Sunday, June 27, 2010


So our sanctuary is undergoing 6 weeks of renovations - and I could only laugh out loud when I noticed all the warning signs posted at the entryways: "Danger: Hard Hat Area." Naturally I thought of Annie Dillard's often-quoted thought from Teaching a Stone to Talk: "I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, to be sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have any idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers... and lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense..."

We had to bring in scaffolding, circular saws, and scarily heavy . equipment to render our beautiful sanctuary risky. "Oh, it's dangerous now? How long before it's safe to go back in?" I noticed the subheading on the Danger: Hard Hat Area sign - which adds Authorized Personnel Only. "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?" Psalm 24 inquires - and the reply, if authoritative for us today, would keep us all out permanently: "He who has clean hands and a pure heart."

And yet, at our denominational annual conference, we had a motion tabled - one about inclusivity. Nobody wants to talk about it: we are weary of the debate on how much inclusiveness is too much. Bizarre to me: it is precisely the necessity of clean hands and a pure heart that requires us to be utterly and uncompromisingly inclusive. Mine aren't clean or pure, and neither are yours - or anybody else's. Inside the building, the chemicals that catalyze the explosion are grace and mercy, which you never find outside a Church. So we realize what God requires, we realize we've whiffed embarrassingly - and that is precisely why we enter, trembling, hoping for mercy, needing nothing less than a transformative explosion of unseen power.

How inclusive then should we be? My small wisdom is this: if any one of us isn't welcome in Church, ever, for any reason, then none of us is ever welcome. God may wake up one day and be grossly offended we ever thought otherwise; God has already noticed, and is grieved - and wishes to strip the place, and us, down to the foundations and start over with us. Danger: Hard Hat Area.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

This is my year for out of the ordinary ordinations. I flew to Haiti to preach at the ordination of a young man in the community where our Church has a school, granary, and clinic. I think I actually ordained him (with no ecclesiastical authority whatsoever…): after intense questioning in Creole, to which the candidate responded “oui” to every hard question, I was asked to lay my hand on his head and pray. I said “I’m not a bishop,” but in this out of the way place it turned out I was probably the closest thing.

I flew to Liberia to preach at their conference’s ordination service. Ninety ordinands, and a higher number of degrees on the thermometer: immense zeal and a palpable humility on every face, and I felt a bit ashamed of the rock star status they seemed to afford me, whose annual salary may well exceed that of the entire bunch of 90.

I flew to Urbana, Illinois, to a Wesleyan district service where my colleague Kevin Wright was being ordained – and a couple of days later, I looked on my own denomination’s lining up of dozens at a time.

Surely I have some wise reflections from these diverse experiences, but I do not. I am simply in awe of the brute fact that one after another, in this milieu of cynicism and anti-institutional bias, people still put on heavy robes in the heat and line up to get hands laid on them. Each one of these people, in a moment of profound faith or quirky delusion, said Yes to what they thought was a call from God. Not one of them sized up the market, assessed their test results, and thought This is a clever way to prosper in today’s world. To inexplicable impulses skeptics would ridicule, they responded, underwent education and interrogation, and then got sent to places not as famous as Timbuktu to struggle, to try to pray and teach, to lay hands on the sick who quite often die despite the prayers, to people who yawn, who can be petty, who believe fitfully if at all – and then you get old and die doing this?

I am also struck of how little consonance there is between what I have witnessed and the kinds of things we talk about on when we think of the clergy profession nowadays - clergy "leadership" that is. Leadership is a thriving cottage industry, and I’m constantly invited to something or another where we can be sharper, smoother, more successful, to grow the Church, to glisten with administrative acumen, to raise endowments and corral postmodern people into church buildings equipped with snazzy technology.

But this kind of leadership mentality runs on a very different track from the real ecclesiastical processes, and the way people actually answer that mystical call within. When I said Yes, I will give pastoring a try, no one had spoken to me about Good to Great, and I would have laughed if someone had. I was swept up in a frenzy of faith, and wanted nothing more than to go be with some hurting people and pray for them, and to have the privilege of standing up and talking about amazing things I’d read in the Bible. At ordination, none – none! – of the questions are about leadership, or entrepeneurship, or visionary strategies.

I do not yet know what this dissonance means. I do recall an evaluation session of my congregation’s personnel committee. They were weighing my work, and that of my fellow clergy on staff. Rising to what they felt the denominational forms demanded of them, they were laboring over the “needs improvement in…” box; and it is never hard for laity to hatch such a list. In the thick of that endeavor, one woman felt a bit ruffled by this, and objected; in trying to affirm me and my colleagues, she said “Look, these people could have done most anything else for a living, and had an easier life, and made more money. Ministry, to me, looks really hard. I think we should simply consider the fact that God called them, and they said Yes, and we should thank them for doing so, and for being here with us.”

Now, that is no substitute for the real, necessary work of evaluation and professional improvement. But in Haiti, and Liberia, and Urbana, and Lake Junaluska, I watched people of all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds, walk slowly forward, kneel, have hands laid on their heads, and rise with smiles, or tears, with family beaming in curious pride, trudging away into the most uncertain future imagineable. Do they know the craft of leadership? Will they master Heifetz or Crouch or Maxwell or Peterson or the bloggers at and become wizards of ministry? I find myself uninterested in the answer to that question. I’m in some awe. A bunch of people whose faces I saw, and on whose heads I laid my feeble hands, had said “Oui” to whatever questions were asked of them – by the Church, but more importantly by God. I think all that is left to me is to thank them, or to thank God.