Category: Dialog

Blog posts, op eds, articles, and anything else that contributes to our evolving understanding of ministry in Higher Ed.

Extra Oil: Prepared not to Know, Becoming Friends of Uncertainty

What if it doesn’t go the way you planned?

What when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

The college admittance or job promotion you unexpectedly landed. Or unexpectedly didn’t land.

The big break years in the making that – while exciting at the time – in retrospect, didn’t in fact break the way you had thought it might, and has left you looking for a bigger one. And uncertain what you’re looking for, exactly.

The season when friendships stopped coming easily.

The death of a loved one.

The once-upon-a-time breathtaking romance that abruptly turned into hard work.

Unwanted interruptions of physical and mental health, others and your own.

What do you do when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

When it takes longer? Or goes faster? Or misses some other mark of your expectation?

What meaning do you make of such moments?

Are they signs that you are doing life wrong?

Are they punishments for past decisions, actions, inactions, or neglect? 

Are these moments the interference, the fault, of other people, from whom you need only to be freed?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story of his second coming, his making things right. And there are two ways to miss the coming, it seems. One is to not expect. To not show up with a lamp. To not stay up for the bridegroom with the others. Just stay at home, business as usual, as if there’s not a party in the offing. The first way to miss the coming is to not expect it. The second way to miss the coming is to expect it. Or at least to expect that it will go as you expect and not run late. Expect that you won’t need extra oil, but presume that God’s working things out will unfold exactly according to the schemes and schedules in your heart and head. Extra oil is another way to name the difference between expectation and what happens. Extra oil names the gift and capacity to be trustingly present, even when the expected doesn’t happen like we expect. As one scholar notes about this story, “the wise or prudent disciple is the one who prepares not only for the groom’s return, but also for his delay.”

To expect what we don’t expect puts us in the terrible bind of never knowing when we can writing something off. Never knowing whom we can safely discard, which may be why Jesus follows this story by telling his disciples that whatever they do to the least of these they do unto him. When you don’t know the end, you can’t dismiss the now.

When Jesus’ disciples ask about the end, the only thing Jesus says with reliability is that no one knows the time, it won’t be as soon as they think, there will be a lot of suffering between now and then, but that suffering is not itself the end. In other words, make friends of uncertainty, be prepared not to know. Pack extra oil.

To prepare for a delay is, definitionally, a tricky thing. But then, maybe that’s what airport terminals and hospital waiting rooms are for, to give us practice. Practice for the surrender that necessarily must happen when we are not in control of the timing. What does it mean to be present when you don’t know the timing? Or to stay present when you’re out of gas and weak? Them’s the fault-lines of patience and hope. Stanley Hauerwas writes that “the foolish bridesmaids failed to understand that in a time when you are unsure of the time you are in it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do. In the dark you must keep the lamps ready even if they are not able to overcome the darkness.”

“In a time when you are unsure of the time you are in, it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do.” What have you been taught to do? 

What does it look like to consider these things, what you’ve been taught to do, not as a one-off performances you can schedule, but rather as the character to which you commit your life, with God’s help, such that it becomes the you you are even when you’re not even trying, or when you’re too tired to try? What have you been taught to do? Could God make these things, things like turning to and resting in, the grace of him who died for you, the default of who you are? What does it mean to be taught to watch for Christ? And how can you watch for Christ with your life?

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our 
being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by 
your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our 
life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are 
ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Amen. (BCP, p100)

Further Biblical Living Ideas *Satire*

This week, Washington Post revealed that Judge Roy Moore, currently running for Senate in Alabama, allegedly had several sexual encounters with underage girls when he was in his thirties. Rather than denounce him, the Alabama state auditor chose to defend his actions by citing the biblical story of Mary and Joseph.  In the interest of […]

Full Disclosure

This weekend was the diocesan convention.  On Friday and Saturday, I trooped over to Blue Springs with the rest of the clergy and lay delegates, sat in a overchilled ballroom, and took counsel together for the future of our diocese. In West Missouri, it can now be said publicly that one thing our diocesan future […]

The Journey Continues, or, Extra! Extra!

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Except that this is my life, not some iconic scene from Newsies…No, seriously, this post has updates from this past week, so it is kinda hot off the presses. Well, I guess it’s not hot, I let the news cool for a few d…

Socially Selective Decency and the God Whose Compassion Makes No Exceptions

If I ask you about the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament – what comes to mind? How would you summarize the Law and the Prophets, in a nutshell? Noah. Abraham. Sarah. Moses. Jacob and Rebekah. Ruth. Job. Jonah. What else? Lots of violence, maybe (almost certainly).

Here’s Jesus’ take on that question, admittedly sharpened to the question of law [see today’s lessons]: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Is this Jesus taking a red correcting pen to an Old Testament most of us lost respect for a long time ago? Making it simpler. More accessible? Is he taking welcome, creative, and surprisingly contemporary liberties with respect to the 613 (give or take) commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures? Not exactly. He’s quoting. He’s citing Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus’ originality is his simplicity, the framing, the organizing when he says these two are the source of the rest, but the content itself isn’t his. He’s using words pulled from memory – and specifically from the Hebrew Scriptures that, as a faithful Jew, he carries in the memory of his bones.
Who cares, you might say. A good thing’s a good thing, you might say. Six hundred and thirteen was way too many, anyway, you might say. Can’t keep up with that. I’ve got a life to live. Let’s be honest, even ten was a stretch. Right, Moses? I’m on the clock. Keep it pithy. But two? Two, you got my attention. Two, I’m all about. And these two? Totally got it. Thanks, Jesus. I’m all over it.
But are you?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. 
C’mon, if we’re talking likelihood/probability of your followthrough, you’re telling me you wouldn’t trade those two doozies for a couple hundred commandments of busywork? 
I would! In a heartbeat.
Some days I do.
What these two summarizing commandments lack in quantity, they more than make up for in degree of difficulty. Even our society appreciates the difficulty of what Jesus is asking because, as much as society wants to value things like love and inclusion, notice the words we use to expand on what love and inclusion might mean when we descend to the level of details in our civil discourse: we use words like tolerance and coexistence. But tolerance is an admittedly low bar. Tolerance is for mosquitos. Tolerance is for immune systems with respect to outside toxins and pathogens. As in, “he’s developed a tolerance to the mold and asbestos in his apartment.” And coexistence simply names our past failures to restrain our real desire to choose a future in which the other has no part, violently if necessary. Is this what love is? Love the Lord your God. Tolerate the Lord your God? We say that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are trying to be a basically good person, but have you noticed how, in recent conversations like #metoo, and with respect to the insidious and relentless evils of racism, even that bar has been lowered of late? The new word, the new goal is decency, which in part is meant to communicate there are no gold stars and cookies awarded to those people, especially white men, who manage to simply do the right thing on occasion – and that this is an important corrective to hear can’t be emphasized enough, over against the privileged, self-protecting posture of the ally who is more concerned for how he appears than the words and well-being of his sisters and brothers – but if we relent after that, if we stop after that, if that’s as far as we go, if we aim at decency and hit it squarely, if we settle for a prophetic word spoiled and turned only into one more opportunity to shame or conquer each other, if we don’t still press on together beyond prerequisites toward something like actual, living human respect, if we aren’t bold enough to risk submitting pictures of what the good life is and so also what the common good might be and, with these, to give accounts for what true love and mutuality look like, do we only underwrite the pervasive, general ambivalence for what it means to be a good person, much less what it is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?
And are you really telling me you wouldn’t trade all of that mess for something far less complicated, more straightforward, like a grocery list, even if it was a thousand items long? Or what if, instead, I could give you an endless list of outrages to like, dislike, or share on Facebook and other social media? What I’m saying is it’s a trade many of us already make, maybe because we can’t imagine what the two commandments would look like, here and now, not just in 2017 but in the corners of my neighborhood that overlap my life: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love God and your neighbor. If only it were so easy. But love is complicated. In society’s terms, love is for the deserving. Which means you can score exemptions from loving some people. It sounds like a deal you should take, at first hearing. But then you realize that rules used to exempt you from loving the indecent people will eventually be used to justify someone’s exemption from loving you. Now, relax, you’re not necessarily unloved yet. You’re just condemned to the terror of potentially becoming unloved at any moment. Relax, maybe you can channel that fear that love will not leave you at the slightest or gravest misstep. Just don’t mess up. Ever. No, you don’t need to be perfect, well, maybe you do, but decent’s a start. You can promise me that much, can’t you?
Can you?
I can’t. I can’t promise you I am decent. 
And if I can’t promise you decent, isn’t it getting ahead of ourselves to think about the far off land of soul-deep, self-emptying love? What if I’m not decent? Where would I get some cover, I assume you can get it somewhere, some counter-exemption for things like the literal slavery of other people that makes our smartphones possible? I know, that’s just it, some things we can’t change. But that’s the point, that if I’ve got to land on the platform of decency, can we all acknowledge that it will have to be selective? And what if I find myself internally convicted for something for which there doesn’t yet exist a popular social critique? Dare I confess it? Introduce it? Better to hide it. Keep it quiet in a silence that numbs my soul of feeling and settles for a semi-salvation for which there’s sufficient social agreement.
You don’t need Facebook to know you fall short of decent. You have a conscience. Better, you have been indwelled by the Holy Spirit of God and baptized into Christ’s own death and resurrection. But while seeing your brokenness and the ways you miss the mark are themselves gifts of God, our very baptisms can confound us for the pain of the brokenness and struggles we see but cannot simply, for seeing, change by ourselves. And Facebook can inflame the muscle spasm of the soul, but it cannot speak its healing. Nor does it know the stakes of the pain it inflames. But you know the stakes. Not decency or reputation. But life that participates in God’s mending of the world. And that participation begins with the commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. But not in the way you think. Your participation in God’s mending of the world does not begin with your doing these things. It begins with Jesus’ doing these things. While you and I were still broken and a mess (way back then and an hour ago), he loved you as the neighbor he loved as himself. The law and the prophets hang on these two commandments because the law and the prophets hang on Jesus. May we learn, with God’s help, to do the same.

The Journey So Far, or, This Might Just Be a Listicle…

Last Friday (20 Oct), my wife pointed out to me that it was the one year mark of my enlistment in the Minnesota Army National Guard. So to mark that, I want to share the posts, give some updates, and have some fun with Top 10 lists… this post might s…

Assigned Sermons

So last week, the rector and I were discussing the parable in Matthew he was going to preach on.  It was that tricky one about the king throwing a party that no one comes to, so he burns down a city in retribution, and kidnaps a whole second city into coming to his party. It […]

Vineyards, Violence, and Verbatim

Confession time:  I don’t like commentaries. I like them fine for bible studies, and leading discussions.  I find them edifying when doing close readings.  But commentaries for preaching do not help me in my ‘process’ (imagine me wearing a beret, flipping my hair, and saying this with an overly dramatic flourish as befits an artiste.) […]

Fairness, Justice, and all that.

I think I have mentioned on this here blog that I serve on the churchwide Standing Commission for Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons.  (Previously, I served on the group when we were just dedicated to the Constitution and Canons, but this is also fun.)  While it may not sound like a lot of fun, let […]