Archive for February 2011
Vinegar Hill, by A. Manette Ansay, Harper Collins, 1994, 240 pp.
In the novel, I don’t recall Ansay describing the house on Vinegar Hill as overcast and shrouded in fog, but that’s the only way I could imagine it. This book felt heavy from beginning to end. The home, the story, the family were so cloudy and gray that it felt oppressive just to read about it. Vinegar Hill is the story of family members trapped in the past, unrelentingly playing out their own fears and rejections over and over again in familiar patterns of despair, violence and grudges.
In response to economic troubles, Ellen and James (along with their two young children) are forced to move in with James’ parents, Mary-Margaret and Fritz. Mary-Margaret and Fritz are governed by a history of violence and guilt, overseen by an angry, vengeful God. The longer the family resides with them, the more James reverts to his childhood role of trying to appease his abusive father. Ellen feels her despair growing, and the bleakness of the relationships in the house begin to frighten and depress the young children as well. As the story unfolds, they all sink deeper into despair.
While there is hope at the end, this book is not the story of a rising. It is the story of a sinking into the mire, until finally there is no way to go on—the characters will be smothered, or they will fight their way out. Reading the book made me feel like the gray cloud had descended on me when I was reading it. It was tough to shake it, even when the novel was finished. When I read a novel, I want to escape into another world. Vinegar Hill was a bleak world from which I wanted to escape back into my own life.
Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 49:8-16
Speaking in God’s voice, Isaiah writes: “I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are continually before me.” It’s such a familiar, ordinary kind of image. “I won’t forget—see? I wrote it down right here on my hand.” What do you write on your hands? Telephone numbers? Directions? Grocery Lists? Things to bring to a meeting, an event? Students write crib notes for their tests. At least one politician has gotten in trouble for writing debate notes on the palm of a hand. We can deduce that this practice is as old as the Bible itself, at least the era of Isaiah.
Every time you look down at your hands, the reminder is there. What is the reminder written on the palms of God’s hands? You are, Isaiah says. You are written on the palm of God’s hand. Your name, concerns about your well-being, all the needs of the community of God are inscribed in the palm of his hands.
When I first heard this image, I found it incredibly moving. I mean, to think, we, you and me, matter so much to God that we are written in the palm of God’s hand. Surely we will not be forgotten, if we are written in such a handy place?
But the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled by having my name written on God’s hand. I don’t know about you, but the only time I bother writing something on my hand is when I am actually quite inclined to forget it. I write it there because I just know, if I don’t, I’m going to forget. And I actually gave up writing things on the palm of my hand a long time ago, because I discovered that I would almost always sweat, smear or wash them off by the time I needed to remember them. I’d just end up with some illegible smudges in the wrinkles of my skin—not a helpful reminder at all.
This troubled me. I mean, on first glance, I loved the idea of our being so close to God’s mind, so important to God’s memory that God would write our names, yours and mine, right there in the palm of the hand. But then I thought—that means God might forget us if not for the reminder—and what if it gets all sweaty and smudgy? (We’re not talking literally here, of course—either about the palms or the smudge, but I just did not like where the metaphor led me.)
And then, I realized I’d just over-thought myself out of a sermon, and I wondered what I was going to stand up here at say to you. Because really, what I want to say to you today is what Isaiah was trying to say with this image about the palms of the hands—God loves you so much that you, little old you, little old me, that we are always on God’s mind, inscribed right in the palm of his hands. That you and I are on God’s mind, in God’s thoughts, in God’s heart, and in God’s hands.
I went back to the scripture reading to try again. I realized I had been so focused on sitting in the palm of God’s hand that I had completely overlooked a much better metaphor.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”
I was once a woman with a nursing child, and I still miss it. I loved the way my body responded to his needs. The way the milk welled up inside me at the sound of his cry—or the cry of any lonesome baby. The sensation of being full to overflowing, then emptying into a hungry baby belly. The joy of holding him close, playing with his feet and hands while he ate. The pride I felt in watching his legs and arms grow fatter on the nutrition my body produced. The power of knowing that I could provide everything my baby needed, no matter where we went. The amazement at what my body knew to do, its ability to provide. The mystical connection to the God that created me, and to all the women who had nursed children before me.
What I loved more than anything, what I miss most, is the intimacy we shared. This tiny child depended on me for his nutrition. I responded by offering him my body. Especially in those early months, we could not bear to be apart from one another—he for hunger, me for the need to empty myself for him. I could not go for more than a couple of hours without experiencing his absence from my body. I ached for him. My body yearned to give itself over to him. Forgetting him, forgetting my role as his mother, was impossible. I carried my love and care for him not just in my mind, but in my body. My body would not let me forget, even for a moment.
Our God is a nursing mother. She feels a connection to us in her very body, filled to overflowing with love, ready to pour into our hungry selves. We are impossible for God to forget, for that love for us is carried in God’s very body. God delights in our growth and strength, marvels at our creation, provides for us everything we need. God will not, cannot neglect us. Our connection to God is so intimate that it is physical.
When we talk about being held in the arms of God, it’s not just hands outstretched, like a baby bird you are observing with gentleness. It’s also cradled like a baby, cradled and rocked, soothed and snuggled. When we say, “God knows, and God cares,” we aren’t just talking about the mind of God—we are talking about the very body of God, which aches with our absence and yearns to be reunited with us. When we cry out like a newborn child, knowing that we are hungry or lonely or dirty or afraid, even if we cannot get up and make our way to God, if all we can do is open our mouths and wail in despair, God comes to us, picks us up, rocks us gently and places us next to her heart.
God holds us in the palm of his hand, at her nursing breast. We dwell inside God’s beating heart.
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Highlighted Passage: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23
I have always been fascinated by the construction of cathedrals. In the Middle Ages, when the cardinals of Europe were competing with one another to build the most magnificent edifice, craftsmen and laborers used the simplest of tools to build these spectacular buildings. Construction provided employment for hundreds, if not thousands, of workers, most of which would never live to see the fulfillment of their labors. Cathedrals took centuries to build, and the life expectancy of most workers was less than 50 years. The laborers and masons and glasscutters spent their whole lives, from an apprenticeship in their preteens until their old age, working on the project, in the hopes that their great-great grandchildren might someday worship there.
While we may build our church buildings today in a mere year or two, the process of building Christ’s church is still something that happens across centuries and generations. As Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, the foundation has been laid in Jesus Christ. Paul, himself only one “degree” removed from Jesus and the disciples, builds upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Each subsequent generation is tasked with continuing to build the church, to spread the good news. Like the cathedral builders of old, we inherit a project that has already been started, and we will not live to see its completion. However, if we do not continue the work that was started by those who came before us, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will not know a place to discover the grace of Jesus Christ.
My church is in the midst of the commitment phase of a capital campaign, with a planned giving period of three years. (I just have to share my glee—last Sunday was our Celebration of Commitment, and we surpassed our $350,000 goal by more than $50,000!) The theme of our campaign is “Foundations: Our Faith, Our Time, Our Future,” and we have been working with the image Paul presents in this passage. Our church was founded in 1860. The building we currently inhabit was built in 1915, and expanded in 1951. We have only one member left who was baptized in the old building prior to 1915. There are a few who were present in the 1951 expansion, but they were young people, not leaders of the church at the time. We are living in a building built by others who came before us. As we plan and imagine renovations for the future, we realize that we are not building for ourselves and our programs—we are building something for the next generation to inherit, a place for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to gather to worship and come to know Jesus Christ. We don’t know what their worship will look like, or what ministries they will launch, or how the Gospel will be made known in their generation—but we want to offer them something, an inheritance, a building where they might find shelter and connection to the holy.
In my church, we are dealing with a literal building right now—but, as it was for Paul, the building is a metaphor for what we really about, which is building the community of Christ, the Kingdom of God. How can we build God’s community, God’s message, our faithfulness so that those who come after us will continue to know the Gospel?
The question Paul’s image provokes is: how’s the building project going? Are you using the best materials available, with prayer and study? Are you dedicated to the work, or are you just throwing it together? Will your efforts to build the community of Christ stand up to the test of fire, or will it crumble under pressure? Who is being glorified by your efforts? Are you building to the glory of God and the spread of the gospel to future generations, or are you building memorials and statues to human heroes today?
One of my favorite quotations from Reinhold Niebuhr reminds me to always take the long view of all our efforts at building, whether we are constructing a church, community or ministry:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
Or, as Paul puts it, “all things are yours…the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
Leadership for Vital Congregations, by Anthony B. Robinson, Pilgrim Press, 2006, 128 pp.
This is a book I wish I had found and read a long time ago–even before 2006, when it was first published. Over the last five years, I have been engaged in leading a church through a time of major change. I found Robinson’s book Transforming Congregational Culture incredibly helpful in understanding the kind of change required, and his book with Robert W. Wall, Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day shaped a sermon series I preached to help my congregation understand and tackle these issues from a biblical framework. This book on leadership brought together much of what I have learned over the past five years of this journey, and encapsulated it in a clear, straightforward way. Having read Robinson’s earlier books and many of the books he cites as references, I felt familiar with most of the guidance he offers, but I have never seen anyone collect and share it so directly and concisely.
Robinson begins by describing various images of leadership, in an attempt to expand our images of leaders and their tasks. Influenced by Ron Heifetz, he describes the task of leaders as “mobilizing a group or community to make progress on its own toughest challenges and problems.” (24) He points out some factors unique to pastoral leadership, such as working with volunteers, being more accessible than most leaders, and understanding God’s leadership as ultimate. One chapter is a very helpful literature review of some of the most widely respected secular writers on leadership. This was an excellent introduction to these authors, but also serves to broaden the imagination about the function and purpose of leadership.
Robinson’s chapter entitled, “Pastoral Leadership: Seven Strategies,” is what really made me wish I’d had this book several years ago. He describes seven leadership strategies that pastors must follow in order to lead. They are sequential—you must do one before the other—but pastoral leaders are always doing all of these steps as they move ahead in leading congregations. Everything starts with building trust (Strategy One), and discerning what’s going on (Strategy Two), why we are here (Strategy Three) and what God is calling us to do (Strategy Four). Once change begins, the pastoral leader manages distress (Strategy Five), persists (Strategy Six) and helps build a learning congregation (Strategy Seven). This is exactly what we have been doing in our congregation over the last five years. It is almost an exact map of the terrain we have covered in our change process. I only wish I’d had the map ahead of time—it would have made me feel less like a wilderness wanderer!
The remaining chapters talk about sustainability practices in leadership. Robinson talks about growing and developing spiritual leaders, the role and responsibilities of the congregation, caring for your soul as a leader, and leadership itself as a spiritual practice. I have never heard anyone talk about leadership itself as a spiritual practice, and I found myself saying, “yes! yes! yes!” He outlines five specific examples drawn from the story of Moses about how leadership is a spiritual discipline, but I thought of a dozen more. For me, the act of prayer and discernment with God about my congregation and how I am called to challenge and connect with them is incredibly holy. It has made me a better Christian and a better person. The act of leading a congregation engages my heart and soul for God’s use just like personal prayer, study, meditation or sabbath-keeping. It shapes me in the ways of Christ. For example, our church is currently engaged in a capital campaign. Being a pastoral leader challenging others to greater generosity has transformed me into a more generous person. It was a gift and a revelation in this book for Robinson to name that as a spiritual discipline.
This book is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in engaging in deep, transformative work as a pastoral leader. In a few short pages, Robinson summarizes what that kind of leadership looks like, the basics of how to do it, what to expect and how to sustain it. This book will not tell you the details of why the church needs to change (see Transforming Congregational Culture for a good primer on that one), how to conduct a visioning or planning process, what changes the church should be making, or even what your changed church should look like. There are plenty of other books out there that will do that. Instead, Leadership for Vital Congregations tells you what kind of leader you need to be to get there. If you want to be that kind of transformational leader but don’t know how to start, start here. Like any map, this book won’t tell you where you need to go or describe the details of the landscape you’ll see. It will simply orient you on the journey. You’ll have to trust God, your congregation and your own discernment for the rest.
Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg, Anchor Books, 2000, 275 pp.
It’s hard to describe this book concisely. The best I can say is that Bee Season is the story of a family unraveling—the unraveling of a little girl’s innocence, the unraveling of relationships between family members, the unraveling of religious faith, the unraveling of a hidden addiction, the unraveling of the facade of normalcy, the unraveling of expectations, the unraveling of plans for the future, and more.
It all starts when young Eliza, whom everyone believes is simply average, wins her school-wide spelling bee. Her sudden success excites her father Saul, and pulls him away from his intimate relationship with her older brother Aaron, always deemed exceptional and destined for greatness. Her mother Miriam exists in a world all her own, but her psychological issues are held in check by the balance of the household. Although it is in no way her fault, Eliza’s success disrupts the balance of the household, sending every family member (including Eliza) spinning off in new and unpredicted directions–into crime, cults and obsessions.
Even that description makes the novel sound juicier than it ought. For all the collapse in the family, their pursuits are merely self-destructive, and lack the sex, violence and major crimes of most novels. To call the story subtle belies the intensity of the characters, whose laser-like focus is often their undoing. Both Aaron and Eliza collapse into meditative religious practices, and the collapse of their parents is not much different than religious obsession.
I enjoyed Bee Season for its solid writing and in-depth description of subtle human emotions. I found the story intriguing and worth pursuing, even if it was not gripping. For all the surreal experiences of the characters, the emotions they feel and the language Goldberg uses to describes them feel universal and very, very real.
Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Harper Collins, 2009, 216 pp.
Barbara Brown Taylor never disappoints with the beauty of her language and the connections she makes about the movements of God in her spirit and her world. My book is full of notes and underlines to which I hope to return to borrow a gem for a future sermon. An Altar in the World describes her spiritual life outside of the church, since she left parish ministry several years ago.
Each chapter of the book describes a spiritual practice that can be done by anyone, in any place. They are deeply grounded Christian practices, although she moves beyond the classic list of prayer, study, Sabbath, service and more. Taylor carefully grounds each one in Christian tradition, even as she assigns them contemporary names free of all “churchiness.” Reverence becomes “the practice of paying attention.” Wilderness becomes “the practice of getting lost.” Prayer becomes “the practice of being present to God.” The prayer chapter was one of my favorites, because she talks about her life as a failure in prayer, if prayer is the art of constant conversation with God. She returns us to Brother Lawrence (whom I love), who models prayer as practicing God’s presence in every action and every moment, opening oneself to God at every turn.
While this book is certainly beautifully written, it did not grab me with the compelling power her previous works held over me. I wonder if it is because my own spirituality is so deeply connected to church, that church’s conspicuous absence made me feel absent too. It could also simply have been the wrong time in my life for this book—it just didn’t speak to my heart at this moment. I did not find anything in An Altar in the World that was new, as it seemed to rehearse similar territory to Dorothy Bass’ Practicing Our Faith and Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us, singing the same song in a different key. I love the two Bass books, and the whole movement around them to prioritize Christian faith practices. Taylor’s book belongs to that genre, so I appreciate it even if it was not my favorite among them. It would probably be a great book for someone on the edges of Christianity and church, but intrigued by a Christian way of life.
This whole movement speaks as a challenge and a call to renewal for the heady, wordy nature of mainline worship. Taylor points out that, in all the discussions of the decline of mainline churches, no one talks about the “intellectualization of the faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list.” I have been thinking a lot about this lately in our own church. I want to move people to experience God, and I’m not sure our current worship service is the best means for doing so. We need ways to move beyond saying words, listening to words and singing wordy songs as our only corporate expressions of worship. Taylor continues:
In an age of information overload … the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God. (45)
How can we stop telling people about God and actually bring them into God’s presence? Vital worship that involves bodies and senses and motion. Spiritual practices that shape our bodies into God’s bodies serving the world. Engaged faith that inspires people to make altars everywhere in the world.