Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Living as if

When I was first ordained I didn’t feel very much like a pastor. I used to put on my clerical collar and practice my sermons in front of the mirror to convince myself. Sometimes it worked, but often on Sunday mornings I felt like a fraud. The fact that I had no female role models at the time didn’t help, but it was more than that. I had to figure out how to fill a role for other people, a role that they certainly needed me to fill, while being authentic to myself in the process. Of course, when I was twenty-something years old, I wasn’t all that comfortable in my own skin, much less filling the role of a pastor. Nonetheless, I had a congregation to serve, so I couldn’t wait until I got my act together. I had to fumble my way through it from day-to-day and act as if I were a pastor. It seemed to be easier to convince other people than it was to convince myself. As the years have passed, I've settled into the role by wearing it, much like breaking in a pair of shoes, and it's become comfortable for me. I have a better sense of myself and a better sense of how Nancy does pastor. After 34 years, although there are still times when I feel like a fraud, most days I am at peace with Pastor Nancy. I arrived at this place by living as if I were a pastor even when I didn't feel like one, and eventually, I became one.

And then I’ll have a conversation with a church member and they’ll confess to me that they don’t know what they believe anymore. They don’t know if they believe in heaven. They don’t know if they believe in a bodily resurrection. They don’t know if they can believe God really cares. Sometimes they don’t know if they can believe in a God at all. And often this crisis of faith will keep them away from the church. They feel like a hypocrite being with other people who seem to believe all the stuff they struggle with. They feel like a fraud, like they’re pretending to be someone they aren’t. And I think to myself, yeah, I know the feeling. I’ve heard it so often from so many people that I suspect it could be the norm for people of faith. From time to time, or maybe even all the time, we have trouble believing the stuff we think we should be believing if we’re going to consider ourselves Christians. And I also suspect that, as a result, a lot of people attend weekly worship under a heavy cloud of guilt because they feel like a fraud. There are also those who don’t want to put themselves through that, so they don’t go at all.
What I want to say to them is that the Church is filled with people just like them. They’re not alone. And then I want to talk to them about the difference between belief and faith. We tend to put way too much emphasis on belief in the church. John 3:16 hasn’t helped. It makes it sound like believing is the way to salvation. But isn’t that just another twist on works righteousness, on earning our own salvation? If believing were the goal, then we would have to determine believing what exactly? Believing how much? The fact is, beliefs come and go and, if you're trusting in what you believe, you’re in for a bumpy ride. If you’re going to trust in something, make sure it’s trustworthy. For me, that’s the grace of God. Even when I don’t know what I believe or I don’t seem to believe anything at all, I trust that the grace of God won’t let me down. In fact, even when I don’t trust in the grace of God, I trust that the grace of God won’t let me down. (If you can follow that line of reasoning.)

Faith isn’t believing stuff that is so far-fetched no one in their right mind could possibly buy it. It’s not certainty. It’s not having a theological explanation for all the hard questions. Faith is trusting in a relationship that transcends all that foolishness. And I’ve come to the conclusion that when we’re living into the faith we long to have, when we’re living as if it were true, we’re not frauds at all. That’s when we’re authentically living in relationship with God.
On a Sunday morning, the pews in my church are filled with people who are living as if. They may not always believe the words we speak, but they speak them as if they did. They may not be convinced that Jesus is really present in the bread and wine, but they receive it as if he were. They may not always accept the truth of the words they sing, but they sing them as if they did. Because that’s the best they can do. It’s all too much to really take it in without reservations, without doubts, without questions. And so they live as if. And that’s enough.

I want to tell my dear friends who feel like a fraud being a part of a faith community that feeling like a fraud is part of what it means to be a part of a faith community. They are not alone in that. They are a part of a community that is filled with those who feel the same way they do. And the ones who don’t, either haven’t yet begun to think about it, or they’ve worked through it and landed on the other side. But that’s part of what it means to be a person of faith. And the beauty of being part of a faith community is that, from week to week, there are those who are going through a completely faithless time in their lives while there are those who are filled with strength, hopefulness, and joy in their relationship with God. And the way it works in community is that the ones who are strongly grounded in their connection with God can hang onto the ones whose faith is floating somewhere above the atmosphere and keep them from being sucked into a black hole. The roles may change. At any given time, those who once were strong in faith may become weak, but there are always some among us whose faith can hold the rest of us in a safe place. And that’s why, even when you’re feeling like a fraud at worship -- especially then, being part of a faith community is such a gift.

If you're feeling like a faithless fraud in church, don't leave us. Stay with us and live as if. Father Richard Rohr has said, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” And that’s the thing about living as if you were a person of faith. After a while you figure out what it really means to be a person of faith. And you discover that you've been one all along.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

I'm a patriotic sap

There are parts of ourselves that we try hard to hide from the rest of the world, lest we be ridiculed, shamed, or grossly misunderstood. So, we push them back in the closet and hope nobody ever looks inside. Well, I’m going to bring one of those hidden parts of myself out into the open. And here it is… I'm a patriotic sap.

Now, for some people that may not be such a bad thing, but for me, it’s embarrassing to admit. I’m always critical of the American story as it’s been reported in our biased history books. I know very well that my country is flawed, deeply flawed. Our founding ancestors were not the heroes we like to believe they were. As much as I love our current president, he is not infallible by any means. And many of the cultural markers that embody what it means to be American drive me nuts: violence, consumerism, narcissism, deceitfulness. I’m not always proud of my country.
But that’s not the whole story. I’m also a patriotic sap. When I’m at a sporting event and stand for the national anthem, it’s all I can do to hold back the tears. If I’m home alone, feeling free to express my emotions, and I hear “The Star Spangled Banner” sung on T.V., my sobbing begins right about where “the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”

When I enter a voting booth, I get so emotional that I can’t wait to get it over with so I can rush to my car and lose it.  It actually starts while I’m waiting in line, looking at all the other people standing with me, rich/poor, black/white, professional/blue collar, young/old, and I consider what a privilege it is to be voting in this country. It’s orderly, non-violent, participatory. And it makes me weep.
Despite my cynicism about the U.S. government, I am always amazed at how well it works. Maybe not from day to day, but over the long haul. I think it’s because of our very American core value:  justice. We  may not agree on how that gets played out, and sometimes the powers-that-be are, in fact, not acting on the side of justice at all. But that’s never the end of the story. We, the people, can change that. And, eventually we do, because we aspire to something more. We aspire to justice.

Yesterday I went to Moral Monday in Raleigh. A couple thousand people met on the grass to join in the very American struggle for justice. With them, they brought bullhorns and signs and flags, and anger and compassion and courage. They are people who can't remain silent while injustice  runs amok in our state.  And I stood with them. It was hard for me because I had to spend about five hours keeping my sappy patriotism in check.
I don’t know when I’m ever prouder of my country than when everything we stand for seems to be lost and a few people will have the courage to remind us of who we are. And suddenly, there it is: “proof through the night that our flag was still there.” The ideals that bind us to one another as Americans may never be fully realized, but they will never be lost as long as there are voices calling us back to justice. And there always seem to be those voices. It's the ultimate act of patriotism, and I can’t help but get sappy over it.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Karma, Ripley, Barbie, Jerry Springer… & St. Francis of Assisi

"You reap what you sow.” You may have said these words before, but did you know they come from the Bible? I suspect that when we use that expression, most of the time, we’re taking comfort in the fact that what goes around comes around. If somebody does you wrong, they’re going to pay for it someday. The whole idea of karma is something that brings us comfort. But if you read these words in their context of Galatians 6, that’s not exactly what Paul is saying. To understand what he’s getting at, you need to go back to chapter 5 where he talks about allowing your ego to guide you or living in the Spirit. If you’re living out of your ego, it will affect your behavior, and there will be consequences. If you’re living in the Spirit, it will affect your behavior, and there will be consequences.

Is it not true? There are consequences for our behavior. Those consequences are not the result of a wrathful God reigning down terror on those who displease him. Those consequences are the natural result of the way we choose to live our lives.

I read this spring that people are having more problems with their sinuses and allergies because there is more pollen than there used to be. And it’s going to get worse, because this is a result of climate change. And I read about how the melting of ice in Antarctica is much worse than we ever realized because where it’s melting the most is underneath, where we can’t see it. And it’s going to get worse. That same day, I read that in New York City they are predicting that the temperature is rising more every year so that in the not too distant future the summers will be as hot in NYC as they are in Birmingham, Alabama. Now, my daughter Gretchen lives in Brooklyn. She has a cat named Ripley. And one of the problems they have in the summer is that every time they open the fridge, Ripley climbs in. (Once the cat was in there all night and they didn’t know it.) And I can’t blame her. When I’m there, if I could climb in the fridge, I’d join her. Summer is already unbearable in NYC. The underground subway stations are stifling. Most people don’t have AC in their homes. The power grid would never support it if they did. And we learn that this is only going to get worse. Some people look at all the weird weather we’ve been having and attribute it to God’s doing: the tornados, the droughts, the flooding, the out of control fires. But we know better, don’t we? We are reaping what we have sown.

We live in terribly violent world. Violence is so pervasive in our culture that may be as unaware of it as a fish is oblivious to the fact that he’s swimming in water. And yet, what can we expect? What have we done to sow seeds of peace in our world? We entertain ourselves with graphic pictures of people being punched, shot, blown up. We see violence in everything, from the video games our children play, to NFL football, to the Jerry Springer Show. We have a history of supporting unjust wars because it’s our patriotic duty. We spank our children with gusto and wonder why they grow up thinking the way to resolve problems is by threatening or causing physical harm to another. Do we have to wonder why our world is so violent? We are reaping what we have sown.

We objectify women from the day they’re born as we fuss over their appearance, and then we hand them little replicas of the ideal woman, that is… Barbie dolls. And we teach them that their greatest purpose in life is in pleasing other people, particularly men. You can see it on T.V. and in the movies and at shopping malls and in hundreds of venues all across this city. And then we wonder why so many women are victims of rape, and domestic violence, and sexual harassment, and human sex trafficking. We are reaping what we have sown.

Well, I could go on, but that's probably enough. You know it’s true for us as individuals, it’s true for us as a community of God’s faithful people, it’s true for us as a nation. We reap what we sow. Yes, Paul was right. But his purpose in saying those words wasn’t primarily because he wanted people to see how their bad choices lead to dire consequences. He wanted them to know that they aren’t simply captive to those bad choices. They are free to live in the Spirit and sow seeds that bring them to life in all its fullness.

“…if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.”

It reminds me of a prayer about sowing that goes like this.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.


May it be so with you.