The movie Left Behind came and went last month. Did you miss it? Oh no! Well come January, you’ll be able to catch it on DVD, which may be entertaining just to see what kind of movie garners a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 2%. Ouch.
For anyone unaware of the mega-bestselling books, the Left Behind series is a fanciful account of the rapture, which is a strain of end-times theology based on a misreading of I Thessalonians. The idea is that the righteous people will be carried up to heaven so that God can come down and open a can of whupa** on the unbelievers.
(I have a pastor friend with a parishioner who believed in the rapture… he was always tempted to go to her house with a set of clothes, lay them out flat on her porch, ring the doorbell and run. Thus proving that if the rapture were a real thing, he’d be one of the heathens left behind, eh? Along with yours truly, since I crack up every time I picture it.)
Rapture theology is not a big part of my tradition. I know Presbyterians who’ve read the Left Behind books, but generally they read them as entertaining fiction, not as sound biblical interpretation. Because they aren’t.
Still, I am tempted to pray for the rapture… at least, a rapture of a sort.
In my work with NEXT Church, and having been a colleague to many folks in ministry these 11 years, and as a pastor of a small church, I know a huge number of congregations that are struggling with aging facilities they can no longer afford. Rather than being tools for ministry, these buildings are money and energy pits.
As for Tiny Church, we’re blessed with a functional building that’s the right size for us, an absence of debt, and an endowment we can use when repairs or capital improvements are needed. And still, we have been locked in conversations for a long time about what to do with our aging kitchen and aged building. I had my fifth anniversary at Tiny last month, and these conversations predate me. We are an engaged congregation with many strong leaders, but we lack the capacity to do progressive, forward-thinking ministry AND make these upgrades. It’s a burden—and it’s a burden thousands of congregations share.
So, I daydream. I daydream that all the church buildings would be raptured, leaving behind the communities of faith who used to inhabit them, who would then be compelled to ask themselves, “Who are we without these buildings? What do we now have the capacity to do that we didn’t before?”
A colleague serving a small congregation, burdened by a large unwieldy building, said a number of years ago, “Sometimes I pray that the building would burn down.” She was only half kidding. I know churches that have burned and rebuilt. One hopes and assumes that these new buildings are right-sized for the resources of the congregation, and better reflect the ministry as it is now. But building rapture would be better. Because there’s no building-rapture insurance that I’m aware of. There would be no payout from GuideOne or State Farm. There would be no new organ to replace the old one, no brand-spanking new facility that is a great tool for ministry now but has a decent chance of being a millstone for the congregation of 50 years from now.
There would be a tremendous period of grief, of course. Buildings are sacred spaces and containers for memory. And there would be congregations who peter out, maybe because they lack the vision for a church without a building, or because they realize that the building was the only thing that united them.
But some churches would find ways to move forward. They would rent spaces and meet in homes, schools and businesses. They would discover gifts and capacities they never knew they had.
A canon of mythology has grown up around pursuing work we love, including the ubiquitous charge to “find your passion” and the well-meaning question that was posed to me almost daily in college: “what is God calling you to do with your life?” That mythology puts a ton of unnecessary pressure on people to pick the right work or else miss their God-given calling. And it obscures both the gift and the responsibility we have to work with our lives.
…We are called and suited to particular kinds of work, I believe, and God cares a great deal about how we steward the talents we’ve been given. But we should not expect passion to persist at all times in our work, and we certainly should not conclude that when energy fades so has our calling.
I couldn’t agree more, and his words reminded me of a treasured bit of wisdom from Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame and written for Forbes back in 2008. His piece is called It’s a Dirty Job, and I Love It! and should be read in its entirety, and not just because he talks about castrating a lamb with his teeth. (And you thought budget and finance meetings were unpleasant!)
Here’s the money quote:
In the long history of inspirational pabulum, “follow your passion” has got to be the worst. Even if this drivel were confined to the borders of the cheap plastic frames that typically surround it, I’d condemn the whole sentiment as dangerous, not because it’s cliché, but because so many people believe it. Over and over, people love to talk about the passion that guided them to happiness. When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart. What a crock.
Why do we do this? Why do we tell our kids–and ourselves–that following some form of desire is the key to job satisfaction? If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a “true purpose.” In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all–they have instead brought it with them.
Now this is a little different than Rocky’s point, which is that you can be called to something even if it doesn’t set your world on fire all the time. But the basic point is similar.
I just finished reading Craig Barnes’s fine book, The Pastor as Minor Poet. I agree with my friend who said it should be required reading for new pastors—so long as they agree to reread it every few years. This is one of those books that begs to be revisited.
Barnes’s book is a welcome counterpoint to the numerous blogs, articles and books out there that trumpet the pastor’s need to be an entrepreneur, fundraiser, change agent, CEO, family systems guru, social media expert, etc. Those skills are important, but Barnes’s book calls pastors “to continually search for the deeper, truer understandings of what they see–both in the text of scripture and in the text of their parishioners’ lives.”
In other words, our attentive study of the scripture and of the human condition isn’t superfluous. It’s our primary vocation… not least because we’re likely the only ones in our parishioners’ lives doing that.
As pastors, our job is to notice and to name. It’s just that simple and just that complicated.
One place where I quibble with Barnes is in the area of sermon illustrations. He seems pretty down on them, for reasons I partly understand. Stories within the sermon are tough to get right. Karl Barth used to talk about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I told someone recently that I also feel called to preach with the Bible in one hand and popular culture in the other, but it’s a tricky business. (Part of the reason I enjoy tackling it. Remember, I’d rather be wrong than boring.)
I’ve done sermons about gospel lessons in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, children’s literature, reality television, and comic book characters. On reflection, some have probably worked better than others. You have to bring people up to speed, and I can remember a few sermons in which I thought “this is requiring too much setup to get to the point.”
What I hoped all these sermons did on some level, though, is to model for people a faithful engagement with the world we live in: to sleuth around for the living Christ at work in (and/or standing against) those works of culture we consume every day.
Anyway, here’s Barnes’s critique:
There are two great dangers that accompany every sermon illustration. The first, and most common, is that the illustration will overpower the gentle revelation of Christ that the preacher is trying to hold before those in the pews. The second is that it will be only ornamentation that distracts the listeners from the pristine beauty of the message. This is not to say that preachers should avoid using illustrations. There are times, especially when preaching out of the epistles of the New Testament, when a good illustration is necessary even for the minor poet. But even then, it is important that the illustration not get in the way of the preacher, the congregation, and the Holy Spirit.
At this point it seems like Barnes isn’t against illustrations, just against bad ones. But he goes on:
The longer I preach, the fewer illustrations I seem to use. Mostly that is because I have learned to trust the incarnational nature of the biblical text. The vast majority of the Bible presents not abstract theology, but theology embodied in sacred stories. These narratives are profoundly compelling, and they don’t benefit from being interrupted with similar contemporary stories.
Did you catch that? Preaching without benefit of illustrations is a matter of trust. Do you agree?
I’ve heard it said (and Barnes intimates) that if people leave the service remembering the story you told more than the story you read from scripture, that you somehow didn’t serve the people well. I don’t think it’s that simple. What is the goal of our preaching? For people to leave with the scripture passage on their lips? One hopes so, and a good sermon can provide some biblical education, but it shouldn’t be the primary aim of our preaching. Rather, our hope in preaching is that the gospel message continues to live in the hearts of the listeners. Why can a well-told story not do this?
I find it peculiar, this idea that the gospel is somehow threatened by our stories, as if the illustration and the scripture are somehow in competition with one another. This is a false dichotomy. A good illustration doesn’t pull attention away from the text, it breaks it open further.
Preachers and listeners: what do you think?
By the way, you can read those Harry Potter sermons (and lots of other stuff) here.
By the way2, thanks to everyone who’s subscribed to my email list. I promise a big juicy update this week. Subscribe here.
So I wrote a thing the other day that provoked some strong reactions.
I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years and have managed to fly under the radar for much of that time. For many years, I joked that my blog was down the dirt road and past the rusted-out gas station, and I liked it that way. I had a small group of readers, consisting of folks I knew and strangers who were amiable and thoughtful even when they disagreed. It was a great place to try out new ideas. Blogging is ideal for putting stuff out there even when the toothpick doesn’t come out clean.
I know people who’ve been trolled mercilessly, even threatened, on the Internet; and I know it can be harder for women, who often deal with rape threats and other violent or misogynistic comments. We’re learning more about the psychology of trolls—these folks are more likely to exhibit behaviors correlating with the so-called Dark Tetrad of personality: sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.
I’ve had a pretty great experience online. I still say that, even after spending a good part of the last few days wading through emails and comments that have come in as a result of the TIME.com article and this blog post. It’s been an interesting sociological study and occasion for self-reflection. What does vigorous engagement look like? How do we disagree online and in real life? How do we influence and persuade one another? How do we show graciousness when our “side” has prevailed?
Some of this week’s emails got quickly deleted, e.g. those that mainly consisted of quoting the Apostle Paul. Trust me, I’m familiar with his work.
Similarly, messages employing all caps, excessive exclamation points, etc. I don’t allow people I know to yell at me; do you really think I’m going to let you?
Other responses contained factual inaccuracies about the decision that was made or had a legitimate gripe about what happened. My rule of thumb has always been that those folks deserve one response, so if I have time, I’ll respond in good faith. Then it’s their move. If they show a genuine effort to engage, I may continue. If they escalate the nastiness, I’m through. Life’s too short.
But then there were a few messages that got to me. And upon reflection, it’s not the trolls that do it. They are so over the top as to be instantly disregarded.
It’s the people who wrote out of their own authentic experience… especially those who were honest in naming their pain.
One person began a note by saying, “I cried when that marriage decision was made too, but for the exact opposite reason that you did.”
Hey. I feel the way I do, and the person’s email doesn’t change that. But how can you not be moved by that?
I keep thinking about James Baldwin’s words: I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
This person refused to be a knee-jerk hater, instead responding from a deeper place. The emailer shared an experience of pain, and with a complete stranger, no less. I honor that. It has stuck with me.
Many people are pained by what happened. I don’t understand it. I honestly believe that this is a faithful decision biblically, theologically and pastorally. I further believe that gay marriage won’t be a cultural cataclysm, just as interracial marriage wasn’t. But I appreciate the pain the General Assembly’s decision is bringing to people. And part of our action at GA was for the church to put a process in place of engaging with people who are pained.
How do we do that? The church has been arguing about LGBT issues for decades. There’s really nothing much left to say. Let’s stop trying to convince each other we’re right. So what’s next? Authenticity is next. Vulnerability is next. Sharing our broken places with one another is next.
I was invited to preach at tonight’s meeting of National Capital Presbytery, during which we heard reports from our commissioners to General Assembly. The sermon (more or less) is below.
Also, during small groups I shared a couple of tweets by Niraj Warikoo, a reporter for the Detroit Free-Press who was covering the meeting. Presbyterians can get very self-deprecating about our sometimes tedious parliamentary processes, and I was touched by Mr. Warikoo’s view of our meeting from the outside. Others wanted a copy, so here it is:
“Watching the Presbyterian assembly you see why Protestant-rooted civilizations have been so successful. You see the Protestant sense of time, order, democratic openness, rule of law, & an unending drive to improve themselves & the world.”
Anyway, here’s the sermon:
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
National Capital Presbytery
June 24, 2014
Abound in Hope
4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’; 10and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’; 11and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’; 12and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’ 13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
One of my Sunday morning rituals for many years was to drive to church with the radio tuned to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. And while I like Audie Cornish, the current host, just fine, for me Liane Hansen will always be the voice of Weekend Edition Sunday. (Yes, even folks in their early 40s can get set in their ways.)
One of the things I miss on that program is the Voices in the News, a feature that was sadly discontinued 6 years ago. During this segment they would play short quotes from various world leaders or celebrities, in their own voices. It was sort of an audio collage of the events of the previous week.
Tonight I want to keep that spirit alive, and I’ve enlisted some friends to help me. (Keep in mind that these readers may or may not endorse the words they say!)
“Here were some of the voices in the news this past week”:
Voice 1: “We are not here to fight and divide, but to continue to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to testify to the transforming power of his love that is available to everyone. We urge you in the strongest possible way to refrain from actions, attitudes, and language that would mar the image of Christ in your response to the Assembly’s actions.”
Voice 2: “You should tell your pastor and the members of your session that you disapprove of these actions. You should refuse to fund the General Assembly, your synod, your presbytery and even your local church if those bodies have not explicitly and publicly repudiated these unbiblical actions. God will not be mocked and those who substitute their own felt desires for God’s unchangeable Truth will not be found guiltless before a holy God.”
Voice 3: “We pray that the discussions that will take place around amending the Book of Order in the coming year can be vehicles for healthy conversation about what it means to be church together, even with deep disagreement.”
Voice 4: “Divestment is not the end, it’s the beginning of non-violent means to fight the oppression of our Palestinian brothers and sisters.”
Voice 5: “The decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups PCUSA. We hold the leadership of the PCUSA accountable for squandering countless opportunities… to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination.”
(Thank you all for reading the words of others, and in some cases, giving voice to sentiments you don’t agree with!)
As for what they were all talking about: if you managed to miss the news about GA via CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, or heck, even the Springfield Shopper, you’re going to hear about it in our breakout groups with our GA commissioners in a few moments. Suffice to say that some people are elated, others are furious, some are elated about the one thing and furious about the other, some are proud of their denomination for speaking prophetically and at great risk, some are wondering why we even weigh in on half the stuff we weigh in on, some have been looking for any excuse to leave, some are trying their hardest to stay, some have been waiting for a decision for years, some wanted just two more years to study the matter.
In the midst of that, here’s another voice, not from the news this week, but echoing down through the generations: Live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.
Oh Paul, you ask hard things of us! One voice? The divestment vote passed by seven votes! Even the marriage decisions, as decisive as they were, left 30-40% of commissioners in opposition. Do you detect a lot of harmony in the voices we just heard? We are not a well-tuned barbershop quartet, glorifying God with our tight chords. At best we are one of those 12-tone pieces by Schoenberg or some other 20th century composer. If you’ve taken music theory and listen really hard with your head cocked just so, you can hear a unity and coherence to the notes. But 12-tone music is more appreciated than it is loved. It’s probably not going to be your choice of soundtrack for a dinner party or your first dance at the wedding reception. And it’s not likely to fill its listeners with all joy and peace in believing so that they will abound in hope. It’s more likely to leave people cringing with their hands over their ears.
You will hear from our commissioners in a moment about what happened at GA. What I hope they will convey, and what I wish to convey, is that the debate was vigorous, and intense, but also prayerful and respectful. That matters.
Personally, I call it a success that we made it through the marriage debate without hearing the words pedophilia or bestiality. And nobody in the Middle East debate got compared to Hitler. Now I realize that’s setting the bar pretty low. But it’s bar we haven’t always cleared in this presbytery or at General Assembly, so kudos to us!
But regardless of how we made the decisions we did, the decisions themselves have consequence. And we are not of one mind and one voice. And what makes our current situation more challenging, especially here in this presbytery when it comes to the Middle East, is that folks who are used to agreeing with one another don’t agree about divestment. It’s one thing to be colleagues in Christ when you see eye to eye on a whole laundry list of social issues. It’s much harder when those colleagues disagree on something that feels so fundamental. This is going to put our unity to the test. (And at this point our loyal conservative minority is thinking, “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”)
And still, despite all of this, I do have hope. Because thank God, our hope is in God, who is the one true author of the joy and peace that we so sorely need.
This is the last section of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It’s a sweeping epistle that has covered everything from the role of the law to the significance of Adam to the interplay between spirit and flesh. It’s no accident that after these weighty matters of the day he winds up where he does, in a place of unity, of welcoming one another, lifting up the steadfastness of the Christ we meet in scripture. But this is not quite his last word to the church. Later in this chapter Paul acknowledges that he has “written rather boldly,” or what the Message calls “bold and blunt criticism.” There is an edge to Paul’s words; they are not all sweetness and light. Deep issues are at stake. So Paul must feel like it’s possible to do both: To be bold and even blunt with one another, to say “here’s where I see God at work in our church,” but also to do the “one-anothering” that Jesus calls us to do.
But how do we live with that tension between the call for unity and the deep disagreements we have? Maybe we need an image to guide us. And the one that comes to mind is from an old Looney Tunes cartoon. (Stick with me.)
Those of you who’ve been to GA know is the exhibit hall, where you have booths for the different affinity groups. Whoever’s in charge of the placement of those booths has a godly sense of humor, because the groups that are diametrically opposed to one another often end up side by side. And it’s not unusual to see someone at one booth chatting amiably with someone the next booth over. And when I see that, I always think of Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog.
For those who don’t remember these characters, Ralph the Wolf looks like Wile E. Coyote and Sam is of course a Sheepdog. Ralph’s goal is to steal the sheep for his dinner, often with the help of various products from the Acme Corporation. And Sam’s job is to guard the sheep and keep Ralph from doing that, often with the help of his big doggie fists. Slapstick gold.
But what’s funny about the Ralph and Sam cartoons is that they’re not enemies. In fact, if you remember, they begin each morning by greeting each other: “Morning Ralph. Morning Sam.” They meet each other at the punch clock and they each punch their time card and go to work. And here they are, taking a lunch break together as friends before they go back to doing what it is they do.
Now, my point is not that one side is stealing sheep and the other is the benevolent guard! But maybe the kingdom of God is something like this. We have divisions. But we can decide whether we want to be a divided church. We will continue to address controversy, but it need not be cantankerous. The councils of our church will continue to hash out issues. We will line up at microphones, offering our best arguments and scriptural support for our position. We will be bold and sometimes blunt. And when it’s time to break bread together we will do so, as we did every single day of General Assembly, welcoming one another just as Christ welcomed us.
The things we decide matter. But do we believe that God holds our future or not? Do we believe that God works through our deliberations and beyond them, within us and without us, through us and in spite of us? Do we believe that God is not finished with us?
I do. I believe that God has got this.
And that belief is the peace that Jesus promises, not as the world gives. That kind of peace can only be dreamed up by a wildly imaginative God… a God of joy, steadfastness and hope.