Some Important Messages

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Inspired: Reflections on Year of the Bible, Rachel Held Evans, and the Halfway Point of 2018

Rarely in my life has a year been so singularly focused in my spiritual journey than 2018. At the beginning of the year, Unity Presbyterian Church undertook the journey of reading the Bible through one year, and Alex and I vigorously signed our names to the banner committing to Bible reading time as a couple for the first time in our 8 years together.

I took on this challenge for several reasons: I haven't read the Bible from cover to cover since my freshman year of college; I wanted this chance for Alex and I to do this together; I wanted to walk with the congregation I serve as they take on this challenge. But I would say one of the great motivating factors was my stubbornness. I want to take the bible seriously. I want to make myself uncomfortable with the gritty, violent episodes of the Old Testament and wrestle with the seemingly chauvinist, non-inclusive axioms of the New Testament. I didn't want anyone to be able to accuse me of not taking the Bible seriously. (Not always literally, but seriously. theres a difference).

Warning: I'm about to say something shocking:

I really don't care for Christian writings.

I've read so many memoirs, self-help books, trendy new understandings of faith, and with very few exceptions (basically just Lauren Winner), I overall find Christian writing to be lazy, self-centered, and overly simplified. I've often wondered why we offer simple, trite, McDonaldized art to the Almighty God who demands our very best. So, needless to say, when faced with the opportunity to read an advanced copy of Rachel Held Evans' new book called Inspired, I approached this reading with a strange combination of trepidation and excitement. I wanted to fall in love with scripture again, but I was terrified to have my heart broken.


I began to read Rachel Held Evans' work with my same skepticism. After all, I'm a pastor. I have two degrees in theology, and multiple awards for my Bible Trivia knowledge; I'm a gosh darn Bible genius, and I'll probably end up going through the book like a red pen on Red Bull, making theological corrections and poking holes into inferior insights. That is, if I can deflate my head long enough to see the words on the page...

 But this skepticism faded away rather quickly. There was something seductive, earthy, and tangible about the words that flutter across the pages of this book. Whimsical, reimagined stories; gritty, raw confessions; thoughtful, challenging assessments. Inspired is a beautifully written collection of creative stories based on scripture paired with thoughtful, academic-but-readable reflections on scripture. Even with my academic background and my stubborn attitude, I found myself captivated on Evans' every word, drawn in like a fish on a hook.

The timing of reading this book alongside my journey through Year of the Bible was one of those serendipitous coincidences, kind of like buying Chips Ahoy and realizing you also have a can of Reddiwhip {best combination, or best combination? AmIRight?} Or maybe more appropriately, like breaking your leg in the parking lot of the emergency room. As I labor through the onerous task of Bible reading, I found Inspired to be a literal source of inspiration for me, a fount of realistic optimism, a fresh ointment for an old wound. Rachel has set up the chapters according to genre and roughly in sequence throughout the Bible. If I had had this at the beginning of the year, I would have led a small group to read through it alongside their Bible readings as a way of giving new perspective to challenging stories and encouragement when we get bogged down with the depressing stories of Judges and Kings. As is, I will be encouraging this as a study for the latter half of the year for our congregation. With a study guide available, this would be a highly engaging and easy-to-pull-off study for small groups or congregations. Rachel's theology is very much in line with mainline denominations, and her appeal stretches among multiple generations, genders, cultures, socio-economic statuses, and walks of life.


The most compelling part of Inspired in my experience was the chapter entitled "Resistance Stories." In the world right now, progressive Christianity has a lot of wind in its sails. The PCUSA among other denominations made ground-breaking decisions about inclusion of the LGBTQ community with regard to marriage and ordination; protest marchers at the Women's March and March for our Lives touted signs with Christian messages; and more and more we are seeing people who are followers of Jesus Christ who look, believe, and act differently than we may have imagined 20 years ago. However, all too often, we progressives aren't leaning on Scripture or going back to the Bible to understand our world. Instead, we are dismissing parts of scripture as old, irrelevant, or too difficult.

What I love about Inspired, in particular the chapter on "Resistance Stories" is that Rachel gives us a very clear, biblical approach to social justice in our world. While much of this book reflects views that can be found in other academic works, her attachment to storytelling and scripturally sound theological perspective are unique and authoritative. This is the progressive manifesto we need in today's times. And while she offers an unapologetic progressive viewpoint, I find it to be compelling to a variety of political, theological and social perspectives.

An apocalyptic event or vision, therefore, reveals things as they really are. It peels back the layers of pomp and pretense, fear and uncertainty to expose the true forces at work in the world...

Without accusation, persecution, or blame, Evans exposes the idolatry, power differentiation, and syncretism of our world today in a way that all of us can connect to.


Maybe you're like me and you're looking for someone to put your heartfelt struggle with scripture into eloquent words. Maybe you've never read the Bible and are looking for some guidance about how to start. Maybe you've read the Bible a million times and are looking for a fresh new perspective. Maybe it's time we all felt a little more..inspired.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Santa Claus Dilemma

More than once in the last week or two, I've had conversations with parents of elementary and middle school aged students about Santa Claus. As children in late elementary school and early middle school develop, learning logic and rational thinking, they begin to develop questions: how does Santa make it all the way around the world in one night? How does Santa's sleigh carry the weight of all those presents? Why do bad kids sometimes get lots of presents? (Or as we ask in Pittsburgh, "Hows come them jagoffs didn't get no coal, n'at?")

{As a side note, how creepy is this picture of Santa? And why are there so many pictures of Santa telling us to be quiet?}

Eventually these questions evolve into: "Is Santa Claus real?"

This is a fundamentally hard question for parents to answer. In answering truthfully, we admit that we've been in essence lying to our kids for years; it feels like we've taken away with one word the twinkle and sparkle of innocent childhood. It is a transition for us to understand our awkward teeny-boppers as mini-adults. It is almost akin to baby's first steps: our world will never be quite the same.

So there are lots of ways to respond to this question, and I thought I would leave you with some blogs of real parents and how they've responded to the question.

This one tells us how to capture the spirit of who Santa is and the lessons we can learn from the Santa Claus myth.

This one empowers older kids to bring the Santa Claus spirit to others in their family and community.

This one gives a good history of the real St. Nicholas and how his "spirit of giving" lives on through the Santa Claus myth.

There are lots of other ways, and I would love to hear your experiences! Let's work together to teach our children and youth to be caring people, to believe in things they can't see, and to believe that there is so much more good in the world than we know.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reforma Et Semper Reformanda

Tomorrow, aside from being Halloween, is the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Protestants all over the world are celebrating, commemorating, and otherwise memorializing the historic split from the Roman Catholic Church. Most homes right now are focused on Halloween costumes and decorating pumpkins; in my house, we've spent countless hours debating the significance of this anniversary (that's what happens when seminary grads marry each other). Jeannie wove some of the significance seamlessly into her sermon yesterday (which in case you missed it can be viewed here). So I thought I would piggyback today to say why this date is important and how it affects our current church.

A semi-boring history lesson

Let me give you a 60 second summary of what you learned back in 10th grade World History about the Reformation.

First, there's the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, most people were uneducated and poor, and they relied on the Catholic Church as a place of comfort and help. As family members died of disease or war, or when the land refused to yield crops, the people of Europe came to Catholic Priests for assurance that their loved ones would be at peace. Most of the Catholic Priests followed traditions, telling them to pray to saints and pray for their family members now residing in purgatory and to resist the power of sin. Some Catholic Priests saw an opportunity to advance the wealth of the church (or of themselves) and manipulated people by saying that in order for their family member to be saved or for them to be saved themselves, they needed to give a certain amount of money or large donation to the Catholic Church. This practice was called indulgences. Because the Roman Catholic Church is a church that is made up of a lot of humans, who are both capable of great good and great evil, the church was not perfect, and had lots of ways it could improve. But the "management" so-to-speak either didn't hear it or didn't care because the majority of people didn't realize what was going on.

So on October 31, 1517, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther wrote down 95 ways he felt the church could improve and fix some of its corruption. These were called the 95 Theses. And he nailed these Theses to the church door.

Of course, Martin Luther didn't really want to ditch the church; he loved Roman Catholicism and just wanted it to be the best version of itself it could be. But last time I checked, just writing down a list of complaints and nailing them to the church door isn't maybe the cleanest and least offensive way of making change.

One of Luther's main objectives was to make sure that all people could read and hear the Bible in their own language, something that had never been done before (all worship services were done in Latin, and a lot of people couldn't read). It so happens that the planets aligned and through the recent invention of the printing press, a German version of the Bible wasn't a far-off dream, something Luther worked for in his lifetime. With this new information and this first step, other men and women began writing and speaking and thinking about ways to make the church different and better, and many of these folks weren't so keen to stick with the Roman Catholic Church (OR the RCC wasn't too keen on keeping them around either).

One of these folks was John Calvin, who was the father of the Reformed tradition, which eventually through John Knox in Scotland, produces the Presbyterian Church. John Knox borrowed a lot of theology about the sovereignty of God, about our understanding of sin, and about our understanding of salvation from the theology of John Calvin (who was practicing it in Switzerland). Knox combined this theology with a form of governing by the people to develop Presbyterianism as it is today. The Presbyterian Church form of government was adopted in part by the founding fathers of the United States to serve as a model for our country's government. 

Semper Reformanda

The Reformation was famous for its witty slogans which included: sola scriptura (scripture alone!) and sola gratia ([we are saved] by grace alone) and soli deo gloria (glory to God alone). I like to imagine the reformer men wildly shouting them as though they were at a football game.

The one, however, that in my estimation is most important for this anniversary is this:

reforma et semper reformanda

Reformed and always being reformed

You see, when Luther nailed those theses and Calvin wrote the Institutes, they opened up this big can of worms. Suddenly, it wasn't just 95 issues that Luther had with the church, it was 95 issues per congregation member in every church. It was not as though we could get through this list of issues and then go back to being perfect again; it was an acknowledgement that the church has never been perfect.

If we believe that human beings can never obtain perfection, that we are both sinners and saints, and we acknowledge that we bring both the sin and the saintliness into our congregations, we must then also recognize that the Reformation can never end. There will always be weeds to be weeded out.

That said, not every weed is really a weed. If I got to list my complaints, chief among them would be the uncomfortable pews. But just because I don't like it doesn't mean it's the way the church should reform itself. The second part of the phrase, and always being reformed, is often misquoted as "always reforming." While this is true, I prefer the grammatically correct, "always being reformed" because it reminds us that our reforming should always be inspired by the Holy Spirit. We are always being reformed by God.

Fractures and Healing

This idea that God is constantly reforming us is important for the church, as in all the churches of Jesus Christ around the world.

We don't get to own perfection as Protestants.

Because it's God doing the reforming and not us, it doesn't make Protestants more right than Catholics. In recent history, God has made reforms within the Roman Catholic Church with regard to speaking in the same language of the people and ethical codes for priests. In fact, almost everything Luther took issue with 500 years ago has been remedied.

And while there are many reforms that I think have been definitively the right moves for our church (like women's ordination and the adoption of the Belhar Confession), there are a lot of moves I think we are still trying to figure out if they're the most faithful. Like how do we deal with food allergies in communion, or should we have wine?

The truth of the phrase the church is "reformed and always being reformed" is important because we believe God is reforming all of the churches by the power of the Holy Spirit. This keeps the church relevant today rather than a time capsule of memories. It shows that God's promises are true for all of humankind in every generation and location, though they might look different according to culture. Nobody is forgotten; nobody is left behind. Perhaps the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a chance for us to reclaim and rekindle our relationships with and respect for our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. 

Long Distance Family

My brother is four years younger than me. He is one of my best and closest friends; in fact, in high school we were so close, our youth group called us The McCarty Twins. While we have bickered as any siblings do, we have never been mean or stayed mad at each other for long periods of time. We've always been on the same team and we enjoy spending time together.

I love my brother. But I hope I never have to live with him again. At our age, we are better friends and better siblings because we do not live in the same house. This is not a dig at my brother or myself; simply put, we have different housekeeping standards and expectations, we have different social needs, and we are in different places in our lives. This isn't a negative thing in our relationship; on the contrary, it just shows where we are in life. The distance often enriches rather than harms our relationship.

This is true in the church as well. Sometimes I think we can love our brothers and sisters in Christ better when we don't live in the same house. I have dear friends who are pastors in the Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopalian traditions, and we could argue all day long about our theological differences. But I love and respect each of them for the role they play in the larger Kingdom of God. Because we live in different houses, we can serve God better and love one another more. I know it's weird and foreign in our culture to think something "different" isn't necessarily better or worse than what we know, but if we as Christians could learn to see our denominational differences as ways God is continuing to reform our communities, perhaps we could learn to respect and love the way God is using each of us to do God's work.

We still have work to do...

But the most important thing I think the 500th anniversary of the Reformation calls us to is the continued faithful discernment of reformation in our own congregations. Unity is preparing to wish a happy retirement to Pastor Dan and to welcome Pastor Mark to our church as the Interim. We are preparing for a journey of discernment, change, and thoughtfulness, as we begin the process of finding a new permanent pastor to step in after Dan's long tenure. The theme of our lives right now is reformation.

We are a church with 1300 members that sees about 50-75 visitors on average each Sunday. We see over 100 youth and over 100 children each Sunday through our various programs; we have members from infancy through 102 years old. We have missions and youth groups and dinners and women's circles and choirs and banners and...and...and... the list could go on and on. As we grow, it's time to think about what weeding and reforming God is going to be doing with our congregation. There may be friends who choose to live in a different house for a while, or permanently, but that is OK. There may be ministries that lose energy or become something different, but that is OK. There may be some things that feel uncomfortable or awkward, there may be mornings we just weep as we grieve this changing experience, and there may be days when we worry, but that too is OK. God has a plan for Unity Presbyterian Church, and all of it is a part of this reforming and refining process that Luther started 500 years ago. Unity, in fact, has been around almost half as long as the Reformation, and we wouldn't be where we are if we hadn't prayerfully discerned God's constant reformation in our community over the past 230 years. As we ring into November first, I will be actively holding our community in prayer for this reformation process, and I hope you will be too.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Praying for you...

When it would come time for prayer in the worship service, my mother would silently remind my brother and me to bow our heads, fold our hands, and close our eyes to observe the time. Neither my brother nor I were particularly enamored by this time. I would press my folded hands into my eyes and watch the "firework display" until my eyeballs hurt; my brother crawled under the pew to color with crayons the boots of the fellow in front of us. I can remember the pastor droning on from the pulpit; I remember wondering how someone who was so funny and interesting at Vacation Bible School could be so dang boring when he started the Prayer of the People.

I'm sure many of you have similar stories about dozing off or checking your text messages during the long prayers in worship. And right now, my social media is full of people commanding me to pray for something or criticizing politicians for their tweets for prayers. Prayer has been on my mind lately, so I thought I would blog about some of the misconceptions about prayers and some of the ways that I have grown to understand prayer as an important piece of my spiritual journey. Here 8 myths about prayer and some reflection on why these are wrong.

#8: Praying for things is a form of therapy to make us feel better.

Throughout my life, when things have gotten difficult, prayer has sometimes been helpful to calm my anxieties and give me a sense of peace about a particular issue. There is certainly truth to that. But this understanding of prayer can be misleading and taken to an extreme.

Ultimately, prayer is not about us. Churches have taught us to kneel, bow our heads, fold our hands, and close our eyes, not [only] because it keeps wiggly kids from wandering off, but because it is a reminder to us as adults that we come before God as beggars, as those in need of God's mercy. Ultimately, prayer is a form of worship and praise of God. It is about giving God glory and honor, not about our personal agenda. We don't bring our requests to God so that God will give us what we want; we bring our requests to God because we recognize that we can't control what is happening and we need to hand over our cares to God, who is in control.

When Jesus teaches about prayer in Matthew 6, he shows us that this humility is important. He tells us to go inside to pray, rather than flaunting our fancy prayers and bragging about our abilities in the streets. His prayer begins by giving honor and glory to God the Father (hallowed by Thy name); it continues with Your Will be done, not my will, not what I hope is going to happen, but Yours. Period. No matter what. While praying might produce a sense of calm (Philippians 4), that's not the reason or motivation for prayer.

#7: If we don't say it, God doesn't hear it.

Once there was some questionable ice coming down as students were leaving school. As I drove home, it briefly fluttered to my mind to worry about school letting out at this time, but I didn't give it a second thought until much later. I went home to put my thick wool socks on and cuddle up under a warm blanket, and it wasn't until after dinner that I looked at my phone to see that I had a message from a parent asking me to pray for the youth who were driving home. Of course this was 3 or 4 hours ago, but I wanted to affirm this prayer. Of course, I hadn't actually prayed out loud, except a prayer after the fact of thanks that the kids were home safely. I hadn't named those prayers; do they still count?

Scripture is pretty clear on this one: you don't need to have a list of names or a grammatically correct sentence or even to have verbalized the prayer at all. In Matthew 6, Jesus says,

...for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

And even more, Romans 8 tells us:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.

This feels sometimes like both a comfort and a curse. On one hand, when I've forgotten or run out of time or I didn't know what to pray for in the first place, I don't have to make myself feel terribly guilty because God knows before we ask. On the other hand, it means we aren't in control. It wasn't us that fixed it by naming it; it was God.

#6:  More Prayers = More Results

"She needs all the prayers she can get." It's a phrase I've heard myself say because it expresses for us the desperation and the need for prayer; it's a wonderful way to invite others into prayer. And there is something spiritually wonderful when large groups of people come together in prayer for one thing. Powerful!

But I don't know of anywhere in scripture that says that if you pray more often or have hundreds of people praying for something, that God somehow hears it more. And if we worship a God who knows our hearts, who counts the hairs on our heads, and who cares for the sparrow, we have to know that God hears even our smallest whisper. And if we look back, we know that prayer isn't just about getting what we want or asking for our own personal will to be done, so "results" don't have a direct correlation with "answers."

#5: What does it mean when God "answers" prayer?

Before cars had bluetooth and before you could talk on speakerphone while driving, I would occasionally pray out loud while I was driving home from work. I would think to myself that the other drivers I was passing might think I was talking to myself. And I'd be lying if I didn't ever feel the creep of doubt and despair at the idea that I was talking to silence. 

(^^ actual footage of me praying in my car...)

The idea that God "answers" prayer seems to assume that prayer is a question. But prayer does not have to be a question. It might be an expression of gratitude or thanks, a wail of mourning or a cry of pain; while we certainly ask for things like making the sick well or making our troubles go away, prayer is also the acknowledgement that Jesus shows us in Luke 22 when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Father if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done." Most of the time, it seems to me that the answered prayer we are looking for is something we can bank as proof that God exists. It seems like the question we are asking in prayer is, does God exist? Are you there, God?

Asking if God is there is a good question: it's a question that was asked by Moses at the burning bush and Paul on the road to Damascus. It's a question that helps us tell the difference between God's work and the work of something else. But perhaps it's unreasonable or even audacious to ask for God to prove to us that God exists by giving us what we want or performing some miracle for our benefit. When we are requesting things of God, we need to remember that our expected outcome comes from our limited human experience; God's response to these requests does not need to fit into our understanding. The fact that Aunt Susan didn't get well does not negate God's mercy and kindness; Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead but many others died and stayed dead. The fact that cousin Jimmy got a cancer diagnosis does not mean that God is punishing us; plenty of bad things happened to Jesus, including torture, betrayal and execution, but God was not punishing him.

Bottom line: when we pray, perhaps we need to redefine what it would mean for God to answer us...

#4: Prayers to you. Our prayers go out to you.

This is one of my personal pet peeves. It's fairly common even on a show like the Today's Show for a speaker to say, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to you," when a tragedy or disaster strikes. Even in my smaller circles who are praying for A's on tests and angry parents, I see folks saying, "Prayers to you." And sometimes people even ask for prayers or good vibes to be sent their way. And all I can think of is this ridiculous magical juju...

Don't get me wrong. I want people who are struggling to know that I am thinking about them, whether they are in grief or stress or just need to know someone else is out there. I also want people to know that I'm lifting them to Jesus in prayer so that they can derive comfort from that fact. But if we're sending our prayers to other people or we are praying TO them, well, that just ain't right. That's golden calf, idols, Baal worship kinda stuff. The Ten Commandments warn us against this, telling us not to have any God but The Lord. 

It might seem like simple semantics, the kind of thing only pastors worry about, but I think it's important and here's why. When it's just another word for good vibes and thoughts and spirit fingers, prayer doesn't mean the same thing. It's a horizontal connection between me and you. That horizontal connection is good, but it's not the end of it. Prayer is when I take that horizontal connection and invite the vertical one, the one that connects both of us to God. When I think of prayers on behalf of others (intercessory prayer), I think of the story of the the paralytic in Mark chapter 2. The man is lying on his mat, and his friends carry him to Jesus. They can't get in the front door, so instead of leaving him or giving him only the comfort they could provide, the lift him up, dig a hole in the roof, and lower him into Jesus' presence.

Guys - intercessory prayer is so much more than sending our own thoughts and juju to our friends who are suffering. It is the acknowledgement, that what ails you, what makes you suffer, what brings you pain is beyond my capabilities to fix, so I lift you to the one who is able to abundantly more than what we could ever hope or imagine.

#3:  Prayer is always intercessory, a wish list, a list of names.

When I was growing up, I had a Sunday School teacher who had written on a slip of paper in the front of her Bible the names of folks she prayed for every night. Then and now, I find this practice to be so movingly beautiful. I love and respect folks who have a spiritual gift of lifting folks to God in prayer. But for the longest time, I thought that this was all prayer was. 

Scripture shows us, however, that prayer occurs in a wide variety of ways. We find prayers of praise in Exodus when the Israelites come out of the dessert, prayers of confession in 2 Samuel after David commits adultery, prayers for strength in Joshua, and prayers for help in Esther. We find Jeremiah angrily cursing God and Jesus wrestling with God's will in the Garden of Gethsemane. We find David dancing with all his might and widows mourning and wailing. We find Eli praying for God to show himself and Job praying to be left alone. 

Prayer, it would seem, has a lot of room for variation. It doesn't need to look the same for everyone and at all times. 

#2: Prayer is always talking

Sometimes I think of prayer like the movie Bruce Almighty.

Sometimes, especially in worship, we spend a lot of time doing the talking. We tell God what we need, what we want, how we feel, what we've done... We talk and we talk and we talk, and we consider prayers to be words and sentences that we create to give over to God. 

But if, as we've mentioned before, prayer is really about saying "God's will be done," how can we discern God's will if we are constantly doing the talking? How can we hear what God is saying if we're talking over God's voice? Sometimes the best prayer is to be still and know that God is God, God is here, and God is at work.

#1:  When crappy things happen, the only thing we need is prayer

After the massacre in Las Vegas, many of my friends on social media, many of whom are Christians, started posting some version of this:

or this...

or this...

In other words, prayers aren't enough. Gun legislation, mental health care, or some other form of action, in their minds, needed to happen. Prayers were simply words in the wind. 

And this is true if we think of our prayers like we mentioned before, like juju vibes being sent in magical squiggly lines to one another. It's true if we're keeping this horizontal and only sending our prayers TO the victims. This is true if we rely on our government and legislators for our salvation and healing.

But it's simply not true if we believe that prayer is lifting one another and this situation up to God. If we believe that in praying for someone, we acknowledge that what we can do for them is immeasurably less than what God can do for them. If we acknowledge that this situation is beyond a simple fix of gun legislation and mental health care; this is beyond a simple answer. In fact, when I think of the tragedies, both natural disasters and acts of violence, that are prevalent in our current society, I can think of no better situation to lift to God in prayer. So, I emphatically say, "No!" when folks say that prayers are useless.

That said, I continue to think of the paralytic in Mark 2. His friends did not just pray for him and hope that Jesus would pass him by. They did not even go to Jesus to tell him where the paralytic was. Rather they make the effort to carry the paralytic, to dig a whole in the roof of the house, and to lower the paralytic precariously down through that hole. God gifts us with the ability to make a difference to those around us. I can't change what happened in Las Vegas; but I can do something about the way that I treat the people around me, I can do something about violence in my own community, I can do something about making sure our communities are safe. Prayer reminds us that we can't fix the laws and the situation all at once on a larger scale, and it inspires us to do what we can. Simply put, actions that don't recognize the size of the problem and the sovereignty of God won't fix it; prayers that don't inspire us to action aren't enough. We are called to balance the two: to give it over to God in prayer and to be inspired to do our part in God's Kingdom on earth.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Imperfect, but true.

When Alex and I were in Italy, one particular billboard overwhelmed the subway walls. The billboard advertised a gelato company called Grom, whose slogan was "Imperfetto ma vero". In English, this means, "Imperfect, but true." As I write this now, my mouth is watering for handmade gelato, a scoop of ice cream made by hand that might be extra chocolatey this time or extra creamy. Or maybe it has a few extra chocolate chips. Who wouldn't prefer hand made imperfection over sterile, manufactured monotony?

We both mentioned that a slogan like this, a slogan that brags of the imperfection of its product, would likely not fly in America. In the USA, we pride our products for being the best and for having consistent perfection in craftsmanship. When we go to restaurant or purchase a product, we expect flawless and immaculate products.

Just yesterday, I went to Panera where I ordered a bowl of soup and an apple. As the employee set down my plate, my apple rolled off onto the table. Not the ground, not the seat, just the table. The employee looked mortified and said, "I'm so sorry, let me get you a new apple." I looked at him incredulously. "No thanks," I said, "I'll just keep this apple." It surprised me that my apple touching the table, which appeared to have been wiped off and cleaned before I sat down, would warrant a new apple. It was likely I'd set it down on the table anyway, to have more room for my soup. In fact, my soup was so filling, I put my apple in my bag for later, and God only knows what kind of bacteria might be lurking in there.

Imperfect but true. No, this foreign saying is truly foreign to us.

Babbling, Bumbling Band of Baboons

In worship yesterday, I made the ultimate move of cockiness. I came to the Communion Table without the Words of Institution written anywhere. In the PCUSA, we tell the story of Jesus on the last night of his life by reciting words from 1 Corinthians 11. An ordained Teaching Elder (or Minister of Word and Sacrament) is charged to say these words each time we celebrate at the Table. It's a task I find deeply humbling and moving. Nearly two years ago, when I was ordained, I would recite the words in my car over and over as I drove from my house to the church and from the church to my house. Alex would find me mumbling them in the bathroom or whispering them before bed. I wanted them to be ingrained in me, to come from my mouth authentically, and of course, to be perfect. The task of being a pastor is humbling, and I am determined to live up to the call.

Two years in, my imperfections caught up with me. As I lifted the silver cup at the 8:45 service yesterday, I thought the words in my mind, but from my mouth came a ridiculous string of words that did not go together.


I felt like Porky Pig stuttering over my words...

Or like comedian, Brian Regan, spouting out words in his comedy act...

I was utterly tongue tied. I began again, I executed well, and we moved on.

I know we all make mistakes. I know that perfection is unattainable. I know that many of my colleagues who read this will chuckle in memory of their own similar blunders. I know these things, but I still replay the moment over and over in my head with shame, embarrassment, and self-loathing. I still want to avoid mistakes, to be perfect.

After worship, a woman in our congregation came to me and said, "Lindsay, you always keep it real." I know she meant this with love; I know she meant it as a good thing, but at that moment I felt so deeply ashamed. I would like to go back in time and change it, or hide behind my big fluffy robe so that you cannot see the redness of my face or the tears in my eyes.

Imperfetto, ma vero

It was only in the afternoon, as I continued to reflect on this, that it occurred to me the joy in the woman's face as she told me that I "keep it real." It was a comfort for her to see the clergy not sparkling with perfection; it was a comfort for her to be in the same imperfect boat as me. And in truth, this has always been a part of my sense of call: that I'm an honest sinner, an imperfect saint, that I am a human with the same temptations, sins, and struggles as the next person. I do not have all the answers, but I'm praying for direction; I am just another disciple like anyone, and I hope that when we come together in worship, we are learning together about God's will.

But even with that in my mind, I remain uncomfortable with imperfection. Mistakes, or perceived mistakes, haunt me like irritating ghosts; they slowly pick and eat at me, until I'm debilitated by them.

So the idea that my blundering of the Words of Institution could bring comfort and even joy to someone is a baffling, shocking notion. Maybe the people of Unity need me to be imperfect, they need me to be human. Maybe the world needs me to be imperfect, but true, but real, but honest.

How would my life change if my goal was not to be perfect but to be true? What might I do differently if I was striving not to be immaculate but to be honest? What would be different if I aspired not to be infallible but to be real?

I know I'm not the only perfectionist around here, so I wonder if you sometimes feel this pressure. 

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12.8-10

What if all of us could lay down the idol of perfection, and pursued the realness, the truthiness, the honesty of God? What if we could relish or at least dwell in our weaknesses in order to rely on the power and strength of God?

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Fire Within

This weekend, I had the great blessing of spending time at Surfside beach with 16 of our delightful high school youth. We focused on the idea of rest as a spiritual discipline and about how even with all the many things we have to do, we are called not let school or cross country or our jobs or any of the things of the world to rule our lives, but rather to let our lives be ruled by our love for God.

We also talked about how our lives aren't magically changed overnight, but we have to enter spiritual disciplines and sacred rest in small doses every day. One of the scriptures we reflected on was this:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer up your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing, and perfect will.

Romans 12.1-2

The concept of being transformed is one that strikes me personally and one I hope might capture your heart as well.

Grammar Geek...

If you don't like grammar, feel free to skip ahead. For those of us Grammar Geeks, let's think on this for a moment. I love in this passage that it says "be transformed." In grammar, this is in the "passive voice" meaning the subject of the transforming isn't you; rather you are the object of the transforming. In other words, you can't transform yourself. Only God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can do that.

So transformation, then, doesn't look like me beating myself up when I'm not perfect. It doesn't look like me foregoing sleep so that I can read another chapter of the Bible or putting together a regimen of spiritual practices that I can in no way keep up with. It doesn't mean that I need to become perfect; it means I need to turn my attention to the one who is.

I really like this because I am an over-functioner. As a child I would practice writing my alphabet for hours a day, even long into my teenage years, so that I would have perfectly neat handwriting. To this day, when I am in a group and we need a scribe, I like to be the one writing because I know my handwriting will be perfect. When I am assigned a task, I do it right and I do it perfectly, or I do not do it at all. If it were my task to become perfect, I would literally push myself to insanity trying to accomplish self-transformation. It is a relief for me that the dotting of my eyes and the crossing of my t's comes not from my own efforts but from me resting in God's love and transforming me from the inside out.

Yoga and the Third Niyama...

I bring up yoga and eastern spiritual practices not because I am secretly trying to support another religion but because I thought this lesson had universal truth. Sometimes when I practice yoga, I think the words my instructors use give voice to parts of my faith I didn't have words for before. Maybe this isn't strictly perfect, but when I hear something that resonates more with a truth I know from my faith, I just steal it and change it for myself. Don't judge me too harshly!

When I was in yoga last week, the instructor was talking about the third niyama called "tapas." Tapas refers to the fire in your belly, the energy you have for perseverance, the part of you that burns and churns for transformation. I immediately thought about the Romans passage for this weekend, among others. Scripture gives us lots of examples of spiritual transformation, but it doesn't have a word for the internal fire that responds and yearns for that transformation. There's something biblical about God placing a fire within us that urges us to change and transformation, and maybe it resonates with you also.

I love this concept because I am reminded that I'm not done, I'm not perfect, I'm not always right. I love this concept because I always want to be better, to be more humble, to be more like Jesus. I love this concept because there is always room for a closer walk with God. As a pastor, I believe sometimes people think I have all the answers or I have my act together all the time. I think sometimes people think I should have all the answers or my act together all the time. And I think sometimes people think I'll attain perfection after like 5 years in ministry or when I have children or when I retire or something. I love Romans 12 because it doesn't make exceptions; it doesn't say, be transformed by going to seminary or being in ministry. And while verse two sort of seems like there might be an end point, the whole chapter seems to show us that this is a lifelong journey.


So anytime I stand to pray or to preach, to guide our youth, I stand as a work-in-progress, humbly accepting God's will and God's grace. I teach our youth to allow God to transform their lives 5 minutes at a time because God continues to transform my life 5 minutes at a time. As a pastor, I pray that we can learn and grow together, that we can walk on this journey together.

Monday, August 21, 2017

And the darkness did not overcome...

The anticipation of today's eclipse has had many of us rushing to drug stores for glasses, worrying about South Carolina traffic, traveling to stay with friends and family...

Perhaps you bought some of the Krispy Kreme eclipse donuts:

Or maybe you've been listening to Total Eclipse of the heart all day long:

(or you've been waiting to hear as Ms. Tyler sings it during the eclipse!)

Maybe you've been frantically reading about eye damage or listening to news stories of how the eclipse affects people's moods or the environment.

As I've been hearing about the eclipse for the past few weeks, because I'm a nerdy pastor and it's what I do, I've been reflecting on scripture that records what we can assume are eclipse-like events.


In Exodus, as Moses is appearing before the Pharaoh to free the Israelite people, God causes 10 plagues, the ninth of which was darkness.

And there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days.
Exodus 10.22

The darkness interferes with the daily lives of the Egyptians: they can't see or move or do their work. The plague of darkness did not, however, affect the Israelites, who continue about their business. The plague shows the mighty power and clear authority of God in the world: even the sun and moon and stars listen to the Lord our God.


Then in Joshua, as the army of the Israelites is conquering the land of Canaan, God makes the sun stand still.

The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought for Israel.
Joshua 10.14

It is debatable whether this is a true "eclipse" but the stillness of the sun in the sky is unique and interesting. Again, we witness a God who stands on behalf of God's people, and we are made aware of God's presence by the altering of the normal patterns of the sun.


The prophets describe the "Day of the Lord" or the day of God's judgment, as a day when the sun is dark and the world is topsy turvy.

See, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
 to make the earth a desolation,
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give there light;
the sun will be dark in its rising,
 and the moon will not shed its light.
Isaiah 13.9-11

When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens,
and make their stars dark.
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
 and the moon will not give its light.
All the shining lights of the heavens
I will darken above you and put darkness in your land, says the Lord.
Ezekiel 32.7

The earth quakes before them,
the heavens tremble.
The sun and moon are darkened,
 and the stars withdraw their shining....
Truly the day of the Lord is great;
terrible indeed - who can endure it?
Joel 2.10-11b

On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
Amos 8.9

The idea of darkness during the day is one of terror, judgment, and fear. 


In the gospels, we also witness an eclipse at Jesus' death.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three o'clock in the afternoon. ... Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
Matthew 27.45;50

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. ... Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
Mark 15.33;37

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land, until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last.
Luke 23.44-46

There is a sense that the cosmic power of Jesus' death is so enormous that it overwhelms even the sun. I also like to imagine that the scene of Jesus on the cross was so tragic that God averted God's eyes and drew the shade over the shame and pain of God's son. 


So, it should come as a surprise to us that over the centuries we have gone from an eclipse being a symbol of fear and pain and terror, a sign that the divine powers that be were enacting judgment on the land, to a marketing event. Instead of something to fear, an eclipse has become something that causes traffic jams, something to travel 100 miles to see, and something to have a sweet party about. With scientific study, we've learned that eclipses happen on a reliable basis; they are something that simply happens, a shift from the normal routine of the celestial bodies and, just as quickly, a shift back to the habitual orbits.

Of course, when I emerged from our church office to a chorus of cicadas and the automatic evening lights had come on in front of the sanctuary and all the air had a cloudy mysterious haze to it, I wasn't really thinking about science and orbits. It was downright spooky and a strange and almost a stumbling block to my brain and senses. Even this weird snake living next door to my friend, Mel, was thrown off his little groove as he stared at the sun {literally the only time I'm going to say anything cute about a snake}.

There's a reason we stepped out from work or we drove 100 miles; there's a reason we hunted down eclipse glasses and purchased Sun Drop. Somewhere in the midst of this eclipse, we all experience something ethereal, surreal, and divine. The God who made the darkness over Egypt centuries ago eclipsed the sun today. The God who ordered the heavenly bodies made sure that there would be moments like these that would remind us that God is in charge. Whether you're black or white, Democrat or Republican, Christian or not, all of us craned our necks and shielded our eyes as the world stood still in darkness this afternoon. When the darkness crept into our world, we did what God has always called us to do: we looked up.

I keep coming back to the gospel of John (who oddly does not record the eclipse at Jesus' death). John begins with these famous lines:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1.1-5

Today's eclipse for me is a reminder that the darkness of the world does not last. I am comforted that even when the darkness seems to settle and turn the world topsy turvy, God, just like the sun sitting behind the moon, is still present, still active. The light and love of God is not something that can be contained by the dark and simple presence of the moon; no, the light is something that bursts forth, even when the shadows are unbearable and the world is in chaos. 

It seems appropriate to me that yesterday our youth led us in worship and we were able to experience such joy and light coming from the youth of our church, from the future of our church. It seems appropriate to me that we've kicked off another year of Sunday School. It seems right to me that people of literally all ages gathered yesterday for the ice cream social. These are the ways that the Kingdom of God was bursting through the darkness within the walls of our church. These are the ways that our church refuses to be blinded by darkness but constantly seeks the light.

The light of God shines in the darkness, and darkness did not, can not, and will never overcome it.