Tonight, I Am Disturbed

I did a good bit of reading today, and bits and pieces are swirling around in my head. Along with the minor stress that comes from an upcoming (albeit brief) road trip, the current state of political discourse in our country, the future of our country in general, and why the camellia bush in our front yard is in full bloom – in February – well, add all this up and it’s quite the circus in my mind this evening.

Also -it’s not evening, honestly. It’s 1AM, and for the first time in a long while, I’m sleepless. Three cheers for the #Whole30 remedy – it literally makes everything better, including sleep. Just not tonight.

First up: A very troubling article in a magazine of good repute, detailing the actions of another leader claiming to represent Christ but demonstrating disturbing amounts of authoritarianism, greed and falsehoods. This story caught my eye primarily because of the involvement of a songwriter whose work I have always respected; he reportedly left this group/gathering/spiritual family shortly after allegations of spiritual and sexual abuse came to light, but while involved with this group, this guy was writing and recording songs that have become part of my personal and corporate worship. And so there is now an edge to this, the extraneous affairs of someone in the worship industry trickling into our local community as we sing his songs, tainting it somewhat (for me).

We are human, aren’t we? Much grace is needed.

Secondly: An article arguing that the ‘worship industry’ is driving far too much of the culture of the contemporary church. When it comes to music in church, the ‘war’ has long since ended for most of us, but as someone whose responsibility includes wrestling with what and if and how we sing in church each week, I heard a new and different call in this short piece. It was deeply resonant, and I find myself disturbed – which is, well, disturbing, but also revealing, and ultimately a good thing. To be disturbed signals that a change is coming, and change – in my experience – is a good and necessary thing.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Disturbed. Anyway, this piece explored the idea that too much of what we are doing in local progressive, or ‘contemporary’ churches serves and is driven by the worship industry. As much as we enjoy the passion of the Passion movement, or the new live recordings from Jesus Culture and Hillsong and Elevation, to focus on pulling these songs into our local communities as the best, fresh expression of God’s work in our lives leaves something to be desired – and serves an incorrect, ill-formed master. On the heels of a fascinating bit of Facebook dialogue between several fellow worship leaders and musicians, this short article struck a church. And as our church continues to grow and welcome a more diverse group of leaders (read: YOUNG FOLK), I sense the tug and pull as our culture continues to morph, and I wonder what might be ahead and how I will best serve the church and serve the cause – and honor the calling of those around me. I am disturbed and I predict change.

In addition, I also read a beautifully written break-up letter posted online by a young man I respect and admire. He wrote to reveal the ‘truth’ about why the break-up had happened, and what it would take for him to heal from how she had hurt him. It was eloquent and engaging, and at the end when he revealed that ‘she’ was the church, and he had to leave in order to be healthy, my heart cracked just a bit.

Finally: A story plucked my heart and my conscience tonight; not one that I read, but one that I experienced through an excellent exercise in movie-making. We watched Spotlight tonight, witnessing the tenacious group of reporters from The Boston Globe work to expose the massive cover-up of sexual abuse by priests and other leaders in the Roman Catholic Church in Boston. The film focuses on the work of the reporters, but glimpses into the pain of the victims adds a depth of deep sorrow and frustration. My thoughts went to this; that tomorrow morning, I’ll be part of my church’s “Change the Story” series as a member of the clergy, standing on the platform exhorting and encouraging folks to realize and remember that striving to live our lives in a way that matters can literally change someone’s story….while the hundreds of victims of clergy just in Boston quite literally had their stories changed in the worst way, by the very men who represented the presence of God in their lives.

I am heartsick. It is devastating and horrific and it weighs on me, all this pulling and tugging at what it means to be human while we still try to find some measure of faith in Something or Someone Divine and live it out in a way that has meaning not only for us as individuals, but for us together. See, I love the local church; I do. I know that not everyone does, and that’s okay – you don’t have to be like me. I respect your choice. But I passionately believe that a local church – when it’s working right – can be a place of acceptance and love and redemption, a place where sorrow and joy can co-mingle and help us be mindful of the depth and breadth of our humanity and its every-changing tides. I believe that all of us – whether or not we believe in God or church – should have a safe place to gather, in the name of Something or Someone bigger than all that we can see, Someone who represents the great mystery of creation and imagination and restoration.

Time after time – on a daily basis, almost – I see and hear of folks who are leaving church. Sometimes the departure comes on the heels of much soul-searching; sometimes there is great pain involved. Others are just exhausted; they just give up and stay home. I am not so naive to think that everyone will be passionate about spiritual things and want to explore those things in a church; I certainly don’t negate the great diversity of faith and belief in our world. It’s not that I want everyone to come to my church.

I just want us to stop screwing it up so badly.

IMG_5724
Stained glass from the church of my childhood, First United Methodist Church in Franklin, PA

Imposition

Entering the unknown; our feet have stepped down into the shaky silt of intentional brokenness and death.

Lent is here, and we have chosen to move into it, palms up, foreheads raised, hearts cracked open; waiting for water.

First things, first: Two nights ago I facilitated an Ash Wednesday service for the first time in my life. Blessed by an abundance of resources and wisdom (namely, my brother and The Google), I crafted an order – a ‘liturgy’ – and printed programs and pulled together three outstanding, heart-tender musicians and we travelled to the faraway place that I call ‘home’ on Sundays and twice during the week.

Candles and burlap and terra cotta pottery in front of a semicircle of chairs. Oil dripped into the midst of ashes burned from bits and pieces of backyard detritus.

We sang the songs and read the words and walked, together, through a confession that poked its bony finger into every part of my humanity. During those moments, I reminded myself – often – that this focus on our collective humanity is a necessary thing. To understand freedom, you must look at your chains. To live into redemption, you must see the need.

Have mercy on us, Lord.

Again and again, the same plea.

Have mercy on us, Lord.

Collectively, it was a powerful thing; to be with people that I love, in this place of confession and emptying. Because our church has never had an Ash Wednesday gathering, my experiences over the past several years have all been as a stranger, in another church house; part of the larger Body of Christ but completely unconnected from those standing before, behind, and around me. But last night, to look into the eyes of people that I know; well, I could not find words to describe the welling of emotion in my throat that wrapped itself around the words that gave life and breath to our togetherness. These were my people, and it mattered.

And there is this: Twice, on this Ash Wednesday, I felt the full weight of what it means for me, in this space, in this season, to be a pastor; to bear the burden and responsibility of leading and shepherding and – at my core – to simply love a group of people who gather in search of grace. First: Wednesday morning, in the backyard, I searched for materials with which to create ash; because we did not have a Palm Sunday service the prior year, I had no palms to burn (the traditional way to get the ashes). I gathered bits and pieces from the backyard burn pile; sticks and twigs, a segment of pine from our dried, brittle Christmas tree, a snip of lavender from the plant leftover from Shannon’s wedding. An aluminum paint bucket held it all.

I dropped a match into the bucket.

Squatting on the deck in the chill morning air, I watched as the flames reduced the raw materials to grey soot and cinders. It’s not necessarily a pretty, sacred picture to imagine, but for me there was a raw holiness in that moment; one in which I prepared tangible material to bring to the community that I loved, material that would mark a definitive beginning to a unique and particular season of our journey – both together, and on our own. The simplicity of the preparation, this act of burning things to bring to our gathering – it was a surprisingly powerful and emotional moment for me.

Second: While in the service, the time that we wove together scripture and song and confession, I felt something unlike anything I’d ever experienced from the perspective of leader. As I stood in front of this group of 50-odd men, women and kids, I could clearly see their faces. Most I knew; several, I did not. Some, I knew very well; their joys and sorrows imprinted on my heart from previous conversations and experiences. Some faces brimmed with expectation and welcome; others were masked by hesitancy and veiled caution. I looked upon them all and began to speak the words I had to share – words from my heart and a deep, almost desperate desire to explain and affirm and gently lead.

I spoke, we sang, we confessed.

The final act in the service was the imposition of ashes; and isn’t that an interesting way to say Come up and let me mark your forward with soot? The word itself – ‘imposition’ – feels like a negative, blustering, assertive act of aggression, almost. To ‘impose’ something is to lay upon someone a burden or demand – often unwelcome.

It got me thinking a lot; as we participated in the imposition of ashes, I was “The Imposer”, as the leader; and so what, exactly, was I doing? Was I imposing, literally? What is this act about?

Serious stuff (especially for one who sometimes thinks too much.)

I believe in the challenge of growth, of being better than we are. I believe in the redemptive possibilities that the things we understand, that govern our behavior, are malleable. I believe that the places in which we are stuck are opportunities for adaptation.

I believe that far too often, we settle. We choose what is easy, because we are comfortable, or lazy, or afraid. I believe that we are capable of so much more discipline and determination.

I believe that our past often determines our perspective, and that adjustments are necessary and possible, when we are willing to be honest with ourselves and others.

I believe that to answer the question, What is it that haunts you? brings a unique freedom to face those fears and the the ghosts of our past can become holy things (as Peter Rollins says).

And I believe a confrontation with death and brokenness, in a solemn space of contemplation, invites us to begin forward motion that will propel us, or perhaps drag us, kicking and screaming, into the celebration of resurrection – that of Jesus, and maybe even our own.

As I contemplate these things that I do, so desperately, believe, it seems that imposition is perhaps not such a bad way to describe this act. To believe that I have a holy calling, a specific role, a vocational unction – the compelling nature of imposing an invitation of hope is, I think, exactly as it should be.

And it was, by far, one of the most holy and sacred things I have ever done.

IMG_6183

To Come Forth Gradually Into Being

I woke up this morning foggy with images and emotion; I dreamed, crazy stuff. I think it’s Whole 30 related, because I’m sleeping so much better these days. Then again, I credit (or blame) Whole 30 for pretty much everything these days. To be honest, it’s not a far stretch from the truth; what we eat really matters.

But this is not a post about that. This is a post about a conversation I had today with a smart, talented woman, one just a bit older than my eldest daughter. A friend in common connected us and she reached out to ask for some time. We set a date and met for coffee.

She asked me about my work, my leadership role, my musical abilities. I gave her the short version of How I Got Here, and then asked the same of her. We have much in common.

The groundwork laid, we began to talk about our experiences in leading, especially as females leading teams often predominantly made up of men. We talked about influence and ability; about how to coach and guide. We shared examples and anecdotes; essentially, we took an hour to paint pictures of our lives for one another – to listen and notice and reflect back. I was impressed by her attentiveness and focus.

I was honored by her interest.

She asked a couple of specific questions: Do you have any thoughts about how I could do this part of my work better? How do you navigate this part of working with people? How do you build these relationships more effectively?

Quite honestly, some of her questions made me uncomfortable – just for a moment – because I had to answer, truthfully, I don’t do that very well. While sitting across the table from someone who has asked for your time because they want to ask you some questions, it feels pretty crappy to come up blank. Or, worse; to say, Well, I pretty much suck at that. 

But those were true answers, and in return I think I was able to learn a few things from her; and dialogue is always a better deal than a monologue, isn’t it?

As we finished, she asked, What is one book on leadership you would recommend? I followed with a question about how she defined leadership, and then I asked what season of life she was in. What area, what passion currently fuels her imagination and inquisitive nature these days?

I expounded, which brings me to the heart of this post, because I was surprised – albeit pleasantly – by what I heard coming out of my own mouth. I often use the word evolving as I describe my faith and my emotional and spiritual health, and I have friends who hate that I use that word – but it’s the truth. The definition reads

To come forth gradually into being 

and I cannot think of a better way to paint a concise picture of my life – certainly most recently, but really, the entire length of it. My 20’s, 30’s and early 40’s were more like fits and starts of energy, combusting somewhat erratically within the boundaries of my emotional and geographical state. But more recently, perhaps with the advent of ‘middle age’, there is no better descriptor than evolving to portray the state of my soul.

Anyway….she asked about book recommendations and I replied with, basically, Well, where are you these days?, and she talked about wanting to claim her own, unique leadership style, and to lean into what it means to pour into other people in a meaningful way. My response was less specific to those places in her and more about how I see the bubbled, buoyant areas of growth that my reading and praying and soul-searching and creating  have created. They align with the passing of years and changing family and relationship situations, and together they make up something akin to How I Am Being Formed. Without going into deep detail, I did share a few book recommendations and ideas with her.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the questions and reflection she prompted in me, and isn’t that the sign of a terrific investment of time? I walked out of Starbucks reflecting and considering what it meant to be in possession of this raw, ragged, grace-filled existence – this thing I call my life, this thing that a young woman wanted a glimpse of as she navigates her own.

I kept thinking, and as I drove home, I thought Well, I should really write about this, and so here it is. The areas of growth – the current focal points for all that I gather in my experience and contemplation – seem to divide into Theology and Scripture, Creativity, Leadership, and Gender – specifically, my own.

When it comes to theology and scripture, there is no substitute for reading theology and scripture itself. But a few years ago, I finally understood (thanks to some patient,  experienced teachers in our local church) that context and perspective direct understanding of religion and the Bible in a way that always impacts understanding. If I was not reading the Bible with clear perspective, it’s influence would be subject to a variety of not-always-positive factors. So, I began to look for insight apart from what I had been reading for most of my rather sequestered, “Lifeway Christianity” life – which felt risky at times, but highly profitable. It has been somewhat disruptive to my soul, but the proof is in the pudding; these days I am more in awe of the Creator, the Sacred, and the Savior than I have ever been.

Creatively, there are great, adventurous talents doing inventive, visionary things in all areas of culture. I look for inspiration these days in various corners – but mostly, the ones that are off the beaten path, and most often outside the easily accepted and understood. Having avoided visual art for most of my life, now I lean into that part of my own creatively, and I seek out beautiful things that exist simply because they are beautiful, or because somebody made them so.

On the topic of leadership, I read and I listen to many voices, but mostly I am trying to look around me. The pithy statement about a leader being simply someone who has followers has a measure of truth to it. Rather than try only to develop leadership concepts and principles, I am trying to pay attention to the people I am charged to lead, and let their growth and success be the arbiter of my own.

And finally, on the issue of being a female in an male-dominated field – or just being female in general – I find myself gravitating these days towards women who are creating. Books, music, art; whatever the arena, I am drawn to find out what women are saying. I also find myself drawn towards women in my daily interactions; right now, I can easily list 30 women I know as friends or acquaintances who intrigue me, who are doing good, interesting things, whose thoughts and opinions I value; women I am watching – with fascination – as they navigate their own lives from whatever window they might offer to me. This is new to me, and as of yet I have no idea why – but it is refreshing and encouraging. So many of the women I know – including the one I met today – represent hope to me; not for an abstract, conceptual dream, but in the very real, authentic, literal place they have in my life.

In days to come, I think I might blog about some of those specific influences – the writers, creatives, leaders (and followers) and women that are in and around my thoughts these days. But this is the truest thing I know today: I am, indeed, gradually coming into being. It has taken the village – and then some – to raise me, and it is far from complete. But I’m beginning to wrap my hands around this precious, wild gift of life; it becomes, daily, better than it’s ever been.

And that, my friends, is grace.

IMG_5869.JPG
One of those women – my friend Diane, whose life fills me with wonder.