The Day We Buried Richard

thThe day we buried Richard I had a bit of a headache.  Maybe I hadn’t eaten enough that day, or maybe a cross word or two had fallen on my ears and had crossed into my heart leaving me colder than even the 22 degrees outside would have me be.

The day we buried Richard I had just done a baptism.  A beautiful baby boy.  He was asleep when the water touched his head, and didn’t make a sound even as I smudged oil on his brow and lifted him high for everyone to see with claps and cheers and tears.

Had I been at Richard’s last moments a similar thing would have happened: oil, tears, lifting his spirit high.  No clapping, of course, just reverent silence.  But still, transformation.  Something new.

The day we buried Richard I went quickly from morning services and put myself in my office.  Sometimes we can fake it, and sometimes we can’t.  Today I couldn’t fake it.  I didn’t want to be around people too much.  It wasn’t in me.

Richard and I met at the local coffee house, The Grind.  A place of legend in Lincoln Square, and in my own story, as it was the first place I went when I started working at the big cathedral on Wilson and Campbell.  I got to know the baristas and the owner and the regulars.  When my son was born they made a card for us, hand signed by all the baristas and the owner.  I knew every name.

Now as we wait again for another birth, they always ask about it.  I inspect the mugs on the shelf because I know Levi makes them, and he is dating one of the baristas.  Liam was gone, but now is back.  Happy to see him again.  And Claire made the Christmas decorations lining the walls.  This is a place I know like the playgrounds of my youth.

Richard sat next to me at a table one day five years ago.  He was 80 years old that first day he talked to me.  He was not shy, and no topic was off the table. Politics, religion, literature, art, music; all were fair game.  And not in the competitive way people talk nowadays.  Richard longed to know and to teach, and brought out those two qualities in the willing conversation partners.

So many of us only long to learn what we already know.  “Please, tell us the things we already think so that we’ll know we’re correct!”

Not Richard.

When he stopped coming to the coffee shop I became worried.  Tara, the owner, clued me in.  She was visiting him, as were many of us, at the new sterile room he called “home.”  He had some of his books, and though Parkinsons had taken some of his stability, he still held his mind.

The day we buried Richard I saw some tears.  He had no family to speak of, save for those of us he brought under his maven wings from The Grind.  Bradley, the lawyer from Minnesota.  Tara, the shop owner and lovingly unwitting community builder (did she know that this would be her world when she started to serve coffee?).  Rose, the sweet woman who lived above him who loved fiction and fairies.  Michael, his roommate of 30 years.  Nathan, one of the first baristas at The Grind who remembers Richard from the “old days” of 2004.  John, whom none of us knew but who had performed in a play with Richard, in Gaelic mind you, back in ’78.  Liam, who served him coffee with good cheer.

Richard had a knack for languages that would make most professional translators reach for their tools of the trade.  He was that good, recently embarking on learning Arabic in these last years.  German, French, Gaelic, Greek, Latin; his mouth was a globe.

The day we buried Richard we had no body.  We had no ashes; they weren’t yet prepared.  We had some pictures and we had some tulips and we had some coffee and eats.  We buried him much in the same fashion as we lived with him: over conversation, beauty, reflection, some good back-and-forth, coffee, sweets, and fresh flowers which are almost always found at the front bar of The Grind.

Churches would kill for community like this.  And some churches kill this type of community.

And as we all left one another there were hugs and plans to get back together and “let us know when the baby comes!” and a deep sense that we had done something right by someone we all collectively loved and knew from sitting around little wooden tables and little wooden chairs as coffee from ceramic mugs steamed up into our faces.

“So, Richard, what’s new?”  This is how I’d usually start talking to him after my glasses stopped fogging.  And after everyone left I said it out loud in the little chapel.  To myself, to God, to Richard, and to no one in particular.

And in the moment I thought to myself that the little headache and the cross word that still lingered in my ear needs to go ahead and fade away, because life is not meant to be spent around those sorts of things.  There is coffee and conversation and eats to be had, and prayers to be said.

The day we buried Richard was today.

Death on Vacation

I’m on vacation.  The beach.

I woke up on vacation to the sound of the surf and seagulls and the smell of salt water.  vacation-planning

I woke up on vacation to the sound of laughter being silenced as a brilliant comedic force lost a battle to depression.

These two things don’t mix easily.

I woke up on vacation to the sight of children running and playing in the surf.  Children of all ethnicities chasing crabs and picking up shells.

I woke up on vacation to the news of an unarmed black man being shot in cold blood. To rioting, angry voices justified in their anger, but not in the violence that followed. Death begets death.

…and yet in some ways I understand it…

These two things don’t mix easily.

What’s funny, of course, is that most of us are on “vacation” from this sort of death.  From pretending depression isn’t an illness but just a phase.  From pretending that racial inequality isn’t real because, well, if it is real then we might have to change the way we behave…

And, let’s be honest: we don’t really want to do that. (We have a black president, for Christ’s sake!  Doesn’t that mean racial inequality is a thing of the past?!)

Most of this country is on vacation most of the time.

And that vacation mindset can find a shock of reality in the church community, if we’ll allow it.

Most, though…I think most go to church to have their views reinforced, not challenged.

The pastor has become the conscience massager instead of the conscientious objector to the vacation tendencies that power and privilege provide.

People leave churches because their pastor mentions these things.  All congregations.  My congregation, too.  And in a time of church-attendance limbo we may feel like we can’t say anything because, well, what if people take a vacation from the congregation because of what is said?

So we massage it.

But there is another reality that can’t be massaged into something different, that can’t be escaped: a black man lay dead in the street.  A comedian became the victim of joylessness.

And we have to admit that God has something to say about that, something to say about a culture that considers you “OK” as long as you’re laughing; a culture that considers you “OK” as long as your skin color doesn’t automatically make you suspect.

Blood has only one color, though.

And for as much as we lift the blood of Christ up at the Communion table and say “for you,” you’d think we’d see the connection there.

So what to do?  Raise our voice in indignation?  Console one another? Tell the truth about depression?  Speak to racial inequality and violence and unchecked power?

Yes.  Of course, yes.

But also: let’s stop being on vacation.

Stop pretending these things aren’t reality.

The church can be a place where we help people live with the tensions of life, not trying to alleviate them, but helping us all live well with them.

Jesus helps us live here and now, in reality.  Jesus doesn’t let us take a vacation from reality.  “If you see me, you see God,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John.  If you see Jesus you see ultimate reality.

Do you see Jesus in the person battling depression?  In the black man dead in the street?

Or are we just all on vacation?

“Excavating Fear” or “If You Want Children to be Safer, Don’t Buy Bulletproof Blankets”

I wasn’t going to post about the recenscreen shot 2014-06-10 at 7.30.47 amt school shootings that we’ve endured as a nation these past few weeks, but here I am.

I wasn’t going to post about them because I just don’t think I can anymore.

When I look down at my son, when I drop him off at school, I don’t think of him as in danger, or as a target.

But I guess we’re starting to these days, right?  I mean we’re talking about more armed guards in schools, we’re talking about lock-down procedures and evacuation routes not just for fire, but also for “live-fire” scenarios.

And I guess now we’re talking about bulletproof blankets to cover my baby should someone come shooting up his school.

In Isaiah 11:6-9 we find a vision for a new Earth, and it doesn’t look like like my son huddled under a bulletproof blanket.

And it doesn’t look like my son cowering behind an armed guard with a gun, a teacher with a gun, or even he himself holding a gun.

In that day, “The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  In verse 8 it gets even better, “the infant will play near the cobra’s den, and a young child will put it’s hand in the viper’s nest.”

The problem with that day is that we don’t think it’s today.  The problem with that day is that we think the prophet is talking about animals.  And, I guess, in a way he is because he’s talking about the created order, the whole created order, being turned on it’s head.

But primarily, though, the prophet is talking about people.  Humans.  You and me.

And the prophet is talking about creation not living in fear, even in natural fear.  It would be natural for the goat to fear the leopard, the child the viper.  But in the world that has “knowledge of God,” even that kind of fear isn’t needed.

Because God is doing a new thing.

See, here’s the problem I have with armed guards, with armed teachers, with armed citizens, and with something as ridiculous as bulletproof blankets: it buys into the fear.

If the day of the Lord is to eradicate fear, then why do we belabor under the wrong assumption that we must continue to purchase it?  This youth at Reynolds High School was obviously hurting and sick.  I do not believe he was a monster.  You don’t have to be a monster to do monstrous things.

But his parents were law-abiding citizens with a closet full of guns.  Why?  Recreation?  Collection? Sport?

It doesn’t really matter now, because in the end they were saved for a mass shooting.

And the remedy to that, I think and believe, is not to buy more guns, is not to buy more kevlar, is not to arm more people.

The remedy for that is, I think and believe, to take the prophet seriously and believe that today is the day when the world is filled with the knowledge of the Lord.  And I don’t take that to mean that everyone is Christian.  I don’t take that to mean that everyone thinks the same things.

The “knowledge of the Lord” is not the ability to recognize God, it is the ability to trust as God trusts.

And how does God trust?  In the Jesus story, God trusts the power of life and resurrection enough not to repay hurt with hurt, but to bathe in love and forgiveness.  I mean, what would it look like if we raised our children not with a closet full of semi-automatic guns and hand guns, even if we teach them to respect guns, but rather with a closet full of the belief that semi-automatic guns aren’t necessary in this world.

They aren’t necessary to have a good time, they aren’t necessary to obliterate targets, they aren’t necessary for common citizens.

They just aren’t necessary.

We need to excavate fear, dig it up like Indiana Jones, and reveal it for what it is: an idol we’re being forced to worship these days.

It’s obvious these people need mental help.  But they also don’t need easy access to weapons.  And I don’t think that’s an either/or situation.  It’s a both/and.

But I really expect the carillon cry on this issue to come from the church, to come from Christians.  I really expect it to come from people who look at Jesus and see someone who didn’t repay evil with evil. I really expect it to come from people who hear stories every damn week about the Jesus who healed the sick, even the mentally sick.  We need to provide that care.  And I really expect it from people who every year hear the story of how Jesus told Peter to put his sword away. “The one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword…”

I really expect it to come from those who would wonder what it means to hold a weapon with no other purpose in the world than for the killing of another human being, a being created out of love by the God who creates all things for joy and good. Licensed police officers, military officers, they all consider that question…at least, I hope they do if they take their work seriously.  We, as a society, have called them to that office, and it’s not one to be taken lightly.

Certainly not one to be taken “recreationally.”  We have licensed law enforcement, and give them licenses, for a reason.  Part of that reason is, I think, because they take it seriously enough to honor the responsibility.  I don’t think the average citizen does, and we’ve shown that by having these “open carry” situations throughout the country now…that, in and of itself, is a sign of mental health issues, I think.

And look, with all this talk, I’m not even talking primarily about gun control.  Gun control has not worked well in Chicago.  I’m all for it, but do I think it will save my baby?  No.  This is a complex issue.  But the church doesn’t just need to condemn the shooting, they need to condemn the situations that led up to the shooting: mental health, easy access to semi-automatic weapons…

And we need to condemn the fact that too many of the “faithful” in this world don’t trust that the Earth can be full of the knowledge of the Lord if they would just live into it.

I’m talking about changing the hearts and minds of this world to realize that the day of the Lord is today.

And tomorrow.

And it was yesterday…we just didn’t trust it enough to live into it.

“Ash Kicking” or “Why I Don’t Think Ash Wednesday is a Good Day for Peddling Religious Goods”

I know this post might not be popular with many of my colleagues, but it is timely…so I’m going to put it out there.  ashes

I get why pastors and church people stand by the bus stop and the train stop and on busy thoroughfares for Ash Wednesday.  We “get out of the church and into the world” by doing this, right?  We “take the ministry to the streets.”

I get the rationale; I get it.  And I get that it probably can be pretty powerful for the ashers, and possibly the ashees, too.

But here’s my concern, specifically with Ash Wednesday: I fear it is cheap.

Yes, cheap.

Ash Wednesday is a day of solemnity when we hear the prophet Joel encourage people to “return to the Lord.”  The liturgy involves a movement from the Kryie (Lord, have mercy) to hearing Joel’s encouragement to Matthew’s prayerful penitent beat his chest, and then we take last year’s Hosanna’s, burn them as a sign that we’ve burned so much of our praise in pursuit of the dust of this world, and mark ourselves again as dust.

It is a movement of stark realism.  It is a movement, like a carefully put together album, that leads you from the realization of mortality to a hopeful life despite the fact that you are dust.

Beautiful stardust…but dust nonetheless.

But more than anything, it is a movement.  And it takes a bit of time.  Not much time, but some time.  Mortality does not sink in so quickly (without sudden tragedy, of course).  And we should allow the time.  Not much time, but time nonetheless.  As the beginning of Lent, a season of intentionality, it seems odd to me that we would start out with such slack intentionality…

It is much more than a simple smudge at the bus stop.  Sure, there are many who will also offer prayer in that time.  Sure, there are many who will also offer information about how the individual seeking to be “ashed” (or get the “ash kicking” as I like to say) can hook up with a faith community.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it.

I’m just saying why I’m not going to…and I want to ask the question publicly.

Because despite the prayer and the information on faith communities, I don’t think Ash Wednesday is the day to do it.

We don’t see people out on Easter passing out lilies.  Actually, that makes a ton more sense to me…

I don’t want Ash Wednesday…I don’t want my mortality…to be a gimmick.  And I worry that the church can turn it into that.

And there’s something important about having Ash Wednesday with other people of faith, all together, in one place.  There’s something important about me, the individual hearing “Memento, homo, quod pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” but then also having all of us, communally, hear it.

It’s not just about me; it’s about us.  All of us.  We are all stardust…and our systems of power and “isms” and phobias have reinforced it.

And there is something powerful about having a train full of cross-smudged commuters.  I won’t deny that.  But what does it mean that they got it running for the 8:05am?

Have an early morning Ash Wednesday service.  Or a noon one, where people can do it at lunch hour.  Or, have a full one at the bus stop, 20 minutes long.  Or point people toward a service that happens right as work gets out downtown.  I think these are good options.  But not as they’re running by…

Because I want to know: what do we think we’re saying when we’re offering a reminder of mortality on the fly?

On Naming the Dead and why I’ll say Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Name Next Sunday in Church

There are only two community worship experiences that we do where we name a list of all of the recently departed in a row: All Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Saints (in November) and the Easter Vigil (the night before Easter).

And slowly and surely I’ve started to include not just the saints of the church who have passed on in recent years, but also celebrities, activists, politicians, and local heroes.

And I’ve started naming them on Sundays, too, when we give thanks for the saints who have gone before us. Like today I read out Pete Seeger’s name as a faithful witness in this world to the life of God shown in the Christ.

Was Seeger a Christian?  I don’t know.  I know he had a godchild.  I heard an interview with her on NPR. But there are plenty of people who have godchildren and don’t identify as “Christian.” I don’t think it matters in this case.  If there’s anyone who lived into the Beatitudes as a peacemaker, I feel Seeger is it.

We named him.  And we’ll name Philip Seymour Hoffman next week, too. Because it is less about how they identified themselves, and more about how God has identified them: child of God.

And, to be honest, Philip Seymour Hoffman touched me, and so many people, in his work that I think we’d do collective harm in not publicly grieving for him in some way; in some faithful way.  And I’m a firm believer that one of the ways that the Holy Spirit works in this world is through the arts, and I believe that God moved through him and his gifts.

Lord, he had gifts…

We name the saints not because of what they did  in life (though that is certainly part of it), but more because of who God claims them to be.

And there were demons there, now come to light, which we all have.  And if people knew the full truth of any of us, I think they’d balk at having our names read in any list of so-called “saints.”

And yet, my name is there.  And so is yours.  And so is any of ours.

So, if you worship in a community and there is a time to call out the dead, name him.  Do it.  Or when the Vigil comes around to your community and your pastor knocks on the parish door to invite the dead to worship in the resurrection, make sure his name is there along with Pete’s (we don’t ever do last names, so technically I’ll just say “Philip Seymour”).

Or if you’re making a list for All Saints, include him there.

Him, along with everyone else you know personally who has died this year.  Him, along with every other faceless, nameless person suffering from addiction who will die this week that we won’t ever hear about.

Because, and here’s the main point, in naming Phillip Seymour, I hope and pray I’m also naming about 100 other people who will die this week in Chicago of an OD that we’ll never hear about, and no one will care about.

And if we can’t care, in some small way, who will?  If we can’t point to this and all other deaths, especially tragedies, and say, unequivocally, “there lies a child of God, loved and redeemed even now,” of what use is the church in truth-telling?

May light perpetual shine upon Pete and Philip and all the other nameless ones we’ve lost this week. Amen.

One Thought on God and Suffering

For some reason my entry “5where-is-god-suffering Phrases I Think Christians Shouldn’t Say” is getting a lot of traffic again.

And I’m getting a lot of push back because of my thoughts on suffering and “God’s plan.”

So, in an attempt to clarify it all, let me say this:

I will not endorse the notion that it is God’s plan that people get cancer.  I will not endorse the notion that it is part of God’s plan, specific or otherwise, that children die by gunfire.  I will not endorse that Hiroshima was part of God’s big plan.

I cannot do any of these things because I have sat by too many bedsides and buried too many children, even in my short pastorate.

Now, have I seen beauty in death?  Absolutely.  But have I seen senselessness?  Senselessness that goes far beyond any sort of platitude like “God’s wisdom is foolishness” or any other attempt to bend the words of Scripture to make meaning out of the meaningless?

Damn right.

And that’s the thing.  Such theologies that try to put God at the helm of these tragedies or, even worse, try to say that God is a passive bystander, are attempts to make concrete meaning out of meaninglessness.

We all make meaning out of life.  We all do; there’s no escaping it.  I have heard and known people calling their disabilities beautiful tools they use to learn about life.  I have heard people say that the death of their child was instructive for them.

I do not deny that these things are true.

What I deny is that a particular truth was intended to be drawn from them.  What I deny is that a particular truth was in the Divine mind as those tragic events happened.

What I deny is that God is in the dirty pain business.

Now, I think that God has caused me pain; causes me pain. I experience the pain of being wrong all the time (perhaps in this instance, too?).  I experience the pain of having my ego subverted, my best-laid intentions crumbled, my pride blown away, my intellect shattered by a God who speaks a word of grace to me when my greatest desire is for retribution.

But I do not think that God has caused my car accident so that I learn to drive better.  I may thank God for an accident that taught me a life lesson, but I don’t think God was passively watching it.

I think God was in the pit of fear and hell that I was in while going through it.

And that is a theology of the cross that, I think, truly speaks to the crucifixion story and the Good News of God.

The crucifixion story is one that speaks of Jesus’ suffering not as something apart from humanity, but a part of humanity.  I am not one to believe that God caused the crucifixion for some atonement.  I think that when you act and talk like Jesus, you die for it because our power systems (even the power systems that try to make sense out of the senseless) don’t like it.

So, do I think that it is all part of God’s plan that your foot was amputated?  That your brother or sister died in the Iraq war?  That your father has prostate cancer?

No.  I don’t. And we can quibble about philosophical categories for God, and whether God knows all, can do all, is everywhere…all of that.  We can quibble until the end of time, and I don’t think we’ll be any closer to the truth than if we just allowed God to say, “I’m not going to make sense out of senselessness…I’m going to make resurrection.”

Then maybe we can learn to die to our need to make sense of it all, and be resurrected as people who can hold tension well…a tension taught to us by a life that includes suffering, joy, and all in between.

Syria and Catch-22’s

The politician in me is worried aboubombs1t the United States (and the UN’s) response to Syria’s (alleged) use of chemical weapons.

We target military sites…or so we say.  We try to do “surgical strikes.”

But I’m a pacifist; these things scare me.

The Christian in me isn’t worried, though.  The Christian in me, the person of faith in me, is absolutely terrified.

I’m terrified at the video on CNN of the child being doused in water to wash off the chemical agents as he convulses (even if this video is not authentic to the current situation…although it appears it is…it is absolutely horrifying).

I’m terrified that many times we target “military sites” and hit schools and children and people doing business.

I’m terrified that a “surgical strike” actually means we’re just cutting out another slice of our humanity in a failed attempt to show power.

I’m afraid that non-intervention will just result in having to ignore continuing genocide while we sing Christmas carols again this year.

I’m afraid that non-intervention will be a stain upon our moral conscience.

I’m afraid that intervention will be a stain upon our future as the wrong people get the wrong weapons that we manufacture, which means that the wrong people will get paid to continue building weapons with no other purpose than to kill other people, which means that the war machine monster gets fed instead of starved, which means…

Death. A lot of death.

I come from a faith tradition that lifts up a “two kingdoms” doctrine when it comes to the world.  Essentially it asserts that the world is ruled by God, and the world is split into two kingdoms.  The spiritual kingdom of God is ruled by grace, while the kingdom of humanity is ruled by rightly ordered governments and principalities (an extension of God’s Law)*, and we live in both simultaneously.  First of all, I’d argue that Martin Luther never fleshed out this so-called doctrine, and that attempts to do so by scholars are largely just defenses for their own political ideals.  In short: I don’t buy it.  It makes me a bad Lutheran, I guess.  But I think it makes me a good Christian, even if I am so reluctantly.

Secondly, if you show me a rightly ordered government I’ll ride my unicorn over the moon.

I think people of my generation (I’m on the millennial bubble with a cursed 1980 birth year) look back at World War II and largely figure it was “just war.”  But when I listened to (the one time) my grandfather talk about flying over occupied China and being absolutely piss-pants scared about what he was doing and how he was doing it, I’m not sure I even know what “just war” means no matter what metric you put in front of me.

I know people shouldn’t be slaughtered.  I also know people shouldn’t fly planes built to kill other people.

I’m terrified because I care about life, and this is a catch-22.

And a church that is radical enough to understand that only God can redeem in any sort of lasting way is a church where our soldiers and our conscientious objectors are both honored and prayed for, and where our loudest shout as people who claim to be of God is one for the catch-22 nature of this whole damned business.

If life is sacred, that means all life.

And I’m typing this as I hold my son, and I see my son in that little boy being doused in a futile attempt to save his life. And I know he’ll die. And I know we can’t allow these things to go on, and yet I also know that fighting violence with violence only perpetuates violence.

And so…yeah, there we are.

And I am wondering what the church will say about this.  Drumbeats for war are antithetical to the message of Jesus.  Watching innocents (or even the guilty, I would argue) be poisoned and killed without some sort of action is antithetical to the message of Jesus, too.

But real sacrifice for the other…the heart of the message of Jesus…who is really willing to do that?

I just wanted to be honest here. This is what this reluctant Christian is meditating on today.  And I know we will, and should, do something.

I just want to lament about that “something”, whatever it ends up being, and stand with Rachel as she weeps for her children.  And your children.  And my children.  And Syrian children.

All of us.


*Many thanks to Pr. Mark Williamson in encouraging me to better define and make more distinct the modern formulation of this “doctrine.”  While I don’t agree that it is a doctrine, I shouldn’t cut it short in deference to brevity.

“Success Will Kill You” or “I Want You to Go Home. Seriously.”

Isaiah 55 asks a good quesimagestion.

Well…a number of good questions.  Verse two asks, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”

God, if we could only ask that question more.  To ourselves.  To our kids. To our spouses.

But mostly to ourselves.

See, I have a lot of people sit on my couch in a week.  They talk.  I talk.  I listen.  They listen.

There’s a lot of it.

And one thing that I notice more and more from  pretty much everyone under the age of sixty these days is that we have this fixation on 80 hour work weeks and being busy.

There is a nasty myth going around that we need to be the first ones at work and the last ones home.  In fact, there’s a Forbes article from yesterday where entrepreneur extraordinaire John Nazar gives that very same advice.

We don’t.  And it’s killing us.  Jason Nazar may be successful, but at what price?

It’s at this point where I’ll say, “Physician, heal thyself” because Lord knows that I fall into the 80 hour work week trap a lot.

And it costs me.

So much, in fact, that I have a couple of blogs waiting in the wings where I admit to some of my bad work habits and what it’s doing to my spiritual life.

But more than anything I want to tell the majority of these couples, and singles, and people under sixty, to just go home.

Seriously.  Go home.

Part of the bane of the middle class is the idea that success means more money and prestige and more toys and more expensive vacations and more, more, more.  It’s like we get addicted to stuff and once we have a snort of “stuff” we can’t get it out of our noses and we have to consume it until our houses and calendars are cluttered and our hearts are empty.

This is a spiritual problem.  And it’s hard for someone like me because I can pretty much do “work” anywhere.  Because I deal in people, and people have this amazing way of sticking with you and crowding out your vision so that you don’t see your wife or husband or child or partner even when you’re at home because you’re stuck on someone else’s issues that you’ve decided is your own issue.

And by God you’re going to work that problem from sun up to sun down.

Because that’s success.  That’s what it takes.

If that’s it, then I’m going to excuse myself from the race.

And I want you to, too.

Our mothers and fathers fought hard in the labor movements to ensure a 40 hour work week.  And God damn our prosperity because we have kindly forgotten that and have opted in favor of 80 hours and email inboxes that must always be open lest we miss something.

80 hours, which means we burn the midnight oil long after our kids and spouses are in bed.  Because that’s what it takes. It takes us not spending quiet time next to our loved ones to be successful.  It takes being tired and grumpy in the morning to our kid because we have to put food on our middle class tables.

There are people who are working two or three jobs because they have to; that’s what it takes to survive.  That’s a terrible truth that could take some midnight oil to solve.

But many of us are working one job twice over in a week because that’s what it takes to have a three car garage.

Physician, heal thyself.

But I can’t.  And I don’t think the church has sufficiently taken on this issue, which is spiritual in nature, with our congregants.  We bemoan the demise of the family but blame it on mixed up gender roles instead of our addiction to success.  We bemoan that nobody comes on Sunday mornings and blame it on faithlessness and institutional decline instead of the fact that an 80 hour work week doesn’t want another hour of obligation…especially if that time could be spent catching up on work or getting a jump on work. Or spending time with our spouse and kids that we forfeited on Thursday to stay late.

We spend money on things that don’t feed us.  We labor for things that won’t satisfy.

We all know the story of pastors and nurses who sit at the bedsides of the dying and hear them say they wish they had worked less and loved more.  But somehow we all think we’re the exception to that.  And that we won’t regret 80 hours because we’ll retire early. And that’s what it takes.  And it’ll pay off one day.

I ran into a fellow pastor who is hired part-time at a church.  We were chatting and I said, “So what does part-time look like for you?” to which he responded, “Well, if I actually worked part time, I think I’d be a pretty crappy pastor.”

And I disagreed and said so.  I pushed back.  I don’t want to cultivate a society that expects full time work for part time pay, and I don’t want to cultivate an individual who accepts that they aren’t valuable enough to not be defined by their job.

It’s a spiritual issue.  In my work I can “work for God” so much that I lose sight of God altogether because I’m so busy.  In our work we can lose sight of ourselves, of our God-given identities, because we take on the identity of “success.”

Don’t be successful if it’s going to kill you.  In fact, I’d say that success will probably kill you…at least the parts of you that people love most and want most.

Time in community.  Time in family.  These are things I value.  These are things I want my parishioners to value.  Jesus wasn’t successful by any measurable standard.  And yet Jesus followers flock to mega-churches in mega-numbers because they want to be a part of something that succeeds…hoping it will bleed over into their personal lives.

How can we have spiritually healthy people if we have spiritual leaders and spiritual homes who are in the same rhythm as the mega-firm and the mega-business?

By and large, I just want you to go home.  And I want me to go home more. As a Christian, as a pastor, as someone who cares about the health and souls of my people, just go home.

And I want the church to tackle this issue more.


On Death and Christmas Eve

In those days a decree went IMG_1595out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In “those days…”

Those days.

I wonder when “those days” are supposed to be.

I have “those days.”

Those days when everything seems to be amiss.

Those days when it appears that love has hitchhiked to the next county and isn’t coming back; when loneliness has set in to the point that darkness seems like it will never leave.

Those days when the world has turned all around to the point that up and down are no longer real directions because I don’t recognize where I am in life, let alone which way is positive and which way is negative, which way leads to life and which to death.

In “those days…”

In those days of Jesus’ birth there was peace.  Pax Romana, we call it, the “Roman Peace” brought on through imperial domination.

Rome won all the wars.  It forced people to be peaceful…according to the Roman definition of “peace” which sometimes involved people being hung from crosses or eaten by wild beasts for sport.   Not exactly a Christmasy sentiment…

In those days of Jesus’ birth counting people was the task at hand.  How many are here?  We have to have the numbers if we’re going to assess how much people are worth, after all.  Your taxes were directly dependent upon your citizenship and status.

In those days people’s worth and wealth were directly connected.

That, in many ways, doesn’t only sound like “those days”…it sounds a lot like “to-day.”

Luke’s beginning to this most memorable reading sets us squarely in place.  I imagine he’s expecting us to land in the first century when Quirinius is governor of Syria.

But it also sets us squarely in “those days.”  Those days when it seems like there’s nothing left to us and everything is going cold.  Where we try to force ourselves into a peaceful state, only to fall back into darkness.

Much like the cold of Christmas Eve night.  Much like the darkness of Christmas Eve night.

I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s worth repeating, Christmas Eve reminds me a lot of our other big late-into-the-evening-I’m-so-sleepy-why-am-I-here? service: The Easter Vigil.

Because this, too, is a vigil.

The Easter vigil is where we await the resurrection, where God brings life out of death.

But Christmas Eve is a different sort of vigil.

Instead of waiting for resurrection, on Christmas Eve night we await a death.

Now, I know that might be surprising to hear, especially because Christmas is all about babies being born and cookies frosted and ringing bells and warm feelings.

But, trust me: this waiting for a death is a good thing.

Christmas Eve we keep vigil, waiting for the Emmanuel, the God-with-us, once again, so that “those days” can die.

Those days when we feel unloving and unloveable.  Those days when we feel we aren’t worth it.  Those days when we fear that our lives are purposeless, that our existence is accident, that our only hope is in our hands or in our emptying bank accounts or in…nothing.

Those days when we try to force peace upon our lives but fail as we’re devoured by the beasts of greed, fear, anxiety and hung on the cross of our ego…

On Christmas Eve we light a candle, we celebrate the silence of the night as “those days” gives out one last gasping breath and we remember that those days are gone if the Nativity story is true.

Joy to the world.  Joy to you and me.  “Those days” are gone.

God rest ye merry gentlemen and gentlewoman, “those days” have only the power we allow them to have because their real power is gone.

We wish you a merry Christmas because “those days” are impotent.

So forget about whether or not the Nativity is factually real in all its glorious, romantic detail.  Theologically it is real in the most true sense of the word!

Because in “those days” God saw fit to show humanity, show us, that we have purpose enough for God to take on our form and show love.  That we are deliberately and wonderfully made in our existence.  That our hope is not in our hands or our emptying bank accounts, but in the hands of the small babe on that night when heaven was emptied so that the earth might know the fullness of God’s love.

Christmas Eve celebrates that those days are gone, and new day has begun.  A day full of God’s grace shown in the smallness of kicking legs and infant cries; a grace so vulnerable that even you and I can approach it with the assurance that it does not harm but only helps.

Such is God’s nature; such is God’s grace.

That night, light a candle to the death of those days.  And as we pass that flame from one candle to the next, we’ll create new light with all of our waxy ends, reminding us that the darkness of those days is dispelled on Christmas Eve night.

The night of the newborn baby.

The night of the new light.

The death of “those days.”

Merry Christmas.

Dem Bones…

On the eve of All Saints we do what we love to do: play dress-up.

And it is just play.  Theologies and theologians that glorify Halloween as “Satan’s Day” aren’t good students of history.

That being said, the gore that is often associated with this day doesn’t appeal to me.  I’m a fan of horror flicks; I love a good scare.  But I’ve seen enough real blood in hospital rooms, ER’s, and elsewhere to not need the fake stuff.

But Halloween and All Saints also conjure up in me thoughts about life, mortality, death.

I find myself singing the spiritual

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem, dry bones…”

I’ve written previously about the importance of having  funeral at the time of death.  I still feel that it’s supremely important to honor and celebrate life by acknowledging, grieving, and honoring death.

Yes.  Honoring death.

Not as something to revere or worship, but as something to peer into as mystery.

I live with a biologist.  Carbon returns to carbon; it’s nature’s way.  As I’ve said at every funeral liturgy I’ve ever presided at, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  We certainly shouldn’t labor under the delusion that somehow death is unnatural or evil.  I can understand how some people may come to this conclusion reading certain parts of Genesis and Romans.  Yet there are other sections of scripture, the Lazarus story in John for instance, that give another glimpse at death.

In that story Jesus “tarries” a while…not preventing Lazarus’ death.  One wonders why he might want to.  But in raising Lazarus, what Jesus does is dispel the fear of death.

This idea, I think, is something that the religious individual can grasp tightly.  Death is not to be sought; surely we are not masochists (at least, not most of us).

But neither is death to be feared.

The fear of death is all around, though.  In skin-products that promise ageless beauty.  In caskets lined with gold…perhaps because, the thought is, we can take it with us.  In medical procedures that prolong breathing but cannot prolong life.

We fear death, and we have made a market on that fear in the buying and selling of death-killers.  Surely the market is the death of our modern souls.

Hear now from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about the wisdom we can mine from the mystery of death:

The greatest problem is not how to continue (living) but how to exalt our existence.  The cry for a life beyond the grave is presumptuous, if there is no cry for eternal life prior to our descending to the grave.  Eterenity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence.  God has planted in us the seed of eternal life.  The world to come is not only a hereafter but also a herenow.

Our greatest problem is not how to continue but how to return. “How can I repay unto the Lord all his bountiful dealings with me?” (Psalm 116:12)  When life is an answer, death is a home-coming. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of the saints.” (Psalm 116:15)…This is the meaning of death: the ultimate self-dedication to the divine.  Death so understood will not be distorted by the craving for immortality, for this act of giving away is reciprocity on our part for God’s gift of life.  For the pious…it is a privilege to die.

My wife gave me a note that someone passed her on the street.  It’s in the shape of a “1 million” dollar bill, and it has written on it, “The million dollar question: Where will you be after you die?”

Such conversion tactics are wasteful in the “throw this away for me” sort of way.  Theologies that only point toward heaven are useless.  If the goal of this life is to get somewhere else, why bother?

My response to the giver of that note would be, “The million dollar question isn’t where will I be when I die, but how have I lived?”

And if I have a million dollars, or perhaps one dollar, that might make heaven a reality for someone here in this existence and I fail to do it, then I have been negligent in my life.

I do not fear death, nor do I seek it.  I trust in the promise of heaven, but my home is here.  And may I do my part to bring heaven to this reality, trusting that what awaits me after my last breath is God’s eternal presence…something I’ve never been separate from.

And at my last breath, I imagine I’ll pray the same prayer that I’ve prayed at every funeral I’ve presided at with all “dem bones” in my body,

May God support us all the day long till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done.  Then in mercy may God give us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last.