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

Church and Grace

A video’s gone viral, perhaps you’ve seen it. It talks about loving Jesus but not religion. I appreciate some of the sentiment; but truthfully, the kind of dichotomy that guides this common phrase makes me want to scream and yank fists of hair from my head. Meanwhile, the internet-o-sphere has also been abuzz with tales of a well-known church that seems to rule its congregation with a heavy hand. That’s sad, sad and tiring. We need the common, plain practice of “pure and undefiled religion,” but we’re desperate for grace. We’re one confused lot. I’ve been thinking of jotting a few thoughts, but then a friend wrote in response to a series of posts (Why the Church?) I did a bit ago. I think our interaction offers a good entree into all this.


Dear Winn,

I was just reading through your blog and came across the “why the church” series. You invite (albeit from 18 months ago) people to comment. I have one question which you did not address.

Background: I like my church. It’s over 200 years old and has a splendid collection of conservatives and liberals, young and old, homeless and rich, etc. Problem is, Trudy and I don’t have much time to give it. Often, waking up on a Sunday morning is the only real down-time we have throughout our week. Putting our daughter Emma down for a nap and watching CBS’s Sunday Morning are the perfect ways to worship our Creator. We go to church, just with less frequency. I’m becoming convinced that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Nowhere is weekly attendance mandatory for us, perhaps unless we are paid by the church to do work.

So I guess my question is: What do we do for the uber-busy church attender who lacks time for an engaged church life?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

I am, as always, your friend,
Dwayne

Hey, Dwayne.

I’m glad you read those pieces; I enjoyed writing them.

There’s probably a lot of things I could say in response to your question, but I’m not your pastor and don’t know the textures of your life. So, it’s hard for me to give concrete advice. I’ll just say a thing or two in general. They may feel in opposition; but, heck, such is most of my life.

First, I’d say, relax. Take what comes and give whatever you have to give. In the church, people give what they’re able and take what they need. These things come and go. There really is no more time-annihilating season than early on with kids. It’s just hard, crossing the Rubicon hard. Do the best you can. Love will cover the details.

Second, I’d also say that everybody’s busy, and typically we make space for the things we truly want. Over the long haul, I can’t imagine a spirituality with roots deep enough to nourish and sustain us that isn’t melded with the communal practices of word and sacrament. God is everywhere, but God is uniquely present among the awkward and beautiful people He’s called His Body. Church is about physicality, presence. God with us, us with God – and all of us with one another. They say church isn’t about having your butt in the seat, but sometimes it’s about having your butt in the seat.

Does this mean such things ebb and flow in seasons? They must. Does anyone (including us pastor-types) need to freak out because we’re stretched in a season and need to call a timeout? Surely not. Does everyone (especially us pastor-types) need to be more playful about these things and (as Miska says) refuse to get our panties in a wad? Uh, yeah. Should we have questions if we find ourselves habitually unmoored from the practices and the people of faith? We probably should.

I can’t tell you exactly what rhythm presence and physicality require, but you’ll know it when it’s missing. Pay attention to that. And, in the mean time, catch sleep when you can and enjoy those Sunday mornings when needed.

peace and love,
winn

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Wonder

The shabbiest tuppeny doll will rejoice a baby’s heart for half the year, but your mature gentleman’ll go yawning his head off at a five-hundred franc gadget. And why? Because he has lost the soul of childhood. Well, God has entrusted the Church to keep that soul alive, to safeguard our candour and freshness … I’m not stopping you from calculating the process of the equinoxes or splitting the atom. But what would it profit you even to create life itself, when you have lost all sense of what life really is? Might as well blow your brains out among your test-tubes.                                      {Diary of a Country Priest}

There’s lots of talk in the church about getting the soul alive. I don’t hear as much talk about keeping the soul alive.

The old wizened priest, the one who’d live many years and served a simple parish and outlived most of his superiors as well as the various ecclesiastical fixations, had come to believe that the church was a caretaker, a guardian of the soul. There are lots of things the church does. There are many areas to which we speak. However, none of it takes precedent over the most basic function of assisting people in staying alive. Alive in God.

At the core, this means we do simple things. We remind people of who God is. We remind people of who they are. And then we teach people to keep their eyes open, watching for all the wonder God is crafting in us and around us.

Theological precision, astute and engaging preaching, missional initiatives, well-crafted liturgy – each of these, important as they are, must not be ends in themselves. They are the soil in which the soul grows. They are the fruit from a life lived awake in God’s garden.

Wonder is an important word here. I’d like to add it to our routine vocabulary. Perhaps as often as these questions: Is it correct? Is it effective? Is it scalable? We could ask Does it evoke wonder? Does it give me a greater sense of self and control or a greater sense of God? Does it move me to love?

When I ponder the many (and varied) expectations now prevalent for us pastors, the truth is that I don’t meet up well to many of them. Some of them I need to work on, and some of them I need to let go. But I think a prime calling for me is to help a person guard their soul, to ask them if they’re alive – and to encourage them to walk among the living.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Carried

You can’t go offering the truth to human beings as though it were a sort of insurance policy, or a dose of salts. It’s the Way and the Life. God’s truth is the Life. We only look as though we were bringing it to mankind; really it brings us, my lad.

{Diary of a Country Priest}

If I believe anything, it’s this: a pastor is not a huckster.

Hucksters harangue, they prod. They flash a grin and slap your back and tell a story or two to work their charm. But they don’t show a broken heart. They don’t sit with you in your questions, adding their questions to the mix. They don’t want any complications. They’ve got a product to unload, a point to make. They’re working the vision.

Somewhere along the way, Christianity became a brand. And we pastors became the chief peddlers. It’s a shame. Hucksterism may work to build a corporate identity, a crowd, some momentum. But it’s still a shame, a sham.

I don’t trust a pastor who’s selling something. I don’t trust a pastor who doesn’t know his own story and her own wounds. But show me a pastor who wrestles with the truth and who’s full aware that some answers are hard won, over a life of faith and sweat and laughter and tears – show me that pastor, and I’ll listen, I’ll follow. I long for a pastor who’s living the good life, honest and good.

My hope is that I might be the kind of pastor I’m looking for, the kind of pastor I’d trust. And as I see it, this begins with me owning the fact that my wisdom and leadership acumen is mildly helpful, at best. I don’t have any grace to hand out that hasn’t first been handed to me. I didn’t die on a cross or rise from the dead. I’ve got nothing to sell, nothing worth buying at least. My vocation has nothing to do with hawking Jesus-ware.

My work is to be brought along, to be carried by the Story. I’m to listen and then to retell the Story as best I know – and to never pretend that I’ve got the golden keys to either mercy or mystery. Whatever I know, whatever I’ve been given, it’s been done to me. Grace carries me here and there, and washes me up on the bank wherever, whenever, she has the urge.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Blessing

‘You’re in trouble,’ he said. ‘You must bless me.’ And he took my hand and raised it quickly to his brow. Then he was gone. There was certainly a strong wind blowing, but for the first time I saw he hadn’t straightened his tall figure: he walked bowed.

{The Diary of a Country Priest}



Each Sunday, after our church has heard the Gospel and sung our hymns and conversed around a text, after we have passed the peace with kisses, handshakes and hugs, after we have confessed ours sins and received Jesus’ forgiveness, after we have gathered as hungry people around the Table, received our fill and then prayed our prayers of thanksgiving and intercession — after all these movements telling and enacting God’s story – we prepare to leave our space where we have been together. But we are not ready to leave just yet.

We wait for a blessing.

This has come to be one of the moments I most cherish as a pastor. In this holy space, I invite the people to cup their hands, in a Hebrew posture of receiving. Then, with all the authority I can muster, I speak a word of blessing over all who are gathered, our community of sinners and saints.

A blessing is a direct word. It is spoken to a person. I grab as many eyes as I can. A blessing, done right, will not allow the pastor to live in the abstract. I pray the blessing over a mom who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep for ages. I’m blessing the dad who’s getting the screws turned on him at work. I’m blessing the student who cuts herself. I’m blessing the guy who’s slept through our entire worship, the same way he’s sleeping through his life. I’m blessing the couple about to split up and the guy who thinks God’s a bunch of hooey.

But it’s not really my blessing. I am standing there, simply offering Gospel words. I’m reminding my people who they are and how loved they are – and I’m reminding them of their God and of the true story their God is writing for them. I’m blessing my people because I believe with all my heart that God loves them – and because I love them.

Some Sundays labor on, the sermon barely registering or my emotions flat. Some days have all the life of an old, whipped hound. I wish it weren’t so, but so be it. Still, I’ve been granted the sacred opportunity to bless. I raise my hands and raise my voice. People of God, I begin. And then I tell them who they are, and as I tell them, I tell myself. God knows I need a blessing.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Bumbler

You’re too restless. Your’e like a hornet in a bottle. But I believe you have the spirit of prayer. 

{The Diary of a Country Priest}

I wish I had a nickel for every half-baked idea, every book I intended to write, every conversation I imagined having – but forgot. My wife Miska sniggers at my forgetfulness and my mispronounced (or made-up on the spot) words (friends have dubbed them winnisms). I’m too restless. I take a number of wrong turns. If I wore a clerical collar, most days it would boast a stain of coffee or smudge of salsa.

That hornet and I share a few things. We’re both bumblers.

Of course, I long to live attentive to God; and I could use a bit more order to create space for that to happen. However, I’m coming to see God among the imperfections, not against them. When you bumble, it’s a bit easier to shed pretense, to stop masquerading as God’s power-broker. I mean, who’s kidding who, right? And the words to the bumbler’s prayer come quick and easy: God, help me.

I’m learning that prayers are better prayed from weakness than from strength. Prayers when I’m lost. Prayers when I’m confused. Prayers when I’m despondent or blue. Prayer for a friend, a parishoner, a neighbor. Prayer for my sons I love and my wife I adore – I ache for the three of them, sometimes I fear for them – but what can I do, other than my bumbling best and ask for God’s mercy.

I once heard someone ask Frederick Buechner to describe his prayer life. His one-word answer: meager. Who am I to judge another man’s self-criticism? But — I’ve read too much of the man, heard the holy tremor in his words, seen glory and imagination dance on the pages. By my lights, every syllable is prayer-soaked.

Slowly, I’m coming to believe that every syllable of my life can be prayer-soaked. I can walk, wrong turns and all, in that “spirit of prayer.” Bumble prayerfully on.

The Diary of a Plain Pastor

And mind you many a fellow who waves his arms like a furniture-remover isn’t necessarily any more awakened than the rest. On the contrary. I simply mean to say that when the Lord has drawn from me some word for the good of souls, I know, because of the pain of it. {George Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest}

 

Sometimes my sermons are boring. I know, sometimes I bore myself. It’s actually worse for me. If you’re listening, you have the option of nodding off, and you can even appear especially spiritual if you arrange it to appear as though you are buried intently in your Bible. Standing at the lectern, however, it is immensely hard to snatch a snooze.

Thankfully, Christian preaching is not about capturing attention or giving the congregation a good whirl. Preaching takes shape in the very human act of a Christian community gathering together to speak, receive and obey God’s words. Seldom flashy. This should be no surprise. With my sons, I suspect it will be the mundane, forgotten rhythms far more than the few high-gravity encounters that will most profoundly shape their souls. Dinner conversations, popsicles on the front deck, afternoons mindlessly tossing the ball – it’s all about the rhythm, presence, living our story. The same for a church. We gather, we speak, we listen, we strike the rhythm again and again. We are present. We live the story.

Yet none of this suggests the Bible is dull or lackluster. The Good Book burns. The Word illumines. Preachers use to speak of a “fire in the bones.” I’ve felt that fire here and there. And the priest is right, there is a pain to it. There is a pain to knowing the stories of the friends who’ve gathered, the ones who can barely drag themselves, limp with tribulation or fatigue, to this sacred space. There is a pain to knowing that a few who are listening are giving God and hope one last shot, but just barely. There is a pain when you’ve seen a hint of something beautiful – but you know you have no words and that you can’t make anyone gaze along with you and that, even if you could make them, you wouldn’t because forced love strips all the love right from the thing.

The old priest speaks of God drawing the word from him, this word good for the soul. That seems about right. When one of these fire-in-the-bones moments happen, I confess it’s usually a surprise. Typically, it accompanies a solemn holiness or a rupture of laughter or, most often, tears – but it’s always as if something’s happening to me rather than me making something happen. It’s God prodding, God pushing into my own heart, finding my disappointment or joy or sorrow (for myself or others) and then bringing that hidden place into the open.

And it’s painful. It’s painful to be reminded of your own brokenness and to glimpse the brokenness of others more clearly. This isn’t a woe-is-me pain, for sure. This is the pain each of us knows when we’ve done a good work, and we cry and laugh at the beauty before us. The farmer viewing his crop at the cool of dusk. A mother watching her son walk the aisle. A painter laying down her brush and a poet speaking syllables into life. One of the strangest truths in God’s world is this uncanny coupling of pain and beauty.

But a good portion of my art happens in the parish. I’m a pastor, the plainest sort. And today I’m listening to the old priest and finding my own tale mingled with his.

The Church, Politics and Fear

Many have lamented that, in the current climate, political and cultural rhetoric within Christian circles evidences a lot of fear. Recently, a journalist doing a piece on this question asked me to comment. Here is my response:

Fear, like anger, most often emerges when we sense the chaos of losing control. When we believe that our power, our authority, our place at the center of the table is threatened, then we launch into maintaining (at least our sense of) control. When those who have an opposing sexual ethic, political narrative or religious commitment seem to be gaining ground, our fangs come out — all the better if we can use words from the Bible to do it.

The Kingdom of God requires that we tell the truth, that we obey Jesus, and that we live as witness to the Resurrection of the one to whom one day every knee will bow. The Kingdom of God never asks us to remain cultural or political control. In fact, Jesus, Paul and the early church were all marked by their refusal to play political games. If we truly believe that the Kingdom of God rules, then we have little angst when any of our human kingdoms begin to crumble. Conversely, if we have angst over crumbling human kingdoms, we might ask ourselves if we truly believe in the kingdom of God.

Barth liked to say that the marks of God’s kingdom were “deprivation and hope.” It seems to me that we are committed to doing anything and everything to resist our deprivation. The gospel invites us to utter deprivation, to come and die. That’s enough to scare anyone — but Jesus invites us into death, all the while saying, “Fear not.”

And how are we as the Church to respond in order to counter all this fear in our world? We need only keep telling the gospel story. We have nothing to protect. The gospel is our only allegiance – and the gospel doesn’t need our protection. And our dishonest or anger-laced response to others actually makes the gospel within us impotent. If we believe Jesus is King, then no other king, no other religion, no other political or historical reality, has any power over us. We truly have nothing to fear. If we are living in fear, it means we do not truly believe God.

The question is not so much how to handle our fear but how to believe and obey God. As the prophet Isaiah told Israel while they trembled against their foes, “If you fear God, you need fear nothing else.” We live in an anxious world, and the only way I can see to speak against that anxiety is to declare that there is One who reigns over the world.