I have been so focused on the book lately that I’ve done no meaningful blogging for a few months now.
The events of last week have convicted me that, book deadline or no book deadline, I need to be writing publicly again.
I have no illusions that a blog is some courageous stand for justice. But what I have to offer are my words and my tiny platform. They will not be enough, and they will not be where I stop. But here is my first attempt.
Today I share two quotes. The first is from Matthew Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary, written on Facebook last week:
This number has haunted me over the last day: 60. Sixty percent of American voters who call themselves Protestant voted for a man who boasts of committing sexual assault repeatedly and with impunity, a man who harnesses vile undercurrents of antisemitism, a man whose words and proposals are the very definition of Islamophobia. Sixty percent.
Those of us who teach and lead in Protestant communities don’t necessarily need to wade into the unfamiliar world of political and economic philosophy. We might stay closer to home and simply ask: What one thing am I going to do today to chip away at the theological assumptions that continue to sow misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and exceptionalism in our “mainline” and seemingly respectable institutions, practices, rhetoric, and confessions? Start with one thing. Then try for two tomorrow.
Second: The other day a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook (disclaimer: haven’t read it) and highlighted the quote:
We need to find a way to bridge from our closed groups to other closed groups, try to cross the ever widening social divides.
I’m sitting in between those two quotes as I think about my role as a free-range pastor, whose “parish” may be anyone I happen to come in contact with. I’m discerning my call as a flawed and faithful follower of a brown man who stood with the vulnerable and the despised and was killed for it.
How do we cross the ever widening social divides?
I’m not talking about finding common ground with the white supremacists who have felt emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and are now painting swastikas. Maybe someone can do that work, but it’s too unsafe for too many people to wade into that.
But I am interested to understand the appeal of Donald Trump to those who do not march in KKK parades or rip off hijabs. I’m interested in the people who sit in Presbyterian pews and hear the gospel of Jesus Christ preached every week. What did they find compelling enough about his message and plan that they were able to dismiss the very real and very disturbing rhetoric he proffered? It had to be way more compelling than I am capable of grasping.
Some of my friends on the left are not interested in the answer to that question. They say these Trump votes (even lukewarm ones) aided and abetted racism, therefore the people who cast them are racist. (Sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, etc.)
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.
Researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, authors of Shame and Guilt, explain that feelings of shame are so painful that it pulls the focus to our own survival, not the
experiences of others.
Shame suppresses empathy. And empathy is the goal right now.
Which brings me back to Skinner’s quote. I’m more and more convinced that the divide in our country isn’t red state or blue state, or black and white, it is urban and rural. The map of the 2016 election makes this clear. (Disclaimer: this isn’t the final 2016 map, but it illustrates the point. Source)
I don’t know very many people living in rural America. And they don’t know me.
But my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has connectional structures in place that can bridge the divide. I have friends I went to seminary with who serve churches in rural areas. We don’t even need to go far—our synods (multi-state jurisdictions within the PCUSA) encompass big cities and small towns and tiny hamlets. We’ve talked for years about whether synods have a purpose—maybe this can be part of their purpose.
The structure is there, but it needs some tweaking. I’m not talking about Suburban Presbyterian Church swooping into Appalachia and building houses. Nor am I talking about Small-Town Pres trucking into the inner city to provide a day of labor at the various soup kitchens. Yes, as one of my colleagues likes to say, “Doctrine divides, mission unites,” but I don’t think unity is the right goal. Not right now. Things are too fragile. Empathy is the goal. Love of neighbor is the goal.
So I’m talking about cultural exchange. I’m talking about sitting at tables. I’m talking about sharing and bearing witness to stories of painful loss and soaring resilience. I’m talking about the kind of work Columbia Seminary does in its Alternative Context program, in which seminarians visit other parts of the world, not as helpers, not as tourists, but as pilgrims sent to listen and learn.
Advocates for justice movements talk all the time about “peopling” issues. It’s harder to take a stand that hurts LGBT people when you know and care about a specific queer person. I don’t expect the great honor of my friendship to move a Trump voter. But maybe when people start talking about the evil elites on the “Least Coast,” someone who’s met me or people like me will stand up for nuance and understanding. And when someone makes a joke about “flyover country,” I will intervene and say “Not that simple. Never that simple.”
I don’t know who’s willing to undertake such an experiment. But in the PCUSA at least, the structures are there. And the call is urgently clear.
Every so often I have the fun opportunity to highlight some great writing, or a good book I think people need to know about. Today we talk to Nate Phillips, a pastor and the author of Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church. This post is primarily addressed to people in the church, especially mainline churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA). But I hope others will read on—especially if you think the culture has “moved on” from Christianity and religion in general. There’s life and transformation in the old girl yet.
In our interview, Nate also talks about the vulnerability and courage required in writing a book like this–or any book, really. I resonate with that so much and thank him for naming it.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
On the one hand, it was personal. I’m about to wind up my first decade of ministry and I have so much gratitude for the privilege of being a pastor. As a kid, I never could’ve dreamed that I would have the honor to do what I am doing today. I take some time to write about that in the first chapter of the book.
That said, there is a part of me that finds the preconceived expectations of ministry, and church leadership in general, a tad misleading. In the book I say,
I long to rediscover a real, maybe even cosmic, purpose in my work. Did I really take those ordination vows to referee squabbles over Styrofoam cups, worship service times, and the color of the carpet? Did I take on seminary and the clerical robe so that I could take out the old sound system and the grumpy antagonist? Did I master the theological and exegetical so that I could manage the janitorial and administrivial? That is where so many of us are.
On the other hand, I had a corporate reason for writing the book. Mainline denominations are coming off a pretty difficult season of disruption and schism. Several of my friends are included among those who left my denomination – PC(USA) – and took their church with them. Maybe it is me, but it seemed as if some did so while looking down their nose at those who stayed, in a sort of delegitimizing way.
That agitated me.
Writing the book was a way for me to say, “No, you’re wrong. We are doing good work in our churches. We are shaped by the gospel. We profess Jesus as Lord, albeit clumsily at times. Here’s proof.”
2. What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?
People are going to get to know some really great characters in mainline church leadership – a healthy hodgepodge of Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. As I put it in the book,
I went on a journey, for all of our sakes. It was a treasure hunt, of sorts. Along the way, I met the most fascinating people. They have bright faces. They are taking risks, building favor, listening well, and creating community in ways that remind me, and will remind you, of why we got into all of this in the first place.
But, more than that, they are going to read about what makes their ministry tick. I really tried to balance the inspirational and the practical. I want people to read the book and say, “You know, I think Becca is great AND I see how she got things started.” Ultimately, I want church leaders to feel like they can use this book to leverage their own ideas. My hope is that people will run to their governing boards and say, “Here, look at how Mike is doing this in Texas!” or “Jessica is pulling this off in New Jersey, why can’t we?”
Finally, you are going to get a glimpse of my story, one of growing up as a church-kid in the woods of rural Maine. Mission at the Eastward (a nine-church cooperative parish) shaped me in a profound way and, so, this book is a love note to that expression of the church.
A love note to the church? I’m not sure you get much of that anywhere else these days!
3. Your book is chock full of encouraging stories about real people doing incredible ministry. How did you find connect with all of these folks?
Several of the folks that I profile in the book I knew personally, so asking them to be part of the project was a way for me to affirm them and for them to support me. That was the easy part.
After that, things were a bit more work. I was really committed to making this a book for the mainline – not just my little corner of the Presbyterian Church – and so I reached out to a handful of networked leaders. This is where Bruce Reyes-Chow (Presbyterian), Ian Markham (Episcopal), Tom Dickelman (Presbyterian), Drew Dyson (Methodist), and Jessicah Duckworth (Lutheran) were especially helpful in suggesting names to reach out to.
Then it was just a matter of sticking my neck out and asking. This whole process has been a battle with my fear of rejection and waiting on return phone calls and emails was nerve-wracking. I thought that people (especially these brilliant people) would be more skeptical of my idea, but I only had one person turn me down. When you think about it, most of these people are doing what they are doing because they are willing to put themselves out there, so taking an interview with me wasn’t a huge stretch. I am really grateful for their trust in me and I hope readers will appreciate them as much as I do.
4. Share one story, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.
You are going to make me pick!?
Each chapter shares pretty much the same format. I begin with an open-ended illustrative story, do three or four profiles, and then close with the ending of the opening story.
Each one of my little profiles has its own identity and I allowed myself a lot of creative license in building them. That is, I want people to be able to pick up the book and not feel like they need to read the whole thing or even a whole chapter to get something out of it. It might even be best to just read one profile at a time and chew on it for awhile.
Here is a taster for the profile on The Slate Project out of Baltimore, Maryland:
With a flick of her wand, the Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio a mouth to speak and hinges on his wooden limbs so that he can dance. In his great excitement at this gift, Pinocchio makes the mistake of believing he is real.
“To become a real boy,” the Blue Fairy corrects Pinocchio, “you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish.”
She knows that a little puppet can be alive without being real and, to be real, there are certain, specific conditions that Pinocchio must meet. Sometimes the church falls into “Blue Fairy Syndrome” when it assesses new creations in ministry. Does it meet our standards for legitimacy? Can we measure it in the way we always measure things? Yes, it is “alive,” but is it “real”? Jason Chesnut, the Gepetto of the online ministry The Slate Project, hears the “Blue Fairy” interview regularly and he’s surprising her with his answers.
Jason’s work began through a generous investment by an ELCA …
5. Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book get covered? (Krista Tippett? Colbert?)
Maybe it is because this is my first book project, but there is part of me that is terrified that it could be covered in a super-public way. I’m not sure I want to trust my vulnerabilities and half-formed notions with an audience outside of the (hopefully) forgiving church world. I suppose that is no longer in my control!
I would LOVE to hear that this book is being used by people I admire – like George Anderson who is doing amazing work with the Trent Symposium or Landon Whitsitt who always seems to be discovering a new way of inspiring the church. If, for instance, Kenda Dean, used this book in the innovative work she is doing at Princeton Seminary, I would be over the moon. When I read her endorsement of the book I thought I might pass out.
Best of luck to Nate on the release of this book! I hope you’ll check it out.
This fall, the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has been engaged in a sermon series, New York Gods, about the idols and false gods we often construct for ourselves. I was invited to preach the final sermon in the series. It was also Christ the King Sunday, so I chose to talk about the idol of Power.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2015
Christ the King Sunday
33 Then Pilate entered the headquartersagain, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
The year was 1925. The place, Italy. A new prime minister named Benito Mussolini was orchestrating a series of steps to increase his power. He and his National Fascist Party had overthrown the existing prime minister a few years earlier, and he had convinced the legislature to give him dictatorial powers. Using both military might and parliamentary maneuvers, Mussolini and the fascists were consolidating their power, demanding absolute allegiance, and systematically destroying their opposition.
That same year, 1925, an encyclical was published by Pope Pius XI. This little document, nothing more than a pamphlet really, did two primary things: one, it announced to the world that there was only one supreme ruler of the world, and that ruler was not Mussolini, not a political party or fascist ideology. That supreme ruler was Jesus Christ: Christ the King.
The other thing that the pope’s statement did was establish a holy day in the church, a day in which the church would proclaim with one voice that Christ is Lord of our lives. That day is called Christ the King Sunday, and 90 years later, Mussolini is long gone, but here we are, still singing majestic hymns about Christ the King, still reading scriptures affirming the kingship of Christ. As my friend Joe Clifford tells his church in Dallas every year on this Sunday, “Grace and Peace in the name of Jesus Christ, the leader of the free world.”
Is that who Christ is? That’s what Pilate is trying to find out. He asks him point blank, “Are you a king?” They have a little back and forth and still Jesus doesn’t answer the question… but then he does, but in a strange way. He doesn’t say “Yes,” he doesn’t say “No,” he instead describes his kingdom. He says twice, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Only when Pilate asks him again, “Are you a king,” does Jesus say yes, sort of: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, to testify to the truth.”
It’s as if Jesus is saying, “It’s less important to me whether you think I’m a king, and more important that you know the dimensions of my kingdom… in fact, don’t call me a king unless you understand what kind of king I am.”
So what kind of king is he? What kind of power does this king have?
It’s an important question, this question of power. Because here we are in one of the power centers of the world. I happen to live in another of those cities, Washington DC. And I stand here today very aware, one week after Paris, that your city and my city know something, perhaps, of what the people of Paris are experiencing right now. In these incredible seats of power, we know that while we live in hubs of business and finance and global communication and politics, we are still fragile human beings, flesh and blood and bone, and tears. Our prestigious positions, and our advanced degrees, and the majestic buildings in which we live and work and worship, will not ultimately protect us from harm.
We know that what happened in Paris and Beirut, and then Mali this week, is not just an affront to the Prince of Peace and the King of Glory whose praises we sing here today. What happened in those places, and in too many others to mention, is an affront to basic human decency and it must be resisted with every bit of courage we have and fought with every bit of peace-building energy we can ask God to grant us.
But how? If we are subjects in a kingdom that is not of this world, what kind of power do we wield?
I keep thinking about 1920s Italy, Mussolini’s incredible rise to power, and it seems so strange and touching that the church responded to this… with a position paper. What kind of power could a church policy paper have in the face of such twisted evil? It seems like such a feeble protest. The rise of Fascism, and what does the church do? It institutes a new holiday.
What kind of power is that?
I don’t know how many scientists we have here, but I hope those who are here will permit me to borrow some of their language as we unpack this business about power. Because physicists will tell you that there are two primary equations to describe power.
The first one is
Power = Force x Velocity. Force x Velocity.
So power comes when we push something with a certain amount of oomph (that’s the scientific term) and we do it with a certain amount of speed.
So by this equation, if we want to maximize our power, if we want to be power-full, we want to push hard, and we want to push fast. The harder we push and the faster we go, the more power we yield.
And I think this is the way we usually think of power. This is the equation of overwhelming force. Quick action. My way or the highway. Get on board or get out of the way. Flatten the opposition. Push. Achieve. Mission accomplished. Close our borders, shut down the mosques, and flatten Syria into a parking lot.
That kind of power can feel very satisfying. But to borrow Scott’s language from earlier in this series, this kind of power can whispers false comfort in our ears.
Force x Velocity is a particularly potent temptation on days that end in body counts.
Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out that “Jesus is not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He is brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out.”[i]
The Reign of God does not run on that kind of power. It does not run on Force x Velocity.
In fact, Jesus’ kingdom has none of the usual stuff we think of when we picture a kingdom. There is no opulent palace, royal intrigues and scandals, no power plays, no aristocratic class. No, the chief currency of Jesus’ kingdom is this weird idea of truth. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And Pilate asks him the famous question, “What is truth?”
Frederick Buechner imagines this conversation taking place between Jesus and Pilate and says, “Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.[ii]
Truth is not a what, as Pilate’s question suggests, but the truth is a Who.
The Who is the King of the Jews, not a ruler from on high, but a Palestinian Jew who spent his toddler years as a refugee in Egypt.
And right there is the paradox of Christ the King Sunday:
Not a posturing king on a throne, but a peasant on a cross.
Not a military general who calls us to arms,
but a nomadic carpenter who said “take up your cross.”
Not a political leader with his own platform and campaign website,
But a person who said, “I am the truth. And I am the life. And I am the way.”
I am the way, and the world you see around you, churning along dysfunctionally, is not the way the world should be. Look at my life, Jesus says, and you will see a template for how the world is supposed to be.
Theologian David Lose suggests that we have to look at the action in this scene to get at what’s really going on. If it were playing out on a stage, “the stage would be split in two. One half would be occupied by Pilate’s headquarters; the other half would be devoted to the portico, or patio, just outside his headquarters.” Standing on the patio are the religious leaders who have brought Jesus to Pilate. Standing inside is Jesus.
The scene begins, then, with Pilate coming out to greet the religious leaders. And then Pilate goes back in to Jesus. Then he goes back out to the mob. Then back to Jesus. All told, Pilate moves between his headquarters and the patio not once, not twice, not even three times, but a total of seven times. “That’s right,” David Lose says, “Pilate wavers back and forth between Jesus and his accusers like a drunken sailor trying to walk from the pub back to his ship.”[iii]
And that’s just the point. Pilate wavers: he knows what is right…but he also knows what is easy, what is politically expedient.
The crowds are shouting: Hit him hard!
Hit him fast!
Force x Velocity!
And then there’s Jesus. Just standing there in a different kind of power.
The physicists know. I told you there were two ways of calculating power. The first as we’ve said is Power = Force x Velocity.
The second equation is Power = Work divided by Time.
Work divided by Time, or in the shorthand, Work Over Time.
Now we’re getting somewhere! Work over time does not posture. It doesn’t bluster. It doesn’t favor the quick forceful action over everything else. Work over time is Jesus’ way of wielding power.
Force x Velocity would be Jesus punching Pilate in the throat and escaping the palace, gathering his followers and taking up arms, staging a surprise guerrilla uprising against Rome. But that’s not the equation of Jesus.
Instead, power looks like a last supper with friends in which Jesus breaks bread and pours wine and says all the things that need to be said. Power means not resisting when the mob comes to arrest you. Power is declaring forgiveness in the final faltering breaths. Power is new life bursting forth from the grave; power is a church that gets it wrong sometimes but oh when we get it right you’ve got to shield your eyes from the brilliance of it; power is that we’re still here 2,000 years later, fighting evil with good, feeding the hungry and caring for the stranger. Work over Time… Work over Time.
Work over time takes the long view instead of being seduced by the idol of the quick fix. It’s hearts and minds. It’s a pamphlet proclaiming Christ as King in the wake of a Fascist dictator rising to power. Today it’s the Catholic Bishops and the mainline denominations, and the National Association of Evangelicals speaking with one voice about the plight of Syrian refugees (and when have we ever gotten the evangelicals and the mainliners to agree about anything?!), and they’re saying that we may be scared, and we need to be thoughtful and thorough in our processes, but we cannot close our hearts and doors to those who are vulnerable and literally running for their lives.
Jesus’ power, Work over Time, is what Eugene Peterson has called a long obedience in the same direction. It’s figuring out what our work is and doing it quietly but relentlessly day after day, because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, which means it’s just beyond our grasp… but not beyond our imagining.
I’m always interested in what gets passed around social media following a major world event such as the Paris attacks. You often see Mr. Rogers quote about finding the helpers. But the other one I saw a lot this week comes from Rabbi Tarfon, who says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
That is the power of the kingdom of God. Work over Time.
It’s the power of a man named Jadav Payeng, whom some people know as Forest Man. You can learn about him in a short documentary of that name.
Forest Man lives on Majuli Island in India, nothing more than a sandbar, really, home to about 150,000 people, but due to terrible erosion, it’s half the size it used to be.
Spurred by the dire situation, Payeng transformed himself into a modern day Johnny Appleseed and singlehandedly planted thousands upon thousands of plants, to try to halt the erosion. He started this work in the 70s.
Payeng’s work has been credited with significantly fortifying the island, while providing a habitat for several endangered animals which have returned to the area; a herd of nearly 100 elephants (which has now given birth to an additional ten), Bengal tigers, and a species of vulture that hasn’t been seen on the island in over 40 years.
Imagine a forest that’s larger than Central Park, all planted by one man, living a long obedience in the same direction.
That’s power. Work over time.
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
Image: View from the Empire State Building showing the power divide in New York City after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Picture: Tom Hussey.
This past weekend I had the joy of preaching for two friends who are on sabbatical/away for the weekend. Here’s the sermon:
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
July 19, 2015
Trinity Presbyterian Church – Herndon
“Moral Bucket List”: Feeding the 5,000
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
It is wonderful to be here as a guest preacher for Becca and Stephen, two of my most treasured colleagues.
One of the things that the churches I used to serve know about me is that I often get hung up on very small things in the scripture. So when I was talking to Becca this week, she said, “What will you be preaching about?” There are so many possibilities in this text—Jesus’ healing, the miracle of more than 5,000 people being fed—but I told her I would be be preaching on the words “this” and “it.”
When Jesus heard “this,” he went away to a deserted place.
Then it says the crowds heard “it” and followed him.
What did they hear? What are the “this” and the “it”?
Well if you skip back a few verses, you know it’s terrible news.
It’s the death of John the Baptist. He’d been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and according to Mark, his wife asked for his head on a platter… and she got it.
Why? Because that’s what unchecked power does.
That’s how power proves its own dominance and might.
They did it for entertainment.
They did it because they could.
That’s the “this” and the “it” that got Jesus and the crowds to their feet and on the move: the death of a prophet at the hands of the state.
It’s the kind of news that would get its own graphic on CNN.
It’s the kind of news that starts trending on Twitter: Hashtag Hebrew Lives Matter.
When Jesus heard this—when Jesus received the news about the death of his cousin—he went away to a deserted place. And when the people heard “it,” they went after him. Jesus’ flight into the wilderness is understandable—he probably needed some time and space to grieve and collect himself. But we don’t know why the crowds went. Maybe they’re feeling scared for Jesus—maybe they worry he’ll be next and they want to protect him. Maybe they’re curious to see what he’ll do. Maybe they’re frightened for themselves. All kinds of possibilities there.
I was drawn to “this” and “it” this week, because of all the “thises” and the “its” that we’ve been confronted with lately, that we’ve been hearing. For us this summer, IT is Charleston. IT is the confederate flag. IT is Baltimore on fire. Just this week, IT is six deaths in Chattanooga in an act of horrific violence. IT is a black woman in Texas who died in jail under suspicious circumstances after being arrested after not using her turn signal. IT, by the way, is also the realization that Atticus Finch may not have always been the shining paragon of virtue we thought he was or wanted him to be.
And in the midst of the thises and the its—here we are, like that crowd, come from our homes and towns, for our own various reasons, but maybe because we really need to be close to Jesus. With so much horror in the world at the moment, I’m calmed and oddly cheered by this image of people flocking to one another in the wake of John’s dastardly execution by Herod. Coming together, clinging to one another, receiving Jesus’ healing and the bread from heaven. What else can we do in these dark days?
Since I’m not your regular preacher, I can tell you that we pastors have our version of gallows humor. When terrible things happen in our world—things that demand a comment and a gospel response from pulpits like this one—one of the things we grouse to one another about is why they so often seem to happen on Friday and Saturday?! …usually when the sermon has been written and finished. Or even if it isn’t, you’ve been working with a gospel text that seems to have nothing to do with the tragedy that has just happened. It leads to a lot of late Saturday nights and a lot of laments: Why couldn’t it have happened on Tuesday? Tuesday’s good.
I know it’s silly and sad. When bad things happen, the least important part of it is whether it inconveniences the clergy. But make no mistake—over email, and in private Facebook spaces, the pastors like to feel a bit sorry for themselves.
And yet, if terrible things are going to happen, maybe Friday/Saturday is the right timing, so people of faith can come to their churches and synagagues and mosques, can draw together and pray to God, and receive comfort and strength for the living of dark days.
Back in the late 1950s, a researcher named Stanley Schachter conducted an unusual experiment. Schachter convinced college-aged women that they would receive a series of electric shocks about 15 minutes later. Some were told that these shocks would barely tickle, and others were told they would be very painful. Participants were then asked whether they wanted to wait for their shocks in a room alone, or with other people. Those who believed the shocks would be mild generally did not care whether or not they had neighbors in their waiting room. But people who believed that shocks would be painful strongly preferred being near others, On Schachter’s logic, this exposed a powerful rule about social behavior: in times of anxiety, people seek each other out. Like penguins in February, we tend to face adversity by gathering up.
This summer, you all are in a sermon series of sorts, consider elements of the “moral bucket list.” Today I want to suggest another one:
Find one another.
But not just any kind of gathering will do.
When the people flocked to Jesus, they came on foot. They didn’t bring their donkeys and camels, assuming they even had those things. They came only with what they could carry, which probably wasn’t very much. As we’ll find out later in the story, the didn’t even bring that much food with them.
When the people came, they just brought themselves. They went to a deserted place, in search of compassion and healing. They came in their weakness.
And then after Jesus is finished with them—dispensing a little teaching, offering a little healing, notice what the disciples say. Ok, it’s over now. They’re hungry now Jesus, so send them out to buy food. To buy food. Send them back into the marketplace; throw them back into the machinery of commerce. We don’t have anything for them here, but that’s OK, they can buy a little food, a little sustenance, buy a little comfort.
Becca mentioned to me that some of you attended the Taylor Swift concert earlier this week. Anyone? Guess what, I was there too with my two daughters. One of the things I love about concerts is this feeling of community. And she talked about that on stage. She said, “I need you all to know, that when I have tough days, I will remember this time we spent together.”
I believe that’s true… and at the same time, let’s be honest that this is a community that was created because we all bought very expensive tickets, and came together for the purpose of being entertained by a 26 year old pop star. And entertained we were. But that’s not the kind of community I’m talking about.
One of the seductive challenges of our culture is how many opportunities to have that Taylor Swift kind of experience. It feels like community, and on some level it is—but it’s not long-standing, and it’s not on the deep level that we need to confront the “thises” and the “its.” The disciples’ quick fix solution—send them out to go shopping—reveals how conditioned we are to transact our way into a sense of security… whether it’s a gated community, or a concealed weapon, or just surrounding ourselves with people who look like we do, think like we do, earn what we do, come from where we come from, shop at Trader Joe’s and listen to NPR.
And Jesus will have none of that. He rejects the disciples’ suggestion that the people engage in a little retail therapy. He sees that solution for the failure of imagination that it is. He says, Don’t go out and buy something. Everything we need is right here. Have you even taken stock of what we have? Can you trust that God can work with what’s already here?
And when he takes those gifts and cradles them in his hands, he looks to heaven and he gives thanks. Not a magic trick. What Jesus is doing is putting the focus on God, where it’s supposed to be. He’s modeling what we are called to do when we find one nother, when we come together. It’s not about saying, OK, we’re going to be all right because there are a lot of us. If we just huddle up, we’ll make it through. It’s not about strength in numbers. It’s about weakness in numbers. It’s about God doing something amazing in that weakness.
We must find one another—not in our strength, but in our vulnerability, trusting God, not our own abilities, to bring us through every this and it life may throw at us.
Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in her book about the worst Rally Day EVER. She had worked her fingers to the bone, rented a cotton candy machine, helped pull together all the needed stuff for a burger cookout in front of the church…all to attract new folks to join the journey of House of All Saints and Sinners. And 26 people showed up. And nobody put one red cent in the donations basket. So no new people came, and those that did were cheap.
It was a whole lot of nothing.
Until she remembered the joy of the people who came, because they started serving food to folks on the street. And the prayers she had received for her aching back. And she remembered that nothing is God’s favorite building material. When she shared the story at a Lutheran conference that same week, community was built over lunch on shared stories of failure, failure that God somehow transformed into a feast for thousands. And that was enough. That was five paltry loaves and two measly fish feeding 5,000 grieving and shell-shocked people.
Joy Harjo writes in one of her poems about the power of people coming together around the simple human vulnerable act of eating. She says, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
“The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.”
But then she makes a shift away from joy:
“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
“Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”
Sometimes it feels like the world’s coming to an end. Or maybe just the world as we know it, though that can feel just as cataclysmic. How vital, then, that we find one another.
John Lewis was about four years old, growing up among the pine forests and cotton fields of Pike County, Alabama, all the neighbors of his family were sharecroppers, and most of them were relatives. Every adult he knew was an aunt or an uncle, and every child a first or second cousin. One Saturday afternoon about fifteen of those children were outside playing in his Aunt Seneva’s dirt yard. Lewis remembers:
The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore. I was terrified.
Lightening terrified me, and so did thunder. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around that day, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside.
The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake.
We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And the corner of the room started lifting up.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.
That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.
And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.
It feels like a fragile house we’re living in, folks. But we live in it together. It’s the only way.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Jericho Books/Hachette Book Group (New York, 2013), p. 105. Quoted by Michael Kirby in a paper for The Well preaching group.
I met Marthame Sanders a couple of years ago at an event at Columbia Seminary. Since then we’ve followed one another on Facebook and shared a mutual interest in improv and the spiritual life. Marthame was lucky enough to receive a sabbatical grant last summer which allowed him to study improv at Second City. Right now I’m working on a grant application for a similar purpose myself, but in the meantime, it’s great fun to see what Marthame and others are doing to encourage an improvisational “posture” in worship and think about how to expand those skills into the larger church. (Church of the Pilgrims in DC is also doing great work in this–see Ashley Goff’s blog for more.)
Marthame wrote recently on his blog about an anthem the congregation composed in the middle of worship. So rad. I especially love the acknowledgement that while there are many more polished, technically “perfect” pieces of worship music out there, there’s something powerful about creating something right in the moment. And it sounds like he provided just enough structure for this creative work to happen.
Thanks for sharing this inspiration, Marthame!!
An Improvised Anthem–guest blog by Marthame Sanders
Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.
It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.
Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.
Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*
Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.
I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.
Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:
I will sing my praise to God;
I will sing my praise to God;
I will sing my praise to God all my life.
The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.
I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.
We will definitely do this again.
One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice: