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.

The Unproductive Church

 

factory

I am a pastor, which means I am often in the company of weary, disillusioned people. On any given Sunday, fatigue, loneliness and a restless disappointment are easy to spot if we care to pause from our shimmering sermons, our missional initiatives or our attempts to “love the city” long enough to love that one person and ask a basic human question: Say, where’s your heart these days?

Rarely do we ask such questions, however. These queries require a gentle posture and a slow curiosity, two practices which have fallen out of favor. These simple, genuine conversations work to see, not manage, the person before us. No agendas, no angling for how we might hoist the run amok coaster back on track. No prodding that poor, lackluster soul. Oh-so-important church work be damned, we want to know where you’re finding joy, where you’re worn thin, when’s the last time you got misty-eyed.

If we ask such things, though, the machine will likely have to idle for a bit, perhaps even lurch to a full stop. Of course, machines cannot flex with the varying seasons of the soul. But a family can. So can a friendship. The church, if it is true to its name, will refuse the allure of mechanized production (even when it promises some strained version of “success”). Rather, we will seek to be neighbors and friends. We will give as much space to leisure as we do to leadership.

Years ago, I pastored a struggling church in Denver. We had moved west for my wife Miska to attend grad school, and I’d only been on the job a couple months before coffee meetings with parishioners began to repeat the same themes. Dear people would sit across from me, speaking with tenderness so as not to wound. I’m really sorry, Winn. I like what you’re doing with the church and I appreciate the sermons, but something’s just not right here. Our family’s withering. I think we need to leave.

Each time, I found myself having the same response. You know, I think you’re right, You and your family need to find another community. It sounds like we’re weighing you down. A rouse-the-troops speech if ever there was one. A pastor of a small church only has to have this conversation a few times before the handwriting glows on the wall. Nine months later, the leadership council spoke a blessing over the church’s many years and many good stories and laid the exhaustion to rest.

I hope I never again need to preside over a community’s farewell, but that time with those good people confirmed one thing: crushing a person’s soul to save the cause is always too high a price to pay.

 

Photo courtesy Lars Plougmann

Safe

fence tree yard

In several unrelated settings recently, I’ve heard people describe (with immense gratitude) their spiritual community as “safe.” This struck me as odd and beautiful. Odd because one rarely hears safe attached to church. It is true of course that too often church is the last place we encounter unflinching acceptance that invites us to express eviscerating doubt, paralyzing fear or the numbing loneliness that a sermon and song could never fix (an inexplicable predicament when our prayers and worship are shaped by the Psalter, the most uncensored religious text I could imagine) — but none of that’s exactly what I mean. I simply mean that safe is rarely a religious word. It’s simply not part of the eclessial lexicon. Maybe it should be.

In each of these conversations, the person had encountered something generous, something spacious and healing in the rhythms, posture and tenderness of their spiritual circle. Best I could understand, they found room to breathe, room to be themselves, even if the selves they are right now seems to have little to offer and arrives as a Grade A mess. They knew the joy of the slow knowledge (over time) that their community possessed the strength and the patience to bear their full selves, that they would be honored and would receive tenderness and would never be shamed. There was room to be playful and to fail and to have a long stretch where their head’s just not right and they are not “productive” members. They’ve been told that their mere presence is enough, that it’s a gift – and they’ve slowly begun to believe it. So safe might be odd, but it’s also so, so beautiful.

Many of us live in fear of being exposed. Exposed for not being as smart as people think we might be or expect us to be. We fear what would happen if someone saw us in the true muck, at our absolute worst. We fear (particularly in church settings) what will happen if we ‘fess up to the shadow themes in our story or let loose with the questions that haunt us. We play the charade because we lack courage, and perhaps we lack courage because no one else has courage. Perhaps we are all afraid together. Perhaps none of us feel safe. Perhaps we are all alone, in the same big room.

So when someone tells me they have found a safe place, I perk up. I want to belong to a safe community. I want to be a safe person for others.

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.