What can the church learn from a Starbucks barista?

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Evans serves up joy one cup of coffee at a time.

Feeling crappy about the state of the world and our nation in particular? Well, let me introduce you to Evans. Evans will make you feel better. His job—or calling, I might say—is to make you feel better.

I met Evans this morning standing in line at an airport Starbucks. It was a long line. It was early. I needed caffeine. But they had the tunes cranking, James Brown was playing, and Evans—the barista—was dancing and singing out loud as he worked. “I’m sorry people, I’m sorry,” he shouted to the growing coffee-thirsty crowd. “But I just love this song! I love it! So I’ve just got to sing and dance.” After the song was over, though, he didn’t stop. He kept dancing, coordinating his barista moves of pouring our dark brews, mixing our caramel macchiatos and whipping our cappuccinos into his choreography. When the cashier took our order she wrote our name on our cup before handing it to Evans. This was his point of entry. “Hey, Teri! How are you doing, Teri? Are you having a good day?” How could the answer be “No” in the face of such exuberance? Evans spoke like this to each customer. He greeted the man in front of me, Alec, so warmly that, having not yet caught on, I thought they were old friends. “Hey, Alec.” Evans said. “Great to see you, man. I’m going to take care of you today. Don’t you worry. I got you covered.” Alec didn’t seem to be having a good morning, but he managed a smile when Evans handed him his iced coffee with cream.

Evans’ effect on the people gathered for their ritual morning coffee dazzled me. In the friendliest of ways, he broke down our stoic, I’m-in-public inhibitions, giving us permission to show a little joy ourselves, turn to our neighbor to share an appreciative laugh, or help her with the pot of creamer that was extra dribbly today. He single-handedly transformed that Starbucks into a space where community was fostered, where joy and kindness were collectively shared. When Evans handed me my coffee, I asked him if I could take his picture because, as I told him, “You’re awesome, and I want to remember you.” The five or six customers gathered around smiled and laughed appreciatively at my desire to acknowledge our favorite barista. They cheered for Evans as he posed, proudly, for my picture.

Evans’ effect on me didn’t stop, though, once I left the coffee shop. Afterwards, I found myself smiling more at the strangers around me. I offered a napkin to a man who spilled his coffee. I wasn’t irritated with the woman who took the clean sink I wanted in the restroom. Generally, I found myself to be a more outgoing, positive, caring person after my time at Starbucks. The whole experience felt like church—if church could be defined as a place where community is created and people are transformed into new and better versions of themselves.

Because I serve as the chaplain of a college, I was recently asked to lead a workshop on how to attract young people to the church. If it works out that I can do the workshop, I think I might begin by introducing those gathered to Evans and his style of service. Not everyone can be Evans—he certainly is someone special. But we, in the church, can learn from him if we pause to ask some relevant questions. How did Evans create community in that Starbucks? What was he offering, besides coffee, that was attractive? How did he inspire positive change in the people he served? And how might we provide a similar experience?

 

Refusing to let God Vanish

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A poet friend posted this quote to Facebook last week. It was the anniversary of a difficult miscarriage and she posted this as a prayer that her grief enlarges instead of diminishes her.  This struck me as a beautiful sentiment and so typical of a poet. I keep turning to the poets for the way they enlarge life, for the way they take a magnifying glass to all that seems mundane. A good poet can create a whole scene (or deliver a whole sermon) out of a detail as small as the petal of a pansy. In this enlarging of life it seems that Hirsch’s point is well taken; that the poet’s job is to leave a verbal record as a way of refusing to let any thing—any detail or experience or person, for that matter—vanish.

As I contemplated Psalm 36 for an upcoming sermon, I began to recognize the psalmist’s job as leaving a verbal record of God. These ancient poets enlarged every detail of God. Psalm 36, in particular, enlarges the details of God’s steadfast love that extends to the heavens, God’s righteousness that stands like the mighty mountains, God’s judgment that runs like the great deep and God’s refuge that the psalmist emphasizes is for all people. Implicit in this poetry is a refusal to vanish and a refusal to allow God to vanish. It almost seems like an act of rebellion–an act of rebellion against all that counters love and justice, refuge and righteousness; an act of rebellion against all the pain, heartache, and grief that this world dishes out–to refuse to let God vanish.

This past holiday season all of the end-of-the-year reviews seemed to be ripe with heartache, tragedy and grief.

After the shooting in San Bernadino, California articles were written about how there had been more mass shootings this year than days—as of December 2nd, 355 mass shootings had occurred in 336 days. So much heartache has been caused by these shootings, and yet we Americans are so solidly entrenched in our culture of guns and our worship of guns that we can’t seem to do anything about this abhorrent violence. It breaks my heart to know that my 6-year-old not only knows the drills at her elementary school for tornado and fire, but also what to do when an active shooter is in the building.

hqdefaultAdding to my heartache this holiday season, I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness in preparation for a college trip I am leading where we will study the mass incarceration of our American men of color. What I learned in reading this book—about how our nation’s War on Drugs has strategically and systematically rounded up and locked up our impoverished, black males—blew me away and it made me understand the urgency of the #BlackLivesMatter movement all the more. Our societal imbalance and ‘disadvantaging’ of a whole population of people is a tragedy.

And then there’s the continued evil of groups such as ISIS, Al Queda, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. There’s the insanity of Donald Trump’s popularity, our nation’s gobbed up political process, militia men taking control of a wild life refuge in Oregon, another black teen gunned down by police and a “Bible believing” man who walks into a Planned Parenthood clinic to shoot it up.

My God, it seems in the midst of all this heartache and grief, evil and tragedy that there is simply nowhere to turn. Everything is just so messed up.

So I am grateful for the Psalmist who leaves us a verbal record of:

Steadfast Love

Faithfulness

Righteousness like the Mountains

Judgment like the Great Deep

A refuge in which ALL PEOPLE may find shelter

By recording and enlarging these sacred details, the psalmist refuses to let God vanish in a world so full of heartache. The psalmist defiantly lifts up that which counters the insanity, grief, tragedy and evil of the world in which we live.

People of faith do the same every time we gather for worship. Have you ever thought of worship as an act of rebellion? I mean really, how dare we gather to read the psalmist’s words out loud, to pray bold prayers for peace, to sing hymns of hope when all that is taking place out there? It’s kind of crazy, really. But God will not vanish as long as God’s people gather to speak God into this world.

2301691623_7d9f87ac31_oWith the state of the church today—which is a state of rapid decline—I oftentimes think to myself where Christianity would be without the church? Or even, where Jesus would be without the church? If no one is gathering anymore to read the scripture, to sing the hymns, to pray the prayers and build the Body of Christ, then where does that leave Christ? I know this is kind of radical, but consider with me this question: If the church vanishes, then would Christianity, maybe even Christ himself, vanish too?  I don’t know my answer to this question yet.  But I want to ask it.  Because I’m afraid God would vanish if God’s people do not speak and act and live God into existence.

So I guess I want to encourage an uprising—a revolt against all that is terrible and terrorizing.  I want us to rebel against the heartache. I want us to be enlarged, not diminished by the grief. I want us to counter the evil, hate and bigotry with steadfast love, and righteousness, and justice for ALL who are welcome into the fold of God’s refuge. I want us to be God’s poets, refusing to let God vanish by leaving a verbal record.

Who knows, maybe this could be the start of something big? We won’t know unless we try.  And I think God is hoping, maybe even depending upon us to try.

 

 

 

 

 

When Worship Works

4044933922_d27e258d54_bWorship doesn’t always work. It doesn’t work when your student pianist can’t get through a whole hymn verse without stopping and starting three times. Or when the toddler, who accidentally bumps his head, drowns out your sermon’s climactic crescendo with his screams. Or when your congregation, who faithfully shows up Sunday morning after a long weekend of mission projects, only has enough energy left to go through the motions. Worship experiences are certainly not all under our control.

I work hard at worship, though, because I believe it deserves my hard work. Nothing, in my mind, better inspires or better pulls a community together than good worship. Every year I tell my students that worship done well can transform a person’s faith. Worship done poorly can kill it.

In my position as Chaplain at Monmouth College my students and I lead weekly Chapel services all year long. In addition to these, we design and lead special services annually: Christmas Convocation, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and Baccalaureate. Seeing as the Baccalaureate Service is our church-related college’s premier worship moment, it gets planned a year in advance.

The planning process for this year’s Baccalaureate Service was particularly frustrating. We had lined up an amazing preacher—the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget—so we wanted an amazing worship service to surround her sermon. The Baccalaureate Planning Committee and I came up with all sorts of wild ideas at first. Special lighting effects. Flash mobs. Marching bands and drum lines. (The beginning brainstorming phase of worship planning, when no idea is a bad idea, is always fun.) When we narrowed our focus, though, and started hammering out the possibilities, we kept running into setback after setback. We can’t do this because so-and-so isn’t available. We can’t do this, because there isn’t enough time to rehearse. We can’t do this, because so-and-so has fallen into the abyss of final exams and end-of-the-year stress and is no longer responding to email. When the day of Baccalaureate arrived, I felt confident that what we had eventually planned would work. But I also knew that a whole host of things could go wrong.

In the end, it was beautiful—more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Things came together for this service that we didn’t plan. Emotions were evoked that we didn’t expect. Worship leaders rose to the occasion in ways that can only happen when they are inspired and feeding off the energy present in the room. I was honestly blown away.

And humbled. Clearly, what made this worship service work, was a divine guiding hand. Yes, good worship requires a lot of hard work, planning, and preparation. But it’s work that’s never about us. So when it comes time, after you as a leader have put in all that you have, the best thing to do is get out of the way.

God makes worship work.

[feature image: susanlloyd]

Writing Sex

romance31I’m attending a lot of panels here at AWP: a couple on social media, one on the contemplative writing of Thomas Merton, and one on writing the “occasion” poem (which inspired my forthcoming inauguration prayer.) All the panels I’ve attended have been really useful and informative, so yesterday I decided to attend something completely different. I attended a panel called, “No Shame: Sex Scenes by Women, About Women.” Clearly, I was not going to get any good sermon material here. I just went into the panel open and without expectation. And I chose a seat in the back, hoping there wouldn’t be any required audience participation.

Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of the best panels I attended. To set the scene, it was standing room only. The convention hall room was full of women. We sat shoulder to shoulder in rows of uncomfortable chairs. There must have been about two hundred of us crammed in there. No one looked liked a sexual deviant. In fact, most of the women looked a lot like me (see yesterday’s post about the boring gray dress slacks with the black blouse.) There were a few men scattered in the room, but (good for them) they kept quiet and let the women hold forth. The presenters were all amazing; strong, courageous, smart, witty women who spoke frankly about the role of sex scenes in good literature. (We’re not talking erotica here, folks.) The takeaway theme of the panel was that it’s never just about the sex in literature.

In fact, the panel was more a discussion about the messages our culture sends women about sex and sexuality. The most retweeted quote (yes, I tweet now!) from the panel was, “Sex is often about power, and female sexuality is too—and female power often makes people anxious.” One of the presenters shared how after her mother-in-law read her novel, which included a few fictitious sex scenes, mother-in-law called her husband to tell him that his wife was obviously a sexual deviant who must be molesting his children. To her credit, the presenter refused to let mother-in-law shame her and she kept on writing. But shame seems to be the name of the game when women talk sex.

In the discussion that followed the panelists’ presentation many confessed to their sexual shame and their need for liberation. Typically, the stories included messages of shame that were received early (between eight to twelve years old) and then kept up for a lifetime by a culture ill at ease with a woman’s sexuality. Listening to these stories unfold, I couldn’t help but think about how the Church has been the main supplier of this sexual shame. Maybe we should have a panel discussion too.

In a lighter moment, a woman shared that she was too worried to write about sex for fear of what her family and friends might think. To which one of the presenters replied, “It’s time to stop worrying about whether people like you or not. We’re grown ass adults. Pack that away.”

Obviously, there was lots of hilarity in between the meaningful discussion. One presenter rattled off a seriously long list of clichés, words to avoid when writing the literary sex scene. The list included: gazongas, bodacious bosoms, family jewels, ta-tas, tube sticks, penis fly-traps…(there were more, but I was laughing so hard at this point I couldn’t write.)

Finally, there was a sense of camaraderie in the room by the end of the discussion—or to use a more churchy word—a sense of community. I had turned to my neighbor sitting to my right and my left numerous times during the course of the panel to share a laugh or an appreciative nod. We were no longer strangers. We had bonded over a subject that is important to all of us, and yet one that we rarely have the freedom to talk about. Maybe we should talk some more? Maybe we could find ways to celebrate our sexuality, rather than shame? Maybe we could be more like Fred Rogers who, in my book, wins the prize for the best non-anxious description of the way God made us. “Boys are fancy on the outside. Girls are fancy on the inside.” (Tweet this.)

Out of My Zone: A Pastor Attends AWP

I decided to stand out today as I got dressed for my first AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). So I pulled on my gray wool dress pants, black ballet flats and a black blouse. When I registered yesterday I noticed a lot of body piercings, black framed eye-glasses, leggings and boots (Doc Marten style.) I rode the elevator with a plus-size woman in ripped (on purpose, I think) black nylons underneath a pair of black denim short-shorts. Later, I noticed a man with a necklace of large bones. A presenter at my first panel wore denim and a red baseball cap with the rim flipped up. Am I cool enough to be here? I thought to myself as I settled into a comfortable seat in the middle.

There are plenty of people here who look like me, but this isn’t a church conference. I went to Hell’s Kitchen last night for dinner. I would have done this at a church conference, but it would have been ironic and silly. Not so at AWP. There’s a giant Craft Bar in the middle of the convention center where we are attending panels. At the church conference, this would be where I would go to learn new art to make with the kids in Sunday School. Here at AWP, this is where I buy beer. I think they were open this morning.

Everyone’s been so welcoming. I spoke to Susan Ito of LiteraryMama after her panel presentation. She was so nice and encouraged me to blog more and to get on Twitter. I visited my friend, Michael Morse, at Canarium Press’ table, to buy his new book of poetry, “Void and Compensation.” They had a great deal, three books of poetry for $30.  So I asked the publishers which of their poets would be best to quote in a sermon.  It took them a minute to register my unfamiliar question before responding that it depended on my congregation. I told them I was a college chaplain, so I could be pretty edgy.  “Oh!” they exclaimed. “Well, then, here you go!” And they quickly filled my arms with new books.

Needless to say, I’m having a ball. This is just the kind of conference I have needed for encouragement and new connections. I hope to blog more about it soon. But now I’m off to begin my foray into the world of Tweet and Twitter. (It’s sounds so cute, how hard could it be?)

A New Mantra: No Big Deal

183246_8db2604dfcbb2b58ffa0dee311ffb14b_largeI preached a dog of a sermon this past Sunday. Walking that dog for fifteen minutes in front of my small congregation was exhausting. I was working hard to connect—but since I was disconnected from my sermon, so was the congregation. Some people politely feigned attention, which I appreciated. Others stared out the church windows or whispered to their neighbors. A couple of teenagers in the back snickered and poked at each other. I’d wanted more time to work on another writing project, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pull out an old sermon to preach. The sermon I chose for this past Sunday wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t me. I’d written it in 2005 when I was an entirely different preacher. So the whole experience was tired and lifeless. Immediately after finishing I thought to myself, “I never want to do this again.”

Normally, such a preaching failure would send me spiraling down into despair. Afterwards I would wallow around in a depressive state and repeatedly ask my husband for words of encouragement to help build me back up. This Sunday was different, though, because of a new spiritual practice.

I’ve been re-reading Pema Chödrön’s book How to Meditate over my winter break and found myself drawn into what Pema describes as one of her biggest teachings from her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. About this important lesson, Pema writes:

I remember one time going to [Rinpoche] with what I thought was a very powerful experience from my practice. I was all excited, and as I was telling him about this experience, he had a look. It was a kind of indescribable look, a very open look. You couldn’t call it compassionate or judgmental or anything. And as I was telling him about this, he touched my hand and said, “No…big…deal.” He wasn’t saying “bad,” and he wasn’t saying “good.” He was saying that these things happen and they can transform your life, but at the same time don’t make too big a deal of them, because that leads to arrogance and pride, or a sense of specialness. On the other hand, making too big a deal about your difficulties takes you in the other direction; it takes you into poverty, self-denigration, and a low opinion of yourself.”[1]

When I came to this lesson in my reading, I was writing a sermon to be published in a journal for preachers. I was excited about this sermon as well as the opportunity to have it published. When I get excited about something, my enthusiasm has a tendency to consume me. It’s all I can think about. Then my imagination leads me to some grand delusions where I do start to feel awfully “special.” So Pema’s words resonated with me, even as they confused me. Wasn’t it okay for me to get excited? I’m a very enthusiastic person. Wasn’t it okay for me to feel joy in what I am doing and experiencing? As I lived into the “no big deal” mantra, though, I came to understand it’s wisdom and it’s power.

I ended up writing a better sermon for the journal because whenever I started to picture other people reading it, or to imagine the positive attention, fame, fortune (Ha!) that might come of it, I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—which led me to be more real, more playful, and more honest in my writing.

After preaching my dog of a sermon this past Sunday, I repeated my new mantra. When I felt myself spiraling down into my typical state of self-denigration I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—and locked myself in my bedroom for about ten minutes of quiet meditation. After this tiny bit of practice, I was able to let go of my “preacher’s despair” more successfully than I ever had before.

Through the use of this new mantra, I find myself seeking a sense of equanimity, or a state of spiritual balance. Swinging from the extremes of high-flying excitement or depressive denigration will only lead me to self-denial, life-denial, and suffering. It won’t be good for anyone around me, either. To be fully present in this moment, though, to be spiritually, psychologically, and physically balanced, is the path to a healthy, whole, and happy life.

 

 

[1] Pema Chodron, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, (Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 2013), pp. 13.

Dear Church, Please Add Salt

salt-in-evaporator“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” Matthew 5:13

There is a deadly threat looming over the church today.  It’s a threat greater than any theological or denominational difference, greater than any intra-church fighting or political battle, greater than society’s cultural shift towards the more secular.  It’s a threat that the church isn’t talking about because 1. it’s hard to recognize from within and 2. it’s the kind of thing you don’t talk about because it’s actually really insulting.

The threat is that the church has become really boring.

I know this may sound insulting, but I feel like I am in a good position to say this since I love the church and I am a part of her…and because I oftentimes find myself being boring too.  I mean, heck, you just need to look at me:

  • I dress predominantly in grey or black.
  • I am a white, middle-upper class girl who grew up in suburbia.
  • I’ve always been the “good kid”
  • I’ve never smoked pot.
  • I go to bed at 9:30pm.
  • My idea of a perfect evening is to be ALONE with a good book and a hot cup of tea.

I have to work really hard NOT to be as boring as I really am—especially when I preach.  Preaching isn’t that hard.  Anybody can do it, really.  Preaching well, though?  Preaching in a way that is interesting?  Now that’s a lot of work.  And I certainly don’t always succeed.  There was a man in my congregation in North Carolina who fell asleep every time I got in the pulpit.  Seriously…I would just open my mouth and I’d see him start to nod off.  I told myself that he must have narcolepsy or something.  It was my only solace.

Not being boring is hard work….but what I am finding in my ministry and as I make my way through life…..is that it is essential work to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  Just listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples again.  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the flavor.  You are the spice that wakes food up.  You are the counter to bland.  You are the preserver of fresh!   Does this, my friends, sound like the church to you?  Maybe in some cases.  But I must admit a growing frustration with the church as I travel and preach.  And my frustration is that we all seem to look and sound the same.  We congregate in churches where we are around people who are like us—people who worship in the style we like to worship, people whose lives mirror our own, people whose issues are our issues.  We all have the same hang ups – we can’t talk about sex, or politics, or money very well because those topics aren’t polite and we Christians are very polite.  At the highest level of our church’s governance, all the denominations are fighting the same battles…gay marriage, women in leadership, abortion, peace.  But rarely do these important debates trickle down to the local congregations. Locally, our battles are the same too.  Every church I know has fought over the color of the carpet to be replaced, how much money should be devoted to the mission fund vs. the building fund, and whether the pastor should stay or go.  In light of all this it feels to me like the church has simply become predictable.

Which, according to Jesus, is a very dangerous state of being.  If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

I started to think about these words from Jesus in a new way while reading a book on writing by the poet Stephen Dunn.  Dunn writes that the “burden of the writer is to somehow keep alive and vital amid all that’s dangerous and deadening in the world, and this is difficult wherever one is.”[1]

Dunn then quotes a poem by Theodore Roethke called “Dolor” (a word that means a state of great sorrow or distress.)

“I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,

Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,

Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,

Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,

Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate gray standard faces.”[2]

Not to become one of Roethke’s “duplicate gray standard faces” takes vigilance, Dunn writes.  We must guard against this danger to our vitality.  We must look around with prophetic eyes and put on our spectacles of truth in order to see where the dust is falling.  Have we been standing in the same place for too long? Has life become an endless Walmart checkout line?  Have we moved forward, developed or grown?  Because if we haven’t, something must be done.  This is not life well lived.  This is the life of the walking dead.

So what do Christ’s disciples need to do in order to guard the church against this loss of vitality, this life of the walking dead?  Who do Christ’s disciples need to be to be the salt of the earth?

Each disciple needs to answer these questions for him or herself.  But I can tell you about my experience.  Two come to mind.  The first being the time I decided to preach a sermon series at my church in North Carolina on difficult texts and issues.  It was my husband’s idea really. (He’s always doing this to me.)  I wanted to do a series but I couldn’t decide on a topic that interested me enough, or that would interest my congregation.  Dan suggested the difficult texts and topics, which scared me to death.  But admittedly, it was interesting.  So I ended up preaching on Cain and Abel, which turned into a sermon about capital punishment.  And I preached on the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, because it is a story I have never been able to justify—and I decided not to justify it in my sermon, only point out its problems.  And then I preached on homosexuality—a topic I had always avoided as a liberal Christian living in the bible belt.

Each sermon in this series was an extraordinary challenge.  My fear and anxiety over tackling these topics motivated me to work harder than I ever had.  My goal was to preach in a way that could be heard by all, even if they disagreed.

In the end, this became one of my finest experiences of the church. My congregation came alive with energy and attentiveness.  Our discussions about the topics lasted long after Sunday morning worship.  No one told me I shouldn’t have done it.  Everyone seemed to agree that the church should be discussing issues that matter—even if those issues were controversial.

My other experience is one that is still ongoing.  I have recently reawakened my passion for writing.  Since moving here I started attending the Iowa Writer’s Festival in Iowa City each summer. There I have discovered that the “writers world” is much bigger and much more diverse than my “Presbyterian Church world” and that the church can learn a lot from writers—particularly poets.  In order to be a successful poet, a writer must walk through life paying close attention, mindful of the details, the nuances, the complexities of everything.  When the poet puts pen to paper, he or she needs to write about life in a way that is not cliché, or stale, or (the worst) predictable.  Instead the poet must write to be surprised.  There should be a point of discovery in every poem—a discovery that will be meaningful and memorable to the reader.

Now I have a poet for a writing coach.  I send her every sermon and she sends them back full of red ink.  She calls me on my overly abstract, “churchy” language and tells me to speak directly to the people in the pews.  She pushes me, and pushes me, until I find my way to a new discovery.  She tells me to be specific, to give people an image to hold on to, to use more concrete details.

All of this has been extremely helpful in my quest to be Jesus’ salt. So I do not broach the topic of how boring the church has become today without hope.  The opportunities to be alive and vital as the Body of Christ are limitless.  But we in the church must:

  • Be vigilant, to guard against the dust that is falling, asking ourselves questions like: What are we doing just for the sake of doing it?  What has lost its meaning?  Where have we grown numb?  What practices, programs, even doctrines, are we perpetuating simply because this is what we know, this is comfortable, this is the way it has always been done?
  • Subject ourselves to feedback and constructive criticism from those who know things we wish to learn.
  • Speak about issues that matter–whether it be gay marriage, or the power of money or the growing diversity of our community.
  • Reveal to the world that there are still discoveries to be found within Christ’s body and among his people—reveal to the world that we are not the walking dead.

We in the church bemoan her decline. We wonder how we can attract new members—young people! children!—and then keep them.  We cry foul at a world and a society that doesn’t much care.  And yet what are we doing that is different?  How do we feel about change?  What risks are we, who love and cherish the church, willing to take?


[1] Stephen Dunn, Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry, (BOA Editions, Ltd., Rochester, NY, 2001) pg. 141.

[2] Ibid, pg. 84.

Death of a Preacher

Plenert_CJ-Funeral-1aThe grandson’s voice was hesitant on the phone.  He was calling on behalf of his grandmother who expected her preacher husband to be buried in the quiet cemetery behind the first church he had served decades ago.  I was the pastor now.

Perhaps the widow assumed I was younger and less experienced than I looked.  Perhaps it was the pain of her grief that led her to condescend when she informed me I was not to preach at her husband’s funeral, just read the scriptures (which had already been chosen, she said.)  She must be so sad, I thought to myself.  I said nothing of the disrespect.

So the church gathered on a Saturday to surround the widow with love.  She sat in the front pew, a tiny mite of a woman with sharp, steely eyes, in a dark blue dress. As I read her required scriptures I tried to read her face.  She did not look at me once.  Did she know what was happening?  Did she know he was gone?  I prayed for her and her family then raised my hands for the benediction.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Ralph. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.  Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Then her eyes were on me.  I couldn’t interpret her stare, so I kept reading.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, remain with you always.  Amen.

The organ piped in the postlude and we processed to the cemetery where I buried her husband beneath the shade of our church’s giant oaks.  Afterwards, the church members served a meal to the family of their old preacher, whom they barely remembered.  I lingered to eat and chat in spite of the sermon for Sunday that still lay unfinished in a messy pile on my desk.

Anxious to leave, I crouched next to the chair of the old widow, in a gesture of respect for her loss, and squeezed her hand before saying a few words of goodbye.  She turned and said something that got lost in the din of conversations echoing against the cinder blocks of the church’s fellowship hall.  So I leaned in to listen.  What I expected were words of gratitude for the kindness shown, words of apology for pulling me away from my family on a warm, sunny, Saturday afternoon, or words of explanation as to why I had yet to receive a check.  The widow leaned in too, her finger raised. Her eyes clearly fixed on my own.

“Next time,” she said, “you memorize that benediction.”

 

 

Stuck in Sheol, the Place of the Dead

fear_of_drowning_by_starfishyy-d5cqnvkTwo Sundays ago we had fifty-five students come over to our college’s Presbyterian House for our first program of the year.  It was great.  We made ice cream sundaes, sat around in the grass, and listened to live music. After a little while, I led a brief devotion.  To match the casual tone of the evening, I wanted our devotion to be somewhat interactive and extemporaneous.  I had a scripture story in mind, but I didn’t plan out exactly what I was going to say.  It went pretty well, I noticed the students were with me, paying attention, until the end, when I just sort of lost my train of thought and rambled on for a little while…about, basically, nothing.  It wasn’t my best.  This was confirmed for me when I got home and asked my honest husband how I did.  “It was good,” he said, “but you were kind of repetitive and rambly.”  Sigh. (He might have said this more gently, but all I heard was repetitive and rambly.)

This really got me down.  I was disappointed in myself, disappointed in what I saw was a missed opportunity to speak meaningful words into the lives of so many college students.  Repetitive and rambly….great….college students love repetitive and rambly.  Way to go, Teri.  For the rest of the night on Sunday and all the next Monday, I couldn’t get rid of this feeling of disappointment.  I obsessively replayed the devotion in my head thinking of all the brilliant things I could have and should have said.  I kept wallowing in this failure to do my very best.  I got stuck in a bad place, a real funk.

I was still stuck in this bad place when I began to prepare for a sermon I was to preach on Psalm 139.  But as I began to read the psalmists words I was comforted to recognize myself; I recognized the highs and the lows of human life, the mood swings, and the dark places. The psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?” He asks because he’s been swinging to the highest of the heavens and then falling to the depths of Sheol…he’s taken flight to bright sunny places of light….and then fallen into the darkness which covers him like the night.  See?  I’m not the only crazy one.  The psalmist’s a manic depressive too!

Seriously, though, this is really us, isn’t it?  The psalmists always do a great job of shedding light on the human condition.  What really bothered me, though, was how stuck I could get in that bad, funky place (I’ll refer to it as my place of Sheol) and how hard it is for me to get out.  Sheol for the ancient Jews was the place of the dead.  It was where everyone went when they died, a good metaphor, then, for my dark mood because I don’t know life when I am in that place.

When I was a teenager my parents took my brother and me on a big family vacation to Hawaii.  It was wonderful, except for one particular trip to the beach when we decided to go boogie-boarding on some of the island’s big waves.  The waves were huge and powerful.  I had no idea how powerful, actually, until I was in the midst of them.  Then, somehow (I don’t remember how it happened) I was under them…underwater….under the waves….underneath this huge powerful force pushing me down deeper and deeper until I felt the sand at the bottom of the ocean.  I remember the sand.  I remember trying to push off the sand.  I remember trying to lift myself up off the ocean floor, trying to swim up so I could breathe, but the waves were simply too powerful. I thought I was dying.  But, eventually, the waves receded, the weight let up, and I was able to get my head up out of the water.  Oxygen filled my empty lungs.  It was like I was released, or set free.

Being crushed underneath the weight of those waves, being stuck there on the bottom of the ocean in that place of darkness, and death, the lack of oxygen, all of it was Sheol.  This is what Sheol still feels like for me. It pushes me down and keeps me down and cuts me off from life.

The good news of Psalm 139, though, is that God is everywhere, even in Sheol. We cannot flee, or fly, or wander, or cut and run.  God knows us, intuits our every move, pursues us no matter where we go. God is everywhere we are.  But we forget this.  (Or at least I do.)  I doubt it because it feels dubious.  God doesn’t always feel so close.

God didn’t feel close when I was in that dark mood last Monday…until I opened the scriptures and started contemplating what I might say in my sermon on Psalm 139.  I was drawn to verse 8, curious to learn more about Sheol.  Learning led to recognition.  Recognition led to insight.  Insight led to intention.  And I went and sat on my meditation mat to remember what it felt like to be in the presence of God.

And afterwards, I wasn’t so dark and funky.  My gosh, I thought, there were fifty-five students at the Presbyterian House that night, and I’m feeling disappointed?  We had a great time!  I met great students.  We had international students, and athletes, and musicians. Our neighbors, the AXD’s, came over and brought more tables and chairs.  We ran out of spoons and laughed about Taylor’s fear that the real ones might get thrown away. We shared with each other and opened up about the stress we were feeling here at the beginning of the year.  Yeah, I might have been a little repetitive and rambly.  But, seriously, signs of life were all around me!

So I’m not one of those Christians who believes God magically fixes stuff.  There’s too much complicated crap happening in the world today that could use a good magic fix if that was God’s modus operandi.  Instead, God, for me, is more of a liberating force, a presence that when I stop and intentionally seek God out, I am set free from a lot that is troubling me, I am made aware once again of the life and the beauty and the goodness that surrounds me, and I am awakened to my own best self.  I may at times make my bed in Sheol, but I am not stuck because God is there, too.