Better Coffee. That will Save Us.
Following worship, the young pastor sat beside the elderly parishioner holding court on the "welcome" patio. In the open spaces of Texas, the deck affords pleasant views of the tree-lined neighborhood and limitless flat country beyond. An excellent place to chat after worship. In her late 80s, her voice had acquired a gentle lilt married to an accent marked by southern charm. The musical cadence of her voice belied the sharp-edged sword of a gladiator. She turned and looked at the pastor, fresh out of expending his soul in the hopefulness of Christian worship. In other words, in his moment of greatest vulnerability. She looked at him, locked eyes, and said, “What are you doing to us?”
That week, the young clergyman had committed an unforced error in ministry. That trouble was the source of a new pragmatic rule on his ever-evolving list: never argue with a 90-year-old; even if you are right, you lose. That may have been the raw wound she was salting, but there was a deep, heartfelt grief in her voice. Attendance on Sunday had taken a hit for what the pastor knew to be a part of the natural course of life. He could do the math in his head. It wasn’t about him. Her peer group, who were in their 80s and 90s, had suffered a half dozen recent deaths and an equal number of folks who had just crossed the boundary of frailty and could no longer attend with frequency. The moment was one of a dozen, which provoked an interesting question that would preoccupy him for a decade. Aging for this group seems to be a surprise. The stories told by the folks on that patio hadn’t advanced for twenty years.
The patio wasn’t welcoming. It was a trap with only one exit. A church consultant, warning of a tidal wave of impending death — had tried to fix them too. The deck was part of the prescription. A considerable expense had been made on the space: landscaping, seating, a “welcome” banner, and white tablecloth for the treats. And, of course, they followed the usual recommendation to upgrade the coffee. That was the consultant schtick for a while. Better coffee. That will save us. It didn’t. It was surface-dressing on a severe disease that those faithful people, their consultants, that pastor, and their denomination all suffered.
This anecdote is a composite of memories, but until recently, a decade later, the underlying puzzlement of has remained alive in me. Turning the corner on 50 myself has added energy to my curiosity. As dynamic emotional systems, congregations function like people. Human beings make their identities in narratives; for whatever reason, some people and some churches stop narrating their lives as if their story has ended. It is called foreclosure. Folks here stop making meaning in the present and are suffused with nostalgia for a beautiful but irrevocable past (Randal and McKim, 127). The gift of an advancing story is that we have deeper wells of memory and experience to narrate as we age. It is a function of the latter years of our lives that our primary task, in the end, is to receive this story as a gift (McAdams). Folks who have foreclosed their stories — or have been foreclosed on — are denied this gift.
There are many reasons we shut our stories down — including trauma. I suspect that the most common basis for foreclosure, in ourselves and the church, is the failure to live a binary plot given to us that will supposedly save us. A false story, itself diseased. Success is increasing, failure is decreasing, and aging is about decline and loss, not gift and growth. After two decades of ministry, I sense that congregations, their persons, their clergy, and the denomination have confused this story with faithfulness. It does immense, self-inflicted harm. It is absurd. We don’t tell our elderly that they must become younger again to be faithful. Or do we? Worse, yet, it forecloses on what the Bible calls the fullness of life.
The consultants and church hierarchies are right; there is something wrong, but the disease is more subtle; we are all carriers. Especially those of us who think it is our job to fix the church. In this I have done my part. The good news is that we have in the gospel an incredible story of newness coming to the midst of folks whose lives we might think are ended. Mary is too young. Elizabeth is too old. Zechariah is too churchy. Shepherds are untrustworthy. Joseph, his marriage over before it began. The one named "Save"'s life ends on a cross before he could do much saving. A welcome table and better coffee might help. But what God gives to save us is new life in stories we assume are at their end.
-- Rev. Mark Sturgess, Advent 2022
William Randall and A. Elizabeth McKim, Reading Our Lives and The Poetics of Aging (Oxford: Oxford Press), 2008.
Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (New York: Gilford), 1993.
Prepare the Way Wesleyan Style!
On the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist "welcomed" us good religious folks — "Brood of Vipers!" — with a warning to turn again toward God and "bear fruit." The Revised Common Lectionary gives John two Sundays; about one is all I can take.
Yet, the Baptist and the purple seasons in our year — Advent and Lent — invite reflection on our human condition and the need for grace. The conviction that faith is known by its fruits is strongly emphasized in the Wesleyan tradition. John Wesley's genius, in my opinion, was in the way he taught the Christian faith, both in practice and content.
For Wesley, the goal of the Christian life is to have "the mind that was in Christ Jesus" and to "Walk as Jesus walked." Salvation is to be on a journey toward the fullness of life in love, the perfect love of God and our fellow human beings. Wesley repeatedly emphasized that God's love is universal for all people. Ours must be, too: "The Lord is loving to every [person], and his mercy is over all his works." (Psalm 145:9). I find great comfort in this image of salvation being a journey, a living toward perfect love. Few of us are there yet. We work at it just the same.
The Mind That Was in Christ Jesus
Wesley's often repeated emphasis on having "the mind that was in Christ" is a crucial piece of spiritual geography left behind in contemporary Methodism. On most days, I am happy to have done the right thing. Nevertheless, Wesley insisted that doing the right thing emerged from a prior essential: the temperaments of the Spirit, the same in Christ Jesus. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentlenesses, and self-control. There is no law against such things" (Galatians 5:22-23). To which he would append, and in "all manner of conversations" (1 Peter 1:5).
Here, I believe Wesley was taking issue with my social media posts! His point is essential. If we are not being patient and kind, grateful, encouraging, quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to take offense amid our work to do good, then the mind of Christ is not in us. Addressing the ills that plague society is essential. Still, Wesley is correct: the real battleground is first here, in each of our hearts. Every day.
To Walk as Jesus Walked -- Justice and Kindness
"To walk as Jesus walked" is more familiar territory. Wesley used the phrase "works of mercy." Justice and compassion are distinct but overlapping actions. Justice is our advocacy for equality; everyone deserves equal dignity, opportunity, and treatment, to live free from harm. This, today, is not controversial. It is a core moral principle of our modern western society. Yet, the persistentince of injustice reveals a problem as ancient as the Bible.
Regardless of how well-meaning, the powerful will invariably use their advantage to tilt the scales of justice in their favor. To justice, the Bible appends another thing. I will call it kindness after Micah 6:8, but the New Testament uses the word agape or love. God calls us to behold the person before us as sacred and respond in kind. Scripture invites us to feel the pain of the afflicted as if their pain was our pain, to love our neighbor as ourselves. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the biblical ethic as the "universality of justice and the particularity of love." The first two of Wesley's three simple rules are a helpful summary: do no harm (justice); do all the good you can (kindness). The third is next.
The Means of Grace -- Walking Humbly with God
In the words of Jesus' disciples in the first century, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" Or G.K. Cheerston in the 19th century: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried." How are we to accomplish this? We can not do so on our own. It is only by the grace of God.
Grace is the unmerited, unearned love of God for the world. God created the world as an act of unconditional blessing. This love is made visible in our lives by grace on our behalf -- for Christians, Jesus Christ. God's love for all things guides us and strengthens us in God's loving image. I won't belabor this three-movement pattern now; methodists spill much ink here. What is essential to our lives in faith and grace is the next part.
Because we are constantly reshaping the good in our own image, the work of keeping our path in the grace of God requires vigilance: intentionally walking humbly. We call these practices "the means of grace." And though technology and technique have constantly evolved over two millennia, the shape of these practices remains the same as they have been. In Wesley's words, "Prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon) and receiving the Lord's Supper." To this, Wesley insisted that we encounter grace, as well, in doing the works of mercy, even in our Christian conferencing. Finally the church's purpose is to provide these means and encourage their practice for God's people and for healing of the world.
This advent, Methodism 101. May we remember the wisdom of our tradition. May we strive toward the fruits of our faith: to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus and walk as Jesus walked. May we do no harm — Justice; may we do all the good we can — Kindness; and may we attend the means of grace as we walk humbly God.
-- Rev. Mark Sturgess, Advent 2022
On Faith, Glitter and Angel Wings
"The Light Shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." John 1:5
There is a great gap between what things are and how they ought to be. We experience that gap as absence. Advent is a prayer for the presence of God in the cold winter night of faith.
The humility of God in Jesus Christ is an essential question that marks the boundary of the Christian faith. When the first Christians met Jesus, their lives were made whole by whatever it is we name God, a presence that brought light and fullness into the shared suffering of the life they led. This is the mystery of the Christian faith; God who allows the gap to exist is the God who steps into that absence to endure it with us. We celebrate this in a manger on Christmas and a cross on Good Friday. I confess that I can't make sense of it on most days. But there are moments when I have caught a glimpse of the faith my ancestors bore witness to.
Johnny was a blessing of a child in a church I once knew. Maybe a church we have all known. It was a place where it snowed on Christmas eve, and the family nativity play was a picture of perfection. Kings' crowns were made of construction paper, as they should be. Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh were presented to baby Jesus in gaudy jewelry boxes that could have come from Melania Trump's after the Christmas swap meet. And the angels. I'm old school about this; a Christmas angel shouldn't get her wings unless carved from crisp white poster board and sealed with Elmer's glue and gold glitter. Johnny used piles on his. The choir found glitter in the choir loft well through Good Friday.
Johnny's mother grew up in that church. She struggled with life. Well-liked, but she couldn't seem to find her place or direction. Then she met Jim, much like her, and their love seemed to light the whole world for a time. They married, and Johnny was conceived. It was a much-anticipated birth.
The child was born and soon discovered that he had Down syndrome. Over time, the strain on the young couple was too much. Their marriage failed. Night crept in the window of what had been the light of life.
Johnny and his mother stuck it out there. And the church stuck by them. It was never the same. She was never the same, nor was the church. Johnny was lovable and deeply loved, and he loved loving. But, he was also boisterous and difficult to corral. Almost every Sunday in that fellowship, one could be reminded of the injustice of life. The Christmas plays were indeed never the same. As an angel, Johnny sang loudly and proudly to a different tune. As a shepherd, he entered with kings; as the innkeeper, he caved and let Mary and Joseph have their room.
Now, one can live this reality in two ways—despair and fall into the gap between what is and what ought to be. Or, witness the life shining there with unquenchable fire: love made flesh in the crooked timber of human life. Folks grew to enjoy that church better with Johnny in it. It made more sense. Cardboard, glitter, bathrobes, plastic baby Jesus: the stuff of this world. In and through those humans who wielded them was a light that no nighttime of the soul would overcome or master.
Those folks and that church are long gone now, but the story we tell at Christmas bears their witness. And if today is a dark winter night of your faith, I know no better way to mark these days than to worship together and follow the well-tread path that leads to a cattle feeding trough and a precious child born of the stuff of us. And Watch for glitter. There are always angels in the midst of us.
— Rev. Mark Sturgess, Advent 2002
This reflection was inspired by a seminary colleague's unpublished sermon on witnessing a Christmas Eve service in the presence of a person with paraplegia. Her image, like this reflection, suggests searching for God not outside but within the memory of suffering.
Learning to Love the Questions
As I walked in, I noticed the clean white sheet of paper on his desk and thought nothing more about it. It was at that moment in my life that I was unraveling. Now permanently separated from my spouse, my anxiety and aching body were signs enough. Yet, my weekly appointments with my therapist were helping me recognize that I was surrendering one story about myself, for one yet to be even partially understood.
As we concluded the session, he reached over for the sheet of paper. The paper wasn’t blank; it had been faced down. The human mind records extra bits of detail in moments of significance. I can smell the wet salt sea air tinged with ripe seaweed from the small boat harbor not far from his office. I can hear the hum of a stand-alone air conditioning unit behind me, providing gentle white noise to silence other voices. The firm, straight-back chair, and the green checked cushion held my aching back in place for as long as I could sit. The sheet of paper. On the facing side was an elegantly typeset quote:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet.
It was the first handhold on the long, steep climb out of the well of anxiety and depression. Anxiety demands answers. We deny anxiety power when we accept that questions are a part of the fullness of life too.
To be sure, there are certainties, typically related to the materiality of our lives, the science and physics of it; but that isn’t all there is. When answers conclude, a surplus of meaning is just beginning. I could walk out of my therapist's office and witness one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I know: the pacific sunset. There are scientific certainties in the event. We know much more about the sun's workings on our planet than the ancients did. We know now about the refraction of light through water and the particulates in the air. However, the science of it doesn’t touch why I find it beautiful or why that daily, breathtakingly gratuitous explosion of color turned my heart toward the most important question I know: whatever it is, we gesture at with the word “God.”
The journey I began in my therapist's office that day taught me to talk about faith differently. Some well-meaning Christians reject affirming creeds and classic doctrinal writings because they rightfully suspect mischief: confusing certainties with meaning. Certainties, like technology, give humans terrible power over one another. However, Jesus’ story has particular contours that, when left unexplored, leave the faith wanting, or worse, deformed and dangerous. Let us not call these boundaries, dogma, or fundamentals; then, let us call them, rightfully, essential questions.
So then, what are the essential conversations that emerge from the story of Jesus properly told? The theologian Dan Migliore helped me find words for this. I have adapted the list he offers in his book Faith Seeking Understanding (1). Migliore affirms that Christians are confronted by inexhaustible mystery in all the central affirmations of the Christian faith.
the wonder of creation;
the shocking humility of God in Jesus Christ
the transforming and healing power of the Holy Spirit;
the persistence of sin and the miracle of forgiveness;
new life in communion with God and one another;
the call to mission
the Resurrection promises that evil and death are not the final words.
When I stand and say what I believe using ancient words. I affirm not a litmus statement of belief but a living toward God shaped by this classic, life-giving, life-long conversation. Be patient, then friends, toward all unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves. … Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
(1) Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 214), p 3.
Friends of the Mind
I was transfixed recently by a Netflix documentary on the Nobel prize-winning author, Toni Morrison. Two quotes stuck with me.
“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” — Toni Morrison, from Beloved.
“If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.” — Toni Morrison.
We are indeed a mystery to ourselves. I am grateful for those folks who gathered pieces of me and gave them back in the right order. I took too little notice of their gift. They are the people who see the best in us when we can see little in ourselves. Friends of the mind are indeed friends; they have been teachers, lovers, and family on their best days. We spend far too much energy in our lives attracted like moths to the flame of those folks that tear us down. Social media banks on it. Human power dynamics trade in this currency. It also occurs to me that congregations, at their best, are friends of the mind, rooted and grounded in grace; at their worst, good religious folks stand by tearing others down. May we be friends of the mind. For those who have been so to me, including SLOUMC, thank you.
That Great Gittin' Up Morning
Hope, with a capital H, is the lived conviction in a power that persists beyond the mortal limit of human vision. At best, it is a reality we only catch whispers of. Yet Hope persists. Ancient writers used poetry, symbolism, visions of the end times, and the stuff of our dreamscape to gesture at this mystery they knew by faith. This sermon fragment is a nod to that genre in my experience.
I have performed many graveside services at Green Hils Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes. The cemetery is pitched between the rocky hills of the Palos Verdes peninsula in Los Angeles county, just off the Pacific Ocean. On one of those occasions, I looked down the length of a casket perched above an empty tomb. I raised my eyes from the prayer book and caught a glimpse of a sight that must have gripped the ancient psalmist who penned the words I was about to speak. “I lift my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?”
The response to that question is the Word of grace spoken at creation, promised to Sarah and Abraham, carried by lawgivers and prophets, and confirmed for all people in the first light of Easter morning. “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” At that moment, I sensed that one day, though I do not understand how such a thing could be, the sun will sink behind those hills for the last time, and the dawn of God’s eternal light will fully come. So I climb into the pulpit every Sunday and each Easter morning and proclaim the Ressurection of my Lord. I pass on to you what was given to me: there is nothing in life or death or in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. And now, O Lord --
When I’ve done drunk my last cup of sorrow--
When I’ve been called everything but a child of God--
When I’m done traveling up the rough side of the mountain--
When I start down the steep and slippery steps of death--
When this old world begins to rock beneath my feet--
Lower me to my dusty grave in peace
To wait for that great gittin' up morning—Amen. (1)
(1) From Listen Lord: A Prayer, James Weldon Johnson
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess