#WhyChurch: Casseroles and Communion

Anne Lamott Why Church

There’s no one answer to “Why Church?”

Why do we keep on with church? When at its worst it is an instrument of exclusion, rejection, even yes, real violence … and (sometimes) at its best feels too polished and shiny like the individual silver chalice cups my former church used during communion. I can still remember the first time I stood up behind the communion table and lifted the lid off the tray expecting the typical Presbyterian plastic cups. Instead I marveled at the widening circles of goblets – each so miniature and a perfectly ornamented copy of the large communion cup next to the bread. I kind of wanted one for myself and was tempted to slip it into my pocket.

Last night on Twitter we had an incredible conversation around #whychurch, and the questions that garnered the most responses were:

“What defines church?”
“What are we trying to get out of church that we can’t get alone?”
“What is healing about church?”

And then #whychurch turned into #whycasserole because my wonderful partner and spouse decided to mention it, and now I think we need to write a whole new volume on a theology of casseroles to add to Calvin’s Institutes.

There’s so much more there, and going through the hashtag I feel my heart beat a little quicker, I remember why I fell in love, and what captured my soul about church, and I think, yes, I’m staying, I’m not going anywhere. Because not only do I need church…

The church needs me.

The church needs all of me. All of my failures and flaws, all of my baggage, even all of my struggles with ego and privilege because that’s where the transformation happens – in the midst of flesh-and-blood, brutal vulnerability and weakness. It happens in the woods and in the delivery room, yes, but most certainly, it was meant to happen in community, in the sanctuary, in the light of the candles, around the font and the table.

I’m – still, slowly – reading Lauren Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, and I keep on thinking about communion:

I learn something about the elderly couple who, near the end of the Communion train, come to the rail and kneel, fragile as mushrooms. What I learn later is that for a dozen years, he has been afflicted by a wasting disease, an intestinal disease that makes it almost impossible for him to eat – he lives on Ensure and lemonade. But at the altar I don’t yet know that, I only know what I see: they each take a wafer from the priest; and when I come to them with the chalice, the wife dips as I say “The Blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life,” and she eats her wafer, and then her husband likewise instincts his round of Christ’s Body into the wine and then he hands the round of Body and Blood to his wife and she eats his wafer for him. There at the Communion rail, I don’t yet know what illness lies behind this gesture, I know only the couple’s hands and mouths, and that I am seeing one flesh. I have about this, heard sermons about a man and a woman becoming one flesh…

And here at the altar, I see that perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy myself: as part of the body of Christ, this body that numbers among its cells and sinews an octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion. Click To Tweet

Whether it’s a meal made up of creamy soup and noodles or mashed up food and crackers or gathering around a podcast sermon. We are called to be together. Being together matters. I matter. You matter. We matter together. 

The church was given to us as a way to care for each other, a way to be a glimmering of heaven-on-earth and God's kingdom-come, the church is meant to be food, meant to be breath, meant to be song.Click To Tweet

ON Scripture: Guns, Drugs, Sexual Violence

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The emotional, physical, and spiritual violence that we inflict on one other is a sign that something is amiss in our world. A study from the World Health Organization paints the terrible truth that sex workers have a heightened risk of HIV. The sex and drug industry “tear up women and use them ‘til they throw them out” as Rev. Rebecca Stevens, Executive Director of Magdalene Ministries, says. Magdalene is a recovery program in Nashville, Tenn. for women who have histories of substance abuse and prostitution. Stevens has helped countless women get off the streets and put their lives back together. Yet there are so many more in need. It is clear that something is persistently bent on the annihilation of our bodies and souls. What can we say or do?

The widow of the longtime minister of the Anglo-American congregation that housed our Korean immigrant church taught us Sunday mornings. She would open our gathering time together with this question: “What is the chief end of man?” We would all respond with the proper answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever!” we would sing-song it together not really understanding the words.

Even at 10 years old I felt the weight of centuries behind those words. Somehow it felt like the perfect answer to anything and everything. Later, when I went away to college, I would remember these words and they would be like a flickering light in those dark times of isolation and loneliness. It was a reminder that our lives are meant for so much more even if we sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees.

In college I began to sense a call to ministry. I felt compelled to become an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church as my own way to “glorify God” and “enjoy him forever.” Yet, the only examples in ministry I had were the typical white, male pastors and staff of para-church organizations. I felt uncertain.

It seemed the leader of any organization was expected to be strong — someone with a strong will. Strong focus. Strong vision. Strong command. Strong abilities. I didn’t feel I had the charisma of a leader who could not only inspire, but direct, move, and act decisively.

Hebrews invites us to consider an alternative vision of leadership in Christ, the High Priest. Instead of power, the writer describes Jesus’ service in terms of compassion and mercy, even citing weakness as the source of his efficacy as high priest. Even though he was a Son, “he learned obedience through what he suffered,” and we hear an echo of the familiar hymn from Philippians 2.

Read the rest at Sojourners here.

The Parable of the 1% Church

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And Peter came to Jesus asking: Who is my neighbor? Jesus told them another parable:

There was a church that sought a pastor to be its head of staff.

It was a beautifully immaculate church with gorgeous windows that let in a particularly divine light on Sunday mornings and gleaming floors so spotless that the reflection from the lights overhead made you feel as though you walked on heights. The walls were pure and bright unstained by even the stickiest of children’s hands. The carpet was lush and the dimmers were extravagant. It had an abundance of resources at its fingertips, and it professed to be ready to do a new thing.

Over the span of some months it looked to three potential ministers. One was young and charismatic. Another level-headed and reasonable. Still another with impressive academic credentials and experience. All three entered into these conversations with uncertainty, but equally faithful and trusting in God’s call with an openness to the movement of God’s spirit.

The church interviewed one candidate but then they immediately dropped all communications. The church interviewed the second candidate and expressed enthusiasm but the older members of the committee doubted whether the candidate would be able to perform weekly. The church interviewed the third candidate but faltered and splintered into two camps when asked what they hoped for in their head of staff.

After some time, none of the candidates were chosen, or perhaps they were at one point, no one seemed able to get a straight story from anyone on the committee.

Now, to which candidate was the church a neighbor?

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

And he said:

Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get back. Money and resources can only get you so far, and privilege will cloud your judgment. For it is the church that deals with its earnest and faithful pastors in truth that will ultimately carry out the will of God’s kingdom, and experience the joy of mutual ministry. For all who exalt themselves will receive their just reward. 

You’re Not One of Us

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Mark 9: 38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

I love when people ask me about the kids. People ask “how old are they now?” and “how are they getting along?” and invariably, “how are you still standing?” Desmond and Anna are twins – 4 and a half now, can you believe it? And Ozzie is 2 and a half – it seems the Presbyterian Mission Agency board in particular has watched them – watched me grow up these last almost six years. When people ask me about the kids it’s a way to connect over something ordinary, normal and commonplace, human – we talk about the way kids play and make up games and tell stories and demand apple-pretzels-cheese. All. Day. Long.

It’s a way to feel that I am one of you.

The scripture passage we read together this morning continues a lengthy generative discussion on discipleship and ministry, vocation and call. Earlier in the chapter we have the transfiguration, Jesus starts to talk about his death, the disciples come to Jesus because they need help with casting out a particularly stubborn demon, and Jesus reminds them again who is the greatest in the kingdom by the example of the least of these – a child.

And then, John, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

He was not following us. He was not like us. He was not part of us.  

He was not one of us.

Do you remember that video during the cultural humility training – the ABC News Video with the children responding to different pictures – “20/20” brought together three groups of kids and showed them pictures of two men — one Arab, the other Asian. When we asked the children which man they liked better, over and over, more kids said they preferred “the Chinese guy.” One child preferred the Chinese man “because he looks nicer and he has a smile on.” But both men were smiling. Several children weighed in on the Arab man’s personality, basing their opinions on just seeing his picture. One child said, “I think he’s weird.” Another child said, “He’s like the scary dude.”

Next, “20/20” showed the kids pictures of a black man and white man. This time the pictures were different. Here were some of the comments the kids made about the photo of the black man. One said, “He looks mean.” Another referred to him as “FBI’s Most Wanted.” Another commented, “He looks like he’s a basketball player.” When the white man’s picture was shown, one child said, “He’s nice.” Another said, “I think he’s nice except he might be mad about something.” The boy was probably picking up on something. The photo of a white man was of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Admittedly, the pictures were a little bit different, but when we asked which man is a criminal, most kids pointed to the black man. When we asked which man was a teacher, most pointed to McVeigh. This is ironic because the black man pictured was Harvard University professor Roland Fryer.

It starts early - all the biases, assumptions, judgments, like Wendy said yesterday, it’s in the air we breathe. They’re not part of us. They’re not us.Click To Tweet

Our words and efforts around inclusion, multiculturalism, and diversity mean very little when we see and still say, he is not one of us. She is not part of us. They’re not us.

The disciples said, “Jesus, we saw someone, casting out demons in your name, but we stopped him because he was not one of us…” Jesus “we saw someone” – our penchant for “we saw someone” needs to be replaced by “we see Jesus.” And in Jesus, we see God. Our God is here. But therein lies the irony of the statement, “We saw someone” because the point is, do you see God? Do you see God in the persons who do deeds in God’s name? More than that, and simply, do you see God in that human being?

Foreigner. Alien. Immigrant. Minority. Outsider. Stranger.

Friends, what does it mean for us that we were once strangers, once foreign and alien, but in God’s radical love, we were brought near? More than that, what does it mean for us that Jesus took on this same foreignness – this status of outsider – to be one of us? To be a part of us?

I blogged a couple of months ago:

I keep hearing that chant – the call and response on the short Vine video posted the day after the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. “This is what theology looks like.”

I see them standing huddled together heads down laying hands on each other like it’s an ordination – these demonstrators are being commissioned for something massively important as they shout #blacklivesmatter and #nojusticenopeace anointed with sweat and tears and blood and Spirit and set apart for a holy work in which liturgy is wailing and protest. They are demonstrating resistance in the flesh-and-blood and show us what survival means in its purest form by simply breathing and lamenting together. Hands clutching each other eyes set on the heavenly prize which is the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before them and surround them even now.

This is what theology looks like – this is what faith looks like – this is what love looks like – the way we answer these questions, when “we saw someone” becomes we see Jesus, we see God, in every human being around us – it says who we are and leads us in what we do – with our ministries and with our lives.

It’s not that they become us. We become them, and in doing so we become more like Jesus.Click To Tweet

Isn’t that the ultimate expression of Christian discipleship? To become more like Jesus? 

Deeper Story: Great and No-So-Great Expectations

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I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations
and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.”
― Bruce Lee

Still November. But Christmas decorations and frosted trees have been on display since Halloween, so my mind has already turned towards Advent and that O Holy Night. I can’t help it. I’m trying to fight it but the anticipation is annoyingly starting to seep in under my skin and my heart softens a little when I hear those familiar melodies of winter wonderlands. Good grief, Lord, it’s not even Thanksgiving. At least there’s one holiday that can be preserved from the stress of gift-giving and cookie-making. But now there’s even beginning to be a lot of hype around Thanksgiving these days since Christmas has been swallowed up by commercialization. Is the turkey big enough/juicy enough/fancy enough, and what sides are there with it, and what football games are on, and how will the pumpkin pie come out? Too many expectations. This isn’t just about being disappointed by a sub-par gift, it’s feelings and scenes and table settings and the family gathering saturated with too many expectations. And a hard lesson I learned long ago – and keep learning today – is to keep my expectations low.

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If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

 

I woke up with a start when my alarm went off. It was the quiet peal of bells and in another situation it would be a welcome noise. I jumped up.

I had fallen asleep with Oz in my lap after nursing him. But the college kids were still at the church, and oh shit, I was supposed to be there, too, we were having a lock-in, and at 5 am I went home to nurse him and planned to go right back because we were going to serve breakfast to the homeless community at 7, and what is wrong with me, I was having such a wonderful time with them, so much better than the last lock-in that made me swear off lock-ins forever, and I had kept the bar low, my expectations low, and why am I such a screw up, we were doing so well, I thought I was doing so well, I thought I was being present and engaged, and connecting with them, and then here I am, asleep in the chair, I’m such an idiot, and I get a text from one of the students:

Mihee. What the fuck.

In other words, where are you, why aren’t you here, what happened?

…Later on the student wrote me saying “I guess I need to change my expectations…”

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We had moved into the apartments at student housing. The glow from an amazing honeymoon in Maine, and not just from the usual-rolling-around-horizontal-dance-and-expected-what-happens-on-honeymoons, but being on the coast, gorging on lobster rolls and clam chowder and, of course, beer, and then there was the wind, the sea, the whales, the sun, we soaked up all of it, and it felt like we had been scrubbed from the inside out by saltwater and light. It was so good. We were so happy we even adopted a kitten. We were about to embark in this next season and stage of our lives together. Of course we would adopt a kitten, nothing else made more sense. Sure, it was different from what we had initially expected when we talked marriage and tried to sift through actual logistics with him graduating before me and working two hours away and my still needing to work through my last year in school. But, we could deal with it. We would work it out. It would be fine.

It wasn’t fine. And it was the hardest year of my life until the year we tried to get pregnant. And the year the twins were born. It wrecked me in ways that I never thought possible.

People say, “Don’t get a new pet in the first year of marriage.”

I graduated. I moved up there. To his job. To his house. To his community. And I tried to find my calling. There were conversations and interviews and hopes and rejections and more calls and cautious expectations and more rejections and I couldn’t help but pray, God, what the hell do you have me here for right now? This is not at all what marriage and vocation was supposed to look life for us. This isn’t what I signed up for when I went to seminary. This isn’t what I expected at all.

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That’s the thing with expectations. No matter how great – they end up being not-so-great for our souls. They set us up for inevitable disappointment. I’m not being cynical. And this isn’t just a game of semantics. It’s a hard reality. Things never really happen the way we plan or expect…and that’s how it’s supposed to be in life. In living. Sure, get those 401ks and endowments and social security and life insurance plans, but know that it won’t cover or protect you from everything, from every loss and disappointment.

As much as this world will disappoint so I know – and my Jesus knows – I will disappoint people. I fall short. I let people down. On a regular basis. My husband. My kids. My college students. My parents. My church. My God. Because there are days it feels like too much and please I just need to close my eyes for a few minutes so stop talking to me, look what’s on TV, get the books/trains/cars, I’ll be right back, hold on a moment. And I wake up with a start realizing that I screwed up once more, and people have to change their expectations….of me, yet, again.

Once in a while there’s grace, the kind that’s a I’m-going-to-stick-with-you grace. And that’s amazing. That’s life-changing. When someone chooses to stay despite my failures that’s the stuff of miracles. But I do the same with people – I have expectations of people and seasons and realities no matter how much I try to squelch that optimism. I’m trying to hold onto anticipation. Because despite what it sounds like, it really is a little different.

Anticipation has the same touch as expectation with hope and belief engrained in the lines of its tender hands…but it is openness. Expectation is too specific, too laden with the narrow and strict, and mostly based on something external – past experiences or other people’s opinions even their stories. 

Anticipation is the seed enveloped in darkness and dirt, no light at the end of the tunnel, and the interchanging realities of drought and floods. It is trust in the Hands who planted you deep in that soil, a love of the smell and touch of those Hands, a dream of those Hands and the promise that those Hands will return again to provide new life. It’s the waiting, no matter what the expectations, no matter what the failures and disappointments, it’s the waiting, for God’s touch, the reminder of Emmanuel, God’s nearness in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, a strange and surprisingly happy waiting for the one that will never fail us or disappoint us or sleep and forget us.

“…that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself…”
― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility