Archive for the ‘Lent’ Category

The Desert Place

Friday, February 29th, 2008

There is a false and persistent myth that strong people are persistently, perpetually, perennially strong. That creative people are persistently, perpetually, perennially, creative. That people of faith are persistently, perpetually, perennially faithful. These people, so the myth goes, never run out of steam. Never have dry spells. Never experience self-doubt. Never contemplate giving up.

Such people do not exist.

The truth is there are days, weeks, yes even seasons, when the soul is on empty.  Though deadlines loom, your mailbox is full, a new battle awaits you, your readers wonder where you’ve gone, the phone is ringing, and dirty clothes are piled high in the basket, you’re in a drought.

If it weren’t for the many psalms of lament in the Bible, I don’t know if I would have remained a Christian. It’s good to know that when I feel emotionally, spiritually and intellectually adrift, I’m in good company. It helps to know that I have not disappointed God when I feel empty and not up to the next task. God knows. Psalm 42 is my favorite psalm in the bible because I can empathetically imagine the psalter mumbling the words to the psalm to herself in a blues-like fashion as she kneads the bread for an upcoming ceremonial observance or as she gets up that morning to dress to sing in the choir.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?

My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

These things I remember
       as I pour out my soul:
       how I used to go with the multitude,
       leading the procession to the house of God,
       with shouts of joy and thanksgiving
       among the festive throng.

  Why are you downcast, O my soul?
       Why so disturbed within me?
       Put your hope in God,
       for I will yet praise the Lord, 
       my Savior and my God.

Thank God, droughts are seasonal. They are not forever, even though they feel like they are here to stay. Even though they make you think that you’ll never be strong again, that your creativity was a sham, and that faith is futile and everyone knows it except you. Don’t believe your drought.

Find some water somewhere and keep moving.

Turn off the computer. Unplug the phone. Go for a walk. Take a long drive. Read a book.  Hold a baby. Take a salsa class. Take a long bath. Kneel at the side of the bed. Put on some music that makes you cry. I did. I’m feeling better already. So good, “I believe I’ll run on and see what the end’s gonna be.”

Beware of Tar Baby

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

The Uncle Remus story of Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby illustrates how not to behave when baited. The story came to mind this morning when after staring at my computer screen for thirty minutes trying to form my blog topic in my head, praying to God for inspiration, I accepted a request for an interview which I should have at the time refused. I should have followed my first mind, as my Aunt Dora would say, and not taken the call.

Here’s how the story goes: Brer Fox decided one day to set a trap for Brer Rabbit. He made a little doll out of hot tar and turpentine and set it beside the road where he knew Brer Rabbit would pass. Sure enough, along came Brer Rabbit, and he hollered out to the Tar Baby. The Tar Baby, of course, was silent. Irritated that he was being ignored, Brer Rabbit yelled out again to the Tar Baby, who still remained quiet. His dander rising, Brer Rabbit angrily demanded why the Tar Baby just sat there grinning at him. When the Tar Baby still remained silent, Brer Rabbit socked him. Immediately his paw was stuck in the hot, soft tar. Now enraged, Brer Rabbit took a second swing and became even more stuck. In a struggle to get free, he put his hind legs up against the Tar Baby, and of course, he was sure enough stuck now. Brer Fox jumped out gleefully from hiding and claimed his victim.

Putting aside for the moment that there’s more to the Tar Baby story and much that can be debated about its origins, let’s just agree for now that the moral of the story is pretty obvious: when you pass a tar baby in the road, walk on by. Not an easy thing to do.

So, here’s a lesson to take away with you at the close of what was a stormy week here in the south and after a stormy week of politics.

In order to manage difficult people and difficult situations, you must learn to manage yourself.

Call it Tar Baby. Saboteurs. Distractions. Call it The Unseen Enemy. Call it whatever you like. Just be sure you recognize it when you see it and try your best not to fall into its trap.

Here’s what happens: a person throws out some enticing tidbit – a comment, a behavior, a style of interacting—in order 1) to make you behave in ways you otherwise would not, or 2) to make you behave in ways you’re known for. Regardless, the point of the bait is to make you react in a manner that throws you off course from what is your true focus.

Tar BabyAt its core, baiting is a power play and is almost always covert in nature.

But don’t be fooled: baiting doesn’t always have to be sinister in motive.

Baiting can be done with the best of intentions, like the woman this morning who introduced herself as a writer wanting to interview me for an article she’s writing on the black church, but who not long into the conversation began sending signals that what she really (or is it also) wanted to know from me “who writes about such things” is whether she should keep or dump her boyfriend. What? Where did that come from?

I’m a minister, right?  Ministers help people with their problems, right? And here it is the Lenten season. Didn’t I just promise God yesterday at Ash Wednesday service that, instead of giving up red meat and delicacies, I would try being nice and pleasant for Lent as my gift to Christ?

Ok, so I think I responded gently and with a pastor’s heart. Now I won’t tell you that I answered the woman’s question. But I did manage to hide the fact that I was shocked and a bit put off by the fact that interviewing me for her magazine wasn’t the sole reason for her interview.

But here’s the second lesson of this week. 

For about thirty minutes after the conversation I sat in my study fuming, storming, and railing for agreeing to this interview and for letting myself be sideswiped. Eventually I calmed down and went back to staring at the computer. And in the minutes it took me to take the woman’s call and fume at the Universe, I had given away my creative power. I lost the passion and focus I needed to write about what it was I going to write about. 

For those of us whose work thrives on creativity and focus, tar babies in the road pose a serious risk to the completion of our work. Granted, it’s not possible always to avoid or perhaps even completely ignore the baits others throw in our direction. But the difference between the woman who succeeds at her work, and those who only dream of succeeding but never fully complete a project, is that the former learns how not to let Tar Baby subvert, wreck, undermine or destroy those rare moments of inspiration which creative work depends upon.

Oh yeah, lesson number three: No matter how much folks slap you on the back and congratulate you on what you did manage to produce despite the distractions. You know in your heart there was a better piece of work in you that got away.

Believing in Believing

Monday, February 4th, 2008

“The difference between you and me” —a friend’s words to me long ago come to mind often when I stand to preach — “is that you preach your questions, whereas I preach my answers.” She was right. And she has the accolades to show for it. Her reputation as a preacher has far exceeded mine, both then and now.

And if God had not sent an angel in my path one day early in my journey as a seminarian, my friend’s words would have left me feeling like a miserable failure even more often than I normally have these nearly thirty years I’ve been preaching.

At the close of an otherwise forgettable semester in a class on New Testament theology, the professor, a remarkably uninspiring sort who never spoke above a whisper and seemed utterly incapable of answering a question without a question—which might make for a provocative pedagogical style if, as a student, you didn’t have to worry about grades and trying to pass core courses- this professor, who until the end of that semester was never my favorite professor because he never looked us straight in the face but went around with his eyes cast to the ground, always looked as though he was lost in thinking about thinking, said something that last day of class that came as close to a benediction as ever I’ve ever been able to recognize. Removing his glasses and in characteristic fashion wiping them with the lapel of his tweed jack, he said in a whisper to a class of students anxious to be dismissed so we might get a head start on the holiday travelers leaving Princeton for the Christmas break: “And now go out and preach with a bad conscience, knowing that for everything you choose to say in the pulpit, there was something you chose not to say, could have said, but for your desperate reasons chose to ignore. Preach your best, my friends, and then be quick to sit down forever looking over your shoulder at any moment for the disapproving tap of an angel.”

thepulpitI never recovered from my professor’s benediction. It keeps me humble and forever embarrassed at the close of sermons, despite the sometimes applause of audiences. There’s a chance everything I just said up there was totally off the mark. It’s quite possible that I was wrong – wrong about God, wrong about belief, wrong about love and wrong about what’s right and what’s wrong in the world. My professor’s words are never too far off either whenever I dismiss a class at the end of a semester, and I am ashamed of all the things that didn’t take place or couldn’t be done in a semester. I feel guilty that I may have contributed to unleashing another class of simpleminded zealots upon the world.

I was touched by angel that day in class. Relieved of the pressure to be perfect, of having to get it just right, I was freed to tell a story about flawed people grappling to find the words to tell the story of a God, they think they saw and think they heard on some mountain, in some cave, by some seashore, at some supper table. The benediction by an otherwise forgettable teacher at the close of an unspectacular semester of study freed me to preach and teach in ways that might inspire others, including myself, to pray. My task as a believer is not to inspire those who come out to hear me to believe, but to help open up a space in each of them so that belief, if it ever comes, may have some place to take root and grow.

Perhaps that is as honest as any of us can ever aspire to be. To pray, to preach, to teach, and to hope as though we knew for sure that there is really someone on the other side of the door who heals, who hears, who answers. The issue in prayer is not to pray because we are certain, but to pray because we are uncertain. It is a risk where the risk itself is the outcome.

Sometimes believing in believing is the closest you can get to believing in goodness, in grace, and in God. We pray that God is not as put off  by this sort of spirituality as others certainly are.

As we prepare in a few days for Lent and as I sit trying to prepare myself for the many speaking engagements I’ve agreed to in the coming days, I am reminded this morning of the above sections of Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt which I wrote years ago when I was feeling scorched and miserable from years of ministering on an empty tank.