About Timothy Brown

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

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).

Parade or March?

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, and although most of the parishes in this country will (should?) still be pretty virtual, with just a small gathering of a few meeting in person, it’s no reason not to have a parade, Beloved!

Or, is it a march?

That’s an important distinction, actually, and one I think the Gospel reading from Mark invites us to consider.

Was Jesus having a parade or a march?

Parades are a fun show-off event, right? And certainly Mark 11:1-11 invites us to imagine that it had that sort of festiveness. “Hosanna!” they yell. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It sounds like an invitation to line the streets with palm branches, waving them high as the disciples throw out candy to the kids…

But maybe it’s actually a march.

Like, maybe the people thought it was a parade, but Jesus was actually on a march, on the move, interjecting himself into the proceedings of the world in a way that caused disruption.

I mean, it certainly disrupted things…

The mockery that Jesus was involved in here should not be missed. Riding in on a donkey was a plain middle-finger to the high-riding generals and politicians of the day who would enter occupied territories on their white stallions with a slew of soldiers in tow.

Jesus sits on an ass, saying (in not so many words) that those politicians were the real asses…

In the end, of course, those politicians and religious elites will try to make an ass out of him, stringing him high on a cross, bringing him up on false charges, claiming he incited an insurrection when, in reality, the conditions of the day were reason enough to rebel.

I’ll say that again for those in the back: the conditions of the day are reason enough to rebel.

It reminds me of the marches we’ve had on the streets this last year.

No, I’m not talking about the attack on the Capitol which, though it was an insurrection, was predicated on a false narrative of election fraud, outright race-baiting, and grievance politics.

I’m talking about the death of unarmed people on the streets of our cities.

I’m talking about the rise of racist violence, especially in recent days against our siblings of Asian descent.

Was this just a mocking parade Jesus was participating in?

Or was he marching for our lives?

It’s a question I’m pondering in these days…it’s probably a question I’d lift up if I were preaching this Sunday.

Does it Count as Buying If It’s Not Your Money?

The answer to the above question that I, for better or worse, arrived at is: no.

I had to buy something last week for work. I mean, it was for me, but it was in service of my work and I’ll be reimbursed for it, so…

With all of these disciplines I’m learning that a certain amount of grace is necessary. But when does “grace” turn into “excuse?”

It’s a fine line.

An honest wrestling with the influences that determine decisions is important. So much of our day-to-day is on autopilot. We renew subscriptions, we click “buy” on that item that we don’t want to run to the brick-and-mortar for.

I wonder if maybe the trip to the brick-and-mortar isn’t a good time to evaluate whether or not we need the item at all…

Impulse buying can be fun.

But so can an all night party.

When we do the second too much the family gets concerned. But what about the first?

Henri Nouwen wrote that we all have an “abyss” in our centers, something that longs to be filled. And like a vacuum, we will throw things in it attempting to fill it up…

But it can’t be filled, Beloved. At least, not with stuff.

Because that abyss is shaped like boredom. Things can’t cure that.

That abyss is shaped like grief. Things can’t cure that.

That abyss is shaped like existential angst and a lack of job satisfaction and unfulfilling relationships and…

What’s your abyss shaped like?

The incessant desire to purchase, with all its ease and immediacy and “at the tip of your fingers”-ness might just be a way of escaping, you know? The convenience of online purchasing has made things easier, for sure.

But it has also made it harder to realize when we’re just doing it to do it.

This last week I severed most ties with it for a good while. Most, not all, because, well, I could rationalize a work purchase.

I could rationalize it…but I didn’t like doing it.

And I’m kind of glad I didn’t like doing it. Perhaps that’s progress, yes?

This week I’m sloughing off processed foods. No chips, no cereals, no anything that took a process that I couldn’t do in my own home to make.

It’s actually not as easy as it sounds. Like, what do you do with certain kinds of bread that have more preservatives than grains in them? I’m deciding they’re out. It should prove interesting…

Join me, if you want.

When Jesus Becomes an Idol

Peter Rollins, that tortured Irish metaphysicist (all Irish philosophers are tortured in some way) wrote a book that blew up my perspective of religion, and the Divine, in all the right ways. It’s title is provocative enough to prompt a purchase, _The Idolatry of God_, but the guts of the book are even more disturbing (again, in all the right ways) than the title.

Rollins argues that the church has made God into an idol, taking the base core of a movement of spirituality, bronzing it, and setting it up as a thing which they demand others bow to instead of seeing the Divine as the blowing beauty of a wind which moves through all others.

In other words: we’ve traded imagination and mystery for certainty and legality.

The barrier-breaking ways of God were turned by the hands of a people who didn’t know how to rightfully wrestle with power and Divine purpose, and instead they created a bastardized version of God who erected walls instead of walked on water.

An extension of his argument is the one I note above: many times the church has created an idol out of Jesus, too. It’s a bit easier to do, honestly, as the historical figure of Jesus becomes the archetype of the answer to all questions.

Got problems? Look to Jesus.

Want answers? Jesus is the answer.

Got pain? Jesus heals.

Need wisdom? Jesus knows.

The issue here is that these are non-statements. Non-statements are worse than insider-speak, by the way. Non-statements avoid the question altogether with an answer that is as empty as the air used to form the words.

I recently was part of a group of people talking about stewardship, and one of them said in humility and honest devotion, “I just trust that God will provide and tell that to everyone I meet.”

The problem I see with that, though, is that it seems for many in the world God is falling short of the job, you know? Like, for many in the world God is not providing. Hope is not a strategy.

One could argue, of course, that the way that God provides for the needs of the world is through my wallet and your hands and our collective effort. That I can get onboard with. But…you see the disconnect between the first platitude and the second description?

In this Sunday’s Gospel (John 12:20-33), some Greeks come to see Jesus when he’s traveling around.

To your ears this may not be a big deal, but notice that it doesn’t say that these are Jewish people living in Greece. Greeks, Gentiles, are coming to see Jesus. And the disciples are not sure what to do about it, you know? Philip and Andrew have to convene a committee to see if it can happen. Other disciples have to get involved. And the issue, “Can these Greeks seek an audience with Jesus?” is never directly resolved.

“So what,” you might say.

Look, a big question around Jesus, and God (by association), was that old Bee Gee’s question, “How Big is Your Love?” Or, rather, “how big is God’s love?”

Were Greeks included?

Jesus answers it, of course, in the following paragraph, noting that when he is “lifted up” (an allusion to the cross, btw, not to some “throne of power” that evangelical hacks will push on you), he will “draw all people unto himself.”

All people. Including Greeks, no committee needed.

All people. Including LGBTQIA+ people. NO COMMITTEE NEEDED (looking at you, Vatican).

All people. Including undocumented immigrants.

All people. Including <insert category of people you dislike>.

Religion has turned Jesus into a gate-keeper rather than a gate; into a sheep-shearer, trimming away “sin” instead of a shepherd leading people through the valley of the shadow of death.

Religion has turned Jesus into a catch-all answer to questions that deserve real thought, you know?

And I say that with a deep love for religion…as a branch manager for so many years, I say it with deep love.

But in human hands amazing boundary-crossing Love so easily becomes border-making legality, that we must constantly be asking ourselves, “In what ways are we making Jesus into an idol, emptying the Divine of life-changing radicality?”

So…what’s your answer?