Pastoring in the Tension

I hate the profession of pastoring right now.  There, I said it.  I love being a pastor, I love caring for people, I love preaching – even when I must preach a difficult, prophetic sermon – I love the church I currently serve, I love this call.  But holy crap, we have found ourselves in a terrible time to try to pastor to people and the larger church.

Just open your Facebook account.  Today Iowa still has not declared a final count for the Caucus, President Trump gave the State of Union Address last night, and Nancy Pelosi ripped her copy of his speech in half after he finished – after he refused to shake her hand before he started.  Oh, and the impeachment vote will happen today.

What did your friends say about these things?  Or, for the pastors who might hear this, your parishioners?

I saw both Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump revered as the second coming of Christ and feared as the arrival of the anti-Christ.  I saw conservatives and liberals derided as stupid evil and deified as the saviors of our nation.  I saw discussion not happening and hyper-partisanship ending all dissent.

This morning, before I even got out of bed, I saw these things.  Long before I even got to the office to contemplate worship for the week and how I address another long list of unique things I have to address less some thought leader recommend people leave my church – or rather, I have to decide what gets addressed and what I cannot speak to – I saw all these things.

And, just by pointing out the hyper-partisanship, someone will inevitably accuse me of “Enlightened Centrism,” a code-word for complacence in evil by not choosing to fall in line with a side.  I cannot win; I will fail every purity check of the left and the right, and I will always be the “problem” despite my desire to do something right.

We live in a time were people celebrate a former moderator of the General Assembly publicly endorsing a candidate and publicly accusing other candidates of a whole host of evils – and publicly stating that people voting for any other party doom the nation.  And, when I say this, someone will accuse me of being an Alt-Right white-supremist.  How dare I question the actions of someone like that?

Pastors, I have a question for you: do you see any pastoral sensitivity in anything we do in 2020?  Recently, at a meeting where the group would vote on the proposed direction for the presbytery, a vocal activist equated being conservative with being evil to prove their point in a room of fairly liberal church people – and my parishioner, a moderate conservative trying to figure out her place in this church, sitting right beside her.

What the Hell should I do?  Do I stand up against the prevailing winds because I want pastoral sensitivity and for us to deal with our internal hyper-partisanship so we can more effectively reach out people who have loving hearts and misguided minds?  Do I just let the prevailing winds blow the church as they want because the ultimate goal lines up with the message of Christ despite its problematic language and method?  Do I even get to call it problematic when the problems come from isolating people the larger American church has largely coddled in decades past – and I see it as unhelpfully driving people away from the message instead of convicting them to change?  Do I just give up, sit in my little corner, do what I can to move the needle slightly toward love in maybe one person in the congregation I serve, and just be okay with that?

As I pain over that tension, I also have to provide pastoral care to people.  I know thought leaders say we worry too much about pastoral care, but I guarantee you the woman whose husband forgets who she is when he stands will not hear anything about whatever soap box the larger church demands I stand on today.  I guarantee the man who had to make the difficult decision to put his wife in a care facility because he could not longer care for her – and then had an appendectomy within two weeks – will not hear my prophetic message.  Or even make it to church.

Some people God called me to care for vote straight-ticket Republican, some straight-ticket Democrat, and they all need care.  My sermons, my social media presence, my speaking about politics will affect their ability to receive care from me.  I do not have a pastoral care staff.  I have some volunteers, but they are not trained in any real way.  They all have professional and personal lives outside the church.

When someone stares down death – either their own or a loved-one’s – I am it.  I believe they give me more leeway to accept my care when I get a bit feisty in the pulpit than I acknowledge, but I know a line of “too far for this moment” exists and I refuse to participate in pastoral ministry that does not at least acknowledge were my people are and what they can hear in a moment – and then receive the care God called me to give them afterward.

I find myself likening this profession to a tightrope walk, which itself just lends itself to the difficult beauty of this calling, but a thing has happened.  Thought leaders have demanded we do not spend time on that tightrope and only worry about staying apolitical for the sake of providing care or worry about having a prophetic voice and find someone else to provide that care.

You know where the tightrope is easiest?  On the edges, off the actual rope.  If you refuse to balance the multiplicity of this calling, of course you can just say whatever you want from the pulpit without any sort of sensitivity or just not rock the boat in your sermons because you always think about the hospital room and the funeral home.

I think the profession used to rejoice – if privately lamenting – the balancing act we must do and the tension we feel between all our callings.  Or, at least I thought that when I started seminary.  Now, though, I only see thought leaders and “important pastors” pretending that all pastors have staffs, budgets, and opportunities to do all the activism and prophecy – and condemning pastors who have pastoral work to do.

Pastors, I have another question: how many of you actually feel supported?  Hopefully your spouses, partners, and families provide some support, but who actually feels supported in their ministries – and their struggles in this soul-killing tension – by colleagues, regional ministers, or church leadership?  Or, like me and so many others that I talk to, feel like they have to do it all alone and no one cares about their struggles – and they do not even have a place to express those struggles at all?

Pastors, I have yet another question: how many of you have received the answer, “Find a Therapist, Spiritual Director, or Coach,” when you express frustration over your lack of support?  How messed up has the church gotten that we say that you need to pay for the support you need?  We preach in a time of hyper-partisanship, provide pastoral care for people we need to preach a prophetic message to, and then must pay for someone to care about our struggles.

We have to choose to pastor in the tension – or choose not to.  I just do not know how we sustain this.  Or is it just me?

Peace,
– Robby

Who Am I?

Who Am I?

New Year’s Eve.  A day to contemplate the previous year and try to discern the path for the next.  For me, and a few others, I suppose, this day provides a moment for depressive introspection.

Oh, just me?  Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool…

This really starts from a different question that invades my thoughts almost hourly: Am I enough?  I have immense gratitude for a few colleagues who have answered that for me resoundingly and loudly despite my inner being’s inability to hear it.

My car read me the first text below after I had just sent a friend “Thank you” for the unearned support and love she gave me.

Imagine the wall of emotions – while in a very emotionally raw state – when I heard the word “enough” instead of the “welcome” I anticipated.

Calling me Bobby Brown just made it clear she sent it from a place of authenticity.

Today Brian McLaren posted New Year’s Resolutions for Pastors and “Smoke What You’re Selling” really hit me.  I think, at some level deeper than just intellectual, I have started to believe I am enough.  I am starting to hear as I say it to the parishioners God sent me to serve.

Not perfectly – I will probably always struggle with feelings of vast inadequacy – but the message has started to go from my brain to my soul.

As I try to internalize it, another force starts working against me.  Thought leaders like John Pavlovitz instructing you to leave your church if your pastor does not speak out against (insert weekly atrocity)*, Will Willimon telling a room full of pastors to abandon pastoral care for prophetic preaching, mega-church pastors saying they understand the pains of small church ministry because they went down to 3,000 members instead of 10,000 while they say the pastors do not spend enough time crafting perfect sermons while sitting in their multi-staff ivory towers, William Barber demanding Christians actively protest and march against the atrocities of the world, and so many others who truly see evil in the world and want to actively change it while not leaving space for any path other than their own.

I have wrestled with this a lot this year, and I see the same evils in the world they do.  I have wrestled with how I walked along a path to overt white-supremacy and only found myself changing and healing when a couple of loving people showed me a different way – and how my path could not co-exist with my desire to care for and love all people.  I know this calling – the Rev. behind my name and pulpit I fill – require me to speak out against evil in the world and use a prophetic voice from time-to-time.

But I struggle to reconcile who I am when I see these demands by intelligent thought leaders – who I agree with largely in philosophy – conflict with the realities of my ministry.  I found myself needing to ask “Who am I?” to even begin the process of reconciling my call and the very vocal demands of thought leaders many of my colleagues blindly follow.

Who am I?

Quick cute break: Giselle is snoring – loudly – just a few feet from me.  Thought you could use a picture:

Aww!

This whole thought process started last night.  I watched the Season 13 finale of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and THIS SCENE HAPPENED and she says, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay…” and it just gut-punches you in the most beautiful way possible.  The whole scene comes from Mac’s season-long battle to figure out his identity and place in the world – and trying to express that identity to a father who refuses to understand. 

I sat there watching this beautiful scene, tears welling up in my eyes, and my mind just asked that question.  “Who am I?”  Now, my struggle for identity comes from a professional and spiritual place and not my sexuality – and I acknowledge my co-opting one thing for another – but in this time of identity politics, purity checks for advocates, allies, and politicians, and the constant demand for preachers to speak with a prophetic voice that mirrors the voice of popular thought leaders, I have wondered what the Hell my identity is.

I know this comes from feelings of isolation and abandonment, from not finding a community to join that wants the full version of me (I have so much thankfulness for a congregation that wants the full version of me to lead them, a thing I feared would not happen), and from not knowing which part of me I would need to change to find community.

When I get to this stage of thinking about my identity, all my wounds from bullying, isolation, and (insert deeper things I do not need to write about here) start bleeding all over the keyboard.  I look in the mirror and wonder to myself, “Who the Hell are you?  What about you is more than privileged milquetoast feeling sorry for himself?”  Especially when every theological and denominational battle becomes “Us vs Them” and I checked “Neither and Both,” I want to just start saying, “I have no identity and I want to find the community that requires no identity.”

But, in rare moments of self-loving clarity, an identity does appear in the mirror: pastor.

I look at myself and I have to say the things I do/have:

  • I am sensitive to the pains and struggles of others – and what words and actions do to others.
  • I desire to make the world better and do what I can from my position and calling to create feelings of justice in the hearts of the people I lead.
  • My heart and soul demand I care for the people whom I shepherd in their moments of deepest pain.
  • I preach – well – to a congregation that I know personally and have provided care for outside of the pulpit.

I am not a prophet – at least I do not think I am.  I have a prophetic voice that I use, I will speak justice to power, and I do address sin, but I cannot fulfill the role of prophet as thought leaders demand of all clergy.

I am not an ally.  I do not do enough.  I do what I can, but it falls short of what marginalized communities need to call someone a true ally.  I love, I teach, and I try to move my congregation in the right direction, but I do not do enough for someone else to call me an ally.

I am not a preacher.  I preach – again, fairly well – but I absolutely will let other tasks of pastoral care – and self-care – interfere with polishing and perfecting a sermon to speak the needed prophetic messages.

I am a pastor.  A lonely pastor, a pastor without consistent community, a pastor who does not make friends easily, a pastor regularly and constantly fails the purity checks – either of moral purity from the conservative side or justice purity from the liberal side – which makes him inadequate for almost every clergy group, a pastor who fails his congregation not infrequently, but a pastor who God ordained, a denomination ordained (after many years of hostile battle), and a church called to serve them.

I do not know how to reconcile this with the world and the church at large.  I do not know how to reconcile that with political trends in our broken, human expression of the Body of Christ.  I do not know how to make that identity work in community when my identity only opens doors of traditional community that wants nothing to do with me.

But today, I know this:

I am a pastor.  My pastoral identity demands I provide pastoral care.  Providing pastoral care for my entire congregation – not just those who agree with – require me to step lightly.  If I am enough, and God made me who I am intentionally, that must be enough.  Thought leaders will – and have – said it is not, but I am enough, so that must be enough.

My goal for 2020: internalize that and find a community who will accept me for that.

Peace,
– Robby

*I know I have linked and responded to this post before.  Still chaffs me a bit as I try to do what I can while still being a pastor to right-leaning congregation.

I Did Not Forget

I will never forget that feeling.  We drove to the next town over to buy gas, and we sat in line, waiting.  The prices steadily rose until someone important finally said, “No, put the prices back where they belong.”

We filled each of our vehicles out of fear that the gas supplies would run out.  We wanted to get gas before the prices skyrocketed more than they already had.

I remember seeing lines outside of Red Cross Blood Donation centers.  People decided to donate from their very bodies, people who had not donated before.  I remember how much we wanted to come together and provide for the people affected.

I remember that feeling of unity, and then I remember a more powerful feeling mimicking that unity: hate.

In 2001, conservatives taught me their knowledge of Islamic faith, about evil Middle Eastern countries, and about Jihad.  Not one bit of that knowledge contained a sliver of untwisted truth – most justly racist and imperialistic propaganda – but I learned that “those people” hated freedom and America.

I learned to hate the other.  And I learned that patriotism required me to hate.

And so I did.  I supported a plan to turn the Middle East – except Israel – into a glowing sheet of glass with our nuclear bombs.  I wanted war so we could do…something…I honestly have no idea what goal I thought the war had, but I wanted it.

We had an opportunity, 18 years ago, to say that we care only about the content of your character and become a nation of unending lines outside blood donation centers and responding to acts of terror with love, compassion, and strength of character.  We could have become the nation of our ideals and our promises.

Instead we allowed the bigots, racists, and war hawks to create a culture of hatred of the other.  They convinced us that, if we did not hate the other, we desired more attacks on our soil.  Many of us – especially young, impressionable minds like mine – just went along with it.

“We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way!”  We rallied around songs calling us to respond to terror with violence and hatred.

And please, do not misunderstand me.  Terrorists exist and desire to create terror for some abstract and unattainable goal, but their religion serves as a tool to their terror, not a cause.  The Muslim doctor in a hijab had no desire to kill me – or even convert me – as we discussed DNR/DNI options with a patient during my CPE, and plenty of white, Christian men have killed people this year alone in an attempt to do something I cannot comprehend while using their “faith” as the justification.

We could have done better.  We failed.  But maybe we can try to do better.

I will never forget.  I will never forget images of first responders running into the towers, condemning themselves to death in a futile attempt to save people.  I will never forget hearing the phone calls from Flight 93 and the heroics of the passengers that saved lives.  I will never forget the feeling of fear and the realization that we, too, could experienced violence of that degree on our mainland.  I will never forget that terrorists attacked us and want to destroy us.

But I will not let that memory become a path to hate.  If you want to do something to remember, make this a day of charity and hospitality.  Donate blood, donate to aid agencies, volunteer, learn first aid, renew your CPR certification.

Make this a day of good, not a day of justifying hatred and lifting up “good will” without doing anything.

Peace,
– Robby

Scared to Preach

A neat thing happens when I confess my struggles to my congregation: I suddenly can write about them publicly!  When I say, in the middle of my sermon, “I am scared to preach and paralyzed every week,” no one I currently serve gets a huge surprise when I write about it for you 12-50 internet people, that number depending on random chance as far as I can tell.

I did not exaggerate or say anything close to untrue when I spoke those words a few Sundays ago.  From the moment I got back from Festival of Homiletics, I have had constant, paralyzing fear when it comes to writing and giving sermons.  I sat down on eight separate occasions – eight separate, scheduled occasions – to write my Pentecost sermon and I still, given four weeks of no sermons and nothing but time, wrote the manuscript at 7:00 P.M. the Saturday before.

To talk about this, I need to talk about the voices and “ghosts” who sit on my shoulders and make sure I constantly feel my inadequacy.  But first, let me talk about how we valiantly try to make this feeling go away when we look at and prepare for professional ministry.

We had this thing we said in seminary as we discussed our inadequacies and “being not good enough” for ministry.  The solution always came out as this answer: You aren’t good enough; get over it.

As a theological construct and encouragement, it fits the bill, more or less, kinda.  God does not have adequate and perfect people to call to ministry, so God calls the likes of you and me.  God sees my brokenness and inadequacy and calls me anyway, sometimes using that brokenness and inadequacy for holy things.

Great, wonderful, lean into that if it loosens your voice, but it does not help me a whole lot after eight years of preaching every Sunday with short interludes of every-other Sunday.  It really does not help me as I feel more fear and trepidation “stepping into the pulpit” now than I ever have.

I found the fatal flaw in that mindset: we never addressed the fact that our discouragement does not come from God – remember, God called us to this wonderful and awful task – but from other broken people who will, at the drop of a hat, make sure I know exactly how terrible of a pastor and preacher I am.

I recently wrote a post called “Not Enough” about a lot of these feelings of inadequacy, but, as I finally decided to name the voices screaming in my ears every weeks as I try to prepare for the task God called me to, I can address the voices I alluded to.

One voice from the past screams in one ear: the “ghost” of my preaching professor.  In January of 2012 I nearly left seminary.  The professor tasked with preparing me to bring the Word of God to a congregation decided to prepare me through bullying, both his own and encouraging the class to participate.

(And before any apologists come forward, loving people I trust confirmed my experience.  I have grown weary of people minimizing this experience, even nearly eight years later).

For the past few months, only his judgements and the “rules of homiletics” I break come to mind.  You ever have inspiration, only to have a ghost say you are not allowed to do that?  That defines my last few months.

But I have battled with this ghost of the past before and come out with an unhealthy but helpful chip on my shoulder.  Now, though, something else screams in my other ear, giving the fear created by this ghost additional force and power.

Christian thought leaders have put a demand on clergy to constantly preach from a prophetic voice.  A mainline leader of the church told the Festival of Homiletics to put pastoral care to the side and focus solely on preaching and prophecy.  Progressive thought leaders demand people “leave their churches” if their pastors do not speak out against [insert new, weekly travesty].

As I sat at the Festival of Homiletics, I feel encouraged and convicted to do better and try harder.  Upon arriving home, the weight of never living up to the standard these pastors and thought leaders set before us that week sat on my shoulders and has made my voice…shaky and scared.  I participated in an alter call for preachers to speak out against the evils of the world – a thing I thought I did before but, in that moment, believed I had failed at – but now have no idea how I, Rev. Robert Glen Brown, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, live up to that alter call.

Since then I have preached.  But the pit in my stomach comes every week, and every week I feel a little bit more like a fraud because I did not do something someone “smarter” or “more important than me” would demand of me – or worse, intentionally did something they would look down upon.

I am scared to preach.  Horrified, paralyzed, frozen; I have more fear today than I did that first week I preached during my first internship.

I once read something from a seminary professor – I think – confessing that he often told students that preaching gets easier when, in fact, it actually gets harder.  (If anyone reading this knows this piece, shoot me a link, please.)  When I first read that, I believed it but I could not actualize or internalize it.  Every Sunday, though, despite feeling more skilled and having more experience, it feels harder.

It gets harder.  The expectations – both real and imagined – of congregations for good preachers to always preach well, the world constantly finding new ways to cast people into the darkness, and thought leaders telling small church leaders that they need to live into the ministry and preaching models of megachurches make it harder every Sunday, every season, every year.

I do not want anyone to express sympathy or support in response to this; my people have supported me more than I realize more days, and I got a powerful and confidence-boosting affirmation on Sunday that I needed.

I just need to say it.  And, if you happen to be/know one of those thought leaders who demands small church leaders abandon their good ministries for activist, megachurch, prophet models, maybe try to remember what small church ministry looks like/spend some time serving a small church.

I am trying, and I do not need more voices condemning my efforts.  The ghosts of seminary have that job taken care of enough.

Peace,
– Robby

Resist Hopeless Fatalism (or Stop Diagnosing Everything as Terminal)

I can own my personal frustration and purported hopelessness as of late.  I read my public writing – and especially my personal writing – and I can see how one might read my as hopeless.  I want things to go differently, I want a different world and/or a different situation constantly.

But I am still here, and I am not running away from anything.

I read the same church statistics as everyone else.  I read the same news as everyone else.  I see the same chaos and decimation as everyone else.

And I want to do something!  I want to fix the problems – or at least lessen the pain a bit.  I want to use my voice, my privilege, and my position to improve the world.  I want to improve my congregation and my denomination beyond its current brokenness.

And I feel hopeless like everyone else.  I do things and it does not help.  I say things and no one who need to hear will listen and internalize what I say.  I find myself silent when I have thoughts on difficult topics and can feel that no one wants to hear my opinion for a host of reasons.

I feel that tug of knowing I need to do something and struggling to understand what that “thing” is.  I know others feel this way; you have told me as much.

And in this moment of frustration, fear, anger, and ineffectiveness, you can start to see things fatalistically – that we cannot affect the course of history and everything is predetermined.  And you may want to write off everything as doomed in this state of frustration, anger, and fear.

“Let it burn to the grown and dance in the ashes!”

But I find myself angry and tortured not because I have given up, but because I refuse to.  We can do something to make this world better, even if just a tiny bit.  We can do something to make our churches better, even if it does not return our past glory.  We can, but we just have not figured out how, yet.

This continues to torture me – I still jump back and forth between “outrage” and “outrage hangover” on an hourly basis – but I refuse to become fatalist in my frustration and pain.  It may kill me and my soul, but I will never not believe it can be better and I can do something, even if that “thing” seems indiscernable in the moment.

We live in a dark time, but not an insurmountable and irredeemable time.  Let us stop diagnosing the world and the church as terminal and instead live in our fury and internal torture.

Because I refuse to accept that it cannot be better than it is now.

Peace,
– Robby

 

Not Enough

Question for preachers and worship leaders: how often do you tell the people you lead that God makes them enough?  How often – especially if you come from the Reform tradition – do you tell them about their inadequacy but how the Spirit will work within them and make them enough?

I do this often, bordering on weekly.  Maybe I do not use so many words, but I do it essentially every Sunday.

I have started to struggle with this idea.  I do not want to imply I disbelieve in this whole process of the Spirit empowering us beyond ourselves, but I keep finding myself inherently “not enough.”  I do not even know how to describe it, but I keep running into things in my life and ministry that require me to “be more” of whatever that situation require:

  • I am not woke enough. I do not march, I do not protest, I do not do enough of the things our “thought leaders” and “prophets” demand all clergy do.  No one would confuse me for an activist pastor.
  • I am not apolitical enough. I have lost members for speaking out against child separation already and I had a member refuse to talk to me after my last sermon.
  • I am not tall enough. Thank God I have a powerful voice.
  • I am not hip enough. I lead a liturgical service with standard movements, and I feel comfortable and empowered there.
  • I am not traditional enough. I cannot just use the Book of Common Worship; I must change the language, make it inclusive, and soften it.  I try to be playful in the liturgy, making it less formal and more relaxed, which means people who grew up with the traditional liturgy get lost sometimes – especially those who struggle with hearing.

And continue ad infinitum.  I could go on for days about the ways the world and leaders on our faith have implied – both directly and generically applying to me – that I am not enough.  God did not make me enough for…anything, it seems.  I can have a good ministry but even then, it feels as if I should feel shame over how I do not do something enough.

I feel this demand to fit into a label to find any sort of community or acceptable ministry.  My pastoral ministry feels irrelevant to everything because we now live in a time of overt evil that demands constant, constant attention.

Wil Willimon told the Festival of Homiletics that pastors care too much about pastoral care and too little about their prophetic voice.  John Pavlovitz told people to leave their churches if their pastors did too little to speak out against the evils of today.

I lost members to this already.  I have to walk a tightrope of prophecy while also needing my members to not hate me before I show up at the ER, the surgery ward, or the funeral home.  I can only speak so loudly, but the thought leaders demand loud and constant voices, implying we can only be true to Christ if we march with our signs at every opportunity.

I am not enough, and I keep running into that fact.  Hell, I am not enough of anything to even find community here – not liberal enough, not conservative enough, not heteronormative enough, not queer enough, not political enough, not apolitical enough, not nerdy enough, not geeky enough, not dumb enough, not confident enough, not humble enough, not weird enough, not normal enough, not anything enough.  I have no strong labels, making me feel like the world sees me as personification of Revelation 3:16: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

I know I bring severe feelings of inadequacy and inferiority to this, but I want to know: how do the rest of you preachers and worship leaders know you are enough?  I know God chose me for this work and called me – the Spirit has made my ministries too effective to doubt – but how do I shake this feeling?

Is it just the Age of Polarization and Trump?  Is it a thing about Urban Ministry I did not understand coming in?  Am I actually not enough and just did not realize it before?

I did not write this for sympathy.  Yes, I will own existential pain drives this a bit, but I also find myself angry.  When someone says my parishioners should leave my church if I do not do something but leave that something vague, and no one can tell me how much I must do to not deserve my church dying, what should I do?  How much is enough for the prophets and thought leaders?

I take exception to a call to exodus without so much as a sliver of guidance for the pastors you threaten with exodus.  I take exception to condemning ministries without a conversation about the day-to-day of solo pastoral ministry and trying to help struggling churches find their way in the world that includes more than protesting – like care, fellowship, discipleship, and teaching.

I just wish I was enough.  The Spirit gave me a pastoral heart and a strong voice, but that is not enough, so it seems.

Anyone else?  Am I alone here?  Or are other pastors starting to feel it?  And please, for all that is holy, I did not write this for someone to patronize me and softly tell me, “You are enough, it’s just tough.”  I want to know:

Am I alone in feeling that I cannot possibly be enough in 2019, or are other pastors feeling it, too?

– Robby

All are Reflections of God

I would never consider myself an ally.  I do not have the strength to stand up like my stronger colleagues and march with our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers, especially in the complicated political time and place that I find myself.

I know “complicated political time and place” is nothing more than an excuse, but it is my excuse and I love it!

But in this month, as we remember Stonewall and give opportunity for those who society relegated to the shadows to stands in the beautiful light of day, I have a thought rolling around in my mind:

How can anyone looking at themselves in the mirror and see themselves as made in God’s imaged and then look at another human being and see them as an abomination somehow less than and not made in God’s image?

I will not go into the exegesis and theological discussion of homosexuality and sin – much, much smarter people than me have tackled that task already.  I simply want to know how anyone can look at someone else and believe God did not make them in God’s image.  I want to know how you can choose one thing you perceive as sinful and that one thing makes someone an abomination while God still loves you despite the host of sins that tarnish your soul.

I recently had coffee with a college friend and, like you always do, we started to reminisce and talk about who we were back when.  She pointed out that, in college, my politics never lined up with my desire for compassion and love, and I often did feel the tension between my “conservative Christian politics” and my actual Christian values.

I never fully owned the title “conservative”, but I always found myself leaning toward Republicans.  I started to believe the little racist things like “I want White Entertainment Television!” and “Affirmative Action is just as racist as the racism it’s trying to fix!”  At the same time, I still believed in loving people and felt compassion for the marginalized and the outcast.

I think the first crack in my conservative politics came from Acts.  I grew up with the knowledge that “socialism is evil and just ‘Communism-Lite’”, but readings Acts give you a very different view of communal living and resource sharing:

44All the believers were united and shared everything.  45They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.  46Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.  47They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

My conservative beliefs came from people who held the Bible as the ultimate truth and yet praised the values of unfettered and unregulated capitalism that encouraged the abuse of workers so the wealthy could have more.  Throughout the gospels Jesus gives special care and consideration to the poor and broken, yet the very people who claimed Christianity supported politics that harmed those same people Jesus took special care of.

As I dug deeper – and also started seminary – I found myself moving left (in American political terms).  I found myself realizing my broader theology did not line up some of hotter single-issue position that I held.  Relevant to this month, my position on homosexual ordination did not line up with the broader theologies of universal brokenness and everyone being made in the image of God.

(I hadn’t quite gotten to a point where I would see homosexuality as not sinful; it takes me time to change, like any good Presbyterian.)

It still, 8 years later, fascinates me how vitriolically and hatefully people started treating me.  I would have still considered myself conservative (in black and white terms) at that point and yet I failed the “Good Christian” check of needing to see homosexuals as sinful and homosexuality as a choice.

And mind you, I hadn’t even touched the waters of non-binary gender or other sexualities.  I had failed them – which, even typing it, seems asinine – and I needed to either fall in line or accept my relegation as a liberal heathen.

As I continued to study, to learn, and to grow, I kept moving left.  I recently attributed this movement to the centerline moving right, but I have also walked left, I suppose.  We have values in the United States that we claim as Christian that often exist outside the prevue of scriptures but more often exist in conflict to the words and ideals of Christ we have recorded in our scriptures.

Not the point, though.  The larger point exists as this: as I have grown and learned, I have come to realized that God made every person – of every sexuality, gender, and race – in God’s own image, and every one of them has the capacity to minister and share God’s word.  No one exist who does not reflect the image of God despite our own personal biases, bigotries, and discomforts.

I have not gotten to the point where I do enough to call myself an ally, I fail “Woke Checks” on a constant basis, I am certainly not liberal enough to be trendy or traditional enough to be orthodox, but I see you, I love you, and I want you to share God’s word in a way that I can’t.

And to my sisters and brothers who can see someone as anything other than a reflection of the creator: how?  And how dare you?

Peace,
– Robby

 

 

 

 

I did this. We did this.

Note: I usually do a series during the summer, and I guess this summer’s series became “Difficult, challenging, pointed sermons preached from a manuscript.”  I do not plan to continue it, but this sermons certainly matches last week’s sermon in difficulty.

Sermon on Lamentations 3 – I did this.  We did this.

“I did this.  We did this.”  The poems of Lamentations land like a self-inflicted gut-punch, reading like a mournful and terrible confession of realization.  “I did this.  We did this.”

At what point do we admit that we broke the world?  When do we finally say, “I did this.  We did this.”?  At what point do we stop pretending we are the rain drop that did not cause the flood or slow flake that did not participate in the avalanche and finally just say, “I did this.  We did this.”?

We divided ourselves based upon our own rules.  We declared all who disagree stupid, evil, non-Christian, and burned every bridge between us that we could.

We named dissent and difference of opinion evil.  We called so much disagreement and dissent evil that evil no longer has meaning and we no longer have language to recognize the abhorrent as such.

We allowed evil to happen in the name of political party.  We ignored the failings of those we agreed with, allowing their greed and power-seeking activity to continue because we agreed with them in spoken philosophy.

We withheld love.

When do we finally say, “I did this.  We did this.”?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The poet laments God’s wrath.  The poet feels the pain of God’s wrath and cannot help but lament.

How does God express God’s wrath?

Does God actively punish the poet and his people?  Does God actively bolster and strengthen the soldiers of the poet’s enemies and actively weaken and undermine the efforts of the soldiers of the poet’s people?  Does God actively force the poet’s people into a foreign exile and actively allow the destruction of the temple?

Or does God allow the natural consequences of their sins to take root?  Do the sins of the poet’s people weaken them naturally, spread them too thin and make them too confident?  Do the natural consequences of their sins condemn them to failure without God’s intervention?

Or did the poet just feel abandoned when the sins of the poet’s people finally lead to their destruction and demise?  Did sin finally cause so much damage the poet’s people imploded upon themselves.

The specifics do not matter to the poet.  God’s wrath is pain and destructions.  The poet laments God’s wrath.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Why does the poet lament?  Why does the poet “passionately express grief or sorrow”?  What right does the poet have to lament?  The poet himself says it.  “Why should any living [person] complain when punished for [their] sins?”  What right do we have to complain?  We did this to ourselves.

Our sin condemned us.  We became complacent.  We forgot God.  We abused our resources and ourselves.  Our sin—not the sin of someone else but our sin—lead to our demise.

Why do we complain and mourn?  Why do we complain when we did this to ourselves and why do we mourn what our sin caused us to lose?  Why do we lament our world?  We did this.  We broke our world.

We did not speak out.  We saw evil and we remained silent.

We continued to participate in the divide.  We threw insults and slung mud and dehumanized the “other”—even our friends and family—because they disagreed.

We turned our backs on those in need.  We used a policy of “worth” and “true need” to determine who we did not turn our backs on.

We congratulated ourselves for our sins.  We patted ourselves on the back for deepening the divide and celebrated how much “good” we did while we withheld love from those most in need.

Why do we lament our broken world?  We broke it and celebrated the initial wreckage.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The poet laments not feeling God.  He may have no right to lament, but he laments out of pain and without anything else to do.  And the poet laments the sin that brought him and his people to this point.

In his lament, the poet sees the path to healing: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.  Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven.”

The poet calls his people to repent.  The poet calls his people to confess their sin and own it, realizing that they did this.  The poet calls his people to turn from their sin and return to the life and path God intended for them.

And the poet calls his people to lift their hearts to God.

The poet will continue to suffer even as he starts on this path.  This path of healing does not immediately relieve pain but much like rehab after tragedy, the healing this path provides will hurt.

But healing will come.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We lament as we look at our world and God appears so far away.

Suffering happens in our back yard.  Sex trafficking—the sale and abuse of human beings—happens less than three miles from this sanctuary.

Suffering happens to the weakest and the least.  I need not name specifics; we all know what happens to the least of God’s children.

Suffering happens in the name of greed and power.  I am reminded daily of the suffering and torment our sisters and brothers in Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia suffer to simply satiate the whims of power of those with guns and soldiers.

Suffering happens, and we stand in complacence or participation as the world breaks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We must repent, confessing our sin, owning our sin, and turning away from our sin.  We must do what God desires and what will heal our world.

We must speak up instead of closing our eyes to the suffering and torment the sins of our world cause.

We must bridge our divisions that have allowed politicized evil to not only happen but stand as the norm instead of the deviation.

We must vocally abhor evil from all evil doers, especially those who look and think like us.

Our repentance will not immediately relieve the pain of our sin or heal our world.  Our sin has shattered our world and the shattered world we have created will require extensive, painful healing.  Nothing will heal quickly or painlessly.

But if we lament our shattered world and our sin and we repent, confessing and turning away from our sin, healing will come.

I lament our shattered world though my sin shattered it.  I try to repent of the sin I lament.  I seek the painful healing our world desperately needs.

Please—please—do the same.  Amen.

Self-Care and Novocaine

I need to confess today.

Actually, I confessed multiple times last week, but today I confess publicly:

Before Thursday, when I found myself with zero choice, I had not seen a dentist since age twelve.

Going to the dentist after so long scared me.  The actual dentistry did not scare me–the needles and drills and scraping sound terrible but also restorative–but the cost and the shame scared me.

I have ignored broken teeth.  I likely need numerous root canals and fillings.  My teeth look like they haven’t been cleaned in nineteen years–and I owe a gracious “Thank you!” to everyone for not mentioning it.  I will need to some something expensive about the salvageable teeth.

Do you know how much shame I feel writing that?  I asked my nurse sister about interactions between amoxicillin and pseudo-ephedrine–because I cannot just have dental problems, I also need to have sinuses that act up concurrently–and I prayed she would not ask me the doctor prescribed me amoxicillin so I would not have to confess I had not seen a dentist in nearly two decades and only found one out of extreme pain and swelling and that the visit included Novocaine and antibiotics, which only means one thing.

I also have two kickers: one, I have had continuous dental coverage for the past five years and spotty but at least occasional coverage for the past thirteen, probably some before I know nothing about; and two, my wife works in the dental field.

I have no reasons aside from shame and fear.

The fear comes from cost.  I will not spend a lot of time griping about dental costs and how worthless dental insurance is beyond cleanings and x-rays and how it should cost more to receive dental implants in the United States than to take a month off of work, live in Europe for a month, and receive dental care from a UCLA-trained dentist.  It really should not cost less to do it twice in Europe than once in the United States.

No, not an exaggeration or hypothetical.  Literally know someone who did it and had that exact cost experience.

A realization fascinated me as I drank my chocolate malt for lunch because Novocaine: no one made me feel ashamed at the dentist.

They acted confused and shocked a dental lab technician’s husband had not seen the dentist in so damn long, but they did not shame me.  They had, and have, the goal to get me back in to clean and x-ray my teeth and chart a plan of attack to get my mouth healthy.

How much suffering had my shame and fear caused me?

I believe I stumbled upon a thing, not unknown but also known widely discussed.  We do not go to counselors because strong people can take care of themselves.  We do not go to doctors because we fear blowing sicknesses out of proportion and hypochondria, or we need to improve our self-care to justify having a doctor try to fix our problems.  We do not admit our exhaustion because good pastors/ministers/church leaders/parents/teachers/… … … do not get worn out given our amount of work.  We do not admit that we need help with our faith and our church life because a strong, faithful Christian would not need it given our place in our faith journey.

Eventually it festers until we do not have a choice and we have to let the giant needle go in and have the blade and pliers remove we we maybe could have salvaged had we just taken care of it initially instead of letting it get so bad it risked hurting us irreparably.

Or worse, letting it fester long enough to hurt us in a way we cannot recover from in.

We have a problem, though.  My dentist appointment went as well as getting a tooth ripped from your mouth can go.  The last time I saw a doctor, though–after going to the ER because my indigestion tried to convince me my heart would explode and that doctor telling me a thirty-year-old can no longer not have a primary care physician–the PCP gave me zero answers to any problem I brought to her.  We did no actual diagnostics because the blood work came back normal, and all of my stomach issues were chalked up to my weight and she told me losing weight would solved them if one possible diagnosis ended up being correct.

I realize the level of my obesity.  I have struggled with my weight for 23 years, more and more as I age, and I know some minor weight-loss and mildly alleviated some of my symptoms, but never fully and never some of the newer symptoms I have.

The doctor did not try to actually find a problem, instead just making it about my weight.  Even if we can blame the weight 100%, I need to know what the weight does to my body instead of implying fat people just get heart burn and stomach pains magically because of fat.

Many times, when you try to help yourself and seek the help of someone who has the skills to help you when you cannot help yourself, that skilled person shames you for needing help in the first place.  The idea of “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps!” guides so many in positions to help.

“If you just do the right things, the bad things will stop.”

The church does this, too.  We forget about the cross and the empty tomb, instead making people think they can be good enough–or not good enough–for church and for the help that the church provides.  We forget we need of Jesus in our own lives and something higher than ourselves saves us, too, and we believe people need to lose enough “sin” weight before we can take their needs and problems seriously to try to help them.

We see some people as “fallen” and others as “hopelessly fallen” even though we all are “hopelessly fallen.”  We contribute to the shame that makes people not want to seek help, instead opting to suffer until they cannot suffer the pain any more and succumb to it.

We withhold love to those we deem unworthy and shame them for their unworthiness.

We need to take care of ourselves and reach out for help when needed.  We need to admit when we are inadequate to fix our problems.  We need self-care and care from outside ourselves.

And we need to be open to caring, not blaming and shaming but just trying to help.  We need to love without reservation or requirement.

Also, Novocaine is terrible and even though it far outweighs the alternative, it is terrible.

Peace,

– Robby

Stand Up Against Your Allies

Beginning Notes: For the second time since starting at Grace, I used a manuscript.  I use a manuscript when the words will not come to me as I prepare or when I need to choose my specific words–and not just my thoughts–before I begin to preach.

This Sunday I needed to choose my words carefully and thoughtfully.  I only trust myself so far when anger and sadness guide my voice around what we treat as a political issue when politics should have nothing to do with it.

If I traverse a minefield, I want a very specific map drawn out for me.

Unlike most weeks, I preached exactly what you read here (with a couple of minor edits for my sanity).


Sermon on Matthew 25:34-46 – Stand Up Against Your Allies

I often need to ask myself these questions I ask you today:

“How do you respond when your friends and allies do horrific things?”

“Do you speak up when those whom you align yourself do terrible things?”

“How do you respond when atrocities become politicized and evil becomes a bargaining chip for the powerful?”

“Are you willing to provide witness when you see evil, or do you cower or, worse, justify atrocities to protect the atrocious out of loyalty?”

I chose to preach on this passage today, Sunday, June 24th, 2018, to respond to the world.  I rarely choose a passage based solely my own heart—and rarely reuse so quickly—but the spirit directs me and a phrase, “the least of these,” has not left my mind in ten days.

I believe we live in a unique and abnormal time with unique and abnormal challenges.  Today we have challenges beyond the growing pains of the progression of time and how we change the ordering society.  I sound alarmist to myself, and I want you know to know that I doubted the wisdom of including this thought of unique struggle, but I need to say it: we live in a unique and abnormal time.

Despite the uniqueness and abnormality of our current world and political climate—and the difficult challenges we stare down today—our call remains the same.  The call of the gospel does not change, and the example of Christ does not change.

I want to reflect deeply on Jesus’ words the spirit placed on my heart.  “…whatever you did for one of the least of these [sisters and] brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Whatever you do for or to the least, you do directly for or to God.

Very simple and very convicting; God judges us most strictly on our treatment of the lowest and least amongst us.

Jesus gives a list of “the least”; the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the stranger—translatable to “the exile, the immigrant” or “the foreigner” or even just “the guy who wandered up to you on the street”—all qualify as the least.

Your treatment of them is your treatment of God.

If we do not dig below the surface of that list, I have nothing to preach about.  We joyfully and intentionally do what we can with what we have here at Grace.  We do not always know the exact right course of action—especially now as we discern the practical expression of our mission “Following Jesus . . . Serving Others”—but we strongly desire to help.  We feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, provide resources to clothe the naked, and we open our doors to the stranger.

We desire to help and comfort the least of God’s children.  I do not qualify, and I do not downplay.  I will not take that away from this congregation.

Let us start to dig below the surface of that list a little bit.  Nothing on that list immediately strikes an uncomfortable nerve.  We just fill in the blank of “Why?” that Christ left blank with “Innocent Neediness,” but Jesus makes no mention of innocence or guilt in his least.

The list feels different if we fill in the “Why?” blank with something:

  • The hungry because they gambled their entire paycheck away.
  • The stranger filled with hate.
  • The thirsty because they spent the money for the water bill on heroin.
  • The naked by choice and situation to make money.

These seem lower than the innocently struggling.  They fight losing battles—battles of sin and battles of illness and addiction—that make them hungry, thirsty, naked, and a stranger, and they cannot claim innocence, at least in part.

Jesus did not say the innocent when he said the least and yet we condemn the guilty whose actions have made them hungry, thirsty, naked, and a stranger.  We convince ourselves they deserve their situations and feel sinful helping them.

We can dig deeper.  Each of these make us uncomfortable but we have not politicized these pains—at least not yet.

Let us go a bit deeper.  How about these “least”:

  • The victims of violence and terror who thirst in the desert, fleeing to a place they believe will provide them hope.
  • Those in rags who hope to find a land of plenty.
  • The hungry who seek a home that does not have abject poverty.
  • The infant stranger ripped from their parents’ arms.

How do we treat these least?

Do we compassion and love for them, or do we dehumanize them and see them as animals?

Should they receive the treatment of people—as human and deserving as us, just different in situation—or the treatment of pawns in a vile political game?

Do we love them, or do we hate them?

I do not speak of immigration policy today.  I know I cannot fully discern the right policies of who can and cannot enter our boarders.  I cannot give you a Christian and scriptural immigration policy for the United States.  I believe we must not divide ourselves on political lines in that discussion, but I understand the positions of a completely closed and completely open border, and we must find a policy that does good while also providing protection.

I do not speak of immigration policy.  I speak of policies that dehumanize anyone, that treat humans worse than most dogs, that describe a people as roaches, that indefinitely inter anyone, and that do anything to separate a child from their loving and safe parents.  Those policies do these things to God because they do those things to the least of God’s children Christ spoke of—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the stranger.

Doing harm to the least does harm to God.  Politicizing harm and insulting outrage at doing harm to the least politicizes harm and insults outrage at doing harm to God.

Do you respond in horror or do you turn a blind eye and downplay doing harm to the least of God’s children?

Sometimes we cannot directly help with resources, but we can witness to good and evil and speak out against evil, or we can turn a blind eye.  We can feel outrage toward atrocity, or we can ignore forced and intentional pain and suffering and look away.

What you do for the least of these—speak up or turn away—you do for God.

What are you doing for and to God?  Amen.