Never Call Retreat?

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photo by Elias Ehmann via Unsplash

I’m going on renewal leave.  What does that even mean?  I’ve spent the last six months trying to get my mind around it, preparing for it, and anticipating it with a strange mixture of joy and dread.  I do believe, because I’ve seen how it has helped others, that renewal leaves can refresh us for the new things God has in store for us, things we sometimes can’t see when we are in the midst of the day-to-day.  It’s also good for us not to imagine that we’re so indispensable that God can’t manage things without our help for a while.

I’ll be doing a lot of writing, which means I won’t disappear from this space, but I’m trying to fight against the urge to produce.  One of the lessons of Sabbath that I am learning with great difficulty is that rest is a great antidote to our tendency to justify our worth based on what we’ve done.  It’s very tempting to direct God’s attention to a pile of accomplishments and say, “I must have earned a spot in your heart, God.  Just look at how busy I’ve been.”

God loves our work, but God blesses our rest as well.  Even our play.  Because God invented Sabbath and God knows that the world is not in our hands, but in God’s.

In her poem “Camas Lilies,” Lynn Ungar uses Jesus’s image of the lilies of the field (Luke 12:27) to explore our obsession with being ‘useful’:

Consider the lilies of the field

the blue banks of camas opening

into acres of sky along the road.

Would the longing to lie down

and be washed by that beauty

abate if you knew their usefulness

Ungar then goes on to imagine taking that image seriously:

And you—what of your rushed and

useful life? Imagine setting it all down—

papers, plans, appointments, everything—

leaving only a note: “gone

to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I’m through blooming.”

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photo by Jane Miller via Unsplash

Then she concludes:

Even in sleep your life will shine.

Make no mistake. Of course

your work will always matter.

Yet Solomon in all his glory

was not arrayed like one of these.

So I’m not going off to be useful.  I’m going off to be lovely.

Nunc Dimittis: Words for a Church Closing

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Berea Church, New Church, VA

What’s the import of a church closing?  We struggled with that question last Sunday at Berea United Methodist Church as we held its final worship service.  I offered some words for this country church that has been at the center of a small Virginia town, New Church, for 132 years…

 

When I was young, I used to love to go on short trips with my dad.  Sometimes, he’d take me bowling and that was great.  Very occasionally he’d take me fishing at the lake, but he wasn’t much good at that and neither was I.  Our best trips, however, were when we went to cemeteries.

Now, I get it that you might find that strange.  After all, cemeteries have a reputation for being creepy places, especially for kids, and while we’re grateful they are there, there are usually not places where people hang out.  They’re definitely not on the list of top places fathers take their sons.

But I am so grateful that my dad did.  My dad’s passion during the years when I was growing up was genealogy.  I’m not sure what fed that passion for him.  Maybe it was the fact that his own father had died when he was only 8 years old and he was trying to piece together a family life he never had.  Maybe it was the fact that he grew up in Southampton County, Virginia, a place where history haunts every corner and peanut field.

simeon-muller-3505Whatever it was, my dad was always looking for lost relatives.  And a lot of the lost kin folk were in overgrown cemeteries, sometimes hidden in groves of trees or tall grass.  Sometimes with stones that were so weathered that you’d have to rub them with paper and a crayon to decipher the names.  Sometimes there were only small rocks with a set of initials painted on.

Something important was happening as I tramped around these places with my dad.  He was teaching me the importance of connection to what had gone before.  He was telling me who my family was even as he was learning himself.  He wasn’t just recording the dead, he was putting us, the living, within a tradition that was still moving ahead.  I learned how to love my dad and how to tell stories about life in those cemeteries.

I’m not going to make an easy jump from that story to Berea church and what we’re about here today.  Sure, you could tell a similar story about how, as we come here to remember all the ancestors who have preceded us in this place through the years, we are becoming connected to what has gone before and how we learned to become who we are through what happened here.  All of that is true.

But when the people of God remember, it should also be in anticipation of what God is doing next.  Because it’s all bound up in a story that began a long time before we got here and that story includes a remarkable promise that all of history takes place within God’s intentions and it’s not over until it’s over.  We say this whenever we get to that part in the Eucharist that we call the mystery of faith – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  This is what it’s all about.

The Isaiah passage this morning is one we have been using within the Annual Conference as a theme verse this year.  It sounds a little scandalous to bring into this service when we’re doing so much remembering.  Maybe it’s in bad taste even.  “Don’t remember the prior things,” Isaiah 43:18 says.  “Don’t ponder ancient history.  Look!  I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?”

Well, no, God.  It’s kind of hard to see a new thing right now.  As we read Kirk Mariner’s history of Berea Church, we feel a great sense of loss.  Our 1880s ancestors carved a place out of the wilderness—the hardwood trees that lined the road between the old post office and the new railroad.

They were the ones who saw the new thing that was happening in old New Church.

They were the ones who placed this building here that represented confidence in God’s presence at the center of the community.

IMG_6517They were the ones who held camp meetings on the back lawn and expanded the building and placed this stained glass in the windows.  John & Esther Brittingham, Hester Covington, Rev. G.H. Stockdale—they saw the community and the church grow.  They saw the new thing.

We?  We wonder, in our darker moments, if God still has a place in the old town.  We see our children, our grandchildren, leaving town or not leaving town, but certainly leaving church.  We know the church doesn’t have the central place it once did in the community.  People pass it by without a thought.  Going out, going home – living lives that are too often defined by what they lack – not enough work, not enough income, not enough time, not enough confidence, not enough skills, not enough education, not enough self-control, not enough love…not enough.

We wonder the same about the church.  Were we…not enough?  Could we have have done more?  Could we have held on longer?  Could we have tried some new program?  Could we have believed harder?  Could we have worked harder?  Could we have loved better?  Could the District Superintendent have sent us the right pastor?  Could we have been…more?  Could we have been…enough?

Kirk Mariner’s history is helpful here.  You know he had a kind of maudlin mood at times and it shows up in his history of Berea that he wrote in 1974.  He outlines the traditional measures of successful churches – a quaint, lovely structure, endurance through many years, crowded Bible classes and giving to missions.  “By any of these yardsticks,” he says, “Berea Church has never been much.”  He wouldn’t even credit the fact that it had nurtured him in childhood as a sign of great success.

But Kirk found some comfort in the way the church accompanied the town in its history.  “Nothing will redound quite so much to its credit as our being able to say, ‘Berea and New Church lived every moment of their lives together.’”

I can’t read that without thinking that, with Kirk’s death just a few short weeks ago, he wasn’t just talking about this town which he identified with so much, but himself.  Berea and Kirk lived every moment of their lives together.  My last conversation with Kirk took place just a week before his death and we were talking about this service.  He was planning to take part in it, but he wasn’t happy about it.  He spent the whole conversation with me rearranging the coasters on the coffee table between us, trying not to think about this day.

But he knew the virtue of what this church, what this congregation, what you have done.  You accompanied this town into its future and held out a promise.  The word was proclaimed from this pulpit.  Lives were touched by your ministry.  You were all any of us can be—open to God’s using what we have.  In that sense, you were…you are…enough.

The reason Isaiah tells the exiled people of God, “Don’t remember,” is not because there is no virtue in looking back, but because God is not through with them yet and God will do even more in what’s to come.  The parting of the Red Sea—-that’s going to be nothing compared to what God will yet do.

fullsizeoutput_2dI’ve been reading a book of poems about old churches.  It’s called Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches.  Every morning I read a poem and every morning I get mad.  Because most of the poems are by people who have no idea what they’re looking at.  Most of the poets are people who have become disconnected from the church or who are longing for a connection to God and haven’t found it yet.

I don’t fault them for that.  But when they come to these old churches and the cemeteries that surround them, most of them only see stories that have ended.  One poet walks through a ruined abbey and he says:

“And now the wind rushes through grassy aisles,

And over the massy columns the sky arches.”

Well, sure, the wind rushes through old buildings and grass grows in ruined aisles.  That’s what happens to human artifacts.  They all suffer the effects of time and the elements.  We can look around New Church, around the Eastern Shore, and see what time will do.  We know what it does to us, too.

What I long for in the poems is some recognition that the stories begun in old places are not over.  We carry them in us.  They are embodied in us.  What happened in this sanctuary as we shared a hymnal with a spouse,

and a child got restless,

and Luther snoozed during the sermon,

and Mary wept quietly during the prayers,

and the piano got out of tune and we wondered when we’d get the tuner in,

and the preacher told a tale and we felt it strike a nerve,

and she placed a hand in the font to bring water to a grandchild’s head,

and he broke the bread and stumbled over the words of the Great Thanksgiving…again,

and the bread tasted like yeast and grace,

and the light streamed through the window and we marveled at the color,

and the wind howled against the roof and we wondered if it would survive one more storm,

and in all those things…even in those things…the living God was present and in these small human ways we felt something huge, something transcendent, something impossible bigger than us.

We knew somehow in those moments…in this place…that even when we didn’t feel like we were enough, God was enough.  That God was at work.  That God was not falling apart at the seams.  That God was able.  That God was holding things together.  That God was doing a new thing.

It would be enough if we could just point to that.  If we could just say, “God is here.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.”

God has a habit of taking people who thought that were at the end of their journeys and giving them one more surprise.  It happened for Abraham and Sarah, who in old age, had one more great trip in them.

It happened for old Eli, whose life as a failed priest in a land where the voice of the Lord was rare, was surprised by the boy Samuel who could hear God whispering in his ear.

It happened for Simeon and Anna, two old prophets who hung out at temple in Jerusalem…waiting.  Waiting.  Fasting.  Praying.  So long.  So long.

Then a couple brought a child for the traditional presentation in the temple, as couples did every day.  It was an ordinary moment.  But Simeon went to the young couple and asked to hold the child.  So long.  But he believed that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.

He holds the child and looks at him.  He looks to God and says, “Now, let your servant depart in peace.  Because my eyes have seen your salvation.  I can go now because I know that You are trustworthy and You keep your promises.”

Anna is right down the way and she’s been waiting too.  So long.  So long.  And she joins in the praise and she says, “I have seen what God can do.  I know what God will do.”

IMG_6519You have seen what God can do.   You know what God will do.  You have brought your deepest hopes and deepest sorrows to this place.  You have brought your children and your spouses.  You have brought those places and those situations that seemed beyond any power to redeem.  And God has met you here.

Now, let your servants depart in peace.  Because our eyes have seen your salvation.  We know that You are trustworthy and that You keep your promises.

When you pass this building in the weeks and months and years to come.  Pray a prayer that it will continue to be a place of blessing.  The District Board of Missions has met and will continue to meet with the District Board of Church Location to discuss how this property can continue to bless ministry on the Eastern Shore.  So pray as we release this building to God’s future.

But pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the ways this place has blessed you and told you who you are and reminded you of God’s continuing grace.  You are now the legacy of Berea Church for the world.

 

The thing is, that I never thought I could hang with my dad.  He seemed beyond me when I was young.  But when I came back from those trips trudging through cemeteries for family history, I knew I didn’t have to be anything other than I was to have a place.  I was in.  I was part of that story.  And wherever I am, what happened on those trips goes with me.

You are in.  You can tell the tale.  God is enough – yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.

We’ve Got an Open Door Problem

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photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

I’ve always been a little worried about our open doors.  When the United Methodist Church adopted the slogan “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” some twenty years ago, it captured a sentiment that many United Methodists have about themselves.  Whatever else we may be, (and that’s an area of great contention), we have been the broad middle, accepting and celebrating a wide variety of peoples and viewpoints.

When the planes hit the towers of the World Trade Center in 2001, our then-new slogan had just been unfurled on a giant billboard in Times Square.  In the aftermath of that attack and in the wake of the other scares of that awful fall (anthrax, the elusive sniper), the whole tenor of the country changed and the impulse was to close every door and to go into lockdown mode.  Our openness stood out in prophetic contrast then and that slogan helped us adhere to our faith in the One who made himself vulnerable and who, in his crucifixion, “broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us” [Ephesians 2:14].

But there were always dangers in the slogan.  One was that it might get confused as a mission statement—as if openness was our reason for being.  In that case, openness might as well be emptiness because the slogan doesn’t speak to its source.  Open hearts, open minds, and open doors are a byproduct of a vital faith in Christ, not an end in themselves.  What we’re about is the worship of a God who is making all things new and one sign of that is that walls are coming down.

515pkTRb55L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A larger danger was and is that the slogan might be taken for a description of how things are rather than as an aspiration of what we hope to live out.  Fleming Rutledge goes after this in her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ:

Congregations are claiming for human beings what is possible only for God.  No congregation can include everyone.  No self-identified inclusive and welcoming church can live up to this assessment of itself.  Many a person who has attended a church advertising radical hospitality has come and gone from church coffee hours without being greeted by anyone…The congregation that makes a place for torchbearers with Downs syndrome might fail to embrace an unwashed, unmedicated, disruptive man off the street…Despite the good intentions of congregations that proclaim themselves as diverse, welcoming, and all-inclusive, the fact remains that no one and no group can be, in this life, all-embracing.  (576-7)

If the danger were just false advertising, we might just tweak the slogan: “Mostly open hearts, minds, and doors.”  Or better yet, choose another one.  But Rutledge points out that the problem is ultimately theological.  We are overestimating our potential to do what only God can do and has done.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t be about the work of hospitality.  Lord knows we could use some freshening up in how we acknowledge and include new people, and all kinds of people, in our churches.  But we could also use some real honesty and humility about our need for God in order to understand how openness happens.

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photo by Tim Marshall via Unsplash

John Wesley invited the same danger when he talked about Christians moving on to perfection.  When you separate such language from a bedrock trust in God’s work in Jesus Christ, it sounds like Wesley is putting his faith in human efforts.  But Wesley understood the ways that the we are warped by slavery to Sin and Death.  He knew that human work was always done in the light of Christ’s prior work on the cross to free us, despite our lack of potential, to nevertheless follow where he leads.

All of this to say, that the slogan needs some grace.  Grace that will allow us to stop using it as a weapon to needle our brothers and sisters for not living up to it.  Grace to accept the freedom God gives us, not just for earnestness, but for joy and wonder.  Grace to not attempt to be more than we are called to be.

For generations, we have tried to be too much as a church—social scientists, political theorists, psychologists, urban planners, non-profit charities.  And all-inclusive at that.  God bless our curiosity and ambition.  But God forgive our forgetfulness and lack of faith in the centrality of being a Church living out of the deep well of its faith in the crucified and risen Christ.  It is enough.

It’s a Howlin’ Shame

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Photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

Crawling under the skin of the present age is a reality, an anthropology so old that it infests everything we do.  I felt it as I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s sociology of Tea Party Louisiana in Strangers in the Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  But it’s there in liberal moral puritanism.  It’s in the narcissism of Trump and the pretension of a hipster coffee bar.  It’s shame, back from the never-dead to be reckoned with once again.

“We need to talk about Addie Mae,” the blues singer Adia Victoria growls in a reference to herself on the song “It’s a Howlin’ Shame.”

“Oh that girl is a ghost

Burnin’ in a hell that don’t nobody know

White flag twistin’ in the wind
And at her best she is witherin’
And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”

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Adia Victoria

The song is a mournful, angry descent into the pain of a young African-American woman growing up in South Carolina.  “Being the other in the South meant that I was never afforded a complacency with my history that so many Southern white people live with,” Victoria told an interviewer from i-D. “I understand, and still feel, the reasons why my ancestor’s blood was spilled on the very same land I live on. I am bound to this injustice because it was never made right.”

But, of course, the effect of this is to feel that she was never made right—that there is nothing she could do to be made visible and worthy in an environment she considered “hostile to my very existence.”  So she howls:

“A murder of crows

They followed her home

And they didn’t leave much

Just a bed of bones

Get away, away

Away, away, away”

Then the title of the song twists.  The descriptive third-person voice sinks into the first person.  “I’m a howlin’ shame.”

Shame-based discourse does this.  It dehumanizes.  It takes behaviors and qualities and totalizes them into causes for disregarding the worth and dignity of a person or group.  Trump voters become an undifferentiated gaggle of racists.  Democrats are “not even people,” the president’s son says.

At its heart, shame is experienced as a profound lack.  When we are in touch with shame, we have a sense of being insufficient, defective, deformed, unlovable, incapable, and generally ‘not enough.’  “At her best she is witherin’/And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”

There is a psychological component to shame.  My own time in therapy has convinced me of its awful power in my own life.  The thing that can’t be said, even in the safest company, festers and grows.  Partly because of the perversity of believing that I still have to seduce my therapist into accepting me and that the saying of the thing would bring the whole enterprise to ruin.  Partly because I don’t want to hear myself saying the thing.  Mostly because to give voice to it would cause masks to drop, walls to crumble, certainties to tremble, and worlds to change.

The last thing is certainly true.  But discovering that truth was one of the great liberations of that time.

Then, of course, there is the next layer down.  And the layer after that.  As John Donne puts it in puns on his name in one of my favorite of his poems, “A Hymn to God the Father”:

“Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun

         A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?

                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

                        For I have more.”

Eventually you know that no matter how deep the confession goes and how many “unforgivable” things you throw out to God/your therapist you will always have more.  It gradually becomes clear that there is no ridding yourself of the defects you imagine or cleansing yourself of mistakes.  The ones you bring to speech are blessedly defanged but, oh, there is always something else.  I have more.

So you come to understand that there is something more essential at stake here.  Wherever you go, there you are.  You, with your darkness and your pain.  You, with your perverse tendencies to seek affirmation in a funhouse mirror of your desire.  You, with your suspicions and your fears.  You, with your doubts that you could ever make yourself acceptable or be made acceptable.  Shame.  It’s a howlin’ shame.

The therapist, or pastor, or trusted confessor provides some relief.  He or she, by not turning in disgust for the door at your tentative honesty, can give you the gift of being seen.  Or as Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground put it in “I’ll Be Your Mirror”:

“When you think the night has seen your mind

That inside you’re twisted and unkind

Let me stand to show that you are blind

Please put down your hands

‘Cause I see you

I’ll be your mirror”

Except that inside we are twisted and unkind and we need to see that, too.  A good confessor won’t tell us we’re OK.  But she will clear the space for us to stand in dignity anyway and point out all the ways we are working, below the surface, against our interest, to erase that space.

51K+KMGhnwL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics, saw shame as elemental and relational.  It is the “ineffable recollection of [a person’s] estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.”  Like the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the garden, we are exposed as disunited, lacking something essential.

Bonhoeffer felt that shame had a role to play in the journey to God.  Though it leads us to put on masks, “beneath the mask there is the longing for the restoration of the lost unity.”  In human relationships, particularly our most intimate ones, we pull down those masks for another and risk being wounded.  In the spiritual realm, shame is the sign of a yearning for union with God.  “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you” to quote Psalm 42:1.

It is unseemly to talk of such longing in our disenchanted world.  To speak, without irony, of dreams and hopes, desires and loves is to invite debunking, ridicule, and scorn—shaming, to be blunt.  And then it will not just be your words or your beliefs or your political views that will be held up to the klieg lights for interrogation, but your very self.  It is who you are that’s problematic.

We need to talk about Addie Mae.  She’s the victim of the distorted lens of the world that allows no place in the flesh for redemption and reunion.  And her howling is the deep cry of shame seeking some recognition and release.

In Which I High-Five a Bishop

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Bishop Sharma Lewis, photo by Virginia UM Communications

If you had told me last week that I would get to high-five a bishop in the middle of his sermon at Annual Conference, I would have told you that you were dreaming.  Bishops don’t do that.  But bishops do do that and there I was last Saturday as the visiting bishop from Mississippi, James Swanson, wandered the floor of the Hampton Roads Convention Center preaching about the good news at the end of the book (the Bible) and telling us, “We win!”  When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?

Swanson preached twice, each time confounding the sign language interpreters who gamely tried to keep pace as he went gleefully off-script.  He spun in a circle to emphasize a point.  He thundered.  He engineered an impromptu altar call that brought hundreds to the front.

[Bishop Swanson] wandered the floor…telling us, “We win!”  When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?

Not that it was all about the theatrics.  Or even about Swanson.  Our own bishop, Sharma D. Lewis can unsettle your expectations about preaching, too.  (And she admits that she has learned a thing of two from her mentor, Bishop Swanson.)  She ended the conference by standing on a chair in the middle of the crowd calling out young people and old people and all people to join her in a mission.

No, the thing that was most impressive about this super-charged 235th session of the Virginia Annual Conference of United Methodists, was the way it embodied the hope of a new day with a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  We didn’t just hear about the Spirit’s work; we were invited into it body and soul.

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Bishop Lewis with her family

Bishop Lewis, presiding for the first time in her new role as Virginia’s episcopal leader, began the Conference by sharing that she has the gift of faith.  This sounds a little unusual.  After all, isn’t faith what we all should have?  Well, yes, in that faith is what restores our relationship with the One who made us.  But that faith comes as a gift.  If faith is just an exercise of the will it places too much confidence in our own ability to enact it.  It is a gift to trust that God has done and will do everything necessary in Jesus Christ to bring about God’s purposes. Bishop Lewis has that gift in abundance.

In her closing sermon, she cast a vision, which is “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are life-long learners, who influence others to serve.”  We’ll be unpacking it for awhile.  It’s a deceptively simple sentence born of her many hours in Chat and Chew sessions across Virginia.  But in the context of what we saw in Hampton, it is clear that the vision is not just words – it’s a total immersion in the work of God in the world.

In the music, in the people she brought to participate in this conference, and most especially in herself, Bishop Lewis gave us the best of where she has come from.  What we saw is firmly rooted in the African-American tradition where she has been nurtured, but basic and universal enough to speak far beyond that context.

I have seen this dynamic in my bishop before.  She is always ‘on’ but when she is preparing for a big moment, there is a new gear.  It’s as if she is saying, “I know you’ve got doubts.  I know there are trials.  But I know Jesus.  So follow me.  Hop on my back if you need to.  We’re going with him.”  The Rev. Morgan Guyton noted this gear in a very insightful and personal reflection on the Conference: “All I could see was that she was all in.”*

She is.  We are.  So we go.  And I’ll high-five anybody who wants to go with me.

The Empty Bench at The Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner

3d11324a8832ade1a45c28b039485cf2The sofa bench in the back of The Book Bin was empty the other day.  The regulars by the coffee window are hesitant to sit there.  A sign on the door indicates that the staff knows that our local independent book store will be a place of mourning and memory for awhile.  The bench was Kirk Mariner’s, a place for reading the paper and sharing in the community that he was so much a part of and that he helped to build.  As the sign says, he was “a true cornerstone of the Shore.”

IMG_6376When the Rev. Dr. Kirk Mariner died, suddenly in the end, it caught us all up short.  The author, historian, preacher, and musician was woven firmly into the texture of this place.  Wines are supposed to reflect the terroir, the environment in which they are produced, and Kirk’s terroir was unmistakably Eastern Shore.  It is there in books that were so particular that they became universal.  If he had not been so identified as a local historian, a book like Slave and Free on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, would be justly recognized as one of the great studies of race and class in pre-Civil War America.

So what’s the best tribute to the man?  A well-done worship such as he fussed over.  An historical record that doesn’t overstate the case but is sure to include some telling anecdote and smiles.  A measured skepticism of schemes.  A lament over communities lost—ecclesial and geographical.  A glimmering-eyed ballad tweaking too-dearly-held nostalgias.  A warm love of the nurturing matrix of congregational song and the long line of Methodists who sang them before.

IMG_6377What will I remember?  The eye and ear for beauty.  The wind blowing through his impressive hair as he headed out to Tangier on the Joyce Marie II ferry.  The insatiable curiosity.  The generous spirit that wanted to see a young preacher do well.  The judicious ‘no’ to push said preacher on to initiative.  The contrarian’s slightly-jaundiced eye.  The off-hand remark that only later lands as the compliment it was.

The fullness of place embodied in a soul.  The trust in a story that began before he arrived and which claimed him as he told and retold it.  A lover in the arms of his Beloved, sung homeward by the Church he needled and cherished.  A sheep of God’s own fold.  A lamb of God’s own flock.  A sinner of God’s own redeeming.  A Methodist.

I give thanks to God for that wonder that is Kirk Mariner.

Obituary from Williams Funeral Homes.

Back to the Cross: The Inclusive Vision of Fleming Rutledge

 

yY623rKO_400x400If the theology podcast Crackers & Grape Juice has any redeeming value*, (and Lord knows they have interviewed some questionable characters in their brief existence—primary evidence: their January interview with me!), it is the recurring “Fridays with Fleming” segments that have introduced the Episcopal priest and theologian, Fleming Rutledge, to a wider audience.  With her Tidewater Virginia roots resonating in her every word, Rutledge makes an enthralling and poetic conversationalist, touching as easily on literature and the arts as on theology.

Beneath the gentility and on the page, however, Rutledge is a lucid and systematic thinker who has a preacher’s knack for communicating difficult theological concepts.  That’s nowhere more present than in her 2015 book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  It is a massive tome filled with footnotes, but every page and every note is worth it for the comprehensive journey the reader takes with a gifted and entertaining author.

51EUda6wF3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Rutledge’s primary conviction is that the cross of Jesus Christ stands at the center of the Christian story.  Her primary worry is that, in our efforts to divert our attention from the cross—its violence, the way that it has been captured by a narrow, individualized, evangelical message—we have lost the richness and fullness of biblical motifs that would help us understand why it is so central.  “No one image can do justice to the whole; all are part of the great drama of salvation,” she says.  “We need to make room for all the biblical images.” (7)  And so she does.

You will find here sacrifice and substitution, the themes that make many mainline theologians nervous, but you will also find a thorough-going apocalyptic vision that reclaims Christus Victor language, not as an exclusive lens for seeing the crucifixion, but as a dominant one.  Rutledge finds her way to this by reviewing Paul’s neglected language of the Powers and by taking seriously the cosmic conflict of God and the Devil.  “Most biblical interpretation in the modern age has been done as though there were only two dramas personae,” Rutledge says, “God and humanity—thereby demystifying the New Testament, which presents three.” (377)  Rutledge wants to have us be witnesses to the invasion that is taking place in the Incarnation as God confronts the powers of Sin and Death.

Rutledge has heavy-hitting theological partners on her side – Karl Barth and David Bentley Hart, but she has Flannery O’Connor and Ralph Ellison as well.  Her argument is for inclusion of voices and against the flattening tendencies of so much post-Enlightenment discourse.  “Much of today’s literal-mindedness is doubtless owing to the fact that fewer and fewer people read novels and poetry,” she says. (211)

So the authors and theologians mingle with the preachers in these pages, all seeking something more than a pristine plan.  There are no innocents in human history, Rutledge emphasizes frequently.  “An eight-year-old can see more clearly than some of the rest of us that well-meaning programs for improving the human species are not going to accomplish much besides making the designers of the program feel good about themselves.  We don’t need a program; we need deliverance from this whole cycle of violence and vengefulness.  Humankind needs to be saved from itself.” (308)

It is for this reason that Rutledge comes to an appreciative evaluation of the theme (biblical!) of substitution.  Surprisingly, she quotes a passage in Barth that brings home the implications of the motif with psychological insight:

“It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong…We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves.  It is therefore a liberation that…[in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.” (519)

In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit.  Freed from being innocent, we are capable of participating in a story that is ultimately not about us, or perhaps more accurately, far more than only about us.  It’s about a God who goes the distance, to Death itself, and thereby raises the dead.

In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit.

There’s far more here.  Evil, hell, the wrath of God—she tackles them all.  But there is poetry and light and fodder for a hundred sermons and more.  This is equally important and lovely.  It makes this book great.

*There is actually much to recommend Crackers & Grape Juice and its 4-person hosting crew of United Methodist pastors – Jason Micheli, Taylor Mertins, Morgan Guyton & Teer Hardy.

Why I Took Jacob to a Wedding

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photo by Andre Hunter via Unsplash

I brought Jacob to a wedding last weekend.  You know, Jacob the biblical heel-grabber, trickster, tent-dwelling, mama’s boy?  Not usually thought of as a model for 21st century marriage ceremonies.

Particularly since his own marriage history is so strange: Boy meets Girl.  Boy falls in love with Girl.  Boy talks to her father.  Father agrees to a marriage if Boy will work for him for seven years.  Boy marries Girl…but its the wrong girl because Father has slipped Older Sister into the service under the veil of darkness.  Boy makes second bargain with Father.  Boy marries Girl—the right one this time.

You see what I mean.  Officiating ministers don’t tell this story at weddings.  Unless they’re me.

But what I really wanted to talk about was not Jacob’s marriages but his encounter with Esau on the road back home.  Esau, his twin.  Esau, whom he had tricked out of blessing and birthright.  Esau, who when last Jacob heard of him, was muttering murderous threats against him.

On the night before his reunion with his brother, Jacob sat alone on the banks of the Jabbok.  He had heard that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 armed men…and that didn’t sound good.  So Jacob split up his family and his cattle and his servants and sent them across the river in two parties so that maybe some of them would survive.

IMG_6354Jacob spent the night wrestling with God.  And that’s not just a figure of speech.  He threw down with a man who turned out to be God.  So much so that he left the match with a limp.  He renamed the spot Peniel, which means, “the face of God,” because he had seen God face to face.

The next morning he’s across the river and he meets Esau on the road.  Burly, hairy, huntsman, aggrieved Esau.  Jacob falls at his feet and begs mercy…only to look up in his brother’s face to see tears.  Esau embraces him and for the second time Jacob says that he has seen the face of God.  “To see your face,” he tells his brother, “is truly like seeing the face of God.”

It’s a beautiful wedding story.  Really!  Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once offered a wonderful interpretation of the wedding tradition of unveiling in his book A Ray of Darkness.  The couple, he says, in that act:

“are promising to look at each other for the rest of their lives, and to be looked at by each other, lovingly, faithfully, and, above all, truly and honestly.  The married man or woman has opened the doors to let another person in.”

It is an echo of God’s unveiling in the incarnation and crucifixion.  “There can be no reconciliation between God and humanity,” Williams says, “until they see one another face to face.”

IMG_6348What I’m saying is that marriage is a disarming.  In that act, both partners say, “I am taking down all my walls.  I am taking down all those things I do for self-protection.  I am laying aside all my defenses and all my weapons.  I am making myself absolutely vulnerable to you.  I am giving you everything I’ve got to give – the good and the bad, the richer and the poorer, the sickness and in health.  And all I have to offer is that I will receive the same from you.  All of you.”

It’s what Jacob has to offer Esau.  It’s what Jesus offers.  That’s so much more than the unicorn and rainbow promises of unending bliss.  It’s the risk of being unalterably wounded and yet the potential for being absolutely known.  It’s the chance to see the the face of God.

It’s the risk of being unalterably wounded and yet the potential for being absolutely known.

Jacob.  Totally appropriate for a wedding.  Totally.

[with best wishes and blessings for Brian & Jennifer Stern Schollhammer.  It was a beautiful night.]

Guest Blogger – C. Christopher Smith: Stirring the Economic Imaginations of Churches

 

I’ve learned a lot about books from C. Christopher Smith.  Chris is not only the editor of the Englewood Review of Books, to which I occasionally contribute.  His press is also the publisher of my book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine

He’s a great observer and interpreter of where the church is and what it could be in the 21st century.  He’s also charting new paths by caring about books and the people who write them, or as he puts it: “We review books that we believe are valuable resources for the people of God, as we follow the mission of God: i.e., the reconciliation of all things.”  Today he’s guest blogger on Heartlands:

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C. Christopher Smith

As I’ve traveled across the US talking with churches about my recent book Slow Church (co-written with John Pattison), I’ve found that many mainline churches and some evangelical ones – largely in urban or rural places – are struggling with shrinking congregations and shrinking budgets. Many leaders of these churches are bordering on despair, because like most people in the Western world they have been formed by an economics of scarcity: there are not enough resources to go around.

A careful reading of the scriptural story, however, reveals a God who abundantly provides for the health and flourishing of creation. Maybe we can no longer fully rely on meeting our budgets by passing the offering plate, but this economic reality in many churches does not mean that we have to despair.  Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us. Specifically, our churches should reflect on the assets God has provided in our people, our buildings, and our land.

Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us.

I’ve been fortunate to see and hear stories of churches across North America that are thinking creatively about these resources and drawing upon them as a means of sustaining themselves economically. In order to get your own imagination moving, I wanted to briefly share some of the creative economic activity that churches are doing.  (I don’t expect that all of these ideas will be applicable to every church situation, but hopefully there might be an idea or two here that might have potential for adaptation in your church.)

Human Resources: What has God provided in the gifts and skills of your congregation (and/or your neighbors)?

And how can these gifts be leveraged in a way that benefits the church, the neighborhood or both? Many churches are starting businesses that draw upon skills in their congregation or neighborhood to bring in additional income.  Some churches start coffeehouses, restaurants or gathering places. University Christian Church in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, for instance, has started the very successful Roh’s Street Café.

61DJ2UqrooL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Here at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, we have started half-a-dozen businesses over the last two decades, each of which began on a very small scale with the intersection of a gift that we had in our congregation and an opportunity to serve others in our neighborhood (or beyond).  Our businesses include an early childhood education center, an affordable housing operation, a hydroponic farm, and our magazine The Englewood Review of Books. Other churches have started businesses in catering, cleaning, and painting among other things.

Building Resources: What has God provided in the building(s) that we own?

While there are many missional advantages to owning a building, we should always be mindful that many churches through the ages – including most in the New Testament stories – have flourished without owning a building. Selling your building may be the most extreme case, and may not even be possible for some churches, given their denominational arrangements, but it is good to be reminded that churches can survive without owning a building.

Many churches are finding creative ways of sharing their buildings, and the cost of their operation. Sometimes these creative uses intersect with businesses that the church has started (such as Roh’s Street Café mentioned above). With careful coordination of schedules, some churches share their buildings with other churches. Other churches make space in their building available for rent: for office or co-working space for non-profits or entrepreneurs; for studio space for artists; for meeting space for neighborhood groups; or if they have a commercial kitchen, for catering or other food-based entrepreneurs.

And building assets might include more than just the traditional church building. Some churches own parsonages or other residential buildings. If these residences are empty or under-utilized, they could be sold, rented out through a traditional lease, or even operated on a short-term rental basis through services like AIRBNB.  Here at Englewood Christian Church, we have a former 5-bedroom parsonage that we have renovated and use as a hospitality house for retreats, for people who are visiting us from other places, and for other situations where friends need a short-term place to stay.

Land Resources: What are the assets God has provided us in our land? 

Many churches are starting community gardens that provide good, home-grown food for church members or neighbors.  Community gardens may not be the most profitable venture, but there are ways to generate small profits from them.  In addition to selling some of the produce, there are many grants available for community gardens, and some of these may allow for a portion of the grant to go to the personnel who administrate the grant, or for a minimal lease of the land being used for the garden.

Some churches like Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta have allocated part of their land as a nature preserve. Under-utilized portions of church land could be developed or sold, particularly if doing so would benefit their neighborhood. Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver, BC realized several years ago that it had more parking lot than it needed, and in one of the highest cost housing markets in the world, they are in the process of developing affordable housing on this land, which will be affordable because the land – the most expensive part of any development in Vancouver – was already owned by the congregation.

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God has indeed provided abundantly for us, and for the flourishing of our neighbors in this place! 

May we have eyes of gratitude that see the riches God has provided for us, and imaginative minds that discern how to use these resources in ways that sustain and bless our congregation and our neighbors. As our eyes and minds are opened to God’s provision, we will be led out of despair and into hope.

C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He and his family are members of Englewood Christian Church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Chris’s most recent book is Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books, 2016).