> “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.
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.
Holy Week has begun. It’s a time where we relive and follow the passion of Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to the agony and despair of his final meal with his friends before his death, and then finally to the miracle of the empty tomb on Easter.
It’s a glorious time in the life of the church. By now plans have been made, bulletins are being printed, and the excitement is building toward what should be one of the biggest weekends of the year in the life of the local church.
It’s also the time of year where a special creature emerges from hibernation — the Chreaster.
UrbanDictionary.com defines Chreaster as: Those Christians who only show up to religious services on Christmas and Easter. Maybe it’s family pressure, maybe it’s out of obligation, maybe it’s just habit, or maybe it’s because it seems like the right thing to do, but these are people who attend church twice a year. And we’re about to embark on the second sighting of Chreasters in the last 4 months (or the last sighting until December?).
I’ve had the opportunity to be in a couple of clergy meetings in the last week or so. As you might expect at this time of year, Chreasters are a featured conversation topic. Usually the conversation moves in a predictable pattern. First we bemoan the existence of Chreasters (“you know those people will actually find their way back to church this Sunday…”). And then we talk about the opportunities, challenges, and possibilities of a Chreaster sighting (“What if they actually heard the Good News this time? What if they were inspired to morph into an actual church member? What if…?). As the conversation moves in this pattern, you can just see the clergy in the room licking their chops. They’ve caught the scent of fresh blood in the waters and they’re already imagining scenarios where possibilities become realities. Sermons are being honed to just the right calibration — when we fire our best shot and cast the net, we’re expecting to real in some Chreasters.
What if this Easter, we concentrated less on our hunting strategy and more on sharing in the good news of resurrection together?
I know that may sound crazy to some. We should always be invitational. We should see every Sunday as an opportunity to invite people to change their lives in light of the good news of Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t disagree with any of that. It’s vitally important that we be invitational.
But what if we began our sense of being invitational by viewing Chreasters less as creatures and commodities, and more as people made in the image of God? What if we saw Easter less as a hunting expedition and more as a communal experience of resurrection?
You see, the assumption we make in our talk about Chreasters is that we’re a privileged bunch enlightened in the right ways of believing and living and until they join us, they are not. We can’t imagine Chreasters not wanting to join our tribe once they heard about how great it is. We figure all we need to do is get the message right this time, open the doors, and they’ll come running. The truth is, Chreasters come back on Christmas and Easter year after year, they hear the appeal year after year and they still opt out of becoming “one of us.” Maybe it’s not a sales pitch problem at all, maybe there’s a problem with the product they see?
It’s hard to hear that we don’t have it all together. And it’s hard as Christians who are used to seats of power and esteem to hear that we are still in need of grace. Pastors are also notorious for assuming we are wells of knowledge and insight. In all of our preparing, planning, and preaching we forget that we too need to hear the good news of resurrection. It’s not ours to tell, we need to hear it as well. Our churches need to hear it too. Too often we exist week in and week out in a fog of self-denial while we focus all of our energy on our own self-preservation and success. We desperately need to hear again that life does in fact spring forth from death. We need to hear again that God’s plan for the redemption of this world is on the move despite the fledgeling efforts of the Church. And if we’re honest, we should admit that Chreasters aren’t meant to be creatures we hunt as much as they are eyes and ears and voices of the goodness of God outside of our church walls.
What better day than Easter to gather with insiders and outsiders alike to hear the good news that, by the power of God, there is still hope for us all. God is not finished with any of us. This Sunday, may we listen before we speak, look before we judge, and share in the joy of new life together.
I’m writing this column around 2:30pm on Ash Wednesday. We’ve completed two of the three services we’re offering today. It’s been a busy day of activities and our night will end just as the day began – with a worship service reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall one day return.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You know, sometimes it’s strange to be a Christian.
This is only my third Ash Wednesday in the role of “pastor.” I’m in my very first appointment and in many ways I’m still learning what the title of “pastor” really means. For example, Ash Wednesday reminds me that as pastors we have the duty and delight to tell people, “I invite you, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent.” Maybe I’m still young and a little green, but there’s a part of me that shudders every time I declare that the words I’m about to say are on behalf of the whole Church universal. Yet every Ash Wednesday I tell people that contrary to what direction the cultural winds might be blowing that day, we are expected to live a life of holiness.
Lent is a season when our priorities shift. It is no longer an option to remain bland, “Christian when it’s convenient,” pew-warmers. Lent reminds us that being Christian means change – even when it hurts.
When everyone else is worried about being comfortable in life, Christians spend a season trying to remember how uncomfortable the Christian life can be. Strange indeed.
One of strangest things about Ash Wednesday is the way the Christian life demands physical touch. When I look into someone’s eyes, move their hair to the side, and rub my thumb on their forehead in the shape of a cross it’s a very intimate moment. The miracle of the Incarnation is that Christ is most fully found in the physical and tactile ways of being human – holding sweaty hands in a hospital room, finding blemishes of make-up left on your collar reminding you of a hug someone shared that morning, having your shoulder soaked with the tears of another person, tearing bread from a loaf to place into the mouth of a person who does not have full use of their hands, and yes, rubbing a little dirt on the forehead of each other. Being Christian means we share the full human experience with each other, and when we do so, Christ is among us. There are a lot of things you can do by yourself but being a Christian is not one of them. Very strange.
Lent also reminds us that no matter how hard we try, we won’t make it out of this life alive. This is a time when we are constantly nagged with the reality that whatever magic pill we’re taking, cosmetic surgery we’d love to get, or anti-aging remedy we’d like to try, nothing will stop the process of death. I was keenly aware of this today as we were imposing ashes at a local assisted-living facility. It struck me about halfway through the process that here were two young pastors under the age of 40 telling a room full of senior citizens that they will one day return to dust. The look in their eyes as they graciously received the ashes told us they knew the meaning to those words better than we did. After the service I went to a nearby sink to wash out the bowl we used for oil. One of the residents from the service came over to me on her cane, took my plate, and insisted on hand-washing it for me. I was just going to give it a quick rinse but here this saint of God stood, leaning on her cane, and gently and lovingly washing and drying the bowl. I didn’t have to ask her about the theological meaning of God’s hospitality – I could tell by the way she treated that dish she had years of experience treating other people the same way. You see, as I was relishing in the irony of telling senior citizens they were to one day return to ashes, she embodied the way we are called to live as we journey together through life – in loving service to each other.
I hope you’re season of Lent is going well. And by “well” I mean I hope it also hurts a little. No one ever promised being a Christian would be easy. All we’re promised is the unfailing love of God and a few friends along the way as we learn share in the beauty and strangeness of the Christian life. Thanks be to God!