Shana Tova

Because my daughter attends a Jewish preschool, I am a little more in tune with the Jewish calendar than the average Christian.  This morning, when my daughter asked if she were going to school today, I told her, “No – it’s Rosh Hashanah.”

“But I didn’t get to hear the rabbi play the shofar!” she wailed.

After some questioning, it became clear that the rabbi had come to demonstrate the shofar at last Friday’s Kabbalat Shabbat celebration, but Hannah had decided that that did not count, because she was supposed to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  “Do you want to go to the synagogue?” I ventured.  I knew that they would be having services today, but I also knew I was gambling on the shofar blowing – that could just as well have happened last night, since the day begins at sundown.

But no, she was not interested in that, either.  Like the mercurial four year old that she is, she changed tacks, “But I thought that I would hear the shofar all the way over here, in my house!”

The shofar sounds to signify the commemoration of the creation of the world – Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the world’s birthday – so it is the New Year in the most literal, non-arbitrary way imaginable.  My daughter’s desire to hear the shofar even in our kitchen gave me a wonderful opening to talk about the New New Year – the sounding of the shofar that Jews and Christians alike look forward to – the shofar that signifies the re-birth of the world, when the Messiah arrives (Judaism) / returns (Christianity.)

“When Jesus comes back, the shofar will be heard by every person everywhere!”

“Even in [San] Francisco?… Even in Alaska?… Even in the desert?…” she asked, naming the farthest away places she could think of.

“Yes… yes… yes!” I answered, “The shofar will be heard everywhere, and when we hear it, we will know that Jesus has returned to make the world new, and it will be a new creation, a new birthday for the world and for everyone!”

It was a beautiful sunny day today, just the perfect temperature for a walk to the park to push Hannah on the swings.  It was my first day since getting the shingles that I have felt well – well enough to drive and to spend the whole day with my little girl, well enough to jog beside her bike.  I was so thankful for the sun and the clouds and the leaves and everything.  I was overflowing – it felt like the world’s birthday, and I was filled with praise for the Creator and all creation.

And yet… today was also the day of the funeral for a woman at our church whose life was taken by cancer.  A woman younger than my mother.  A woman who herself was a wife and mother.  This new year will be a year without her in it, without my father in it, without so many in it that have died all over the world since last Rosh Hashanah.  As thankful as I am for all that is, I continue to long for that which is not yet – for the day when the shofar will sound in every kitchen and every prison cell and every graveyard and everywhere – the day when our tears will be wiped away, and the world is made new.  And so, even as my Jewish friends did today in worship, I too hold the two in tension: a celebration of life and creation and all that is – Shana Tova! – and a desire for the round of years to come to – not so much an end as a new beginning.  As a Christian, that hope for me is summed up in the prayer recorded by John of Patmos: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

So I invite my Christian friends to join me in a Rosh Hashanah tradition – eating apples with honey as an embodied prayer for a sweet new year – for the sweetest possible new year of all.

Shana Tova! / Happy New Year  -and-   Maranatha / Our Lord Come

Wherefore art thou Pastor? (What’s in a job title?)

What is a pastor?  What is a pastor for?  Who should or should not be a pastor? What should a pastor do?  Too bad we don’t spend all that much time on these questions in seminary.  For the most part, it seems to be assumed that the answers to these questions are known – that, beyond being able to recite the definitions of our various denominations’ catechisms or other official documents (for United Methodists like me that would be the Discipline), no further existential explorations along the lines of “Wherefore art thou pastor?” are required.

And so, often, pastors find their answers in books that purport to solve whatever leadership problem they are having – books of dubious theology, rooted in the dominant language and narratives of our national faith in such contradictory (and elusive) ideals as freedom, power, rights, and the market.  Marketing is particularly enjoying ascendancy now, as anxieties about dwindling membership have burst into full bloom (they took root a few decades ago.)

My father used to often describe his role as “the CEO” of the congregation.  He’s not the only one.  Whether spoken aloud, or even recognized, many pastors feel the same way.  They see themselves as leaders as one leads a business – which means that their purpose (and aren’t even those of us who have sneered at the idea enculturated to desire a “Purpose Driven Life?”) is to come up with new and exciting ways to re-invigorate the brand, and so bring in new customers.  To be a CEO is to lead the company (the pyramidical, top-down, power driven company) into a future of decreased costs and increased revenues.  But this future had best be a near-future, because the analysts will be closely examining your quarterly results – err… membership rolls – that is, Charge Conference reports.

What happened to “in the world, but not of it”?  Too many pastors are neither!  Not that it is easy, given the many expectations that are placed on pastors from all directions.  And the tendency of many pastors to want everyone to like them.

But perhaps with a new model, consciously explored and adopted, pastors would find themselves with a more God-centered life – which is to say, a less market driven life.  The model I propose is the model of the anchorite.

Anchorites lived a monastic life.  But rather than living that life in a monastery, or in some remote location, the anchorite’s cell shared at least one wall with a church sanctuary.  The anchorite’s life was one of worship, eucharist, and prayer – of total devotion to God.  They were provided for by the congregation with which they were associated.  They were available to the members of the congregation to provide counsel – counsel that was understood to arise from the time they spent in communion with God.

Now granted, anchorites did not lead worship, so that is one key difference.  But I am not suggesting that pastors become anchorites – only that they consider it as a model / metaphor for the pastor’s life.  What shall we consider that the congregation pays you for?  To be a CEO?  To give them a next quarter better than last quarter – on the books, anyway?  Or shall we consider that they provide for you in order that you may devote your time to the service of God, and that your doing so will benefit the members of the congregation (to which you are “attached,” as the cell of an anchorite was attached to the church wall) considerably – especially insofar as they seek you out?

Atlanta airport

It is just two weeks ago now that I was in a food court at the Atlanta airport.  I was sitting at a table facing a low opaque wall that hid the escalator from view, so that what I saw was a seemingly endless stream of people.  One after another, a head would appear, and then shoulders, then torso, and then the whole person, walking quickly past the tables and on to their connecting gate.  The experience was something like watching snowflakes fall, or watching raindrops slide across the window of a moving car.  If I tried to keep my eyes focused on one place, the rate at which new faces would appear was overwhelming.  But following one person from appearance to disappearance, and then repeating the process was enough to inspire motion sickness.  So many people!

At VCU, I took abnormal psychology from a professor whose unifying theory was that our brains are not significantly (if at all) different from a Cro-Magnon – that our brains evolved to handle a reality in which we would not live long, nor would we ever meet but so many people.  Modern humans, he contended, saw more people in a day than we were made to see in a lifetime.  Is that enough to explain most mental disorders, as that professor would have it?  I think it unlikely.  But I will admit that my brain became confused, even distressed, in the face of so many – well, faces.

Because they are not just faces, right?  Each person, a person with as much backstory as myself, with their own constellation of friends and family, with their own beliefs and experiences, with their own reasons for being at the Atlanta airport at that hour on that day.

It is no wonder that giving even ten minutes of considered thought to the problems of the world is too much for people – the mere existence of a few thousand people in our immediate proximity is too much for us, and there are billions of people, and so billions of stories and billions of wounds and billions of opportunities to pass by without looking too carefully, lest we be overcome with motion sickness.

The mere existence of the people coming off the escalator were overwhelming to me, and yet they were just a tiny fraction of all those held in God’s loving embrace.  I was so overloaded, I could not have recognized any of them ten minutes later – God could tell you how many hairs were on each head.  Not to mention what they had for breakfast, and who loved them, and what they feared most, and whether it was love or fear or something else that brought them to the airport.

“How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!”