Chaotic Lives

I have a confession to make.

Much of the time, I’m not sure how much of this online ministry I do with hurt kids is real and how much of it is someone putting me on, playing me a bit, just to see how far they can take me.

I got some confirmation this week that what I do is real, and I do it with real people.

But my doubts … emerge from the fact I deal with young people, children, and many of them with autism, in crisis, who seem to meet me just as some really awful things are about to happen in their lives. This isn’t to say awful things haven’t happened, but I’ve held hands through a staggering number of abductions, rapes, emergency room evaluations, and desperate situations where I’ve had to remind, over and over and over again, to call 911, have hope, be brave, and hold on.

Part of me wonders how real any of this is when it happens so often, with such a stunning sameness. Some months ago, I took to referring to something I called “The Rapists Union,” men who seemed to wander Stevens and Spokane Counties watching young women, luring them, abducting them, hurting them, all with a shocking impunity. But that was just a private shorthand, and although I have been told — again and again — this phenomenon is real, it’s still hard for me to believe sometimes.

Largely because I’m, at heart, a good bourgeois citizen — middle-class enough to believe that chaotic, unordered lives are largely the fault of the one in chaos, and not the society or community or even class they live in.

After my first pastoral internship went kablooey, and Jennifer and I were casting about, lost, unwanted, abandoned, hurt, I remember sitting with the director of field education at LSTC, Rosanne Swanson, and telling her, as Jennifer and I scrambled to find a place to live, “Don’t worry, we’re good at this.”

And she sighed.

“It would be nice to get you to a place where you don’t have to be,” she said.

Meaning, I think, there seemed to be a sense on her part that this scrambling, this knowing how to fall on our feet, was as much a product of our own choices and our own chaos as anything else. If I could just live the right kind of life, self-ordered and self-disciplined and properly attuned to social cues, I wouldn’t need to know how to land on my feet.

I wouldn’t lead a chaotic life.

And maybe, if that’s what she was saying, she’s right. Who knows? I suspect the ELCA, at its heart, sent me packing because they just understood I was not properly bourgeois enough. They couldn’t say that, or didn’t know how, or simply didn’t know that’s what they were concluding, but it’s why I’m not a candidate for theirs or anyone else’s ministry.

Because clergy, perhaps more than any other “profession” in our society, is aspirationally bourgeois. Calm and pious and self-disciplined and well ordered.

(And I have a whole blog entry scribbled down in my head on this.)

Few of the kids I deal with come from stable homes and lead stable lives. Even if they weren’t in foster care, most would likely not lead stable or peaceful lives. Based on my informal survey, most of the kids I deal with find their way into foster care because one parent dies and the other goes to prison — and sometimes one is the cause of the other. A lot of violence and a lot of drug use. I know this happens to the bourgeois too, but there is more room for error in a bourgeois family and a bourgeois community.

To be blunt — proletarians are rarely kind to each other, are often harsh toward their children, and frequently view violence as the only proper way to deal with problems. Proletarian life is visibly disordered in a way bourgeois life is not1.

And I am an emergency worker. Like a paramedic or a police officer, I deal with the wounded or the worst-off, in the worst neighborhoods or worst communities, the often times uncomprehending wounded who don’t entirely know how to explain what has happened. Only that someone is hurting them. And it needs to stop.

It is hard for me at times to believe a portion of the world is this callous, this brutal, this chaotic. I regularly ask myself, ask Jennifer, ask Kaylie, ask Bethany, “Is this real?” Because, even for me, cynical as I am, sometimes … I doubt.

It is the bourgeois in me who doubts. Whose experience of this world is almost entirely second hand, and whose understanding is filtered through those young people who have taken the time to stick with me and let me into their lives. I can’t tell a 14 year old sex slave to make better choices, because those choices aren’t hers to make, and needed to be made when she was 10, or four, or before she was even conceived.

But I don’t understand this world. It is too foreign to me. I don’t question it’s reality, at least not often, but I am past trying to make sense of how or why. I have never understood cruelty, organized or otherwise. It has never made sense to me. Not when I was subject to it, and not now that I am first on the scene to help.

I doubt sometimes. But only because … I believe.

  1. Note I say here visibly. ↩︎

ADVENT 12 / Tired of Waiting

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)

Oh yeah?

It feels like God is slow. It feels to me, right now, that God has forgotten his promise. To me. To others. That God has just simply walked away.

Last week, I learned a terrible thing. A young woman who had been texting this ministry, a teenage girl living in an abusive home, frightened of her dad, had contacted one of the people here. Not me. She read this blog, and then read my blog (I’m Charles, if you must know), devoured it, took some hope in all I’d written and said. And was beginning to get the courage to run away, to leave home, to find safety and protection.

It was too little, too late. Her father beat her to death.

Not slow? Not wishing any should perish? BUT SOME HAVE PERISHED! Many have perished, and many more will die, frightened and alone, at the hands of those who mean them nothing but harm.

There are days when I don’t want God to be patient with me. With the suffering of the world. I just want it all to be done with.

There are days when I do not care if I am delivered or redeemed. When I wish I had never been baptized, never heard Jesus speak of love in the midst of terror and death, when I wish I’d never heard a promise and never believed.

But I do believe. I cannot help it.

I am, however, tired of waiting.

SERMON It Doesn’t Take Hardly Any Faith At All

A reading from the Gospel of Luke, the 17th Chapter.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:5–10 ESV)

I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life that talk about our faith from the standpoint of the disciples — if a little can do so much, imagine what a lot could accomplish?

If we just had lives that overflowed with faith, if we really, truly, actually believed, we could do more than command the trees or move the mountains! We could change the world! We could maybe even save the world!

With that much faith, there are no limits to what we could do.

After all, the mustard seed is a small thing that grows and gives brith to a tree big enough for birds to build nests and seek shelter in! A tiny thing can become a great thing!

So, if we had more than a mustard seed, imagine — a redwood tree, growing hundreds of feet in to the air! Something for all the world to see!

But … what if that’s not the point of this parable? Yes, Jesus is serious. Even a tiny amount of faith can move things, change things, command things, incredible and amazing and astounding things.


What if we can’t have that faith? What if we can’t have more? What if we cannot even manage something as tiny and unimportant as a mustard seed? What if all the faith we have is something smaller — a grain of pollen, a long chain hydrocarbon molecule, or even two atoms of hydrogen and oxygen that make water. Or even less – an atom’s worth of faith, and not something heavy and complex like uranium, but the simplest and smallest thing there is — one proton and one electron, hydrogen?

What if all the faith we have is so small it cannot be seen, and is more empty space than substance? What if that mustard seed is more faith than we could conjure up in a dozen lifetimes?

What if Jesus’ answer is ironic, a way to tell the disciples that increasing faith isn’t what’s at stake here. Because even that tiny hydrogen atom of faith can do a great deal. Can love, reach out, can heal, can reconcile, can raise from the dead. It doesn’t take hardly any faith at all to live in this kingdom, to do the work of this kingdom, to bear the fruit of this kingdom.

And that’s a good thing. Because I don’t have mustard seed faith. I’m not sure how much faith I have, but it isn’t that much. No trees that can shelter birds sprout from my trust in God, much less obey my command to yank themselves out of the soil and hurl themselves several miles to the sea.

I do, however, have enough faith. Enough to do the work of love, mercy, and grace that I have been called to. That Christ invited me, commanded me, to do when he told me on that horrible day in September, 2001 underneath burning towers:

“My love is all that matters.”

But living in this kingdom, doing kingdom work, bearing kingdom fruit, being filled with even a tiny bit of kingdom faith, is not a thing we’re going to get much thanks for. There are no awards, no bonuses, no trophies, no not even much thanks for our trust, our faith, and our work. Most of use labor in obscurity, unknown by many except by the Jesus who called us. We are unworthy servants doing what Jesus has called us to do — the hard work of preaching, teaching, baptizing, proclaiming, and living the good news of a kingdom that will never end. God’s rule is here and now, in Christ’s love for us, on our love for each other and the world.

This is our calling. This is our duty. This is our love.

This is God’s love.

How Long, O’ Lord?

A reading from Habakuk, the first chapter.

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
(Habakkuk 1:1-4 ESV)

How long, O’ Lord?

I suspect many of us have cried this, wondered this, whispered this. Words sent into the air, to evaporate, to decay, unheard.

How long, O’ Lord?

The world is full of violence. It is full of wickedness, and it goes unpunished. There is injustice everywhere. “Why do you make me see it?” This is our world.

This was also Habakkuk’s world. He is speaking to the later kings of Judah, kings who failed to follow the law and worship God, kings who put their trust in wealth and power and in the worship of false gods.

10 And the Lord said by his servants the prophets, 11 “Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, 12 therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. 13 And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. (2 Kings 21:10–13 ESV)

Judgement is coming, and it’s coming because of Israel’s faithlessness. Because of Israel’s idolatry. Because of Israel’s sin. This is God’s message to Habakkuk too, as he stands and wonders how much longer he must see, must live with and bear, the violence and injustice of the world.

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
(Habakkuk 1:5-7 ESV)

Judgement is coming, in the form of Babylon, to to pluck up and destroy. “They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand.” (Habakkuk 1:9) It is coming, and it is coming in God’s time.

To the question of “How long, O’ Lord,” God answers, soon and very soon.

It’s a judgment Habakkuk says he will wait quietly for.

But it is not a perfect justice that is coming. It is a rough justice, one of violence itself. It is justice because those who live in comfort and ease, who live and profit and get pleasure from brutality and violence, will themselves fall to the sword and will themselves become captives.

Babylon is the means, the hands doing God’s work, but Babylon is not free from that very same judgement. “Woe to him that builds a town with blood” God tells the prophet of the Chaldeans. The cup Babylon has made others drink will itself be passed to Babylon. And the Chaldeans shall be made to drink.

This is little comfort, however, when you live in the time of violence and injustice. When what you see all around will not stop. Cannot be made to stop. In which no one who wrongs you or anyone else will ever be held accountable. But perhaps knowing those who wrong you will themselves eventually fall by the sword — a sword which itself God will avenge himself upon — is enough.

… the righteous shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

We live by faith, in the promise of God, that this violence is not all there will be. Habakkuk did not live to see the promises of God fulfilled. But he trusted God. And waited “for the day of trouble” — knowing he would likely die waiting. Sometimes that is all we have.

It’s a terrible answer. To know that you may never be rescued, may never be redeemed. It is a terrible faith.

But the faith we have, the faith we confess, isn’t quite so hopeless. “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says to the repentant thief dying with him. We believe in a redemption so real that we do not have to wait for it. We are saved, redeemed, right now, even if we can hold nothing in our hands and see nothing in our world that shows us we are redeemed.

We live, as Christ lived. We die, as Christ died. And we will rise, as Christ rose.

That is the only answer I have in the face of the violence and injustice of the world. It is the only hope I have. It is the only truth I can confess.

It is the only thing I know that’s real.

GOSPEL Fill Your Lamps, Keep Them Lit

Except that the gospel reading I just reflected upon was from several weeks ago. Oops. My bad.

So, this is today’s gospel reading, Luke 12:32–40, for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

35 “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:32–40 ESV)

What does it mean to be ready? To stay awake? To be dressed for action and to keep our lamps burning? To fear not?

Sure, it means to pray, and worship, and teach, and baptize — because, as the next section of Luke (which is not included in the lectionary) states, the wise manager is one the master sets over the household, and who treats his calling with the responsibility to merits — caring for the servants under him and “giving them their portion of food at the proper time.” (Luke 12:42)

To stay awake to do our master’s work — to care for the poor, to live in charity with each other, to forgive the sins of our sisters and brothers, to love our enemies and serve them, to cast out demons and to heal, to bear witness to him who came and lived and did all these things among us, to confess that

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

And to trust God in all things. Including our provision.

To be awake, to live without fear, to keep our lamps burning, is to do these things seeing Christ in all we love, knowing the Master will come at any time. Knowing the master may already be in our midst.

To sleep, then, to fail to be ready, is to think we have time to spare, time to “beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk.” (Luke 12:45) It is to fail to live conscious of both Christ’s presence in our midst and his immanent return (he is both here right now and not quite yet.)

To be ready is not to be pure. It is to love, remembering that we are conquered and occupied, ruled by our enemies. It is those enemies who rule us, brutally, that we are to respond in love to. We cannot be pure — we cannot find a bunker or a monastery or an enclave or a tiny duchy to hide in and hope to live untainted by a fallen, sinful, vicious world until Christ comes. We live in that world, and we love in the world, and while we are to love each other — a mutual self-giving — we specifically love strangers and enemies as a people who will likely not return that love.

Love our neighbors and our enemies. That’s how we get ready. That’s how we keep our lamps burning and stay awake.

JOSHUA Betraying Jericho

8 Before the men lay down, [Rahab] came up to them on the roof 9 and said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. 11 And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. 12 Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign 13 that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” 14 And the men said to her, “Our life for yours even to death! If you do not tell this business of ours, then when the Lord gives us the land we will deal kindly and faithfully with you.” (Joshua 2:8–14 ESV)

Rahab is a prostitute, so it wouldn’t be all that unusual that single male travelers — even strangers — would make their way to her place for some “rest” and “relaxation.” It would also be a good place for strangers and visitors to get some information on a place, to take the measure of a people, and maybe hear a little gossip.

It also makes sense that such a place would be watched, especially since the king of Jericho knows an enemy army — the army of Israel — looms just across the river, waiting.

We don’t know much about Rahab (רָחָב, which means proud, but also roomy and wide — Rahab is a real broad!), except that she is a prostitute (זוֹנָה, from the verb זנה which means “to fornicate”), known to friend (the king knows her, whatever that might mean) and foe (the Israelite spies know to go to her as well, whatever that might mean) alike.

We do know she is not condemned. Not for being a prostitute. She is praised by Hebrews (for her faith) and James (for her works), but certainly not for her profession. James and Hebrews don’t shy away from her occupation either — she is, after all, Rahab the prostitute (Ῥαὰβ ἡ πόρνη), as if somehow that’s her proper name.

But she’s also a traitor — she betrays her people to the Israelite spies. The tales of what God has done for Israel — from the Egyptian rescue onward — have been told far and wide, and because of that, Rahab tells the Israelite spies,

… our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. (Joshua 2:11 ESV)

Seeing the Lord at work redeeming, guiding, and giving Israel victory convinces Rahab that the God of Israel is God, al least the only god that matters. With all we’ve been told in the chapters prior to this, all the descriptions of Israel’s looming faithlessness and failure, she sees inexorable success, she sees glory, and she sees doom for her own people. In betraying her demoralized city (there is no fight in Jericho’s men), she seeks to become part of something bigger (Matthew puts her, or someone named Rahab — Ραχαβ — in his genealogy of Jesus) — this people of God who about to swarm over the Jordan.

She sees God at work, and alone in Jericho, she surrenders. To God. To God’s people.

She asks that Israel spare her family, and in something reminiscent of the night death took the firstborn of Egypt, the spies tell her to tie a red ribbon to her window shutters and stay inside. A red ribbon marks the home death, in the form of the Israelite army, is to pass over. All are killed. Jericho is put the torch.

But Rahab, who saw the work of God in this enemy army, who saw salvation through surrender, who lied to her king, hid the spies, and sought a future with the conquerors and destroyers of her people, she and her family lived. As Joshua writes,

… she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. (Joshua 6:25 ESV)

The army is Israel’s, and the taking of the land is beginning. But the prophet Jeremiah will have a similar epiphany, when the army in Babylon’s, and the city is Jerusalem. And the future is in a distant exile.

SERMON The Works of God

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Pentecost Sunday (Year C)

  • Genesis 11:1–9
  • Psalm 104:24–35
  • Romans 8:14–17
  • John 14:8–21

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:8–21 ESV)

“Whoever believed in me will also do the works that I do.” So Jesus tells us today, this Pentecost Sunday, in which we mark the coming of the spirit to that group of followers of Jesus — flaming tongues of fire, the very breath of God that made the mud-thing into the living man Adam becoming new life in us.

This spirit which made us the body of Christ in the world. Makes us the body of Christ.

We Protestant Christians have a fraught and difficult relationship with works. Even if we don’t remember Martin Luther’s words in The Small Catechism, many of us have them stamped upon our hearts:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.

If we cannot even believe — trust God — of our volition, then we certainly cannot even begin to earn our way into heaven, into the favor of God, by means of the things we can do or make or build with our own hands.

And yet … Martin Luther’s Small Catechism is all about doing — things a Christian should do, ways a Christian should act, things a Christian should believe. We argue, sometimes rather pointlessly, about works, about their role in our faith. Do “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” and that reliance on works is curse, as St. Paul wrote to the church at Galatia, or is a “faith without works dead?” as James wrote?

In our first reading, we have, I think, the ultimate work of man — the Tower of Babel [בָּבֶל]. A giant tower, a work of human hands, designed to show off — to whom, exactly? — the glory and grandeur of man. Our unity, in purpose and thought, in deed and doing, and our concentration in this one place, this city with its tower seeking to reach even up to heaven.

“Come, let us make bricks [לְבֵנִים]” humanity said, eagerly accepting work that the people of God would eventually be compelled to do as slaves in Egypt. This is not a miserable labor, this forming and baking and laying of bricks, this slathering of tar to seal and hold them together. This building a tower all the way up to the sky. “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the whole earth!” Such are the aspirations of man, such are his dreams and his faith in the things he can built and create with his own hands, fashion from his thoughts and his dreams and his aspirations! Look at what we can do!

And such are our fears. If we are not united, speaking with one mouth, thinking with one word, all working together, minds and hands all busy at the same task, then we are lost. Scattered. We are nothing. And no one will know who we are.

We won’t know who we are.

I’m critical of modernity, of a world without God, of men who make themselves gods, of a faith in the things we can think and dream and hope and build. Of a humanity united in purpose, ridding the world of sin and suffering. Of human beings remade so that we can sin no more.

But this is an old story, one of men and women on the plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers thinking that all that stands between them and divinity is the work of their own hands. Modernity is just this desire — merged with a science undreamt of by those human beings who baked bricks for Babel — to be God, to show off, to show ourselves, and maybe whoever is watching — that we are something. Amazing. Wonderful. Because we are united in purpose. Capable of anything.

Our works… our hands. Capable of redeeming the world. Redeeming ourselves. Putting an end sin. Ending our alienation from ourselves. And our isolation from God.

God was watching those men and women at Babel, however, and he brought about that very thing they feared. He confused their tongues, made it impossible to think in unison, work with that kind of unity of purpose. And God scattered them — us — across the earth.

Pentecost is often seen as a kind-of repealing of Babel, of this scattering and this frustrating. And I think that’s all very true.

But I’m focusing today on works. On the things we do with our hands. And what they mean. Jesus speaks of works — εργον — in our gospel reading today. Over and over he speaks of works. But he speaks of The Father, or himself, and the works that he had done. The works of healing, of changing water into wine, of feeding thousands, of walking on water, of forgiving sins, of proclaiming, again and again, “I am…” The bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life.

These are the works. Even if we do not believe that Jesus is who he says he is, there are these works, these incredible deeds, that bear witness. That God is with us. Come down here. Not because we built an escalator that he would condescend to ride down, or enough bricks to build a tower tall enough.

But because God loves. Us. Saw us. Scattered, alone, frightened of each other and of the world, wishing we could be that kind of united in purpose and thought again, hoping we could build something that would show ourselves — and God — just how great we really are.

But God does not care how great we are. God’s love is not about our greatness. In fact, it could be argued that God is frightened of our aspirations to greatness, or at least concerned. “And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” God says. Perhaps when we are that kind of united, in thought and deed and purpose, we human beings are unstoppable.

These aren’t the works Jesus does. And not the greater works we will do when we trust in Jesus. We do not build to heaven. We do not rival God. We do not replace thousands of languages with one, or many minds with one, or many hands, all working together, as one.

Christ is one. We are many. The Spirit is one. We are many. The works are love and mercy, not baking bricks and building. There may be only a few ways to build and stack bricks to build a solid tower, but there are as many ways to love as their are desperate souls in need of comfort. We are many, scattered, confused, but we have one Spirit, who unites us in love. Who empowers us to love. To reach down, as God has reached down, to the suffering, the lost, the cast off, and feed them. Touch them. Show them they are not, in fact, alone.

“I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus tell his disciples “I will come to you.” He is already here. His Spirit blows through us. And while it may not empower us to build a tower all the way to the sky, or make much of a name for ourselves, watch what that Spirit who dwells in us causes us to do.

Because the works will be glorious, mighty, wonderful, and astounding.

Jesus Can Take It

Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor about a possible pastoral position in a small, urban church looking to do mission outreach. There was a lot to like about the prospect, but my conversation with them also convinced me to stop looking for ministry calls, or at least stop answering church adverts.

Mostly, I have learned that the churches placing adverts on (or elsewhere) are likely to be much more theologically and doctrinally conservative than I am. And I’m okay with that. A number of them are Baptist in orientation, which is a church culture I’m not familiar with (and I know how important culture is to how we do church, and to doing it successfully, or failing at it miserably), and so it’s just as well they have warned me off. I’m much more “catholic” in my understanding both of church and worship. All of these are importance concerns, and ones I cannot fault anyone about.

But the pastor also expressed some concerns about this short blog entry I posted some time ago (caution, the language and sentiment is pretty foul):

Hello all. I have an essay mostly completed that I started Saturday. But it is not finished, and I just don’t feel like finishing it right now. I just noticed someone who started seminary after me got approved, called, ordained, and has just bought a house. Yet another person moved along smoothly and happily in the process.

And here I am — unemployed, impoverished, and nigh near homeless.

I blame Jesus. Truly. I hate Jesus right now. I hate the fact that Jesus called me to follow him, gave me no real choice, set me in the midst of insular, skittish, easily frightened people who did not know what to do with me and judged me harshly — who condemned me — for it. I don’t want to follow Jesus anymore. I hate Jesus. I hate this call. I hate the gospel. I almost think the gospel itself is a lie. And if not a lie, at least a great cosmic joke, a way for God to get a good giggle at the expense of pathetic losers like me. “Ha! I’ll say you’re forgiven but I’ll also make it clear that being forgiven doesn’t really matter because no one will treat you like it!”

And clearly, no one who really matters can be bothered showing me anything remotely resembling grace.

I wish I could be done with all of this. I wish — I really, really, really wish Jesus would just stay the fuck dead. And leave me fuck alone.

I can understand why someone might have a concern about what I write here. It’s harsh, especially in our Jesus-loving culture, to say something like “I hate Jesus.” That’s a statement of disbelief, or it begins a diatribe on why God doesn’t exist.

But at the same time, I do not understand why anyone would have a concern over that. Essentially, the pastor said such a sentiment suggested — especially if read all by itself, without looking at anything else I’ve ever written — I was not ready for a position of leadership.

And that … THAT I don’t understand.

Life is hard. Unpleasant. Sometimes unending suffering and misery. Frequently, our lives feel pointless, empty, and without meaning. Eventually, we all die, some of us slowly and painfully. We have to, as pastors, as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, be able to look into the face of the suffering of the world, of its misery, its violence, its seeming inherent meaninglessness, and hold out hope. Not platitutdes, but real hope.

A couple of examples. I have been doing an online ministry with teenagers — it began by responding to posts on an app called Whisper — that has allowed me to walk with and be present for some amazing but incredibly troubled young people.

One young woman, just barely a teenager, had been regularly and repeatedly abused by a foster family. After escaping from that situation, she was abducted and held captive for a little more than 48 hours before being found by the police and freed. (It is, of course, a great deal more complex than this, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) I have gotten to know this young woman a bit, and she has a remarkable faith. But after being freed, even she asked:

Why didn’t God protect me?

Now, I was able to engage her in a bit of ocnversation, because I knew she had a faith. I don’t know why God didn’t keep you safe from harm, I said, but Jesus was there, suffering with you. Because that’s what Jesus does — he suffers with us. She eventually did decide that God did protect her, that God was there, with her. And that was good.

Another young woman, not yet 18, who has been the recipient of much violence and abuse in her life, just lost her baby, who had gotten sick with pneumonia and was in the hospital. The conversation that night was a stream of broken hearts and crying, of wailing and the metaphorical ripping of clothes, of profanity and pain and hopelessness. This young woman does not believe, and when I asked if I could pray, she wailed:


And I wasn’t going to argue with her. I was going to sit, in silence, with her, holding her sorrow and her anger and her despair. Because silence sometimes is all we have. And silence, sometimes, is all we need.

I’ve been told a lot, mainly by people who have been wounded by the church, that I have a very grown up faith. I do not seek answers, meaning, or even much solace in biblical platitudes. Yes, God has got it, and I have a future, and the Lord knows his plans for me and my life, knew me even before I was born, and Jesus is the truth and the truth has set me free.

But I also know we live in a world of real pain, of real sorrow, of real doubt, of real, gripping, life-numbing despair. “My God, My God, why have you foresaken me!” Jesus says from the cross, feeling that very human sense of despair and abandonment, a feeling that must be real or the whole crucifixion, including Jesus’ death, is all an absurd game is which nothing is really risked and therefore nothing is really gained.

He had to wonder whether God would really raise him, he had to not know how it would end, he had live with the fear that maybe death really is the final answer we think it is. Jesus, on some very important and very real level, had to not know.

Like we don’t know.

So, okay, maybe I’m not leadership material if church leaders need to have happy faces, perfect faith, and all the answers. If the expectation someone will look to me to see if life is going to be okay, well, my life isn’t quite the best example of God materially blessing one’s faithfulness. I wouldn’t, at 48, be sleeping on a mattress on a floor in someone else’s apartment if God really did materially bless everyone’s faithfulness. I’d really and truly be the failure I’m sometimes convinced I am.

I have found, however, that too many pastors do not know what to do with such despair, such pain, such suffering, and even such hopelessness. (Mostly from personal experience, sad to say.) This is what the happy face gets us — clergy who cannot handle the suffering of the world, who retreat to the nonsense of piety and lectures on doctrine because they cannot look upon that suffering without flinching.

Without doubting.

I have never doubted. Even the words of that blog entry — I wish Jesus would stay dead — betrays my real understanding. Because I know he isn’t. Because I do trust in the resurrection of Christ. That’s my hope. It is the only hope I know is true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I know this to be true. And whatever happens to me in life, I know that Jesus rose from the dead, and in him, I shall rise too. We are already dead, and therefore, already risen to new life. I know I’m part of that, in baptism, in my call to follow and feed sheep.

Even if that leads me … well, nowhere.

That feeding sometimes includes letting people know faith is tough, painful, and in this world, sometimes doesn’t end well. But Jesus can take our anger, our pain, our rage, even our lack of faith. As Shusako Endo wrote in his novel Silence, about Christians in Japan, when a Portuguese priest refuses to walk upon an icon of Christ, Jesus tells the priest:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Jesus can take it. Which means we can too.

Where They Walk Over Sainte Therese

Dwight Longenecker over at The Imaginative Conservative makes an interesting comparison between Friedrich Nietzsche and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, noting the two thinkers — the late 19th century’s most famous atheist and the young nun who would later become one of the era’s best-known saints and only Doctor of the Church — were actually closer to each other than either could imagine.

Or, I suspect, many of their supporters. Continue reading

Giving Up on the “Church”

I meant to do more blogging this week — especially on the lectionary, and a piece I’ve had rumbling through my mind about mid-century liberalism — but never quite got around to it. And then Rod Dreher asked me to read his upcoming book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. So I’ve been a little engaged this week.

Part of this comes, actually, in response to reading Dreher’s book. (And in response to a letter I received from a longtime seminary friend and fellow pastor.)

I’ve been I’m limbo for the last few years, doing a lot of waiting. In fact, Michaela told me recently — and rather pointedly (I’m not sure she entirely approves) — “Ever since I met you, you have always been waiting.” And yes, I have. At first, it was waiting for… well, God knows what. I had been denied approval for ordained ministry by the ELCA’s Metro DC Synod, with no hope there would be a second chance at anything. After some work on my part, persistent and patient work, and some serious agitating on my behalf by some reasonably well-connected folks, I got a second chance, as was approved. Continue reading