Carry all (a prayer for pastors)

IMG_8524O God, we ask your blessing
on the tools we use for ministry
and the carryalls that hold them:

the computer bags from Best Buy
and the graduation gift briefcases,
the monogrammed LLBean totes,
and patterned Vera Bradley backpacks,
and the worn-out shoulder bags.

Bless the worn-out shoulders, too,
Lord, and the eager straight backs
of the enthusiastic and the athletic,
and the heavy hearts and weary minds
of those whose summer has been more
stressful than restful.

Bless us all, Holy One,
and the work we do for you,
and all the hopes and histories
we carry. Amen.

Recharge (a prayer for pastors)

RechargingBusily polishing
my sermon
I plug my phone
into my laptop.
My young son asks,

Is that a flash drive?

No, it’s my phone.
It’s charging.
He wonders
don’t I need to plug
in the laptop, too?

It’s like this sometimes.

I try to explain to
a logical 11-year-old
how it works, how
many things you can
plug into the laptop.

But isn’t it losing power?

Yes, but right now,
before I leave
for church,
the phone
matters more.

My logic.

I am the laptop,
giving out all the power
I have available
to charge up the ministry
yet to do today.

But don’t I need to plug in?

Lord, you are
the source
of all the power
that matters in this world.
Recharge me, I pray.

Phone at 57%. Time to go.

Amen.

For those who (a prayer for pastors)

end of summer to do listFor those who spent a weary day wrestling with the texts,

and those who did not sleep last night for cause theologic or domestic,

and those whose vacay starts when the benediction ends,

and those whose “to do” lists read haircuts, sneakers, calculators,

and those who wish to be busy as some of the rest but are sidelined by illness or injury or family requirements,

and those who are tired of being called poster children for their identity,

and those who are showing up but just not feeling it,

and those who are waiting for the place you will send them,

and those who are eager and righteous and ready,

and for all who support us in this work we do for you,

Gracious God, in your mercy,

hear this prayer.

*****

Special thanks from me this week to Karoline Lewis of “Dear Working Preacher,” who made me feel like I could do this thing.

Hamilton set

Things Hoped For

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This time last year, I first started hearing about the newly opened Broadway show, “Hamilton,” when some friends of ours went to see it and declared it amazing. The composer went to the same college as my oldest, so I knew a little bit about him. Excitedly, as I do, I started reading all about it, and then reading news about it out loud. Kathryn thought it sounded weird. Why would you want to pay good money to see a musical about the Founding Fathers? Wasn’t that just for history major nerds … like me? It might as well be in French.

Whenever the subject came up, she would give me that look that says, “I don’t want to hear about it.” So I would listen to the music online, and read articles about the composer and performers, but I would close the browser window or turn off the sound whenever she came into the room.

I had no hope of going to see the show, which was getting more and more popular. The seats were being bought up and resold by ticket brokers, and the cost kept getting higher and higher. The only way to get the already expensive tickets at the list price was to watch the Hamilton website to see when new blocks of tickets were released, and to act fast. This all felt beyond my powers, especially since Kathryn didn’t care about going.

It wasn’t the first time I had wished for something that seemed unlikely, even impossible.

It didn’t stop me from enjoying the music, though. And my loftiest Hamilton-related hope was that somebody would think of giving me the original cast recording for Christmas.

When we don’t think something is possible – well, when I don’t think something is possible, I do two things. On the surface, on the outside, for public consumption, I resize my expectations. I might dream a little about what I would love to do, how I wish things would turn out. It’s easier to protect yourself. Don’t hope for too much, and you won’t get hurt.

That sounds pragmatic, and safe, doesn’t it?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1 is a famous verse, the kind of thing preachers proclaim and other people embroider on pillows or decoupage on wall hangings. It sounds poetic, lyrical, but what does it mean? Faith is the assurance of things hoped for? If we’re going to get the things we hoped for, if they are assured, then why do we need faith?

I feel dissatisfied with this sometimes, with these smooth words that slide off my tongue.

And I wonder how God’s words sounded to Abraham, big, crazy promises about descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand at the seashore, a ridiculous promise to an old man with not one single child, and a wife too old to have a baby. Leave what you know, go out into the unknown lands, old man, and I will give you a legacy that will never die.

What made that old man think the Lord would come through?

It’s a slightly bigger trust fall than imagining going to see a Broadway show.

A lot bigger than hoping for a CD under the Christmas tree.

We take turns opening presents, and we weren’t too far into the rotation when I opened the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton. I was super excited! When you keep your hopes low, it’s not so hard to exceed them.

When it looked like everything had been opened, I still didn’t have a gift from Kathryn. She pointed to something I hadn’t seen, and Will brought it to me. Edward, our oldest, was sitting on the couch beside me, and as I unwrapped the flat present, I found a nice file folder. I mean, it was a high-quality folder, with elastic things to hold it shut, but…

Inside it were some paper file folders, also nice ones, and inside each one a sheet of paper, with something printed out. The print was small, and I had trouble focusing to see what it could be – tickets? To what?

He didn’t say anything, but Edward shifted beside me, and then my eyes found the word: Hamilton.

Kathryn had been saving up for two months to buy the tickets. There may have been a little subterfuge, a little feigning of disinterest in Hamilton, a little secret listening to the music when *I* wasn’t around.

It’s easy to see these things in hindsight.

By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:7-10)

Hear that: “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Faith is not about ephemeral possibilities and fantastical dreams-come-true. Faith is not an act we perform for God. Faith is knowing God cares for us, even when we can’t see the things we hope for yet.

Abraham struck out into the wilderness with his wife and his servants and his flocks because that’s how faith works. He knew God had his back.

The ticket and the cast
The ticket and the cast

Those Hamilton tickets had to be purchased way in advance. The date on them was July 27th. In the meantime, we celebrated the Grammy the show won, and in June, so many Tony Awards. Then the announcements began of cast departures. I won’t pretend; there were a few moments here and there when we lamented. But by the time we climbed the stairs to our seats in the rear mezzanine of the Richard Rodgers Theater, we were beyond excited to be in the room where it happens.

The whole experience exceeded our hopes.

That’s not just a measure of how the actors performed. We worked through our doubts and came to the encounter with faith it would be a good thing.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

Faith Church is in a time of uncertainty, hoping for a future you can’t quite see yet. Each of you has things hoped for in a new pastor. No one is more aware of that than the members of the Search Committee, who will soon start reading candidate profiles and watching for the one who will be right for all of you.

Hebrews was written to encourage new Christians who also lived in a time of uncertainty. Their community of faith formed with enthusiasm, then suffered negative social consequences – never a happy thing, their friends and neighbors thought they were strange. The early glow wore off, and that group of people they had to live with were clearly not all gathered in the perfected kingdom of God. They were flagging, and they needed a word of encouragement, to remind them of the firm foundation laid for them.

I imagine they wondered why they lived in the time they did, why it was they were the ones up against it, having to defend what they believed.

This letter reminded them of the truth about faith. Assurance and conviction don’t come on our own power or by our own effort. They come from God. They come in knowing God.

Jesus’ own disciples worried about how they would survive in the face of hostile authorities and unpredictable crowds, people they previously knew as neighbors. At the beginning of Luke 12, the gathered crowd was so large and unruly that people were trampling each other. After teaching the people and taking questions from the crowd, Jesus turns to his inner circle.

It is the disciples Jesus reassures in the passage we read this morning, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid, he says. Then he goes on. Do not be afraid, but do be ready. Be aware. Be sure what you treasure, what you are keeping close to your heart.

Know who your God is.

Jesus tells the disciples, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

What more could we hope for?

Faith is not an act we perform for God. Faith is knowing God cares for us, even when we can’t see the things we hope for yet.

How the Sausage Gets Made

aaron burrNo one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens.

~Aaron Burr, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton

I’ve known plenty of people in politics. My dad was in politics. Politicians, like most human beings, exist on a spectrum from noble to well-meaning to pragmatic to misguided to selfish to downright evil. Whatever their moral character, politicians do work behind the scenes to accomplish their goals. The Constitutional Convention was closed to the public with no minutes taken exactly in order to give the delegates freedom to debate and change their minds.*

It’s not different for pastors. There are things we do behind the scenes, in private, most of us adhering to the highest ethics, I hope, and yet we are blamed and called out for not being where someone else wants us to be, not revealing what someone wishes we would say, not making the pivot exactly when someone demands our loyalty.

Students of history will know that in politics it has always been hard to get the true story, that the press has always been manipulated for the sake of ideology and also for the sake of commerce, that politicians have phrased things carefully in order to avoid revealing truth without actually being caught in lies. What we didn’t have in the past was a digital “paper” trail. The potential for embarrassment is huge now, and while I deplore the idea of one candidate encouraging foreign hackers to look into the other presidential candidate’s deleted emails, I also deplore the careful answers used by the other candidate.

We’re at a bizarre crossroads. Some people think it’s okay to say anything, while others continue to abide by more traditional rules of public discourse. One could probably afford to risk a little more vulnerability, while the other really could use an injection of temperance. We might be able to understand her defensive posture, given the history of lies told about her. We might even be able to understand his aggressive nature, because in the story he tells himself, that stance works and has been working.

Meanwhile advisers on a bus try to figure how to spin things and still make their gal a winner, and meanwhile the other guy is sitting on his plane grinning widely and eating fried chicken for his dinner.**

The most telling piece of the Democratic convention for me was the film about Dorothy Rodham, who sent 4-year-old Hillary back out into the fray to figure out how to deal with bullies by herself. Imagine a life informed by that moment, and then add to it the influence of a mis-attributed but supposedly Wesleyan principle of doing all the good you can, and you have a formula for figuring out how to get done what you believe needs to be done, however you can get it done, for as long as it takes to get it done.

History may tell us, someday, what really happened, whether the emails were really a national security scandal, or a case of privileged arrogance, or (my guess) the result of a person with important things to do creating her own workaround to match the reality of today’s communication demands, rightly or wrongly. History will also likely consider whether the other guy got into it mostly to prove that he could win it by being outrageous, and then couldn’t get off the track he laid out for himself. And for us.

I don’t want to be cynical. The politician who raised me lived out a careful balance of working toward compromise where beneficial for the whole and staking out his principles where meeting in the middle would compromise his integrity. There is nothing simple about governing that way. It requires intelligence, patience, nuance and bone-deep righteousness. I really hope that’s what she has, because under the circumstances, I’m with her.

*Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (The Penguin Press, 2004), p.228.
**A one word quote from “Hamilton” probably doesn’t count as a quote, but if the soundtrack is burned on your brain as it is on mine, I’ll bet you heard it that way.

From the edge of the flood (a prayer)

Princeton Junction train station, posted on Facebook by Shantanu Ballal
Princeton Junction train station, posted on Facebook by Shantanu Ballal

Holy One,

We complain about the heat,
but when the rain comes we
still kvetch about the weather —
until floods stop our words
and start our praying.

We see flooded cars, impassable walkways.
How will we get where we are going?
We are impatient for the waters to recede.
We want to get back to normal.

When things seem normal,
we can go along as if nothing
is wrong anywhere,
forgetting that everyday, everywhere,
people face the floods of life:
weeping that endures for more than a night,
grief carried over decades,
fear that health will not return,
violence that does not cease,
despair over our helplessness,
prejudice that fills every tunnel
so no one can get through safely.

From the edge of the flood we pray,
relying on your promise to Isaiah:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

From the edge of the flood, we pray.

Cool us off, Lord (a prayer for pastors)

Cool us offIn the heat of the moment
when words spoken
or glances exchanged
forecast regret and pain,
cool us off, Lord.

In the heat of the season
when statuses composed
or memes shared
evoke strong responses,
cool us off, Lord.

In the heat of the day
when power outages
or overworked a/c
add to the stress,
cool us off, Lord.

In the heat of a fever
when passion threatens,
or illness compromises
and we are undone,
cool us off, Lord.

Pour down the blessed cool
of soothed spirits,
of righteous reason,
of promised peace,
of healed hearts.

Cool us off, Lord.