Dinosaur Bones

 

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You gotta love a good metaphor.

The other day, I was sitting with some clergy colleagues and we were talking about the role of the pastor.  What, we wondered, is the pastor’s real job?  Sure, they are supposed to preach, to teach, to visit the sick, to shepherd the flock, to die on the cross demonstrate self-sacrifice, and to model discipleship.  But how?

For some of us, the answer was simple–you do all of that by casting a vision.  One colleague offered that when he serves a church, he sees his role as providing the church with a vision that is God-centered and faithful to the gospel.  A faithful ministry, he said, is one where you have succeeded in convincing your church to follow you where you believe God would have the congregation go.

But not all of us agreed.  As we sat in the room debating, I found myself thinking about dinosaur bones.  Specifically, about the process by which archeologists carefully and meticulously unearth these ancient treasures from below the ground, and then painstakingly assemble them together to show us something of what dinosaurs (or ancient pottery, homes, synagogues, you name it) may have looked like.

In that moment, I was compelled by the notion that successful pastors don’t cast a vision–they unearth the vision that was there all along.  They tend to the soil of their congregation, listening for clues that might help them discover what is lying below the surface, waiting to be revealed.  Good pastoral ministry knows that the congregation has a vision, they just may have forgotten it, or buried it beneath anxiety about change or finances or anything else that has a tendency to get in the way of the gospel.

Of course, I was feeling pretty profound when I finally had the courage to share my metaphor with the group, but it turns out I had still more to learn, because no sooner were the words out of my mouth than a colleague blurted out:

“Of Course!  It’s like the Hadrosaurus!”

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this can’t possibly be right….

If you are like me, then you were probably utterly confused, so I will explain what my colleague was so excited about.  Apparently, we have been finding dinosaur bones for centuries, but that doesn’t mean we always knew what to do with them.  In fact, , scientists were often baffled by the bones, and sometimeswould put them together in all kinds of shapes using what seemed to be educated guesses.

Until they found the Hadrosaurus. In 1858, scientists in Haddonfield New Jersey uncovered the first largely intact dinosaur skeleton.  It was the first time they had enough pieces to know what a dinosaur actually looked like, and what it revealed is that, up until that moment, we had it all wrong.

 

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Ahh, that’s better…

Before the Hadrosaurus, paleontologists had assumed that most dinosaurs were
quadrupedal; Hadrosaurus revealed that they were not.  It turned out that dinosaurs like the Brontosaurus were completely fictional–they never existed, we just imagined them because we didn’t know what we were looking at. It took seeing a complete, intact dinosaur to realize that we had it all wrong.

In our group, we found ourselves on the precipice of something important.  We were realizing that the role of the pastor may have more to do with paleontology than we realized.  Yes, a good pastoral leader pays attention to her congregation and helps uncover what is already there. But they also need to know how to faithfully fit it all together. In order to help the church be faithful, they must endeavor to fit those pieces together so that they make something that is real and honest and true.

There are plenty of instances where we uncover a bunch of different passions and visions, but if we don’t have a blueprint, we cannot fit them together in a faithful way. And that is what Scripture is for.  It is our Hadrosaurus, our guide to what the church should look like.  And thanks be to God that, like the dinosaurs, there are countless models of faithful churches to look at. But they all follow certain rules.  They are faithful to the message of Christ, devoted to works of mercy and compassion, to worship and prayer, hospitality and healing, justice and reconciliation, generosity of spirit and with resources.

These building blocks make us who we are. And when we are attentive to them, when we put them together correctly, they reveal something about who God is.  More than that, they leave something for future generations, a blueprint for those who come after to follow as they, too, learn what it means to worship the one we know as God.

 

 

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What if my bones were in a museum,
Where aliens paid good money to see ’em?
And suppose that they’d put me together all wrong,
Sticking bones on to bones where they didn’t belong!
Imagine phalanges, pelvis, and spine
Welded to mandibles that once had been mine!
With each misassemblage, the error compounded,
The aliens would draw back in terror, astounded!
Their textbooks would show me in grim illustration,
The most hideous thing ever seen in creation!
The museum would commission a model in plaster
Of ME, to be called, “Evolution’s Disaster”!
And paleontologists there would debate
Dozens of theories to help postulate
How man survived for those thousands of years
With teeth-covered arms growing out of his ears!
Oh, I hope that I’m never in such manner displayed,
No matter HOW much to see me the aliens paid. -Bill Watterson

 

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The Troubled Peace of the Cemetery

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.

Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.

Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.

Peace is the generous,

tranquil contribution of all

to the good of all.

Peace is dynamism.

Peace is generosity.

It is right and it is duty.

-Oscar Romero

What is it about cemeteries that folks find so peaceful?  As I have approached the annual observance of Memorial Day, my mind has been drawn to the ways in which our culture so often equates silence with peace.  And there is nothing that seems more quiet or peaceful than a big, sprawling cemetery.

Mount_Auburn_Cemetery_2.JPGWhen I was in seminary in Cambridge, my friends would often walk down Mt. Auburn to the cemetery.  Heck, I even went on a first date there (surprisingly, a walk in a cemetery is a great way to get to know someone).  We treated that cemetery like a park, and indeed it was one of the few substantial, wooded, secluded areas where one could go to enjoy the sensation of escaping from the sound and fury of graduate school.

There amongst the flora and fauna, it was easy to believe that this place was more than just a cemetery.  And indeed, those who care for it claim it as far more than a resting place for the dead.  According to their website, “a National Historic Landmark, a botanical garden, an outdoor museum of art and architecture, and an important habitat for urban wildlife.” Gravestones are no longer simply markers for the dead–they are works of art.  The people who are interred there? Stories that connect us to our rich and varied past.

And certainly, this cemetery (and many others as well) is incredibly beautiful and peaceful.  It is easy to imagine that those who grieved their loved ones sought it out for the rest that they believed it would grant their dearly departed.

But I would venture to offer that there is far more going on in the cemetery than perhaps we like to admit.  Too often, what makes a cemetery seem peaceful is the absence of, well, people.  To forget that one is surrounded not only by nature, but by the souls of the dead.  And that not all of these souls went quietly into the night.

arlington-875457_960_720.jpgFor me, this disquieting fact rings most true in military cemeteries.  For there is little I can think of that is as sobering as Arlington Cemetery’s 634 acres of nearly identical tombstones marking the final resting places of over 300,000 fallen soldiers.  Or the knowledge that the fields at Gettysburg are drenched in the century-old blood of 10,000 men.  These places are not peaceful to me.  For me, they call to mind the peacelessness of silent cemeteries which Oscar Romero recalled when he spoke of our Christian duty to seek the Kingdom of God, over and against the violence of this world.

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The field at Gettysburg

For me, to stand at a memorial, or walk through a military cemetery, is to remember the cost of human conflict. To remember that this is what the world promises.  This is the only guarantee of military aggression–more white crosses dotting a hill.  More dead children mourned as a flag is folded.  We can give thanks for their love of country, for their obedience to the uniform, for their desire to make the world better through service to their country.  But we cannot mistake the stillness of their bodies and the quiet of the grave for anything close to peace or tranquility. Theirs is a silent and unending cry, which shouts to we who would stop and see: “THIS is the cost of war.”

Reading Calvin and the Rule of Love

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This month, I will be preaching and teaching on questions that have come from the pews–we are calling it the “Ask Me Anything” sermon series, and so far the questions I have received have proven quite interesting.  Initially, I had conceived of this as an opportunity for folks to ask questions about our faith and praxis.  What has been interesting to me, however, is that the questions have been theological. Turns out that the folks in the pews sincerely want to know: what does it mean that we do this, and not that?  What does it mean when we talk about this faith claim?

Inevitably, I have been turning to the reformed tradition and heritage of which the Presbyterian Church is a part as I have explored the questions that have been raised.  Truthfully, I often do not take the time to go back to our Book of Confessions or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, but if this series is any indication, I believe I may have to make a better practice of it.  For it has be thoroughly enjoyable to explore the family tree of our faith.

Now, if you had told me in seminary that I would gladly spend my afternoons reading through John Calvin, I might have looked at you askance.  Back in seminary, the Institutes was one in a long line of required reading that generally fell into the “historical” section of my list.  I was far more interested in reading contemporary theological works by Brueggeman, Cavanaugh, Yoder and Gustafson.

Perhaps I have grown in my appreciation for my own tradition, but as I sit with Calvin this time around, I find myself pleasantly immersed in his approach to interpreting the tradition.  I am enjoying exploring what he has to say, wrestling with the implications of his theology, but more often than not, I find myself nodding along in agreement.  And occasionally, I find myself surprised by just how contemporary he sounds.

Take this little nugget, for example, which I came across in Book 3, on the section on prayer:

Love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe. (4.10.30)

UnknownIn this particular instance, Calvin is speaking of love as a guide in our decisions respecting church government and worship.  He argues that we need church constitutions, that they provide a necessary good.  However, discipline and tradition do not exist for the sake if themselves.  Rather, we ought to understand them as tools, aids on our journey towards our ultimate end of union with Christ. And according to Calvin, this means that sometimes we must be willing to leave behind traditions and practices that get in the way of our calling to love.

Let me just pause at this moment and reflect that Calvin sounds awfully modern here.  For how often have we heard “love” thrown about in the contemporary church as the answer to nearly every problem?  How often do we encounter criticisms of our tradition and its heritage which include the claim that the reformed church, and calvinism in particular, was rigid and cold, even cynical? And how often have Christians accused one another of mis-using love, of ignoring scripture about judgement and condemnation because the love of Christ sounds easier?

And yet here is Calvin intoning about love being our guide.  Here is our spiritual forefather reminding us that our practice and our government ought to be ruled by love.  That love may challenge us to change, to evolve, to move in new directions that are unfamiliar and perhaps even intimidating.  But, he reminds us, we will do it not because it is popular, or on-trend, or culturally acceptable.  We will do it because it has its root in love.

And that, friends, is why I will continue to read a 500-year old tome of theology. Because it turns out that sometimes you need to hear the wisdom of those who came before you. Sometimes you need to be reminded that the struggle of the church has deep roots, and that those who came before you have truth to share. And you will be better for pausing to hear it.

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On Retreat: Day Two

The Kingdom of God is such as these

“Torah is acquired in the presence of community”

Our mighty band of fellow travelers gathered in fellowship for a second day of study and conversation.  Our task today: to gather and consider the Scriptures of Epiphany through Transfiguration.  To help us do this, our facilitator, the talented Dr. Judy Siker, introduced us to the practice of Havruta (חַבְרוּתָא), the study of Scripture in groups.  The word finds its root in haver, which translates in Hebrew as “friend” or “fellowship,” and it is the one of the dominate forms of faithful scripture study in the Jewish Tradition.

And so it is that we gathered in groups, calling upon the Holy Spirit to be present in our fellowship and in our dialogue as we asked questions, pushed ideas, and challenged one another in our understanding of Scripture.  My group focused on the Isaiah and Gospel passages for the 3rd Week after Epiphany, which had been paired with the following quote from Xenophon:

The true test of a leader is whether his followers will adhere to his cause from their own volition, enduring the most arduous hardships without being forced to do so, and remaining steadfast in the moments of greatest peril.

We read, and we listened, and most of all we asked questions.  We argued over the agenda of the pairing of THESE texts at THIS time in the church calender.  We struggled with the silences of Isaiah, and with our own discomfort with the text.  We worried and wondered at the author’s decision to parallel the joy of harvest with the joy of plunder.

In the Gospel, we pondered over the motives and movements of Jesus, and noted the changes in the quotation of the Isaiah passage.  We wondered at the sons of Zebedee, struggled with their decision to follow a stranger in that time and place, questioning the motives of their following and their leaving behind of the father.  We grappled with the call that Jesus offers all of us, and weighed the responsibilities of claiming one’s status as a person of God.  Some of us spoke into the mystery of choice and of following, wondering whether we have a choice at all to follow, when the alternative is to be left outside in the dark where the light may not shine.

We wondered whether we are the followers that Xenophon speaks of, or whether it is perhaps the case that Jesus himself is the follower that tests the true leadership of the Holy One, who leads us into places we do not and cannot know with any degree of certainty.

All of this and more we struggled with, together.  It was interesting, and it was fruitful, and it was a meaningful way to experience the community of faith in dialogue with the Spirit of Truth on this retreat.

Afterwards, we had the opportunity to explore the Scriptures with art.  Meditating on the beatitudes, I chose a combination of collage and acrylic paint, the result of which is the beginning of this post.  It was a wonderfully meditative way to explore the scripture.

In the end, I had the blessed opportunity in three hours to experience two fruitful means of prayer with Scripture, both of which deepened my personal and communal experience while on retreat.  And when you add to all of this the amazing massage I received after our classes, well, you can imagine how I am feeling at the moment.  I feel in touch with my body, with my colleagues, and with the Spirit, and I cannot wait to bring some of this back to my congregation when this is over.

But at least for now, I am happy to rest in this experience with gratitude, and with peace in my heart.

On Retreat: Day One

“God doesn’t answer prayers; our prayers are answers to the prayer that God has already started”

The alarm buzzed irritably from the window where I had left it the night prior.  Morning, I thought to myself.  How swiftly we are plucked from the warmth of our beds to greet the day.  Earlier than I would ordinarily rise, I lifted myself out of the warm blankets and began the process of waking up.  There was running to do before class could start, one week left in an extended process of disciplining myself into health.

A brisk run in the fog, a quick shower, and I am back and dressed at the breakfast table, a bowlful of granola and mug of dark coffee in hand.  Morning devotions are at 8:15, and so I am out the door by 7:45, having only once to return to the car for whatever I have left behind.

SFTS is a quick drive from my husbands’ parents’ home, and so it is that I arrive in the parking lot with little trouble and plenty of time to spare.  Settling into the pew, I marvel at how peaceful it feels to sit and to rest in the knowledge that this is retreat time, that I am away from the noise of my life, if only for the briefest moment.  It is praying time, spirit time, reading time, re-charging time.  It is good, and it is well, and it is welcomed.

I must say that I am quite excited about the format of this space—a time to pray and live more fully than I would otherwise in the life of the Gospel Text for next year’s lectionary.  It feels good to dwell in this Scripture, to sit with Matthew, the synoptic with which I am least comfortable, and to let it become a part of my daily rhythm.  To be honest, it almost feels good for me, but more like homemade granola than vitamins or annual exams.  I relish the flavor of it, the diversity of community that has gathered here in the shadow of Mt. Tam, and I hope that here is space that has power, if I but let God have a crack at it.

So I sit in the silence of the chapel, weaving my voice into the melody of the chanted music, entering the mystical space of our worship as it enters me.  I try to focus all of my self and my intentions in the act of prayer, and though it is difficult, it feels good.  It reminds me of conditioning exercise, and I hope that some of it will stick with me when I return to the parish.

Today we speak of lenses and perspectives, of what we see and what has authority, and I am struck by the words of my colleagues.  One speaks of the Scriptures as representing the “arc of human potential,” and of their authority resting in this fact.  I find it intriguing, for certainly it is the case that Scripture offers portraits of the best and the worst that we can offer to God.  It seems meaningful then that these stories hold so much water for us—they are not merely God’s story, but our story as well, and we repeat them in our daily lives, in differing and wildly diverse combinations, with manifold results.  In this sense, the Word is living because we are living it, not only in our extraordinary moments, but in our most mundane.  The Spirit is within us all, it would seem, and the “meaning potential,” as Blount might say, is only as limited as we choose to make it.

That this is the point at which we begin our time together and the entry point for our study and prayer upon the texts is a great blessing to me.  I appreciate that this is a time for deepening relationship with God and Scripture, for open dialogue with willing colleagues, and for intentional devotional space, rather than a race to plan a year’s worth of sermons.  That I may rest rather than write restlessly is a gift, one that I believe more of us pastors need to give ourselves, for it is what we ask of our community, is it not?  That they stop, that they pay attention, and that they respond to the Word that defines us?  And how can we model this for our congregations, if we are not making it a priority for ourselves?

Holy Wind

Man it’s only Thursday and I am getting fired up for Pentecost…. I think, in fact, that Pentecost is one of my favorite celebrations of the church.  And this year, it has been made all the more meaningful through the conversations that I have had the privilege of being a part of.

One conversation that sticks out for me most strongly is really a conversation that I have had with many folks that I care about, and for whatever reason they have clustered this week.  And that conversation has to do with community and belonging.  As I was reminded this week, the consequence of blogging about one’s loneliness is that suddenly one is likely to receive a lot of phone calls, emails, and personal check ins from people that care making sure that a person is alright.  Some of those check ins have become important conversations about the experience of true belonging to a place or a people.  Moreover, many conversations have also dealt with the importance of invitation to a person’s sense of belonging.

And as someone who spends her days as a pastor, all this talk about belonging and invitation, of course, got me thinking about the church.  Because ultimately, what is the gospel other than an invitation to community?  What does Christ do, if he does not welcome outsiders into the family?  Consider Pentecost.  The way I read it this week, the Holy Spirit’s appearance on the scene is primarily a radical invitation to all people.  Scripture says in Acts 2 that every person who was in the room, no matter what their native tongue, heard and understood the words of the disciples as they spoke through the power of the Spirit.  Every person was acknowledged by the Spirit’s presence; no one was left out.  How often does that happen in our daily lives?  More often than not, our common experience is one of being left out rather than brought in, and yet the Spirit makes a space in which the exact opposite is what is possible. That invitation, the offering of the gospel to all people regardless of their language, shifts the conversation from one where the focus is inward to one where the focus is outward.  All those people have heard the invitation:  how will they respond?

Ultimately, what I take away is the following:  we cannot control how people will respond to our message, what they will decide to do with it.  That is between them and God.  But if Pentecost teaches us anything, it is that we are called as the church to offer the invitation that is the Gospel to everyone who has ears to hear, no matter what divides or separates us, to give them the chance to accept or reject the invitation.  This work will take us out of our comfort zone, but the HOly Spirit will be with us.  We will not be alone.  And what’s more, what we offer is so important, because it essentially amounts to us saying, “You don’t have to be alone.  We can be a community, together.  We can work out our differences.  Our language may be different, but the gospel is the same.  The good news is for all of us.”

Not a bad antidote to a lonely few days.

Today’s Subject is Loneliness

Difficult, difficult, difficult.  It has always been so difficult for me to acknowledge and embrace the part of myself that can suddenly be overcome by loneliness, whether I am alone or not.  The person who, in the midst of a room full of people, many of whom she knows, will become increasingly aware in the midst of that room that she feels invisible, unnoticed, passed over.

Perhaps it has to do with who I am and how I see myself.  I am the eldest, and I have always wanted to be liked, to make my parents and those I admired proud of me.  I have always wanted to be someone that other people knew and that folks liked to be around, and I think it would be fair to say that I have coveted the approval of others throughout my life.  But I also know that I like to forget the part of me that was so lonely as a child–I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I often was picked on in school (I was a bit of a nerd, and before that, I liked “little kid” games like make-believe well into middle school, and before that, well, I was sort of a tomboy).  The friends I had were closely held, and often not very many at any given time.  As I got older, I had more “friends,” but almost all of them were not the sort I shared your life with–more the kind that I ate my lunch and took my classes next to.  We were more like friends by geography than choice.

I wonder if that hasn’t persisted to some extent into my adulthood.  Sure, my sister commented in college that I seemed to know everyone, but I rarely felt as though anyone knew me.  MOre often, I felt like folks knew my name, and knew what I did, but didn’t really share my life.  Same with seminary–I was a decent schmoozer, but I left seminary really with one good friend, and I didn’t meet her in school at all.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I am struggling these days with the profound gulf that I will sometimes find myself trapped in.  I know I can’t be alone in this, but I can’t help but feel alone in the midst of it.  My job is one where being extroverted and knowing everyone is good, but one drawback is often that you know a little bit of everyone, and they know less of you.  And given my education I sometimes find myself struggling to analyze my experience, but I am not sure that is the best antidote either… is it really going to help me, for example, to try to try to diagnose my loneliness, or is that just another way to avoid acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, this is a part of who I am?  Maybe I would be better off just sitting in it and feeling it, rather than hiding it away.

I do have to say though, I find it amusing that today I was feeling lonely in, of all places, a church in which the mission statement could probably decently be described as welcoming all people in so that loneliness diminishes and community increases.  And here I am feeling like the odd man out.  I have my reasons, I suppose, but I did find it to be unexpected territory.

If someone brought this problem to me, I suppose I might be tempted to wonder, “Where is God working in this,” or “what lesson might we learn,” or maybe something more clever that connects the spiritual to the emotional.  And I do believe they are connected somehow–I almost never worship myself, these days, and I find it interesting that I feel so lonely when I do.  But I gotta be honest, I don’t feel like answering the questions right now.  If I could be blunt, I just want to feel less like the island I experienced today.  I want to be a part of things, and for others to want me to be a part of their lives, rather than just a number or a person who can give them something.