Thursday, February 26, 2015

Big Questions and Befuddling Answers (Mark 8:31-38)

Powerful narratives shape lives. Mark's gospel continues to bear fruitful witness to two millennia of readers who have heard his "gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1) and believed and followed. During the season of Lent this year, we hear significant texts from Mark's gospel, particularly this one from Mark 8:31-38, setting up a major question for the disciples about Jesus' identity as well as what following Jesus entails. Are we "earthly minded" looking for quick answers? What happens when we confess Jesus yet do not account for the difficult days still yet to unfold within Mark's gospel?  

Here's a sermon I will be offering later this week on Sunday morning with the First Baptist Church of Hudson Falls, NY:
The story goes this way: Back in the 1960s, a church placed a large sign up on the way into town that read: “Jesus is the answer!” The sign was written in capital letters with BOLD FACE text. Within a few days, some prankster had spray painted an additional text: “What is the question?”

I love the story as it pokes a bit at the over-familiarity churches can have with their religious concepts and words. We are a people who speak a code language that takes a newcomer awhile to get used to. Part of my calling as minister is to figure out how to open these wonderful words of faith, developed over centuries (cherished even) and help the newcomer and the long-time member connect and reconnect with words that are part of our belief and tradition. How does one get her mind around, and then more to the point, one’s heart around words that matter so to the Christian faith?

Take “baptism” for example. We could describe baptism with the textbook definitions drawn from a theology book or a Baptist manual for worship serving as handy tools alongside our Bibles, yet there’s the playful twist we can bring with it. Take for example the United Methodist bishop and popular preacher Will Willimon who likens one’s baptism in a congregation as little like becoming part of the Rotary Club. You are encouraged to be civic-minded. Both Rotarians and Christians know how to do business over a good meal and sit politely through a speech every week while discretely dozing. The big difference is that we church folks don’t settle for shaking your hand when you join. We aim to drown you good!

At that time of “drowning you good”, we ask a big question: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Historically, this question reflects the earliest Christian confession: “Jesus is Lord!” The Baptist tradition stresses the question as one to be answered by the person to be baptized. “Is Jesus YOUR Lord and Savior?” is our way of asking a big question with a Baptist accent. The challenge for the believer is the same, whether young or old. Standing there (hopefully not shivering), you are asked a question that matters greatly. Is Jesus worth you believing in?

To get to the “yes” (and admittedly the “no” for some folks), one has to sort out what that language means to them. When I go through discipleship classes with a person interested in becoming a baptized Christian, this question is not to be simply asked and agreed to. This question is indeed “the” question for Christians over the last two millennia for good reason. Other than the “yes” being said and more to the point taken seriously by the person being baptized, it’s just a very public way of taking a dip in a pool with a crowd watching on.
When Jesus asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?” the disciples answer with a variety of answers common to the day. The responses of “John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet of old” were to be expected, as they were figures hoped for in the beliefs of the day. Peter tops all of them and declares Jesus “Messiah”. And to all of this, Jesus says very firmly, “Shhhhh!”
Admittedly, that would make for quite the spectacle: you’re at the great moment of baptism, you ask the question and camera phones are getting primed to record the moment for Youtube posterity. The person says, “Yes”, the people lean forward in the pews, awaiting the sound and sight of water splashing and conversion symbolized by “drowning you good”. And then the minister stops everything and says, “Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!”

One would think such a moment was quite the letdown. The camera phones might still be recording, as their owners think, “I’ve got to record this. The minister’s gone loopy!”

Why would Jesus get the answer the reader expects (i.e. “You’re the Messiah!”) and tell everybody to hush? Further, what is Jesus up to when he spends time teaching his inner circle “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again”? What type of great moment is this when “the answer” is not only shushed and downplayed; it is complicated by further instruction describing “great suffering, rejection, and death”? 

On the average Sunday morning, Christians sing and pray to Jesus, ascribing the titles of “Lord” “Savior” and “Messiah” faithfully. Every once and awhile, it may be helpful to consider the great irony of such language at the heart of our faith. Each of these titles is understood through the prism of Jesus not being like the type of “Lord” “Savior” and “Messiah” that the disciples and crowds expected. Our faith celebrates one who suffers greatly, gets rejected, and dies. We understand the story does not end there (the great ending of the gospels has an empty tomb awaiting on the third day. Nonetheless, to get to Easter alleluias, we have to go by way of the cross!
A cross, the occupying empire’s cruel mode of execution and tool of control and intimidation answers belief in Jesus as the hoped-for Messiah, the one who will bring Israel’s fortunes back after long disappointment. “Who do you say that I am?” is a big question, yet what Jesus teaches as his answer is befuddling, a strange witness to God’s intention to bring the people and the world out of the chaos and into this Kingdom/Reign of God Jesus is always going on about. What sort of Messiah winds up dead? Certainly not the one expected by the disciples and the crowds to be the answer they want to their prayers!

Careful readers of Mark’s gospel will notice a small clue in the narration. Mark claims Jesus speaks plainly of the suffering, rejection and death. For once, Jesus is not teaching in parables/riddles. In what should be a great moment of authority and power being hailed by Jesus’ followers, we get instead a word that is not meant to be a brainteaser or a paradigm challenger. Jesus is telling it plain. Hence his angry retort when Peter takes him to the side and takes him to task. If you are going to follow Jesus as Lord/Savior/Messiah, you have to keep your eyes and heart on what matters.

Jesus warns again being too “earthly minded”, caught up in the politics of the day or the easy answers, offered to us by the “powers that be”. The Messiah was considered a mighty political force to be reckoned with, sent by God to take over by force. Instead, we will celebrate Jesus’ way by creating a victory parade for our Messiah who rides a donkey and gets befuddled stares as he answers the hope of the people, though in ways that the people did not expect the Messiah to appear, let alone act out his peculiar way of saving them by dying after enduring great hardship and mockery.

The scholar Dorothy Lee-Pollard observes, “The cross reveals where God’s kingdom is to be found—not among the powerful or even the religious, but in the midst of powerlessness, suffering and death” (as quoted by James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Orbis, 2011, p. 157). Jesus dies in a place where he is symbolically written off by the Temple and Empire. His cross is in a forgotten place called Golgotha, or “the place of the skull”.
The big questions proliferate: What sort of Messiah reveals himself in dying and rising on the third day? Where does the messianic hope for a great and mighty reversal of Israel’s fortunes appear in such a messiah? What inspiration does a cross give, if we understand the cross less as symbol of ecclesial power and more as the sign and symbol of a Kingdom/Reign most certainly not in the running to be the next influential Temple or mighty Empire?

Jesus turns to the crowds to add to his teaching to his disciples. He claims that a cross not only awaits the Messiah, there is one for everybody who follows. Again, the tool of Rome’s domination is well known for its effective communication of who’s really in charge, at least according to Rome and their local lackeys. The cross awaits anybody who claims they follow Jesus.

I suggest you think back to your own baptism. Did you realize what you were saying while awaiting baptism? You just signed up for a long, strange journey called discipleship and your only provision is the faith that you keep that says, “By the way, don’t forget that cross as you go out ready to follow Jesus!”

Faith in Christ is more than saying the right words and getting “drowned good”. It is a journey that asks you to follow a way not mapped out by the world and its ways. Christianity presumes you are willing to shape your life by the pattern of the gospel: following Jesus, taking up the cross, going where faith takes you, and as other parts of the New Testament tradition put it, dying to self. The life you gain is not necessarily the life others might encourage you to look for.

Indeed, following Jesus asks us a big question, and our faithful answer in the form of following the gospel in word and deed will be absolutely befuddling to the rest of the world.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The refrain continues (Psalm 121)

From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

The 121st Psalm is part of an unique section of the Psalter, the “Songs of Ascent”, a grouping of psalms used by pilgrims on the journey to and from Jerusalem. You read these psalms (for those of you playing at home, that’s Psalms 120-134) as songs that affirm the goodness of the journey unfolding before you. The way to Jerusalem, center of Israel’s spiritual geography, was oft traveled by the faithful, yet the road had some hazards. You could slip on the rocks, thieves could accost you, or some other woe could befall you. Yet the bands of pilgrims on the journey would sing these psalms, counterpoint to the fears, the anxieties, and the unknowns of life. The journey became less about “getting there” and more about the faith that summoned you onto this pilgrimage.

It is thought that perhaps these were “call and response” songs: a leader calling out one half of the line, and the entire group responding back. Everyone looked up to the hills where Jerusalem could be seen off in the distance, tired and worn from travel. As they beheld Jerusalem, despite all of the miles, all the steep terrain ahead, they could sing back and forth to one another, knowing that the journey was well worth it.

From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

The Psalms enjoy a beloved place within the canon of Scripture because of their lyrical beauty that tends to be like a favored line of poetry: oft remembered and oft quoted. The words work themselves down into your memory, their words taking on a sort of familiar pattern, that upon recall, the cadence of each syllable crossing your lips or flashing through your mind creates a sort of gratitude, as you once more remember the wisdom that this text embodies for you.

When I was a child, there was a great emphasis to memorize Scripture in Sunday school, but I think the teachers erred by impressing upon us the need to memorize for rote’s sake. Indeed, we were given little prizes for the number of verses we could memorize, but very little was said about what to do with the scripture after we committed it to memory. Later in life, I learned that if you are to take Scripture to heart, it is better to take a verse and ponder it slowly. If you want to recall Scripture, do not just memorize it. Let your mind and your heart work together to take it deep within you.

The hymnist and seminary educator Tom Troeger tells of a hospital visit where he ministered to a deeply distressed patient. The best word that Troeger could offer the patient was to take their hand and say to her, “My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth”. As I reflected on the story, I believe Troeger offered this word not as platitude, but as an anchor. As the patient was in the midst of the anxiety that comes with facing the unknown, there could be this word that spoke of the trust that we are summoned to live out in our faith journey with God.

From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

Trust. It seems to be in short supply, especially when life gets demanding. It is hard to create trust, keep trust, and if necessary, repair trust. The 121st Psalm presumes a deep trust that stands its ground, its mettle tested in the narratives of a people acquainted with deliverance from impossible odds (see what happens when you read Exodus or watch the obligatory rerun of “The Ten Commandments” each Spring around Passover). Looking at our own lives, where do we find ourselves able to enter into that trust?

In one of his memoirs, Vermont writer and minister Frederick Buechner recounts:
I remember sitting parked by the roadside once, terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter's illness [note: anorexia nervosa] and what was going on in our family, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that I needed most to see exactly then. The word was TRUST.
What do you call a moment like that? Something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once on a while? The word of God? I am willing to believe that maybe it was something of both, but for me it was an epiphany.
The owner of the car turned out to be, as I'd suspected, a trust officer in a bank, and not long ago, having read an account I wrote of the incident somewhere, he found out where I lived and one afternoon brought me the license plate itself, which sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen. (Telling Secrets, p. 49)

From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

The 121st Psalm bears frequent reading, as life itself is frequently perplexing, taxing, and downright agonizing at times. The 121st Psalm, though, is offered as a Psalm meant to accompany you across all life’s journey. The Psalm continues to affirm that God will be our keeper, not the authoritarian and perpetually angry deity of fundamentalism who seeks to punish if one strays or quavers, but one who looks out for the pilgrims, no matter how quickly or slowly they make their pilgrimage, no matter how they get there. We angle for Jerusalem, the place where our heart is meant to be, sometimes with great precision and sometimes needing all the help available learning to how read a compass. The Psalm reminds us that not only is God maker of all that is known (“the heaven and earth”), God is also the one who intimately keeps us, whether coming or going, to and fro across life’s journey, and even ‘til our journey’s end.

This whole line of thinking about faith began to dawn on me one day while studying in England. As we were being shown around the great home that serves as a Baptist ministry training school in London, the administrator pointed out the large stained glass piece in the hall. It depicted a hand reaching out and firmly holding a cross. “Do you know your Latin?” he asked. And like most Americans, I said, “No.” “It is the life saying of our school’s founder: Charles Haddon Spurgeon. It says, Et teneo et teneor, or in English, ‘I hold, and I am held.”

From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

The life of faith seems often an affair that is in fits and starts, with not too much continuity or cohesion. Tragedy can shatter one’s enduring sense of hope. Fatigue with life can cool the desire for walking with other pilgrims. Apathy can dry up the well of prayer. Myopia can blunt one’s interest in self-examination and renewal. Along life’s journey are many challenges, much heartache, and the inevitable loss called death.

Yet, there is the rhythm of the ancient pilgrim, keeping a steady and abiding witness, singing the words of a long day’s journey towards the heart of faith. It is an act of pure testimony to the life of faith that knows the terrain is uneven under foot that still sings nonetheless of God keeping us from stumbling.
We who journey the way through this Psalm are invited to catch the tune ourselves, letting the words move from the page of sacred text and into the midst of our own lives. We find it a hard task, convinced we are captains of our own destiny or perhaps we fear we are just tossed to the winds of fate (and sometimes we oscillate between the two without realizing it). The faith of a weary pilgrim still not quite there yet does not seem to mesh well with our desire for appearing to have it all together. However, the spiritual life does not call for perfection, only the humility to start trudging towards those hills in the company of others willing to take the long journey home.

From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Learning to Navigate the Seas of Change and Leadership

Is leadership about smooth seas or rough seas?
Perhaps it's about how you navigate all the seas!
Dr. Amy Butler (or "Pastor Amy") of the Riverside Church in New York City, NY, spent the past week at my alma mater Central Baptist Theological Seminary in the greater Kansas City area.  She is part of the adjunct faculty of Central's Doctor of Ministry program and will be the featured speaker on the Friday evening of the ABCUSA Mission Summit/Biennial later in June 2015 in Overland Park, KS. 

To learn more about Central's D.Min program, click

Amy Butler engaged D.Min students on issues of leadership.  Part of the coursework involved the students considering vulnerability as part of the leadership experience.  The class worked out a definition Amy later shared on her blog: 

A vulnerable leader is an accessible, compelling figure who dares to embrace the diverse reality of the human experience, casts a vision for the future with conviction, creates a shared community that adapts to dynamic situations, and courageously risks authenticity. 

Link to quote:   Another reflection on the class experience is also available:

I must say that this definition is very winsome.  Persons who just bide time rarely know what to do when the Spirit's "wild goose" tendencies call the church to a new time and challenge.  (The "wild goose" image draws upon the ancient Celtic Christian image of the Holy Spirit).  Being able to handle "diverse realities" is helpful, navigating a world of difference, even when we may not be quite ready or hesitant to go places and embrace the "Otherness" of those around us.  Also, risk is part of leadership. 

After all, did not Blessed Kenneth of Rogers once opine, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.  Know when to walk away.  Know when to run"?  But I digress....

Next week, Dr. Kelsey and I will be traveling to Duke Divinity School to participate in a four day training for ministers involved with denominational leadership.  The group will gather a variety of mainline and other Protestant denominational staff serving organizations involved with congregational vitality, the perplexities of ministry these days and the opportunities to find a rhythm of sorts in the midst of the phone calls, spread sheets, meetings, crisis calls and ongoing ways and means of a Region, Synod, Diocese, etc., etc.

To learn more about the program, visit:

In preparation for the sessions next week, we were asked to read a variety of blog postings on the Duke Divinity School's "Faith and Leadership" blog, a treasure trove of reflections, interviews, and other ways of engaging creative leaders in sharing their learnings and gleanings as all of us struggle to find fresh and creative ways to meet the needs of Christ's church these days and into the future.

The blog is located at:

Some of the readings include:  Former Divinity School Dean, L. Gregory Jones on the possibilities of churches and related organizations adapting the business community's concept of a "chief learning officer".   An article about a creative pastor in Houston combining the need for new forms of church community, deep healing needs in the midst of neighborhoods that may have been forgotten and forgot themselves.  Marlon Hall will be one of the guest speakers alongside Wes Granberg-Michaelson, a longtime Reformed Church denominational leader.

Participants will learn also from David L. Odum, Executive Director of the Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.  He offers thoughts and strategy on Transformational Leadership.  To learn more,

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Review: The Graceful Exit

From time to time, I write book reviews for the journal "Sharing the Practice", published quarterly by the Academy of Parish Clergy.  To learn more about APC, visit:

Lindberg, Mary C. The Graceful Exit: A Pastor’s Journey from Good-bye to Hello. (Rowman and Littlefield/Alban Books, 2012). ISBN 978-1-5669-9432-3. 142 pp.

The call to ministry brings several years if not decades of faith, doubt, success and challenge, joy and hardship. Also, ministry brings with it a great deal of transition. How one is a good steward of the transitional times a minister goes through will make a great difference (or detriment) to the experience of those years of ministry.

Despite another classic Alban title on interim ministry, pastors are always “temporary shepherds”, even if we are “settled pastors”. For a season, we serve. For a season, we move among a particular group of Christians and a mission context where ministry takes place. Then after a season, we move on.

Yet, is such transition neat and tidy? Any minister will feel the unresolved issues, mull over the things done and left undone and need a time to heal from the grief and sometimes even anger of a parting of a ways with a place and position. As Pope Francis wisely observed, “A shepherd should smell like the sheep”. So, how does a shepherd leave a place and a position and even a sense of particular purpose with a ministry without something lingering deep within us?

Mary Lindberg’s book is a treasure of practical wisdom, written in a devotional manner that welcomes pastors contemplating new calls or even retirement to understand one’s leave taking of a ministry is not easily a matter of turning in the keys and walking out the door one last time. We have to embrace our transition with all of its pain and possibilities. Lindberg’s book helps pastors enter into the hard questions and common realities of transition so that one’s inevitable exit will be more about the grace of finishing and moving on than it might tend to for many of us. She offers a variety of helpful questions and exercises for pastors to think through the anticipatory grief of congregations as well as within the departing parson.

In my judicatory work in support of fellow pastors, I am sometimes present at the beginning of a pastor’s decision to move on. Dealing with all of the baggage of unknown and known issues related to clergy transition is hard enough. In Baptist and other Free Church traditions where clergy are called by the local church rather than placed by outside ecclesial authority, the anxiety is understandably high when a pastor’s tenure ends, as there may or may not be a new congregational position awaiting a pastor. When we serve indefinite terms of congregational calls with no appointment safety net, Free Church clergy and their loved ones often live with chronic anxiety, above or below the surface. Lindberg’s book is helpful for a pastor to read and discuss the implications of what Lindberg encourages with members of a pastoral relations committee, collegiality groups, or a clergy spouse or household member. This book and the possible conversations (internal and interpersonal) should not stay in the pastor’s study!

Sometimes my work with other pastors involves talking about the need to refrain from any further pastoral/professional ties to a given congregation. Lindberg provides helpful stories of other clergy having to let go, sharing insightfully about the process and the grief that comes with the experience. Lindberg’s book is a devotional and professional ethics lesson wrapped into one helpful and earnest effort to encourage healthier departures and arrivals.

I have encouraged a number of colleagues preparing to say good bye to congregations. Some of these clergy have said good bye to active ministry, transitioning into retirement, especially after longer-term tenures. I am grateful for Lindberg’s book as a deeply needed resource for pastoral ministry and congregational health.

Transition is part of ministry. We serve only for a season. We cannot escape the conversations awaiting us in Lindberg’s book. May we read it carefully, thoughtfully and enter and depart fields of ministry with grace abundant made known to our congregations, our households and even ourselves.