It was a day or two before Thanksgiving in my second year of seminary. My father had picked me up at the St. Louis airport, and we were midway into our drive to his home in mid-Missouri. The conversation had turned to what I was learning in seminary, and I started to share a host of new insights gained from my professor of Christian ethics, Stanley Hauerwas. If you know anything about Hauerwas who was named "America's Best Theologian" by Time, then you know he has the capacity to turn your head inside out and upside down as he presents new ways of thinking about what it means to be a Christian. I was five minutes into sharing my new knowledge with Dad, explaining what I had learned about capitalism, when Dad nearly drove off the road as he asked, "What in the hell are they teaching you?"
I can almost picture everything about that conversation. I might not ever forget it as it's the first time I realized how controversial following Jesus can be. Most of us prefer a watered-down version of the Gospel when we realize how hard it is to fully take on the name of Christ in all we say, all we do, and all we are. There is a reason Jesus was a threat to both the religious and political establishment of his day. We often forget some of why he was crucified.
And, while I'm not a betting woman, I'm willing to bet your pastor has heard a thing or two in recent weeks that echo the sentiment of, "What in the hell are you thinking? Or teaching us? Or preaching to us?" There is a good chance your pastor has heard a word or two about what she is to say and not say, what she is to do or not do, how she is to offer a more limited view of who Jesus really was and is, at such a time as this.
No matter what your pastor proclaimed or prayed yesterday, someone in the congregation was likely disappointed. Some people stepped inside sanctuaries yesterday longing to hear a word about how to think theologically about immigration and refugees. Their hearts were breaking, and they prayed their pastor would have something to say about how our nation is called to be more compassionate, to follow the instructions to welcome the stranger found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Countless other parishioners hesitated as to whether to actually come to worship. They held their breath during the pastoral prayer and the sermon, praying the pastor would not say anything "political" before rolling their eyes the moment the word "immigration" was mentioned. Your pastor was damned before she ever said a word yesterday.
Meanwhile, your pastor may be second-guessing everything today because she has never before pastored a congregation in a time when the nation feels as deeply divided as it does now. She's longing to please everyone, a trait at the core of her personality, while knowing that this goal is not achievable right now. She is carefully receiving every word and waiting for additional criticisms to come. But more than anything, she is longing to be as faithful as she can to Jesus, the one who called her and claimed her, the one who gave her a vision of what God's kingdom can look like on earth, a vision so compelling that she was willing to let go of other dreams and go to seminary.
If you're not currently praying for your pastor, I invite you to start doing so today and allow these prayers to continue to rise up like incense filling a room. If you're not sure what to pray, it can go something like this:
Gracious God, thank you for the ways in which you call and equip people to serve as priests, pastors, shepherds, and teachers. I thank you, especially, for my pastor - for his willingness to drop everything in order to go to the hospital when a person is sick or extend the workday an extra hour when one is in a challenging situation and needs to talk. Thank you for how he seems to love my children, getting down on his knees to share another story about Jesus. Thank you for his spouse and children, people who know plans cannot be made on Saturday night and that weekends together are one day maximum. Thank you for his love of scripture and the ways he seeks to bring it to life. Thank you for all he does to help me be a more faithful disciple of your Son, Jesus.
Will you hold my pastor tightly during this time? It must be impossible for everyone to hear and appreciate his preaching on a subject like immigration when your scripture has so much to say but opinions and convictions are tightly held. It must be impossible to say the words "justice" or "mercy" without being told you're being too political. It must be impossible to please everyone, especially when a congregation is diverse in every possible way. Will you please help him to be faithful? Will you give him the capacity to glean the words he needs to say from you and you alone? When criticism comes, will you grant him a wise spirit that can discern what he needs to hear and explore further and what he needs to let go of? And will you show me how I can support him, even if I might not always agree with him? I want our church to be a faithful representation of your light, your love, your mercy, your grace and your justice. And while I might disagree with him on certain things, I believe my pastor wants this, too. So please strengthen him once more. Watch over him. Bless his family, and bless him - especially at such a time as this.
Thank you, God, for our pastor.
Friday, January 27, 2017
There is one message I love to proclaim more than any other message. It's a message that can be boiled down into a handful of words. It's a simple truth that we have a hard time accepting, let alone acting upon. But receiving the truth can set us free.
You are beloved.
You are beloved. God has shaped and formed you. God has given you a distinct set of gifts that make you unique, remarkable, and wonderful. You are the reason God's heart beats and sometimes skips a beat. There is nothing you can do to prevent God from loving you and longing to be in relationship with you.
This message is proclaimed each time we baptize someone at our church. We sprinkle water on top of a child's head, reminding the child and the congregation how we are incorporated into God's mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. We call upon the grace of Jesus that was infused within us at birth. We invite the Holy Spirit to work within the child. And then we light a candle. Holding the candle in front of the child's face, I remind the child how she has a powerful light within her, a light composed of her unique gifts and talents, and how she is called to shine this light to the world around her. I then remind her how the light of Christ is always with her and pray she will never ever forget that she is beloved - deeply loved by her parents, her church family and God. We then extinguish the flame and sometimes watch the smoke fill the air as another reminder of how our light can also fill a room.
I love reminding people of God's love. I love telling our congregation that they are more than what their business card says about them. I long for people to know and live as though we are beloved.
I now find myself longing for our new President to claim this truth about himself more than any other truth.
Open the pages of today's Washington Post, and you'll find several stories about the President. One article is titled "They gave me a standing ovation" and reports how President Trump appeared obsessed with his popularity in a recent television interview. Another article reports how President Trump called the acting director of the National Park Service on the day after the inauguration, demanding photos be removed because they showed a crowd much smaller than the one President Trump imagined or hoped for. We now know how the President's disappointment over last Friday's crowd has led to "alternative facts" being offered in the first press conference from the White House briefing room. The actions of this week point to a President who does not appear to understand the truth that sits at the core of his identity. And his actions matter. They are impacting millions of people.
Eugene Robinson hits the nail on the head when he writes, "It matters that the most powerful man in the world insists on 'facts' that are nothing but self-aggrandizing fantasy. It matters that the president of the United States seems incapable of publicly admitting any error. It matters that Trump's need for adulation appears to be insatiable" ("The Peril of Ignoring the Rants," The Washington Post, January 27, 2017, A17).
Very few people can effectively lead without knowing the truth about themselves. Faithful leadership stems from people who know who they are at the core of their being. Individuals who know they are beloved, already more than enough, are able to lead in a way that promotes the greater good of everyone instead of their own individual success.
Imagine how differently President Trump could be leading today if he realized his worth has nothing to do with whether a group of government workers give him a standing ovation or remain seated after his remarks. Imagine the dialogue that could have occurred in Saturday's press conference if Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, had not been asked to defend a lie or propagate an alternative fact. Imagine the compassion that could flow from President Trump if he understood how he is who he is only by the grace of God. Imagine who he might be able to see if he first saw himself as a beloved child of God - more than a successful businessman who doubled the initiation fee on his Florida resort after being elected, more than a billionaire who refuses to release his tax returns, more than a celebrity who believes he can get away with anything, more than the President of a country that is called to be a light to the nations.
On Sunday morning, our ministry intern at Mount Vernon Place, prayed words that are sticking with me some five days later. "God may you help our President see his own sacred worth so he can see this sacred worth in others." I've been praying a version of this prayer each day since Sunday, and I invite you to do the same.
Almighty God, can you please help Donald J. Trump hear the words you spoke to Jesus at his baptism. "This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased." May this belovedness be at his center. May you help him see his own sacred worth so he might be able to see the sacred worth in others and then know the sacred responsibility that has been placed upon his shoulders to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you. God, please help him to see that you already love him, and how this love is more than enough. Amen.
Thursday, January 05, 2017
It was a one sentence Facebook status update - a question with no following explanation. But the question has been haunting me since I saw it last night.
"Would you want yourself as a best friend?" my colleague Kevin inquired.
I breezed through it last night only to find myself still thinking about the question when my eyes opened this morning.
"Would you want yourself as a best friend?"
Umm. I'm not sure.
While I often have the best intentions, I regularly forget to call someone on their birthday let alone purchase a package or plan to spend time together. While a day never goes by without me spending time on Facebook, I don't often take two or three minutes to wish all my "friends" a happy birthday. I have friends who I adore, people with whom I have shared significant life journeys, who live in the same city but who I only see a couple of times a year. I know how to show up for parishioners who are in crisis at my church. I strive to never disappoint them even though I sometimes do. I give my heart and soul to being a pastor, but I cannot say the same about being a friend.
Perhaps I'm being hard on myself.
Or maybe I'm telling the truth.
Today is a new day. I'm going to call a friend to wish her "Happy Birthday." I'm going to get the 2017 calendar organized, noting special events in the lives of friends. I'm going to email another friend to make time to get together. I'm going to seek to approach friendship with the way I approach being a pastor.
"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13).
This verse is an equally challenging invitation and one I'm going to accept. It's time to lay down a bit of my own life, a bit of my own priorities or desires, a bit of my busyness, and instead pay attention to my friends.
What about you? How would you respond to the question?
"Would you want yourself as a best friend?"