Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Creatively Adrift Pastor

Adam learned about sex at an early age, through a children's book that his parents read to him on a fairly regular basis (the story goes that it was one of his favorite books). It was called Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and with Illustrations. It's actually pretty entertaining, with cartoonish pictures and bits of humor thrown in. You learn a lot from it, without being terribly freaked out. (Originally published in 1973, it is now available in paperback and in an African-American edition--check out Amazon, if you're interested).

Lately I've been wondering how I got here. That's a slightly different question than where I come from, but they're definitely related. I wish there was a children's book for me: How Did I Get Here? The Facets of Life without Any Nonsense and with Illustrations. If "there" is where I come from, then how did I get "here?" It's a decent question, and as a pastor, I feel it's one for which I'm supposed to have an answer. In fact, I'm supposed to have a cute little vocational testimony all worked out--a godly story of the Spirit pulling the strands of my life together in a way that I never could have imagined and look(!) how everything worked out and came together. Look at how I've figured everything out. Instead, it's the opposite. And it's not cute. It feels more like God is pulling my life apart, unraveling it like the wrong string pulled on a frayed hem in a failed attempt to make it less ragged. How did I get here? I honestly sometimes do not know how I have become a pastor. I worry that it has been more by accident than intention, and that I've been carried along more by circumstances than the Spirit.

But why should that be a negative thing? Why is there such weight put on the call of the pastor? No one worries that someone has become a plumber or marketing executive or social worker by accident. No one sends up the white flag and surrenders. Isn't "call" more than a function of work, but also identity and geography? So what if I accidentally ended up here--can't God use that too? Does it mean I'm not supposed to be here? Does it mean I can't be open to other kinds of "call" too?

I think that Derrida would call me the "creatively adrift" pastor, and might wonder if the unknown end of my pastoral call actually deconstructs my current understanding of vocation and in the process, renews it, re-imagines it, re-configures it. (I recently finished reading Caputo's What Would Jesus Deconstruct? which I thoroughly enjoyed.) I don't know where I'm going, which serves to clarify where I am--but also question it. I'm adrift, but not in an aimless or anarchical way. I don't know where I'm going, and this deconstructs where I've been.

Now, the above sounds good in theory; quite nice, actually; a striking combination of the intelligent and poetic, almost a little T.S. Eliot-ish. Sure, a source of low-level anxiety for the one adrift, but ultimately not cause for fear or abandonment of vocation, right? Except for this: can one lead if one is creatively adrift? If Tolkien was right -- all who wander are not lost -- what of the people following the wandering leader? Is this what they signed on for? Obviously, it deconstructs our concept of leadership, but at what cost? And is it worth it?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Preparing to Preach on Advent 1A

It was a sermon about light
coming into the darkness
that I was supposed to preach
about not knowing the hour or day
about being ready
about beginnings and ends all mixed up together
and I began to make a list of examples of darkness
weapons of mass destruction
(how is it possible those words exist together in our lexicon?)
destruction of homes
of families
of selves
and then I remembered that guy on the subway
the one I'd seen more than once
the one without eyes or ears
without sunglasses or hat to shield
us from his pain
eyes and ears burned off in some accident
too horrific for imagination or words
how he wandered the halls of the A train
in darkness like it was purgatory or punishment
holding a laminated newspaper article
words detailing his destruction
holding a hat for loose change
and how I thought to myself in that moment
come lord jesus come
thought it because I could not
bear the pain of him
could not
bear the thought of his life
come lord jesus come
how if he had eyes I could not
bear to look in them
and instead looked into my hands so neatly folded in my lap
and said to myself
come lord jesus come
come quickly
I wept for his life and my indifference all the while seated
and swaying with the rest like a silent greek chorus
waiting for the next stop to save us
or for him to move to the next car
come lord Jesus come
I say to myself
to me
come fire me
come all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens
come lord jesus come
come quickly
like light in the darkness
like waking from sleep
if only i had known the hour or the day
and make me ready.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Holy Spirit Parody

Finally got this onto our blog - enjoy!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Confessions of a Multi-tasker Who Doesn’t Really Like Inviting People into Her Home Let Alone Her Life

The Gospel lectionary text for this week is the all too familiar “Mary & Martha” story, and I have to admit a kind of bi-polar relationship with this text. There’s the feminist in me, who applauds Mary’s role as a disciple listening and learning at Jesus’ feet and who secretly loves the fact that Martha is asked to step away from what has traditionally been called “women’s work.” I like to imagine that Jesus told Martha to “just let Peter worry about the dishes.” On the other hand, there’s the part of me who worries about being nice, likes to make sure that everyone is happy and relaxed, and tries to make it seem as though I don’t care about housework or didn’t do a lot of it to make my home so clean and comfortable, but I did. I really did. I also imagine that I’m not the only woman who feels some tension with this text. For many of us who grew up in the church, we were told that the best thing to be was Mary, but only given tasks that allowed us to be Martha. Is it any wonder we’re confused?

The truth is I am a Martha Who Likes to Believe She’s a Mary and is Pretending to Be One but is Really a Martha and Probably Not Fooling Anyone. I am the Mary who turns into a Martha because no one else will do it. I am the Tootsie of the Mary and Martha roles. I like to believe that I can do two things at once and do both well—I can listen and serve Jesus at the same time, right? I can juggle all the balls, right? I can invite people into my home, but also secretly have my own timeframe for how long they stay, right? I can be hospitable… with conditions. I can be vulnerable… as long as I am in control of the process.

It’s obvious to me that the real problem with Martha was not her work. It was not that she was a multi-tasker. It was not that she wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable. It was that she used her work to keep Jesus at arm’s length—as a barrier to really letting him into her life. And she also used it as a barrier to her relationship with her sister too. Sometimes we want to be busy because we want to be distracted from what really matters. Sometimes we want to distract other people from noticing who we really are. It’s a way of keeping God and other people out. We let our various “roles” and “functions” keep us from real relationship, and don’t want to admit that we like it that way.

I once saw an icon of Martha, and she was pictured with her hands on her hips. It made me laugh, but I thought to myself is this how I want to be known? Do I want to be the pastor with her hands on her hips, nagging her parishioners? Do I want to be the friend with her arms crossed in front of her? Or do I want those open arms? an open home? an open life?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Everything Looks Different on a Monday

Monday is my day off. I love Mondays. Mondays are like deep breaths of fresh air at the ocean. They are like ice cream mixed with milk, or the cherry cheesecake my mother only makes on my birthday, or getting to go to a bookstore with a $50 giftcard that you did not pay for. Everything looks different on a Monday; I mean this literally. I was walking around New York today--the same streets that I traverse everyday--and I actually didn't recognize E. 25th between 2nd and 3rd Avenue. I swear that it was not the same sidewalk as it was on Friday (also known as "two days before Sunday"). How can this be? Maybe it's because I walk more slowly on Mondays, in my comfortable shoes (as opposed to the cute boots that look good with both jeans and nice pants). Maybe it's because I don't care what I look like on Mondays. Maybe it's because I'm thinking about different things--not thinking about church or what things I can cross off my ever-expanding to-do list. Maybe it's because when I walk, I'm somehow not thinking at all... just looking. Noticing. Paying attention to how I love the shape of that window, or wondering about the shop I've never noticed before, or imagining the nature of the relationship between the two people I've just passed. What's odd is that I rarely do anything on Mondays. I really don't. You'd think I should be visiting museums or running errands or working on that book I'd like to finish... er, I mean, start. But no. I do pretty much nothing (or read novels). Yet I rarely feel like I'm missing out, or guilty, or lazy. But during the rest of the week, I consistently feel like I'm somehow missing out on my life. I feel like the person on the tour bus who looks out the window a half-second too late and misses the rare red-tailed hawk that everyone else had been oohing and aahing about moments before. During the non-Monday days, my life is jam-packed with things to do, responsibilities, important things to think about, people to call, prayers to pray, beautiful things to write, a community of faith to build, and yet why do I feel like I'm missing it? Why do I feel like I always look up a half-second too late?

Everything looks different on a Monday, and I think this might be a bad thing. I think it might be unhealthy. I think it speaks to the lack of balance in my life. On Mondays, I read like a starving person. I finish a novel in one day, as though reading for enjoyment is not allowed on other days. I don't think on Mondays, as though thinking could not be both work and play. It's a strange form of bulimia--binging and purging when it comes to "rest." Mondays are vacations in the worst sense of the word--vacating my life. And the rest of the week is a kind of vacating from life too--vacating from the sheer joy of noticing and paying attention to details that look at first glance like they don't matter all that much.

I know what Mondays should be: they should be Sabbaths. Sabbath is rest in the best sense of the word. Sabbath is like eating when you're hungry, and letting that practice shape what you let nourish you. But knowing this, and living it are not the same thing. Just like cute shoes and comfortable shoes are NEVER the same thing. I guess that no matter what everything will look different on a Monday, but in a more balanced way of living, things shouldn't look that different. They should at least be recongizable.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Translation Problems

During the past few weeks, I've been thinking quite a bit about how we interpret scripture. We all have a variety of lenses through which we read and interpret scripture; we all come to the text with various forms of historical and personal baggage. Everyone has an agenda, whether they know it or not. In many ways, we see what we want to see. Everything needs translation. There may be as many interpretations of scripture as there are interpreters. And that's not exclusive to interpreting scripture, that's just life: the "where" and the "why" are inseparable from the "how" we see it. To put it in more academic language: Purpose and social location inform one's hermeneutic. Problems develop, however, when we don't realize this; when we don't think we have a lens, and we believe ourselves to be neutral and objective interpreters of scripture and/or life. Or when we place our lens (purpose and social location) on top of someone else's without an attempt at translation: that's a problem too, especially if we use violence to enforce our hermeneutic. It makes me realize that translation and interpretation are inseparable from issues of power, and perhaps "who" is doing the translation/interpretation of scripture and/or life makes all the difference. There is a lot of subtle power in this task; seemingly small things like word choices, sentence structure, and even where one puts a period can change everything (if that isn't a metaphor for life, I don't know what is!) The philosopher Paul Ricouer said "language creates a world," and that's the true power in translation: it has consequences, and these consequences extend to relationships, institutional stuctures, vocational choices, our ethics. Hopefully, it's a humbling thing to realize that how we communicate has such powerful consequences, and what is Scripture but God's attempt to communicate something to us, via the language of tradition and the community of faith? When God spoke, a world was literally created; luckily for us, it's a pretty habitable place. Everyday in our conversations (whether in preaching or in the after-worship fellowship or at work or at home) thousands of little worlds are created--and we have to inhabit them. Some are good places to live, others... not. Are we ready for our words to have that kind of power? Doesn't it make you pause, a least for a moment, before attempting a translation of someone else's words (let alone God's)?

But we miss the richness of Ricouer's statement if understand it only one-dimensionally as a reference to power; it's also about desire. The kind of language we use (or the translation/interpretation we choose) reflects the kind of world in which we desire to live. And we have all kinds of desires--some healthy, others... not. Desire is a powerfully motivating force in our lives, and sometimes even a destructive one. But there are some basic desires we all share, and maybe that's where we begin. Maybe that's how a good translation starts.

The 2003 movie "Lost in Translation" told the story of two American strangers who both experience alienation and a loss of identity while living in Japan. Though the strangers are very different (one is a Yale philosophy student and one is an aging movie star), one thing they have in common is they both have a lot of power. One has the power of intellect and beauty; the other has the power of status and wealth. But when placed in a foreign culture, one that is strange and plays by different rules, their power just doesn't translate. They just don't have the language to interpret their strange circumstances and the unlikely connection that happens between them. In other words, the where and the why are inseparable from the how. Instead, their desires (for connection and a sense of identity) create a world that is, at least, a temporarily habitable place. And although we're not told for certain, we assume this affects some powerful changes in their lives.

I sometimes wonder if we Christians shouldn't be lost in translation a little more often.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Toward Losing Your Faith

Titles and openings often tell you what the rest of the work is going to be about, if you are really paying attention, and the title/subtitle of our blog creates a bit of tension in me. Trying not to lose our faith is a troublesome concept for this generation, because all I want to do is lose my faith, discard it, leave it behind, and critique it into oblivion. I want to dismantle my conceptions of God and the Church and then walk away, hands up in the air (in frustration not in worship), at the disconnected pieces that no longer have any intellectual glue to hold them together. My faith is like this plant we have had for over five years. This plant grows and grows and grows; we have cut it back at least three times. We leave it out of the sun and yet it grows, we prune it and it comes back more, except this last time we finally cut it way back down to the bottom, totally laying down the challenge to this plant to continue growing. Two days later we saw the first leaf shoot out in a defiant will to live. On the third day, we awoke to find the leaf gone...our cats ate it.

Everything in life is a metaphor, and I am tempted to leave this post now like I am so many sermons, with just the image and idea and no application or "how to" advice. Metaphors are destroyed when they are forced to mean only one thing, just like our faith is and just like our God is. This is why I want to lose my faith and my articulation of a God that was only made in my or my teacher's image. I am perpetually pruning my faith and every once in a while I chop it all down leaving nothing and waiting for that divinely defiant revelation of God to burst forth. Easily the words "I don't belive in God anymore" can come to my lips, and more and more we are understanding that not as a dualistic annihilation of God, but as a metaphor: The God I once knew is gone, the God I once believed in just got complicated, the God I once held on to has eluded my grasp, the God I once created in my image is now creating me in the divine image instead.

Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount to seek first the kingdom of God, and God's righteousness, and all these "other" things will be given to you as well. As a child I sang the song with these words and thought that if I sought God then I would gain wealth and riches or a healthy and happy life, but that is not what Jesus means. Jesus means seek first God's kingdom, not your own kingdom built with God's help. Seek first God's righteousness (God's way of living in right relationship with your neighbor) and not your own moralistic code of conduct, and then all these other things (these anxieties about life and its necessities) will be given to you as well. But how do we know what God's kingdom is if it is not our own understanding of God's kingdom. How do we seek after the thing that we might not recognize once we find it? This is our theological crisis.

God calls Moses to lead the people Israel out of Egyptian captivity, and Moses wants to know who this God is, so that he can tell the people who they are following. God replies, tell them, I am who I am, I am sent you. That is like saying, Is is Is (which is a metaphor!) and letting the existential crisis flow. Even though we are "Post-Modern" we still like to believe in that which we can conceive; we still think, therefore we are. But God and faith transcend cartesian/Modern philosophy and make the radical claim that who God is, and who we are created to be, are both beyond our conceptions of who God is and who we are created to be. This makes me constantly lose my faith.

I awoke this morning, and literally said out loud, "I don't believe in God anymore." And that sucked. Until I was making coffee and God said to me, "No, it is not that you don't believe in me, you no longer believe in the version of me you thought was going to make your life easier." That version wasn't working out too well at the moment. And that sucked. Everytime I lose my version of God I have the opportunity to experience faith at it most "faith-full," that is the kind of faith that welcomes a God I do not know or understand into my life. This is a hospitable faith, a welcoming-the-stranger-into-your-home kind of faith. For I am welcoming the unknown God as the unknown God into my life. That way God gets to be who God gets to be and not God gets to be who God is to me.

There is no doubt that it is enjoyable to enliven our spirits with a new understanding of who God is when we come across one. We feel that we are growing and bursting forth with new life. Such seasons are to be enjoyed and I believe come from God. Once we begin to understand our new understanding of God to well, however, then the metaphor stops generating new meaning and become stagnant, ultimately dying once we understand it completely. Then it is okay to lose our faith, to chop the plant down and challenge it to grow again.

P.S. When we were younger we used to tell our teachers that our dogs ate our homework, now I tell God, the cats ate my faith.