Fireworks

On Wednesday evening, Brian and I and a friend went to see the Minor League All Star game. It was a beautiful night for a game, and the International League won handily. I paid less attention to the game than usual, because I hadn’t seen my friend in awhile, and there was lots to catch up on.

But all conversation stopped when the fireworks began. None of us had realized that there would be fireworks after the game, but we all became excited when the post-game show was first announced, sometime around the 6th inning. Without much discussion, we all agreed we would stay. Why would anyone miss fireworks?

There are few things that delight me so much, that fill me with such joy, as fireworks exploding color in the night sky. The noise which scared me so much as a small child became part of the delight as I grew older. “Boom! Boom!” I feel the vibrations in my chest as the flower of color unfolds high above, hundreds of meters wide.

As my self-conscious brain came back online – as I shifted from watching fireworks to watching myself watch fireworks – I realized another time that I have been transported so far outside of myself: in worship. The connection became clear: why do we celebrate sports and national holidays with fireworks, but churches do not set off fireworks on high holy days?

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians held fireworks shows  on Easter, on Pentecost, on Christmas: “This is how excited we are! This is what a big deal this is for us! He is Risen – Boom! The Spirit has been poured out upon us – Boom! God is with us – Boom! Boom! Boom!”

Yeah, fireworks are expensive. Which means that one congregation wouldn’t get to take credit for it. We would have to work together, across congregations, even across denominations. For instance, figure $15,000 for a mid-sized show – that sounds like a lot, right? But in my town, Durham, NC, there are dozens of churches. Get 40 churches in on it, and the average contribution per church is now down to $375. Which is a great deal, and an opportunity for people from all over the community to get together and celebrate Jesus. And since your average fireworks show only lasts 15-20 minutes, we should probably throw in a hymn sing, or gospel music concert, or something like that. Christmas carols and fireworks! Sponsored by (list of 40 churches here.)

Sadly, churches seem to have confused evangelism with church growth. We are more concerned with reproducing ourselves (“does Main Street Methbyterian have a future?”) than we are with sharing Jesus. Maybe because we don’t have enough faith in Jesus, and we think that we are needing to redeem ourselves (our only shot at eternal life is a name in a stained glass window)… or maybe because we live immersed in a culture of fear-induced self-reproduction, and living in the world but not of it is so very very difficult. Whatever the reason, when we stop to consider it, being the lone stranger at a cookout on the church lawn is more akin to the terror of transferring mid-year to a new elementary school than it is to the joy of believing that God really did love the world enough to live among us in a particular body at a particular time in a particular community. It is hard to say what the Incarnation has to do with a cheap hot dog, and the barely concealed anxious hope that one day you too will join us, and grill cheap hot dogs for the few souls brave enough to endure the onslaught of interrogators that is the average local congregation.

Instead, the combined immensity and particularity of God’s love for us is surprising and painfully bright and loud and beautiful, and I can feel it in my chest and my throat, and I cannot keep myself from gasping outloud, “Oh!” and my smile is so big and unironic that I am a little afraid that someone will see me and realize that I am not cool enough to be above this spectacle, but then I realize that I don’t care, because I don’t want to be so cynical that I refuse to be moved by the truly moving. The love of Jesus swells and bursts me like a firework. Alleluia Alleluia! Boom Boom Boom!

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?

“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.