Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas, folks

Blessings to you this Christmas--and on earth, peace to all whom God favors.

I preached our 11pm service yesterday--the church was packed all day, and the midnight service was no exception. Preaching Christmas Eve is tough. You can't really tell stories, which is how I usually preach, so I felt like every priest you have ever seen in a movie: you know, "Now, let us all remember the joys of Christmas," etc.

As folks walked out at the end of the service, instead of "Good sermon," which is what I usually get, I got lots of, "Well, you got us to midnight," which is either a compliment or damning with faint praise.

Here's something I've posted before, but which I think about fresh every Christmas. Merry Christmas, folks. It is a joy being in conversation with you.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On what the Bible is, and is not

I am an AJ Jacobs fan. I have not read The Year of Living Biblically--I have been waiting to be gifted it, ahem--but I did read The Know It All, and found it to be both fascinating and hilarious, which are two words you will not find in this particular review. I like AJ Jacobs because he takes his subjects seriously, in that he treats them fairly and engages them fully, but not so seriously that he cannot see how ridiculous it is for him to stone an elderly adulterer in a park with a pebble.

Here is his TED talk about the Bible, and while I do not agree with everything he says (obviously, as he is agnostic), I do agree with the basic framework he uses to talk about how we should understand the Bible: that is to say, seriously, but not literally.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On illness and rest

I have, on many occasions, been known to bemoan those pastors who go and go and go and refuse to rest until they get sick. Having spent the last week two shades from miserable, I may have lost my cred on this issue.

To my credit, I think my nephew got me sick. We babysat last Friday for him and his sister, and coughing on me turned into something of a game. But I was so tired--and am so tired--that it is really no surprise that I ended up sick, no surprise that I had to quarantine myself for a couple of days just to rest enough to spend some time in the office. You go and go and go, and your immune system loses juice, and before you know it you have to get sick just so you can get some rest. It is pitiful.

And now, a week after first getting sick, I'm still tired, still worn out by noon. At this point I am just trying to get to Christmas. Thankfully, things are slow this week--I just need a Christmas eve sermon, and I am good. After Christmas, we'll sleep for a week, which is what I need.

It has been adjustment, to say the least, as I figure out the particular patterns of being a pastor. This is not to say that I feel overworked--truly, I am pretty good about cutting things off and saying it is time to go home. But I continue to be surprised that even as I am careful about taking care of myself, I still get worn down sometimes. In short, you cannot remove the stress from pastoral work; you can only manage it.

Maybe that sounds painfully obvious, but it has been a revelation to me. As someone who is good at dealing with stress--really!--I still get stressed, still occasionally lose sleep, still get worn down and sick and tired. Self-care is about more than just avoiding stress. It is about recognizing stress, getting appropriate rest, and not being consumed entirely by the rigors of the job.

So here’s to a restful Christmas and an inspired new year. Don’t look for me at midnight on the 31st; I will probably be asleep.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

On radio silence

My apologies for not blogging this last week and a half. I am on the tail end of a nasty cold, and I have barely been able to think straight enough to dress myself, let alone make some sort of sustained argument.

Thankfully I am on the mend. I'll be back very soon.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Trust

It is clear to me that just about nobody trusts the church anymore. A study flagged by Michael Jinkins shows that, in a survey which asked "Whom do you typically trust to provide accurate information about important issues in society?", religious authorities ranked dead last. Last!

Part of me is thankful for this lack of trust; it seems that those "religious authorities" who have the most public forums are the most bombastic and opportunistic among us. If the issue is, who do you trust to incessantly talk about issues of abortion, gay marriage, and Koran burning?, then I'm glad people are getting their information elsewhere. These are important issues, each in its own way, but there are other issues in the life of faith. Religious leaders who incessantly harp on these issues ought not be trusted, in my opinion; the Gospel is bigger than gay marriage, after all.

And while I am often glad that church iconoclasts are ignored, not everybody in the church is bombastic and self-serving. Maybe this is a revelation to you, but there are some goodhearted folks in the church who have some important things to say! If nobody is listening to the church (for whatever reason), and I represent the church (which I do), then nobody is listening to me. I do not believe I am the most insightful representative of the church, but I occasionally have some valid things to say, and so do most clergy I know. Otherwise, why would we waste the breath?

I have entered a field few people trust. Nothing I have done, to this point, has led to that mistrust, but I must deal with it nonetheless. I am starting in a hole, and while I suppose I knew this in some ways, it is interesting to see how this lack of trust plays out. In many ways, I am a great test case--I do not have the history with a congregation that an older minister might have, so the trust I do solicit exists solely because of my office.

I am not looking for folks to take what I have to say at face value, all the time. But when the church is viewed with a skeptical eye all the time, and when the sermon begins with a congregation predisposed not to believe what is being said, then we're in trouble.

The challenge is that we have to create a culture of trust in the church: not so that everything the church says is taken at face value, but so that the church regains spiritual authority. Those clergy who take their call seriously—and who care about the call more than they care about the spotlight—have work to do.

So the question I face is this: how do I relate to an institution (and as a steward of that institution) if nobody believes what I have to say? It is as Kierkegaard says: “There is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking, and this is something which the one cannot directly communicate to the other.”

How do we communicate that which cannot be directly communicated, and in a way that helps people trust? What is the way through?

(PS This is my first post that is referenced on Methoblog. I'm grateful to those faithful bloggers who run the shop over there, both for listing this blog and for being a window to the greater Methodist conversation. You have my thanks.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

On Social Justice and the Gospel

I have spent much of the weekend reading about how the church is dealing/should deal/cannot deal/must embrace/must run from issues of social justice. Everybody's got something to say about social justice, especially after the whole Glenn Beck tempest, and the arguments seem to fall this way:

Progressives embrace social justice at the expense of speaking of salvation and eternal life.

Conservatives embrace salvation and eternal life at the expense of speaking of social justice.

Or, you can make the formulation a little more crudely, but I think this is a fair description of the traditional arguments:
Evangelicals or Conservatives care only about salvation of souls and the world hereafter. Liberals or Progressives only care about issues here and now, such as social justice.
So, the argument goes, each group cares about one or the other. And even those good folks who are trying to make some sense of God's call to social justice in the midst of this crazy political environment basically counter this argument by saying, "This is not a fair description," or:
Evangelicals/Conservatives care as much about life in this world as Liberals/Progressives care about eternal life. But very often, obstacles such as varying perspectives, differing emphases and vocabulary, and disagreements regarding strategies to solve issues such as social justice come into play.
The apparent issue, then, is that both groups care about both spheres of concern, just in different ways and with different "emphases." This, I think, is the standard way of finding middle ground. Conservatives do too care about social justice! Liberals do too care about eternal life!

While I am thankful for those who are trying to find that middle ground--it seems harder and harder every passing day--the way through this issue is less about granting that the other side does care and more about realizing that at the end of the day, the church ought not draw bright lines between concerns of eternal life and concerns of social justice, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between saving souls and saving lives. If we are to understand religion as a holistic enterprise, with no part separate from the others, drawing such a distinction just does not make any sense.

Just as we celebrate the diversity of witnesses in the Bible, we are called to live as one people, under one God. And to divide our concerns into the here-and-now vs. the yet-to-come is to needlessly cut God in half, to miss the fullness of God's revealed self for the sake of making the life of faith easier, making the challenge of God less challenging.

The issue is this: since when did we remove the service of others, in the name of social justice, from our understanding of what it means to follow and worship God? As we throw around arguments about how social justice fits into the Gospel, it is increasingly apparent to me that all the Christians must have gotten together and decided that--while they may disagree with the importance of social justice--at least working for justice and worshiping God are two very different things. They must have had a conference and decided this. Now, why they decided this, I do not know. I was evidently not invited to this gathering.

I jest, but the sentiment is quite serious: presupposed in the arguments about liberal vs. conservative churches, social justice vs. salvation, program churches vs. worship centers is the notion that justice and service are quite different than worship and concerns of eternal life.

My concern is that when we separate salvation and social concerns, we do neither justice. And implied in this separation--implied in any separation!--is that you can have one without the other: like you can have peanut butter and jelly, or you can have just peanut butter or just jelly.

I am fairly certain that if you asked the early Christians how they understood the need for salvation and the need for social justice, they would not even understand the question. Acts is clear: bound up in the Christian community was the notion of the common purse, of taking care of physical needs, of looking after those who needed looking after.

This is a nuanced point, I realize, and the church does not always do nuance so well! But it is a vital point for the church, especially the United Methodist Church, which uses John Wesley's language of "works of piety" and "works of mercy" to separate what I suppose you can call concerns of salvation and concerns of social justice. Even Wesley, it seems, separated these two spheres!

But even as he separated these two areas of spiritual concern, he did note that they were areas of spiritual concern! And rather than being guiding principles, "works of piety" and "works of mercy" were subtitles for what he called "Means of Grace," or:
outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.
God works within works of mercy just like God works within acts of piety, and I have to believe that you can't master one without the other.

In our quest to have "authentic worship," to talk about Christ's redeeming power over sin, we have forgotten, I think, that the Imago Dei--the image of God--is not just in me, but in everyone I meet. When I meet someone for the first time, I am seeing a picture of God as much as I am seeing anything else.

If you want to get scriptural about it--and I do--you need only look at Jesus's command to look after one another, for in that service you will serve God.

You simply cannot separate salvation and social justice. Christ was as concerned about the saving of the human race on earth as he was the saving of humans from sin. In fact, the way that Christ most powerfully said that we serve him is by serving others.

With such a clear scriptural command, I just don't understand why we are still making this distinction. There is no such. When the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said that "faith without works is dead," he was not saying that faith and works were two co-equal parts of what it means to be a Christian. He was saying that social justice is a fundamental part of following Christ, and you can no more separate social justice from faith than you can pull your heart from your body.

Faith without works is dead. Not difficult, not wrong-headed, not painful. Dead.

I think it's pretty clear, right?