2013 Holy Week Services Special Musical Guests for Holy Week: This year we have some wonderful musical guests who will come to offer their gifts in our journey to Easter. The great Eric Essix, Birmingham’s own jazz guitarist, will join us for Monday’s service to play in the service for us. Our own Bill Bugg will sing on Tuesday. On Wednesday we welcome Alabama bluegrass legends Three On a String. Then, on Maundy Thursday evening, we will be honored to have Angela Brown, one of the world’s great opera sopranos, as our guest to sing in our communion service. Angela came to a great crisis of faith in hier life when her brother died at age 20 and ended up at the great Oakwood college in Huntsville, originally majoring in biblical studies and minoring in music, but was persuaded that she had great gifts to offer God through her voice. She made the long climb in the world of opera and in the 2004-2005 season, made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Verdi’s Aida to critical acclaim and made the front page of the New York Times with her performance. She has traveled the world since then, but will be in Alabama during Holy Week and is coming to sing for us and offer a Master Class for our Betty Sue Shepherd Scholars.
This promises to be a powerful and meaningful week of worship, devotion and inspiration as we all “turn our eyes upon Jesus, and look full in his wonderful face.” Put the dates on your calendar and plan to be here. Bring your heart and hopes with you.
the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation
placed on Him, and purposefully,
for the larger call of what God wanted of Him.
That is and always will be enough.
Associated Baptist Press carried a piece Monday by Elizabeth Hagan entitled,“I Left the Church. Don’t Hate Me.” I recognized all the responses she received when she left the pulpit that five years before had become hers with such celebration. I do think in the Baptist world that women in senior pastorates must face some pressures that a man in his 50s can’t comprehend. Then again, I think we live in a time when expectations, opinions and reactions travel so fast and far.
I would like to offer a little perspective and help to all young ministers in this time. In a religious world that is so fast-changing and tumultuous, and in an information age in which every event feels global, I do not think these reactions are new at all, nor are they unique.
A chaplain once said in my hearing, “Jesus just kept defining himself and letting others bump up against that.” I have found this to be true, again and again. Everyone in your life has an opinion about what you ought to do with it. Many are good opinions, most are rooted in their own perspectives and interests. Expectations of us aren’t necessarily bad, but finally only God can tell us what to do with our lives and be 100% correct.
Pastoral ministry is not a “cause,” it is a call. The call to go there is the call to do what ministers always have done. When you are led to another place and work, then we should bless you in that. I cannot know what it feels like as a woman in the work, but disappointment with us somewhere along the way is pretty much par for the course. Yours seems to be a little more high profile, but don’t worry about it too much. It will pass.
Anger is also pretty well par for the course when you leave anything like pastoral work, even to go to another church. The euphoria of a new calling, messiness of leaving and the grief and rage stirred up in people is pretty amazing to see the first few times. Eventually you come to expect it will be there. The hurt when people think, “Oh, no, what will happen to us?” is always there. I will never forget being told by a beloved deacon when I tried to help the church I had just resigned to get organized for the interim, “Now, Preacher, you’ve done resigned and left. Why don’t you just let us tend to the church?” I was hurt. Now I get it.
In another church, my young chair of deacons made me resign on a Wednesday instead of Sunday. He was obviously angry, but under it, deeply hurt, feeling somehow that I had rejected him and the church by leaving. I hadn’t. He felt differently in time, and so did I. I was hurt, too.
Everyone has something they need from us, but only letting that go brings freedom, and it is hard to let go, for sure. Maybe it takes a lifetime. So, if you’re telling me that you have met the public disappointment of those who once lauded you, don’t worry with it too much. There will be plenty of other agendas and other people you will be privileged to disappoint before it’s over. Sometimes you just need to do what you need to do and let the rest of them deal with it. They’ll survive. And so will you. Those of us who get it don’t need an explanation and those who need an explanation will never get it.
So listen within. Be clear. Turn it loose. The kingdom has survived worse than even us. But I want to encourage women pastors out there—disappointment isn’t just about the cause of women in ministry. It’s always part of being a minister, and you never get free of it. You just live with it and move on. Good Friday isn’t far, and it’s a good time to remember, that the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation placed on Him, and purposefully, for the larger call of what God wanted of Him. That is and always will be enough.
…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.
In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory. A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.
Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists. Some believe that “there is no self or soul. We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”
But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis. Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms. Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.
I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method. It is this: you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know. And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right. I give up.” Why do you do this?” What is it that you DO believe?
Then I heard something fresh. “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.” There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so. Wonder. Amazement. Delight. Joy. They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah. But why do they exist at all?
On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia. Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality. Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities. He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.
Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed. He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana. I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan, what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.
He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence. He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion. This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words. They said it was Alzheimer’s.
One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service. As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.” As we began to sing, something came over Tige. He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me. Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home. I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.
He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me. There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.
Then he went back to his seat. When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life. Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn. Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything. We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion. Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something. Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.
Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience. There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions. Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life. Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:
Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.
The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP. But institutional religion can commit the same sin. People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us. This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be. The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.
I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand. In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?” We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged. This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery. There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us. And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity. That is enough. To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.
Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar, wrote an opinion piece for CNN in the aftermath of the horrendous mass murder in Norway by suspect Anders Breivik. Breivik set off a bomb and then, disguised as a policeman, infiltrated a youth camp where leadership and politics are taught and opened fire, at this point claiming at least 76 deaths.
Breivik is white, Christian, and released a bizarre 1500 page manifesto in which he advocated a revolution in which the cultural dominance of Christianity might prevail over what he saw as an “Islamic-Marxist” alliance. He wanted to speak on television in his hearing to plead his case, still apparently seeing that his murders were somehow defensible as a desperate call to arms in a culture war.
No one would defend what Breivik did. Glenn Beck, whose irrational rantings have gotten even stranger since being booted from Fox, did offer the most incredibly insensitive (or worse if he believes his own drivel) statement of all when he mulled that the camp itself seemed somehow sinister, like a Nazi Youth camp. Glenn, did you never go to civics? Events and summer leadership training happens in the USA all the time, and many of them quite patriotic. .
The right wing was not alone in its absurd reactions. Lamentations about “fundamentalist Christians” quickly followed. If you ever read the comments under the stories online, of course, you can read more visceral reactions to these things. Religious folk often responded by saying, “No, this is not true Christianity, it is the work of a sick individual.”
Prothro calls all of us who practice religion to task for being inconsistent. He writes: For the last two decades, Christian students have told me that Christianity had nothing to do with the Holocaust. After 9/11, many Muslims said that the men who flew those planes into those buildings had nothing to do with Islam. When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, we were told that the crime had nothing to do with our current climate of political hatred…Yes, he twisted the Christian tradition in directions most Christians would not countenance. But he rooted his hate and his terrorism in Christian thought and Christian history, particularly the history of the medieval Crusades against Muslims, and current efforts to renew that clash. So Christians have a responsibility to speak out forcefully against him, and to look hard at the resources in the Christian tradition that can be used to such murderous ends.”
All of our texts have violent stories in them–Jews and Christians the book of Joshua, Islam has its parallels. Christians have often been fond of talking about “spiritual warfare” and the world hearing us doesn’t understand that we don’t mean “killing people.” The “weapons” of Christianity are faith, hope and love. The way of Jesus is one of non-violence, not killing. Have we not made this clear? Apparently not.
So what does this have to do with “worldviews”? I’ve kept thinking about him writing that 1500 page abomination before doing this. His “worldview”. Having a Christian “Worldview” has become a bit fashionable in recent years among evangelical Christians. We talk of the importance of “examining one’s presuppositions” as though our own are clear and rational and pure and the rest of the world (the “lost”) are corrupt, compromised and sinful.
For more than thirty years I have engaged in many discussions with fellow Christians about “worldviews” and hear many preachers and media personalities talk about the so-called “culture wars” with this language.
“Constructing a Christian worldview” is a large enterprise. I believe in Jesus as the son of God. I am a Christ-follower. I encourage others to follow His way. Why would I react so negatively to all this “worldview” talk? Why WOULDN’T I join in the obsession of so many to construct a “Christian worldview”?
Other than my almost automatic dislike of Christian trendiness itself, I would have to say that it’s the “rationality” of it that worries me. The boundless optimism of naive Christian warriors is astounding. They read a few books about the “Christian worldview,” and pretty quickly move to authoritativeness about “standing up” against this that or the other. It’s not that I don’t take the Christian view of things seriously–it’s that I do.
First, my “view” begins with the Jesus of the New Testament. He engaged not in antiseptic schoolboy debates and parlor arguments based on straw men, but pushed deeper, down into human hearts.
Second, rather than seeking some comprehensive, one size fits all “system” that appeals to some personalities (who almost always benefit from it–strange about that), like the Pharisees and Sadduccees of his day, Jesus invited his followers to a Way of surrender to new perspectives, ruthless self-questioning, and humble obedience to his teachings and love for one another.
Third, the Christian “way” is not merely about rationality. It speaks to the irrational and subrational, too–to things we can’t know and don’t know. The Holy Spirit has to reveal truth to us, little by little, and so we are invited into this incredible humilty of following and living not from some “top down” system but from “bottom up” surrender.
It’s not very surprising that the bin Ladens, Nazis, Holy Warriors, Klansmen, Inquisitionists, and Breiviks of the world manage to create a god in thier own political, cultural and racial image and then demand that everyone else bow to it. But it is not the God of Jesus. We cannot assume that the world knows these distinctions. We ourselves have profaned, ignored and compromised this vision of our Lord too much. We have explained away his call to peacefulness and created our own many systems.
Prothero is right in that sense. So count me as one who says clearly, “This is not Christian, even if it claims to be.” The renunciation of violence as a way to resolve disputations, in a time when killing has become so efficient, seems more important than ever. Be clear–we follow a Savior who laid down His life for the world and refused to take up the sword to save it. Whatever we think of government, armies, war, executions and every other way of violence, let us at least acknowledge that the taking of life is profoundly serious and something that we accept, tolerate and ignore too often.
We have been too comfortable rationalizing our own way of life and downplaying the difficult and serious things our own Founder said to us. I speak out to say, “Mr. Breivik in no way speaks for me as a Christian.” But further, I stand against every effort at a “Christian view of things” that can be snapped together like intellectual Lego bricks, a neat little house of explanation of my own making.
Only a “view of things” that is prayed, agonized and wrestled into being with honest hearing and listening and with surrendered anger and sin, can be taken seriously. A New York Times piece quoted Breivik as having written an entry in June that said, “I prayed for the first time in a very long time today. I explained to God that unless he wanted the Marxist-Islamic alliance and the certain Islamic takeover of Europe to completely annihilate European Christendom within the next hundred years he must ensure that the warriors fighting for the preservation of European Christendom prevail.”
Those of us who have anguished sincerely for decades to learn how to pray shake our heads. One does not “tell” God what needs to be done. This young man knows nothing of the ways of God. But we offer him too many voices that seem to say these very things–voices of anger, frustration, rage and cultural certainty. But no one seems to have taught him how to actually pray.
So Christians, speak. And let’s beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, as the Hebrew scriptures put it. And maybe while we’re at it let’s refashion those worldviews into calloused knees. Maybe if we spent the time we were using to argue our “worldviews” praying for our neighbors and for God to have mercy on us sinners we could find a better way.