One of my common themes as I talk with people about the state of the church today is “people don’t just ‘fall in’ the doors anymore.  You have to go out where they are and bring them in.” And this is true.

But sometimes they do just fall in.  I was in my office on a rainy February afternoon working at the computer.  Becky, the receptionist came in asking rather excitedly “Do we have any books about Christianity?”  In the few seconds it took  me to process that questions she continued, “There are some people up front who want to learn about Christianity.”  I went with her back to the front office and met Amir and Laleh (names changed).  He is a graduate student at Emory, she is his wife.  Amir told me that they were from Iran and wanted to learn about Christianity, could we help?

Becky and I went into a frenzy gathering materials and telling them about all the opportunities our congregation offered to explore the Christian faith.  Not scared off by our enthusiasm, they came the next Sunday and the next.  They found a sunday school class that wholeheartedly helped them with their exploration of the faith.  They  began attending worship regularly.  And so it was that last Sunday evening we stood around the baptismal font as they gave their testimony and were baptized into a living relationship with Christ and his body.

One of the things that made this baptism so poignant was the fact that their decision to become Christians probably would cut them off from their family and native country.  Conversion from Islam is a crime in Iran.  They are the only Christians in their families.  What would induce two intelligent people to make such a costly decision?  Lelah said that even when she was in Iran she had begun to read the Bible and was attracted to Jesus.  Amir expressed his delight that Jesus was a savior, not a “boss” or dictator.  They had found their “pearl of great price” in Jesus and the fellowship of his Body. The group at that worship service lingered together afterward, basking in the joy of this baptism.  We were inspired by the burning passion on the faces of Amir and Lelah.

And so I have found myself thinking about my own faith and passion.  I have to admit that my default mode is to live in my version of Christianity like an old bathrobe, comfortable, comforting, not demanding much.  I find myself resenting God or sometimes other people when I am pushed out of my comfort zone.  I see many others in the church who are with me in the bathrobe.  And I also realized that none of us can cannot make ourselves more passionate. So here is my prayer (adapted from John Donne) for myself, and for the church of which I am a part:

Batter our heart, three-personed God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That we may rise, and stand, o’rethrow us,

and bend your force to break, blow, burn, and make us new….  AMEN

John Donne

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Recently I was with a group of “young” pastors, young that is not so much in age as in experience – all in their first stint as the one in charge of a congregation.  As they sat and talked, the tone was mostly frustrated, cynical, and angry.  They were angry because their people were not doing what the pastors thought they should do. As I listened to them chat I was taken back in memory to a time when I was an angry pastor.  It is a fact that pastors are dependent on the people to make things we want to see happen in the church happen, but we can’t make them do these things.  Also they pay our salary, which  makes us even more dependent in some scary ways.  Voila!  Angry pastors.

In order to cope during this period of my life I went away a couple of times a year for silent retreat.  On one of these retreats I picked up a book of letters written by an English bishop in the mid-1800’s.  These were mainly letters of advice and encouragement written to pastors under his care.  Many of them were struggling, many were discouraged, some were angry.  What struck me in his responses to these pastors was this refrain: love your people.  Love your people, he said it over and over again.  Pastoring begins with loving the people.

These were not words I particularly wanted to hear at the time, but now I realize it is the only way.  It is all too easy to use the church as a means to further our own rather murky personal agendas- often we slip into this without even realizing it. The  call to love the people – no matter how unlovable they may be – is one way God makes sure that  we  are really working God’s  agenda in the church instead of our own.  Before he went to the cross Jesus COMMANDED his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn. 15:12).  A more fractious bunch never existed than what he had to deal with.  In the same text He also talked a lot about the Holy Spirit.  I don’t think this was a coincidence.  The love Jesus commands of us  comes when we put God – not the church – first in our lives.  Loving people who get in our way and frustrate our goals is not human.  It only comes from God.  And it is the most powerful thing in the world.  It can even make angry pastors loveable.

Sorry  if you are receiving this twice – I’ve just reconnected to posting on facebook and this is a test.  Joan

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“Instructions from the Lord: Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”  I found this quote from poet Mary Oliver in a book review in the Presbyterian Outlook. This is how I want to live.  I don’t care that irony and skepticism are the spirit of the day.  I don’t care that being astonished may make people smile condescendingly behind my back. I believe that the fingerprints of God are all over our world and that if I happen to slow down long enough to see them, astonishment, even excitement, is the  best response.   Astonishment is the response to beauty and goodness in the midst of so much that would squeeze the goodness out of life.  Seeing the presence of God flash out from everyday familiar things is astonishing  — like finding a dollar bill in the garbage.

A friend of mine is going through a hard time right now – broken in spirit over a desperate situation with  his children. One evening recently he stopped by the grocery on his way home from work.  In the meat department he happened to hear two employees talking.  The word “church” caught his attention.  Before he knew what he was doing he got their attention and asked “Are you Christians?” When they answered that they were, he said “Will you please pray for me?” One of the men asked my friend  what his problem was; then the men prayed with him using their native language which was Portuguese.

How astonishing that two Brazilians should stand praying over a Presbyterian in Portuguese  in the meat department of the Kroger!   It demands to be told.  And so I am telling you.

Sorry  if you are receuiving this twice – I’ve just reconnected to posting on facebook and this is a test.  Joan

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“Instructions from the Lord: Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”  I found this quote from poet Mary Oliver in a book review in the Presbyterian Outlook. This is how I want to live.  I don’t care that irony and skepticism are the spirit of the day.  I don’t care that being astonished may make people smile condescendingly behind my back. I believe that the fingerprints of God are all over our world and that if I happen to slow down long enough to see them, astonishment, even excitement, is the  best response.   Astonishment is the response to beauty and goodness in the midst of so much that would squeeze the goodness out of life.  Seeing the presence of God flash out from everyday familiar things is astonishing  — like finding a dollar bill in the garbage.

A friend of mine is going through a hard time right now – broken in spirit over a desperate situation with  his children. One evening recently he stopped by the grocery on his way home from work.  In the meat department he happened to hear two employees talking.  The word “church” caught his attention.  Before he knew what he was doing he got their attention and asked “Are you Christians?” When they answered that they were, he said “Will you please pray for me?” One of the men asked my friend  what his problem was; then the men prayed with him using their native language which was Portuguese.

How astonishing that two Brazilians should stand praying over a Presbyterian in Portuguese  in the meat department of the Kroger!   It demands to be told.  And so I am telling you.

Shehrbano Taseer is a 22 year old Pakistani woman whose story was told in a Wall Street Journal article earlier this year.  Her father, Salmann Taeseer, a prominent journalist was murdered for speaking out against the cancer of militant Islam that is plaguing that country.  After her father’s death, Ms. Taseer refused to leave the country for a safer place and instead began to walk in her father’s footsteps.

The Journal article remarks: “That the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity is nothing new in human affairs.  What’s more remarkable is to still find among Pakistanis people who are prepared to forego their exit options in order to fight for their country.  “In Pakistan,” says Ms. Taseer, “if you believe in something, you have to be willing to die for it.”

As I have pondered on Ms. Taseer and her father, another group of people who have given their lives for the good of their country came to mind:  the judges and other elected officials in Mexico slaughtered by the drug cartels.  I am awed at the courage of these who have stood up against evil knowing from the get go that their lives and the lives of their families are the price that will be paid for their convictions.

“If you believe in something, you have to be willing to die for it.”  When I hear Ms. Taseer’s statement, I also hear another voice saying: “If you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me. For if you try to save your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will surely find it.”

The real courage shown by the Mexican judges and Ms. Taseer is not that of standing up to gunmen at the end, but rather in getting up in the morning and going about their business knowing that each day may be their last. This is a real dying to self for the sake of something much bigger.

“If you believe in something, you have to be willing to die for it.”   We generally ignore Jesus’ words about dying to self and living for Him except around Lent, but what a difference it would make if this were the guiding principle of our lives.  We may not face guns, bombs, or torture for our faith.  But we certainly face powerful seductive forces tempting us  to make Jesus into an innocuous personal friend who helps us out when we are in trouble, or a distant acquaintance who provides good ethical advice or fire insurance.

Did he give his life to become an accessory to our lives, an add-on that doesn’t cost us much?  If just a fraction of Christians really took Him seriously about this denying self thing, the world would be turned upside down for God.  It would draw us to our knees, into a life of constantly leaning  into God for everything we are worth just to make it through the day. What power there is in this!

God bless Ms. Taseer and the Mexican judges.  God bless us, and give us a faith worth dying for.

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I thank you for reading this post!  I will be out of town and off line through Nov. 6.

Look for more posts after that.  Joan

Sedona

I was blessed enough recently to spend two weeks in the wilds of northern Idaho.  We found a little piece of paradise about 3 miles from the Canadian border with a river, eagles, hummingbirds, and other assorted animals including dear, moose, and wild turkey. It was grizzley bear country, but I am thankful we did not meet one.  The hiking was amazing.  But the thing that made the biggest impression on me was not the wild life or the trails.  It was the people.

The nearest shopping of any substance was 25 miles from our cabin in Bonner’s Ferry, ID.  It is a town of about 2,500 souls perched on the banks of the Kootenai (pron. “coot knee”)  river.  We went there three or four times during our stay to eat and buy groceries.  We also checked out the annual Garlic Festival one Saturday.  I was struck by the way people act there.  Strangers look you in the eye.  They nod and smile when they meet you on the sidewalk.  The supermarket clerk  learning that we had come so far wanted to know why and seemed genuinely pleased that we liked her state.  The waitress in our restaurant one night struck up a conversation based on the fact that she had gone to school briefly in Atlanta.  We chatted off and on through the evening.  I pulled a muscle in my back and we went to the pharmacy section of the supermarket to get some Aleave.  The pharmacist looked up from what she was doing, asked if she could help, asked me what my problem was, and then gave me advice about taking care of a bad back.  All with a smile on her face and what seemed like genuine interest.

I have been living in the city too long.  I have forgotten what the “real world” (i.e. places without ten lane highways) is like.  I realized after experiencing Bonner’s Ferry that I live in a very tight, well-defended little bubble.  I put on a protective shell when I leave my home.  It makes me feel safe, but it also cuts me off from the gift of human connection and it tends to devalue other people.  Supermarket clerks in Atlanta generally don’t take time to talk to people.  If they did, the rest of us who had to wait in line while they chatted would mutiny.  Eyes would roll; complaints would be made.

Could I live in Bonner’s Ferry?  Absolutely not – I’m not tough enough to handle Idaho winters.  But Bonner’s Ferry reminded me that there is much more to life than getting through the to do list at a faster and faster pace while avoiding eye contact and thinking nasty thoughts about anybody who gets in my way.  I have decided that there is going to be more eye contact in my future and maybe even a bit of chat before I hand over my Kroger Plus card.  It’s not much, but even a tiny bit of yeast leavens the dough.

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As my post this week I want to share a piece written by Kristina Robb-Dover,  a Presbyterian minister friend that I respect greatly.

Beyond Tribalism

These days my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), finds itself bracing for the possibility of further membership losses with more congregations jumping ship- this after a majority of presbyteries voted to remove the constitutional requirement that all ministers, elders and deacons  live “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b in the church’s Book of Order).  In effect, the new language opens the way for gays to serve in ordained ministry by letting everyone’s sexuality and sexual preferences (not just gays’) be a matter of conscience.

The change has given way to some ripple effects.  The National Presbyterian Church of Mexico has severed ties with the PC(USA), ending a 139-year-old relationship.  Now some 2,000 clergy and laity representing about 850 congregations are debating the question of whether to stay or go.

“Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. If I stay it will be double.”

In the meantime, a decisive factor will be how well we can answer the question, “How then shall we live together?”  Just last week at a meeting of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, the governing entity of elders and ministers to which I belong, those of us present began to work together towards an answer.  In small break-out groups we were asked to discuss two proposed alternatives to our current form of polity which might allow us to remain unified despite our differences and prevent further splintering of our denomination.

I had arrived late, so had been ushered to one of the few open seats. There I found myself within a rather random assortment of conversation partners who together had been asked to grapple with the various challenges and opportunities presented by these two possible revised forms of government.

If truth be told, I felt a bit uncomfortable.  I didn’t know the people in my circle from Adam or Eve. They were strangers with name tags- our only connection being our leadership in the same denomination and a unifying belief in the saving love of Jesus Christ- and here we were being asked to share our views on a loaded topic.  Six very different people representing six very different congregations, each with very different backgrounds and experiences.  Could authentic and abiding fellowship really be found here?  The question had crossed my mind as we were introducing ourselves.

But then something happened.  The one African American in our group, an elderly gentleman who had been a pastor for many years, began to speak.  He spoke passionately and articulately from a place of real vulnerability and gentle conviction.  He shared from his own personal experience of having grappled with Scripture and in dialogue with others.  He shared about a time when he sat in a room with members of a certain church whose brash, unapologetic rejection of homosexuals as full-fledged members of the body of Christ seemed an awful lot like bigotry; he called us to consider the opportunity presented by this experiment before us, an experiment in a different way of relating to one another that would ask for courage and a new-found dependence on the Holy Spirit.  That would require us to put our money where our mouth is, so that, in the words of the old hymn, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”

He kept talking- so much so that a couple of us exchanged nervous glances, wondering if we would ever get through the questions we were to answer.  But as he spoke, an amazing thing happened:  I began to listen.  To really listen.  To listen without an agenda, without thinking about the next question or what I ought to say next.  Just to listen.  And as I listened, I began to thank God for this man next to me and for each of us sitting there in this circle of mostly strangers, so thankfully different one from another.  All of us called to this place at this time in the life of our churches and denomination.  Here in these moments we had been obliged to encounter one another as persons.  Not as categories of “conservative” or “liberal.”  Not as members of opposing tribes, but as individuals- as saints and sinners wrestling with the complexities of Scripture and the limits of our own experience.

We human beings are instinctively tribalistic: we tend to gravitate to those who are just like us, who look like us, talk like us, think and act like us.  Differences can make us uncomfortable.  So we choose to live in certain neighborhoods over others.  Our children prefer certain cafeteria tables to others.  We attend certain churches rather than others, so that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once put it, America remains never more segregated than on any given Sunday morning.

Last Thursday this kind of tribalism injected itself in an ugly way into the Republican primary debate when an American soldier fighting in Iraq, built like an Iron Man but speaking a bit tentatively, called in with a question:  “In 2010 when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I’m a gay soldier and didn’t want to lose my job,” Stephen Hill told the candidates. “Under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”

Hill’s question elicited loud boos from the audience.  Then Rick Santorum answered.  He gave no words of thanks for this man’s service, no gestures of appreciation.  Only boisterous reassurances, to the loud cheers of those present, that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would be reinstated under a Santorum presidency.

Tribalism.  It is about as old as a man and a woman in a garden with an apple and a serpent.  It is in our loins, a bit like sin, and it is everywhere.  All around us everyday.  In the church and out.

I left last week’s exercise in listening to those different from me with an answer to my question.  Can we find unity in our differences and belonging in our diversity?  Can we find fellowship in our separateness?  Yes, by the grace of God we can.  For all of the times we have failed, maybe this time will be different.  Amen.

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Greek girls

I am delighted to report that I have been called to be part-time interim pastor of Clairmont Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia.  As I begin this new pastorate  and think about pastoral ministry in general I find the following poem by George Herbert (1593-1633) most challenging  and true.  It uses the spelling of the time and is based on the description of Aaron’s vestments in Exodus 28.

Holiness on the Head
Light and Perfections on the Brest,
Harmonious bells below, raising the Dead,
To lead then unto life and rest.
Thus are true Aarons drest.
 
Profanenes in my head,
defects and darkenes in my brest,
A noise of Passions ringing mee for Dead
Unto a place, where there is no rest,
Poore Preist thus am I drest.
 
Onely another Head
I have, another hart and brest,
Another Musique, making live not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest,
In Him I am well drest.
 
Christ is my onely head,
My alone onely hart and Brest,
My onely Musick, striking mee even dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in Him new Drest.
 
So Holy in my Head,
Perfect and light in my deare Brest,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ, (who is not Dead
But lives in mee, while I doe Rest)
Come people; Aaron’s Drest.

BILL GRAY

This guy is the light of my life. Today we have been married 37 years, and I thank God for him today and every day.  He tells me I’m beautiful (yes he is somewhat visually impaired), he loves my cooking, and he still says coming home to me after work is the high point of his day. What did I do to deserve this? Absolutely nothing. It makes me believe in God.

him

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” As I reflect on what is going on in my little piece of the church these days I am reminded of a comment Rick Warren* made on this text. He said that we have generally chosen to forget that Jesus said he was the way and the life, and instead we have focused mostly on “the truth.” Warren  hit the nail on the head by concluding “We have become one big mouth.” No wonder the world looks at us and laughs.

We will never really know Jesus as truth or life unless we are willing to walk in his way. This is the way of the suffering servant; the way of loving each other as he loved us. It is easy to exercise our big mouths in shouting out our read on the truth.  It is exceedingly difficult to walk  in the painfully humble way of the One who counted sinners as more worthy of saving than he did his own life.

My prayer for the meeting this weekend in Minneapolis is that somehow people will turn off the big mouth for a while and commit to the hard work of walking and living together humbly in His way. This is powerful stuff and if we tried it, who knows what might happen.

* I heard this quote in an excellent sermon preached by my friend Ruling Elder Jane Hubbard.

out of the rock