interim ministry

eulogize! mourn! move on!

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

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Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on occasion, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land; we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”  There’s no word on who actually dug the grave.  Maybe it was arranged by an earthquake!

2 dtNo one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.

All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but he again whacks it with a club, releasing the water.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed!

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would be someone who had a long tenure.  His or her pastorate would often be considered one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past are not always good ones!  Sometimes they go the other way.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

3 dtWhat in the world could have been their motivation?  Maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test?  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is hardly a fresh approach to a dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.

2a dtLook at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man.  He was ripped.

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires more praise, even legendary praise.

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were crying 24/7, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is fly the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

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Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  Everyone mourns in their own way and at their own pace.

Having said that, we do indeed move on.  Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  This can apply to anyone in a position of leadership: pastors, politicians, even parents.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  The people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

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This play has a divine director, and in Joshua 3, we again hear the instructions regarding Moses’ understudy.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (v. 7).

What is Joshua’s first message after he takes the oath of office, so to speak?  (I want to get this out of the way!)  He tells the people their God “is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you” all the nations (v. 10).  If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see what that means is genocide, or at least, attempted genocide.  If you’re wondering how a loving God—no, a God who is love—could require such a thing, you’re not alone.

The truth is, that was not an uncommon form of warfare then, and sadly, it’s still with us.  A call of the Hebrew prophets was to no longer mimic the other nations, indeed, to be a light to them (Is 42:6, 49:6, 51:14).  It’s hard to be a light to someone you’re slaughtering.  We are capable of even the most heinous activity, and the most trivial activity, if we believe we’re serving God.

Moving on!  The Israelites face a bit of a hindrance in their journey: the Jordan River, which we’re told is at its yearly flood stage.  What are they to do?  Simple.  Now there are twelve priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  As soon as they set foot in the river, the water will stop, and there will be dry land for everyone to cross over.  Easy-peasy.

We have echoes of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea, and here is Joshua following in his footsteps.  The nation faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Put yourself in their shoes.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  Are you overjoyed?  Are you supremely confident?  Or is there something else?  Are you anxious?  Are you terrified?  Do you feel abandoned?  Do you feel betrayed?  Do you feel rage?  Can we see ourselves as facing our own Jordan River, and with the river overflowing its banks?  This time of pandemic can seem uncrossable.

Banu and I have had those thoughts, those emotions.  It can feel like suffocation, or more appropriately, it can feel like drowning.  Seriously, what sane person can believe the river is going to make way for us, just so we can stroll to the other side?

I wonder, when will we be able to have people over for dinner?  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas?  What about Super Bowl parties?  (We like to have those; we even invite people who couldn’t care less about the game!  It’s just fun!)

We might find ourselves eulogizing.  We praise the way things were before.  Sure, they weren’t great, but they were better than this!  We mourn.  As I said earlier, it is important to mourn and to acknowledge that we are mourning, otherwise, it will be impossible to move on.  And so, are we ready to move on?

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It would be easy to just to settle down next to the river.  I think we could get used to life there.  Despite everything that’s happened, it could be worse.  As just noted, we all have our Jordan River; we have it as a congregation.  We have it as a nation, just like those ancient Israelites.  However, if we don’t plunge ahead, if we don’t take that first step into the racing river, if we don’t trust where God is leading, we become complacent.  We lose our joy.  The colors are not so vivid.  They become a gray wash.

There is the promise of God given by the prophet, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2).  We eulogize.  We mourn.  And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we move on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.


goodbye and hello

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9).

If there is a scripture text that sums up what I might call my conversion experience, this piece of Isaiah 55 would be it.  When I was in college, I developed a true interest in matters of faith.  That included, in some small way, learning about Buddhism, Zen, the Sufis (those in the mystical stream of Islam), and others.  But more than anything else, the Bible started making sense to me!  It began to speak to me.

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In the late evening of August 3, 1985, I had an experience while reading that text from Isaiah.  I felt the presence of God in an overwhelming way.  It seemed like I was plunged into an ocean of love.

Was it like St. Augustine overhearing a child singing a rhyme, “Take up and read, take up and read,” and then reading the words in Paul’s letter to the Romans saying to abandon works of the flesh and clothe himself with Christ?

Was it like John Wesley hearing a reading (also from Romans) and feeling his heart “strangely warmed”?  I don’t know.  Maybe some of you can speak of similar moments in your own lives.

But we need not have one of those experiences to know the truth of the gospel, and indeed, to love it.  We need not have one of those experiences to embrace the reality that in fact, God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours.  We need not have one of those experiences to understand that’s a good thing.  We need a heavenly perspective to get through this thing called life.

In John 16, we see the disciples of Jesus seeking some perspective of their own during the final night of his life.  He says he’s been using figures of speech; he’s been using veiled language—all of this stuff about “going to the Father,” whatever that means (v. 17).  The disciples claim they now know what he’s talking about.  “Now we know that you know all things” (v. 30).

But that’s the thing about knowing something just in your head.  If it doesn’t get past thoughts, it can’t change your ways.  (We’re back to thoughts and ways!)  Our knowledge has to include both head and heart.  How often have we had head knowledge but not heart knowledge?  How often have we lacked heart?  How often have we lacked courage?  That word comes from the Latin word cor, meaning heart.

Jesus knows the disciples’ hearts will fail them.  When they see what’s coming for him, their head knowledge won’t be enough.  They will lose heart; they will lose courage.  Within my own resources, relying on my own “stuff,” I predict a 99% chance I also would lose heart.

But Jesus offers the remedy.  He tells them, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.  In the world you face persecution.  But take courage [take heart]; I have conquered the world!” (v. 33).  What an awesome line: I have conquered the world!  I have overcome the world.  It has no place in me.  I am free from the things that would invade me and lead me astray.

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Jesus is victorious.  In Christ, we have victory.  In Christ, we are conquerors.

In 1 John 5, we learn our faith is what conquers the world.  Faith is the victory.  Both of those words—“conquer” and “victory”—come from the same Greek word.  I just said there’s a 99% chance I would lose heart just like the disciples did. 

Now I have another prediction.  I predict 100% of you know this Greek word.  “Conquer” and “victory” come from the word νικη (nikē).  We know it by the shoe company’s name Nike.  Faith is the Nike!

So where are we?  Understanding that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours, Jesus encourages us to not lose heart.  (And notice that word, “encourage.”)  He heartens us.  Therefore, we are guaranteed to be victorious.  Here’s verse 5: “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Again, just as head knowledge is not enough, so believing just in our thoughts is not enough.  True belief is in the heart; it is in the spirit.  That is how we go forth and conquer.  Of course, this isn’t conquest as we typically think of it.  This is a battlefield within ourselves.  The victory is won within.  But if it is indeed won within, it by necessity is expressed in our actions.  It is not a private preserve.

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The very last verse of 1 John feels almost like it was tacked on as an afterthought.  Still, it flows right along with achieving within ourselves victory over the world.  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (v. 21).  Take my advice; I’ve had experience in these matters.  Heed my warning.

Idols can appear in any form.  Don’t give your heart to them.  Don’t welcome them into your heart.  They will cause you to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!  In Christ, we are a new creation.  We are empowered to say “goodbye” to the old and “hello” to the new.

And so it is with us here.[1]  As I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, as interim pastors, we’re already saying “goodbye” when we arrive.  We have a specific amount of time to go through a process.

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Even though this is our final worship service with you, we are also saying “hello.”  We are saying hello to your next chapter.  We are saying hello to the future that is already unfolding in Christ.  We are saying hello to the one whose thoughts and ways are higher than ours, who gives us courage, who strengthens our hearts, and who does so in leading us to the victory, the nikē, which is empowered by our faith in the meek and mighty Lord Jesus Christ.

Goodbye and hello!

 

[1] This is directed to a particular beloved congregation, but it can apply to other situations (in my humble opinion)!


the strength of weakness

All of us, to one extent or another, are encouraged to downplay our weaknesses.  In a more positive light, they can be called “growing edges.”  (Banu has said by calling them “growing edges” we’re being more honest.  I don’t really mind calling them weaknesses, since I have plenty to choose from!)

In any event, sometimes there’s the temptation to focus on, and even to exaggerate our strengths and abilities in order to impress others and to make a name for ourselves.  We might even want to fool ourselves.

As you may or may not have guessed from our epistle reading in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul doesn’t like to operate that way, and for what it’s worth, he doesn’t shy away from speaking of his own “weaknesses.”

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He starts the chapter by saying, “It is necessary to boast.”  But he quickly adds “nothing is to be gained by it” (v. 1).  Why does Paul say he has to boast?  He’s dealing with the Corinthian church, a group of people that are being wowed by preachers Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles.”  They are superheroes in eloquence!  Unfortunately, some of the stuff they articulate so well is more focused on themselves than on the gospel.

Several times I’ve mentioned church consultant Peter Steinke.  In the epilogue of his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, he talks about “people of the charm.”  It deals with narcissistic, self-centered qualities.  It’s about people who are charmers and those who want to be charmed.  He describes a charmer as one who “can thrive for years without realizing that the core of his or her life is empty and that beneath the narcissistic glitter is a false and an impaired self.”[1]

The charmer projects charisma, which in reality can be “a cheap substitute for charis, the [New Testament] word for grace.”  The charmer uses charisma “to control and manipulate other people…  In the circle of charm, there is no freedom.”[2]  But that’s okay, because as I said, they admire the charmer—they enjoy being put under the spell!

Steinke quotes someone who made a nice little pun.  He said such relationships are “gilt by association.”[3]

So getting back to Paul, when he says he’s forced to brag, for a moment he decides to play their game.  He has some credentials himself that aren’t too shabby.  He can be a show off with the best of them.  Seriously, how many of these characters can honestly claim they’ve had visions of being taken to heaven and hearing “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat”? (v. 4).  Let them try to match that!

Still, despite his visions, he says there’s nothing to brag about.  There’s no reason to play the role of charmer.  If there is anything to brag about, it’s his weaknesses.  If that’s his focus, I don’t think the apostle’s LinkedIn account would be very impressive!  I’m not sure how well he would do interviewing for a job!

2 2 co 12And just in case he’s tempted to draw attention to himself and “the exceptional character of the revelations,” he adds “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated,” from getting too big for his britches (v. 7)!

No one really knows what he means by this “thorn in the flesh.”  Some have speculated it’s an illness.  In Galatians 4, he says, “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me” (vv. 13-14).  Another version says “you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at my physical condition” (REB).  It seems like, for a while at least, Paul wasn’t very attractive.

The thorn could be something else Paul admits: he’s not a very good public speaker.  In chapter 11, he says, “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.  I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge” (vv. 5-6).  Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “if you put up with these big-shot ‘apostles,’ why can’t you put up with simple me?  I’m as good as they are.  It’s true that I don’t have their voice, haven’t mastered that smooth eloquence that impresses you so much.  But when I do open my mouth, I at least know what I’m talking about.”

Whatever the thorn in the flesh might be, Paul begs God three times to take it away.  But the response is, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).  Paul eventually accepts it.  And his conclusion?  “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

The apostle discovers, and teaches, the strength of weakness.

On the face of it, “the strength of weakness” seems to be completely ridiculous.  It’s like saying, “as clear as mud.”  But Paul has learned from the vision he saw on the road to Damascus.  He has learned from the one who, as he says, “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Co 13:4).

There is indeed power in weakness.  When we’re able to admit our mistakes, to acknowledge our weaknesses, there is a sense of liberation.  When we’re freed from the compulsion to project a false front, to put on a show, to trust in our own achievements, we begin the journey of discovering who we truly are.

As Thomas Merton says in No Man is an Island, “If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be.  Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become.  Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all…”[4]

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted?  Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?”[5]

3 2 co 12The strength of weakness is daring to be who God created us to be.

And it also applies to congregations.  It’s okay to admit your struggles; it’s okay to admit your weaknesses—or at least, your perceived weaknesses.  It’s okay to be who God created, and is still creating, you to be.

We can speak of many things, but one of those qualities is being able to say goodbye to the past.  This is a challenge in many congregations.  One way this presents itself is in programs and activities.  These are things that, for a long time, have been a source of health and vitality.  But at some point, they outlive their usefulness.  Participation wanes, and they become something that is too inwardly-focused.  They no longer serve the gospel imperative to go forth into the world.

Being able to say goodbye also applies to pastoral boundaries.  In many congregations, there might be “beloved former pastors” and not-so-beloved former pastors.

It’s up to ministers to respect proper pastoral boundaries.  And even though it can be tough for the congregations, they also have a role in doing it.

And being able to say goodbye applies in other areas, as well.  But identifying it as a growing edge, and working on it, is yet again a case of the strength of weakness.

As intentional interim pastors, saying goodbye is part of the job.  Saying goodbye really goes with saying hello, right at the beginning of the ministry.  Some people might not understand and think of it as a weakness.  But even if someone looks at it that way, it’s a weakness that, if honored and embraced, shows it’s a sign of strength.

Many of you have seen each other’s weaknesses.  It’s just a fact of life.  We can fall into the trap of defining people solely on that basis.  It’s like taking a photo of someone at their worst—or in their most embarrassing situation—and saying, “This is who they are, forever and ever!”  Still, if we are in Christ, we live as those who believe and expect renewal and resurrection.  In many ways, we keep on being raised from the dead.  And thinking of weaknesses, there’s nothing weaker than death!

To make it real, we have to love one another.  We must learn to love God in each other.  It’s not always easy, but if we do that, we draw out each other’s strength from weakness.

It’s been said about weaknesses that they “play a most important part in all our lives.  It is because of them that we need others and others need us.  We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in [him- or herself] for the lack in another.”[6]

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That is why the apostle Paul says, “on my behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses” (v. 5).  That includes identifying and laying down improper or unfair claims, identifying and laying down our pretensions, identifying and laying down our striving which kills us and others.

It’s not enough to embrace our weaknesses; we can do it and actually hold on to them.  We embrace our weaknesses—we own them, so to speak—but then turn them over to Christ.  We yield all of that stuff to the Lord.  And when we do, we are enabled to enter a new world, the upside-down world of Jesus in which when we are weak, we are strong.

That is the strength of weakness.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 169.

[2] Steinke, 171.

[3] Steinke, 175.

[4] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 8, paragraph 2.

[5] Merton, 7.8.3.

[6] Merton, Prologue, paragraph 25.


herd mentality

On Palm Sunday, we remember an ancient practice.  When the conquering hero would ride into town, people would welcome him by carpeting his path with palm leaves.  In the case of Jesus, the people are expressing their hopes.  He’s there to lead them against the Romans!

Of course, he’s not mounted on a mighty stallion; he’s riding a lowly donkey.  Connection has been made to the book of Zechariah, which says in chapter 9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (v. 9).

In his gospel, St. Mark tells us, as Jesus rides a colt into town, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (11:8-9).

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Are the people cheering really interested in being his disciples?  What would that mean for them?

I’m not the first to point out how the crowd on Palm Sunday bears little resemblance to the crowd on Good Friday.  Or does it?  In neither case is the spirit of discipleship demonstrated.  Jesus shows how fleeting and fickle fame really is.  In a matter of days, the people go from calling for a crown on his head—to calling for his head.  In doing this, the crowd has a mind of its own.

Our reading in the book of Isaiah has an interesting Hebrew word.  In verse 4, we hear, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.”  The word used for “teacher” (לׅמֻּד, limmud) can also mean “disciple,” one who is taught.  God has given me the tongue of a disciple.  That word is also at the end of the verse.  “Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”  Those who are taught:  to listen as disciples.

According to the prophet, the teacher is a disciple.  The disciple is a teacher.  This is a person who always wants to learn, and who always wants to share what has been learned.  We’re reminded that “the speaker is aware of his need to learn, and has the humility to confess that need.”[1]

The path of discipleship is one of endless training.  It is one of endless training of others.  That’s a calling that we share with the prophet, the Servant of the Lord.  Being a disciple of Christ means wanting to be like Christ.  That requires both meekness and courage.

On the point of the crowd having a mind of its own, I have a story to tell, one I’m not too happy about.  It involves the Texas state Capitol, the KKK, some hardened clumps of dirt, and a moment about which I’m not terribly proud.

In 1983, during my freshman year of college, I went with a friend (and more than a thousand other people) to watch the Ku Klux Klan as they marched on the Capitol building in Austin.  Police and news helicopters were flying all over the place.  It felt almost like we were about to be occupied by an army!

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Among the crowds were people carrying signs, people yelling at the Klansmen, and others (like me) who were just curious and wanted to see what was going on.  As the marchers made their way toward the Capitol building, they moved through thicker and thicker crowds along the road.  You could feel the hatred in the air.  It was just a matter of time before someone got bored with hurling insults and decided to hurl something else.

It began with a couple of small stones and quickly escalated into a barrage of rocks.  Even though the Klansmen came equipped with plexiglass shields (maybe they expected this kind of reception!), some projectiles managed to hit home.  There was more than one bloody face among them.  (I should say they were wearing their pointy hoods, but they were unmasked).

When they reached the spot where their cars and vans were parked, demonstrators started smashing the windows.  It was the final angry act of the day.

There’s one moment, though, in that afternoon of violence that remains with me.  At one point, when the Klansmen had circled around behind the Capitol, people were running in all directions.  I had stopped and was surveying the scene (being careful to avoid the crossfire of rocks!).  Suddenly, a young black man who was about my age stopped running and knelt about ten yards from me.  He was gathering some hard, dry clumps of dirt to fire at our white-robed friends.

He must have noticed out of the corner of his eye someone was standing there; he just froze and looked up at me.  There we were—two young guys, one white and one black—the black one probably wondering what the white one would do.  And what the white one did was to give the black one a little smile, as if to say, “Go for it!”  He returned the smile, picked up his weapons, and disappeared into the crowd.

I believe now, as I did then, that the constitutional right to peacefully assemble is vitally important.  Even a group I find as repugnant as the Ku Klux Klan has the right to express its opinion, as long as they’re not advocating violence.  (Admittedly, that’s a tough sell with a group like the Klan.)

The irony on that day was the KKK was being peaceful, if it’s possible for them.  Still, wearing those bedsheets stirs up the legacy of terrorism.  At the very least, they were just walking; they weren’t shouting or shaking their fists.  It was the onlookers who were violent.  And I was a part of that violence.  In my own way, I became a contributor to mob mentality.  That’s not a good feeling.  I allowed the crowd to do my thinking for me.

For those interested in being interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires two weeks of training, at least six months apart.  One of the main things we looked at was the congregation as a system: a family system, an emotional system, and so on.  We also looked at how systems get stuck—how they get paralyzed and can’t seem to progress.

There are a number of reasons, but one of them is something I’ve been talking about.  It’s the mentality of the mob, the herd mentality.  Maybe some of us have had an experience of church like this.  There can be a group dynamic in which the congregation bands together and shames those who have questions.  There can be cult-like behavior.  Compulsion is used to whip people into shape.

Many studies have been done about herd mentality.  As individuals, we can feel anonymous in a crowd—or sometimes on the internet.  No one knows who we are.  Sometimes it leads us to do things, that if we were by ourselves, we would never dream of doing.

This doesn’t have to work for the bad.  When the community of faith works in a healthy way, those things we would never dream of doing are awesome and beautiful.

For example, by ourselves, it takes added courage to protest for justice.  With others, we are heartened in an amazing way.  By ourselves, singing and praising the Lord is definitely a beautiful and soul-enriching thing.  But with others, singing and praising becomes a powerful and magnificent wave.

In the Palm Sunday story, along with the sincere adoration of Jesus, can’t we also sense an element of desperation—the desperation of a people who feel beaten down?  When these desperate people realize that Jesus won’t comply with their wishes, things get ugly.  They get anxious, with a vengeance.  (But that’s the story of Good Friday!)

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When we’re anxious, we become reactive, as opposed to responsive.  A good way to think of it is to compare “reacting” to a knee-jerk “reaction.”  It’s automatic.  It doesn’t take any thought.  When we respond, we’re taking a moment to actually think things through, to weigh the options.

Being reactive is often a good thing; it can save our lives.  If our hand is on a hot stove, that’s probably not the time to think and weigh our options.  Get your hand off the stove!

Getting back to my story about the Klan, we see an extreme example of reactivity.  (I would say that throwing rocks at people qualifies as “extreme.”)  Of course, it helps if there’s a group that is easy to hate, like the KKK.

Going along with this, we see violence cloaked with righteousness.  Too often it seems like justice has to be served by wiping out somebody else.  If I disagree with you, then you’re my enemy.  Forget for a moment what Jesus says about loving our enemies.

Church consultant Speed Leas has done a lot of work on congregational conflict.  He says that situations sometimes get to the point where people “won’t stop fighting because they feel it’s immoral to stop.  They believe they are called by God to destroy the evil.”

At our interim pastor training, a story was told of a minister who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

As we can see, giving in to the herd mentality can lead to some unpleasant, even fishy, outcomes.

So, today on this Palm Sunday, where are we?  (Presumably, not gathering up rocks or thawing out fish!)

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, “Once we let the group substitute for an inner life or our own faith journey, all we need to do is ‘attend.’  For several centuries, church has been more a matter of attendance at a service than an observably different lifestyle.”[2]

Sometimes we’ve been swept along with the herd; we’ve disappeared into the crowd.  At such times, we have lost ourselves; we have forgotten who we are and whose we are.  Sadly (and speaking for myself), we might have chosen the path of cowardice.

But much more importantly, we have also experienced communion, the solidarity of the saints.  We have discovered and welcomed the courage of Christ.

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So, regardless of what the herd says or does, be it the cheering and joy of Palm Sunday or the jeering and rage of Good Friday, we take hold of Christ and confidently say with the prophet in Isaiah 50, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (v. 7).

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1965), 201.

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 276.


anarchy to order

“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jg 21:25).  That’s how the book of Judges ends.  That book covers a time period of about a century and a half—from the life of Joshua to the life of Samuel.  The judges were regional authorities.  Today we might call them local chieftains.  The book of Judges was written after the monarchy was in place.  So maybe there’s some bias; maybe the judges are pictured a tad unfairly.

“All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  There was no king.  They were running wild!

Having said that, it is hard to dispute there was some spiritual anarchy.  That was the world in which Samuel was born.  Here’s one minor example.  I won’t go into detail, but the sons of Eli the priest engaged in graphic womanizing and ripping people off when they came to offer sacrifice.  In Eli’s defense, he did plead with them to stop being so wicked.  But that’s just one symptom of the “anarchy.”

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In 1 Samuel we have a story appearing often in the Bible.  There’s a woman advancing in years who still hasn’t borne a child.  It’s always pictured as the woman who can’t conceive.  We never hear about the man who is unable to father a child!  I wonder why that is.  Maybe in ancient times they weren’t aware such a thing is possible.  Then again…  But I’ll leave that for another day!

In any event, here, the woman is Hannah.  Long story short, she prays to the Lord; she becomes pregnant, and she follows up on her promise to dedicate young Samuel to God.  Afterward, she sings of song of praise which serves as the model for the Virgin Mary’s prayer in Luke 1.  That’s how we arrive at Eli’s taking Samuel under his wing.

Look at how chapter 3 begins.  “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.  The word of the Lord was rare[1] in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).  There were few, if any, prophets bringing fresh words from the Lord.  Almost no one had any vision.  It was a drought of creativity.

That’s not the same thing as saying God did not want to reveal new things to the people.  When people are resistant—when we are resistant—there’s no place for the seed to germinate within us.  That is, it’s the figurative seed which bursts from the earth and becomes the plant that grows and flourishes.  It’s the new life signaling an end to the drought.

2 1 smSpeaking of loss of vision, here’s verse 2.  “At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room.”

Okay, I know the main point of the sentence is a physical condition.  Eli is now an old man, and he no longer has an eagle eye!  We could say he’s blind as a bat.  Still, coming right after that business of visions being few and far between, I think we can see more than a little bit of humor involved.  There’s probably more than a little bit of sarcastic humor involved, with a loss of vision also meaning a spiritual condition.

That theme continues in verse 3.  “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.”

Again, the surface language is talking about an actual lamp which has used up almost all of its oil.  But I like that: the lamp of God had not yet gone out.  There’s still a flicker; there is still hope.  There are still those who welcome the word of the Lord; there are still those who yearn for vision.

By the way, we hear about the Ark of God, or the Ark of the Covenant.  It was said to contain holy objects, including the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments.  Oh, and just as importantly, it was the star attraction in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which highlighted the face-melting of Nazis when they gazed into it.

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I’ll summarize the crazy story starting in verse 4.  It’s the story of a boy who keeps waking up in the night because he keeps hearing a voice.  And each time, he goes into Eli’s bedroom, who keeps telling him, “I didn’t say anything.  Now go back to bed, young man.  Goodness gracious, can’t a guy get some shut-eye?”

Finally, Eli realizes Samuel is hearing the Lord.  He tells him to listen, and what he hears isn’t very pleasant.  It’s all over for Eli and his worthless sons.  Their wickedness has come back to haunt them.  Eli demands the boy lay it out for him.  “So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.  Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him’” (v. 18).  Even in bitter failure Eli shows himself to be a man of deep faith.

We can see this as a baton being passed.  The sun is setting on Eli, but it is rising on Samuel.  This is more than a function of age.  It’s more than Eli being old and Samuel being young.  There are plenty of folks who’ve been on this planet for over 80 or 90 years and are still vibrant inside.  And there are some young ones who are already turning to dust inside.

This is about maturity.  This is about understanding gentleness is strength; wisdom begins with acknowledged ignorance; the first will be last, and the last will be first.  (Okay, I stole that from someone!)

This is a new word from the Lord; it is a new thing.  Young Samuel is infused with vision from God.

There’s an often-misunderstood verse from the book of Proverbs.  It comes from the King James Version, which despite much of its beauty, is after all, written in English from four hundred years ago.  It is said, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (28:19).  That’s been taken to mean many things, such as the vision leaders lay out for those being led.  It’s the vision we ourselves have.

Modern translations show the meaning of the Hebrew.  “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).  So it really means “where there is no prophecy, no revelation, no vision from God.”  And what’s the result?  The people cast off restraint.  They are unruly.

[Rev. Steve Plank, former stated clerk of the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse, gave this translation during the August 2017 presbytery meeting: “Where there is no word from the Lord, empty chaos results.”]

As those final words from the book of Judges go, “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  What does this spiritual anarchy look like?

Again, it doesn’t mean people are running wild, with blood flowing in the streets.  It’s not the plot of a horror story, like that ridiculous movie The Purge, the premise of which says once a year, all crime is legal for a period of twelve hours.  No, it’s nothing so over-the-top as that!

One way I think we can see what this anarchy looks like is the sense of rootlessness.  It’s the sense of becoming untethered, unmoored.  It’s the sense of drifting, of having no firm grasp—nothing solid to hold on to.  All the people did what was right in their own eyes.

That also happens in the church.  There can be a sense of losing our bearing, not knowing which way to go.  At a lesser level, we can see anarchy in congregational meetings, in which it becomes a matter of crowd control.  That’s why our Book of Order specifically lists the topics to be discussed at such meetings.  It brings anarchy to order!

Back to the original point.  A lack of a genuine word from the Lord, a lack of vision, of revelation, affects our society at large.

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Many consider Martin Luther King, Jr., as having been a prophet.  Whether or not you would use that term, (I trust I’m safe in saying) he did speak a new word, a needed word, rooted in vision and revelation from God.  Like the prophets of old, his message comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.  It was, and remains, a word for both society and the church.

King ministered during a time of great transition in America—tumultuous transition.  I’ve spoken about transition on numerous occasions.  Transition is a big part of the job of interim pastor, if not the defining characteristic.  Transition is always charged with anxiety, in greater or lesser measure.  And it becomes all the more necessary to hear that rare and precious word and to receive the vision.

So how do lack of the word and lack of vision result in a drought of creativity, at least creativity that is worthy of the name?

Could it be we are cut off from the source of creation?  We can’t allow the creative Spirit of God to inspire us?  We are unable to imagine new things?

Perish the thought!  We need not look for the grand and glorious.  It begins with one.  Jesus was one, and the word spread.  With the young boy Samuel, a fresh wind of the Spirit blew into what was decaying.  There was a rejuvenation.  Anarchy was brought to order.

That is our challenge and our privilege—that we bring our own anarchy and present it to the one who takes what is crumbling and orders it into something wondrous and beautiful and yielding life eternal.

 

[1] יׇקׇר (yaqar), also means “precious”


eulogize, mourn, and move on

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

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Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on rare occasions, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  That seems pretty harsh!  It sounds like Moses is being tantalized.  Look, but don’t touch!  It’s like a thirsty dog tied to a leash, with its tongue hanging out, and there’s a bowl of water just out of reach.

There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land, and we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”

No one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.  If you say, “I pride myself on my humility; in fact, I am the humblest person you will ever meet,” then clearly you are not!

2 Dt 34All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but instead he again whacks it with a club, and water flows out.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it, bub!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed! 

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson, who is a political theologian, says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would usually be someone with a long tenure.  His or her pastorate is often considered to be one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.  And I suppose, different people might have different BFPs.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past in a congregation are not always good ones!  There are some people who go the other way: folks who are not so enamored with days gone by and with the pastor who is held in such high esteem.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

3 Dt 34Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is a fresh approach to an old dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, or a beloved former pastor, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.  It is entirely appropriate and necessary to celebrate who the person himself or herself has been.

Look at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  He’s like those folks in AARP commercials!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man, or so the tale is told. 

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires even more praise, even legendary praise. 

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were constantly crying, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is flying the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular song or piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

The Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

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But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

To mourn well means to embrace our inner poverty.

Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, speaks about this inner poverty.[5]

“At the center of our being,” he says, “is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…  This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.  It is so to speak [God’s] name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence…  It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  To say the least, it can feel uncomfortable.

Still, remember what I said earlier.  Mourning is not just an emotion.  Of course, we will miss someone beloved who is no longer in our life.  It would be heartless not to!

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“People frequently overlook [the] need for mourning.” (Stefan Kiechle)

Mourning is more than emotion; it is action.  That’s one reason why the church, in its liturgy each year, relives the life of Jesus.  We relive the passion of the Christ.  We relive the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, the abandonment of Holy Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday.  And we relive the Ascension, when Jesus is no longer present in bodily form, but now as the Christ, as Ephesians 1 puts it, “who fills all in all” (v. 23).

So we do indeed move on.  Jesus also says in John 12, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25).  If we cling to things that are passing away, then we’re clinging to an illusion.  But if we reject that impulse, we find new life.  That’s why after eulogizing and mourning, there’s the need to move on.

Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  It means the leader is staying in the system.

Despite whatever good intentions might be present, it almost always has a harmful and toxic effect.  If a leader whose time to move on remains involved in the system, the people are left in a kind of limbo; they are denied the chance to properly mourn.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  This obviously doesn’t diminish what Moses has done.  He is remembered as the great liberator and lawgiver.  Still, the people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

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I think it’s safe to say life itself is always transition.  Everything passes away—even the earth and sky.  Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who orchestrates transition, in the eternal God of Moses and of Jesus and of the church, throughout all the ages.

Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who leads us in eulogizing, mourning, and moving on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.

[5] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 3, section 39, paragraph 8.


have you not known? have you not heard?

Have you not known?

Our Book of Order, when it calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), agrees with Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah, if you like).  An idol is the creation of workers, goldsmiths, and artisans, as the prophet tells us (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.  By the way, how many of us have turned off our phones, or at least, set them on vibrate?)

Have you not heard?

With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

1 isaiahWe’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  Still, going from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, we have to be careful about overestimating the worth of our own efforts, our own accomplishments.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?

There’s something I read in Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped.  (I imagine he’ll say a couple more things about it this afternoon!)  It’s something I’ve used as a devotional.

About halfway through the book, he brings up the story of the poor widow.[1]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church while they were having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Well!  Would I be mistaken in saying that somebody needs to do a flip?

But it’s true.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structure that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.

2 isaiahDear friends, I have to tell you: we are the system!  We are part of the religious and political structure.  I must confess (and I’m likely not alone in this) that I’m not fond of being part of the system.  I think that feeling was especially heightened in college when I started reading those revolutionary and counter-cultural authors.  And it was also in college that I started reading the scriptures, and for the first time in my life, I really began to understand them.  Talk about revolutionary and counter-cultural!

Still, being part of the system is neither good nor bad.  The system is how things operate; it is how things happen.  It occurs to me I might rephrase what I just said.  The system actually is a good thing.  Think of the ecosystem.  It’s how life operates.  I think that’s a good thing!

The question is, what do we do with the system?  Do we make it into a beast?  Does it turn us into beasts?  Do we give in to cynicism?

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” (v. 27).  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, giving power to the faint, strengthening the powerless.  Isn’t that amazing?  We don’t have to be beasts!

Therefore, if we have a God who makes such promises, who follows through on those promises, what is our response?

My wife Banu and I have been in this presbytery for a little over a year, so in that time, we’ve gotten a pretty decent lay of the land.  Part of the lay of the land is rather obvious: we are a presbytery in transition.  It’s a transition in structure; it’s a transition in terms of several folks retiring.  And regarding structure, the Leadership Team is an expression of that transition.

Because of all of that, we are in a special position.  This is something you learn as interim pastors.  Transition presents us with new opportunities.  We are given permission (as if we don’t already have it!) to try new things.  Unfortunately, sometimes when presented with new opportunities, we are too quick to say “no.”  We try to find ways it won’t work.  We try to find ways to get out of doing it ourselves.  (Or could it be I’m the only one here who’s ever done that?)

In Acts 2, St. Peter, drawing on the wisdom of the prophet Joel, says, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (v. 17).

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.

3 isaiah

I wonder, do we quench the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh?  Do we as a presbytery do that?  Do we idolize our system and make it an agent of tyranny?  I understand: we don’t throw people into an iron maiden or have them drawn and quartered!  Even so, does tyranny reveal itself among us by ignoring prophets, averting our eyes from visions, and disregarding the dreamers?  I don’t know.  Maybe.

In our opening prayer, we asked God, “Be with members of our presbytery.  Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”

Empty slogans and senseless controversy?  What’s wrong with them?  They’re so much fun!  They make us feel like we’re getting stuff done.

Again, we have to heed the warning about idolatry and tyranny.  That’s our challenge as a presbytery.  That’s our challenge as congregations.  That’s our challenge as Christians.  That’s our challenge as those in Christ, those who love Christ.  Is our love sufficient?  I don’t think so; it always falls short.

4 isaiah

But here’s the good news.  We are promised that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

 

[1] Doug Pagitt, Flipped (Convergent Books: 2015), 97-102.


wish you would hear

Has anyone here ever been exiled?  I wouldn’t suppose that any of us have been banished, or taken by force, to a foreign land.  I suppose it might be possible that someone has been taken from their home.  Perhaps I should rephrase it to say, “Has anyone here ever felt like they had been exiled?”

FightMaybe someone has had to go to a Thanksgiving dinner with that certain family member present who likes to air his or her annoying opinions.  It could be political or religious ideas.  Maybe it’s the one who makes inappropriate remarks.  Is there someone who chastises you on your life decisions?  “You know, if I were you…”  “I don’t want to be critical, but…”

For four or five hours, you might feel like you’re living in exile!

Banu and I had a sort of exile last year.  Please understand, my mom had nothing to do with that!  I’m just talking about my wife and me!

We felt compelled to make the trip to Tennessee, largely to help with my mother’s health needs and some house repair.  In effect, we took a hiatus from the Presbyterian Church; we were sent from our “homeland.”  In our “exile,” we tried other options: among them, pursuing chaplaincy at an urban community center, substitute teaching, even ordination in the Episcopal Church.  In one way or another, the doors remained closed.

We realized that, for right then, we needed to settle down, at least as far as our direction in life was going.  Jeremiah says something like that in his letter to the exiles in Babylon (chapter 29).  They need to make a home for themselves there.  And in reality, our calling to ministry had not changed.  It was simply the venue, the location, the nature of it.

In time, Banu and I were called out of exile.  It came in the form of a certain congregation looking for interim pastors!

The text from Jeremiah deals with people who actually are in exile.  That relates to some stuff I’ve said since we came here.

On several occasions, I’ve spoken about people in transition, congregations in transition, especially as it relates to the interim process.  I did that last week, using a term referring to the middle part of transition, the neutral zone.  Being in the midst of that in-between state, we’re like a life form in a cocoon at a certain point of its development.  We are transitional goo!

The exiles taken from Judah, the Babylonian captivity, are an excellent example of people in transition.  They certainly didn’t choose this transition; this is transition, big time!  Or maybe there’s another way to look at it.

There is something that deals with change and transition.  It’s from William Bridges, the one who uses the term “neutral zone” (though not in the Star Trek sense).  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.”[1]

The exiles definitely don’t choose this change.  They’re presented with some radically new events, whether they like it or not!  (Of course, I know none of us have ever had that experience.)

So they have this change.  The fact that it’s seriously dramatic, heartbreaking, and historic clearly make it more intense.  The question is how will they experience this change.  Their transition, if you go along with Bridges, can happen in many different ways.  They’ve been plopped down in the thick of it.  Now what?  That’s where the prophet Jeremiah steps in.

You might recall that Jeremiah has long been warning his fellow Judahites about the imminent threat of exile.  Well that day has come and gone, although we who are on the other side of history know that even more folks will be taking that road to Babylon.

Jeremiah 32 deals with the time the prophet bought some land while the country was being invaded—not the best time to purchase real estate!  Still, God promised him, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (v. 15).  There will be people who return from exile.

And on this occasion, he’s writing a letter to the exiles.  Here is where he suggests the transition that can be their experience of change.

One writer sums it up like this:[2]

“The opening words of a pastoral letter sent to the exiles in Babylon: Get used to it; build a life in exile.  Adjust: build, plant, marry.  Create a communal infrastructure in exile.  Your task: seek the shalom (welfare) of the city…  The mission is not to overthrow a hostile regime, but to hold the regime to its own best promises.  The empire can practice shalom.  The exiled church [so to speak] can influence the empire.  Close your ears to liars who say we’re going back to normalcy.  Dismiss such illusions of escape.  Instead, make do, witness in your situation.”

We can see some themes here.  First, there’s Jeremiah in a pastoral role.  It might be hard to imagine that party-pooping prophet as a pastor, but he really does love the people.

Then there’s the instruction that they should stay put and build a life for themselves.  Don’t start guerrilla warfare!  Love your neighbor.  Invite them over for dinner.

And thirdly, they are reminded that they won’t simply be living there, but they also have a mission.  Their job is to witness—to testify!—that their God is still with them, even in the far away land of Babylon.

It’s possible to see Jeremiah’s letter in terms of developmental tasks for congregations in an interim period.  Typically, five tasks are mentioned.

They are (and they go by various names): Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, Discovering a New Identity, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.  I want to especially focus on that second one, Discovering a New Identity.

Discovering a new identity can be really tricky.  There can be a fine line between holding on to what is still relevant and life-giving from the past and saying goodbye to what no longer is.  We learn from the exiles that in saying goodbye, there is loss to be grieved.

Our loss doesn’t begin to compare with that of the exiles, but there has been loss nonetheless.  There is a call for mourning.  Without acknowledging grief, without facilitating the process of mourning, we can hold on to what has already faded away.  Making room for grief is essential for spiritual, mental, and even physical health.

Sometimes it helps to just have a good cry!

Seek the peace

Jeremiah says God wants them to discover a new identity, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (v. 7).  This is how they need to witness.  Exercise some holy defiance (not ill-tempered defiance, mind you!).  Show those around you that you lovingly claim the future into which God is leading you.

Still, some will say this is not necessary.  Don’t believe it!  Don’t listen to that hogwash!  Don’t say goodbye to the past, go back in time and reclaim it.  Sometimes they might claim God told them to say this.

God says of them, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord” (vv. 8-9).

Jeremiah must be going crazy about this.  He must want to tell them not, “I wish you were here,” but “I wish you would hear.”

This business of rebuking false prophets is a bit extreme for our situation, but it can be difficult to take the step of discovering a new identity.  As I hope I made clear, there doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) a sharp break with the past.  But the willingness to let go opens us to that new identity, God’s new name for us.  And that helps in our witness.  It helps to form and clarify our mission.

image from 1.bp.blogspot.com

I like something Walter Brueggemann says about the exiles’ staying put, seeking the well-being of the place where they’ve been sent, and doing the difficult work on a new identity.  It all places on “this vulnerable, small community a large missional responsibility.  In this way, the community is invited into the larger public process of the empire.  [This] prevents the exilic community from withdrawing into its own safe…existence, and gives it work to do and responsibility for the larger community.”[3]

That’s a fancy way of saying that daring to ask ourselves, “Who do we want to be?”  “How do we adapt to our changing world?”  “Where is the Spirit leading us?”  All of that makes us vulnerable.  As with the exiles in Babylon, our mission reminds us to not withdraw into our own narrow concerns.  Don’t hunker down into a fortress or scarcity mentality.

Something that came out in a session on the interim process was about that very thing.  This congregation is, Banu and I believe, ahead of the curve in avoiding that fortress / build a wall / dig-out-a-moat-and-fill-it-with-alligators mentality.  One comment was “a current of receiving and giving” is evident here.

Keep that current flowing, and your mission will flow out of it.

Ending with verse 11 of our chapter, we see the promise to the exiles and to us.  “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  That’s a rock solid guide during all of the interims and exiles of our lives.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] Handbook for the Revised Common Lectionary, Peter C. Bower, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 257.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 257-258.


the neutral zone (redux)

Sometimes fans of certain TV shows, musical artists, or sports teams will make lame attempts at interjecting those interests into conversations, or—God forbid—into sermons.  I can assure you that this is not one of those lame attempts!  I have a very good reason for the title, “The Neutral Zone,” aside from the fact that it exists in the universe of Star Trek!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.comFor those who don’t know, and especially for those who don’t care, I will give a very brief explanation.  Between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire there exists a region, established by treaty, which is called the Neutral Zone.  Neither of those governments is supposed to send ships of any kind into that area without the consent of the other.

Now, here comes that good reason to speak of the neutral zone!  It’s a concept presented in the book, A Door Set Open, by Peter Steinke.  He’s done a lot of work with congregations, including those who are either in conflicted or transitional situations.

He uses the term in reflecting on work done by William Bridges, another consultant.  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.  He cites three movements—endings, the neutral zone, and beginnings—in the transition experience.”[1]

We might think of “endings” as the chapter or the phase of life that is drawing to a close.  “Beginnings” would be the next step or the new reality that is now appearing.  It’s the middle one, “the neutral zone”—in which things seem chaotic and unsettled—that can really alarm us, even sending us screaming in the other direction!  Or it can really have us confused.

We all know that caterpillars turn into butterflies.  While that critter is still in the cocoon, strange, confusing things are going on.  At some point, it’s neither caterpillar nor butterfly.  It’s in a state of metamorphosis in which it’s neither one.  That little booger is in what we might call a state of transitional goo.  That is its neutral zone.

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

We can see the people of Nazareth in our reading from St. Luke’s gospel as being in their own neutral zone; they are transitional goo.  (I should probably explain!)

As we begin with verses 14 and 15, Luke presents Jesus returning from the wilderness, having endured temptation.  He says of Jesus, being “filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  It’s when he comes to his hometown of Nazareth that things really get interesting.

Jesus attends “synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom,” and he reads the beginning of Isaiah 61 (v. 16).

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (vv. 18-19).  Jesus tells the people that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

They are astonished by the way he addresses them.  They’re asking each other, “This is the son of Joseph, isn’t it?”  Dennis Bratcher says, “It seems at first that Jesus had won acceptance at Nazareth.  They marvel at the gracious words spoken by Joseph’s son now become a man.  But the people have not yet truly responded, at least not on the level necessary to engage the future that Jesus is bringing.  Beginning in verse 23…Jesus drives to the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the people.”[2]

It’s not long until Jesus reveals the feelings of ownership and control the people want to use over him.  “Hey, he’s from our town; he’s one of us!  He should do the stuff here he’s done in other places.”

But when they hear how Jesus elaborates, attitudes change pretty quickly.  He speaks of beloved prophets, Elijah and Elisha, doing good deeds for foreigners.  After all, he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (v. 24).  And it looks like they want to prove him right!

Luke tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”  In The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger.  They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom” (vv. 28-29).  But maybe there was enough confusion with people milling around, since we’re told that “he gave them the slip and was on his way” (v. 30).

I said earlier that the people of Nazareth experience their own neutral zone.  Change is going on, but their experience of that change has them emotionally paralyzed.  Families, communities, congregations:  all of them can be seen as emotional systems.  Verses 28 and 29 show us that the people in the synagogue are emotionally stuck—and they want to stick it to Jesus!

I just mentioned that change is going on.  What change could that be?  There are a number of ways to look at it.  I want to mention something we see evolving throughout the entire Bible.  Throughout salvation history, the faith gradually becomes more inclusive.

In the earliest times, each nation, each ethnic group, believes in their own god, and that’s true for the Israelites.  Their God is Yahweh, but they also believe that those other gods exist.  It’s just that they’re not supposed to follow them.  As time goes on, they come to see that the God of Israel is the one true God.  Other gods are simply idols.

With the urging of the prophets, the God of Israel is seen to be God of all the earth.  Foreigners are welcome, and indeed called, to worship this God.  And later, as the church of Jesus Christ expands throughout the Roman Empire, barriers between Jew and Gentile begin to fall.

That evolution of the faith has continued, albeit with many bumps in the road.  Interfaith dialogue continues to explore the similarities, and to clarify the differences, among our understandings of God in the twenty-first century.

The people Jesus is addressing understand all too well what he is saying.  He’s letting them know that their claim on him, and at a deeper level, their understanding of themselves as “the” people of God (that is, the only people of God), can no longer be defended.  This produces anxiety within them, but instead of handling their anxiety, their anxiety handles them!  And as we’ve seen, they want to handle Jesus!

Jesus would like to lead them in the change that is inevitable.  But as our friend Peter Steinke comments, “Leading change brings out both reactive forces and responsive ones.”[3]  That first one, reactive forces, is when we become defensive.  Sometimes people speak of instinct, the “lower brain,” or the “reptile brain.”  We sense danger; anxiety kicks in.  Anxiety is an automatic reaction to a threat, whether that threat is real or imagined.

image from cx.aos.ask.com

What happens when we’re anxious?  Are we relaxed?  Or perhaps, does our chest tighten up?  Actually, “anxiety” and “angina” come from the same family of words.  When we’re anxious, we want instant answers; we see things in terms of yes-no, either-or; we literally become narrow-minded.[4]  When we feel threatened, there’s no time to take a survey!  Everything within us is screaming, “There’s no time to think!  Just do it!”

That second one that leading change brings, being responsive, is when we are reflective.  This is learned behavior.  We are free to exercise reason and creativity and imagination.  We’re free to explore possibilities.  We’re using the “upper brain.”  And it also has a physical response.  Instead of tightness, there tends to be a sense of calm.  We remember to breathe!

Both reaction and response are necessary for human life.  Without the “knee-jerk reaction,” we wouldn’t pull our hands out of the fire.  You know, when any body part is on fire, that’s not the time to assemble a focus group and brainstorm various options!

So for all its benefits, the reptile brain, the lower brain, is not very useful in building community.  We need response that’s more elevated.  In a similar way, we’re reminded that “once anxiety runs a high fever…one can never rely on insight or reasonableness or even love.”[5]

Here’s a note about the reptile brain.  At the conflict mediation training a few months ago at Stony Point, the presenter gave us some advice.  Never tell someone that they’re acting out of the reptile part of their brain.  For some reason, that usually doesn’t go well!

Having said all that, I hope I haven’t given the impression that anxiety is a bad thing.  As I just said, anxiety is a normal part of who we are as humans.  But it’s a part of us that can easily overwhelm us and drive our behavior.

Speaking of being driven by anxiety, maybe you heard about the poll that was recently released by Monmouth University.[6]  It dealt with people’s feelings about the presidential campaign.  The question was asked if this campaign has brought out the best in people or the worst in people.  A large majority, 70%, said it’s brought out the worst in us, 4% said the best, 20% said neither the best nor worst, and 5% said it’s both the best and worst.  That last 1% said they don’t know!

Good and bad spock

When asked if they’ve lost friends because of the campaign, 7% said yes.  Though in fairness, 7% also said that happens in every presidential campaign.

Again, this is one poll, so take it for what it’s worth, and remember, there really aren’t right or wrong answers.  This is just a snapshot of anxiety among us today.  Still, I would be willing to hazard a guess that it’s not every campaign in which 70% say it shows us at our worst.

Okay, I’ve touched on ways in which those in Jesus’ hometown synagogue are spending time in the neutral zone.  A good example would be Jesus’ refusal to allow them to “claim” him, and to call them to a wider vision.  In various ways, the winds of change have swept through their lives and community.

That feeling of being in the neutral zone is not unfamiliar to a congregation in an interim period.  Feelings of anxiety would be expected.  What does the future hold?  What will we do next?  Or better, who are we, and who is God calling us to be?  How is God calling us to emerge from transitional goo?

A moment ago, I spoke of how anxiety can overwhelm us.  In Galatians 5, the apostle Paul warns his sisters and brothers, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).

The neutral zone can be a scary place.  We can learn the wrong lessons there.  We can learn how to bully each other.  We can learn how to belittle each other.  That can be expressed in a thousand different ways.

So it’s true, the neutral zone can be a scary place.  But it’s also necessary, though not in the Star Trek sense of keeping enemies apart.  It’s necessary because that’s the time and place to re-orient ourselves.  We hold on to what is good and true from the past, but not so tightly that we cannot embrace the hopeful and hope filled future into which the Holy Spirit leads us.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearC/Cepiphany4nt.html

[3] Steinke, 2.8.8

[4] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006), 8-9.

[5] Steinke, A Door Set Open, 2.8.8

[6] www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/MonmouthPoll_US_092816

(The image “The Neutral Zone” is by David Akerson.)


from false life into true

Some people see the epilogue of Revelation, the final words of the Bible itself, as a grab bag of stuff that gets tossed in as an afterthought.  But there is a method to the author John’s madness.  He brings together images that he used earlier in the book, such as “Alpha and Omega” (v. 13, 1:8), the washing of robes (v. 14, 7:14), the morning star (v. 16, 2:28), among many others.

Something about our passage that I find interesting is what the lectionary compilers left out.  This often happens with the “problematic” verses.  When I see stuff that gets deleted, I just have to include it.  Verses 18 and 19, in which John cautions about messing around with the words in his book, are skipped over.

But before that, there’s verse 15, which is the flip side to the blessing which has just been pronounced on “those who wash their robes” (v. 14).  These are the ones granted access to the tree of life and entry to the city.  That is God’s new city, the new Jerusalem.

Here’s the sentence that gets the ax: “Outside [that is, outside the city gates] are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”  Saving the rest of the verse for later, it’s that last part—everyone who loves and practices falsehood—that jumps out at me.  The New Jerusalem Bible reads “everyone of false speech and false life.”  False speech and false life.

image from jayfnelson.files.wordpress.com

Let me tell a story I think might go along with that.

In November 1987, I was a student at Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida.  (It’s an Assemblies of God school; it’s now Southeastern University.)  Anyway, on most Friday nights, a group of us would go to Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa—at the time, it wasn’t exactly the most upscale part of town.  What we students did was street evangelism.

The night after Thanksgiving was my very first time going with the group to Tampa.  I doubt that I’d been on the street for more than five minutes when I encountered a man, maybe in his fifties, dressed in shabby clothes.  I walked right up to him and said, “Jesus loves you.”  Just like that.

I’m not sure what I was expecting.  We were Pentecostal students; I suppose we expected to see some dramatic changes every time we went there.  But with my very first person on my very first night, I did see something.

Upon hearing the name “Jesus,” the man started crying.  And as he sobbed, he poured out his heart.  He said that he’d once been a rich man; he’d had a job as a manager in some corporation.  Due to various things, in particular a drinking problem, he just frittered it all away.  But worse than losing his career, worse than losing all his money, was the fact that he had lost his family.  He told me that he wasn’t even sure where they were.  And he wondered if he could ever be forgiven—if he could ever be pardoned for living a false life, so to speak.

With an almost knee-jerk reaction, I said, “Jesus does forgive you.”  There, that ought to do it!  That ought to take care of him!  But for some reason, it didn’t.  My magic words failed to produce the intended effect!  I expected him to say, “Thank you” or “Get lost” or something like that.  But he said something very different.

“Do you forgive me?”  He was directing the question to me!  Somewhat taken aback, I was determined to provide what I considered to be a theologically correct response.  “Jesus forgives you.”

“No, no, no,” he groaned through his tears.  “Do you forgive me?”  To my anonymous friend, in that deserted parking lot on the evening after millions of Americans had gobbled turkey in the comfort of their homes, my talk of Jesus was an abstraction.  He needed a flesh-and-blood word.  So I said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he turned and shuffled away into the night.

When we hear the words a “false life,” the poor fellow I met in Tampa may come to mind.  Or we may imagine those who haven’t wound up on the street:  say, employers who abuse their employees and the environment.  Perhaps “false speech and false life” conjures up images of slick-talking salesmen, corrupt politicians, or that romantic interest of your youth who gave you hope—and then said, “I just want to be friends”!

Our friend John gives us examples of what he’s talking about.  In verse 15, he starts off with “dogs.”  Jews sometimes described Gentiles that way.  That may or may not be the way John is using it.  In any event, calling someone a dog is hardly a compliment.

The next word on the list, “sorcerers,” would seem to be a concern to those who don’t like Harry Potter!  The word in the Greek, φαρμακοι (pharmakoi), sheds a little more light.  Pharmakoi is the origin of our word “pharmacy” or “pharmaceutical.”  So John’s reference to “sorcerers” is also a reference to “drugs.”  There’s always been a link between drugs and sorcery.

Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for taking drugs, but I think I’m safe in saying that Americans are probably the most overmedicated people in the world.  Still, that kind of dependency contributes to the “falsity” that our scripture points to.

And then next on the list is “fornicators,” coming from the Greek word πορνοι (pornoi), which is the source of our word “pornography.”  We dehumanize each other in plenty of ways, and this is definitely one way it happens.

And then, with “murderers and idolaters,” we can think of the folks who physically do that.  Or, going a bit deeper, we can examine the presence of murder and idolatry within ourselves.  In John’s first letter, these are his final words:  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).  Hint:  he isn’t talking about images of stone!  Idolatry is very much a part of the human condition.

In reality, we’re in danger of holding on to some, or all, of the qualities in verse 15.  There’s the intolerance and bigotry shown by the use of the word “dogs.”  Like sorcerers, we often try to manipulate God and others, with or without drugs.  We can be controlled by lusts of the body, motivated by grudges, and love the creation more than the Creator.

We all have the qualities that I’ve mentioned within us.  We might try to hide them or pretend that they don’t exist.  We begin to live a false life; a life which may seem healthy on the outside, but is sick on the inside.  We all need forgiveness, and we need to forgive each other.

In what’s sometimes called a “preview” of Pentecost, or the “first” Pentecost, Jesus gives power to his disciples.  In John 20, he breathes on them, and then says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (vv. 22-23).”  Maybe that’s what I was doing that night in Tampa!

By forgiving each other, we welcome the power of Christ.  We act on the words of that familiar prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  (Or substitute words to fit other versions.)  Some might say, “I’m not in debt to anybody here.”  To which, I would say:  sorry, but yes you are!  In Romans 13, the apostle Paul says that we owe each other love (vv. 8-10).

We’ve taken a look at what a false life could mean for us as individual persons.  How could a false life apply to a congregation?

There are a number of ways to approach this, but here’s an example.  My wife Banu and I attended a week-long retreat on interim pastor training.  We watched a video of the late Edwin Friedman.  He was talking about overcoming barriers to effective leadership, both clergy and lay leadership.

One of his comments was on the fallacy of expertise, which is an overemphasis on information and technique.  We can become paralyzed by incessantly gathering information before we take any meaningful action.

Friedman spoke of another barrier to effective leadership:  what he calls the fallacy of empathy, the ability to feel what others do.  Clearly, empathy itself is a good quality.  The problem comes when there’s an overemphasis on how people feel.  The hard truth is that not everyone is going to be happy with you, even if you’re doing your very best.  (Often it turns out, especially if you’re doing your very best!)

One way this is seen is when the most dependent members, the ones who have the least amount of self-regulation—the least amount of self-control—are the ones who are setting the agenda.  He made an interesting comment: organisms that lack self-regulation don’t learn from experience.  They don’t learn from their mistakes, their patterns of behavior, if they are constantly being enabled.

image from angermentor.com

Friedman had an observation about American society.  A key thing that is lacking, he said, is maturity.  And sadly, maturity is a quality often lacking in the church.  When we violate proper boundaries, we display a lack of maturity.  When we intrude on someone’s personal space, we display a lack of maturity.

Developing maturity is what we allow God to do in us through spiritual formation.

Prayer is a vital component of spiritual formation.  But guess what?  We are being spiritually formed all of the time.  It doesn’t just happen through what are often thought of as “spiritual” practices: like prayer, scripture reading, peacefully meditating.

We are also spiritually formed in the very “real world” activities in how we treat each other and how we work through issues.  Board meetings, committee meetings, are perfect places for spiritual formation.  We are spiritually formed in how we deal with conflict, which inevitably arises.

Conflict, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad.  We can deal with it in good and healthy ways—or in bad and destructive ways.

Hear verse 17: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

God gives us the gift of love that helps us deal with false speech and false life.  Of course, by its very nature, love cannot be compelled.  It must be both freely offered and freely received.

So here’s a question: what do we do with that love?  Do we let it remain abstract, the way I was with the man on the street in Tampa?  Do we find ways to make it flesh-and-blood, praying for strength and courage, even in those board meetings, and beyond that, even when it seems like everything is lost?

That is what motivates John and his sisters and brothers with their faithful, hopeful, and joyful cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Come, lead us from false life into true.