For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘God

Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life by Glennon Doyle Melton, Scribner, 2013, 300 pp.

Carry On WarriorI have a significant number of friends, drawn from both clergy circles and mom circles, who are huge fans of Glennon Doyle Melton and her Momastery blog, almost like fangirls with their level of devotion and *squee*. Although I’ve been reading Momastery for a long time, I’m not in that camp. I’m not generally one to go fangirl anyway, and Momastery never tempted me. I admire Glennon Doyle Melton and her mission of connecting people together. Her blog regularly makes me draw in a sharp breath in recognition, or moves me to tears, or makes me feel heard and understood, or says something I want to say in a way that is much more clever. To be honest, even though I know Melton sees a much more inclusive vision, it sometimes felt too much like #whitepeopleproblems, a place for suburban, white and wealthy moms absorbed in their own struggles. Her writing annoys me sometimes, so much so that I can’t even make it through a blog post because of ALL THE CAPITAL LETTERS.

So, I didn’t reach for Carry On, Warrior right away. I knew it was important to read it, that I would find some great things inside, but I also felt like it might give me a headache.

I was wrong. Because it’s a book and not a blog, Carry On, Warrior is edited. That means it’s all the best, most wonderful stuff from Momastery, refined and honed into greater beauty. Glennon Doyle Melton is a good writer, and I suspect she had a good editor, because what emerges here is a stronger, clearer and more compelling voice for Melton, but one that remains uniquely hers. It’s still raw, not polished; authentic, not packaged. She’s become a much better writer, and what I found in Carry On, Warrior is a beautiful memoir of faith and hope. It’s only fitting that Melton, whose best appeal is her vulnerability about her own struggles, lives that story again as a writer. This isn’t a mess, it’s a beautiful, humorous collection of essays on life and love that reveals the holy in all our mess.

Melton tells stories from her brutiful life (beautiful + brutal, a term she coined), and invites us to see where God is present in them and in our brutiful lives. She covers her journey through addiction recovery and an eating disorder, the ups and downs of marriage and parenting, and finding faith and family. She has a straightforward way of explaining things using everyday metaphors that is deceptively simple. Her observations seem obvious, until you consider them for just a moment and realize their power. It’s a skill like Jesus, taking ordinary stuff and imbuing it with holy meaning. Also like Jesus, at every turn she offers glimpses of beauty and hope. I guess I probably sound like a fangirl now, against my will.

Below are some of my favorite examples, to get a sense of the power of Carry On, Warrior.

I like to compare God’s love to the sunrise. That sun shows up every morning, no matter how bad you’ve been the night before. It shines without judgment. It never withholds. It warms the sinners, the saints, the druggies, the cheerleaders–the saved and the heathens alike. You can hide from the sun, but it won’t take that personally. It’ll never, ever punish you for hiding. You can stay in the dark for years or decades, and when you finally step outside, it’ll be there. It was there the whole time, shining and shining. It’ll still be there, steady and bright as ever, just waiting for you to notice, to come out, to be warmed. … The sunrise was my daily invitation from God to come back to life. (19)

Here, in an open letter to her son, she tackles two of the most divisive questions among Christians today, the interpretation of scripture and what it means to be born again. Suddenly, all those divisions seem to fall away.

Much of the Bible is confusing, but the most important parts aren’t. Sometimes I wonder if folks keep arguing about the confusing parts so they don’t have to get started doing the simple parts. … If a certain scripture turns our judgment outward instead of inward, if it requires us to worry about changing others instead of ourselves, if it doesn’t help us become better lovers of God and life and others, if it distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing down here–finding God in everyone, feeding hungry people, comforting the sick and the sad, giving whatever we have to give, and laying down our lives for our friends–then we assume we don’t understand it yet, and we get back to what we do understand. Chase, what we do understand is that we are reborn.

The first time you’re born, you identify the people in the room as your family. The second time you’re born, you identify the whole world as your family. Christianity is not about joining a particular club; it’s about waking up to the fact that we’re all in the same club. (141)

She comes head-on at one of my favorite topics, the importance of church in Christian life.

Any faith worth a damn is a faith worked out over a lifetime of relationships with other people. Church is just a commitment to try to live a life of a certain quality–a life of love, of humility, of service–alongside others for whom you care and allow to care for you, even when that’s difficult. It’s a group of regular old humans trying to love each other and the world in superhuman ways. And so it’s a hard way of life, but to me, it’s the only way of life that makes any sense. When people ask me if faith, if church, is comforting to me, I say, “Sort of.” But mostly it’s challenging. (219)

With this book, Glennon Doyle Melton has moved well past the title of “mommy blogger,” and become a writer whose truth-telling cuts through the noise and gives voice to the presence of God in the midst of our everyday lives. I have flags in three pages already, with plans to use quotations for upcoming sermons. This is after already developing an entire sermon on her principles (We Can Do Hard Things) just a few weeks ago. I look forward to reading much more from her in the future.

The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed for Preaching, Teaching and Worship by James C. Howell, Abingdon Press, 2005, 173 pp.

This is the fourth of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

The Life We ClaimJames C. Howell wrote the excellent commentary about the creeds for the Narrative Lectionary series that inspired me to preach my sermon series on the topic, so his book was among the first I sought.

The Life We Claim lives up to its subtitle as a resource for preaching, teaching and worship. The book is structured in 35 short “lessons,” which includes both a line-by-line breakdown of the Creed and introductory materials. Each small group of lessons is followed by a sample sermon on that section, 14 total. The appendix even includes suggested hymns, songs and anthems to accompany a related sermon series.

The most helpful part of Howell’s book, for me, were the sample sermons. I struggled to find ways to preach on the components of the Apostles’ Creed that was more than theological instruction. Howell’s contribution was to move beyond teaching into preaching, a way of telling the good news and challenge in each section of the creed. He offered ways to see the lines of the creed as an invitation to spiritual connection in daily life, including many helpful illustrations and metaphors.

For example, his sermon on God as Father imagined God’s experience of fatherhood based on his own. He describes his experience of fatherhood, then imagines God’s.

I have been dizzied by unanticipated delights, and my heart has been broken in places I didn’t know were there. Question: is it like that for God? If God is our Father, our “Abba,” does God look down at us and at one moment it’s an unexpected delight, and then the next moment God’s heart is broken? (20-21)

Later, his discussion of Jesus’ suffering on the cross urges us into places of suffering in God’s name.

The Creed mercifully reminds us that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. It’s not that suffering is over there and God is over here, and we must rush away from suffering to get back to where God is, because where God is there can be no suffering. If you want to find God, look into the face of suffering; visit the place of suffering. Wherever there is human anguish, loss and pain, God is there. (67)

One of the most controversial lines in the Apostles’ Creed is about Jesus’ “descent into hell.” Howell’s succinct argument was the most persuasive and accessible of any of the authors I read.

Because Jesus descended into hell, we know there is no such thing as a godless place. Whenever we as the Church go to hell, we find that Jesus is there ahead of us, and we discover that we at long last are actually close to the Jesus for whom we long. (78)

Howell writes with a pastoral heart. This book offers just what it promises–tools for teaching, preaching and worship focused on the Apostles’ Creed. I recommend it highly for that purpose.

In Search of Belief by Joan Chittister, Liguori/Triumph, 1999, 217 pp.

This is the third of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

In Search of BeliefJoan Chittister is in a category all her own. While everyone else approaches the creeds with an attempt to explain or expound, to offer background or argument or enhancement, Chittister approaches the creeds with her self, her questions, her wonderings, and her mysticism. What emerges is a spiritual conversation–sometimes argumentative, sometimes comfortable–musing on the Apostles’ Creed.

Chittister breaks the creed into more pieces than any other author, with 27 separate chapters, each one devoted to just a word or short phrase from the creed. This approach leads to more of a devotional resource than a reference book. Chittister’s meditations range far and wide from the creed itself, and she wanders about to expand the basic ideas more than clarifying them. In that expansive wandering, the reader stumbles into moments of beauty and insight that are beyond the words of the creeds, but true to its mysteries. For example, her short second chapter on “In God” contains these reflections:

God is the mystery nobody wants. What people covet in God is not mystery but certainty. (18)

In the long light of human history, then, it is not belief in God that sets us apart. It is the kind of God in which we choose to believe that in the end makes all the difference. (20)

God is both what we cannot think and what we cannot not think at the same time. (21)

Her fourth chapter, “Almighty,” follows this path:

We want interventions from God, in other words, to make the world what we want the world to be rather than to change ourselves so the world can become what it ought to be. We want someone else to do something, rather than face the need to become something other ourselves. We want a God who does physical miracles rather than spiritual ones. (35)

To see the Almighty God we must wrest ourselves open to the almightiness of God in us, around us, beneath us, before us, in every possibility that impels us to be more than we are. (37)

God is being as almighty in me as I have finally mustered the courage to allow and been given the opportunity to attempt. (38)

Her spiritual paths invite a depth and richness in our contemplation of the creed, word by word, that cannot be hurried but must be pondered. As the creed unfolds, Chittister’s Roman Catholicism and feminism show through boldly in the chapters on Mary and the church, which offer searing critiques of the Roman church’s refusal to ordain women, denial of feminine language of God and closed-minded teaches on sexuality. I also found her Catholicism evident in the chapter on judgment, which included a wonderful insight into “healthy guilt,” which she identifies as a guilt that is felt for the right things (like ways we harm others), is not exaggerated, and can be acted upon to change our behavior and situation. There are lots of jokes about Catholic guilt, but this is an insightful understanding of the purpose of this emotion.

One of my favorite chapters was her reflection on the communion of the saints. She writes,

Belief in the communion of saints is a call to immersion in the holy-making project of living out the life of Christ ourselves as so many have done before us. … We are bound to the unfinished work of bringing the world to the beatitudes. (178)

The Creed is not a call to believe in the Church. The Creed is a call to follow the Christ. Believing in a church that makes us feel holy ourselves by keeping in good repair a checklist of private devotions is easy. Believing in the Christ who demands our sanctity be measured by our relationships to the rest of the human race is the real measure of the holy life. (179)

As always, Joan Chittister goes deep and invites us to engage not just in the work of thinking, but of connecting and living in a relationship with Christ, in this embodied world and in the realm of the heart. This book was well worth a slower, more dedicated read than I gave it. There is much beauty and wisdom contained in it.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans, Nelson Books, 2015, 269 pp.

Searching for SundayI am enormously grateful for the voice of Rachel Held Evans and the contribution she makes to the contemporary conversation about what it means to be a Christian, to be a church, to love God and live as God intends. For me, she is added to a growing list of authors whose work gives a fresh eloquence to ancient questions, people like Rob Bell and Nadia Bolz-Weber. When I read their books, I never feel like I am reading anything monumental as a new idea or paradigm-shattering concept, but instead I find a new generation voicing the ancient-yet-always-new vision and theology at the core of our Christian faith. I know that for some people, these authors rock the boat and rock their world. That’s not the case for me, though it doesn’t make me any less of a fan. It’s as if someone gives eloquent voice to what I’ve been thinking for 20 years already. I’m indebted and grateful to these authors for giving me a way to share this with others, whether those whose boats need rocking, those who’ve already sprung a leak, and those feeling about to drown.

Searching for Sunday offers a refreshingly life-affirming take on the traditional seven sacraments of the church: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick and marriage. Evans made the journey out of fundamentalism and found a new home in the Episcopal church. This book traces that evolution by placing her personal stories in sacramental context, tying these holy acts to the ordinary elements of our lives. I loved the way she makes these holy mysteries accessible and interwoven with the water, bread, hands, sins of our lives.

Mostly, I love her prose. It’s not the major, overarching insights of the book that draw me–it’s the minute crystals of light that she captures, phrases and ideas I want to remember and revisit for preaching and teaching the future. Here are a few of my favorites.

This book is entitled Searching for Sunday, but it’s less about searching for a Sunday church and more about searching for Sunday resurrection. It’s about all the strange ways God brings dead things back to life again. (xviii)

I hadn’t yet learned that you tend to come out of the big moments–the wedding, the book deal, the trip, the death, the birth–as the exact same person who went in, and that perhaps the strangest surprise of life is it keeps on happening to the same old you. (14)

Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain function of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed. Both seem pretty unlikely to me. … What the church needs most is to recover some of its weird. … We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love. There’s nothing normal about that. (21-22)

I often wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. … There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. (112)

I could only proclaim the great mystery of faith–that Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again, and that somehow, some way, this is enough. This body and this blood is enough. At Eagle Eyrie I learned why it’s so important for pastors to serve communion. It’s important because it steals the show. It’s important because it shoves you and your ego and your expectations out of the way so Jesus can do his thing. It reminds you that grace is as abundant as tears and faith as simple as food. (140)

If you are looking for words to describe how God is alive in the church, ancient and new, Rachel Held Evans points the way. She reclaims the historic witness of the church and places it squarely in the middle of our 21st century mess, and sees where God is alive and moving among us. Her words give me words to claim faith anew.

 

A meditation delivered at the Downtown Jeffersonville Lenten Services, hosted by Wall Street United Methodist Church, based on Joel 2:12-17.

broken-heartI fell in love for the first time when I was 22 years old. I’d had plenty of dates, little crushes and infatuations, romances that lasted awhile here and there, but I’d never fallen in love.

I was out of college, working two jobs just to rent a crummy little apartment at the beach with a roommate, and hanging out with a bunch of her old friends from high school. He was her friend and became mine, and then we fell for each other, pretty fast and pretty hard. I would go to work at 7:30 every morning and return home at 10:30 every night, and still find time to spend hours talking on the phone or hanging out in the late-night diner, just to be together. I couldn’t stand the idea of being apart, and even hanging up the phone felt like torture. I wanted to share every moment together, every little detail of our days. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know just what I mean.

They don’t call it heartache for nothing.

I remember one particular day. We were hanging out at the crummy apartment, doing nothing special, and I saw him sitting across the room when the thought ran through my mind: “you’re gonna break my heart someday.” I wasn’t accusing him or anticipating anything in particular—but I realized in that moment that someday, some way, by death or by life, something would tear us apart, and I would never be the same. When it came to breaking my heart, he already had. Not because he had mistreated me or stopped loving me or ended the relationship—but because the love I felt for him had broken open my heart, and it would never be the same.

We’ve been married almost 18 years now, and the guy still breaks my heart, more so than ever, because that’s what it means to love—to have someone break into your heart and break it open, to plant themselves in your heart such that losing them, or being apart from them risks shattering your heart altogether, leaving a big, bleeding, broken-hearted hole right in the middle of your chest. It’s not romantic, it’s not a statement about the status of our marriage (which is not especially blissful), it’s just the truth—love breaks your heart, whether that love lasts forever or only for awhile, whether by life or by death, love breaks your heart.

We have a child now. I still remember the first time I left him at home alone with his father, my first love. He was maybe 3-4 weeks old. I just ran up to the grocery store for a few minutes. I trusted my husband completely to care for him, and I knew in my mind that everything would be fine. Still, I cried the whole way there and back. My heart just ached for his little self. He hadn’t done a thing except make my body hurt and kept me up at night and created lots of laundry, but the kid had broken my heart, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. That’s what it means to love, to let someone break into your heart and break it wide open.

Hear again these words from Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

“Rend” is an old fashioned word. We don’t use it much anymore. “Tear” doesn’t quite capture its meaning—when you rend something you tear it violently, you rip it apart and shred it into bits. Rend your hearts, God says. God is asking us for broken hearts.

broken heart 2We sometimes think that broken hearts are a side-effect of sin, that they are a sign of life’s brutality and our estrangement from God and from one another. But that’s not quite right. In the Bible, it’s clear that sin doesn’t make our hearts broken, it makes them bitter. From Pharoah to Philistines to Pharisees, God’s enemies are described as hard of heart. These hard-hearted ones are those who freeze out kindness and calcify against compassion. The real danger to our hearts is not that they will break, but that they will be unbreakable, that they will be hard as stone, so that they cannot be rendered unto God.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

Some people would argue that God is the one that does the breaking—that God afflicts us with loss or separation, death or destruction in order to break us open, teach us a lesson, or somehow improve us. That’s not true either. God doesn’t kill the ones we love or send plagues upon our houses or blow fierce winds of devastation upon us in order to make us more faithful. God cannot compel our love any more than a spurned lover can. God’s love remains unrequited until we return it. The words in Joel are not proclamation of what God will do, they are plea for what we should do.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

In her book about her brother dying from AIDS, Susan Wiltshire compares a broken heart like a broken biscuit. “When it’s torn in half, there is twice as much surface on which to spread the butter and honey.” (Dan Moseley, Lose, Love, Live, 18) Picturing the broken biscuits dripping with warm butter and sweet honey at the breakfast table takes me to another table–the Lord’s Table, set for holy communion. We take that whole, perfect loaf and break it, rip it apart, shred it into tiny pieces, so that everyone who comes forward can receive the taste of Christ in broken bread.

Broken breadThe broken bread stands in for the broken body of Christ on the cross. That word “rend” appears again at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s what happens to the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain is rent in two, from top to bottom, as the earth quakes and the rocks split open, because the very heart of God has been broken open with love for you and me.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in. “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Break your heart open for God, because God’s heart is already broken open for you.

Amen.

For my Epiphany sermon at St. Luke’s on January 4, I was inspired by the If You Give… children’s book series by author Laura Numeroff and illustrator Felicia Bond, best known for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you don’t know this series, you’re missing out, and I recommend watching the video below to catch up.

I noticed how the magi set out to do one thing–follow the star to a king–and ended up doing much more than they ever expected. Just like the mouse in the story, saying “yes” to a request from God often ends up to be a whole lot more complicated and involved that we expect.

For the sermon, I read the congregation If You Take a Mouse to the Movies, a holiday-themed book in the series, and talked about the unexpected turns in the magi’s journey. Then, inspired by Numeroff, I wrote my own Epiphany-themed version of If You Give… called “If You Go Where God Sends You.” It captures many themes from the magi, but also my own experiences with following God to unexpected places. I hope you enjoy it.

Epiphany 1

If you go where God sends you,

You’ll probably follow a dim light in the distance.

If you follow a dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

 

If you don’t know exactly where you’re going,

You’ll probably end up taking a few detours.

If you take a few detours,

You’ll probably take a wrong turn.

If you take a wrong turn, God will use that part of the journey as well,

so don’t fret about it.

 

While you are on a detour,

You’ll probably meet a few new people.

If you meet a few new people,

You may encounter some new ideas.

If you encounter some new ideas,

You might just find that your old ideas have changed.

When your old ideas have changed,

You might just find that you have changed.

 

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) - James Tissot

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) – James Tissot

When you have changed,

Some of people won’t like it, and you may discover they are unkind.

If you discover people who are unkind,

God might just ask you to help stop them from hurting others.

When God asks for your help in standing up to unkind people,

Chances are those unkind people are not going to like you very much.

If they don’t like you very much,

They may try to hurt you or hurt someone else.

If they try to hurt you or hurt someone else,

You’re going to have to listen to God even harder.

If you listen to God even harder,

God will probably tell you to go a different way.

 

Once you are going a different way, still following that dim light in the sky,

The light will eventually guide you to where you’re supposed to go.

But when you get there, God might not provide what you expect.

Even if it’s not what you expect, you’ll know it’s God, that it’s holy,

That it’s where you’re supposed to be.

You’ll know it because, instead of a dim light in the distance,

You’ll discover God’s light deep inside of you.

Epiphany 3

When you discover God’s light deep inside you,

You’ll want to give everything you have to God.

When you give everything you have to God,

You search your possessions, your gold,

Your titles, your precious treasures,

All the things that make you feel secure,

And give them away.

 

Once you have given everything away,

You’ll think you have arrived where God sent you.

When you think you have arrived where God sent you,

You’ll notice a dim light in the distance.

If you follow the dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

Epiphany 4

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThis past Sunday was Pentecost, the day we commemorate the arrival of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2, a day often called the birthday of the church. It’s one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. The drama of the wind and fire, the many voices speaking the good news of Christ, the power of Peter’s preaching, the crowds moved to follow.

Inspired by this wonderful article by my colleague Rev. Emily C. Heath, I started thinking about what it meant to be a Pentecost Church. I want to be part of a ministry as vibrant and alive with the Holy Spirit as that second chapter of Acts. What happened at Pentecost, and can it happen in our churches today? Can we carry on the spirit of the Spirit? What would be the marks of such a congregation, a Pentecost Church?

(This is not to be confused with a Pentecostal Church, a tradition which traces its roots to the Azusa Street Revival. The marks of a Pentecostal Church include baptism by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.)

Drawing on that original story in Acts, I’ve identified six marks of a Pentecost Church. These are elements of a church alive with the Holy Spirit, and could describe any church that aspired to embody them.

1. A Pentecost Church is touched by the Holy Spirit.

A Pentecost Church actually believes the Holy Spirit is alive and moving among the congregation. They anticipate that God will show up and do something to them and through them that will amaze and inspire.  This seems obvious, but I’ve been in plenty of churches that expect very little of the Holy Spirit in their worship services. Some churches even act as though they are hoping the Spirit in her wildness doesn’t show up, because it might mess with their plans and patterns. By contrast, a Pentecost Church expects the Holy Spirit to surprise  and delight, and also to provoke and disrupt. She may cause a spontaneous outburst of applause, or tears, or laughter, or an “amen” from the depths of the soul. A Pentecost Church gathers with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will join them, and watches with joy when the Spirit blows through.

2. A Pentecost Church speaks multiple languages.

The miracle of the original Pentecost was the ability to share Christ’s good news in all the languages of the ancient world. A Pentecost Church today must speak in the many languages of the modern world. That doesn’t just mean English, Spanish, Creole, Mandarin and Tagalog. Today’s “many languages” include the language of multiple generations. A Pentecost Church endeavors to deliver the good news to some in traditional worship and bible study, to others via Facebook and Twitter. A Pentecost Church pursues fluency in social media and popular culture, in books and movies and television characters. The church must avoid insider language that is only meaningful to those who already attend (see Rev. Heath’s article for a great explanation of this). While no church can be all things to all people, a Pentecost Church constantly works to translate the good news of Jesus Christ into as many languages as possible, so that everyone can hear it. Their translation breaks down barriers between young and old, rich and poor, in and out, faith and no faith.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA3. A Pentecost Church dreams, visions and prophesies.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon promises that “Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams.” The thing about prophesies, dreams and visions is that they all move forward into the future. A Pentecost Church is not preoccupied with the past—it is captivated by the future. In a Pentecost Church, everybody has dreams and visions for what the church can be and how God will be calling them into bold possibilities. Young people have visions for the church’s future, and they are trusted with the power to execute those visions. Elders do not hold tight to current habits, intent to preserve their way of doing church for themselves. They also dream dreams, foreseeing the church living on without them in ways that are even more beautiful and holy than they could have predicted. By the power of the Holy Spirit, a Pentecost Church faces forward.

4. A Pentecost Church is visible in the community.

Pentecost was the day that the church went public. After the disciples and followers spent time alone with Jesus following the resurrection, the arrival of the Holy Spirit carried them out of their upper room and into the streets. A Pentecost Church understands its life as a public witness, a beacon of hope and a mission outpost for God’s love. Whether it is serving hungry neighbors, giving out clothing, taking a stand for social justice, responding to a natural disaster, marching in the local parade, or showing up at a city council meeting, a Pentecost Church is a visible force, a vehicle for the Spirit’s love in the world. They do not hide from the public eye, but strive to be a force for good in their local community. (Again, Rev. Heath’s article tackles this with greater depth.)

5. A Pentecost Church changes lives.

When the crowd/community witnessed the Pentecost preaching from Peter, the scripture says they were troubled and wondered what to do. Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives.” A Pentecost Church is a church that changes lives—of members, newcomers, visitors and community members. The Holy Spirit comes to disrupt and transform us. A Pentecost Church that expects the Holy Spirit also expects people to be transformed by that encounter. A Pentecost Church anticipates that when people meet the Holy Spirit in worship and fellowship, they will be inspired to greater love, kindness, generosity and faithfulness. They will even be moved to abandon their fears, let go of old wounds, practice forgiveness, overcome addiction, and turn their lives around. A Pentecost Church is full of people who have been changed by grace, and continue to be transformed by love.

pentecost6. A Pentecost Church seems just a little bit crazy.

Changing your life in response to the Holy Spirit, or getting ridiculously happy over seeing someone else’s life changing, or telling people that you have decided to spend your cash and your weekends serving the poor, or spontaneously clapping and rejoicing in worship can seem like strange behavior. That first Pentecost, the crowd declared that the disciples were acting so happy because they had gotten drunk at 9:00 a.m. A Pentecost Church has that kind of joyous intoxication of the Holy Spirit that sparks carefree laughter, unprompted kindness and a willingness to do whatever it takes to share God’s love with the world. Don’t be surprised if a visit to a Pentecost Church leaves you feeling a little high. The Holy Spirit does that.

A Pentecost Church is full of Pentecost People.

This is the most important mark of all. A Pentecost Church is filled with Pentecost people–people who have been touched by the Holy Spirit, people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus Christ, people who see visions and dream dreams, people who venture out of closed church doors and into the community, people who speak both the language of God and the language of the world, people crazy with the joyous love of God. The Pentecost Church creates, supports and sends these Pentecost People into the world, carrying the Holy Spirit with them wherever they go, in love and joy.

What do you think? Is your church a Pentecost Church? Would you like it to be?

When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church by Lillian Daniel, Jericho Books, 2013, 215 pp.

When-Spiritual-But-Not-ReligiousWhen this book came out last year, it sparked a lot of interest, attention and controversy within the church world and beyond it. Most of that attention related to a snarky opening essay where Daniel challenges the depth and novelty of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” While I was sympathetic to those who stood up for the “spiritual but not religious” and argued that the proper Christian response should not be snark but sensitivity, I also appreciated Daniel’s attempt to illustrate the often self-centered and shallow nature of that path, and to make a case for the other side.

What was interesting in reading the book is that the critique (and the snark) is mostly limited to the first opening essay. In that essay, she tells the story of an encounter with someone who has moved through a variety of churches, and now says that they don’t go to church any more because they can find God just fine with the sunset, or a walk on the beach, or at home reading the New York Times. Her interlocutor is a particular man, but serves as a composite representation we all recognize. She describes, with a great insight and accuracy, the way he speaks of his own spiritual wandering as somehow more sophisticated or evolved than those who continue to require church to find God. Her description captures the arrogance that often prickles those of us who have devoted our lives to being both spiritual AND religious. She goes on to offer a more substantive critique that calls out the self-centerness, inaction in response to human need, and inability to wrestle with human suffering of his position. I have to admit, I was cheering her on in this section. It felt good to have someone take up the other side for once. She pushed hard along the lines of the title, to show that “spiritual but not religious” is not enough. This was one gem:

Who are you, God of sunsets and rainbows and bunnies and chain e-mails about sweet friends? Who are you, cheap God of self-satisfaction and isolation? Who are you, God of the beautiful and physically fit? Who are you, God of the spiritual but not religious? Who are you, God of the lucky, chief priest of the religion of gratitude? Who are you, and are you even worth knowing? Who are you, God whom I invent? Is there, could there be, a more interesting God who invented me? (10)

I expected the rest of the book to continue along these lines, but it did not. It is not a case against people who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” or an analysis of why that position will falter and fail. Instead, the book is an ode to a life that is both spiritual and religious, an homage to the way that spirituality–even God–exists within traditional churches. After the opening chapter, Daniel proceeds to tell story after story after story of how the church crosses borders to connect with everyday life and everyday people. Rather than craft an argument, she weaves a network of stories that break down the stereotypes of what the church is, how it acts and what it does in the world. She talks about her experiences of impatience in yoga class, bringing seminary education to Sing Sing, jealousy in talents, struggles in prayers, and the church serving those who are never its members.

To be honest, I really wanted more of an argument. Daniel is a brilliant storyteller, but I felt like I was enjoying all the appetizers and still waiting for the main course. I left the table still hungry. While she alluded to various biblical stories, she didn’t probe them nearly as deeply as she did the stories from her own experience. The book was heavy on contemporary life, and light on theology and bible study. Which made me wonder: was this whole endeavor, like “seeker services” at the local megachurch, an invitation for the spiritual but not religious to engage in conversation about what the church might offer? The snark at the beginning made me think it would be a book for churchy-types to hold their own against the rising tide of religious nones, but the rest of the book seemed like a perfect invitation for those who are spiritual but not religious to engage with someone who still finds hope and purpose in the church.

It was beautifully written, humorous and connected–just a much lighter read than I anticipated. I recommend it, but set your expectations for spiritual insight, beauty and reflections on life, rather than snark, critical depth and analysis.

I haven’t written much in awhile, due to a flurry of other writing and speaking engagements that have demanded my attention. One of them occurred last week, when I was invited to present at Distilled Spirit, a conversation about God and life modeled after Theology on Tap. The event was sponsored by a neighboring UCC congregation and held at Epicenter’s Moonshine University, the nation’s only institution dedicated to teaching the art of distilling spirits.

I had a great time presenting about “How My Mind Has Changed about the Bible,” while people sipped bourbon and giant distilling equipment sparkled in the background. Talk about a cool venue! It’s not every pastor who can say that she spoke at Moonshine University. Like the geek I am, I pulled out my camera and took pictures of the whole experience. Explaining myself to the gathered audience, I said, “I have to have proof I did this. Nothing is real until it’s up on Facebook.”

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The distillery at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

The words came lightly at the time, but I have been contemplating them ever since.  Where did that idea come from? Did I really mean to suggest that my experience didn’t count unless it had been shared on Facebook? What does that imply about reality and our relationships through social media?

I traced the root of my comment back to something I had heard (and believed) about the church’s presence in social media. I heard someone remark that the world of the next generation existed online, and if the church wasn’t there, it was as if we didn’t actually exist. Just as the physical building of the church makes its presence real in a neighborhood, its web and social media presence make it real in the online world.

I also remembered hearing an expert in the Millenial Generation, most well known for being digital natives, talk about the way the presence of smartphones in our lives had changed social reality. Through the device, one’s entire network of friends and family and schoolmates and extended acquaintances travels with you everywhere you go. You can share life’s experiences with them in real time, even if they are a continent away. You expect them to be present with you everywhere, and to share in everything.

That’s what I was feeling with my compulsion to share pictures from Distilled Spirit. Through Facebook, I have an extended network of family, friends, and clergy colleagues with whom I share my life. The once-in-a-lifetime experience of speaking at Moonshine University was incomplete until I was able to share it with them.

This is an essential part of the human experience, with a new technological twist. We have always sought new and creative experiences, and we have always turned those experiences into stories and memories to be shared with others. Whether it’s swapping hunting and fishing tales around a campfire, writing letters home, or posting on Facebook, our best experiences are incomplete until they have been transformed from experience into story and shared with others.

News–whether it’s good news, bad news, or Gospel–doesn’t become real until it is shared with others, no matter the means of communication. A soldier at war is alive until the telegram arrives at his or her parents’ home. A relationship is real when it becomes “Facebook official” and you change your online profile. A marriage appears intact until you announce to friends and family that you’re separating.  A pregnancy takes on new dimensions when you start to share the ultrasound pictures. A new job is finally certain when you’re allowed to tell your friends–and your current boss–that you start next week. Even the reality of a loved one’s death only begins to sink in when we have to tell others he or she is gone.

Social media just adds new dimensions to that same reality. You experience something in the world, and then you re-experience it when you share it with others. Just like we can’t wait to see the look on someone’s face when we tell them about a terrific experience, we can’t wait to read our friends comments and replies online.

That’s why I have begun encouraging my congregation to make use of their smartphones in worship. Rather than seeing their desire to take pictures, tweet my sermon or check Facebook during worship as a distraction, I see it as a way of making the experience real and memorable, owning it as a part of their life story. I see it as part of spreading the Gospel good news. Borrowing an idea from Michael Piazza at the Center for Progressive Renewal, I now invite the congregation to “check in on Facebook and then check in with God” as they listen to the opening prelude. Sharing the experience of worship at our church with their online community–even if it means looking down at their smartphone during my sermon–makes it more real, not less. It’s not a blanket call for people to be playing with their smartphones during church, but it is a recognition that reaching over to grab the iPhone might be a way to go deeper with the message, not to ignore it.

Even more, it can be a great opportunity for evangelism. If an experience is only memorable and meaningful when we tell the story to others, by all means, we should be using every means at our disposal to facilitate that telling about God. Let us cement the Gospel story in the story of our lives by placing the church’s events alongside the first day of school, lunch at a fancy restaurant, feet at the beach, family at the holidays and funny cat photos in our Instagram, Facebook or Twitter feed. While there are limits to be sure, perhaps we should encourage our gathered congregations to integrate their spiritual and social lives by “checking in” at church and tweeting lines from songs and sermons. Our online lives enhance and expand our real-life experiences because we can share them with friends.

So, look everybody! Here’s me talking about the Bible at Moonshine University. How cool is that? You never know where Jesus is going to send you.

Here's me at Moonshine University!

Here’s me at Moonshine University!

communion-table1He was one of the great saints of the church, and he was dying.

I had been visiting him and his wife in their home for several years, because his health had been too poor to come to church. Every time, they prepared an elaborate meal, setting out the best silver and china, special candles and napkins for Holy Communion at the dining room table. I told them over and over that they did not need to go to such trouble, but they insisted. Because of the fancy meal, my visits would often last four hours or more, yet still he protested that we didn’t have enough time.

I could tell that the elaborate preparations had become a burden. As he grew weaker, I urged him to put aside the extravagant meal and just let me pay a pastoral call. He refused to let me come unless he could meet his own high standards of hospitality. If he was unable to cook, he would not let me visit. We talked on the phone, but I did not see him for several months.

When he called me from the doctor’s office, it was late Epiphany, February-cold. He never used a cell phone, so I was startled to hear his voice. There were no more treatments left. He would be starting hospice care. They were preparing to tell their children. A man of deep faith, he was not afraid of dying, but he was shocked that his life, even after nearly 90 years, was coming to an end. He protested that he just didn’t have enough time.

The next day, I reached his wife on the phone. She immediately acquiesced to my request to visit, with only the holy bread and cup for our meal. When I arrived, we embraced, but he grew agitated that he was not able to provide his regular hospitality. “I just wish we could sit down at the table. I don’t have anything set. This is not how it should be.” I tried to reassure him that I was there to minister to him, as he had ministered to so many others before. My words seemed a formality, but his distress was real, as if an admission of his deteriorating condition.

Then his wife spoke: “After Easter,” she said. “After Easter. We’ll talk about it after Easter.”

It wasn’t even Ash Wednesday. We doubted he would live through Lent, much less regain enough strength to host a meal again. Yet her words comforted him, and me. After Easter. He calmed, and we spoke at length of life and death, of love and faith. The reminder of resurrection freed us to face the reality of his condition. Easter was more than a date on the calendar, it was the promise of eternity.

I returned every week after, twice a week towards the end. At every visit, he would speak of the meal we would share. “After Easter,” his wife and I replied. “After Easter,” he echoed.

He died a month later, kneeling beside his hospital bed in a posture of prayer. We buried him on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

I always miss him this time of year. We never did have enough time. Whenever I miss him, his hospitality, his faithful example, the meals we shared, I think to myself, “After Easter.” We shall sit together at the resurrection table, where Christ himself is host, with all the time in eternity to share. After Easter.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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