Grace and Judgment

The student asked the pastor, “Why do you preach so often of grace, love, and mercy, and so little on judgment?”

The pastor replied, “because they are already good enough at judgment.”

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I Got Told “I Love You” Yesterday. Twice.

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Yesterday I received a phone call from a young lady in our community whom our church has helped before. As far as I can discern she has never abused the system. In fact, a couple of years ago she asked the church for a loan. Not a handout, a loan. When I gave her the money she requested and explained that it was a gift and she did not have to pay it back, she insisted it was a loan and she would be back in a few days to repay us. And true to her word, she did.

So back to yesterday. She called asking if there was any way we could help her with gas money because her father-in-law (who lives with her) had a serious medical issue that needed to be taken care of right away but his specialist is in a town an hour and a half away. I told her that the church would buy her gas and she could come by the office to pick up the money.

I hung up the phone, sat it down, and it rang again. Same number. Her husband was on the line, obviously tearful and full of gratitude. “I just want to thank you, Pastor Willie. Every time we’ve needed help, you’ve come through for us. I love you. My dad and I will be at the service on Sunday. I’ve never had a church show us this kind of love before. Thank you.”

Later last night, the guy who coordinates the Narcotics Anonymous meetings at our church stopped by the parsonage to drop off some money. Every month the NA group gives us a few bucks to thank us for giving them space for their meetings. In the years I’ve been here, I’ve developed a rapport with this guy and I think he grasps that I just view him as a person not as his past. As he handed the money to me, he again thanked me for everything our church does for them, and out it came: “I love you, Willie. Thanks again for everything.”

We’re far from the biggest church in this little town. It would be easy to focus on our struggles and our challenges. But yesterday was evidence that we are bearing good fruit. There really is something to that love, grace, mercy thing.

Lift Every Voice

“There’s just something about a bunch of clergy singing together.”

That’s what my friend and clergy colleague said to me during the Clergy Session at Annual Conference this year. My colleague was right – when we sang “For All The Saints” at the end of the memorial service that closes Clergy Session, we sounded fantastic. Our voices boomed and echoed and soared as we offered our music to the skies.

From there we went to the big room – the floor where clergy and laity gather to do the legislative and decision-making business of Annual Conference. Those voices that had blended together so beautifully, so harmoniously would, over the next three days, disagree. Sometimes we’d disagree amicably. Other times contentiously. Those voices would speak out loudly, angrily, tearfully, woefully, prayerfully, and woundedly. Some voices spoke into the microphone, others only under their breath. Some were arrogant. Some were humble. We don’t agree on everything. Sometimes I wonder if we agree on anything.

But man, when we SING….

When we sing, the diversity of our voices blend into a marvelous sound. When we sing, we sing the same words. When we sing, we sing with each other not against each other. Some sing melody. Some sing harmony. Some sing off-key. Some sing with technical precision. Some sing hesitantly. Some sing heartily. But we all sing together. And it is a joyful noise, a wonderful thing to behold.

A couple of years ago, I bought a great album: The Tel Aviv Session by The Touré-Raichel Collective. It’s a collaboration between guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and  keyboardist Idan Raichel. Raichel is Israeli and Jewish while Touré is a Muslim from Mali. Both are devout. Israel and Mali don’t even have diplomatic relations. They’ve now recorded two albums, but there is no logical reason they should work together at all.

Except there’s music.

The Tel Aviv Session

“Vieux and I are coming from very different worlds. But I think that the magic is to let the music speak out and create bridges between cultures, religion and geographical boundaries,” Raichel said during an interview. During the same interview, Vieux stated, “We want to demonstrate to the world that it is not only possible for Jewish and Muslim people to appreciate each other, but that they are capable of cooperating, collaborating and making something beautiful together. We are just humble musicians, but I hope this can set an example for our politicians to follow.”

Amen, brothers. From one of your Christian brothers.

[Yes, this Christian pastor connects with music recorded by Muslims and Jews. And others!]

There’s something magical about the act of singing together and playing together that transcends our differences. Those differences don’t dissolve completely away, but they become far less important than the song.

I believe that if we want peace among religions and nations, we should learn to stop warring (both figuratively and literally) over beliefs and doctrines, and learn to sing together. Learn one another’s songs. Sing in harmony to open the possibility of living in harmony.

Maybe we should stop trying to merely coexist, and start learning to sing together.

Maybe I’m a bit naive, but I believe music can give us hope that we can live together. Music is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, and perhaps it was given so that we could learn true harmony. It won’t resolve all of our differences, but it sure is harder to hate that person singing so beautifully next to you and with you.

Writer’s Workshop: Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”

One of the primary functions of a preacher is to be a storyteller. When a speaker really wants to engage a group of listeners, stories and narratives will captivate them far more effectively than doctrines and advice. Educational research bears this out, as lecture has been shown to be the least effective method of teaching. So preachers in the pulpit would be wise to pay attention here, as the vast majority of sermons are of the “one speaker, many listeners” variety. In short, if our sermons resemble educational lectures we risk losing an opportunity for our congregations to connect, engage, learn, and be transformed.

A lecture sermon might instruct or inform a congregation what the Kingdom of God is like. A story sermon can whisk them away into the alternate reality we call the Kingdom of God for a few minutes, captivating their imaginations and giving them a vision and a foretaste of what life can become.

And how do we become better storytellers? By reading stories. By reading poetry. By singing songs. By paying attention to how great storytellers build and release tension in the narrative. By having a romance with words and wordcraft. Great writing begins with great reading.

And that’s why I want to begin a new feature on this blog, the Writer’s Workshop.

If you’ve never listened to Boots of Spanish Leather by Bob Dylan, take a few minutes and check it out.


(I couldn’t find Dylan’s original on YouTube so here’s Nanci Griffith’s brilliant cover.)

In my mind, this one is a lyrical masterpiece. The lyrics are a conversation between two lovers who alternate stanzas. Dylan never tells you that’s the form, he allows his words to imply it. He assumes intelligence on the part of the listener by singing both sides of the conversation in the same voice. He never gives you “he said,”or “she said.” He didn’t record it as a duet with each singer playing one of the parts. He just allows each player’s words to lead you.

And the words are poetic and unrealistic.

Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine
Made of silver or of golden
Either from the mountains of Madrid
Or from the coast of Barcelona

Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean
I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss
For that’s all I’m wishin’ to be ownin’

No one talks like that. I have difficulty imagining any two lovers speaking to one another in such flowery, poetic language. I doubt that even Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning spoke to one another like that. But the poetic language is necessary to convey a depth of emotion. The language allows us to see with our imaginations the longing in their eyes, the tenderness of their touch, the fragility of their hearts. We feel the ache of the singer’s loneliness, an ache that begins long before she even leaves on her trip.

Like many conversations in real life, however, this one takes place over time rather than in one sitting. At some point in the song one of the lovers sails for Spain yet we only know it’s happened when the other says, “I got a letter on a lonesome day, it was from her ship a-sailin’.” She tells him she will be gone longer than expected. Then our lonely lover writes back,

Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way
I’m sure your mind is roamin’
I’m sure your heart is not with me
But with the country to where you’re goin’

So take heed, take heed of the western wind
Take heed of the stormy weather
And yes, there’s something you can send back to me
Spanish boots of Spanish leather

The song is called “Boots of Spanish Leather.” But the boots are a red herring. Our lonely lover doesn’t want boots, he wants her thoughts, assurance that he’s on her mind.

What can a preacher learn from this kind of storytelling?

Sometimes folksy down-to-earth language gets the story across, but other times poetic language can say far more.

Stories don’t have to be long, twisty narratives filled with action. All the action in this song can be summed up in a few sentences: “a man’s lover is taking a trip to Spain, and she asks him what gift she can send home. He says he doesn’t want a gift, her love is enough. While she’s gone writes him a letter telling him she’ll be away longer than expected, so he writes back that he’d like a pair of boots. But he doesn’t care about the boots, he just wants to know she hasn’t forgotten him.” Yeah, the story is better Bob’s way. The poetic language serves to communicate that the action isn’t in the story itself, but in the emotional world of the singer. It speaks to the complexity and universality of anticipated loneliness, of jealousy, worry, and heartache.

We can learn that not every story needs to end with resolution. We shouldn’t always want to tie it all up with a neat little bow, leaving no loose ends and a complete release of tension. Did she ever send the boots? Did she ever come home? Were they still in love when she returned? Was she faithful for the trip? Was he? We will never know? Sometimes a great story leaves us with unresolved tension, with unanswered questions. And unanswered questions at the end of a story causes its hearers to think.

And isn’t that the point?

VBS – What’s it all about?

I’ll confess – VBS is a struggle for me.  

I love working with kids – always have, always will.  I get real joy hanging out with them, telling stories, singing songs, forming friendships.  

But there’s something about VBS that has always sort of left me baffled. 

Why are we doing this?  What’s its purpose?  Does it succeed in meeting its intended purpose? 

 

**PROCEED WITH CAUTION – Cynicism ahead**

Outreach?: I’ve heard people in congregations I’ve served say, “if we have a really good VBS, maybe we’ll get more kids coming to church.” But that’s never been my experience in VBS from the time I was a kid. When I was a kid, every church kid in town went to multiple VBS programs, while unchurched kids stayed home or went to the local pool or to scout camp.  At its best, VBS could succeed in attracting kids to one church from another, failing as an outreach plan but succeeding in perpetuating the membership shuffle. 

Christian Education?: others say, “we do VBS so kids can learn more about the Bible.” Fine, but honestly, didn’t the kids just get out of school? Isn’t “no school” the thing they’ve been looking forward to since Christmas? In my experience, the ratio of teaching to behavior management is pretty low. Many kids are far more interested in acting up than sitting through something with “school” in the name. And too often the volunteers’ behavior management strategies are ineffective. 

Activity?: some folks operate under the “doing something is better than doing nothing” paradigm. If we don’t have VBS, then it looks like we’re just shutting down. Better to have an ineffective, counterproductive VBS than nothing at all. Is this attitude healthy?

It’s good for the church?: I’ve heard some pastors and active laypersons say, “it doesn’t matter whether we’re reaching any kids. What matters is that our adults are engaging with the kids and young parents in our church family.” I don’t know how it is in your church, but in the places I’ve served I run into an abundance of volunteers who are happy to help in ways that don’t involve working directly with the kids. Getting people to build props and backgrounds, work in the kitchen, donate money and food, design crafts, and clean up – no problem.  Getting them to work a teaching station, work on crafts with kids, lead music, and help manage behavior – different story. And (deep cynicism warning) far too often those who sign up with no intention of working directly with children are the ones who are most insistent that we hold VBS and are critical of the way it’s being run by those who are with the kids. 

It gives parents of young children a break?:  Give ME a break! Again, in my experience It’s usually the parents of young children who are working hardest at VBS. 

So if VBS is often ineffective as an outreach program, an education program, and a break for young families, what is it for?

The only reason I can think of is the best one: LOVE

The one and only purpose of VBS is to communicate to the children of our church and our community that we love them. 

We love them even when they don’t pay attention in class. We love them even when their behaviors are difficult to manage. We love them even when they’re more interested in clowning around than in making a doorknob hanger. We love them even when they miss mommy and cry to go home. We love them even when they sing off-key and get the song motions wrong – and even when they do it on purpose.

I think the very best we can hope for at VBS is to give the kids a sense that they are loved. Perhaps one day when they’re older – maybe when they’ve got kids of their own and are looking for a church home – they’ll remember. “That church loved me even when I acted like a turd.” 

So this summer, don’t worry about getting through the lessons or getting all the crafts done or getting the songs right. Get the love part right. When you do that, VBS is a success. 

Spiritual, Religious, etc.

A while back I thought I’d start some Facebook discussion by posting this status: “It’s not the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) who worry me, it’s the religious but not spiritual.”  The discussion turned to, “how do you define the terms spiritual and religious?” 

I think the distinction that I’m looking for is one of substance vs. structure.  Spirituality is like the substance of faith – the experience of encountering the Divine, a belief in that which is greater than oneself, a sense of connectedness with creation and its creator.  Religion is like an attempt to add structure to that substance: rites, rituals, church buildings, prescribed doctrines, defined boundaries.  

At their best, spirituality and religion are beautiful together. My brother and I were baptized together when we were teenagers.  We had gone through a confirmation class with our pastor, and the sacrament was administered in accordance with the rituals and disciplines of the United Methodist Church in the midst of a worship service.  The religious parts (confirmation, doctrines, rituals) were in place.  However, there was something deeply spiritual happening as well. My brother and I had both recently come to a crucial turning point in our faith.  We had become Christ-followers and Christ-lovers, where before we had simply been church-goers.  The water poured over our heads, the building where we had gathered, and the words of the ritual were deeply religious.  The spiritual bit is what made me laugh and cry at the same time and imprinted the experience into my memory.  

I believe there’s hope for the church if we tap into both religion and spirituality.  We can’t shun one and embrace the other. The world is full of “spiritual but not religious” people.  When the church gets it right, we can help the spiritual give structure and discipline to their spirituality.  Its substance can take shape through the teachings and practices of the church. 

The world is also full of religious but not spiritual people. Some have turned faith into intellectual endeavors, moralistic lists, and inflexible doctrines. The church can help them drink from a deeper well of spirituality and connect with realities greater than themselves.  

The hardest part of reaching the RBNS crowd is helping them realize that they’re getting all the dance moves right but missing the beauty of the music.  

As a pastor, it’s imperative that I take seriously my leadership in integrating religion and spirituality. I have to attend to both my religious inclinations and my spiritual desires. In order to lead the SBNRs toward the structure of religion, or the RBNSs toward beauty beyond the rules, I must be a model of integrating spirituality and religion.