Born and raised in the Briar Patch

I am beginning to understand that worship planning is my briar patch.

I wonder how many of you remember the stories of Br’er Rabbit – a trickster figure in the stories of African Americans in the southern United States, Br’er Rabbit stories are rooted in the storytelling traditions both of the Creek (Native American) and African peoples.  In one of the most famous stories, Br’er Rabbit is captured by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, who are tired of his trickster ways.  Br’er Rabbit begs them, “Whatever you do, PLEASE don’t throw me in the briar patch.”  Naturally, that is just what the two larger animals do, and Br’er Rabbit squeals so loudly that they are sure they have killed him – until they realize that he is not squealing in pain from the thick tangle of thorns, nor from fear at being lost in the darkness under a dense maze of branches – instead he is squealing from laughter!  Br’er Rabbit finally manages to gasp, “I was born and raised in the briar patch!”

Like Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, worship planning seems to have little (but necessity) to recommend it to many pastors.  The task can seem overwhelming!  Simply writing a sermon that stays on message, bears some obvious connection to the selected scripture passage, and fits in the allotted time can be daunting.  Now let’s see if we can keep that sermon free from heretical error, avoid unintentionally snarky references to parish business, and avoid embarrassing our spouses or children with a story that is too personal.  While we are at it, it would be great if we could preach something that is easily digested by  a newcomer, without being boring for a long-timer.  Now we just have to select the hymns, write the call to worship, select or write a few prayers… Oh no!  The children’s sermon!  We forgot the children’s sermon.  And a baby threw up on our alb last week and we forgot to take it to the cleaners.

Phew!  Now all we have to do is go up and lead this thing for an hour without any mistakes, or at least to make our mistakes gracefully. Don’t get shaken up when that kid on the sixth row screams during the sermon, waking the guy in the pew in front of him.  Can we locate the encouraging faces of the few smiling nodding parishioners? Great!  As for the rest, let’s find that point just over the tops of the heads of the majority who will be frowning in hopefully deep thought.  Uh-oh, we looked one if them in the eye.  Are they angry?  Maybe they are just misunderstanding.  And now we are just rambling from the pulpit until that one person finally nodded and released us – thank you Jesus!  And now we are running late again.  The organist will want us to cut a verse from the last hymn.  It doesn’t save more than a minute or two, but it makes a big psychological difference – it helps the congregation understand that we do notice that they are disapprovingly aware of the time.

But above all, we must be open to the movement of the Spirit!  If we can somehow dial back the volume on those other 30 concerns that are swirling through our heads.  Such as forgetting to announce whatever that very important announcement was that was told to us just before we walked down the aisle.

Worship planning!  Sermon writing!  Sunday mornings in the pulpit!!! The dread!  The horror!

So why is it I squealed with delight when I opened up the lectionary in order to list all of the Psalms that didn’t make it in, in order to find ways to include them at other parts of the year?  Picking hymns – and finding a way to lift phrases and themes from each hymn in order to more clearly tie them to my sermon – that weekly activity was like play!  And children’s sermons?  Don’t get me started!  I loved doing those so much that I even did them at a church that had no children!

I was born and raised in that briar patch.  My Dad, a United Methodist pastor, brought worship to the Sunday dinner table, asking us to think through how it had gone:  what was the sermon about?  What did we like?  What didn’t we understand?  How were the hymns related – or not? How were the scriptures related – or not?  Worship criticism (in the style of literary criticism) formed the main part of our conversation after church on Sundays.

Dad and I would go to other worship services together from time to time, and then would dissect them together afterwards, figuring out what made them tick.  Starting when I was about six.  And earlier than that, Dad would consult me when he was working on his sermons:  he would read me a bit of scripture or lay out a theological problem and ask me what I thought.   As I grew older and began to play piano, Dad would ask me to play the melody of a hymn he was unfamiliar with when he was planning worship – so that he could decide if he could pick it up easily enough to lead the congregation, or if it he would go find another hymn with words he liked slightly less well.  He would already have checked to see if it could be switched to a more familiar tune with the same meter – which is part of why I knew about the hymnal’s metrical index in elementary school.  Its existence was clearly a revelation to many of my seminary classmates, when it was pointed out by our worship professor.

I want to apologize for my incredulity in that moment.  And also for the time when I responded to a student pastor who was asking “when do pastors get their Sabbath?” with the insensitive remark that leading worship was not work, but the culmination of our work, in which we too were worshipping God.  Yeah, not so much for her.  I was wrong to judge.  I also owe an apology to those students that I implied were unprofessional in wanting to use pre-written prayers, instead of writing their own collects for each service.  I didn’t understand how – unusual I am.

Most pastors were not born and raised in the briar patch.  It is pretty uncomfortable to be thrown into a dark and tangled thicket filled with blood-drawing thorns when it is not your natural habitat.  I take my hat off to you pastors who wrestle each week with your worship preparation in spite of all the fear one or more elements of it inspire in you.  You are martyrs in the best sense of the word: you witness to your conviction that God loves you and your congregation and all the world – and that this love is so great that your very legitimate misgivings about worship preparation (this is, after all, very serious stuff!) are not worth comparing to your deep need to share this love.  Thank you for continuing to toil in the briar patch.

The Collect for the Day

When I was a student at Duke Divinity School, I had the blessing of studying worship with Dr. Karen Westerfield Tucker.  She was equal parts ecumenically minded and Methodist identified, filled with practical advice grounded in the scripture and the tradition, filling our heads (or at least our notes, when our neurons were overloaded) with resources, funny anecdotes about life as a pastor, and all sorts of important details.  It is because of her that I can sing the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, that I can walk into many Methodist sanctuaries and pinpoint their date of construction within a couple of decades, and that I found myself spending a lovely morning off feeding “leftover” blessed bread to the pigeons at Byrd Park, in utter defiance of my bird phobia.

One of the mnemonics that she taught us was a key to writing our own collects: “To, Who, Do, Through”: TO – in which we address God; WHO – in which we express an attribute of God; DO – in which we petition God; THROUGH – in which we name God in an explicitly Triune manner.  For instance:

God of Abraham and Isaac, who led your people out of slavery in Egypt, release [name] from the powerful bonds of addiction, and provide [her/him] with every aid [she/he] requires to step forward with confidence into the wilderness through which [she/he] will reach the promised land.  Through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified.  Amen.

One of my many wonderful experiences as a local church pastor didn’t take place in the local church at all, but on the District level:  the erstwhile Portsmouth District began offering (roughly) quarterly Lay Academies, in which lay people (that is, not paid pastor people) could come and spend a Saturday morning becoming more immersed in one of four topics of interest to them.  I was asked to teach a class on the topic of prayer at one of these events.  Not too broad, right?  All about prayer in two and a half hours!

I wanted to be sure to talk some about private prayer and aids to prayer, about using our bodies in prayer, and about praying together in groups.  But I had been informed by the organizer that the reason he was wanting to offer the class was because so many lay people feel intimidated by the prospect of praying in public.  Which I easily identify with, because I myself had not been so comfortable with it before entering seminary, and my Dad was a pastor!  And so I decided to teach the group about how to write collects.  After running the ten or so students in my seminar through TO, WHO, DO, THROUGH, I gave them all a piece of paper with that heading on it (to remind them), and set them loose with a stack of church news magazines and recent issues of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (our regional newspaper.)  Their assignment was to find an article that moved them to prayer, and to write a collect based on that news article.  Then we each shared our collects with one another – which is to say, we took turns praying before the group – leading the group in prayer.

I took both the local (weekly) and regional (daily) papers when I was in the parish, and saw reading them and praying over them as part of my job as pastor.  I tried a subscription to the Durham paper after moving here, but found that enjoying raising a child led to a stack of untouched tree corpses.  Which, having lived downwind from a paper mill, is not an abstract image for me.  So instead, these days, I buy papers one at a time only on those days when I know I have the time to read.

Somehow, not having that daily inoculation has given me a real newspaper sensitivity. Picking up the paper today to read over breakfast, celebrating my little one’s return to school, I found myself needing to pause to plead with God many times before I made it even to page A7.  Iowa Caucuses, the Keystone XL pipeline, unemployment, budget cuts in the public schools, ongoing killing of peaceful protestors in Syria, the routine acceptance of civilian casualties in war.  Arson, murder, PTSD as a result of military service, divorce and restraining orders…  I folded the paper and put my head in my hands.  It was too much, too much, too much.  As I say to my daughter when she is dithering, “Focus, Crocus!”  But when I am feeling bombarded with the unlovely and surrounded by the unloved, how can this one person choose where to put his focus?

To? Lamb of God  Who? Takes away the sins of the world   Do? Have mercy upon us  Through? In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“We have met the enemy…”

It was tempting to head this one, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” – but I hope that I have more in common with Walt Kelly than Darth Vader.  Even today, as on the rampage as I have felt.

Good old Walt Kelly. I am getting a little lesson in Pogo today. Walt Kelly died the year I was born, so he was not on my cultural radar screen. Too bad. I was missing out.

He’s on my radar now, because I was trying to find attribution for that famous line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It seems to be the theme for the week. For the past couple weeks. The “We… us” I have been thinking about is Christians, and no one knows how to turn people away from Christ and the church quite like Christians do.

We have been reading Home and Jesus Land in Ethics, and that has a lot to do with the whole “Christians are their own worst enemy” living meme. The fictional Jack (in Home) and the real life Julia (in Jesus Land) are exemplars of people who received the bad news of their unlovableness (and of the unloving impulses of Christians) loud and clear. As Dr. Hall succinctly put it -we don’t have to worry about the atheists, folks – it’s ourselves we have to worry about.

And then there was the matter of my friend, Will, who was writing a sermon and having trouble finding a commentary that allowed for the possibility that Jesus might actually have walked on water. And Jodi, writing on the class discussion board about how we fail in Christian education, because we don’t let our children and teenagers ask questions. And given all of that, it seems to me that I could easily rephrase Pogo to “We have met the atheist, and he is us.”

I have a lot more to write on this than time allows, but it has been troubling me for some time that Christians of all stripes are so – SCARED. The fundamentalists among us too often don’t want to let anyone question anything, because if one verse does not hold up, if one thread of an idea is broken, their entire faith is likely to unravel.  God will cease to exist! The scripture has become an idol because God is not sufficiently real. And the liberals among us are quick to concede that, of course, this or that or any one of 50 things is impossible, because their reason is more real than God.  God has ceased to exist!

A God who is more powerful than reason, more powerful than scripture?  Do we REALLY KNOW God is real?  I do.   Most days I know it in my bones.  True enough, I have my atheist times, when I become convinced that I have been duped by my pattern-loving brain, and I am a fool, and what the heck are we all wasting our time on Sunday mornings for?  In the same way that as a child, I was afraid when the sun hid behind a cloud that it would be dark forever, that the sun would never be so intense again.  But, as the sun always returned when I was a child, the light of God is simply a fact in my life (praise God!), and the full force of God’s reality always returns, and God is so real that even though I have known the pain of doubting God’s existence, I do not fear losing God, or God being somehow diminished by God’s own creation.

I have to admit, I am starting to lose patience with the atheists in Christian clothing misleading others as to the character of Christ, more even than I have lost patience with the new atheists and their evangelical certainty of the non-existence of God, as if it were possible to have evidence of absence – irrationalists in rational clothing. Give me an honest agnostic any day. Give me the questions of a child and the sincere and open Christian friend admitting to their atheist days, weeks, and tendencies.

And as for those who are unaware that their lack of faith in God, and the ways in which they use their “faith” as a weapon against those who are truly seeking God – I want to assure you that GOD LOVES YOU!  God loves each and every one of us so much that you could not be in better hands.  It will be okay – you can shine that Jesus light in even your darkest, cobwebbiest, most dis-believing corner, and you will be okay.  In fact – if you let Jesus into those places you are too ashamed to risk revealing in front of your Sunday school class, you will be BETTER!  Praise Jesus, my impatience with you is not the last word – God’s love, greater than I or anyone else could ever love you – greater than any creature could ever love any other creature – promises to have the last word.