Father Brown

frbrownprimarySpeaking of British television shows (as I did in the previous blog), two of my parishioners suggested that I might like a show called Father Brown. The show is based on a character created by the short stories of G.K. Chesterton, a British author, poet, and lay theologian.

Father Brown is the Roman Catholic parish priest in a small village in The Cotswalds in England in the 1950’s. He walks around town in a black cassock and hat so everyone knows instantly that he’s a priest. He always carries an umbrella and rides a bike everywhere. And he solves murders that the police cannot. Sometimes the police welcome Father Brown’s help, but mostly they wish he would stay away and quit making them look incompetent.

I love the show and watched all seven seasons in just a few months. Aside from the obvious horror of all those murders in such a small village, the series is fun, interesting, and entertaining. Father Brown is a rather bumbling sort of fellow who can’t make tea for himself, but he is gentle, kind, patient, tolerant, humorous, and possesses a keen intelligence. And he’s quite nosy. Plus, he has very good theology. Had there really been such a priest in 1950’s England, he would probably have been defrocked for his progressive viewpoint. Indeed, several times in the show, Father Brown’s bishop threatens to do just that.

As I watched the shows, I found myself thinking what an ideal call Father Brown had. He preached and took care of his congregation, worried a little about the state of his building, and went to a meeting now and then. But he spent most of his time going out and about in his community. He went to fairs, local art exhibits, dinner parties, the pub. He visited people around town, knew most peoples’ names, and was known by everyone, even those who were not Catholic or even Christians. Most everyone liked and respected him, and if they didn’t at the beginning of the episode, they did by the end.

I thought I’d like to have a call like that. Fewer meetings and administrative tasks. Someone else to cook and clean for me. Spending my time being out and about with the community, my parishioners, and attending activities that built relationships with others.

Of course, the world was different back in the 1950’s. There were fewer events in communities, probably fewer church meetings, and an entirely different set of expectations for pastors.

And of course, I am an introvert and while I like the idea of being out and about among people, meeting new folks, etc., the truth is that I’m often not very good at that sort of thing. I like the idea of it very much, but I know the reality would be more challenging than I might think.

So for us all, eh? How often have we imagined an impending event or an upcoming life decision or a budding relationship would turn out a certain way only to discover that the reality is quite different. People are not predictable, and often what we thought we wanted does not meeting our expectations.

God is always predictable. God always exceed our expectations. Whatever we think we want from God, God always gives more.

This is not to say that we can tell God what we want and then expect things to happen just that way. It does not mean that God protects us from suffering or pain or the consequences of our choices.

It DOES mean that God is always there, always present, always loving, always forgiving, always ready to give us another chance. God can always be counted upon. We cannot say that about any other thing/person/experience in our lives. The reality of God is constant and dependable at all times. It is the only thing that is.

Father Brown I am not. Even if I had a call like his, I wouldn’t be so good at it. His “reality” would never be mine. I do not the same gifts that he does and the expectations of a 21st century pastor are quite different. So I just have focus on being the best pastor I can be with the limited gifts I’ve been given and trust that our dependable, trustworthy God will give me what I need to deal with the rest.

Still, it might be fun to walk around town in a black cassock and hat and see what happens.

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The Appeal of Imperfection

BROADCHURCH_EP1_02JPGAbout a year ago, I wrote about how I’ve gotten into the habit of watching British television shows. I’m still doing it. There is something about these shows that is different from American television and those differences are interesting and intriguing to me.

The camera work is often different. Longer shots, more scenery.

Frequently there is less dialog. They seem unafraid of times of silence, of showing the viewer a scene and letting us figure out the meaning.

There is less action, especially in the police shows. More conversations, fewer car chases, virtually no shootings, more ordinary human interactions.

And the people…the actors look…normal. They are not all glamorous models with toned bodies and capped teeth. (Have you ever noticed that in American television, even the homeless and addict characters have perfect white teeth?) Actors in these British shows usually look like us. Some are attractive. Some are not. They can have wrinkled clothes, unfashionable hair, and crooked teeth. And these are the stars of the shows, not just the guest stars.

Of course, the Brits also have their glamorous stars, the picture-perfect folks. There is usually a character or two or three that fit that mold. But they also have characters that look like you or me. I find that appealing. Watching shows where everyone is slim, fit, in fashionable clothes, and sporting perfectly-coiffed hair and perfectly-capped teeth makes me feel a bit inadequate. Which says more about me than anything else.

We’ve all heard the public laments about our American obsession with youth and body image and standards of beauty, so I won’t recite them here. We know that such obsessions are unhealthy and yet it is so easy to fall into the trap of measuring ourselves by the unobtainable and unrealistic images we see on screens.

And yet we also know that people love us just as we are. We may be overweight, under-toned, have out-of-control hair, or be covered in hair, moles, freckles, or psoriasis. But people still love us, just as we are. Yet somehow, we can still find ourselves sucked into the media ideals and we still spend millions and millions on trying to get a bit closer to that ideal.

Good to know that God doesn’t care about such things. Good to know that God’s idea of beauty is about what is in our hearts. And good to know that God’s love and mercy do not depend on us in any way, but are pure gift from the Creator to the created.

Have said all that, I still plan on putting on my make-up tomorrow. God will love me then too.

Meatloaf Says

Meat Loaf
Meatloaf

I haven’t been here much this summer—“here” being on my blog. At the beginning of the summer, I looked at my calendar and saw all these open spaces and thought “Oh, I can get so much done this summer!” One of the things on The List was writing several blogs a month, maybe even having a few in reserve for the fall.

Didn’t happen.

I’m not sure how, but here we are at the end of July, with August knocking on the door. School begins soon. School sports and band camps have begun. The fair is just around the corner. I’m at the place where I should already be knee-deep in planning things for the fall. Somehow, I didn’t get to everything on The List. Again.

I’m sure this happens to all of us. We have these ambitious plans, often predicated on the idea that we are going to have all this free time because (pick one) a) it’s summer; b) the kids have finally moved out; c) I’m retired; d) the calendar has lots of blank squares. But it doesn’t happen quite the way we think and sometimes we just can’t figure out how that’s so—how the time got away from us. And then we feel guilty or disappointed in ourselves. Or at least I do.

For me, I think this stems from an often-unrecognized belief that my value lies in how much I get done. The more I accomplish, the more valuable I feel. The less I accomplish, the less valuable I feel. Sometimes, I am just too tired to finish The List and then I feel guilty because not everything got checked off. When I do get The List done, I usually feel vindicated and worthy. Even though I know it’s not healthy to measure my worth by the things that I do, I think it’s a way of thinking to which we are all prone.

But I think I’ve learned something valuable in the past few years that make this way of thinking a little less stressful and less self-critical.

I make The List shorter.

I’m more likely to accomplish the things on The List if there are fewer entries. If I can have the satisfaction of checking off all the things on The List, then I won’t feel guilty because other things didn’t get checked off. It’s a bit of a cheat, perhaps, but it’s working for me.

I had a short list for this summer. The blog was one of three things. I’ve accomplished the other two—or am in the process of doing so.  The blog didn’t get checked off The List. I’ve decided I’ll just transfer it to the fall List.

In the meantime, I’ll try to feel satisfied that I got two things done. To quote the famous poet Meatloaf: Two out of three ain’t bad.

 

 

Careful What You Wear

live dangerouslySeen on the T-shirt of a heavy equipment operator: “Live Dangerously.”

Umm…is that really the sort of attitude that we want to see in someone who operates heavy equipment for a living? Maybe if it said “Work Safely, Live Dangerously,” it would be more reassuring.

Human beings have always worn clothing that makes a statement about who they are and their status in the world. Artsy people often wear colorful or unusual clothing. Shy people tend to wear conservative or plain clothing. People who seek the approval of others often wear what those around them are wearing. Non-conformists tend to wear things that set them apart from the crowd.

No other clothing makes a statement more clearly than a T-shirt. T-shirt statements can range from advertisements to clever sayings to favorite teams to a company name to crudities. In a local store, I once stood in line behind a man whose T-shirt said something exceedingly vulgar about women. I wanted to say to him: Is this what you think about your mother or sister or girlfriend? After he walked off with his purchases the female cashier and I looked at each other and the cashier said, “What is wrong with him?” I responded with the line about his mother, sister or girlfriend, and then I wished that I had said it to him instead of to the cashier.

I’ve seen T-shirts that declare one’s faith in Christ, in beer, in the military, in America. I’ve seen shirts that encourage bad behavior, good behavior, love for the neighbor, hatred of the neighbor, respect for others, intolerance of anyone who is different. It seems to me that sometimes people use T-shirts to say things that they otherwise might not speak out loud and thus make sure that other people—even strangers—know exactly how they feel about an issue.

The man wearing the T-shirt with the exceedingly vulgar statement about women revealed something about who he was—and it was an ugly revelation. I wonder if he knew this (probably) and if he cared (probably not). I find that very sad.

I find it sad that this man felt this way about women—even if only a little bit. I felt sad that he thought that wearing such a shirt was appropriate or acceptable. I felt sad that he didn’t care what others thought about him because of his T-shirt. And I felt sad that he was obviously such a miserable, hate-filled individual. I’m glad I don’t have to live in his head.

But I also felt angry. I felt angry that he thought he could wear such a horrible T-shirt and that the rest of us were just supposed to put up with it. I felt angry that he thought of women in this way. And I felt angry that I didn’t have the courage to call him on his behavior.

We are living in a time when many people seem to think that hateful, bigoted, misogynistic rhetoric is acceptable. The level of intolerance in the world is growing daily, and while some opine that this is the last gasp of a dying culture of intolerance, I fear that it may well be a resurgence of the “bad old days” when women were treated as second class citizens, minorities were oppressed, and the poor were treated with contempt. I pray I am wrong, but when a man thinks that it is acceptable to wear a T-shirt to a public store declaring that all women should be raped, I fear for the future of the planet.

I don’t wear T-shirts much anymore. It’s my age, I suppose. The only T-shirts I do wear are quiet witnesses to my faith in a God whose goal is peace, harmony, love, and mercy–for all.

And the next time I see the man with the vulgar T-shirt, I will say something. In the meantime, I can only pray that broken, hateful hearts like his might be mended by the compassion of a God who sees us all as worthy of being loved.

 

How Not to Die

IMG-2755While walking through a bookstore recently, I saw an end-cap display featuring this book: How Not to Die. Curious, I looked the book up on the web and I found this synopsis: The vast majority of premature deaths can be prevented through simple changes in diet and lifestyle. In ‘How Not to Die,’ Dr. Michael Greger, the internationally-renowned nutrition expert, physician, and founder of NutritionFacts.org, examines the fifteen top causes of premature death in America-heart disease, various cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s, high blood pressure, and more-and explains how nutritional and lifestyle interventions can sometimes trump prescription pills and other pharmaceutical and surgical approaches, freeing us to live healthier lives.

The title, of course, is misleading. There is no way to avoid death. Death comes to kings and beggars, Hamlet declared. No one escapes death. What a lovely thought that we might—or might postpone it.

Dr. Greger’s claims of longer life is not unique. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of books and websites claim to have the answer to how to prolong life. And perhaps these techniques actually do make a difference—for some. Perhaps the often-extreme suggestions for modifying diet and lifestyle actually will extend one’s life—for some. Still, we will all die. It is inevitable.

As a pastor, I have had the experience of being present when many people were facing the end of their lives. Some faced their imminent demise with grace and gratitude, often welcoming death as an end to their suffering. Others fought the coming of death with fierceness and even anger, unwilling to give up one moment sooner than necessary. I have seen both these behaviors in Christ-followers and I have seen both in non-believers.

We all fear death to some extent. Death is as mysterious as life itself. It is fearful and almost unimaginable that someone who lived, who is loved, who is here, is suddenly no longer here. All that made that individual unique in the history of humanity ceases to exist. Where did s/he go? Does s/he continue to exist in some form? What form? Will we see her/him again? Or is this life all there is?

As people of faith, we believe there is something beyond death. Whether this post-death existence is physical or spiritual is truly unknown. Many Christians believe in a physical afterlife, which is why cremation was frowned upon for so many years. More Christians, I think, would say that they believe in some sort of spiritual eternal life, without being sure what that means, since we cannot conceive of ourselves existing without physical form. One devout Christian told me that she believed that eternal life was expressed in one’s offspring and in the impact one had on the lives of those around you—and how those qualities were passed on.

One thing is certain: in spite of Dr. Greger’s provocative book title, we will all die. And none of us knows what happens next. For my part, I trust in the presence of a loving and merciful God, and therefore, I do not worry about what comes after this earthly existence. I trust that God will be there—wherever “there” is—just as God is here for me (us) now. And anything—any existence—in which there is God will be good.

God-Giftedness

May19Promo (1)-page-0Yesterday, we had the privilege of blessing and farewelling of our church’s musicians, who is leaving in order to attend graduate school in Philadelphia. We also were blessed by him, as he played for us in worship and offered a free community concert. You can listen to his one-hour program by clicking here.

When I came to St. Peter five years ago, I learned that we had four accompanists for our three services, each playing several times a month. One of those accompanists was a 16-year-old high school kid. I recall thinking: a 16-year-old? How desperate was St. Peter that they hired a 16-year-old? I soon discovered that Chase Castle was an exceptional musician, truly gifted by God. Although he was young, he was faithful, committed, and hard-working. I had the privilege of watching him and his music mature over the next five years, as he studied for his undergraduate degree in organ performance.

Many of us will miss Chase but we rejoice that he will continue to grow and develop his gift. I know that some congregation(s) and many people will be profoundly blessed by his music in the future. Most importantly, as a man of faith, Chase will continue to glorify God with his music.

But Chase is not the only person gifted by God. In fact, God has given everyone certain gifts. People of faith (hopefully) seek to use their God-giftedness to glorify God and serve the world. St. Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor. 12:4-7)

For me, the key verse is the last one: that the gifts of God’s Spirit are for the common good. After all, God chooses to grant us gifts, but it is up to us to choose how to use them. We can use God’s gifts solely for our own benefit. Or we can choose to use our gifts for the “common good,” that is, to benefit others, in addition to ourselves.

How has God gifted you? With music or art or wisdom? With compassion or generosity or patience? With a love for children or the elderly or the creation? With financial resources or culinary skills or the ability to solve problems? With leadership or hand skills or prayer? Whatever our gifts, God calls us to use them for the sake of others. This is one of the ways for us to bear witness to our faith in and gratitude for Jesus Christ. By using our God-giftedness for the common good, we bring honor and glory to God’s name.

With what has God gifted you? How are you using your gift(s) for the common good?

Rumble Strips

Roadway shoulder rumble stripsRumble strips—we all know what they are: those annoying grooves along the edges of highways that make our wheels/cars rumble when we veer too close to the edge of the road. Of course, rumble strips are intended as a way to alert the driver, who may have dozed off or got distracted, that they are getting off track and need a course correction.

As I rumbled a bit along I-80, giving wide berth to a semi who was straying into my lane, it occurred to me that rumble strips are a great spiritual analogy. I couldn’t find a way to work that in any of my recent sermons, so you get a blog entry instead.

I’m sure the analogy is obvious. When we get distracted from what is truly important in life, we sometimes need a “rumble strip moment” to startle us back to attention and to get back on the right road.

I had a recent “rumble strip moment” when conversing with colleagues. Without oversharing, let’s just say that I was being a bit of a downer, whining about my situation. A colleague friend rather bluntly said that such an attitude would not result in good ministry. My friend is not usually so confrontational. She’s often the first one to voice words of support and empathy. Not this time. This time she called me on my whining and she was right to do so.

Since that conversation, I have thought about her words several times, especially when an entirely different person said much the same thing to me five days later. It’s obvious that I needed “rumble-stripped” back on course.

It seems to have worked. I feel back on track, my attitude has been adjusted, and I am facing the coming months with more energy than I’d had before.

Let me add that I do not necessarily believe that “rumble strip moments” are from God. They may be. But mostly I think God lets us make our way, even if we end up in a ditch somewhere. When we feel rumble-stripped, it’s probably our own wisdom or self-knowledge coming to the fore. God’s role is to be present with us in all things, to support us when we need it, to lift us up when necessary, and to offer forgiveness and second chances when we deliberately aim for the ditches.

How about you? What part of your life might you need a “rumble strip moment” to get back on course? Wherever that may be, know that God is always present on the journey.