Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Live the Stories

I heard a sermon recently called "Live the Stories". The gist of it was that while the Jews who crossed the Jordan into Israel were not the ones who left Egypt (that whole golden calf incident), the stories of the previous generation were a part of their lived experience because they heard these stories told over and over, and it was very real to them. The application, of course, being that we, too, should make the narratives of the Bible part of our lived experience by immersing ourselves in these stories.

It wasn't so much the content (although it was good) as the presentation that has kept me thinking about this. The sermon was delivered by a PhD student in Homiletics at Vanderbilt who is a very gifted speaker. He did the whole sermon in first person as a child who was born during the 40 years in the desert, and in doing so painted such a vivid word picture that the poetry seemed to seep out of his pores like one who has worked up a great sweat.

While the central message was deep and the presentation artful, I was left unmoved. Perhaps this was just my brain going into academic mode, critiquing his exegesis, or my preacher self sizing up a colleague. Whatever the case, I didn't find myself moved in the way that lets me know I am truly worshiping God.

But when the sermon was over a woman stood up and began to sing "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" a capella (no piano or anything accompanying her). The song paints a very simple picture of Jesus' suffering, and has never really moved me, but this time I absolutely melted. Every inflection in her voice as she sang told us of the pain she felt watching these terrible things happen to Jesus. Even though she was born 2,000 years after the fact, she was there, and she took me with her. I was there when they crucified my Lord.

As God is so fond of doing, I was smacked upside the head with a simple but profound truth. God seems to have given me a gift with words, and I'm usually a little too proud of that fact, showing it off even when no one asks. But in this moment it was not the abundance of artful, poetic language, but the simplicity of an old slave spiritual that transported me back to that day at Calvary. Less turned out to be more.

That day the song was the sermon to me. It was in the song that I began to experience the old, old story as if I had been there.

Monday, February 20, 2006

I must have a sign on my forehead

For the majority of my life I've known I was different, and everyone else has known it, too. It's not what you might think, though. I hope I don't sound arrogant by saying this, but it's as if people have looked at me as a pastor all my life. Even when I was a kid people would come to me if they had issues or were wrestling with big questions about God, as if I had any clue. It was like I had a sign on my forehead that said "The pastor is in" or something like that.

Anyway, as it so often does, life threw me a weird curveball last week. Jessica (my fiancee) and I were headed to a bar in downtown Nashville where we play trivia with a group of friends every week. (Yes, pastors go to bars sometimes. Deal with it.) As so often happens, a homeless man approached us as we were walking from our car across the street, asking for money. If we have cash we usually give something to them, figuring it's between them and God what they do with it. The only thing God will hold us accountable for is whether we helped someone in need.

It became clear to us very quickly that this man was mentally ill, as an overwhelming majority of homeless people are, and that he had not had his medication in a while. We learned that his name was Anthony, and he started telling us about himself, showing us his ID, pictures of relatives, and the pocket New Testament he always carries with himself.

Then all of a sudden Anthony asks us to pray for him right then, and he grabbed both our hands and knelt in the parking lot. We followed suit, and I could feel the weird looks of bar patrons walking to their cars seeing a reasonably well dressed man and woman on their knees in the parking lot praying with a homeless black man. I never mentioned what I do or anything, he said he just seemed to sense it.

I'm not really sure what this means. On the one hand I hate that I felt a little embarrassed kneeling on the ground with Anthony. Was I embarrassed to be with a homeless man, or the fact that I was quite obviously praying in public? I'm not sure. I guess it's just proof that, while I preach to people every Sunday about not being ashamed of the gospel, I'm still human just like everyone else.

On the other hand I feel grateful to have opportunities like this. I don't go seeking them out. I don't even consciously think all the time about how I can witness publicly. But as big as my ego can get, its probably better that things like this just fall in my lap, otherwise I would probably get way too proud of myself for doing something God gave me the ability to do.

While most of the time we have to look for God in the common stuff of everyday life, every now and then something unusual comes along just to keep us on our toes. I don't have meaningful encounters with homeless people every day, so experiences like this one serve to remind me that someone in need is always around the corner. I don't know if Anthony and I will ever cross paths again, but for one moment we were able to be a blessing to one another in the simplest of ways.

I guess I'll always have a sign on my forehead, whether I like it or not. And as a Christian, so do you. Let's wear these signs proudly, because you never know who may need a helping hand.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Truth with a capital "T"?

The other night I attended a lecture by a prominent scholar of religious phenomonology. He talked about understanding religious participation and people's level of commitment to it in market terms. When there is one official religion of the state/culture/whatever participation is low because that religious practice is a given, and the leaders of the practice (preists, whoever) don't have to work to keep it going. However, when there is a plurality of religions in a society, participation and commitment is high because people have more choice and the leaders of the various religious traditions have to work to keep their institution going.

The application for today, of course, is that many mega-churches get lots of people by offering things that are attractive, but not necessarily religious in nature. The big church's youth group goes on cooler trips and has a coffee house in their basement, for example.

During the question time one guy got up and asked if it's possible that growing churches weren't experiencing success because they offered the most perks, but because they offered the most Truth. There was a very audible snicker from the liberal intelligensia in the crowd, as if to say, "Silly little man, he still thinks there's such a thing as Truth!"

While I didn't think that he asked the most well informed question in the world, neither did I agree with those that laughed at him. Those that have completed advanced degrees in humanities disciplies (myself included) are well read in Derrida and other postmodern writers who deconstruct modern notions of absolute Truth and pure objectivity in a very compelling way.

The temptation is to say that there are no absolutes and that everyone constructs their own relative truth for themselves. The problem is, that's a statement that implies an absolute. Absolute relativism is kind of an oxymoron.

The issue is not really the behavior of a group of intellectual snobs, even though I am often accused of being one. The issue is that in an age when we are coming to realize that our social and cultural context puts its own particular spin on how we interpret everything, and the extreme limitations of our language to express things, how can we still talk about Truth in absolute terms? Is there any common groud on which a religious community can stand?

I think so. But it's admittedly harder than I'd like it to be. The short version is, I do believe there is one absolute Truth in the universe: God.

God is the absolute Truth. My ability to understand God is not absolute, though.

All other truths we proclaim are valid and true if they point to the reality of the God who is the ultimate ground of our being, but at the same time is present with us in all times and places, and who is constantly calling creation to be all that God created it to be.

That's a mouthful, I know. And even my flushing out of that long sentence is a series of truth claims, which I believe point to the larger Truth of God. I can only pray that I'm on the right track, and that some day I'll actually be wise enough to really get what it means.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What is worship?

... is the big question that's bouncing around in my mind right now. Obviously I'm not going to hit it all here. For now let's make the working definition of worship "a transformative encounter with the living God". If this is the case then why do we call our weekly church gatherings a "Worship Service"?

First of all, what does the term "service" mean these days? A service is something you purchase. Hopefully when one is a member of a faith community they do more than just consume services that the church dispenses.

Second, can we really say with integrity that God is going to do something at 11am every Sunday in a particular place? God's not quite that predictable.

Perhaps when we come to church every Sunday (or Saturday, or whenever) we should engage in the activities that comprise a worship service in the hope that worship, the transformative encounter, will happen. I've sat through and led more worship services than I can count where I haven't worshiped one bit. Hopefully others were able to, but I was just putting on a program.

I can only pray that in the programs I put on, something about it will help people connect with God, and that worship will truly happen.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Countdown to The Gathering

Well, The Gathering is only a few weeks away. I'm simultaniously excited and insanely nervous. It's like of like the feeling I had when I asked Jessica to marry me, only I don't know the outcome of this venture. We're having a "tech rehersal" next Saturday, where we'll see how this whole set-up in the fellowship hall will work. Then we have a full "dress rehersal" the following Sunday, and we officially launch March 5. Honestly, it's probably a good thing that I'm scared out of my mind because it will keep me depending on God for guidance, instead of my usual "big-head" routine where I think I know all the answers.

Oh, you can check out our site:www.thegatheringsite.net. Any constructive feedback is appreciated, and I'd especially love it if you wanted to join us for worship.