July 26, 2008

This Ongoing Conversation

As I opened a carton full of packed-up books, as the first current of Lawrence County air filled the cardboard spaces, I swear I heard a sigh of relief from within. Or maybe that was me. As a self-confessed bibliophile, it is not too much to say that my volumes are to me like old friends. As such, I've been carrying around a certain measure of guilt about the more than two months they have been forced into squeezed stasis together, pinned up in cardboard havens like boatloads of refugees en route to some new world. Unpacking each box means, well, we are together again, at last, on a new shore. (Pathetic, I know.)

To say that my books are dear friends is another way of saying that each one, to a greater or lesser degree, is a partner in an ongoing conversation about the nature and purpose of Christian orthopraxy—for me, for the church. This faith we share is not a static, mechanical enterprise; not a dead commodity able to be traded as is. It is, rather, a living, breathing, audible exchange about life and love in Jesus of Nazareth, about adoring God above and neighbor beside, about being serious stewards of God's implausible mysteries.

As such, each volume on my new shelves represents one more voice that has contributed to this ongoing dialogue in my head and heart. To be sure, a few are distracting voices: books I drag along through this life because they belonged to someone important to me, even if their content has little to do with my workaday questions and answers. (From my grandmother Pauline: Spurgeon on the rapture.) Many in the collection are helpful on a some singular key point—a place to which I regularly return to reexamine some specific angle of this Christ confession. Still, the best bound conversation partners are those handful of preachers, teachers, trainers who—in print, if never in person—travel along with me on almost a daily basis. Their labors have focused my own; their lenses have colored my own; their voices reverberate around in my head as I preach, plan, and prod in every new season. These always get a shelf unto their own—some new loft with a view.

I feel for those pastor-preacher-theologians for whom this faith is a dead, stagnant enterprise. Though safer and far more predictable than the kind of hard-won fruit a robust conversation inevitably produces, still I think there can be little that is life-giving to a congregation if there are no other voices around your table other than your own ... or perhaps those yellowed, corner-curled notes from seminary—aged cues that long ago outlived their expectancy. One cannot expect to nurture any sort of living conversation in the sanctuary on Sunday morning if, in fact, there has been no conversation in the preacher’s piety throughout the week.

I can only speak for myself: For me, this bit of Jesus-news is a lively, sometimes unruly din of a conversation. It is as if some of my most helpful volumes beg to be heard. After all, to say that a man died under our weight, and that he was raised up from our burdensome demise, and that he lives and breathes in the same space as the One who casts and keeps all things ... There is surely much to talk, much conversation to be had about a confession with such starling markers.

While we celebrate when they come along certain moments of near-absolute clarity, days for making clear claims and asserting strongly old promises; still, for most of us on most days, ours is a living conversation chockablock with deep questions and tentative answers. (The answers are usually tentative, not because there is not Friday-Sunday truth to be found, but because we are deaf and dumb and mute most of the time.) One can—indeed, one should—spend the better part of a lifetime digging deeper and deeper into this strange and wonderful orthodoxy. One must gather around one's table, add to one’s shelves, more and more helpful and faithful voices as the months and years roll along—all so that this ongoing conversation is rich, and deep, and true.

Which prompts the question: Who sits at the head of the table? Who gets the best shelf?

I have long suggested to church officers in training that when we, the ordained, vow to make Scripture an "authority" in our both our lives and in the common life of the church, that to which we are committing is the bold act of leaving empty the largest seat at the head of our conversing table.

Metaphorically, each of us being a steward of God's gospel in print is not unlike a boardroom table surrounded by various inputing voices—most of which reside right within your bones. Reason is there, seated next to experience. Intuition is just across the table, looking straight on at history—both yours and the more corporate story that shapes us all. The life and times of your family of origin has a big seat at the table, as does the prevailing culture. (Their seats might be ex officio, but they are no less vocal, or compelling.) Feelings certainly have a say, as does logic; this is, if you can keep these two from scrapping with each other during the meeting. Gathered around also are trusted friends, public opinion, and—for many of us, at least—many aforementioned volumes.

In other words, every event, every existential corner, every necessary decision involved in our daily effort to be human … It all requires that we distill these myriad voices, each one vying for our utmost attention. This can be hard work; to a greater or lesser degree, each voice has its own agenda and persuasion. Occasionally, something is seated at your table that is so vocal, so demanding, it drowns all voices but its own. Such is life, then: a protracted board meeting in which one seeks consensus among a din of perspectives.

I believe, then, that to claim Christian scripture as an "authority" is to leave open for the ancient book that privileged, instrumental seat at the head of your table. "Here," we say prayerfully to the canon, "sit here. Sit here and speak. Speak clearly and with determination. Speak in such a way that you will direct and align these many other voices." When it works well, no other voice at your table is ever fully lost in the exchange, yet neither will any other voice leave the conversation unchanged. Reading scripture is an act of inclusive hierarchy.

I have long thought that having a prayerful, purposeful conversation with the bound canon is akin to sharing a conversation with your wise, old grandmother. If she is a woman of any virtue and grace, as good grandmothers always are, she will on the one hand make you feel as though you actually have some real part on the conversation. This is something of a loving trick, because on the other hand, when she speaks, the depth and breadth of her seasoned wisdom will swiftly convince you that your standing in the conversation is not nearly as important as it initially seemed.

You are touched and even a bit proud that she gives your callow ideas the time of day, but more and more you are simply happy to have her speak—to tell her story, to make her case, to lift the veil of her sacred silence long enough for you to hear what really matters to her, to God. She will treat you like a peer simply because that is her gracious way; in the end, however, you know that you are in fact not peers. By her grace, you are a player in the conversation; but by her wisdom she is the authority on most matters under the sun. As such, she deserves to sit at the head of your gathering table—a place reserved for her, not merely out of provincial respect, but because she has unequivocally earned it.

Reading scripture together; dubbing it an “authority;” it is a bit like that. The Bible will not scream at us like an impetuous child, but neither will it beg like a confused parent. We are players in the ongoing conversation—that is the grace; still, we leave for these ancient words the privileged seat the table. Those many other voices in our lives—reason, logic, story, emotion, to name but a few—they are not demolished in this ongoing conversation. We are not asked to surrender these gifts, only that we remain open to the possibility of their redemption along the way. They will not be silenced, but they will finally be subdued.

That is the surprising grace within this ongoing conversation.

July 22, 2008

Jesus' Ordinary People

Our preacher this morning was the Rev. Joan Gray, immediate past moderator of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). Her presence in our pulpit prompted in me this memory.

It was late in my senior year, and we preachers-to-be were all taken aback when our pastor-teacher encouraged us not to use the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, or John Calvin in too many of our sermon illustrations. On a first take, her strong imperative seemed counter-productive, if not heretical (at least concerning Father Calvin), but she was pretty sure of herself. 

She explained.

"Everyone already knows that Mother Theresa was a saint, a hero, the best of the best. The problem is that everyone in your pews also already knows that they will never measure up to the likes of her. They are not inspired to try; instead, they stand back in awe. They admire her from a distance, unable (unwilling?) to hear the call of that same gospel for themselves." 

It had never occurred to me that too much hero emulation in the church could turn out to be counter-productive. "Instead," she instructed us, "talk about ordinary Christians, everyday Christians. Testify in your sermons to what you see God doing in the plain folk with whom your path crosses week to week. Talk in your sermons about what it looks like to follow Jesus Christ on a normal Tuesday morning. Help your people to see what this faith looks like in their everyday, humdrum lives. That is the burden we bear."

It was good advice, not the least of which because it has stuck with me a decade later. More substantially, though, her directive resonates with the New Testament. Says Paul (who we might note is not so much invested in the self-esteem of his congregants), "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong." For Paul, there is no other recipient of the gospel besides a plain old ordinary sinner. God works in us, ordinary us, so that it will be clear who gets the credit for whatever new life flows from your story.

I'm certain Moderator Gray has a place for the great ones among us -- the Kings, the Mothers, the Reformers. Her homiletical encouragement should not be taken as a blanket disparagement of their witness. Rather, I think, she calls upon the church to thaw out its frigid hero-worship and exchange it for the more daring work of boldly imagining, week in and week out, what this Friday-Sunday bit of news might look like on a most ordinary morning day. Ordinary sinners claimed and called by an extraordinary grace. What does this look like at 10:27, Sunday evening?

That is the burden we bear.

July 7, 2008


already i have a preferred way into the place
not so much a doorway
a time of day
before shuffling and chatting arrive

the air hangs heavily all around
reposed through another night
i am first to agitate the dust
corners felt
tenuous groping
steps reveal a slumbering inside cavern

there i stand
the space of this risky vocation
and dust
and twenty score of empty stations

all of it cloaked in some obscurity
tucked beyond reach
hidden in a still not-yet dawn

that curious corona
casting its gleam all about
like some great electric eye

someone has let him be

i can see

o thank God