> “Poetry is thoughts that breathe; words that burn” (Thomas Gray)
Why do I need poetry?
Poetry is the language that puts words on the sounds and silences that make up our lives. It is the power to name that which is un-nameable. It is the grace to name something “Mystery” and to take comfort in that.
Why do I need poetry?
Poetry is the force that allows us to speak with fierce honesty about ourselves and the world we live in. It shatters the glass cases we use to contain things like faith, love, hope, and God. Poetry scoffs at our clichés because it knows those are merely our attempts to avoid life as it really is.
Why do I need poetry?
Poetry challenges me to see that the world is made up of more than just myself and my own junk. It dares to set free that which I try to put in a neat box. Poetry calls me to the silence and beckons me to be present in it.
Why do I need poetry?
Because on days when I am consumed with my own busyness, and pretend like I have all of the answers, I need to be reminded that in order to truly live, I stop pretending, slow down, and learn to sit with my own questions. For that is where God will meet us.
Some days…I grow weary of cookie cutter faith.
If a grave could not hold God, what makes us think a neat little box of our own making will do it? We would rather spend our energies proclaiming how God rubber stamps our political/social/ideological views and we miss the face of Christ in the stranger we pass by. You see, that stranger is longing for just a few moments from a Good Samaritan. But the only faith we can seem to articulate is meant for bumper stickers and sound bytes. How is it, again, that faith can somehow fit so neatly in a sentence or two? Would someone please remind me how to speak of God in 30 words or less in light of the madness of the world we live in?
Some days…I am bored with “churchy” talk.
It doesn’t matter if we sit in cathedrals and sing 300-year old hymns or if we gather in a storefront and pretend like what we’re doing is somehow new or contemporary — we think faith means severing all ties to the world around us. We say following Jesus means pretending like we don’t live outside the church six days a week. We want to act as though one hour a week (or maybe two if we count our Sunday School/Small Group/Community Group/Life Group/etc.) is the totality of our discipleship. We tell people serving on committees or volunteering to sustain our building or programs is what it means to follow Jesus. We forget that life happens outside of the “praise” we offer in worship. We avoid the tough questions and the messy circumstances because we don’t want to “turn people off” or somehow make others question God. We pray that life doesn’t get too complicated for people so they’ll continue attending and going through the motions of “church.” But life happens. It turns worlds upside down much like Jesus turns tables over in temples where we worship idols of wealth, self-help, and politics masked as faith. Where’s the bumper sticker when you lose a baby? Where’s the clever sermon series that speaks to the horrors of cancer or addiction? What pithy phrase do we dare offer when we learn of abuse or prejudice?
Some days…I get tired of the church’s navel gazing.
I grow weary of conversations where institutional survival is the main topic. Decline drives us to insanity some days. Maybe it’s not decline in size, but decline in influence and prestige? I don’t know. All I know is we absolutely cannot stand the fact that we are not what we once were. It scares us to death to think of a world where we are not the center of attention or the major power broker at the table. If only there were one more program, one more campaign, one more slogan that could “save” us. Never mind the fact that “the Church is of God and it will last until the end of time.” We’re not signing on that dotted line unless it means we remain at the top of the social mountain. Is it possible to be the Church for the sake of the world even if we’re not the church of the nation?
Some days…I want to count myself with the doubters.
Knowing it all can reveal the fact that we really know nothing when it comes to the living God. A faith built on answers leaves no room for mystery. It doesn’t grant permission for struggle. It fails to admit that we might not know everything when it comes to God. I want to struggle with my faith or else how am I supposed to grow? I want to doubt or else how am I to truly appreciate when I am in the presence of mystery? Let other people “know it all” and have the answers. I know it makes things like preaching and teaching difficult. But if faith were simply advice we sought “buy-in” for, then is that really faith at all? Surely there’s more than meets the eye?
Some days I want to write as a writer who happens to be Christian instead of a “Christian writer.”
“Christian writers” too often fear offending others or, God forbid, their narrow doctrine or worldview. Christian writers prefer a Christian world of their own making that’s “safe for the family” and pretends like messy things like death or poverty or cursing or prejudice do not exist. This Christian world emphasizes self-sufficiency and raising well-behaved kids. It has no time for people who struggle because they can’t pay their bills, find adequate healthcare, or who’s lives refuse to fit in the mold called “The American Dream.”
Writers who are Christian want to engage the world around them. They want to open themselves to the world instead of closing themselves off to it in fear. They refuse to be shackled by the narrow world of “church” because they know God is alive and well in the most unexpected places. They know the power at work in our everyday lives and they know how to tell a compelling story. They know God rarely fits into a formula or plan of action. And they trust that a story’s power can speak, by grace of the God, even when they do not have the answers. It’s reckless, yet freeing. It’s exhausting and messy, yet life-giving and strangely beautiful.
Some days…I want to be that kind of writer. I want to be that kind of pastor.
I want to tell you about a man who will make you believe God’s grace is real. Some of you may have heard the name Brennan Manning before, others maybe not. He was not as famous as C.S. Lewis although he could write beautiful prose that read as good as fiction much like Lewis. He did not write about 7 ways to grow a church or 10 ways to be happier in your job.
Manning was too busy living with the disease of alcoholism and writing about the relentless nature of God’s grace.
Brennan Manning lived as a man devoted to spiritual living. He was a member of the Catholic community based in France called Little Brothers of Jesus. He was a successful speaker and preacher at various conferences. But much of his life and career became defined to larger audiences by his decision to come back to America in the 1970s after acknowledging his deep dependence on alcohol. For the last 40 or years Manning has served as a speaker and author.
Arguably Brennan Manning’s greatest contribution to the Christian world was his coining of the phrase “Ragamuffin” as a term for what it means to understand yourself as a Christian. The best definition of what it means to be a Ragamuffin is probably described best in this simple yet penetrating sentence written by Manning:
“My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
I found Brennan Manning at a point in my life long after I had walked away from a call to ministry when I found myself doubting my faith altogether. On the days I actually thought about faith, I wondered what the point of it all was. I was lonely even though I was surrounded by others. I was in a desolate place even though my days were full of activity. I did not yet know how much I needed God. And I didn’t know yet how much Brennan Manning’s words would come to mean to me. A friend gave me his copy of the book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, and I read the first two pages of Manning’s words:
“The Ragamuffin Gospel was written with a specific reading audience in mind.
This book is not for the superspiritual.
It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne, and not Jesus, their hero.
It is not for academics who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of exegesis.
It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion.
It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion.
It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the moun- taintop and have never visited the valley of desolation.
It is not for the fearless and tearless.
It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the Gospels, ‘All these commandments I have kept from my youth.’
It is not for the complacent who hoist over their shoulders a tote bag of honors, diplomas, and good works, actually believing they have it made.
It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus. If anyone is still reading along,
The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.
It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.
It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker.
It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.
It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay.
It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God.
It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.
The Ragamuffin Gospel is a book I wrote for myself and any- one who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.”
…I know, right?!?!
I never had the pleasure of meeting Brennan Manning in person but I felt like I knew him through his writing because he was so very honest and vulnerable. He wrote like a man who had nothing to lose — fearless in admitting his fears. He wrote like a man who knew the seductive and controlling power of sin that exceeds our pithy, human understanding or shallow morality. He wrote like a man who knew the life-changing and priceless cost of grace and what a miracle it is to be encountered by it at our lowest points.
Brennan Manning had the ability to write about God’s grace because who better to describe it than a man who lived everyday knowing how much he needed it.
As a gift of grace, Brennan Manning had the ability to strike at the very heart of how outrageous and scandalous God’s grace is:
“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.
‘But how?’ we ask.
Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.
My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
Manning also had a gift for seeing through the often shallow and self-centered ways we describe what it means to be a Christian. His writing is a prophetic act of imagination — prophetic for telling the truth about our church culture and imaginative in describing the world as God might see it. Read this from his wonderful book, The Furious Longing of God:
“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”
Manning knew that being a Christian everyday of your life meant more than pithy, self-help advice. And it meant more than being consumers of religion. The demanding and life-changing task of being a Christian is truly living everyday as a new creation, as the person God truly created us to be. And it means living with the knowledge that we get it wrong many days. So we constantly stand in the need of God’s grace to help continue to be who God calls us to be. This grace also forms us into a people of humility and not arrogance.
Just last year I read what would be Brennan Manning’s last book, All Is Grace. It was my fourth written by him but it was the first in a few years. I decided to come back to Manning like you decide to pick up the phone and call an old friend out of the blue one day. You don’t know exactly why you do it, you only know that for whatever reason, it just felt right on that particular day. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. The most meaningful parts of his memoir were when he addressed his relapses with alcoholism even after his encounters with “Abba” and his writing of books on grace. He simply said, “These things happen.” While I’m sure many pious people would say that’s a cheap answer, I don’t see it as cheap at all. I imagine a man who’s face is worn with years of struggling with faith and falling short. I imagine a man who knows the cost of grace only after profound low points in his life. “These things happen” are an admission, a truth-telling, that we cannot fix or save ourselves no matter how hard we try. Only God can save.
I write this post to join the ranks of those who claim the name of “Ragamuffin” because they read Brennan Manning and heard the voice of God speaking through pages filled with raw honesty about life and the human condition. Brennan Manning helped me understand that one of the first steps in living as a Christian is to not only be honest about our brokenness, but to embrace it. Only then can God truly enter into the mundane and routine parts of our lives. Only when we can see our own brokenness can we truly experience the grace of the One who was broken for our sake, and who continues to live and dwell in the broken places of our world.
The United Methodist Church has an amazing document entitled This Holy Mystery that outlines our doctrinal and practical understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Maybe you’ve heard of it or even participated in a class where it was taught. I have the privilege of leading a small group in studying this document over the next six weeks.
One of my initial thoughts in approaching this series with a group of lay people is that it might be helpful to blog about it and share it with the wider United Methodist community. Therefore, I invite you to join me for the next few blogs as I process my experience in both studying anew and teaching this fantastic United Methodist resource on sacramental theology.
Spoiler alert: I think it will have a lot to say not only about how we celebrate Holy Communion, but also how we seek to form and be formed as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Session 1: Hungering for the Mystery
An excerpt from the teaching resource written by Gayle Felton:
The story is told of a little girl whose parents had taken her forward to receive Holy Communion. Disappointed with the small piece of bread she was given to dip in the cup, the child cried loudly, “I want more! I want more!” While embarrassing to her parents and amusing to the pastor and congregation, this little girl’s cry accurately expresses the feelings of many contemporary United Methodist people. We want more! We Want more than we are receiving from the sacrament of Holy Communion as it is practiced in our churches.
The resounding response from our group in hearing this story was, “YES!!!”
We began our session by going around the room and naming 1 or 2 words they think of when participating in the sacrament. Some said, “renewed.” Others said, “forgiven.” Still others said, “strengthened and nourished.” Oddly, no one said, “bored.” I wonder how many lay people are sitting in our pews wishing we could celebrate Holy Communion more often. Where I serve, the Walk to Emmaus has served as a great source for helping people find new love for the Holy Communion. A couple of Emmaus alums in our group noted how let down they were in finding that after a wonderful weekend away where Holy Communion was so prominent, they realized just how much their local church kept it off to the side as though was not central to worship.
Frustration was expressed when clergy rush the liturgy, when the table is not carefully and lovingly prepared, when the theology expressed is questionable, and when clergy do not teach on the rich meaning and mystery in the sacrament. The laity all said they wished they heard more about the sacraments. They wished practices matched the deep meaning the sacrament had in their faith lives.
I wonder, too, if the disconnect felt has more to do with what we see as the primary focus of our worship — do we see the sermon as the primary turning point of worship or do we see the Table? For our Anglican brothers and sisters it’s the Table. Sermons are short and normally lead straight to the Table. But we’re United Methodists (and I’m in the South) so preaching and revival-style worship holds a special place in our cultural imagination. Legends are told of the great preachers of our past. Preaching is viewed as a primary skill for the ministry (and it should be).
I wonder if our emphasis on preaching has come at the expense of emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of Holy Communion?
A couple of years ago I did a very informal, unscientific poll on Facebook asking whether or not Communion would lose its meaning and importance if it were celebrated weekly instead of monthly or quarterly. Interestingly my responses were split into two categories — everyone who voted for celebrating MORE often were laity and everyone who noted the difficulty in celebrating more often were clergy. Now I’m drawing my own conclusions but I wonder if that doesn’t have a little something to do with our emphasis on preaching. In other words, do we preachers secretly enjoy knowing that our sermons are the pinnacle of the worship service? Another thought could be that with more observances comes more planning and responsibilities — is it just easier on preachers and worship teams to stay with fewer observances?
But it’s not just a critique of the place and priority we give preaching. Emphasizing the sacraments calls into question how we view worship as a whole. Giving the sacraments a primary place in worship means not only allowing, but inviting mystery to be primary in our worship. This means we have to be okay with not being able to explain our the0logy and rituals in neat, compact ways. It means being okay with allowing the Spirit to move without our putting a formula on how it moves. And it means seeing worship as something more than just entertainment or comfort where style trumps content and we think we can become full off of a steady diet of thin, shallow meaning.
Don Saliers notes that emphasizing the sacraments in such a way as to make the link between ritual, mission, and discipleship will require some change in how congregations approach the sacraments. First, he says, congregations would be forced to teach and learn more about the sacraments on an ongoing basis. We need to teach worship instead of just doing it and expecting that folks get something out of it. But we cannot marginalize the sacraments just because they’re cloaked in some mystery and not easily understood. We can still teach in the midst of mystery. Secondly, Saliers notes, preaching would need to root itself in a sacramental sense of church and world. We cannot simply preach that salvation is found in Jesus’ death. The entirety of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the foundation for our preaching and worship. The liturgy of Holy Communion covers the spectrum of this foundation, invites us to “taste and see,” and then sends us forth in mission as we participation in the fullness of life in Christ. Thirdly, congregations would have to celebrate the sacraments with more vitality and enthusiasm. Baptisms are not meant to be rote and routine. Holy Communion is not a funeral service. We offer ourselves in thanks and praise as we participate in the very life of God’s redeeming action every time we celebrate one of the sacraments. Why would we not want to do this as often as possible???
Question: How does your congregation celebrate Holy Communion? Do you wish you could celebrate more often? How are the sacraments taught in your congregation? Do you wish they were taught more?
Holiness of Doubt
Forgive when I think I have you all figured out;
when I mistake certainty for faith;
doubt for sin.
Mystery is the very fragrance of life with you –
Wonderful are the days
when belief takes the form of proof.
Wonderful, too, are the days when
form is fleeting,
and faith is all we have to cling to.
Life is found in the in-between:
proof and mystery
form and chaos
belief and doubt.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe…
Blessed, too, are those who still doubt…
and yet long for more.
Easter Sunday. It’s the one day of the year when even the people who hate mornings will gather at an ungodly early hour to stand on a lawn, in a field, under a canopy, or maybe in a parking lot to watch the sun rise and hear a few words about resurrection.
Easter Sunday. It’s the day when music is extra special – organs, brass, electric guitars and singers alike soar in the music as though they’re heading to the very property line of the pearly gates. It’s the day when our pews are cramp, our parking lots are full, and everyone arrives at church with their best outfit on and a camera in-hand lest they miss out on the annual photo op that marks time for with our friends and families.
Easter Sunday. It’s the time of year that serves as both a Homecoming and a “seeker service” all in one. Family members long gone are back in town for the celebration. Visitors may also decide Easter is the day they’ll try a new church out for the first time. If you’re lucky, you’ll even have a few members who are visiting again – ones for whom inactivity has lasted long enough and they’re making an extra effort to be active in church again.
It’s that last part that probably captivates pastors most. It can be tough to gather on Easter Sunday, see the great attendance, and know that it will be “same ‘ol same ‘ol” the next week. The hymns sound so good when a full sanctuary sings them. The sound in the room is so much richer when there are more ears to hear. Starting next week we go back to the era of decline remembering “days gone by” when our sanctuaries were full.
As pastors we want this feeling to last. We want our sanctuaries to be full every Sunday. But how?
One of the more popular methods of attracting the Christmas/Easter crowds back to church is to promote an exciting sermon series beginning the Sunday after the holiday. Usually this is a clever series, something more accessible to all levels of faith and biblical knowledge, and packaged in such a way as to draw intrigue and wonder. This can be a really good way to encourage people to come back to church following a major holiday. It’s a great way to be invitational.
But I wonder if this method doesn’t also risk missing the mark of what it means to be the church?
You see, while promoting new sermon series to visitors and inactive members can be inviting, we operate off of the idea that our job as the church is to open our doors and draw people in. All of the risk and responsibility lies on the shoulders of those who visit with us and we continue with business as usual.
We fail to recognize there’s a difference between being invitational and being missional.
Being missional means we spend Easter Sunday asking questions. It means finding out where people are from or what’s been going on with those folks who have been active for the last year. It means finding moments to invest in others before we ask them to invest in us. This can happen either on Easter Sunday or by setting up a time to do so later.
Being missional means we spend Easter Sunday with a note pad in our pocket making a call list for Easter Monday and Tuesday. It means we fill our pockets with extra business cards to give out. And it means we insist on being bothered over the next couple of days if that means an e-mail or a phone call or a lunch appointment with someone new (or old).
Being missional means remembering that being invitational is important but it’s not the end-game for the church. Before we worry about casting nets and reeling in new people, we should remember our first and primary calling is to be blessed, broken, and emptied out in service to others – even if they don’t immediately help to line our pews and offering plates.
A certain friend of mine called to tell me today of an experience at a church in the town where he and his wife had just moved to. He said the pastor worked hard to promote a new sermon series. He said it sounded interesting even to someone like him who attends church about 4 times a year. But he said the whole sales pitch fell flat when people smiled, welcomed him, handed him a brochure for the church, and proceeded to not ask him a single question about himself or his wife. I imagine my friend and his wife will be enjoying a lovely brunch next Sunday around 11:00am.
This story served as a harsh reminder that too often we miss the point on Easter. God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead in order to invite people to the empty tomb to stay and set up shop. God didn’t eventually call the Church together at Pentecost under the order to buy some good real estate and be inviting as sojourners passed by.
Easter is an eternal reminder of a God who is constantly on the move. It’s about a Savior who left the tomb and empty linens behind in order to search out others. It’s the good news of a Risen Savior who is on the move and who is calling us anew to join him in the streets, neighborhoods, coffee shops, bars, and parks. It’s the sort of news that demands we reach out to others on their terms for once, and not our own.
I have a call sheet for the coming week but I wish it was longer. I saw some familiar faces who have been absent from church lately and I wished I had spent a little more time asking them about their lives. I’ve got some folks to follow up with next week but I know I missed too many.
Maybe the best news of Easter is that when we put the power points and prep work aside for a bit, we could actually follow Jesus into the world around us? But we should probably get going – Jesus doesn’t stay in one place for too long.