December 25, 2011

Take Your Place Among Us

Dear Baby Jesus

It’s starting to make more sense to me
why people go home
come home
for Christmas

Maybe it’s just right that your birthday
would be marked
by a feverish return to the familiar

Everywhere these few two days
unsuspecting pilgrims
making the holiday trek
on rails, on tires, on wings

All en route
back to the center of their lives
back home
Back to a place of hoped-for gravity
in a world
otherwise weightless

Many find it
and there is gladness

Some do not
and with the forthcoming flip of the calendar
the search goes on

Now whether these holiday hoards know it or not
(that’s a matter of some theological debate, you know)
all this traveling home this week
seems a fitting party
for your fleshly advent among us

From the start of your story
you were always at the center of things

You’ve continually made your bed among us
right here in our ranks

We call it

I remember well my mother’s chalky-white nativity set
Its annual December appearance on the dark marble hutch
along the wallpapered side of the dining room

After the stuffing of Thanksgiving
After the last LSU game in November
out it came
from the dark nether regions of the attic
all 12 pieces

The whole blessed scene
probably a Green Stamp purchase
during some closeout season gone by

I remember
your tiny little hands and feet
formed in cheap Plaster of Paris

your manger
cast in a sweat-shop mold like 1000s of others

your familiar scene-mates
each one with MADE IN HONG KONG affixed to their bottoms

All of it
as if to say
the Lord of All
even down at the Dollar Den

And although
(when my mother’s attention was elsewhere)
it was my great delight to rearrange
shepherds and sages
to put Joseph outside with the bleating sheep
camels on their wise men
oxen up where only angels should trod

I never dared moved you, baby Jesus.
It never felt right.

You always seemed to fit
in the center of things

The hub for their wheel
The sun in their middle
to fix their orbits

Even as an infant
there you were
on the mantle
already calling God’s chosen band to gather round

the smallest
most helpless
most needy of them all
most Plaster of Paris among them

Born a sacred irony
their Life and Love and Lord

So I say
Come again
grown up Jesus
Come and take your post
at the center of our lives

Rearrange the oft-handled
mishandled pieces
of our homes and hearts
Until each finds its proper place on the periphery
encircling your Easter life

Come again
O Jesus
Be that blessed homecoming
at the end of all our misguided, wayward treks

Show us that weight of glory
that ballasts our wispy, worried world

Teach us to live in the shelter of your sanctuary
until at last
when the fever of this life is over
we are home
raised up!
for good

For this is who you are
Nativity Jesus
our Plaster of Paris Prince
Founder of my Fragile Faith

so small and yet so hilariously glorious
the hub of our salvation
the core of our communion
the weight of our world

take your place among us
Right here
where you most belong

At the center of our lives

August 10, 2011

Charge to a New Pastor

On this, the day of your ordination to the pastoral office,
the Presbytery offers you this binary charge:

Firstly, remember these moments: the latticework of hands applied to your head, the nine rash and quixotic vows you have just made, and this wonderfully impossible summons to a particular, peculiar ministry among Jesus’ people. Remember this moment, because everything is different for you now. You are a Teaching Elder. And this new nomenclature calls for a fresh focus -- a myopia, even -- as, after today, you carve up your time and choose your tasks.

In the words of our new Form of Government, may you now be “committed [above all other tasks] to teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the work of ministry.” That may be new wording, but it honors a venerable Presbyterian tradition about how the pastor should spend her God-given time: Teaching the faith. Equipping the saints. In your pastorate, some will want you to become a generalist, to be many things to many people, to spread yourself out thinly and evenly, like some manner of ecclesiastical jelly—what one critic of mainline clerical ministry has called “a quivering mass of availability.”

But by your vows today, we pray you will instead preserve the best of your time and talent for these most crucial tasks: Teaching the faith. Equipping for ministry. Says Stanley Hauerwas: “Pastors would do well to examine their schedules and ruthlessly delete any activity that doesn't help people do that which they do in worship.” 1. Hear God 2. Respond to God.

Hear us well: Others can organize Pandamania. Others can surf for hats and pencils. Many can redecorate the bulletin board, defrag the Sunday School computers, reattach eyes to the puppets, stock the goodie boxes for servicewomen.

It is not that you are now above these tasks, it is rather that you are now below them —- not in personhood, but in function. You are now the lowly steward of that undergirding word of God that God’s people urgently need —- that foundational news, that calls forth fresh faith, illicits new dreams, make saints out of sinners, raises the dead.

You are now to a First Church of Samuels, an Eli (without the age lines, of course). Whatever else you do, with and for your Samuels, mine the depths of scripture, eavesdrop for God’s word, keep an ear cocked for the shocking Easter news, and listen for the Spirit’s movement. Listen well, and speak well what you hear -— whether it takes 5 or 45 minutes, whether it wins you supporters or scoffers -— be the Eli we have now set you to be. Be a minister of the word for Jesus’ people in the world.

Know that you will have many hats put upon you, now that R-E-V precedes your name. Organizer, therapist, guru, motivational speaker, public relations officer, boiler superintendent, seasonal chaplain, replacement parent, replacement spouse, CEO, CFO, CIA (that’s a long story). Don’t dismiss these hats, or those who bring them, as if you cannot be bothered. Instead, stay connected to all who come and go with their real or felt needs. But we ask you to quietly, doggedly, protect that one fundamental work God is now giving you —- word and sacraments -- so that by these, your people will be built up and nourished as the people of God.

And so we charge you to remember your ordination to this peculiar post.

Never forget that everything is different for you now.

Secondly, I charge you to forget everything I just said.

Nothing changes today; not one thing that matters. You were yesterday, and will remain tomorrow, first and foremost, ontologically, a child of God and a simple student of Jesus. Nothing more. Nothing less. Never forget this. Show me a preacher who is no longer a mere Christian and I will show you a fire without heat or flame or light. Preachers like me crackle and pop and sputter, but in the end, God always uses mere believers, not unionized clerics, to light up the world.

We’ve ordained you, yes indeed, but that has no eternal effect on your status with God, and neither is it the reason you can now say you are “in the ministry.” You’ve been in the ministry most of your life—the ministry that matters, Jesus’ ministry—loving the Lord, loving neighbor. Baptism is the mark most holy; not ordination. Don’t ever forget this.

We suspect you won’t. The vision of church as including all of God’s people in service, what Romans calls “one body with many members,” that vision is floating around in your DNA. You saw it in your parents, you’ve taught it your kids, you’ve known it in the churches you have served, you believe it in your bones. Remarkable vision: “We who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” No one is more important than another; only Christ is absolute.

But know that many will come wanting to make it about you; wanting, needing, you to be absolute. Some will tell you are indispensible. You are not. Some will insist you are needed in every meeting. You are not. Others will say you are the face of the church in the community (better yours than mine), but you are not. If they tell you, you are the boss, the leader, the head, the honcho, the alpha/omega … quietly remind them: that would be Jesus.

In the words of the poet Dawna Markova, “choose to risk your significance.” Work to keep yourself and the church you serve out of the absolute position. Work to keep God in it.
Lead worship in such a way that they leave saying, not “R. did a lovely job,” but “God be praised.” Preach in such a way that they respond, not to you “That was good sermon, R.,” but more to God: “Take my life and let it be …” Give counsel in such a manner that one says, not “I could not do this without you,” but “I know now how I can follow the Lord!”

And when others drive by on East B., instead of “Hey, isn’t that R.’s church?” let it be said, in large measure by the mere Christianity you practice within your ministry, “Hey, I think that’s Jesus’ church.”

Risk your significance, because the best thing we can say about you -- the best that can be said about any of us -- is that in life and in death, in our falling or in our rising, we belong to God.

Dear friend, now colleague, remember this truth:
Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

You are a Teaching elder. You are a child of God.


June 21, 2011

Resurrection Ripples

In the broadest bend of the long, gravel driveway leading to my Louisiana home place sat a pond of modest size. Various wildlife called the little lagoon home, including a fox and a veritable Tabernacle Choir of evening frogs. For much of the year, the pond supported a layer of deep green algae, thick on the surface like a porridge. This covering made for still waters, so stagnant one could drive by and not even notice there was a body of water in the bend of the lane.

Except that there were rocks, lots of rocks. It was fortuitous for me that the nearby driveway was laid in generous gravel. Many a summer hour I spent as a lad tossing that gravel, piece by piece, into the middle of that pond. Some stones skipped, some sputtered, a few larger specimens landed with an impressive ker-plunk. Regardless of size, all my tosses produced ripples of some kind on the water—ever-widening circles of effect, moving from center to shore. Even those singing nightclub frogs, quiet in the hot afternoon, knew something was afoot as the rippled waves washed up on their domiciles. Ripples.

Late this summer in our Sunday preaching we will take up the New Testament book of Acts, or at least portions thereof. “Book” hardly does Acts justice; more like “wild ride.” If the gospels give us the canon’s master story—the news of Jesus’ living, dying, and rising—then the adventure that is Acts serves up “the rest of the story.” And what a postscript to Jesus it is: flames flickering, tongues appearing, wind blowing; ailments healed, speeches preached, prayers answered; outcasts welcomed, zealots enraged, servants condemned; Peter is convinced, Paul is converted, and Stephen is convicted.

We might say that Acts is one new wave of divine drama after another. Every chapter reveals one more resurrection ripple flowing out into the world from the epicenter of Jesus’ astonishing new Easter-life. “He is risen!” turns out to be massive ker-plumk in the world, sending out rings of redemption in every direction.

Good thing. We need those ripples washing up on our shore, season after season. Acts awakens us to the divine power available in Jesus’ name. Acts emboldens us for the sometimes-bumpy encounters between gospel and culture. Acts stokes our faith imagination, inviting us—demanding us!—to consider what new Holy-Spirit-wave God is asking us to ride out into God’s world.


May 8, 2011

Follow, Follow, Follow

The familiar (annoying?) tune of the Munchkins might as well be our church theme song, except that the path we trod as Christians is not the famed Yellow Brick Road. We walk the Jesus Way. We are, nevertheless, followers. We follow, follow, follow. (Sing with me now! Ug.)

“Followers.” There is little about this word that rings positive in the times in which we live. Do you want your kid to be a follower? Do you want to be known as a “follower?” The prevailing culture prizes autonomy, self-sufficiency, and “doing your own thing.” Everyone wants to be a superstar, “original.” Many of our cultural heroes not only stand apart, they stand alone. Who wants to mimic another?

And yet, we believers follow. As Jesus people, Jesus’ people, we do not blaze our own trail through this world. We seek to unmask the idolatry of incessant originality and instead give thanks for a “path of righteousness,” a way that leads to good standing with God (Psalm 1). And we do not walk alone. We walk behind one who has gone on up ahead of us, securing the destination and marking the way (Hebrews 2:17-18). It is encouraging to know that someone has been this way before.

In younger days, back before parenthood and grown-up responsibilities, I was a frequent backpacker. Especially in Boy Scout days, the packs we donned were of such a size that it made seeing the trail up ahead difficult. Although the landscape to the sides could bring visual relief, one usually spent the better part of a day’s walk staring at the waddling pack just ahead. And the boots. You learned to watch the boots of the guy in front of you. Up and down hills, across streams, around the mud: By paying attention to the boots a few steps in front of you, you could avoid a great deal of pitfalls along the way. Muddy socks, slippery moss, twisted ankles. It paid to be an attentive follower.

We are talking in church lately a good deal about DISCIPLESHIP. A disciple is essentially a student: a pupil of a teacher. Disciples follow someone. As it were, they study the feet of one who walks ahead of them and seek to mimic the moves and follow the same path. Discipleship means giving up on the idea that one can bushwhack a corridor through life however and wherever one sees fit. The mark of baptism says, “I am a follower of Jesus now. I am walking in his way, following his steps. I relinquish the idea that I must always be my own woman, my own man.”

In the regressive, selfish times in which we walk, this new posture is as counter-cultural an act as one could imagine: to give up our “God-given” right to walk alone, in our own way, and instead to give over our lives to one who leads, guides, and directs our path. Following smacks of foolishness. And yet, it is the way of salvation. Step by step, turn by turn, we study the feet of Jesus and mimic his moves. Therein we find ourselves, and our neighbor, and God—all in following another.

In the words of songwriter Chris Rice:

Father Love prepares a place,
and Brother Jesus leads the way.
Follow to the place where you belong.

February 6, 2011


What a great word. Fun to say, too. Capacitation.

Not quite Carly Simon’s famous word, but close.

A version of the term I did not anticipate popped out at me unexpectedly last fall, a springy snake from one of those trickster can o’ nuts. In October, thirty of us gathered in our Social Hall with our Dominican Republic pals Pastor C. and his wife. We met for a panel discussion on ministry, hoping to learn from them home-grown insights about moving out into God’s world. Helping God’s people grow in ministry seemed naturally to take us down the path of growing leaders.

“The pastor cannot do it all himself,” C. reminded us, through our interpreter. “You have to grow leaders. You have to capacitate them.”


As the moderator of the panel time, I looked quizzically at our interpreter.

“What was that word!?”

She hastily retraced the Spanish in her mind. “That’s what he said,” somewhat bemused herself. “He’s saying capacitate them.” Pop! (the aforementioned snake from the can)

What a great word for growing ministry.

Two years ago in our church offices we were experiencing perennial problems staying connected to the Internet. The boys from Adelphia swooped in, crawled all over our building as in catacombs, and soon issued the diagnosis. Old wiring.

“We’re going to pull all new cable through the building. That should keep you connected, and increase capacity.” Indeed it has. Presbyterian bits and bytes sail along these days.

The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing. You can count on it. That’s Jesus, in John 14.

Turns out our Christ is in the capacitation business: growing God’s people—growing us!—to do greater works in the world for God. And growing congregations, too: to provide more capacity for others to share in God’s ministry. Jesus, the cable guy; rewiring the church.

I’ve spent the better part of 30 months in the catacombs of our shared spiritual house, working on what I now know to call capacitation. I wonder: How is God calling you to capacitate? In your family? your work? your world? In your self?

This month, four of us have the opportunity to capacitate the mission partnership we share with our Dominican sisters and brothers. During his visit in the fall, Pastor C. invited D.D., C.W., and me to come to the annual General Assembly meeting of his church—the Evangelical Church of the Dominican Republic.

Pastor C. was recently elected General Secretary of the entire church, and in that post he will watch over all 80+ ECDR congregations and chapels on the island, their pastors, and their mission. He tells us that by our coming he hopes to expand the blessings of our long-standing partnership by inviting other Dominican churches to consider stepping out into similar cross-cultural relationships.

His sense of call to this has awakened our own: Here in Shenango Presbytery, D.D. has encouraged Clen-More and New Wilmington churches to reach out to new congregations for sharing in the DR partnership. Already West Middlesex has responded by sending some members on our March trip. It it conceivable, in a season still on its way, that there may be multiple, parallel partnerships reciprocating between God’s people in western Penn and God’s people on the northern shores of the Dominican. Exciting stuff, and we see this as God calling us to do some rewiring. Capacitation.

What a great word. And so much fun to see.

January 20, 2011

Splash down

Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Isaiah 42Matthew 3:13-17

As a callow follower of Jesus
I am so grateful for the gospel writers
and the early congregations of Christians
who first prompted then received their words

I am so grateful to have
with you
a front row seat
to the baptism of Jesus

I am so honored to be given a spot
on the banks of the diminutive Jordan River
standing with my feet
in the warm Palestinian mud
surrounded by the company of all the faithful
of every time and place

watching the river waters
waiting for the big moment

Down he goes
into the murky water
flat on his back into the unknown
(although he is in the good care of John)

whose very title
is confirmed in this moment
John the B
John the Baptist
not Southern, or American, or independent
John the Baptizer

John lowers our friend
down into the water

and we all watch
as the Jordan closes in above him
around him
over him

like the muddled waters before God creates
like the Red Sea closing in on obstinate Pharaoh
like sundown, on a Friday night at Golgotha

covered him completely, these waters
like a tomb
my tomb

Only, before long
(mercifully, his absence is only temporary)
here he comes again!
The mushrooming ripples on the surface
announce his arrival
back on the scene

Up from the water

By simple straightforward appearance
from the river’s edge:
one more faithful first-century Jew

But by theological export
by the choirs of a million churches
by divine appointment

It may as well be a blue whale
surfacing from the deep

Blue whale:
the largest mammal ever to exist
108 feet, 180 metric tons

Our Lord:
slightly shorter
a little lighter
but arguably (blessedly)
the largest life ever to have lived

He surfaces from the deep like a leviathan
Only, not a monster — a friend
Still, the splash he makes is impressive
ripples of mercy running every which way

He’ll steadily and firmly set things right.
I’ve bathed him with my Spirit, my life.
He’ll set everything right among the nations.
Opening blind eyes
releasing prisoners from dungeons
emptying the dark prisons

I’m announcing the new salvation work.
Before he bursts on the scene, I’m telling you all about it.

This is God’s big splash!

And here we are
God’s funny people — "the holy catholic church"
like tourists on one of those hit-or-miss
whale-watching cruises
off the coast of Maine

$49.99 to get dressed up in a paper-thin poncho
and to stay mildly seasick for an hour
and to get stuck next to Mildred
from Montgomery, Alabama

Mildred: who while you wait to see the “big fish”
tells you all about her fascinating seven grandchildren
and her Schnoodle

But there we are
all on the same side of the boat
leaning out to catch the view
cell phone cameras ready
tweets and texts, all set

Gawking tourists in search of God

When suddenly
the tin-can intercom behind you crackles to life

“Ladies and gentleman
This is your captain, John B.
Take a look now,
just to the east,
something is about to surface.
Get those cameras ready!”


And from the railing of the ark
(Did I say ark? I meant boat)
there arises one of those collective ahs
like at the end of a really sweet fireworks show

But more than the spectacle of the splash down
the waves are what really catch our attention

This giant from God
coming up from the deep -- our deep, our death
with ripples that rock our boats-of-safety:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst 
for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

And then that ship’s intercom
crackles to life again:

"This is my Son,
the Beloved,
with whom I am well pleased."

January 4, 2011


A funeral homily for a physician

Romans 8 / Mark 1:40-45

It would surely be the height of presumption, and theologically suspect, to conclude that any one particular profession is the most Christian of occupations.

On the face of it, the best candidate for a solidly Christian profession would be carpentry. By most historical reconstructions, Jesus was, among other things, a trained carpenter.  And surely at the bottom of the list would be preachers, since our Lord was consistently hardest on and most critical of preachers and other professional religious types like me.

But a case can made, I think, that the practice of healing, the art of medicine, the curing of disease—these are terribly Christian sorts of things to be about.  And this is particularly so when such practices are imbued with acts of personal sacrifice, with a living concern for another’s well-being, and with a thoroughgoing love of neighbor.  Love of neighbor, let us remember, being Jesus’ second commandment for all like R. H. who would follow in his way—in Jesus’ practice of God’s medicine in the world.

At bottom, what makes the practice of medicine a Christian act is likely not competency, but compassion.  (Although, one need not suggest these two are in conflict with one another.) But to be human with one’s patients is to care for them, as well as their bodies.  It is to offer, not merely advice or prescription, but counsel, concern, care. This is—if I may say it this way—a very Jesus sort-of-thing to do.

On Friday, the family and I were talking about the good counsel Dr. H. was given early on in his practice by a mentor in the profession. Essentially it was this: When there are no medicines to prescribe for one’s patient, there is always the gift of human touch. This wisdom, so important to your father, put one of you in the family in mind of Spencer Free’s lovely verse:

’Tis the human touch in this world that counts, 
The touch of your hand and mine, 
Which means far more to the fainting heart 
Than shelter and bread and wine. 
For shelter is gone when the night is o’er, 
And bread lasts only a day. 
But the touch of the hand 
And the sound of the voice 
Sing on in the soul always.

Free’s gentle words and our conversation on Friday put me in mind of Mark, chapter 1. The afflicted leper: broken in body from a dreaded skin disease, cut off from his community because of contagion.  He boldly prevails upon Jesus for healing.  “If you choose, you can make me well.”

At this moment, we all take a deep breath to see how it is God’s servant-son Jesus will respond. Mercifully, the gospel writer is unambiguous: Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to the leper, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Note well the compassion.
Note well the deliberate choice.
Note well the touch.

All those late-night phone calls.
The untold miles across Lawrence County.
More exchanges of compassion, counsel, care than can be numbered.

And even when calamities could not be cured through a prescription pad, at least your father was human—Christian, in that sense.

I wonder: Could it be that the work of a compassionate doctor is a faithful echo of God’s redemptive work in the world? Could it be a pointer to this Jesus, who choses care and compassion and practices healing and such good touch?

Of course, even healers themselves need healing sometimes.

Dr. H's time as a physician, R’s time in life, has now come to an end. For now, in this world, that seems to be the nature of things. But remember that we gather within these walls, in this building, long dedicated to announcing the good news of God. We gather here not just to remember a life well lived, or a profession well inhabited, but to remember a God’s promises, well-transacted. Nothing — neither life nor death — will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The physician is now the patient.

And he is in the good care of a good God,
who is moved with compassion,
who reaches out to touch lives,
who says to those he loves,

“I do choose: Be made well.”

It is so for R.H.
May it be so for each of us as well.