The Membership. The Real One.

We who spend our days in the ecclesial world feel a grave temptation to think of the church in idyllic terms. We often speak of The Early Church (and precisely this way, all caps) with hushed solemnity as if it were some perfected version of Christian life that we must scratch and claw to recreate. As if these little bands of would-be disciples did not have grumpy parishioners and troubled kids, as if their marriages weren’t on the skids and their fervor didn’t wear thin. As if they did not have their share of wild sex scandals. As if the apostles didn’t shake their heads at times in frustration for all the folks who were not “on mission” (whatever that happens to mean in a moment).

I wonder if our fascination with The Early Church exists because we are so disappointed with the real church. If we can lionize a community that doesn’t actually exist, then we can save ourselves from having to live in the grind of the one that does. The longer I pastor, the more I believe that we are to live in the church we have, with the people we have. This is the only church that exists right now, for me.

Wendell Berry’s Port William community exists in multiple ways as a midrash on our refusal to live well in the places where we are, with people as they are, welcoming all their grime and glory. Wendell describes Port William:

It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership…

A membership. A community that is bound together in a time and in a place. A membership that exists not because of its grandeur or vision or ability to accomplish things – but a membership that exists because, well, it simply is

My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

michael costa

Image by Michael Costa

The Anxious Church

The Martha and Mary story will not leave me, particularly Jesus’ tender concern for the burden Martha carried. An anxious heart will bury the soul, this I know.

I see a lot of anxiety these days. It’s tricky business to locate because anxiety can appear so helpful, so “concerned,” so righteous, so radically Christian. Most anxious people are not cowered in the corner biting their fingernails. Most anxious people are working like mad, intently focused, advocating, pushing. We rarely call a spade a spade here because anxious people get stuff done. Anxiety is a mighty potent fuel.

We’re anxious that we’ll louse it up as parents, so we frantically read and worry and jump expert to expert. We’re anxious for the injustices of our world, so we charge from cause to cause with no space for life or laughter or human frailty. But some day, these anxious fumes will burn out; and even if they blaze eternal, could we stop to consider the kind of life we’re burning to the ground in the process?

A great sorrow to me is that the Church (the very people to whom Jesus said, Go live, free as a lark and My burdens are light and Don’t be anxious. For real, don’t) is often the most anxious-laden place I know. We’ve got budgets to raise and mission to accomplish, a city to save for crying out loud. And anxious rhetoric gets stuff done.

An anxious church may be a prosperous church or a socially engaged church or an exciting church, but in the end it will prove to be a hollow church and a tired church. When the Spirit is active, our work is not a burden that buries us but a dance that invigorates us.

Whatever else we might accomplish, if our churches never guide us into places of deep rest (those green pastures the Psalms speak of), then we have surrendered the very life God has given us.

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.

We Need More Barbershops

barbershop1I’ve always wanted the experience of Calvin, Eddie, and JD in Barbershop – or those ragamuffin friends who shared gossip and Mayberry’s political intrigue under the lather of Floyd the barber. If I ever found an Eddie, I’d go in at least twice a week for a trim, but mainly to get the wisdom and to leave with a belly aching from waves of deep-gut laughter.

Instead, my last twenty years have been spent jumping from shop to shop, mostly vanilla corporate enterprises with all the zest and character of a microwave waffle. The models plastered on all the posters look like they stepped out of Abercrombie & Fitch, heads overflowing with perfect hair and eyes offering that ‘come hither’ smoky gaze. The fellas in the pictures surely have the six-pack abs to match, six more reasons I know I don’t belong. Usually, the stylist takes quick inventory of me, cueing up her pitch for product sales. My ever-widening bald spot is the easy target. Typically, I can’t count to 50 before I hear: “So, have you ever thought of trying our hair growth system?” or “I wonder if you’d be interested in our hair-thickening shampoo?” Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a joint like this.

I think Eddie wouldn’t be caught dead in a lot of the places we create. For all our talk about building communities (can you even actually build a community?), I wonder if what we’re frantically and fastidiously replicating is really only a bland and hollow shop where we hawk our wares and put our best face forward, where we can get things done as efficiently as possible.

I tell you, I want something jagged and real, even if it’s abrasive and unpredictable. I want the kind of friendships, the kind of church, where it’s plain as day that, from beginning to end, the only thing holding that tattered lot together is grace and good old fashioned forgiveness. I want to belong to a place where you know that if you pull that one scraggly string, the whole kit and caboodle would unravel to the ground. But nobody pulls that string because the love that binds you is too strong. So you simply let the string hang, and it reminds you to never get carried away by the illusions that you’ve got everything squared.

Several weeks ago, I went into one of these style shops and was surprised to discover I had stepped into a jolt of real life. There was an older woman seated behind me, her hair up in foil. Several other women were gathered round her, and they were emphatically extolling the virtues of the TV drama Dallas. One of the friends explained how she planned to catch up on the latest episode from her DVR that evening. “Oh, you are in for a treat tonight,” the foiled woman answered, with a twinge of gleeful revenge. “The Ewings are going to get their due.” Several other women slapped their legs and cackled their agreement.

“Now isn’t JR dead?” asked one woman who was not yet part of the Dallas obsession.

“Oh, JR is dead,” answered the foiled woman. “Dead dead. He died for real, so they had to kill him off right.”

“Yeah, he’s dead,” a third woman added. “He’s dead, and he’s not coming back.”

The whole bunch of ladies fell into laughter. The Ewings were going to get their due, and that was mighty fine with them.

I think Eddie would have stayed in this shop a while, me too.

Amy’s Letter

A day or two ago, I got caught up in a flash of inspiration. These don’t come often, and when they do, you’ve got to grab that dragon and ride, ride, ride.

What started to be one thing ended up another, and lo and behold a (very) short story came to life. It shaped up as a tale about a three-ring circus, a brave letter and a woman who calls it like she sees it. The story starts like this:

Fred and Amy were neighbors on Rural Route 28. Their mailboxes shared a weathered post at the end of the gravel lane. This seemed fitting since their families also shared a weathered pew at Zion Presbyterian Church. Fred and Amy, along with Stan the tire salesman and Robert the county’s public defender, made up Zion’s Pastoral Search Committee. Though a thankless job, their assignment did mean that every Thursday night, they’d sit in the church’s empty manse, drink Folgers and have a few minutes to shoot the shit. Then they’d return to the pile of resumes that supposedly represented the last hope for their beleaguered flock. (read on)

I wrote this for a friend, but I’ve discovered it was even more for me. This story gets at some of my deepest frustrations with the predicament we find ourselves in – but also it gets at my grandest hopes for I what I mean when I use the word pastor. I’d be pleased to share it with you.

Oh – and may I add: if you have a pastor, go easy on ’em, chances are they’re getting their teeth kicked in at least a couple times a month. And if you have a good pastor, tell ’em so. They may not act like your gratitude matters, but I absolutely promise you that it does.

Tell Me the Truth

Since I’m a pastor, I find myself having more than your average number of conversations (though I have no idea who keeps these stats) on subjects of temptation and desire, shame and hope. These terrains of the soul are universal, common to all; but it’s remarkable how agonizingly difficult it can be to own these spaces.

These conversations, not to mention my own story, has led me to a simple conclusion: The Church should not teach people to lie. Unfortunately, though, too often we do. I say more about this on a piece for the good folks at A Deeper Church.

Membership

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 insisted the whole affair was a formality offering no 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 craft our own clichés.

Years have, I believe, brought a humble measure of wisdom. Reading Wendell Berry and my Bible have added a bit more. I’ve reflected on all this with a piece for Deeper Church, if you’d care to tussle with these ideas further.

Hubris

hubris_winn_collier_writerThe current cultural moment – if you scratch the ol’ noggin for 10 seconds I bet you’ll locate it – has made me think about hubris. And compromise. But mainly hubris.

We humans really do cling to the idea that we can ramp up the brainpower and the muscle and the research and eventually, with enough grit and grind, conquer all. The deluge of campaign ads piped into my living room has piled a mile-high heap of promises at my feet. Promises that we know will not, could not, be kept.

And how these politco types keep a straight face while they talk about themselves with such grand gestures and adjectives, I’ll never comprehend. I imagine myself in one of those interviews or filming a commercial – and I imagine Miska standing to the side, eyebrows raised, hands on her hips and giving me that Seriously? look. One glance from her, and I’d break into laughter, toss the mic and say, “Yeah, just kidding.” One state politician, one I’m likely to vote for, has a commercial so self-congratulatory, you’d think he was the reincarnation of both Mother Theresa and Winston Churchill wrapped into one sublime human being.

What have we done to ourselves?

And with this hubris goes the notion that we are all right, and they are all wrong (whoever we and they happen to be). We no longer listen, that most crucial human posture. We score points. We push others into a corner. We say things we couldn’t possibly actually mean, if heads were cool.

If only the wider culture could pay more attention to the Church, where we model such an alternative way…

(awkward pause, as we let the sarcasm linger)

My grandfather, who had firm convictions and at times owned the label fundamentalist, told me several times, “Winn, always remember – compromise is not a bad word. There’s always extremes, and usually if you pay attention, you’ll find the truth somewhere in the middle.” Of course, this posture requires patience and thoughtfulness and a commitment to honor other people – and to discover the best version of their stories and their beliefs. This posture requires humility and eschews hubris.

John Climacus, a medieval mystic, said: “Where there is no humility, all things rot.” I’m sad to say that a stench too often fills the air. I contribute to it, I know; and I want to stop.

The Rings We Wear

I’ve lost my wedding band. Three times. The first mishap occurred during a volleyball game, my ring flying off my hand during a vigorous block. Friends dropped on all fours and scoured the ground, retrieving the ring from the grass within minutes.

A few years later, we were traveling I-40 and stopped in Jackson, Tennessee to clean up puke from two boys who were cycling through their second round of the virus from Hades. In a moment of exasperation, I flung my arm in the air. The ring sailed off my hand, hitting the asphalt with a metallic ding, bouncing and then rolling down the black top. Catching an incline, the ring gathered steam, and before I could catch up, it dropped over the edge of a drainage grate, down with the muck and out of reach. An hour or two later, several kind men from Jackson’s traffic department arrived, wrenched the grate from the concrete and fished out my tarnished band.

In 2007, my good luck ran out. I spent much of the day tending to our yard, and it wasn’t until showering that I recognized my ring missing. Our friend Michael arrived with his metal detector, revved to have a real live emergency requiring his machinery. Salvaging a man’s token of eternal love provides purpose more noble than unearthing bottle caps or buffalo nickels at the beach. Unfortunately, after a few disappointing hours, the ring was pronounced truly gone.

I planned to save for a replacement, but the following year Miska had an alternate idea. For her thirty-fifth birthday, Miska wanted a second tattoo. Only, for this occasion, she wanted me to join her, and she suggested an inked wedding band. Surely you’d know I’m not the tat type, but what man could say no to such a request? I’m a romantic, and if I’m ever to have permanent markings etched on my body, it would be for the purpose of permanently declaring my love for Miska my fidelity to the vow of marriage.

People often remark on my ring. Clerks at checkout lines point it out, and friends are curious if it hurt and how I found the design. A couple of years ago, at a hotel in Denver, the concierge ogled over the tattoo. He grew animated, peppering me with questions. When I told him it was my wedding band, his face contorted. He took a step back, with a look of disgust, like I’d just greeted him with a Heil, mein Führer! 

“Why would you ever do a thing like that?” A rebuke, not a question. “What will you do when you don’t want to be married to her anymore?”

It took me a moment to make sure I heard him correctly. Regaining my footing, I said, “You may be missing the point.” I took my room key and headed for the elevator.

There’s a reason why I searched like mad for that missing ring those three times, and it had to do with much more than dollars. There’s a reason why my hand felt bare, and my heart a little too, those stretch of months with no ring to call my own. Few would be foolish enough to say it doesn’t matter, it’s just a symbol. Wearing that ring is itself a way of being faithful, a way of renewing your vow every time you slip it on. When a man removes his ring before he steps into a bar, this act, with no further hanky panky required, carries the treachery of betrayal.

True symbols allow us to participate in whatever reality they symbolize. We are physical people in a physical world, and God has gifted us with physical encounters, mysterious symbols that welcome us to participate in tangible grace. Much of the church knows them as sacraments. When I am buried in water, grace covers me head to toe. When I drink wine and eat bread, Jesus feeds me and sustains me.

I couldn’t tell you precisely why or how this is so. But then neither could I tell you exactly why my inked ring renews my marriage covenant or why I wanted to tag that clerk on the jaw for playing loose with my promise.

Beautiful Mundane

I woke this morning, as I do many mornings, to my alarm cranking out “Desperado.” It seems appropriate (for numerous reasons) to be asked at the moment of waking whether I intend to come to my senses. It was too early for my taste; it’s almost always too early for my taste. It’s a second Monday, so I dressed and joined a few friends downtown at The Haven where we dished out a hot breakfast of coffee, cream of wheat, cinnamon apples and fried eggs.

Most mornings, I’m dishing breakfast at home to two boys and a wife. Boiled eggs, oatmeal, grapefruit – we don’t vary much. We eat at 7:30. We read a bit of Scripture around the table. After a few frantic rounds of hunting misplaced socks and signing homework and dashing up and down the stairs for sundry forgotten items, we pack the boys off to school. After, I’ll usually take a run, with a few prayers offered along the way. Then, like most every adult on the planet, it’s to the grind. There may be writing or meetings, study or planning. There’s always a list to be tended to, that list scribbled somewhere on this cluttered desk of mine. Fridays offer sweet Sabbath, followed by Saturdays with family chores and grocery shopping and sometimes an attempt at a family adventure. Sunday brings Bodo’s bagels at our kitchen table followed by worship around Jesus’ Table, with an evening nightcap of egg sandwiches, tea and Downton Abbey. Mondays, we begin again.

This rhythm provides a mundane beauty. It’s beauty – a firm beauty that bears up under the years. But it’s also mundane. It’s rhythmic. It’s love that proves itself by the unwavering decision to love well and love steady, over and over. It’s a love that lets a boy know that what he needs will always be here, sure and regular as the sun rising. Perhaps he won’t notice it for years, but the day will come – I promise you the day will come – when that gracious rhythm will give him a lifeline. It’s a love that a wife offers her husband and a husband his wife, a love that says I’m right here, right by your side. We’ll steal a kiss every chance we get; but between those toying moments, my love will be present, my love will show up. And keep showing up.

These mundane rhythms, as much as the brilliant flashes, form the person we are. These mundane rhythms are our quotidian liturgy.

This is true in every family, even the family nurtured in faith. We’re eager to latch on to some new-fangled way of being Christian. Disappointed with our slow progress or restless with the boredom that inevitably sets in whenever you are participating in things that are beautifully mundane, we think there must be some quick way, some non-mundane way. There isn’t.

Because I’m a pastor, I’m often asked our strategy for helping people obey and follow Jesus. There’s lots of things we will do along the way, as we pay attention to our family and to the particular needs of the particular people in our midst. However, if you want to know our plan, it’s about as quotidian as it gets: Gather with your community and worship your God on Sunday. Pray prayers and sing prayers. Receive and give the peace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Hear and believe the Scriptures. Confess your Sins. Receive the Eucharist, drinking deep draughts of grace. Receive a blessing. And then go out into your mundane, beautiful world and love your God and love your neighbors.

If we do those things, over and over, we will find ourselves following Jesus. We will find ourselves receiving and giving love.

image: wildhotrad