About Timothy Brown

A pastor. A writer. A dreamer. Occasionally a beer brewer.

On Real Miracles

I struggle with the miracle stories that the scriptures contain.

I struggle because “miracle” is such a tricky word to define, and so many define it so narrowly, and praying for miracles doesn’t really seem to make them happen very often…

I’m not saying you shouldn’t pray for miracles, Beloved. In times of desperation all sorts of prayers escape my earnest lips and I regret none of them. I’m just saying that the cause and effect here doesn’t seem to hold much water.

I know it might be weird for a pastor to say that, but I kind of wish more would with regularity. Religion gives shallow comfort when it encourages people to hang their hope on the almost-impossible.

I’ve sat in hospital rooms where someone given a less than ten percent chance of surviving breathed again on their own. Is that a miracle, or is it just a statistically rare situation? Is it both?

Birth is, in itself, kind of a miraculous event if you ask me. Death can be, too. In fact, I’d say anything that causes awe to blossom in the heart is quite miraculous.

Miracle is a tricky word to define.

In the ancient world there were lots of miracle workers, by the way. Traveling healers, itinerant preachers and prophets, magicians and sorcerers…they were all making their way through the world, and ancient Palestine, making their case for disciples and followers. That’s all to say: the fact that Jesus healed people and performed so-called miracles didn’t make him unique in the ancient world, and it certainly didn’t “prove” he was divine like so many pastors tell you (who obviously haven’t done their homework).

No.

The thing that set Jesus apart was not the miracles he performed, but rather who was blessed by them: the poor, the marginalized, those who couldn’t pay, the outsider, the outcast, the untouchable, the enemy.

That is Divine.

Take for instance the miracle stories we get this Sunday where Jesus raises the dead daughter of a religious leader and is grabbed by a perpetually bleeding woman (Mark 5:21-43). In both of these cases the true miracle, in my mind, isn’t them returning back to health, but that he would cross the social, ethical, and religious lines of the times, lines that literally defined you in the ancient world, and did so with abandon.

To touch a dead body would make you ritually unclean. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to become unclean in the eyes of the world to bring new life to someone.

To engage with a woman who was have difficulty with a menstrual cycle that would not stop would make him, as a man, unclean. Jesus doesn’t ostracize her or get angry at her or immediately go and purify himself with the rituals of religion. Instead, he blesses her.

Go another layer into the story, though. Jairus, the man whose daughter was sick and dying, was a religious leader of the day and, if we follow the story, was probably at odds with this wandering prophet preaching radical grace. And yet Jesus doesn’t withhold his presence from this man who probably doesn’t think or believe the same way he does. Instead, he extends his hand to him.

I mean, it’s kind of like it’s meant to be that this story is coming just when the headlines are emblazoned with the story of Roman Catholic Bishops seeking to excommunicate Joe Biden. Have they not heard? Have they not read? The Jesus that they (we?) claim to follow and emulate was not about to let disagreements stand in the way of grace.

I struggle with the miracle stories in the scriptures. Miracles that defy the odds are rare, and they don’t seem to discriminate between those who believe and those who don’t (thank God…everyone deserves to beat the odds sometimes, right?). But, then again, everyday miracles that inspire awe are not so rare, but also show no partiality, which is pretty cool.

At the end of the day, though, the true miracle of this story is that Jesus would break down the walls that prevent people from being gracious to one another, and he’ll do so without batting an eye, apologizing, or worrying about how it will look to the public.

And that, Beloved, is a real miracle in my book.

Anyway, if I were preaching this Sunday, this is probably where I’d go…

Extraordinarily Ordinary

The Kingdom of God is like an irresponsible gardener.

The Kingdom of God is like a huge weed that overtakes every other plant.

The Kingdom of God is like a microscopic animal that reacts with the environment in large and explosive ways.

The Kingdom of God is like a hopeful parent on the porch, waiting for their child to drive home long past dark.

These are all examples, in a way, that Jesus uses to describe “the Kingdom of God.” Some of these show in this week’s Gospel lesson (Mark 4:26-34)

And note: Jesus does not mean some sort of “heaven” when he’s talking here. The Kingdom of God is not heaven in the scriptures, Beloved.

The Kingdom of God in the scriptures is Earth, home, hearth, community that loves each other.

But, why doesn’t Jesus just come out and tell us what the Kingdom of God is? Why this fanciful language?

Lazy theologians will tell you it is because Jesus wants you to figure out a puzzle. That’s a cop out.

But what if the Kingdom of God is, in and of itself, a puzzle? What if it is a paradox of sorts? What if the Kingdom of God is comprised of broken people who, through Divine love, change reality for the better?

Perhaps Jesus uses parables to describe the Kingdom of God because the Kingdom of God is extraordinarily ordinary. Like, the components are ordinary. But the result? Extraordinary.

Perhaps when people really love each other it takes over all other grievance trying to grow in the soil of community, like a mustard weed in a garden?

Perhaps when people really look out for one another, that takes precedence over every other selfish desire, and the whole community is lifted like a loaf that has some yeast snuck in it?

Perhaps when we throw true affection around like seeds things just start to grow in our lives, and we’re not sure how, but we start to harvest it and share it together?

Perhaps in a world where society will tell you perfection is wealth, and in a religious reality where establishment churches will tell you perfection is obedience, Jesus is suggesting that the Kingdom of God looks nothing like that, and it’s difficult to describe, but when you see it?

You know.

Anyway, that’s where I’d go if I were preaching this Sunday.

We Didn’t Start the Fire…

The genius of St. Billy of the Joel’s tongue-twisting classic “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is how he recounts 20th Century history in percussive prose punctuated by a catchy interlude at breakneck speed. In an instant we all wanted to memorize the lyrics and, though we all got tripped up at “Panmunjom” early on, the smart rhymes (he made “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “children of thalidomide” work!) made it all stick like Velcro on the brain.

We didn’t start the fire…but we could tell the story

Which, Beloved, is exactly what this Sunday’s Gospel reading is all about for those of us who are left behind these centuries later: we know the story.

We know the story, but we too often change it to suit our particular proclivities…which is what happens with stories. None are incorruptible. Like misheard lyrics to a favorite song, God’s story has been shaped and reshaped by people in ways that have been less than helpful.

It happens.

The way that stories move and shift over time are one of the ways they continue to live and breathe, for better or for worse. When it came to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” I for a long time thought he said “Bacon, Reagan, Palestine…” instead of “Begin, Reagan, Palestine.” A line that was a recounting of geo-politics was, in my brain, a line about pork products and politics.

A little shift changes everything, right?

There are many responses to this propensity to have stories shift and move over time. Some would contend that the fact that a story is corruptible means it can’t be trusted at all…which is bogus on the face of it, Beloved. After all, even your own memories have shifted in your plastic brain over time. It doesn’t mean you can’t trust your memories, it simply means you have to be honest about the limitations there.

Another response is kind of like a huge universal shrug. Who knows what can be trusted, so why bother?

But there is another response which, I think, needs some focus, especially on this coming Sunday where we recount the birth of the church.

You see, yes the church has sometimes lost the lede when it comes to the Jesus story. That’s undeniable, OK? We’ve made fences where feedboxes should be. We’ve kicked sheep out of the fold because they didn’t fit the flock we had in mind. We’ve turned Jesus from a prophet into an idol in so many ways, it’s difficult sometimes to get back to that wandering Galilean when his alabaster-white likeness is stuck on pedestals around the world.

When the church is at its best, it is honest about its limitations…especially it’s propensity to shape something into its own preferred image.

But there is something that the church has historically said, and can get back to if it musters the courage: God is love. And if God is love, then Jesus is the love letter, and the flame-heads who appear in this week’s Acts reading, then, are those who are charged with reading and re-reading the love letter for a world pining to be in love with something that lasts.

And, see, if we can get back to that…well…that’s hopeful. A little shift changes everything, and sometimes for the better.

St. Billy’s chorus is an earworm:

We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire. No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.

I mean, when it comes to the Pentecost event, we see there that we didn’t start the fire…we know this.

But instead of fighting the idea that God is love and the Christ is the love letter…which so much of the Christian church has done, by the way, as it holds hands with civic religion and “bathroom bills” and further marginalizes the margins…it needs to re-embrace the idea that God is in love with the margins.

Is in love with humanity.

Is in love with the world with such an intensity that the only appropriate symbol is, well, a raging fire that will stop at nothing to catch everything up in that love.

I’ve Been Hanging Around This Town for Way Too Long…

-art by Miwa Robbins, “Ascension”

This Sunday the mindful preacher always has a dilemma: do you preach on the Feast of the Ascension (a festival that always lands on a Thursday but can be transposed to this Sunday), or do you preach on the John text (John 17:6-19) which is a convoluted philosophical discourse that is about as clear as a morning on the coast of Maine?

What to do, what to do…

Well, preacher, you could do either, I think, because the message of both days pulls at a golden thread running through these last days of Easter: you gotta do this together, church.

You gotta do this together, because the Divine isn’t sticking around in the same way anymore.

if there’s one thing we know about God, Beloved, it’s that God cannot be pegged down. God cannot be nailed down.

It’s one of the reasons that Jesus left the scene in the first place in the Ascension.  He wasn’t going to accompany his disciples in his resurrected form forever, or else the quest would always be one to find Jesus. 

Instead he left, promising that they’d never have to look for him again, that he’d always be with them, and so instead of looking for Jesus, the disciples could do what they’re actually meant to do: look after their neighbor.  Love one another.  Embody Jesus, as they and Jesus are one…

Jesus left the scene so that, just as the woman touched the hem of his garment to stop her bleeding, there is a possibility that every hem is the hem of God imbued with Divine grace and love.  Jesus left the scene so that, just as the mud was spread on Bartimeaus’ eyes to give him sight, we might see all the earth as having the potential to give us insight into the Divine mind.

Jesus left the scene, Beloved, so that we wouldn’t just follow him around anymore, but could actually embody him for a world that is still bleeding, still suffering from lack of sight and insight, still tormented by the demons of racism and sexism and all the isms, still run by the powerful who prey on the weak, and still intent on trying to nail God down so that they can control God.

God is more mysterious than we can ever imagine, which is good news for us, because it means that there is nothing but possibility when it comes to the wild, mysterious, tongue-twisting God we have.  Possibility that, even if we can’t figure out how, life can come from death, hope will triumph over cynicism, and love will rule the day. 

A God who can’t be nailed down is full of surprises, Beloved.

I mean, remember what happened the last time they tried to nail God down?

It didn’t work then, either.

I Won’t Have to Miss You…

This Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel (15:9-17) is all about love.

It drips of love.

It reeks of love.

But, it’s a little confusing on the face of it because John’s philosophical style mixed with this esoteric notion of love that is both human but also super Divine is, well, hard to describe.

I mean, how do you describe something that literally defies explanation? Divine love (and by that I mean love that is Divine and also the love given by the Divine) is as comforting as a hug and as wispy as a fog.

On a recent NPR podcast where they went back and did a retrospective of the last 50 years of the station, they gave a brief clip of an interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak at the publishing of his latest (and, it would turn out to be, last) book.

The interview started with heartfelt pleasantries as Sendak, who had been on the program before, expressed his admiration and, indeed, love for the interviewer. He noted that they were both up in years, though he admitted he was much farther along than her in that department, and then he said that he saw this as a good thing because he “wouldn’t have to miss (her).”

I was listening to this podcast as I was on my daily run, and this caused me to stop for a second.

Stop, and put my hands on my knees, and as sweat dripped from my brow (it was in the 80’s today here in Carolina), a tear mixed with it because that, by God, embodies what it means to love.

To love is to both have your heart open enough to miss someone when they’re gone, and to be grateful enough that you might pass first so that you don’t have to feel that pain of missing them.

Love means loving enough to miss someone, and to have a small sliver of gratitude that they might outlive you so that you never have to know that hurt yourself because it would be unbearable.

That sound selfish, I know, but sometimes there is pain you just can’t imagine and you pray you never have to realize.

That’s not selfish. That’s human. That’s being in love.

When put in the context of the Jesus story, of self-sacrifice, Divine love means loving something to death…and one step beyond.

To love our neighbor, then, means to love them enough to miss them when they’re absent…which is why it matters who is at the table.

Conversely, you also trust they miss you when you’re gone…

That kind of love takes a lot of vulnerability and a lot of trust. It takes a lot of willpower and heart-power.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our notions of love in this life are often underwhelming.

We say we love everything from babies to burritos…and we can’t mean the same thing when we say that, right? Greek with it’s four-pronged definition of love does a bit of a better job at narrowing love’s definition, but ultimately we just have to be honest and note that love is something we try to wrap our minds around, but just really can’t.

Instead, well, maybe instead we should just wrap our lives around it…and be grateful for a love that has the possibility of stinging just a little bit on both sides of the relationship equation depending on how things work out.

Needing Proof

This week Jesus once again walks through walls to meet with the disciples and they are once again startled and start to believe they’re seeing an apparition because…c’mon…it can’t be real, right?

So Jesus says (once again), “Look at my hands! See the holes in my feet? Check out this huge gash in my side. Do figments of your imagination have wounds?”

But still the disciples are like, “Nah…can’t be real.”

So Jesus, pondering the situation, says that he has to prove he’s real by doing something very human, very alive, very real: he eats in front of them. The fish goes down the gullet and into his intestines and, well, if you want to know the rest of the story ask a 2nd Grader and they’ll update you on food digestion. Trust me: I have a 2nd Grader living in my house.

The disciples wanted proof, and Jesus goes to great lengths to prove that his body is real. His wounds are real. And, yes, his resurrection sacredness is real.

Now, Beloved, fast forward some 2000 years and see the world we live in today, a world that still claims it “wants proof” but happily believes whatever it wants to. Case in point?

How many videos of black and brown bodies being shot up and harassed do we need to see before we take seriously that this is a big damn problem?!

But, no, it must be a figment of the imagination, right?

Look at the shot up body of the young man, Daunte Wright, in Brooklyn Center.

It’s the ghost of racism past…that was then, this is now!

Look at the swollen eyes of Second Lieutenant Nazario pepper sprayed after asking why he was being pulled over.

Look at the cuffed hands of George Floyd as he lies lifeless face down trying to do the most human of things: breathe.

Look at the shot up hands and feet of Breonna Taylor after people with power tried to walk through the walls of her apartment without asking.

This is not fake. This is not a figment of the imagination.

This is real, by God.

How much proof do we need? How many videos do we need? How many testimonies do we need?!

See the bodies. See the wounds.

But do you see the sacredness?

If I were preaching this week, I’d probably go here…and yes, it’d probably get me in trouble.

But that’s good trouble.

On How Popular Christianity Looks Almost Nothing Like that First Community

Wedge issues.

Anti so-much.

Billboards with fetuses on Highway 40.

“Hell is Real” scare tactics.

I know this Sunday is usually reserved for sermons on the Thomas story and his coming late to the resurrection party, but maybe a brave preacher will choose a different path that’s less well-trodden. I mean, great sermons can come out of the Thomas story…I hope I’ve preached some…but let’s be honest: it’s so well known that folks zone out.

The Acts offering (Acts 4:32-35) for this Sunday, however, offers some promise and a little glimpse into that first community that gathered around the resurrection. It stands in stark contrast to the popular Christianity trying to pass itself off as “godly” today.

If you pay attention to any churchy things, you’d see the most recent headline that, for the first time, church membership is below 50% for Americans. I think this is probably for a few reasons…

The first? Honesty. People are being more honest when filling out these surveys. It’s more acceptable than it used to be to not be a member of a religious branch, so folks are telling the truth. In previous years I imagine a lot of folks lied on these surveys, counting themselves as a member of their childhood church, or the one they visited on Christmas Eve, just to lay claim to a church because, until recently, it was socially undesireable to be churchless.

Another reason? Folks aren’t needing a community to fill their social needs anymore. Church used to be the place where it all happened: volunteering, social functions, and faith. Now folks have Barre classes, non-profits galore, and the internet to fill lots of those needs.

But a real reason…and one most folks are glossing over…is that people think most Christians are jerks. The “Beloved Community” is known more for being a fringe group pf wacky extremists than for loving their neighbor.

Case in point: White Evangelicals might be the last holdouts on getting the vaccine. Literally the one thing EVERYONE CAN DO TO LOVE THEIR NEIGHBOR RIGHT NOW is the one thing they’re not wanting to do, by and large. And I know some think “it’s a choice.” But, here’s the thing: followers of Jesus sometimes don’t have a choice, you know? Like, sometimes Jesus doesn’t give an out, you know?

I mean, maybe hell is real because we’re living through it right now with that sort of denial-of-science mentality running around…

This Acts text paints a picture of a community who shared everything in common, both wealth and debt. It’s an idyllic picture, sure. But even if it’s “a little too perfect,” you have to admit that it stands in stark contrast to the reality of today.

If I were preaching this Sunday, I might dare to go there…

Wholly Holy Week

Upside Down Sunset by Daniel Bonnell

Holy Week is, in my estimation, the best of what the Christian tradition offers the world.

In the course of a few days we live, through the lens of Biblical storytelling at its finest, the arc of the human tragedy, a tragedy that all of us live through at some point in our lives.

We eat with friends, and are betrayed by some. We’re abandoned by friends, and left in the solace of our God.

We’re lied about. We, like Peter, experience deep regret.

We’re hung out to dry. We cry with Mary at the unfair death of a loved one. We cry like John at the unfair death of a friend.

We’re made a family through tragedy, as Jesus will do with his mother and the Beloved Disciple.

There’s a great emptiness…that Holy Saturday…where we feel the Great Nothing on the far side of trauma.

And then there is redemption and resurrection. There is wonderful surprise, as felt by the disciples. There is shared astonishment and disbelief. The tears that flew out of sorrowful eyes stream out of eyes that cannot contain the unadulterated joy welling up inside of us.

Holy Week needs to be experienced at every step on that way, though, or else we get a false Easter.

The cross is the lens through which Blessed Martin Luther saw all things. The resurrection was the postlude to the central truth that he saw in Jesus: God loves humanity to death…and one step beyond.

If I were preaching this week I’d do my best to get out of the way and let the story preach itself, by God…

A “Come to Jesus” with Meat

I do not think eating meat is necessarily bad nor immoral.

It can be both of those things, I think. In fact, I’d probably guess that most of our meat-raising/harvesting practices are both bad (for the environment as well as the animal) and immoral (for all living parties involved).

But it isn’t, necessarily.

Like all good things, though, what was an occasional practice has now taken on an everyday nature in our world of instant access. I remember my grandmother telling me that she was taught that a meal included a “meat and two sides, one of them green.”

What she didn’t realize, though, was that idea was a novelty that basically started with her generation. Previous generations subsisted on far less meet, and far more grains and vegetables. They were cheap, easy to make, and kept you alive.

We’ve switched that all around now, though, especially in the West, and it’s rare that I don’t see meat in most meals, whether in the home or outside the home.

“Can we do a vegetarian month?” Finn asked me the other day. He’s not a meat lover. Oh, he’ll eat it, but he’s not in love with it. He’s just as happy with a good veggie lasagna as he is with one containing sausage. And he’ll happily scarf down salad where the protein is provided by beans or lentils.

We’ll probably end up doing a veggie month sometime this summer. But even if we don’t do a full month, we’re determined as a family to eat less meat (and this is coming from someone who loves to smoke and grill!). And we’ll do it for a few reasons…

First, meat is expensive. And the cheap meat is usually the worst for you, honestly, so even if it’s affordable your body can’t really afford it. We forget that when we eat an animal we are also eating what they ate. This is why grain-fed animals are actually pretty bad for you (and a ton of grain is bad for the animal! Evolutionarily they aren’t made to live off of that, you know?).

Also, too much meat is just not great for you. Balance, like in surfing and tight-rope walking, is key here. Too much of our plate is taken up by that monster steak. You can have one…sometimes, I do! But if I do, I probably shouldn’t have much more meat the rest of the week. Make the meat the smallest thing on your plate, and leave it off most plates you see in front of you.

And another thing: meat is not awesome for the environment. Chicken dung pollutes like crazy, which is why big commercial farms are having to be really inventive to get rid of the stuff. Pork is leading the desertification of land in once fertile areas. And, when you think about it, the more land dedicated to raising meat, the less land we have to dedicate to growing other food, especially food that isn’t food for that meat we’re raising!

This Holy Week we’re going wholly without meat in the house. And, yes, that includes fish because, well, overfishing is a huge problem, too.

I like eating meat. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad or immoral. But it can be both, and probably often is, and because of that we need a little reset here…

Mindlessness and I Miss Hugging People

So, this week’s discipline has been rough.

I mean, it’s not like it’s especially difficult to avoid processed foods. I don’t usually eat much of it on the regular.

The problem is mindlessness for me.

Like, sometimes I mindlessly eat. Especially cereal late at night.

Monday night Rhonda says, as at 9pm I’ve poured a bowl of not-bad-but-not-healthy cereal full of raisins and crunchy flakes: “Wait, I thought you weren’t eating processed foods this week.”

Fail.

It had totally slipped my mind. I mean, one of the reasons I’m doing this is to be more mindful, right? It just *literally* slipped my mind.

That’s bad enough. I learned my lesson. Not going to happen again.

Until it did: Tuesday night.

Yes, not 24 hours later I, once again, mindlessly brought in a bowl of cereal when I heard Rhonda say, yet again, “Wait. I thought you weren’t doing that this week.”

Blimey!

I’m proud to say I haven’t done that since, and I only have a few more days to go, but it just brought to my attention how often I mindlessly indulge in certain behaviors that I want to curb.

Why was I eating it?

Part of it was I think I wanted to end the night with something sweet. “Have a banana,” you might say (looking at you, Rhonda), to which I would reply, “But I want something crunchy.”

But the real truth is that it just has become routine. An unhealthy routine. A way of filling my time before bed.

I’ve heard the Japanese word, kuchisabishii probably best explains it. “My mouth is lonely.”

Or, maybe, I kind of am, if I’m honest.

I’m fully vaccinated now, and the thing that I look forward to most these days is hugging other people.

Sure, I give my family hugs. But I miss hugging other people. I miss connection and I have the sneaky suspicion I’m filling that abyss with crunch cereal at 9pm.

It’s just a hunch, but I think it might be true.

But I’m resolved to cut down on the cereal.

And, soon enough, to indulge on the hugging (when/if appropriate).