Good Ol’ Words: Glory

I remember an elderly saint in the church of my youth. So moved by a sacred moment, her voice would tremble and she could only utter a few quiet words with holy reverence: Look there now. Glory.

In Scripture, few words evoke as much solemn mystery as the word glory. Glory speaks of brilliance, radiant beauty. Glory finds its way into the sentence whenever we’re struggling to describe the ineffable. When God’s presence filled Israel’s Tabernacle and when God’s voice thundered atop the Mount, glory escaped the trembling lips of both priests and children. These beautiful terrors evoked a wonder too large for language. Glory was the only thing one could think to say. Look there now. Glory.

St. Paul made bold use of the word. “When Christ, who is our life appears,” wrote the apostle, “then we will also appear with Christ in glory.” Did you catch that — Paul speaks not only of Christ’s appearance as glorious, but yours too. According to Paul, in that day, when our true life (our true self) trots out in plain view, then we will have truly appeared. And what a grand entrance it will be. In that moment, we’ll see not only Christ’s glory, but our glory, our radiance in God. In the good end, when all things return to their center, we will find God (with Eden echoes) naming us good, grinning wide and announcing us glorious. Now look there. Glory.

This is why Gregory of Nyssa spoke of the soul’s divine beauty as a blade darkened with the rust of sin (rusted, not ruined), a blade that must be (and would be) returned to shimmering splendor. This is why St. Irenaeus insisted that “the glory of God is a human fully alive.” This is why it is our great travesty if we only see our (or another’s) wretchedness or malfeasance, if we only notice all the fear or hatred, if we succumb to the lie that anyone (ourself included) is ruined. This is why it will never do to write someone off or give up on their return or think our shame concludes the tale.

You are meant for magnificence, not squalor. God marked you for his dance partner at the big finale, and God gets what God wants. Whatever dogs you, whatever whispers ruin in the cold night, whatever troubles your memory or your hope, remember this: glory is in you, and glory wins the day.

It’s the church’s job to help us see what’s coming, to help us see what’s true even now, particularly when what’s true lies buried underneath rubble and tears. Some of us are skilled at pointing out the sin, but our truest vocation is to point out the glory.

Look there now. Glory.

Good Ol’ Words: Preach

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I grew up in a world where parishoners referred to their pastors as preachers. I understand why some folks these days dislike the word, evoking for many grainy images of fire-belching crazies sweating like hogs and literally scaring the hell out of people. You don’t have to read too many stories, like Dennis Covington’s wonderful Salvation on Sand Mountain (the true saga of the snake-handling preacher of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following who tried to murder his wife with a crate of his rattlers), before you get the idea that preachers can be crazy coots.

This is too bad. In its truest sense, to preach means to announce (to declare) good news. To preach is not to blast wild, thoughtless words or to pretend to own a private hotline for divine truth. Rather, to preach is to refuse to stay silent when a soul is weary or a body undone.

A preacher believes we are starved for a good word, but the preacher will not surrender to the cynical belief that all the good words are gone. A preacher speaks up when the silence deafens, when we are desperate for a bit of light or hope. But a preacher also knows when to stop the talking, when to surrender the floor and let the quiet speak. A preacher tells the old story, and a true preacher simply lets this story stand, bearing its own weight, fully aware that the truth will both console and confound. The preacher does not use the Story or the Good Book (or words like gospeldisciplebiblical) as artillery or to build a following. A true preacher will not stand by when God’s grace or God’s mysteries suffer at the hands of boisterous, angry rhetoric or are desecrated by cliquish Christianity.

A preacher courageously opens her mouth when she sees how parched we are for words of life. A preacher weeps like Jeremiah when words will no longer do. A preacher sings a Psalm when darkness threatens to snuff out the hope. A preacher grieves when our foolish choices steer us toward death. A preacher gets riled when the poor are trampled or the powerful mock mercy. A preacher gets feisty whenever arrogant buffoons tarnish the stole.

To preach, in the old sense, is not a theatrical display or the opportunity for a polished speaker to wow the crowd. A preacher speaks to the very people surrounding him, the ones who need God’s voice in this one moment and amid these unique details. A preacher offers whatever he holds within his soul, whether born in travail or in joy, then gives that true thing fully, and humbly, to the people he loves. The preacher listens before she speaks, and afterwards too. Preaching is, as Marilynne Robinson says, one side of a passionate conversation.

If a preacher rarely laughs, or never cries, I do not trust him. Are we paying any attention at all to our world, to our God, to our own heart? Do we see the beauty, or the weariness, of those who receive our words? Do we have any inkling of the vast generosity and holy love of the One in whose name we speak? A preacher does not have a bully pulpit, but a meeting place from which to say again and again: God is here.

Karl Barth said that when he stood behind a pulpit, he assumed there would always be at least one person listening who, when hearing the story of scandalous grace, would surely be asking themselves: Could this possibly be true? “Then,” Barth said, “I preach to that person.”

Barth offers as good a description of preaching as I could muster. Preach to that single soul, to that one who’s desperate for a fresh possibility, a truly good word. This kind of preaching, this kind of life, will never grow old.

Good Ol’ Words: Member

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I was making myself at home. In the dark way of the world I had come to know what would be my life’s place, though I could not yet know the life I would live in it…I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the ‘membership’ of my life. I was becoming a member of Port William. {Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter}

More than a few years ago, ecclesiastical authorities pulled me from my seminary womb, spanked me on the butt and scribbled my name on an ordination certificate. They sent me into the world, green and ignorant but effusive with zeal. One of my enterprising ideals was to de-bunk the ossified notion of church membership. I tinkered with the possiblity that the whole affair was a formality offering little more umph than signing up for the YMCA. We wanted ‘organic community.’ We wanted to ‘authentically live life together.’ We didn’t want structures but wanted to do ‘life on life.’ Apparently, we also wanted to prop up a few clichés.

While it is true that the deepest forms of community do not require an official roll or imposed framework, there is also something about the commitment and responsibility inherent in the old ways that I too easily dismissed. The older you get, the more you realize that relationships and communities rarely happen – and are never sustained – naturally. Friendships require effort. Families require us to make difficult decisions about priorities, budgets and lifestyle. Neighborhood gardens need a plan for when folks plant seeds and pull weeds. This fact shouldn’t surprise us because it’s woven into the way of the universe. Those who are supposed to know tell me that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics insists that most every substance left to itself degrades over time, naturally.

My life with Miska is the most natural, hand-in-the-glove, reality I know. We certainly have made a practice of life-on-life. You could even call us organic lovers if you like. But I’ll tell you – this marriage gig is work, and it requires a kind of radical commitment best represented by solemn vows spoken before God and pastor and every witness who hears us say I do.

St. Paul spoke of life in Christ’s Church as one where we are all members of one body. We’re fixed to one another. We share space and blood and history. We don’t get to walk away from one another. To do so would require a violent severing; and after, we’d only shrivel and die. This is one of the beauties of family: you don’t get to choose who your family is — and we all have to learn how to be ourselves and how to let others be themselves even when those selves are very different. Love has to take priority.

While the wise apostle helped to reform my wayward views, Wendell Berry probably helped even more. In his novels, we’re given a picture of a community bound by history and heritage and land to a particular place and story. This bond makes them who they are. The neighbors who settled in his fictitious landscape are known as “the membership of Port William.”

I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our towns or neighborhoods merely as habitats where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order intertwined with one another’s past and future. I wonder what would happen if rather than viewing our churches merely as institutions where we plop down and pay taxes, we entered with the understanding that our mere presence means we are joining a membership, a living order where bad sermons and good pot-lucks, wise pastors and grumpy pew-mates (or grumpy pastors and wise pew-mates), dry seasons and fits of joy all contribute to the long story, the long membership. This membership is not a means to some other vision; this membership is itself the good work, the beautiful narrative enacted by the gracious fusion of misfit souls. As Wendell says, “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.”

When Hannah Coulter found herself gathered into the membership, without judgment or resistance due to her status as a late-comer, she described the grace she received. “They let me belong to them and to their place, and I needed to belong somewhere.” We all do.

 

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Good Ol’ Words: Blessing

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We have friends who’ve been through the ringer the past few years, a series of mysterious health issues complicated by debilitating reactions to almost all building materials. It made their home, as well as most every home available on the market, unlivable. As a result, our friends and their kids have been gypsies, bumping from neighbor to friend to family, sometimes only for a few days at a time, trying to hold their life together as they figure out their future. They hired a builder who fitted the house with custom specs aimed at shutting out these immune system offenders. It was a grand day when the builder handed our friends the keys to their beautiful home tucked among lush trees and just above a lovely creek. We’re praying this will be a place they can, for the first time since this ordeal began, sigh deeply and lay down their bodies, lay down their lives.

Several of us gathered to bless their house. One friend brought honey from the wild bees they keep on their wooded acreage. Another friend arrived with a bouquet of wildflowers. We all brought our hopes and our prayers. We stood on the front lawn, straw strewn over the clay dirt to hold moisture for the grass that will one day cradle the dew and tickle bare feet.

I helped their two boys take a leafed twig from one of their trees in the front yard, and I pulled out a small bowl of water. “In the Bible,” I said, “water symbolizes things being cleansed, made new, and even more, water symbolizes God’s presence with us.” I told the boys to be ready to take turns, ready to dip their leaves in the water and sprinkle each room.

We read Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, how they were to speak peace over every house they entered. Then we went on a tour. Due to health concerns, our friends have to build most of their furniture, so the rooms were sparse. Sleeping bags and pillows covered the bedroom floor, and a couple boxes sat in a corner of the living room. The furnishings may have been meager, but love was full to the brim. In each room, we’d ask, So tell us about this space. Who will live here, and what will this room be used for? What do you love about it? Tell us about what you hope to happen between these walls? Answers came quick and were beautiful. Hopes of laughter and joy, of good rest, of sunshine, desire to watch the light through the large windows and listen to the sounds from their woods.

Then, in each room, one of us prayed. We blessed whoever who would sleep there or the work that would be done there. We prayed for light and love. We prayed that evil would not cross this threshold. We prayed that the windows would rattle with laughter and gladness. Perhaps my favorite moment was when Miska prayed over the laundry room. Miska’s tears took her by surprise as she blessed this place of such quotidian grace, this place where ordinary love floods in and where our grime washes away. After each blessing, one of us would say: The Lord is here. The rest of us would answer: God’s Spirit is with us.

We concluded in the large open living space, circled and holding hands. We read a blessing from John O’Donohue, a poet who knew how to bless a place, to bless a life. After finishing the work we had come to do, we lingered. There are some experiences so precious you are not prepared for them to be finished.

There are many things we’re told the church is supposed to do these days, many of which seem to actually tear at our calling to live well in our place and with our people. However, could anything be more important than moments like these, moments when we walk through family halls or down a hospital corridor or atop a mountain ridge or through a precarious transition, listening to hopes and grabbing hands and speaking a blessing. We’ve been given the sacred trust to bless the soil and the sky and the cul-de-sacs and the cancer wards and the celebrations and even, with few words and heavy souls, the places of sorrow.

As our parting gift for our friends with the new house, we left a tile with St. Francis of Assisi’s blessing, the same one we have in our home. Perhaps they will hang it near their door as Miska and I have done with ours. These words pray a prayer over all who come and all who go. Pax et bonum. Peace and goodness over all.

Good Old Words

Language matters. God came to us as the Word. Our holy book offers us the Living Christ amid words. Words are woven into our God-crafted humanness. It’s hard to imagine how we could know ourselves or encounter our world or even begin to give ourselves to love without sharing language and symbols, without words.

This is why the Church needs poets and storytellers. We need folks who plant a disruptive seed in our imagination, who flip us topsy-turvy with their playfulness and their unguarded revelations. We need poets and preachers who brush past the cynicism, refuse fatigued dichotomies and fashion words like handcrafted dynamite. These happy subversives light the fuse and calmly set the short-wick sentence in our midst.

“That’s why we must be wordsmiths,” says Dallas Willard, “You use words to ravish people with the beauty of the kingdom.” Once words become a commodity, merely one of the tricks in our church-building bag, we wither. If words function only to help us hawk our wares, I promise you that sooner or later, no one will care. No one will ever be ravished with the beauty.

Writers are our friends here. Annie Dillard reflects how “writing is like working with wild horses…you have to go down and catch it again every morning.” To be a people of alive words is to be a people who believe that God has not gone silent, that God always has a fresh word for the beleaguered soul. In the church, our rhetoric may grow tired or cliché, but our God doesn’t.

I’m not suggesting a faddish chase for always newer, always more relevant, words – God help us, no. Rather, I’m asking if we could simply let these good, old words breathe again. Could we sit still and allow them their power? Could we sit with young king Josiah who dusted off the books of God’s Law, long forgotten? When Josiah heard the words, unfiltered, he ripped the clothes from his body. His heart thumped with fresh fire. We need the fire. We need the words.

The older I get, the more I become an advocate for church words, that peculiar language our foremothers and forefathers have passed to us. Some folks envision upgraded titles for their ecclesiastical functions (Sr. Vortex Visioneer or Missiological Brewmaster). I simply want to be known as a plain pastor – and then I want to enjoy the long, unpredictable path discovering what that word pastor might actually mean.

Many of these words sit patiently in the corner, unobtrusive, collecting dust. They are sturdy, rooted. These words know they’re not going anywhere, that sooner or later we will need them again, as we always do. Words like priest and glory, membership and doxology. Words with fire. Words that both singe and succor, if we’ll only let them burn. In the coming days, I may tinker with a handful of these good, old words, listen to them anew.

Tom Conlon, a friend and soulful songwriter, knows this terrain well. “People ask me how the music business is. I always say I have no idea. I’m not in the music business. There are older, better words – with much more of a history – for what I do. Troubadourminstrel, maybe. There are older, better words for most everything we do.”

Yes, there are.

And I have to tell you how after Tom said these words, he paused for a silence. Then added: “I hope we’ll be true to who we are.” This is what the good words do – they help us be true.

Preaching

The idea of ‘preaching’ has fallen on rough times, often tarnished by those who claim to be friends. Perhaps I’m a hopeless idealist, but I think it’s a mistake to surrender a good word to the wolves.

At the same time, I also feel like Reinhold Niebuhr who confessed, “There’s something ridiculous in a callow, young fool like myself standing up to preach.”

At any rate, I continue my Church Words series at Deeper Church today, pondering the old, out of favor word: preaching. This subject gets me stirred up.