Thursday, May 26, 2011


This weekend, I will join 20+ friends and acquaintances all connected to one couple, Steve and Rachael, for the 10th annual Maryland Challenge. They enthusiastically convince their friends to ruin their bodies and elevate their spirits by walking the 40 miles of the Appalachian Trail that cuts through Maryland in one day. That's right: in one day. We'll be ready to go at 5 am and will stumble back to the glorious meal awaiting us at Rachael's parents house sometime after midnight. That's a eucharistic feast, especially after endless Cliff bars and water that tastes like iodine, despite the attempt to mask it with crystal light.

Some will have to duck out after 10 miles. Some will join late. Couples with small children will split the hike up so they can each do part. One year I did the first 10 and the last 10 (drove home to do the Saturday church service in between). Only once have I done the whole thing and I couldn't walk correctly for days afterward.

Friends are coming in from Kentucky to do it. A caravan is driving down from New Haven. One man and his daughter - now old enough for the hike - are flying in from California. I made commemorative mugs. Another hiker has been brewing 10th anniversary beer. There's a special play list. Rumors of some mile 20 bourbon.

The obvious question is: Why? Why do this? Year after year, why has this become an event that some people look forward to for the other 364 days?

This is no mere hike. It's become a pilgrimage.

Wikipedia's definition: A pilgrimage is a journey or search of great moral or spiritual significance.

There's something important about the combination of people. Steve and Rachael have a natural knack at making their friends into family. Easy familiarity with people you've never met happens with the aid of their gracious hospitality.

The hike itself is the real centerpiece. It's challenging enough that when you finish, you feel like you've really accomplished something. It's not a given that even the most experienced hikers will make it. There's the stupid bliss that sets in when you realize, at mile 35, that you will make the end. There's the combination of solitude and small community that forms as you hike. There's a sense of youthful freedom in the rediscovery that all of life isn't work/home/desk/obligation. Internal horizons broaden.

I recall conversations I've had on that trail with specificity, even 7 years later. Surprises happen in these conversations because you become truly present, undistracted. The rhythm of walking, the cadence of breath. The story of the person on the trail with you. The noise of the woods. All else melts away.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Standing at the gate.

This past Sunday I preached about Jesus as the gate. We so often think of him as the Good Shepherd that we gloss right over the dominant metaphor in John 10: 1-10 where twice he says: I am the gate.

I tried (and am not sure I succeeded) to emphasis a generosity at the heart of Jesus' life. He puts himself in healing relationship with people before before he demands belief. Jesus as the gate means that it is through relationship with him - and not through correct doctrine or particular actions - that we find our security and our life.

Thus as his followers, we do the works of love he calls for (feeding the poor; caring for the widow and orphan; forgiving and being forgiven) without an ulterior motive of "saving people," trusting that if we have brought people to relationship with God's grace through our loving actions, we have in some way brought them to Jesus.

My hunch is that one reason we liberal Christians ignore the gate metaphor in favor of the shepherd stuff because Jesus as a gate sounds exclusive. A gate closes some people out. I preached that when we think of Jesus as a gate, we should make sure we're not thinking of him as the bouncer - looking to check for the ink stamp on the hand and says we paid or the baptismal credential in the wallet.

I'm not positive I like how I worked that out. I feel like I just got launched on a longer journey to think and learn more about a radical inclusiveness that can lie at the heart of a deep belief in Jesus as the one savior of the world. It's part of the heaven/hell discussion we had in confirmation a few months ago.

The basic question that goes something like this: Do you have to believe in Jesus to be saved? When I hear that, I want to know two things: What do you mean by believe and what do you mean by saved.

Lately questions of inclusiveness and exclusivity - in and out - have been getting renewed attention in evangelical circles because of Rob Bell's newest book: "Love Wins."

I haven't read the book, but after I preached on Sunday, I came home and read a review of it in The Christian Century by Peter Marty. It captured very perfectly what I was trying to say in my sermon (even used the bouncer metaphor - and here I was thinking I was original!) . It made me glad to think that Bell, Marty, and so many other great Jesus-lovers have reached a point of inclusiveness re: salvation that they find consistent with Scripture and tradition. It allows for generosity, humility and mystery to pervade the heart of our faith.

I will read Bell's book - maybe some in our congregation will join me? And I will hope for now that What Peter Marty says about Bell in the article could also apply to me:
Charging Bell with being a universalist doesn't work. Not only does the idea never appear in the book, nothing could be less applicable to somebody with Bell's own passionate faith in Jesus Christ. He simply refuses to limit how far Christ's redemptive love can reach.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Learning to Lament

Where were you when you heard the news? Somehow the death of bin Laden has just become one of those life-changers like the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger or the attack on the Twin Towers. You are supposed to know where you were.

I was absorbed in a pottery project with the tv on in the background and Addie snuggling beside me. Brothers and Sisters was interrupted: Osama bin Ladin was murdered. Yippeee!? I guess I was supposed to be happy.

But I was not happy. No, my reaction was to feel horrified at the chipper tone of the announcers and quickly bored with the repetition of the non-details and even more non-critical analysis.

Mostly, I felt lonely and out of place.

When Rosa Parks died, people gathered on the mall to honor her death as an American hero; when Obama was inaugurated, we gathered to celebrate. This event resulted in some strange bastardization of the two: people elevated bin Laden to iconic status and went nuts with patriotic fever celebrating his death like some new era had just begun. It almost looked like joy.

But joy seems completely out of place because it doesn't fit well with hate.

Relief I can understand - especially given the continued fear of terrorism since 9/11. The peace of a conclusion - yes, that makes sense. It even seems reasonable to have a bit of pride that at last, we were able to outsmart this particular enemy. But joy? I can't put my finger on it, but it has made me sad and fearful about what has happened to this country.

I was grateful for the many friends who pointed to wise blogs that dampened the enthusiasm.
Here are a couple that I found particularly thoughtful.

Jim Wallis - sojourners
Kristen Breitweiser - Huffington Post - a 9/11 widow who challenges the celebratory atmosphere.

As I've spent the day troubled about our national reaction, I have been reminded of a lesson I learned from an ethics professor.

It is important to lament actions that are lamentable, even if you end up doing them.

He taught this by citing a study which showed that giving education about abortion to pregnant couples didn't change their minds about the abortion, but it did cause them to lament that decision. He hailed that as part of the process of being an ethical person.

At the time, I thought that was ridiculous. Who cares what their attitude would be - the important thing was the action alone, so I thought. I realize I was wrong. The events of these past few days make me realize that the attitude - especially toward something truly lamentable - matters.

Having been schooled in the plot to kill Hitler (Lutheran theologian Bonhoeffer was central to that plot), I understand the decision to kill bin Laden. I even think it was a good one, though there is something deep within me that resists murder as ever being a good decision. But the plot to kill Hitler was marked by sobriety and regret. I'm not seeing that here, at least not on the public face. And I am stuck in lament and regret that we have come to this.

What happened on Sept 11th was horrific, evil, and destructive. But in the past 10 years, our reaction has helped tighten the knot of terrorism, animosity and misguided violent solutions to a social problem. The result has been countless deaths, billions of misspent dollars, and the continued devastation of an entire region of the world. Yes, the tide may be shifting; yes, bin Laden's death may be part of that shift. But it doesn't make what happened on Sept 11 any less sad; nor does it make what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan since then any more justified. Vengeance rings hollow.

The thing that I've been holding onto the most from all I've read was this simple distinction that a friend Tweeted: this is not celebration, it is catharsis.

I've tried to believe that, because catharsis is appropriate in a way that celebration is not. But it sure looks like celebration to me. I am glad that bin Laden is no longer on the loose. But I am not smiling.

Ten for Ten. Ten reasons it's great to be a pastor, in celebration of my 10 year anniversary of ordination.

I'm in there somewhere. I was ordained at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington DC on November 10, 2007, ten years ago today. ...