I went to the ELCA church in my town this past Sunday, and walked inside in a spirit of relieved anticipation. I was expecting, I think, to have my “needs” met exactly . . . so it disturbed me to discover that the confession of sins had been reduced to a perfunctory paragraph at the very beginning of the service, the words to the Lord’s Prayer updated (leaving me muttering about forgiving trespasses and proclaiming power and glory forever and ever while others spoke staidly of sins and times of trial), and the cadences altered for the call and response portions of the liturgy.
Nevermind that this isn’t my church anymore, and hasn’t been for more than a decade. Nevermind that I don’t make myself part of the community here—in fact, I don’t think I know a soul these days—support the church financially in anything but a perfunctory way, keep in touch or engage in any of its work. I want this institution to stay right where I left it, how I want it, so that I can come back and take what I need.
Predictably, the institution is failing to cooperate. I am disappointed.
So disappointed, in fact, that on Sunday I considered leaving, mid-service—not out of pique, exactly, but because I was suddenly very sure that sitting through this not-what-I–expected thing was not a good use of my time. Unwilling to climb over my neighbors or make the walk of shame down the center aisle, however, I finally committed myself to a further 40 minutes of unhelpfulness . . . and there I sat, resigned and sort of bored, until we got to the Gospel reading.
It was the one from Luke 9—(verses 9:52-61) in which Jesus refuses to allow those who would follow him to so much as say goodbye to their families or bury their dead. Not only does he refuse to grant his followers even these small mercies– he condemns their inclinations, saying, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit to enter the kingdom of God.”
I was glad to have a chance to unpack these verses a bit more, as they have always troubled me: this is Jesus we’re talking about. What kind of love looks like this? And honestly, these demands seem not just unloving but . . . sort of crazy. Uncomfortable, yes, but also potentially damaging. And personally, I tend to follow only reasonable-sounding instructions (reasonableness TBD by yours truly).
I was mulling this over as we heard, in the children’s story, that it’s hard to follow Jesus—he asks so much of us, and he means come right now; abandon all that you were doing, thinking, and planning and trust instead in me.
That means leaving. That means loss. Which of you would agree to that? What say you, little people? What think you, big ones? It’s hard, right? But, not to worry—Jesus gives us other things when we follow him. Jesus gives us so much that we don’t even miss what we left behind. (Patently untrue, this last part, and I felt a blog post brewing—why must we lay words of sacrifice before our children only to smooth them over in a neat little lie? I think I would have had one composed by the end of the service; perhaps you’d be reading it right now . . . but then the sermon came, and it knocked me right on my butt.)
The assistant pastor’s name is Jennifer Kiefer. Rev. Kiefer is young, my age. She sings beautifully, leads worship calmly, and shared a bit about the story of her call to ministry with us all when I dropped in for the Ash Wednesday service. I was interested to hear her preach, and I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly . . . but not this.
Rev. Kiefer retold that story from Luke, highlighting the unreasonableness of it all. (That’s what I’m saying, girlfriend!) And then she shared how she’s been thinking of these challenging verses, and what they mean for an ongoing struggle in her life: the need to be in control, or at least to feel like she is. I recognized a few of her personal examples—it’s that way, isn’t it . . . but the challenge didn’t stop there.
Rev. Kiefer invited us to consider for ourselves how the desire for control manifests in our own lives, and what we might be dishonoring as we cling to what feels safe—as we put a hand to the plow but then look back. She encouraged us to reflect upon who we might be hurting as we thrash about like fish on a line, when we move to turn back when ultimately we have no choice but to go forward. And then she called on us to look at what we might be fighting against in a new way—to acknowledge the scariness, and then to name it differently.
Some people find meaning in using other language for God (how well I know it, sister), and one of the most interesting terms I’ve heard is “The Place.” That never resonated with me, until thinking about what it might mean to give up control. About where we might find ourselves. About why that is so scary—because when we move forward, we lose things, and we step, however briefly, into a vacuum. That emptiness can be terrifying. It can be painful. We can find ourselves in a hurting, lonely place.
What if that place—the vacuum, the emptiness, and even the painful parts—what if that is The Place? The only place we can be, the place where we are, and our task is to live into that space, let go of our need to control it or have it be different, and find ourselves and God there, just as it is. What if we did that, in faith? What if we put a hand to the plow, and moved forward, not because it’s what we planned, or thought we wanted, or what makes sense to us . . . but because we’re putting our trust in The Place? It will be what we need . . . when we are willing to find ourselves where we are called to go.
This might be obvious to anyone who reads this blog, but friends, I have looked back. I have done more than look–I have tried to leave the plow entirely. I have argued about the need for tilling in the first place. I may, in fact, have attempted to sell the plow for parts.
When things hit as close to home as this message did, I struggle a bit with interpretation. Has God, acknowledging the mounting evidence, determined that it’s best, in my case, to dispense with subtlety? Was my need to make meaning so great on that day that I would have heard anything—anything at all—as though it were speaking right to my soul?
I do not know the answer to these questions.
What I do know is that I sat, laughing, through “Lamb of God,” that I cried through communion, and that I left knowing that some things I thought were wrong are actually much, much too right . . . and vice versa.
And then, a couple of days ago, I remembered the first summer I spent as a camp counselor. I was part of the waterfront staff, which invariably involves a lot of ongoing training, and after one of these sessions our team lead asked if anyone had anything to say. My hand shot up as I announced, with urgency and enthusiasm, “I have a question!” Ali looked in my direction, shook her head, smiled, and drawled, to general laughter, “Why am I not surprised?”
I remembered this because “Wait, I have a question!” was my first reaction—my default reaction—to the clarity I felt after church on Sunday. Astonishing, but true: it is possible to meet even clarity with questions. In fact, for me it’s actually quite tempting because clarity can be really uncomfortable. Questions, on the other hand, allow me to spend time merely talking about things; this is less scary, and thus, much more appealing, than simply shutting up and doing them.
Thus, in this case, the “Aha! I really actually am supposed to trust this,” realization was followed in short order by “Wait–trust what? Trust whom? Trust all the time? And what does “trust” mean, anyway . . . ” (Yes, my inner self does sound a tiny bit like Bill Clinton on the witness stand.) I think at one point I was actually going to ask these questions—reasoning, perhaps, that this might keep everyone, and especially myself, too busy to actually do anything meaningful.
In a small victory for the way of the plow, I did quickly realize that this was ridiculous. Which led me to muse, on Facebook, whether my calling is actually to ministry, or merely to color commentary about ministry.
That was a joke . . . and yet it wasn’t.
I am beginning to understand that I can jump in and do this work—the work of ministry, the work to be where I am, the commitment to allow myself to fully participate in the process and be changed by it—or I can stand on the sidelines and talk about it.
One or the other. Choose.
In this post, my friend Mandie likens this decision to experiencing a brook by sitting by it and trying to understand, or by jumping into the water to experience it firsthand. For Mandie, this says a lot about how we live our UU faith. For me, right now, it says a lot about how I live into this call. All the chatter and worry and questions about questions . . . even the pondering—it’s so much sitting by the brook.
I don’t want to sit by the brook anymore. It’s limiting. It lacks mission (other than the completely self-serving, “Do not under any circumstances get wet.”) And it’s not even fun.
I will say that I don’t know what this means yet, or what it looks like, including for Raising Faith. I’m an extrovert, and I experience writing as a compulsion . . . but I am headed to Chicago in a few days–spending the rest of the month there, in fact–to attend my first set of intensives at Meadville Lombard. And I’m planning to do some swimming. Plowing. Whatever.
Maybe I’ll bring you along. Or perhaps I’ll discover the beauty of silence.
Or, just maybe, I’ll tell you about it later, a few years from now . . . when I have a sermon to give about a certain few verses from the book of Luke.