.

Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

If we can't love one another, how can we ever love the world?

 Part of the gift of being a church with a clear sense of what our mission is is that it can so often make difficult decisions a lot easier. Last summer we were confronted with an invasion of sorts at Holy Trinity. A group of foreigners started filling our pews. Some even sat right in our seats. It was disruptive to us. They weren’t Lutheran. Of course, none of our reservations mattered a whole lot because our mission is "Loving Not Judging" and we weren’t going to hold it against them because they were Episcopalians. So we decided to love our newfound brothers and sisters. That was actually an easy decision.

But there have been other times when our mission of loving not judging at Holy Trinity has been tested and it hasn’t been so easy. A couple years ago one of our members got himself into some serious trouble. He was arrested for engaging in illicit sex with minors, something that happened while he had been serving as a missionary in Haiti. It was all over the news. And, as a congregation we were trying to make sense of it. Beyond the initial shock that we all shared, there were mixed reactions within our community. Some were sympathetic with Larry. Many were angry and disgusted with what he had done. A number of us expressed great compassion for the victims. Others focused their attention on supporting his wife, Margaret. Most of us got caught up in the details: the circumstances of Larry’s life, the way he was treated by the justice system, the age of the girls involved, the length of his sentence.  

But it wasn’t really our job to weigh in on the details of the case or make a decision about the gravity of his offense. As a faith community, we only had one decision to make. And it was really quite simple. Would we love Larry? Would we love him with the mercy and compassion of Jesus? Would we love him as a child of God? That was our decision to make as a community. And we knew the answer to the question before it was even asked. Despite how we may have felt about his actions, yes, we would love our brother, Larry. It was an unpopular decision with the public. But that’s who we are at Holy Trinity. And it’s what it means to follow the way of Jesus.

The central command Jesus gives his followers in community is that they love one another. And that has to be where a ministry of love begins, in the way we show our love for one another. Of course, it doesn’t end there. It ends in the way we love the world around us as Jesus did. But we practice loving with one another. If we can’t get it within our Christian community, we’ll never be able to get it out there with the rest of the world.

I’m thankful to be a part of a faith community where we can experience something of the unconditional love of God in the way we love one another. “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Straight Talk About Gay Pride

I hang out a lot with LGBT folks. Often I find myself in a social situation where I am the only straight person in the group. It’s become so commonplace for me that I sometimes have passing moments when I forget I’m not gay. And I’ll wonder, “What’s wrong with me that I’m not attracted to women the way my friends are?” Then I'll remember. Oh, yeah. It's because you're straight, Nancy.

My relationships with gay, lesbian and transgender friends have developed while serving at Advent and then Holy Trinity, both in Charlotte, over the past 15 years or so. I’ve learned a lot through those years. In the beginning, I remember being relieved to discover how much we have in common. But as I’ve grown closer to my gay, lesbian and transgender friends, I've also come to realize just how different we are.

I have trouble imagining the world as they experience it. Their sexual orientation seems to be the soundtrack of their lives that’s continually playing in the background. They may not always mention it, but, in every conversation, they are filtering everything they say and hear through their experience as a gay or transgender person. Everywhere they go, they are scoping out how safe the situation will be for them. Will they be accepted? Will people feel uncomfortable with them? Will someone say something hurtful, knowingly or unknowingly? Will it be better to hide who they are in this situation? Such thoughts are always present for them. And yet, such thoughts never cross my mind.

Once, my friend and colleague Pastor David Eck, who happens to be gay, told me that every time a gay person reads a Bible story they identify with the person in the story who is being ostracized or judged or persecuted in some way. They see themselves in the outsider. I had assumed they read Bible stories the same way I do. And when I read a Bible story, I NEVER identify with the outsider. I always identify with the people who are being challenged to welcome the outsider, or even Jesus, as the one who is standing up for the outsider. That’s the perspective I take when I preach. And yet, many of my parishioners who are gay/lesbian/transgender don’t really relate to the story as I do. When they read about outsiders, that's who they identify with. This blew me away.

As we’re preparing for the Pride Festival in Charlotte this weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about that word, pride. I confess that in my younger years when I saw gay people parading in the streets on T.V., usually in some far-off place like San Francisco, I couldn’t understand the point of it all. Yeah, okay, so you’re gay, I thought. Do you have to make such a public display of it? Well, I don’t see it that way anymore.

Now I think about how pride is actually the opposite of shame. Every gay person I know has struggled with shame on some level. Growing up in our homophobic culture has done a number on them. They may internalize that homophobia and turn it upon themselves. Or maybe they rebel against it and express their sexuality openly and freely. But in any case, they are living in reaction to the shaming that has been directed toward them in their school or their place of employment, their house of worship or their family. They have been told in hundreds of ways that who they are is not acceptable and the only way to become acceptable is to become someone they’re not.  

What courage it takes to journey from a place of shame to a place of pride! To live into the person God created you to be. To love the person you truly are.  To be gay and proud! I can only imagine how freeing it must feel to emerge from the shackles of shame to strut your gay-self down Tryon Street with Pride.

It truly is something to celebrate. That’s why I’ll be there, waving my rainbow flag, basking in the pride of those who are so dear to me. Even though I can never fully understand how it is to live in their world, there’s a larger world that we share. My life would be greatly diminished without the gifts of the LGBT community. And that fills me with a pride of my own.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Scam or an Opportunity to Serve Jesus?

Because I serve in an urban setting, I often have people stopping by the church asking for financial assistance. Rarely do I give money. I might take them to the gas station and fill their tank or give them food directly, but even that hardly ever happens. I have been burned more than once by people who are playing me and have grown cautious. I'm usually quick to send them away. In as nice a way as possible, of course.

So, today, a man and his wife and their little boy showed up in my office. I decided before I met them that they weren't getting any money out of me. The man had a wooden cross hanging from his neck and he introduced himself to me as a minister. He handed me a flyer from his ministry, which serves the homeless in Charlotte. Every Wednesday they serve pizza in the park to hundreds of people. Of course, all the while I'm listening I'm waiting to hear what he wants. Is he soliciting money for his ministry? I continue to listen, nodding my head, really thinking about how I am going to gently turn him down and send them on their way.

His story was that his ministry has received some funding, which they will receive this afternoon. They had been staying in the house owned by a woman who ended up losing the house, so they had to move. Since then, they've been living in a hotel room. Okay, here it comes, I'm thinking. They want money for their hotel room. They explain that they don't have the money to pay for the room and they need it by 11:00 or they're going to get kicked out. Yep, money for a room, I was right. And, it was pushing 11:00 so they needed it immediately. Of course.

But there was something about this guy. He seemed sincere and his family did, too. I had no doubt that his ministry was legit. So, for some reason unknown to me I asked him how much he needed. The room was forty-three dollars a night. (What kind of a room could you rent in Charlotte for forty-three a night? I didn't want to think about it.) And he had ten dollars. So he needed thirty-three. Okay, thirty-three dollars. This was not a large amount of money. They were not living a lavish lifestyle. And they were doing good in the community. I could do this. "Let me see what I can do," I said.

He told me that if I wanted to call the hotel and use a credit card, that would work. He pulled out proof of his bill. His wife offered to come back in the afternoon and return the money after they received their funding. But really, thirty three dollars? So, I dug into my purse and pulled out my wallet. "Let's see how much I have here."

I started pulling out bills and counting them. I had a twenty and a five and then a bunch of ones. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... eight. "You aren't going to believe how much money I have in my wallet," I told them. "Thirty three dollars."

His eyes filled with tears. Her eyes filled with tears. And then mine did the, too. I felt a chill going up my spine. Oh, my. Of course, the money was theirs.

Was it a scam? Possibly. But if it was, it was the best scam ever. And that alone was worth thirty-three dollars. Who knows? It's also possible that these three visitors gave me an opportunity to do something for Jesus. And that's the story I'm choosing to believe.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

How did I become a pastor? Do you really want to know?

When people ask me how I became a pastor, it’s a lot like when someone asks, “How are you?” and I reply, “Fine”, even though I may feel like crap. It’s easier to give a simple answer that has nothing to do with the truth. And I suspect that most people appreciate that. For the truth is, my call story has been unfolding for over 40 years. It’s complicated and I’m not sure of how it will end. It amazes me that I still find myself standing behind an altar lifting a loaf of bread and a cup of wine before a congregation of the faithful every Sunday morning. I never thought I’d last this long. And yet, in a very real way, I’m just getting started.  

Although I was ordained when I was 26, I didn’t become a pastor until I was almost 53 years old. What took so long? Was it the diabolical oppression of organized religion? Sexism within a denomination that was experimenting with the first wave of women clergy graduating from seminary? Had some other external forces held me back? Nope. It was none of that. It was me.

For a long time, whenever I looked in the mirror and saw myself in a clerical collar, I wondered, who does this woman think she is, impersonating a pastor?  I could never resolve the conflict between the person I was on the inside and the role I filled for my parishioners on the outside. Every time I stepped into the pulpit and pretended to know what I was talking about, I was convinced I wasn’t fooling anyone. Surely these people could see I was a sheep in shepherd’s clothing. But they didn’t seem to notice. They treated me as if I were the real deal. Occasionally, I believed it myself, but those moments were few and fleeting. Most of the time, I felt like a fraud and I didn’t know how much longer I could continue the masquerade.

Nearly every day for 25 years I thought about making a break for it and running from this absurd life I had chosen. But that was a big part of the problem. I never really felt like ordained ministry had been my choice.

I went through a crazy, mystical experience as a young adult and was convinced that God was calling me to become a pastor. It was as real to me as anything has ever been. I never doubted it. But I fought it like a tomcat getting a bubble bath. Mainly because it made no sense. I wasn’t raised in a church family and entered seminary absolutely clueless. I hardly knew the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. And I had no idea that, up until a few years before I began seminary, women weren’t permitted to be ordained in my denomination. I was so far out of the loop that I didn’t know the loop existed. And yet, I felt like I would end up Looney-tunes if I didn’t go to seminary. No matter where I went, no matter what I did, the hound of heaven wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace. So, I had no choice. I unfurled a white flag over my fortress, called a truce with God, and enrolled in a Lutheran seminary. 

I was a Lutheran because I had palled around with my two best friends in junior high and they both went to confirmation classes at the Lutheran Church. So, for a few awkward years, I attended a Lutheran church. It wasn’t a conscious decision for me any more than the time my older brother Kenny was taking my picture on the dock at our summer cottage on the lake and he kept telling me to back up! back up! back up! until I found myself under water, gasping for breath. Becoming a Lutheran was like that for me; I just fell into it. Some people would probably say it was God’s providence leading me. But, at the time, the whole providence of God idea seemed preposterous to me.

During those times when I struggled with my call so much that the process became painful, the idea of relinquishing my struggle to a higher power was appealing. If I couldn’t find a solution to the spiritual conundrum that kept me awake nights, I could let God do it for me! Then I’d find myself groping around in the dark, trying to figure out where God had hidden the light switch, praying that just this once God would give me a break and make it easy for me. But it never worked out that way.

I’ve heard people tell me that they've never married because “the right person hasn’t come along yet.” Perhaps the reason I didn’t do very well with marriage myself was because the person I married wasn’t the right person for me. But I suspect that a bigger part of the problem was that I wasn’t the right person to be married.  As a result, I never really felt like I was a wife. There was a marriage certificate, I wore a ring on my finger, and my name had changed, but I just didn’t feel it. When I had children, I always felt like a mother, but even having children with a man I called my husband, after 20 years together, I didn’t feel like a wife.

I wonder now if my problem with feeling like a pastor might have been similar to my problem with feeling like a wife. Why had I never felt like a pastor, even though I had been filling that role for so many years? Maybe the right congregation hadn’t come along yet. Or, maybe I hadn’t been the right person to be a pastor. All of that changed for me ten years ago, when I came to serve as pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte.

I had become battle-weary through the years. After my marriage ended and some bad decisions in the aftermath, I moved from my native Ohio to North Carolina for a fresh start at Advent Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation in the University City area of Charlotte. I worked beside one of the true saints God has sent into my life, Pastor Dick Little. He gave me the space I needed to tend to my wounds from the past and heal. But, as the years went by and I was feeling stronger, it felt like too much damage had been done and I didn’t have it in me to continue as a pastor. Any energy that I ever had for pastoral ministry had been spent long ago and I was certain it was never going to return. So, I went to school to get a Master’s degree in teaching English as a Second Language. I planned to teach adults to speak English and finally do what I had been considering for decades – leave parish ministry. I announced my decision to the congregation and I was on my way out. It was over and I was relieved.

I can’t remember all the details of how I ended up interviewing at Holy Trinity; it’s all a blur to me. I was walking away from parish ministry. Both feet were out the door and I was just about to slam it behind me. The thought of serving another congregation had all the appeal to me of a colonoscopy.  But this wasn’t another congregation. This was Holy Trinity. When I was asked if I wanted to interview there, something inside me clicked and I could hardly breathe.  It was another one of those mysterious encounters with the Holy like the one I had back when I was a clueless kid in college and felt the call to go to seminary. I knew beyond a doubt that I was going to be the next pastor at Holy Trinity, even before the search committee had received my name as a candidate. The tedious interview process seemed to go on forever. I was ready to begin, and they were plodding along, almost afraid to make a decision. Of course, I understood why. They were afraid. They had been in healing mode much as I had been.

The time while the search committee was meticulously going through the interview process and I was chomping at the bit to get started was a liminal space for me, a between time when I was neither here nor there.  The furniture was pushed back, the rug rolled up, and I had nowhere I needed to be. So God and I could dance.

For as long as I could remember, my life had been lived on a battlefield. It was Nancy versus God and I never knew who was going to win in the end.  With all the conflicted thoughts that were bouncing around in my head, I decided to take an individual retreat to sort through it all. While I was there, the spiritual director said something to me that changed my life. After learning of my lifelong battle with God, she said, "Nancy, why does everything have to be so hard? Is God’s way always the hard way?” And then she suggested that maybe God isn’t the enemy. Maybe God doesn’t want to make my life miserable.

It all sounded so ridiculous when I heard her name it like that. But, this is the way I had been dealing with my call to ordained ministry. Of course, I knew God wasn’t the enemy. God loved me. Yes, I knew that. And then she said something that blew my mind. “Maybe the God who loves you simply wants you to love him back.” I was dumbfounded.  

Although so many saints of the Christian faith teach that that the key to following God's will for your life is surrendering your own will to God's, it certainly hadn’t worked that way for me. When I surrendered to God, I felt defeated. I resented it. I continued to want the same things for myself that I’d always wanted, but I felt forced to deny them. How could I ever love someone to whom I had surrendered myself like that?

Was it possible that I had been wrong all these years? Was it possible that God didn’t want me to surrender? It was such a foreign concept to me that I could hardly wrap my head around it.  God loves me. And God wants me to love him. When you love someone, you want what they want. That’s how love works. Your will becomes the same.

This truth has changed my life. It’s why I can say that although I’ve been ordained for 35 years, I've only really been a pastor for the past 10 years. It took so long for the resentment in my heart to be replaced with joy. I needed to know that I could walk away before I could choose to stay. And I stayed. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I finally understood what it meant to love God enough to want what he wants for me. 

In a lifetime of deaths and resurrections, some large, some small, this was a huge death and resurrection for me. And it has brought me a surprising new life. After all those years of impersonating a pastor, limping along in shoes that rubbed and pinched in all the wrong places, now I’m wearing shoes that fit so well I can hardly tell I’m wearing them at all.  And I’m enjoying the dance. 

So, is that the story of how I became a pastor? Not exactly. It's the story of how I'm continuing to become a pastor. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Remembering the Pig Man

For nearly a year, the church I served before Holy Trinity, Advent Lutheran, was the target of someone I called the Pig Man. Every morning when I arrived at the church, I was greeted with his calling card: disgusting garbage strewn about, smeared into the pavement, piled in creative formations. It wasn’t just someone driving through the parking lot at night tossing trash out the window. This person went to the dumpsters at the supermarket in the wee hours of the morning and rooted for rotten produce, expired sauces, moldy pastries. Then he brought his find to the church and deliberately spread it about where we would have to clean it up in the morning, usually right outside the front doors. It was mean and vindictive. And it was a pain in the ass.

For a while I picked it up and went on with my day. But after a few months it started to bug me. When ketchup was smeared all over the windows and eggs splattered the steps, it was starting to feel personal. Then he left some dead roses beside the door and a rock with a note on it. On the note he wrote some obscure Old Testament Bible verse about religious people being destroyed for their wickedness. This had to stop!

I decided to do an overnight stake-out and wait to catch him in the act. A few men from the church caught wind of it and they stayed with me. We parked our cars elsewhere, entered the building and sat in the dark, looking out the windows all night. He didn’t come. Not until the next night when we were all home in our beds.

After 9/11, suddenly the visits from Pig Man stopped. So maybe he was in the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed. Or perhaps he was one of the terrorists who took them down. We had been suspecting an older student at the university across the street who was slightly off-balance. He happened to be Middle-Eastern. I figured what actually happened was he went home and couldn’t get back into the country. But who knows? All I really ever knew about Pig Man is that he was a sick-o and he clearly had issues with Christians in general and Christian churches in particular.

I’ve encountered a lot of people like that through the years. They hate me and everything I stand for. The fact that they don’t know anything about me doesn’t seem to matter; they clearly detest me. When they speak of the Church, it’s with disgust. They enjoy mocking and deriding Christian beliefs and practices. They lump us all together and whenever any Christian anywhere says something stupid or is caught doing something hateful, they have a field-day, once again vindicated in their contempt.

It’s hard to take it personally when someone hates me and they don’t even know me. Their animosity has nothing to do with me. It’s what I represent to them – the Church. And so, a part of me always grieves when I encounter a person like the Pig Man. What did the Church ever do to you to make you hate us so? How much have Christians hurt you that you would consider us all the enemy?

The congregation I serve now, Holy Trinity, is filled with people who have been hurt by the Church.  They had every reason to leave their garbage on our doorstep and move on. And yet, their relationship with God is so important to them that they couldn’t give up. They gave Christian community another chance.

This is truly miraculous to me. For many of them, it must take every ounce of bravery to land in one of our pews on a Sunday morning. Their longing for God is stronger than the damage they have endured. The deeper the damage, the stronger the longing seems to be.

Often, when someone who has been damaged by the Church first returns to a worship service, the tears flow. They may not think I notice, but I do. Sometimes I want to stop everything and honor their pain; I want to envelop them with my arms, dry their tears, and invite the congregation to join me. But instead, I do something better than that. I preach the good news of a God who has always loved them and always will, from the moment they took their first breath until the moment they have breathed their last. And I offer them a meal of forgiveness, knowing that as much as they need to be forgiven, they themselves need to forgive as well. I trust that they will find wholeness in these expressions of God’s grace and the community that bears them.

Through it all, I thank God they are with us. They had every reason to leave their garbage in front of the doors and move on. But they walked through those doors instead. And they’ve come to the right place.