Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Mark Twain’s Midrash on the Creation Story

“Ooh, it’s cold!  If only I had a few leaves to wear.” – Twain’s illustration, my midrash.

Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve has been a fun and easy read here at a friend’s ranch in Calistoga, California, where I’m enjoying a few more days of vacation.  Twain wrote it in his later years, and it is a wonderful bit of midrash on the biblical story of creation and the Fall, as well as men and women and our enduring inability to understand one another.  You might call it a cleverer version of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Strikingly, Twain seems to sympathize more with Eve than with Adam.  If Adam is a bit of a slow learner and a dolt when it comes to his newfound companion, preferring to sit around and smoke cigars on the Sabbath, Eve is a precocious explorer, waxing philosophical between occasional fits of emotion.  In short, Eve is much more interesting.  Whereas Twain attributes Adam’s eating of the apple to hunger and stupidity, Twain seems to imply that an insatiable curiosity, desire to please Adam and love of the beautiful are the source of Eve’s undoing.

Here is Eve after marveling at the moon:  “…I already being to realize that the core and centre of my nature is love of the beautiful, and that it would not be safe to trust me with a moon that belonged to another person and that person didn’t know I had it.  I could give up a moon that I found in the daytime, because I should be afraid some one was looking; but if I found it in the dark, I am sure I should find some kind of an excuse for not saying anything about it.”  Then later this:  “At first I couldn’t make out what I was made for, but now I think it was to search out the secrets of this wonderful world and be happy and thank the Giver of it all for devising it.”

If the lesson here is that even our noblest, most lovely, human impulses can be the very things that undo us, it is also this (as underlined in both Adam and Eve’s observations): that living in companionship outside the garden after the Fall is better than living alone inside the garden (the pre-Fall paradise).

 

The Resurrection and The Life: A Sermon

“Resurrection? You got to be kidding me!”
Martha from the Isabella Breviary, 1497

This past Sunday I had the joy and privilege of joining in worship with the people of Old First Presbyterian in downtown San Francisco.  The following sermon belongs to our ongoing series, Jesus Epithets:  All the Names Jesus Gets Called in Scripture, and takes as its inspiration John 11:17-27 and Isaiah 65:17-25.

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” – John 11:17-27

Lazarus has already been dead now for four days. His sisters, Mary and Martha, have been going through all the customary motions of grief. The burial on the day of death. The long procession to the tomb. An even longer procession of empty-sounding words- all those well-meaning expressions of sympathy that can ring a bit hollow in the immediate clutches of great loss:

I’m so sorry for your loss.
 Let us know if there’s anything we can do.
 He’s no longer in pain.
 He knew the Lord, so he’s in a better place now.

Imagine with me for a moment that you’re Martha. Can you picture the scene? Tearful hugs and empty Kleenex boxes. Flowers and more flowers on the kitchen table. Hordes of family you haven’t seen in ages, including crazy, old Aunt Ethel. The last time you saw her she was stockpiling her purse with a second, embarrassingly large portion of meatloaf and corn muffins in the buffet line at Golden Corral. (Note to self: avoid cafeteria restaurants…)

But, oh no!, that reminds you- because when you’re Martha you’re always thinking of what needs to be done- there is still the reception for the memorial service to worry about and the caterer to call and the menu to review. Mini pigs in a blanket? Probably not. Artichoke and goat cheese crudité or tomato bruschetta? Maybe…

But, I don’t know. Do I have a choice?, you wonder?  What else is on offer?

What about a world in which loved ones don’t get sick and die? What about a world in which God actually lives up to God’s side of the bargain? What about a world in which a dear friend like Jesus who is supposed to be the Messiah, the very Son of God, shows up when it matters- when something could still have been done, when healing and recovery weren’t so out-of-this-world impossible?

Martha would rather have ordered that instead. In fact she’s already tried. Four days ago when Lazarus was in a bad way but still alive, Martha had dialed the 1-800-HELP number for God; she had pressed “send” in her g-mail account; she was sure God had gotten the message.

But God hadn’t come. God hadn’t even replied to say God had other, bigger, more pressing things to attend to, like putting out wars or rescuing the oppressed. The promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which weeping is no longer, in which the labor of our hands is not in vain, in which bad things don’t happen to good people? All this was supposed to be on the menu, or so Martha had thought, because God loved her, because she and God had been extra chummy, because God in Jesus was doing a new thing for this broken world full of broken people.

But now Martha is choosing finger foods instead for the memorial service reception; and if truth be told, Martha would still take a second chance for Lazarus over artichoke and goat cheese crudité any day.

“If only God had shown up in time,” she’s saying, like everybody else who knew and loved Lazarus.

Because when Jesus finally does show up on the scene, when he comes to Martha and says, “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus’ arrival seems too little, too late. And, maybe we can forgive Martha for dismissing Jesus’ words to her as yet another empty expression of sympathy, much in the same category as “your brother’s in a better place now.” Because Martha, like most Jews in her time, is accustomed to believing in some distant future resurrection. She knows by heart all the religious code language. If she were here today, she’d be used to reciting the Apostles’ Creed each week. “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

The resurrection of the body and life everlasting. It is in there after all. We mouth the words every week. And Martha knows the drill. She knows all the religiously clad niceties and to nod in agreement at them. She knows not to question polite expressions that “all will be well” someday even when inside she’s going to pieces. Martha can appreciate the utility of placating others with their own assurance that “this too shall pass,” even if there seems no immediate end in sight to the pain and the tears.

If the resurrection of the dead is some far-off reality that Martha can’t really see or touch or imagine, if it does little to comfort her now, Martha will at least lip sync her faith like most everyone else. She’ll at least stand in the receiving line for Communion. She’ll at least pretend that she really buys all the code language.

I suspect that those of us who have spent any period of time in the traditionally more churched and church-going South can identify with Martha. Some of you may be familiar with the joke about the difference between a Northern fairytale and a Southern fairytale? A Northern fairytale begins, “Once upon a time.” A Southern fairytale? “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this shit!”

But if expressive melodrama is the stuff of Southern fairytale, I venture to guess that most of us in the church, regardless of where we come from, are a little more tight-lipped and refined when it comes to airing our deepest, real-life doubts and griefs. At least in “holy” places like this one.

Resurrection of the dead? When you’ve settled into your grief for a while, when you’ve learned to accept life’s disappointments with a kind of sad but pragmatic resignation, when you’ve come to see that so much of life is learning over time to let go in the face of loss of one sort or another, “resurrection” can sound a bit concocted or artificial. Maybe even like just another retail gimmick.

The other day I happened by the Macy’s Estee Lauder cosmetics counter. The sales lady, in addition to insisting that I sit for a full make-over, was all the while singing the praises of the latest in Estee Lauder skin products. Estee Lauder’s nightly repair serum had done wonders for her skin and would for mine. Those under-eye wrinkles? Those stress lines? Those sun spots? They didn’t have to be the final story. With Estee Lauder’s nightly repair serum, I would be resurrected to a more youthful looking version of myself. (And if you have to know, she convinced me.) “Resurrection” was standing right in front of me in the shape of a very expensive, fancy-looking, one-ounce bottle, and I believed it.

But when “resurrection” is standing right in front of you in the form of a person, a person who says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” a person who has healed all sorts of strangers but then failed to show up for his own friends- you and your brother, Lazarus- you might not be such a sucker. You might not be eagerly grabbing for your wallet to learn that the price is simply believing.

Because we, like Martha, can catch on pretty quickly that life manages to go on in the face of death. Often mind-numbingly so. Often without rhyme or reason. If it’s not the loss of a dear friend or family member, there are all those “mini” deaths to contend with. The child we once thought had a bright future struck down by a life-threatening addiction. The relationship we once believed to be a storybook romance now in pieces. The mass lay-off at work in the job we thought we were to retire in. The untimely diagnosis of cancer. We all have our often hidden griefs to bear- those things that over time we have learned to hold quietly to ourselves. It’s hard to imagine resurrection in these places where we find ourselves saying with Martha, “if only, God.”

But many of us also know the end of this story. If Martha has reason to doubt that Jesus signifies new life in the immediate moment, the kind of spiritual rebirth that defies even death itself and will one day be embodied in a new, perfected, physical body for ourselves and for all creation, then in just a little while Martha will be obliged to change her mind. First she’ll watch Jesus become so greatly troubled- “angered” the original Greek implies- by a world in which people have to die. Then she’ll watch as Jesus in the presence of many onlookers commands Lazarus to come out of his tomb. And then the most mind-blowing, earth-shattering thing of all will happen: she’ll watch as Lazarus obeys Jesus and does in fact stumble out, as if waking from a long sleep and rubbing his eyes while accustoming himself to the light, his burial garments still clinging to his skin like a dummy come back to life.

And then and there Martha will see that there really is reason to believe that in Jesus are fulfilled all the promises of old of the prophet Isaiah. Promises of a new heaven and a new earth. Promises of a dwelling place in which weeping and suffering and death are no more, where all is put right with our broken world.

And then Martha won’t have to mouth her belief in just some theory about some distant resurrection of the dead, because then and there her theory will come to life. Like those old, dry bones the prophet Ezekiel speaks of: all those lessons she learned in Sunday school will become a living, breathing, flesh-and-bone reality.

Because when Jesus says He is the Resurrection and the Life, He is saying that God’s very nature is one of second chances. That God is as dependable as the dawning of each new day when it comes to offering us newness of life in each and every moment. And, these little spiritual rebirths are but a foretaste of a day when in God’s perfect timing the dead shall rise, when all of our paths shall be made straight, and when God’s seal of grace and truth and unending life will finally and decisively set itself upon our wayward hearts, like a lover with a long-awaited beloved.

Belief in this context is little more than surrendering. Surrendering to God’s economy of grace. Accepting that, as the poet T.S. Eliot puts it, “in my end is my beginning.”

Belief here means letting go of one’s expectations for how God should work, because resurrection never happens apart from God’s timing and on God’s own terms. And God’s timing and God’s terms, as Martha will soon discover, don’t abide by our “I-must-have-it-now” culture of instant gratification.

Frank Partnoy, a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego School of Law, has written a book titled, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, in which Partnoy makes the case that learning how to manage delay, or what some of us would call “procrastination,” is one of the most important lessons in life. People who can learn to wait for good things will be happier and more fulfilled, and will make better decisions, Partnoy believes.

I suspect many of us have wondered like Martha why God procrastinates so much when it comes to our own agendas. But I’m guessing this is also because God is simply a whole lot better than we are at managing delay. Maybe we, like Martha, must discover why God’s delayed ways are so far superior to our own hasty ones.

Because if resurrection is central to the very character of God, it is also entirely an act of God to which we can only surrender at any given moment.

A friend of mine who worked twelve years as a correction officer in a juvenile rehabilitation center in Kansas City, Missouri was sharing some of her stories with me the other day. I asked her what it was that kept her going in what would seem like a depressing job in one of our nation’s most depressed regions. (Kansas City apparently boasts one of the highest rates of black-on-black, inner-city violence in this country).

By way of example my friend shared her story of one boy who by the age of fourteen had spent years on the street as a hardened gang member. One day this boy, who according to my friend was not a small boy, became belligerent. My friend, seeking to restrain the boy, had grabbed him in an iron-tight bear hold. In those few, tense moments, as she stood there holding a kid who had seen far more of his fair share of death and violence in his young life, who by common parlance in my friend’s line of work was a useless “throwaway” to his parents and a ward of the state…in those moments as she held this kid who had probably not been hugged in a very long time, my friend’s heart opened and her grip on the boy relaxed. There they stood, locked in a great, big bear hug, my friend and this rough and tough kid who began to sob like a scared, little baby who just wanted for once to be held and told everything would be alright.

Resurrection. Resurrection for Martha. Resurrection for a no-nonsense correction officer and a hardened, under-age criminal. Resurrection for you and for me, too, whatever your circumstances. On God’s terms. At God’s time.

What that resurrection will look like from one person to another will vary as wildly as our circumstances this morning. Imagine with me today just one of the many possible scenarios.

Maybe you’re alone, and the old siren call is stronger than it has been in a long while. It’s telling you that you’ll never amount to anything, that you’re doomed to past mistakes and bad habits that have told you who you are for so long, that a drink or two will solve all that. The first of two remaining beers in the fridge goes down so quickly and so smoothly. And then the second. The siren call is now sounding stronger, so you’re grabbing your keys to head to the liquor store, but then the doorbell rings. You wonder momentarily whether to answer it, but then you do, and a friendly man greets you with a smile and a firm handshake. He has some materials about a charity for handicapped children.

“Could you make a donation?,” he’s asking. “Even $20 will do.”

And so you do. You write a check and you thank him for coming, and then you shut the door, and you say to yourself, “I don’t need a drink after all.”

Something in this exchange with another human being, in the simple act of showing love and in the gratitude of the recipient, awakens you once more to the serendipitous possibilities for new life that God in Jesus is holding out to you. At any given moment. New life that tastes and satisfies so much better than that can of beer in the fridge. New life that descends on your head like flames of fire, burning away all your residual griefs and what if’s and wooden pronouncements about a distant, happily ever-after, fairytale ending; summoning you instead into the presence and promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which each new day- each new moment even- can be an encounter with the One who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life.
Amen.

Benediction: And now as you leave this place, may you go as a people who believe in resurrection and live like it, because of the One who gave Himself for us so that we might have life and have it abundantly. Amen.

The Discipline of Vacation

If you hear less from me over the next ten days, it is because I’ll be mostly vacationing with family and friends first in Albuquerque and San Francisco, and then, sans children, in Napa Valley.  I’m still trying to figure out whether I should even take my lap top.  As much as I love you all, and as much as seeing your visits from all around the country and the world light up my little live feed fills me with joy, I’m trying to cultivate a discipline of actually vacationing when I’m on vacation.

You will at least hear from me sometime after Sunday when I preach at friend and fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries’ church, Old First Presbyterian, in San Francisco.  The sermon, “The Resurrection and The Life,” will help round out our series, “Jesus Epithets: All the Names Jesus Gets Called in Scripture.”  It has been a fun sermon to write and deliver, and I pray it speaks to you, as it did me, in a meaningful way.

Off to pack!  Until we meet again at this intersection between life and God for anyone converted, unconverted, or under conversion, God speed and keep in touch!

 

Why the Dearth of Women Emerging Evangelists? An Interview with Matt Brown of Thinke

Matt Brown and his wife Michelle’s speaking ministry has taken them to the ends of the earth with thousands of people who have dedicated their lives to Christ through their live events. You can follow Matt on twitter.

Some of you probably recall that not long ago the Facebook page “Emerging Evangelists” gallery of exclusively male blogging evangelists (excepting a couple brave, smiling wives) elicited an outburst.  What was so “emerging” about an all-male club of evangelists in the 21st century, I wanted to know.  This seemed a bit “neanderthal” if you ask me.  (Okay, so Neanderthals probably didn’t have Billy Graham-style altar calls, but you get my drift- and the image is rich, don’t you think?  I can see some club raising and wild chest beating in response to the invitation to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.)

Matt Brown, who helped to found the network of blogging evangelists and is also founder and director of the organization, “Think Eternity,” has graciously responded to my inquiry and agreed to indulge me in a few questions about women and evangelism.  I would also add that Matt has an impressive bio, having authored several books, including Revolutionaries: Men and Women in Every Century Who Advanced Christianity.  Matt, thank you again for your time and thoughtfulness in engaging some of our questions.

How did you first sense a call to evangelism, and how are you living that out through the work to which you are called with Thinke?

Both my wife Michelle and I sensed a strong leading from God to evangelism when we were teenagers, before we ever met. It was amazing when we started dating years ago, and began to discuss what we felt God leading us to do, that he had pointed us in the same direction.

We have been speaking at churches full time for the past decade. I started this while I was in Bible College. Now, this is taking shape in unique ways as we have a significant amount of ministry taking place online through blogging and social media. Ultimately, we feel a strong leading towards proclamation evangelism through live events. In a similar way as Billy Graham and Luis Palau and many evangelists before them have done it. Partnering with cities and bringing denominations together for seasons of unified prayer and outreach.

How did “Emerging Evangelists” begin, and what is its purpose?

We started Emerging Evangelists as a blog site about 4 years ago, pulling along about four other young evangelists originally, from different corners of the country. We started initially to share blogs for those who sensed a call into vocational evangelism, but it has morphed into a site for every Christian, with bloggers sharing their hearts and encouragement to spread the Gospel all over the world.
It has grown organically based on relationships, and we now have 32 regular bloggers from many diverse backgrounds, all coming together around the Gospel.

How do you define “evangelism”?

Evangelism is doing what Jesus came to do. It is proclaiming the simple Gospel, and allowing God to work through us to get His message out to people He really cares about.

What distinguishes “emerging” evangelism from other forms of evangelism? Also, is there any association here between “emerging” and “emergent”?

Emerging is simply a word I used years ago to express our desire for evangelism and the evangelist to emerge from negative connotations into a more ancient, Biblical model. To emerge into what God has for it and for us. It is not associated with emergent church beliefs at all.

You have been very gracious to speak with me after my FB outburst regarding the noticeable absence of women’s faces in your network. You mentioned in an earlier conversation that you’ve tried unsuccessfully to invite women into your ranks. Why do you think this is so?

We’ve had several women ask about this, and I feel really bad that we don’t have any individual women bloggers yet. We do have Mindy Hirst, who often co-writes books and blogs with her husband Jon.  Honestly, the current bloggers have been mostly based off friendships I have, so we have been lacking in having great women bloggers. I have asked several who haven’t felt they could commit, and one of our biggest priorities right now is to pull on a few good women bloggers in the coming year. Praying this happens. I have run across a few great women bloggers lately; people like you, Nicole Cotrell, Ally Vesterfelt, Addie Zierman, Cissie Graham Lynch and others.

As a follow-up…has “evangelism” as we have historically associated it (Billy Graham altar calls, four-step tracts, revival meetings, etc.) been a more traditionally “masculine” function of the church- in which case your network, in its (as you put it) “organic” development, is simply witnessing this trend? OR, is the issue that these more “traditional” displays of evangelism tend to be made on behalf of churches that largely don’t recognize women’s ministerial calls?

I think evangelism and ministry leadership in general has historically been more a “masculine” function of the church at large, however, I have been surprised and impressed by shifts I’ve seen recently. Leading up to an outreach a few years ago, I noticed about 50% of the Lead Pastors in a nearby city were women pastors. A friend of ours, Justin Lathrop recently wrote about this in an article entitled “Your Church Staff Needs More Women.”

However, beyond leadership roles, women through history have carried the torch of spreading the Gospel as effectively as men. I wrote about women in Church history, like St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Hildengard of Bingen who consulted with Popes, were named Doctor of the Church, and Catherine Booth and Aimee Semple McPherson who made staggering impacts on the world. Urbana missions conference, typically attended by 20,000 young adults in Illinois every other year posted recently: “What is the place of women in world mission? Jesus said, ‘You – and the word means You, male and female – are my witnesses.’” – Elisabeth Elliot Leitch at Urbana 1973

Elizabeth Eliot at Urbana 1973 said this: “What is the place of women in world mission? Jesus said, ‘You – and the word means You, male and female – are my witnesses.’”

Do those within your network support or reject, for example, women in ordained ministry, and is this a related issue for you?

My wife is ordained in ministry, and we’ve always personally supported the idea of women in ordained ministry. One of the clear evidences of God’s approval on this, is the great impact so many women have had in reaching people for Christ, faithfully distilling the duties of the Church, and even ministering through blogging online. God is using women everywhere, in every generation to spread His message.

What are some ways that together we can be encouraging women with gifts of evangelism to live out their calls?

I don’t consider myself an expert in this arena, but my strong encouragement would be to do exactly what God is leading you to do. The world needs you to bring a message of hope about the grace and love of Christ! People will find Christ because of your faithfulness!

Got a question for Matt?  Leave it below.

Lessons from the Colorado Tragedy

Tom Sullivan, center, embraces family members outside Gateway High School where he has been searching franticly for his son Alex Sullivan who celebrated his 27th birthday by going to see “The Dark Knight Rises,” movie where a gunman opened fire Friday, July 20, 2012, in Aurora, Colo. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

The massacre at a movie cinema late Thursday night was a tragedy.

It can be a lesson, too.  The question is, a lesson about what exactly?  As usual, the devil is in the details.

In the days following a deranged gunman’s diabolical dress-up as the Joker, accompanied by a show-and-tell routine of live ammunition at a late night premiering of the Batman movie, we’ve seen various leaders and politicians come out with public statements about what we might learn from the events in question.  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney suspended their campaigns with statements urging prayer and reflection on what matters most in life.  Then there were Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert’s remarks that the incident was the result of “ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs” in this country- with the implication that less “persecuted” Christians in this country would have meant more gun-toting Christians at the cinema.  (It was not the first connection to come to mind for me, but maybe that’s why I’m not a politician…in Texas.)

Now I read this morning that the evangelical leader, Jerry Newcombe, of Truth In Action, is throwing in his two cents. In a segment on the American Family Association, Newcombe reportedly said this: “If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic, but really it is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place…on the other hand, if a person doesn’t know Jesus Christ… if they knowingly rejected Jesus Christ, then, basically, they are going to a terrible place.”

In other words, the non-Christians who did not make it out alive from Thursday’s massacre are burning in hell, and the families of the victims who were Christians should really be celebrating right now.

Some “Truth In Action” that is.  What really is “truth in action” anyway? A big, fiery, ball of hell coming at you at the speed of light, maybe.  A bit like when another believer approaches with the words,  “I’m telling you the truth in love,” only to throw a verbal hand grenade.  (A good rule of thumb here by the way, I find, is to duck.)

What lessons do I take away from this tragedy?

That lax gun laws that make it possible for a deluded young man to purchase thousands of rounds of ammunition over the Internet urgently need reform.

That an entertainment industry that makes its revenues marketing violence is reaping the fruit of its labor and has blood on its hands.

That evil is not some made-up “construct” that we see at work only in the Majority world, or in places where science has yet to fill in the gaps by way of some empirically tested explanation, but is in fact a prowling lion seeking to devour its prey (1 Peter 5:8).

That a troubled young man who could have used some help fell through the cracks with devastating results.

That our living and our dying are not up to us or in our own control, and in fact never have been despite the illusion.

That what matters most in life and death is something to give ourselves to now.  Today.  This moment.

That we err and do harm when we stand in the place of God, by making statements about why bad things happen to certain people in certain places.

That “truth” (if it is even that) unhinged from love sounds about as pleasant as a clanging cymbal or nails on a chalkboard.

These are some of my takeaways.  Maybe you have more.

But I would also like to believe that every human being sitting in that movie cinema, including the gunman, is in the hands of a just and loving God, and that they and their families, including the gunman’s church-going parents, are, in their time of mourning, those whom Jesus blesses (Matthew 5:4).  May it be so, I pray.  Amen.

 

 

 

Prayers in Wake of Colorado Tragedy

I’m struck this morning by the prescience of yesterday’s poem, coming as it did (without my knowledge at the time of posting it) in the wake of the tragedy that struck  late Thursday night at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado: “Life the hound, Equivocal, Comes at a bound, Either to rend me, Or to befriend me.”

Life…comes at a bound…either to rend me, or to befriend me.

For the lives now rent asunder by this senseless evil, O God, have mercy.  And, for the many lives around the world for whom random acts of violence not so unlike this one have become routine, we also pray.  Remake these broken shards of the fragile glass that is the stuff of all of our lives into something lastingly beautiful, O God with Us.  In your name we pray, Amen.

The Poetics of Faith

Fellow saint and sinner Molly Nicholson has shared this wonderful, little piece by the poet Robert Francis, which comes untitled:

Life the hound
Equivocal
Comes at a bound
Either to rend me
Or to befriend me.

I cannot tell
The hound’s intent
Till he has sprung
At my bare hand
… With teeth or tongue.
Meanwhile I stand
And wait the event.

The Meaning of Tradition and Why Church Families Do Such Weird Stuff

An aerial view of where I should be right now (Shelter Island, New York). If you look closely you may be able to make out a couple of Sunfish braving ferry wakes, shifting wind patterns and their competing crews’ trash talk.

This week some of my now very large, sprawling extended family took part in its annual “Robb Regatta” off of Shelter Island, an island off the eastern tip of Long Island, New York.  I regrettably couldn’t make it, but got to see some pictures.  And, it’s quite a show really.

The patriarch of our family, my granddad, whom we’ve affectionately dubbed “Admiral John,” began the annual tradition some twenty years ago now.  Small teams of two or three Robbs race out in Sunfish sailboats to a point somewhere in the Long Island Sound.  The bells and whistles involve (or have involved in previous years) an official weigh-in, to the great horror of the female members of our family- this, in an effort to achieve an exactingly fair distribution of weights in the various boats.  (The ritual almost single-handedly dissuaded a few of us aspiring female sailors from taking part when it first began.)  This process was in turn followed by some vying by teams for the female participants, whose lower weights promised a competitive advantage to the lucky boat that got them- with the result that this hardened sailor has spent many a regatta serving as a ballast while clinging to the bow, bailing out water and “preparing to come about” every ten minutes.

Then there are the hats and the T-shirts, inscribed with our names and “Kemah Yacht Club.” “Kemah” is a Native American word meaning “face into the wind.”  It is also the name of the historic sea captain’s house that my great grandfather bought in the 1930′s, which by now has seen many a Robb family reunion.

Following the race, there used to be an admiralty court at which competing interpretations of who won and who should be disqualified were argued before a presiding judge.  (An inevitability, I suppose, when there are so many lawyers in the family- or lawyers, period.)

Winners of the race usually would find their names and the year of the “Robb Regatta” inscribed on a dust-covered plaque on a mantle in the living room sometime before the next summer’s regatta, and before the letter of summons appeared in our mailbox, sent out by Admiral John with the dates of the next race and the highlights from the year before.

I remember my husband’s first initiation into this rather intimidating process when he and I were first dating.  He bravely endured the secret family vetting process. And the ribbing.  And the competitive bravado surrounding this admittedly “WASP” (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant) recreation of sailing.  (I would guess that Sunfish qualify as the “redneck” version of yachting, however.)  Somehow Paul survived, despite being conscripted rather reluctantly to serve as the dead-weight handicap for the team with the biggest competitive edge.

All in good fun, of course.

Remembering these moments this morning has me thinking about the importance of tradition- about why we as families of faith do certain things over and over again through the years.  It is not just because we are creatures of habit, although I suppose we very much need habits, too, to form us.  It is more fundamentally, I think, a matter of identity and belonging.  We remind ourselves about where we come from and who we are- in my case, that “competition” is a bit in the bones of what it means to be a Robb.  (And my husband will be the first to tell you I have an often irrepressible competitive streak.)

Baptism and Communion are ways to tell a story about ourselves that we can learn by heart.  In the waters of baptism and in the wine and the bread we are made new creations in Christ and nourished by Christ’s freely given love offering for us and for the whole world.  In these acts we remind ourselves and one another who we really are (as divinely loved and broken people) and that we belong to God and to God’s love affair with the world.  In this sense, to the degree that these traditions identify us and help us find belonging in an often intimidating and cruel world, I suppose we’re not unlike a family of amateur sailors pointing their little boats into the sea, their faces into the wind.

Got a family tradition that you’d like to share? Leave it below and I’ll republish it!

“Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Is the Wrong Question

Episcopal priests will be allowed to conduct services blessing same-sex relationships under a policy approved last Tuesday at the church’s national convention in Indianapolis.

In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, titled “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?,” Ross Douthat makes the observation that last week, as the Episcopal Church was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere.  “They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase,” he writes.  Douthat goes on to make the case that such grim statistics spell doom for “liberal Christianity” in its present incarnation, if progressive, mainline churches do not find ways to reinvent themselves.

And, it is hard to argue with him.  When the Presiding Bishop for the Episcopal Church rationalizes her church’s declining numbers with loopy non-sequiturs like this one- “that her communion’s members value the ‘stewardship of the earth’ too highly to reproduce themselves” (was she joking?!) – it is easy to see why the Episcopal Church is expiring.

Douthat is commendably quick to point out some of the weaknesses that beset conservative Christianity in this country, too, with the implication that the problem of church decline and cultural irrelevance is not just a “liberal” one.  But he stops short of connecting the dots in tracing this wider trend and how it could more hopefully in-form the church, as evidenced by the title of his article. “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” is the wrong question, really.  Because I suspect that my and younger generations are largely not thinking in terms of such labels.  Most of us have come to view “conservative” and “liberal” as just code words for a host of implicit political beliefs that have functioned as add-ons to the Gospel– jaded remnants of religiously framed culture wars.  If we’re leaving church in droves or finding church irrelevant, it is because these labels have failed us.  We’ve seen through them and they have come up short.

Douthat is right to link a high view of Scripture and Christ with hope for the rebirth of the church.  But perhaps where we can move now, in surveying a war-torn landscape riddled by our churches’ political wars, is into a new territory of thinking beyond old identifiers like denomination or political affiliation.  Which is not to say that the Gospel is apolitical- only that former politically identifying marks, such as “conservative” and “liberal” need to fall by the wayside.  To borrow a biblical allusion, they are like chaff that the wind blows away.  There is no new life here.  If “liberal” or “conservative” Christianity was once “redeemable,” it does not redeem lives.  Only Christ does.

Maybe the question to ask, then, is not whether liberal Christianity can be saved, but rather, whether we in twenty-first century America can let God’s Living Word in its baffling, difficult, uncomfortable and perplexing breadth and depth and ongoing power, stand on its own, apart from our hang-ups, biases, prejudices, and allegiances.

Family unValues: Weird Jesus Sayings

“If any of you come to me…and don’t hate your father and your mother, your wife and your children, your brothers and your sisters- yes, and even your own life!- you can’t be my disciple.” – Luke 14:26

So much for “family values.”  Maybe that’s because Jesus, as N.T. Wright reminds us in his commentary on Luke, taken from Wright’s wonderful series, The New Testament for Everyone, isn’t running for office here.  Jesus, Wright explains, is more like “the leader of a great expedition, forging a way through a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villages cut off from the rest of the world.”  Jesus is preparing those who think they want to follow Him for the Spartan-like vow of allegiance that will be required of them.  No competing value- not even those that come most naturally to us, like marriage and family, like life itself- can hold pride of place next to “Jesus is Lord.”

I must admit to some consternation here.  How do we traverse those gray spaces between courageous obedience to Christ and sheer irresponsibility in our familial relationships?  Isn’t it easy to excuse all kinds of morally problematic decision making with the claim that we’re on an important mission?  Great oversights can often be excused in God’s name.

I remember once being introduced in a church service in Kenya with high praise for the fact that I had left my family at home in the States to come all the way to Kenya to be with the church there.  Was it really a compliment? Maybe.  Maybe not.  I was getting a free trip to an exotic place and a break from my familial duties, afterall!

There are countless examples of missionaries who have more permanently left their families to answer the call of the Gospel in far-flung corners of the earth.  They have given away their lives in often incredibly heroic ways.  Just the other day my husband showed the movie, “The Mission,” to his class, the soundtrack for which almost always brings me to tears.  It tells the true story of a group of Jesuit missionaries who ultimately sacrifice themselves for and along with the aboriginal Guarani people in South America, when Portuguese soldiers massacre their community.

Jesus seems to be saying that even the most praiseworthy things that give us meaning and a sense of groundedness in this life pale in comparison to God’s mission.  That we have to be willing to give up any claim to their possession if we really want to follow Jesus.  Where our allegiance is genuinely in line with a call from God, and where it is a rationale for escape from existing vocations as wives, husbands, partners, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, is left for us to discern, I suppose, as a matter of conscience, with a level of fear and trembling.

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