Monday, July 15, 2013

The Elephant in my Brain

Preaching is a strange animal. It's a big, fuzzy hybrid created by the breeding of the unidentifiable mutt that is my creativity, energy, and intellect with the pedigree Holy Spirit. Perhaps that's why, when someone makes a positive comment about a sermon I've preached, I feel a little like I do when someone tells me that my dog is adorable: I say "Thank you", but it's awkward because I know that I'm not really responsible for what's good about this. I'm very thankful for that hybrid aspect of preaching. It's the only thing that keeps me writing liturgy and standing in pulpits. It's only by the power of the Spirit that I have the confidence to stand up and talk to people, to think that the words coming out of my mouth have value and relevance to the people who will hear them. Please don't misunderstand: I'm nervous every Sunday when I stand up to speak in worship. But I've learned that I can trust the Holy Spirit to show up there, and that helps me get through the anxiety.

That is why, when I'm asked to speak in a totally different context that I get very, very nervous. I don't have the same assurance that God will show up and fill in the gaps. I'm afraid I'll be standing there, in front of a room full of people, with nothing interesting or valuable to say.

That's what I'm afraid will happen this week. Several months ago, I was invited to teach a workshop on worship at an event for our provisional members. (For those of you outside the denominational box I live in, that's pastors who are serving churches but haven't totally finished the ordination process yet.) I was shocked and humbled by the invitation. Of all the pastors in the conference who could have been asked to teach, I was on the short list. I don't feel like I'm necessarily qualified for this honor and responsibility, but I immediately accepted. There are very few things I like better than talking about worship and theology, and this is the perfect opportunity to talk about worship with knowledgeable folks, so it is right up my alley.

Except, of course, that it is public speaking that isn't preaching. And that makes me nervous. I've been pondering what I'll say for weeks now. I've gone through possible presentation formats with my friends and my fiance. I've plotted out an outline for the presentation, then reworked it. I even went into a panic and overplanned possible activities on the off-chance that all of the participants absolutely refuse to take part in the discussion and leave me stuck.

I really, really want this to go well. I want it to go well so I don't look foolish. But, more than that, I want it to go well because provisional members are important and so is worship. These are people just starting their ministry, who will be leading worship in churches for years, probably decades into the future. These are people who have experience and are trying to learn to be even more effective and fruitful in their ministries. I remember--not long ago--when I was a provisional member; I went to these events hoping to learn and leave with helpful strategies and lessons. I don't want to let these provisional members down. And I don't want to let their congregations down. What they learn (or don't learn) will be reflected in the worshiping communities they serve. This is a HUGE responsibility. And I wonder how on earth the powers-that-be selected me to undertake it. Me, a pastor with only 4 years of experience in a church, who just 18 months ago was sitting right where they're sitting now as a provisional candidate--who thought this was a good idea?

While I know that the Holy Spirit will be just as present in this event as she is in the pulpit at my church, this isn't preaching. It feels like a different animal, something wilder, with more mutt and less pedigree. And I'm just praying that it doesn't maul me or bore the class to sleep. That prayer goes something like, "God, please show up and help me out here! Amen."

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Wise people will write wise words about the events of this week. I don't have wise words today. I have tears.

I'm not generally an emotional person. It takes a lot to make me cry. But last night, as I heard about the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, I wept.

I wept for a young man whose life was cut short for no good reason. I wept at laws that allow violence and do not protect unarmed people from being shot without reason. I wept for all the young black men who heard, in a verdict of "not guilty" the subtext: Your life is not valued, your life is not protected, there is no justice for you. I wept for mothers who raise sons knowing that those young men are more likely to be mistrusted, incarcerated, or even killed just because of the color of their skin. I wept for a nation that seems to make so little forward progress on issues of hate and injustice. I wept for systems so steeped in racism that I wonder if we'll ever fix them. I wept for the racism that I know lurks within even me. I wept because, yet again, one beloved child of God has killed another. I wept because I cannot understand it, and because I understand it all too well.

With the tears streaming down my face, I found myself repeating over and over again the words of Psalm 13: "How long, O Lord? [...]
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?" (Psalm 13:2, NRSV)

How long, O Lord?
How long must we go on in this broken world?
How long will we let inequality and prejudice reign?
How long until we see precious children of God instead of skin color?
How long until all people get equal treatment under the law, and in our own minds and hearts?
How long will this violence go on?
How long, O Lord, will my heart be broken?

I do not believe in retributive justice. I don't think that we get any benefit from simply punishing someone. Putting someone in jail in a vengeful attempt to make them suffer as "we" have suffered does not achieve anything. But I believe in restorative justice. I believe in the reconciliation that can come from people taking responsibility for their actions, acknowledging their guilt, and working to repair the relationships that were broken by their actions. In this verdict, no justice was served. George Zimmerman walks away, free, not taking responsibility for the fact that he killed another human being. He does not have to acknowledge his guilt, and there is no process of healing here for him or for the Martin family. Zimmerman gets his gun back, and the Martin family becomes one more angry, hurting family grieving the loss of a child to violence.

And so the cycle continues: Violence breeds further violence. Anger feeds more anger. Broken, hurting people walk wounded through the world, often unintentionally breaking and hurting more people. Without justice, without healing, there is no end to the cycle.

How long, O Lord?
How long, America?
How long?