Falling From Grace

falling_man

I sat across from Jacob[1] as he stared into his coffee. We spoke a few days earlier on the phone and arranged to meet. He shared little with me on the phone except that Trish, his wife, had urged him to call. Trish is the friend of a friend who thought Jacob and I should talk. Though we were strangers we had attended the same seminary a few years apart and we were both pastors. Perhaps I would understand. We sat in a coffee shop in St. Louis Jacob trying to frame his thoughts and me wondering how on earth I could be any use to him.

“A few days ago,” he started, “I gave serious thought to ending my life. Schindler’s List and a picture of my family stopped me.” The clatter of the coffee shop with its ironic, retro-music was a strange but oddly comforting backdrop. “I can’t believe I am in this situation – can’t believe it. The church thing sucks but to make it worse…it turns out that Jesus hasn’t shown up like I thought he would.”

He took a sip and hid half his face behind the cup. “I knew being a pastor would be tough – I’m not naïve. But I didn’t expect to be picked apart by a church that I had given so much of my life to. The worst part is that I felt my faith slip away – in the church and in Jesus. Through no fault of my own I’ve fallen from grace.”

I knew he needed someone who understood, but I wasn’t sure how I could really help him. The story he told was too familiar. He longed for Jesus to show up in a real way, to comfort and assure him in the midst of a dark time, his wounds were deep and perpetrated by the bride of Christ. As painful as it was to be wounded by those he had shepherded for years it was far more severe to feel abandoned by God. “For decades,” he said, “I’ve been telling people Jesus always shows up, brings comfort, healing and hope. But I’ve got to tell you I’m not sure any longer and that terrifies me.”

Sometimes – but not always – the church while preaching grace, mercy, love, and gospel actually embodies judgment and exclusion[2]; it is painful to experience that, especially as a pastor. Jacob dipped a cookie in his cup and bits of it loosened from the whole and floated around the surface. I said little, letting Jacob talk. As he looked up from his polluted cup I hoped he would find the look of a friend who understood.

“It’s hard not to dwell on the past when the future is uncertain – in every way. I mentally replay every conversation, every event to see what went wrong. I confess every sin I can think of. Still there is no relief. I sat in my living room praying, crying out to God. I was wrestling with what it would be like to give up on faith, on the church – on Jesus. I was staring at this picture of my family and I at the beach. We are all laughing. I remember when we took that picture. Then I thought of the scene in Schindler’s List where a woman stops someone from ending her life by saying something like, ‘this is not how your story ends.’ Was God in that for me? Was he in that moment saving me? Or was that just me trying to make God fit into something?”

Jacob’s voice trailed off as he looked out the window of the nearly empty shop. He gathered himself and carefully laid out all that had happened to him. I listened to him for the next several hours. I wondered how to help Jacob – wondered if I could do more than suggest counseling and quietly praying for Jesus to show up.

I have been where Jacob is – felt as if God disappeared – felt the ground give way beneath my feet and all that I thought I knew to be true vanish. Imagine that happening; imagine something that was seemingly solid giving way – only to return stronger than before.

Jacob’s gaze returned from the street. He asked, “What now?” The heart and soul of this pastor had been laid bare; nothing trite was going to bring him peace; no promise to pray for him was going to bring healing. Telling him my story wouldn’t help either. God was going to have to show up or not (though I believe he would). I encouraged him to do as a friend of mine had encouraged me. I said, “Let everything else fall away that can fall away and speak the same words to God that Jesus spoke when he felt God turn away: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV).

 

[1] This is a work of fiction…

[2] Allan Gurganus – http://williamgiraldi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/gurganus.2.pdf

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Saying “I Do”

Part of the reason for starting this blog – if you hadn’t noticed – has to do with a running assignment for my Doctor of Ministry. Each day I am supposed to journal, write, or blog – some sort of interaction with the days lectures, readings, etc. Normally I would have just kept a journal. For some reason I thought it would be fun to blog. Honestly – it is kind of fun – but then I’m a bit strange – just ask my wife.

We’ve been married nearly nineteen years (October 10!). She deserves some sort of shrine. Seriously, I’m not an easy person to live with – just ask Cash (our dog). As a good friend of mine, in fact a very wise man, has told me that I married way over my head. In fact his exact words were, “Mark, you out kicked your punt coverage. Don’t screw it up.”

He’s right of course. I could write a lot about Sherry – I’m amazed that she married me. She is awesome – as a wife – as a mom – as a women who loves the Lord. I have been blessed (I’m hoping she’ll read this and I’ll get some points – believe me – I need them). I’m grateful beyond description – and lectures like the one we had today makes me all the more thankful.

This week we are focused on counseling – especially regarding marriage, premarriage, postmarriage, divorce care. I spent the better part of today listening (as much as I can listen) and processing the discussion that flowed with the lecture. Now remember, I’m in a room full of pastors and pastor types. What I observed is a deep sense of hunger on the part of these pastors – these ministry leaders. They wanted tools, tips, insights, and help when it comes to preparing the young men and women of their congregations for marriage. They wanted tips, tools, and insights to give to the married couples within their congregations. Why?

Because there was not a pastor in the room that didn’t have a story of troubled marriages within their congregation. We didn’t really bother talking so much about stats. We didn’t really get into names and places or exact stories. We didn’t have to. We know the heart-break – the pain and the sorrow of broken marriages. These men felt it.

But it wasn’t just about the marriages of people within our congregations that concerned many of us. It was marriage in general. Many of us wondered aloud (much to the lecturers chagrin I’m sure) about how our pre-marital training could be open to the wider community. The church has something to say about marriage for Christians – but we also have a lot that could help those beyond our doors.

Granted Christian marriages are intended to take a cruciform shape. The message of a Christian home and marriage and family is intended to bear witness to the Gospel. God has specific intentions for marriage – and those intentions are just as good for those beyond the doors of the church as those within. What marriage couldn’t benefit from a husband loving his wife as Christ loves His church – giving himself sacrificially for her benefit, her good. What wife wouldn’t want to be appreciated and adored like the husband in the Song of Solomon. “Behold,” he says, “you are beautiful, my love, behold you are beautiful…You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you…you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes…how much better is your love than wine.” What marriage couldn’t benefit from a husband loving his wife like this?

So perhaps we can start thinking about what we can give to our communities in terms of tools and tips for marriage. Perhaps pastors and pastor types can help couples that are living together or thinking about living together figure out what that’ll mean for them as human beings. I say this because so many men and women – and their future or existing children – are being crushed by the weight of a bad marriage. I say this because Jesus has called us to love our neighbors – and the church has the words of life. We can talk about Jesus and marriage and loving our spouses and our children – and not just to people who sit in our pews week after week.

I don’t know exactly what that would look like. I’m thinking about it. I’d love to see the local church help the community – and be more than just a place where folks think of having their wedding. It might be a terrible idea – but I’m thinking there are lots of folks who would like some insights – and maybe they’d like to know just what the Bible actually says about marriage – before they step into it – or after they already have.

Change

Today, as part of an assignment for a DMin, I worshipped at a church here in St. Louis, The Kirk of the Hills. This is my third time to worship at The Kirk. The first time was three years ago – at the beginning of my studies at Covenant. It was also a beginning for The Kirk; Mark Kuiper had just become their Senior Pastor. I was in the congregation only a few Sundays after he began his pastorate. I have since been back twice. What I have noticed is a steady but not overwhelming sense of change with each visit. It, from my perspective, is good. But I have no idea how they got to the place where they are – and if I know anything about the pastorate I’m pretty sure it was not without some difficulty.

For the past five years I have studied the subject of leadership and change – especially as it relates to the church. It is not a stretch to say that the church is one of the most change resistance institutions on the planet. There are lots of reasons for that and not all of them bad.

For the last week, each evening, and this entire weekend, I have spent hours and hours pouring through books on leading change. I have read books written from the church’s perspective and those written for the world of business and politics. What I have seen again and again is that conflict is an ever-present element of leadership – especially when it comes with change. That did not surprise me. What did surprise me was how all the authors kept pointing out how important, vital, it is for institutions to have a very clear mission and vision.

That is something that most of us know – instinctively – I think. Yet we may not realize how much conflict is related to not really having a firm grasp on the mission of our church, our work places, our families, and our lives. I wonder if you were to be asked what the mission of your church is and how you fit into the vision of that church – I wonder if you could answer. I wonder how many Christians have ever given much thought to how their vocations, their families, their very lives are tied into God’s mission in the world – God’s mission for His people.

That may be the sort of change that is worth considering. Perhaps considering what it would mean to give our lives to the greater purpose of God’s mission in the world might be the “answer” that so many Christians are looking for. The reason is it takes us out of ourselves and connects us to being a part of something greater and very, very good. That’s the sort of change that is worth doing the hard work for.

Meals

Believe me this sandwich at Carl's in St. Louis is amazing!

There are times when I can’t help but say, as a good friend of mine is very apt to say, “Thanks be to God!” I have to confess, however, I usually say that when I come across really great food. Today I was sitting at a table with pastors from different parts of the US. We sat down in a little place in St. Louis – devouring Hot Pastrami sandwiches. Believe me, if you like Hot Pastrami sandwiches you’ll love the ones at Carl’s in St. Louis. To borrow from my southern heritage – “they’d make a puppy pull a freight train.” They are that good.

What stood out in my mind, even as I enjoyed bite after bite, is how right it was for us, as pastors to enjoy this meal together. The Christian life is marked by meals (Biblically Jesus broke bread with all sorts of folk and Christian folk are known for potlucks). What makes our sharing all the more appropriate is that we had spent the morning discussing the Lord’s Supper – the meal that Jesus gave to His people the night that He was betrayed – and the meal that Christians ought to be most known. There is something about a meal and The Meal in the Christian life and imagination which is ever so important.

What makes the Lord’s Supper so amazing is that it holds within itself what Mark Dalbey calls the full picture  – at the same time it plays a part of the gospel centered or focused worship. The Lord’s Supper itself possess something else – a trifecta so to speak. It not only points back (not just to when Christ instituted it but further to Passover), it deals with the present (because those who partake of the meal are in the present – aware of their present need and grateful for what Christ has done for them), and it also deals with the future (the hope in Christ’s second coming). In that way the meal points to another meal – the feast – the banquet – the grand celebration when God’s Kingdom is fully restored.

I sat among these men this morning listening as many of them shared their questions as well as their struggles with the meal. Each of them, I am sure, wants nothing more than the meal to do all that Jesus intended for that meal to do for His people. What stood out to me is how long between meals so many of Christians go between meals. Some out of concern for the meal becoming “rote” or “to ordinary.” Some men shared concerns over the elements – wine or juice. All along the words of institution kept rolling through my mind. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim Christ’s death until He comes.”

That I think is what makes the meal significant, whole. It really isn’t the mode. It really isn’t in the elements themselves (wine or juice). It isn’t in who distributes. The meal is significant, for lots of reasons I suppose, but mostly, I believe, because through it we remember Christ’s death until He comes. What is it that we are to remember about His death? What He has done for us by His death and resurrection. How could we ever grow tired of remember that? How could that ever become rote or ordinary?

There is something significant about meals in the life and imagination of the Christian – especially the Lord’s Supper and one day the Supper of the Lamb and the Banquet. Thanks be to God!

In the Perpetual Ruins

This morning I came across Psalm 74:3 and the words that spoke to me in some strange way. The Psalmist cries out in prayer – asking for God to, “Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins…”

For some reason I wanted to cling to that part of this passage – not so much for some fatalistic, black cloud, hopeless reason. Rather, I think it is right and fitting that these words would give shape to the way that people cry out to God.There is something about seeing the world from the perspective of a perpetual ruin that draws me to hope in the gospel all the more. In fact, the whole notion of working for the renewal of all things and the promise of Jesus that He has come to restore us God and to bring about the fullness of God’s Kingdom is the only counter to the notion of ruin.

That’s what is so astounding to me. There are some things – some words – some ideas – which will not exist in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Ruin is one of those things. When Christ comes – and fully and finally directs His steps to this perpetual ruin – all ruin will be gone – forever and ever.

But there is more to the notion of perpetual ruin – because it speaks to me about me. I find, the older I get, the more ruined I become – physically. Now, I’m not old, really. I’m middle-aged – hopefully. I’m young by a lot of standards. But I’m feeling the change in my body. I can’t run or lift or hike or swim or eat like I used to. In fact I’m in the shape I’m in because of the way I did run, lift, etc. But I’m trying to get in shape – but I’m fitting a loosing battle to some extent. I’m fighting against the perpetual ruin of my physical body.

But When Christ comes in His fullness – when He steps toward this perpetual ruin – I will be made new, whole, not for a while – but forever. There will be no more ruined knees, or back, or shoulder, or neck (thank you contact sports). There will be wholeness.

So, I can pray as the Psalmist prayed – asking God to “step toward these and this perpetual ruin” and know that in many ways I am really praying as John prayed in Revelation “Amen – Come Lord Jesus!” Direct your steps to our perpetual ruin!