One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. This time has been divided roughly into thirds. For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries). I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries). In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio. While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…
I know that you don’t hear this often enough, but there are a lot of perks to getting old(er). I know, I know, our society tells us that age is the enemy and we have to pretend to be 29 forever.
Here’s one of my favorite things about getting older: there are more and more younger people from whom I can learn! When I started in ministry, I wanted to do youth ministry. I wanted to serve in this way, I thought, because I had so much to offer these kids. I knew more than they did about so much: life, the universe, and everything. They should be glad to have me in the room. And, truth be told, I was pretty good at it. I mean, I did know some stuff. And I taught a lot of kids.
But the longer I’ve been doing this, the more things have become mutual. When I first started, I talked a lot. Seriously – I don’t know how some of those folks ever put up with me. In my mind’s eye, I’m insufferable. But now, I find myself listening more and more. So often, it’s young people who challenge me to be better than I am, who invite me to grow, who push me out of my comfort zone.
One such voice for which I’m supremely grateful is a young woman named Rachel Held Evans. She caught my attention almost ten years ago when, in response to the devastation wrought by a tsunami in East Asia, she published a poem on her blog called “Natori” (the name of a town in Japan that was devastated by that horror). Here is that poem, along with the photo that inspired it:
Some people have pastors who explain these things
but I don’t
know why she sits alone amidst the bodies that the water left behind—
bodies of houses, bodies of cars, bodies of boats, bodies of people—
arms clasped beneath bare thighs,
held together by the stiff embrace of a sob,
or why the earth shook,
or why the water came,
or why she has taken off her boots,
or why she sits alone amidst the bodies that the water left behind;
I only know that I don’t
want a pastor who explains these things.
I read it, and I thought, “YES! Exactly! God forbid that I become a pastor who tries to explain things.” I wanted to use that poem in a sermon, and so I emailed her for permission. She responded with grace and an open heart, and we exchanged a number of emails about what it meant to explore and preach in places of pain and confusion. I began to devour her writing: her memoir Evolving in Monkeytown (later retitled Faith Unraveled.) was a book I gave to a number of young people who wanted to believe, but they weren’t sure that their faith would end up looking like that of their parents. A number of us at Crafton Heights were glad to have had the opportunity to read through Searching for Sunday together as we talked and prayed about what makes church, well, church.
Rachel Held Evans died tragically in May at the age of 37, apparently as a result of a series of infections that led to swelling on the brain. When she died, I posted Natori on my Facebook page because after thirty years of doing funerals for people younger than I am, I still don’t know how to do it well, or why those things happen. And I’m done trying to explain much of anything.
One of the volumes to which I’ve been looking forward this Sabbatical is one that she authored last year, entitled Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Listen: if you’re looking for a seminary text filled with source criticism and ancient languages, this book isn’t for you. I mean, she doesn’t even use the word “hermeneutic”, so far as I can recall. But if you wonder how in the world a collection of documents pulled together by a group of committees over a three thousand year time frame can be authoritative and helpful for life in the 21stcentury, this is a great read.
She takes on some of the most confusing and challenging aspects of the Bible, including the patriarchal, violent, gruesome, and just plain confusing texts and she helps the reader to see the Bible for what it is (a living, breathing work that can equip us for faithful living in God’s world) while freeing folks to go beyond seeing it as a static rulebook bearing the marks of a world that no longer exists. Her scholarship is first-rate, and she weaves in thought from all manner of authorities in such a way as to allow readers to imagine that we’re in the same room with a group of these folks and overhearing their discussions about the topic at hand.
For instance, in the section on miracles (entitled “Fish Stories”), she writes,
So perhaps a better question than asking ‘Do I believe in miracles?’ is ‘Am I acting like I do?’. Am I including the people who are typically excluded? Am I feeding the hungry and caring for the sick? Am I holding the hands of the homeless and offering help to addicts? Am I working to break down religious and political barriers that ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities and people with disabilities? Am I behaving as if life is more than a meaningless, chaotic mess, that there is some order in the storm?
In this work, as in every other experience I’ve had of her, she is genuine and transparent and honest – even with, or perhaps especially with, her doubts and questions.
We need more of that in the church today.
Confession: like Rachel Held Evans, I am often bewildered or infuriated by the Bible. I am angry at the church. I don’t understand what God is up to. But the Story! Ah, the Story!!! It has me, and I cannot let it go. Or, perhaps more accurately, it won’t let me go. There are days when I want to throw my hands in the air and say, “Seriously? THIS is the best you can do today? What the hell?” (I know, that’s not what most folks want their pastor’s prayers to sound like, but some days, that’s the best I can do). And yet I keep on praying. Because, to echo this young woman who has taught me a lot, “I am a Christian because the story of Jesus is still the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.” And the reality is, I’m not looking for someone who will explain away all the difficult things in the Bible or in my life. But I will always, always welcome someone who is interested in exploring difficult places with me. Thank you, Rachel, for that.
I would heartily encourage you to learn more about this bright light that shone too briefly, and to read this book. You can get a free preview, download a study guide, and learn more about this work by clicking here.
Oh – and for those of you are are convinced that I’m here at the lake, eating fresh fish every day… I think it would be fair to say that I don’t have Seneca Lake quite figured out yet. Which is OK, because I have more time for reading!