About Timothy Brown

A pastor. A writer. A dreamer. Occasionally a beer brewer. Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Come check us out!

Mary Oliver Broke My Heart

171127_r30985I don’t remember when I first read her work.  I’m sure it was in my twenties.

Because in my twenties I knew too much. Everything, actually.  And if you doubt that, just ask my 27 year old self.  I would smile demurely and shy away from your question, but secretly answer in the affirmative.

And then enter Mary.

Mary, the poet.

Mary, the theologian…though unwittingly, perhaps.

Mary, with her short stacked sentences packed on top of one another like pancakes, dripping with meaning.

Heavy, sweet meaning.

Her observations on simple things, like ducks and pipefish, made me wish I knew how to engage with the world in a way that still retained the wonder and awe and love of my young self.

And she was doing it in this way until she was quite old!

She helped me to realize that I knew not only nothing about things like ducks or pipefish, but I knew nothing about a life observed and that I better get with the program, better surround myself with poetry, if I was ever going to know anything about anything.

Let alone, myself.  My life.

Poetry helps us to observe life, and observe it intently. With feeling. With hope and a good bit of angst and…good grief.

It is something, when it works.

Poetry is the picture that prose wishes it could paint.

Poetry is the picture, mind you.  It doesn’t paint it; it is it.

Poetry is prayer both for those who are sure “prayer is perfectly fine for other people” and for those for whom prayer is every breath.  It unites the faithful and the faithless in fancy couplets where they’re forced to hold hands, at least for a moment.

It is subversive.

Submersive, if that is a word.  It doesn’t matter…that’s what it is.

It is like water, winding its way through your soul as your eyes are jarred by

unexplained breaks

and

dangling groups of letters that

just make you hold on because you’re never sure when you’re going to

jump.

And when you do jump, when you build up the courage to actually engage poetry like an explorer spelunking into the cave of words, you crash into meaning.

And your heart breaks.

Like mine did when I first pondered what I’d do with my “one wild and precious life.”

And you’re never put back together in the same way again, thank God.

Her collection House of Light sits on my desk. I crack it for inspiration quite a bit.

But my favorite of her poems is this one below. And it’s the one that I’ll end with, I think, because, well, she’s finally made the journey.

And let me tell you: with her wild and precious life she broke my heart.

And I am grateful for it.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

“I Only Do This in Two Places: the Church and the Bar”

imagesThis past Sunday it hit home to me again.

I’ve said it for years, but it hit home for me again.  In church we do this absolutely counter-cultural thing.  This thing that, really, we only do in two places: the church and the bar.

 

Now, some might also do it at other, in-frequent places, like sports arenas or concert halls.  And you might do it with professional organizations, if you’re the kind of person who digs it more than the hoi polloi.

But I’m going to guess that this activity is one that, for most people, only occurs in two places, namely the church and the bar: communal singing.

Well, and probably confession, but we’re going to stick with singing in this blog post…

Yes, you probably sing in the shower, but not in community (though, that would be funny to hear that coming from the gym locker room at the local YMCA).

Yes, you sing in your car, but probably only by yourself or one other trusted person who won’t make fun of your mis-remembered lyrics and off-key high note to a-ha‘s Take On Me.

I’ve known atheists who were the most active church attenders simply for the music.  It’s that powerful of a movement within humanity.  It just wells up inside us, and has to have an out.

Here’s an out.

You might think this is a poor reason to go to church, but there are much poorer ones that motivate the supposedly pious…

If you want to talk about having a reason to check out a church, especially if you’re not particularly religious, this is one of the most practical reasons: to sing with other people.

The need is there within you.  Indulge it.  It’s human.

And probably Divine.

And probably (in the right community) a healthier habit than the bar.

 

Is The Church Growing or Just Aging?

68747470733a2f2f7777772e67696674737465722e636f6d2f6e6577732f77702d636f6e74656e742f75706c6f6164732f323031332f30332f492d646f6e742d6b6e6f772e6a7067I was recently listening to Krista Tippett and Adam Gopnik wax eloquently on all matters of faith and doubt.  The original airing of this particular episode of On Being  was first heard back in 2015, but they re-played it in December of 2017.

And, of course, I just listened.  Which gives you some insight into how far behind I am in my podcasts.

But Gopnik, who is ethnically Jewish, though he doesn’t practice a faith (and, funny enough, has a Lutheran spouse) was talking about how at his family reunions he’s been noting how some relatives are growing, and some are simply aging.

And though he puts himself in the “simply aging” category, I disagree.  Because he defines “growing” in this sense as “still discovering” and being filled with a sense of awe and wonder.  And if you read any of his writing (and you should read ALL OF IT) you know that’s not true.

He’s growing, even in his old(er) age.

But it got me to thinking about the church, individual congregations, and this common life we share together.  I have to wonder: is the church at large, and your congregation in particular, growing? Or just aging?

And not in numbers.  But growing like a tree grows.  Like a flower grows.  Like a sea full of life, grows and swells.

Are you embarking on new territory?  Are you changing things up, and allowing yourself to be surprised at what happens?  Are you discovering new gifts you never knew you had?

Or is it all the same?  Familiar, but frozen?

And what about you?  Is your faith growing, or just aging?

Are you finding awe and wonder at new insights and new thoughts?  Has your faith evolved with your experience(s) of life and death?  Are your encounters with the gay community, the immigrant community, that ethnic community you historically have feared, changed the way that you see God and see yourself?

Have you grown past seeing God as some sky wizard pulling levers, or some Santa Claus keeping track of naughty and nice lists? Has God become, as theologian Paul Tillich says, “The ground of all being?”

Or is your faith unchanged, and therefore, unchallenged?

Perhaps in 2019 we can all take a bit of stock, communally and personally, to ask ourselves:

Are we growing…or just aging?

And if you’re afraid to ask the question, well…then you know the answer.

“Jesus’ Rejection Letter” or “Hard Pass”

rejectionDear Mr. “of Nazareth,”*

We’re grateful that you applied for the position of pastor at our church.  Unfortunately we do not think that you are what we are looking for at this time.

In other words, “hard pass.”

We find you to be entirely too political in your public presence.  Word has gotten back to us that you participated in a recent riot at the temple, and were seen chasing people out of their stalls.  We find this kind of action unacceptable and far too controversial.

In addition, your sermon from the mountain top in recent days (which went viral, and not in a good way), though encouraging for certain demographics, failed to speak to all demographics with words of Godly comfort.  Making claims that some people are “blessed” implies that some are not, and we’re not comfortable with that kind of explicit bias.

In observing your lifestyle through social media, we note that you’re often found at local hangouts with people of questionable background.  As our mothers often told us, “Show us who you hang around, and you show us who you are.” We know who you are. These people are not the kind of people we want in our church, and should we call you as our pastor we’d expect you to cut ties with those kinds of people.

We also think you are far too young to lead a congregation on your own. At thirty-three years of age, you haven’t had enough experience to teach and preach the way you do. Your boldness is not only off-putting, but troubling to many, and maybe a bit narcissistic.

In addition you:

-do not dress appropriately for the role.

-do not adhere to the behavioral norms that we expect from our leaders (must you really break the rules so much?).

-seem to advocate for things/people/ideas that make us uncomfortable

-speak to women as you do men, and find that blurring of gender-lines to be confusing.

And while we like the fact that you can attract crowds, we’re afraid that would bring too much of the wrong kind of attention, and we’d prefer not to make waves.

We think that perhaps you should entertain going back to school for continued training, or consider a profession that doesn’t involve public ministry.

Sincerely,

Popular Christianity

*consider changing this name

“I’m Your Huckleberry” or “The Church Can’t Be a Storehouse of Issues”

1848441_1My therapist tells me things I don’t like to hear.

And I pay him to do it.  Which sounds like a racket, but it seems to work…usually…

In this last session we were talking about how sometimes people in helping professions become the subject of people’s ire for no discernible reason.

For people like me, well, it really bothers me.  I’m happy for you to dislike me if I’ve ticked you off or made an unpopular decision.  That makes sense.

But many times pastors end up being the subject of people’s disdain simply because, well, humans need enemies.  And pastors are pretty easy pickings, most days.

They (usually) care, and it’s always better to dislike someone who cares if they’re liked or not.  What good is a grudge if no one feels it but you?

And sometimes people just don’t like you for being you.  And that, folks, is the the hardest to take. Because there’s not a darn thing you can do about it.  And so you just have to let your skin get tough…and go to therapy.

Anyway, I was talking to the therapist, a former pastor himself, about this phenomena, and he said, “Ah, yes.  You’re their (expletive). They need one, and you get to be it. Lucky you.”

I mean, go ahead and choose your own expletive. He used one I can’t write on a public blog that my mom will (probably) read.

But being a Val Kilmer fan, I’ll choose his word used in his iconic role as Doc Holliday in Tombstone: “I’m you’re Huckleberry.”

I’m their Huckleberry.

We all have a Huckleberry, by the way.  Or even a few of them.

Our Huckleberries are usually that not for something they did, but usually for this indiscernible reason that we just can’t seem place.

We just don’t like them.  We just don’t.

When pastors get this kind of flack, there are all sorts of reasons.

It may be because they’re not the previous pastor.  Or not like the previous pastor enough to pass muster.

Or maybe it’s because they made that one comment that one time, and even though they’ve clarified it, you don’t buy it…

Or maybe you don’t like their preaching or personality.  Or they’re too outspoken, or a woman, or…or…

Or maybe, and this is the worst one, maybe it’s “just because.”

Most of my Huckleberries are my Huckleberries not for anything they did, but mostly because of me.

They are that because of my own baggage that I put on them and force them to carry, even though they didn’t ask for it.  I have to have somewhere to put it, and they’re usually an ideal spot in my mind: they don’t have to consent to carry it.

The Biblical model for this whole human practice, by the way, is the Scapegoat. It’s a totally human, and apparently ancient, thing that we do.

Check out Leviticus 16 if you’re interested…the Christian tradition’s most damaged atonement models flow from this idea.  And, I would posit, scapegoating is damaging all around, for everyone, both the goat and the “scaper.”

While having scapegoats, having Huckleberries, seem to be an important part of what it means to be a human with issues (and we all have issues), scapegoats (or, as I prefer it, Huckleberries) prevent you from ever confronting your own crap.

And instead, the Huckleberry becomes the embodiment of our issues. Our issues with legs on. Our issues that can talk and smile and do good…which makes us dislike them all the more.

See, we all know this intellectually.  We know this.  We know it’s a problem; we know it’s a manufactured malady that we create to deal with life.

And yet, we will do all sorts of mental and emotional gymnastics to justify having a Huckleberry.  Because we will run away from our shadows for as long as we can…and some of us have become very good at it, and the Huckleberries grow on every tree, and as long as we never have to deal with our issues, but can misplace them onto others, well, we’ll go on…

And so will our issues.

Part of what the helping professions do, I think, is take it on the chin for folks who just need a Huckleberry.  It’s just true.  And I say that with no amount of romanticism or martyrdom or any of that useless mess.

The world doesn’t need any more martyrs.  What I’m trying to talk about is truth.

And the truth is that as long as we use religion as the harbor for our misplaced issues, it can never do what it’s intended to do: free us.

Instead it just becomes the storehouse for the issues we hoard away.  A living museum of our personal problems transferred from one person to another.

And no one needs that enshrined…

So here’s an idea: let’s all start unloading our scapegoats and taking back our own issues. Leave your pastor, your musician, your teacher, your social worker, your doctor, your parents, your whomever out of your issues.

Let’s all start working through them, piece by piece, and clear out the rummage sale of religious baggage out there a bit so that the church can be a place of healing.  The church has enough issues of its own, they don’t need yours!

But the trick is, of course, that you can’t store them anywhere else, either. You have to start sorting them out, bit by bit.

I mean, it’s worth a try.

Because as long as you have a Huckleberry, you’re stuck working through your stuff from afar.

Because, in all honesty: you’re your own Huckleberry.

 

Belonging and Becoming and the Problem of Sunday Morning

24well_askwell-tmagArticleI got an email yesterday.

“Tim, I read your blog, and used to more when I was in Chicago.  My daughter and her fiance are now living there, and I’m wondering if you can recommend any progressive churches that they might be welcome to join.

Her fiance is Hindu, and isn’t interested in converting. Where can they go?”

Last night someone popped in my office from an event being held here as I was burning the evening oil,

“Hey,” they said, “could I come to this church even if I don’t know what I think about God or Jesus?  Like, would I be able to be a part of it even if I’m not sure about the whole thing?”

There are two poles at play here, folks: people, especially those under 30, aren’t interested in religion as it has historically been practiced.  They are, though, interested in spirituality, connection, ritual, change, and belonging.

So what’s a church supposed to do?

Vox has a recent article out noting that places like Crossfit and Soulcycle are replacing churches in the lives of many.  Notice those names, by the way…I don’t think it’s an accident that they use the symbols of traditional religion and squeeze them in such a way that they speak something new.  The article is a spin out of a new study done by Harvard Divinity on where people are gaining their spiritual groove in the age of declining denominations.

Your fitness instructor becomes your pastor, whether they’re qualified or not.  The bike becomes your pew, the strobe becomes your candles, and your sweaty shirt smell is now the incense rising as an offering to the God keeping your breath from running out.  I say this with no mockery, by the way.  All of that ritual act is absolutely what is happening, and the problem for the church is that it is speaking clearer and better than what’s usually happening on Sunday morning in most churches.

Some might read the above paragraph and say, “Well, the church needs to speak clearer, then!”

But, I’m finding that it’s kind of like speaking sister languages, actually: they sound the same, have the same root words, and you can understand some of what the other is saying…but the translation isn’t the problem.

They’re similar, but different.

And so the question for the church isn’t how to speak louder or clearer, but the question is actually: are you willing to learn a new language?

The Vox article notes that people want two things these days: belonging and becoming.

The church has historically said that the belonging portion of Christian activity has to do with belief subscription and faith affirmation.  Well, at its best it does.  At its worst it has to do with transferring your membership and giving an offering…

And becoming?  Layers upon layers of issues have stacked up on this particular point for the church.  Doctrines like “original sin” and rituals like “the sinner’s prayer” have all emphasized how bad you are, and how reliant on God you are to become anything different or new.  The actual affects of such repentance and forgiveness cycles are hard to see, though.

The effects of Soulcyle though?  Look in the mirror.

The problem with Sunday morning isn’t that people aren’t interested in the topic.  They certainly are!

The problem with Sunday morning is that people aren’t interested in the medium.  They don’t trust the outcome because they can’t see the results.  They don’t feel like they belong, at least not in a way in which their whole selves can be present.

So, what’s the church going to do?

Why You Will Join the Wrong Church

6776-church_old_winter.630w.tnAlain de Botton’s 2016 New Yorker opinion piece, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” remains one of that magazine’s most read articles. And for good reason.

When I first read it back in 2017, after it was named the “most read article of the year,” I remember feeling both convicted and relieved. He names all the conventional reasons we marry (or fail to marry) in these days: we’re drawn together clumsily though, in our minds, through fate that reason cannot comprehend; we claim to want happiness but really we want familiarity, and we think this person will scratch that itch; and we really just want all the good feels we have in the present moment to continue.  Nothing will quite do that by putting a ring on it…or so we tell ourselves.

We all read this and laugh.  But it’s a tragic laugh.  Because it’s true, and we’ve all fallen in the trap at some point, even if we’ve never married, because we subconsciously buy into all of these ideas and adopt or abandon LTR’s (long-term relationships) before and after the ring because of how they do or do not meet these criteria.

The brilliance of the piece is not in that it points a finger at marriage and laughs.  It, in fact, does no such thing.

Instead I would call it an “apocalyptic piece,” in that it pulls back the veil of marriage and LTR’s to reveal them for the broken things they are.

Broken things are not unusable or useless, by the way.  But they are broken.

As I was reading the article I was thinking, “Huh. A related article could totally be something like, ‘Why You Will Join the Wrong Church.'” These same factors are at play in the subconscious in looking for faith communities, and seeking out spiritual leaders.

-We stumble into a church or a tradition and feel it is fate for us to be there because, in that moment, everything feels to good/right/just what we need.

-We claim to want love, but what we really want is the feels, especially the same old feels for those of us who have been doing this religion thing for a while.  It has to feel like church…or, conversely, feel like the idea of church that we’ve had in our mind but have never experienced feels like.

-We want permanence.  Grounding.  Which is why when pastors leave, hymns change, buildings change, carpets change, people leave, people arrive…you name it…we’re all too ready to opt out.

Alain de Botton suggests that we view marriage not like a romance novel, but rather like a tragedy, and often a comedic one.  As he puts it:

“We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”

In the same way, I’d suggest that we view joining a church like a comedic, and often tragic, tale of star-crossed lovers encountering one another and making it work.

Because here’s the truth about both marriage and finding a faith community: the active agents are not finished products. In many ways even the idea of “products” is not quite correct.  All the active agents in these relationships are unfinished and broken and, you’ll find quite soon, that you’re broken in different places.

See: you thought you were broken in complementary places.  And sometimes that might be the case.  But in most situations, you’re going to have to force the fit (at best), and at worst just hug the cactus that is the truth that you’re both broken in different places and aren’t going to get fixed.

At least not in a way that you want.

You’re going to join the wrong church, or have the wrong pastor, because our ideas of what makes a “right one” are romantic (and, perhaps, fantasy or fiction if we’re naming genres).

Marriage is an experiment where two people try to love each other into being better versions of themselves.  It is not about meeting needs (though there is that), and it certainly is not about meeting expectations.

It is not about not feeling lonely anymore.  It is not about constantly scratching your spiritual itch.  And it is certainly not about singing your favorite songs, sitting in your favorite pew, having your children experience the exact same things you did as a child, or even fostering that totally different experience that you’ve always longed for, and finally this church has it.

You will continue to be lonely (as we all are).  You will be disappointed in the lack of spiritual depth (or the different spirituality). You will be sad because it’s all changed or, conversely, all the same but just in different wrapping.

You will disappoint one another. Hurt one another. Be indifferent when you should care, and care too much about things that really don’t matter.

And you’re going to think to yourself “It shouldn’t feel like this!”

But it does. And will.  It shouldn’t be abusive, mind you.  But it will always end up being disappointing. On many fronts.

A faith community isn’t about any of that, anyway, when you pull back the veil.

It is about loving each other into a different way of being, by God.

Which sounds pretty Godly, if you ask me.

And, of course, there are totally legitimate reasons to leave your church, especially if you find that the Jesus they talk about doesn’t love as widely as you know God to love. Abandon any ship that isn’t good news for everyone.

But that’s rarer than we think.

More often than not the reason we’re dissatisfied is because, well, we just joined the wrong church.

Which is totally normal.