Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Clean, Well Lighted Place


My fifteen year-old son has taken to introducing me as a “retired pastor.” It’s hard to shake loose of that title for me, too. It’s probably because being a pastor is more of an identity than a job, more a personality than a skill set. Still not sure whether I want to shake loose of that title for good, or just for now, I’m stumbling my way forward into this new life on the other side of the pulpit.

These days I’m thinking much more than I’m writing, and in my head I’m sweeping the floor of the café in Hemingway’s short A Clean Well-Lighted Place. Maybe you know the story of an old man who drinks brandy in the café late into the night.  He annoys a younger waiter, but is a valued patron to the experienced waiter.

Perhaps I’ve become the old man who needs the refuge of the café because I don’t regularly haunt the pulpit, one of the last well lighted places in this world where one is expected to probe the deep existential questions of being and nothingness.  But pulpits have become dangerous places, too, for congregants don’t want it to be the place where pastors grapple with hard questions for themselves, but rather a place of moral certainty against all the “issues” against which they are opposed, bumper sticker theology in sound-bytes, and “Ten Steps to Your Best Life Now” sermons. No, the pulpit is not a clean, well-lighted place for a questioning middle-age man to ask his congregation questions neither he nor they can answer.

Or perhaps I’m the waiter who says, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the café.” I spent over twenty years in church work, always trusting that the church was the last, perhaps only, institution in the world that could truly change the world by healing the deep brokenness within each of us. I thought, “Someone might need the church,” so I wanted it to be a community of cleanness and order – a place that helps the lost make sense of their lostness and the lostness of the world. But instead of humble cafes providing for simple needs, the church has become vast halls of Sunday morning theatrics.

Probably, I’m a little of each. What the waiter and the old man hold in common is that they are kept awake at night by the affliction of really big questions. Hemingway labeled this affliction a vague “nothing,” keeping it vague in order to convey that the haunting questions of life were so ponderous and large as to be indescribable. Only the café can offer the space and quiet to grapple with it.

Near the end of the story, just after the older man leaves the café, Hemingway puts the situation thusly, “What did he fear? It was not fear or dread, it was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” Outside the café is a dangerous place for those who dare to ask hard questions of life, of God, of themselves. We need the café. We need the clean, well-lighted place to take refuge from dangerous emptiness.

So, for now, I’m retired. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

If you hear any other message than this...

I learned today that Brennan Manning died (official obituary here) and I've had an interesting range of emotions in response to the news. Apparently, others are, too.   His facebook page is filling up with comments from people around the world who were touched by his work and his words.  The Naked Pastor drew this great tribute cartoon.  Twitter has blown up with people's favorite quotes.

Why am I grieving the death of someone I met just once?  One reason is now that I'm no longer a pastor with a church to shepherd, his life has become a pattern for how to serve the kingdom of God as a minister without "orders."  But even more, it's that his life bore true witness to the words he wrote.  His books and talks were beloved to people from all walks of faith because they held out the possibility that all of us, no matter how badly we've behaved not only have a shot at God's forgiveness, but at experiencing the fullness of God's love.  In an era of evangelicalism where grace often is preached but not practiced, Manning's ideas were a cool drink of water on a hot day.

And he was fierce about it  

The one time I met him was at the National Pastor's Covention in Nashville, probably about 2004.  It was just after another voice of grace, Mike Yacanelli, had died and those gathered were wondering what to do without Mike telling us it was ok to be spiritually messy.  At that conference, Manning delivered a beautiful sermon that brought me to a new place of understanding about God's deep love for me.  I hadn't even realized how my soul thirsted until then.  Manning's voice rose during the sermon, and he sounded like a crazed man, so obsessed was he with in making sure we got the simple message:  God loves you.

I am God's Beloved

As he closed the sermon, he asked his listeners to meditate while listening to his voice.  He urged us to listen to the inner dialogue and in the stillness he softly spoke, "If you are hearing any message other than God's 'I love you, just as you are,' then you are hearing the voice of the Evil One."  Then with a shout he said, "TUNE IT OUT!  Listen only to the singular message of God's love for you over and over and over and over until it begins to shape your identity into one simple idea.  I am God's beloved."   Over and over and over and over he said, "I am God's beloved."  I started to believe it.

It stuck  

That word has been a companion in my life that comes and go as needed.   It shows up in my preaching and writing with regularity, proving the value of Manning's message for me.  My hope & prayer for you, dear reader, is that if you are hearing any other message than "I love you, just as you are," have the courage to tune it out, confident that you are shunning darkness and pointing your life toward the light of God's grace.  And if you get that message, say a prayer of thanks for that "notorious sinner" Brennan Manning.


“If we maintain the open-mindedness of children, we challenge fixed ideas and established structures, including our own. We listen to people in other denominations and religions. We don't find demons in those with whom we disagree. We don't cozy up to people who mouth our jargon. If we are open, we rarely resort to either-or: either creation or evolution, liberty or law, sacred or secular, Beethoven or Madonna. We focus on both-and, fully aware that God's truth cannot be imprisoned in a small definition." - Brennan Manning, 1934-2013.



Friday, March 22, 2013

Empty

Empty.  We empty the trash, we empty the gas tank on the car, the shampoo bottle is empty, so we go buy another one.  Sometimes we feel empty, sometimes our belly is so empty that we feel like we could eat a horse.  When we live paycheck to paycheck we worry about the bank account being empty.  A cruel person is sometimes called "empty hearted," and our mothers taught us never to go to a party  "empty handed." 

To be empty is to be without something, and that's just the word Paul uses to describe what Jesus did when he divested himself of his godly form in order to become human.  He emptied himself into human form.  His very presence among us was the ultimate display of humility. 

This understanding that God gave up all of His majesty, splendor, and, well, his godliness, in order to be human and dwell among us is quite amazing.  It is also a pattern for our lives as Christians - that we should divest ourselves of ego as much as possible in order to become God's instruments in this life. 

Lent's call to repentance is also a call to humility.  To confess our sin and frailties is to recognize our inability to control our habits, ourselves, our lives.  It is a commendation of God's supreme ability to better guide us in the living of our lives;  it is an emptying of self in honor of God's will.  Indeed, it is an imitation of Jesus.
 
          



Philippians 2. 5-11


2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,

2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,

2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

New things ahead


I'll give more details soon, changes are ahead for the Long family, this blog, and ministry stuff.  I'll be picking this blog back up after a long season of vey little writing.  That will happen after March when I finish up my pastoral ministry at First Baptist of Gaithersburg.

After then, I'll be working with FaithVillage promoting content partnerships and advertising, as well as Common Call  subscription sales.  If you have interest in any of those things, please reach out to me.

In addition, I've started an online venture called Blue Truck Publishing.  It's a site for church resources at great prices, all digital downloads.  If you're interested in selling your curriculum, art, music, etc, click here.  Blue Truck has a blog for church resourcing here and a Facebook page here.

I look forward to writing more soon, and hope to hear from you.

Grace & Peace,
Gary  

Friday, August 31, 2012

Overload

Overload

I don’t have to tell you your calendar is loaded full.  You know your workload is surpassed only by your stress-load.   Or that some of your relationships make you feel like a social worker with a giant caseload.  You’ve got financial worries by the truckload, and put it all together you feel like you’re pulling a trainload.

You’re on overload:  emotional, physical, and relational.

You’re not unlike the disciples during the weeks after Jesus’ death.   They were on overload from the stress of hiding and they are grieving.  In overload mode Peter says to his friends exactly what any reasonable man should say in a time of stress.

“I am going fishing.”  (John 21.3). 

In his grief and confusion Peter returns to the one thing he knew best, the one thing that was real in a time of the surreal, this season of “life after Jesus.”

Fishing  

The disciples went with him.  They cast their nets hoping for a big haul to sell at daybreak, but their efforts were in vain.  All night they caught nothing. 

About daybreak Jesus was calling from shore, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat.”  They follow his instruction and their nets are overloaded with fish.  John tells us they caught 153 fish, and dragged them to shore where they enjoyed a meal at this, the third resurrection appearance of Jesus. 

153? 

The Greek poet Cilix conjectured there were 153 types of fish in all of the seas[1], John the Gospel writer would've likely known that.  Perhaps John was saying that a little bit of everything was held together in that straining net.  That leaves me to wonder if this story is more about the church as a net, holding together all our diversity, as well as all our problems.  The net miraculously holding it all together without being torn is an image for a resilient church, a body held together in Jesus himself. 

The stress of our lives is a sort of beckoning to draw close to Jesus, to let him hold us together and take the “over” out of our overload.  This Sunday we wrap up our summer series, “Boats in the Bible,” with a story of abundance, a story of Jesus’s power through all trials, and the passing of that power to his followers.  So if you’re on overload in life, join us for worship at 10:30.  Come as you are and sit with Jesus while he mends the strained nets of your soul.

Casting my net on the right side,
Pastor Gary

Reading John by Charles Talbert, page 270.

Friday, April 06, 2012

I Thought this Only Happened in Church


I thought this only happened at church!

I was at breakfast with my son at the local diner in downtown Gaithersburg.  Oatmeal for me.  Pancakes and bacon for him.  He's 14 and I'm 41, so our ages and our meals are both reversed. 

A man vaguely resembling Dave Matthews waited for his take-out order sitting on a chair nearby our booth.  There was no one at his table, and there were several open tables in the diner. In walks a local, taps the man on the shoulder, and says, “That’s my seat, would you move?”

The man was slightly startled, but smiled and complied, perching on a nearby chair to wait.  My son and I noticed this simultaneously.  He leaned close and semi-speaks, semi-whispers, “I thought that only happened in church.”

“I know, right?” I whispered back.  We both laughed aloud.

All these years as pastor I’ve assumed that only churchgoers were the seat mongers.   Turns out I’m wrong, habits and territorialism apply to all humans.  It only seems hypocritical when Christians do it.  Universally, people are funny about where they sit. 

For example, the White House Press Secretary assigns seats for reporters.  Airlines do it.  Theatres, symphonies, and rock bands, too.  Wild Bill Hickok surely regretted his seat choice at a poker table when he was shot in the back. Rumor has it that some synagogues actually sell tickets with preferential seating to their high holy days services. 

Anticipating the Easter Sunday full house, I briefly considered bolstering our ailing church budget by selling preferred seating for this weekend’s service.  I figured front row seats would be free, middle/middle seats would go for twenty dollars, and that back row seats would be forty.  Guaranteed "End of the Row?"  Two dollar surcharge! 

But that was a short-winged flight of fancy because good religion doesn’t work that way.   And I certainly don’t want to tangle with Jesus, who said, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places” in Luke 11.43.  Easter is free to all would come. 

So bring a friend and get here early for a good seat as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus this Sunday at 10:30.  I pray that our seats won't matter because our hearts will be drawn to stand and worship God as we marvel at the empty cross and the empty tomb.     

Saving you a seat,

Gimme a sign, God!


Gimme a sign, God!

Have you ever been in the midst of a decision large or small and say, “Hey, God, would you just gimme a sign?”  Like one of those "JOHN 3:16" signs at sporting events.  Bold.  Neon.  Clear.   

The walls of this pastor’s study have listened as parishioners talk to me about decisions. I ask people, “I wonder if God really cares about this decision?” and they typically want to throw a coaster at me.  I only ask that question when the decision deals with two “goods.”  Seldom do people come to my study to talk about a choice between a clear “good” and a clear “bad.”  They already know those answers. 

These people of faith really labor over choices because in the deepest place of their soul they want to please God.   And their choices matter.  Perhaps God is more interested in watching His children have the freedom and responsibility of making those choices, rather than our struggle for the elusive yet “perfect” will of God.  After all, what happens if you miss out on God’s perfect will?  Do you get the less perfect will of God? 

Of course not. 

God can work with our choices and still be God.  Frequenly the choices we face are of equal “good” to God, as long as we keep ourselves in between the ditches on the highway of life.   I would submit that all the signs we need are all around us, if we will but notice and accept them as such. 

Join us this week for worship to work on seeing the "signs" from God in our life.  In the meantime, watch some sports and look out for that person with the big "JOHN 3:16" sign in the stands.  You might even consider bringing your own "John 3:16" sign to church this Sunday, there will be an appropriate moment during the sermon to use it!  John 3.11-21 is the focal passage, so read it at home and bring your Bible to church.  We gather for worship at 10:30 am and Bible study is at 9:15 am.

See you Sunday,
Pastor Gary

Statues of Forgiveness

A few weeks ago my family toured the battlefield of Gettysburg National Military Park. About a month beforehand, my 14-year-old son read Killer Angels, a classic novel of the Civil War and he surprised all of us, including our licensed guide, with his knowledge of the events of July 1-3, 1863. I was beaming with pride on the outside, but I was dying just a little on the inside. 

Let me tell you why:
I was raised in the South. You might even call it the Old South. I was taught that my belly button was “where the Yankee shot me.” In North Carolina history class the Civil War was the “War of Northern Aggression” and a blatant attack on states’ rights. Being named “Sherman” made you suspect. Confederate flags were emblems of “heritage, not hate.”

Sometimes you know, sometimes you understand
I long ago assented intellectually that those ideas were wrong, and in many regards flat out evil. Perhaps it was my freshman year at the University of North Carolina that kicked in the corrective process and began the construction of a new world view. All that knowledge heaped up on an impressionable 18-year-old will do that.  But we know a whole lot more than we understand, and sometimes it takes a while before knowledge and understanding become the same thing in us.

Knowledge gave way to understanding for me as I toured the Pennsylvania farmland-turned-battlefield.  This war, anything but “civil,” left a gouging and permanent scar on our nation.  Countless others have chronicled the bloodshed, the financial cost and the subsequent rancor between the North and the South. But deep in the psyche of many Southerners lays the systemically placed feelings of defensiveness, embarrassment and shame. Those feelings are not chosen, nor are they all about losing a war.  Those feelings are rooted in something common to all humans, regardless of their relative position to the Mason-Dixon line. Simply put, it is nearly impossible to admit you’re wrong. That you’ve chosen the wrong side. That you’ve committed sin. And that you’ve caused destruction. 

And, yes, slavery was a moral wrong and the root cause of the war.

Though our memories are short on the hard lessons of history, we are still subject to the same foibles. Our blood thirst is unquenched and we still wage wars. We are still greedy, still fight to preserve our own comfortable ways of life and still enslave others, whether through economic, emotional or sexual abuse. We still hate to admit we’re wrong. And as for me, I can’t stand to say I’m sorry.

Limping toward God

Of the 1,400 or so monuments at Gettysburg, the 2005 Maryland monument is the most moving. Now that I’m a Marylander, I made it a point to seek it out. Now that I’m a Marylander, I take pride in it. The monument is a striking bronze sculpture of two men, perhaps brothers, who symbolize the brothers from a divided Maryland who fought on both sides of the war. They are limping as if injured, from the battlefield. Their eyes are firmly fixed ahead, but neither is able to make it forward without the other.

Not a bad metaphor for the church. Wounded, we limp in on Sunday, wondering if Jesus will patch us up again for another week. Leaning on each other, we approach God, knowing we need to say we’re sorry -- to each other and to God -- for the things we have done. 

There is a more familiar statue of forgiveness for Christians, and that is the cross. Jesus’ work upon the cross shows us there is no need for us to be stuck in the shame of our sin. There is only the requirement that we lift our heads up and admit our mistakes to God. 

Only there, before God in confession, can we move past the hot mess of our shame over what we’ve done. And only then, before God in confession, can we stop the long slow dying process, turn toward the light of grace, and grasp ahold of that bright hope that is the kingdom of heaven.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Occupy Jerusalem

Long Story, Short
March 9, 2012

Did you follow the story of the Occupy movement over the last several months? Protesters occupied public places in demonstration against large corporations and the global financial systems that seemingly control the world’s economy – leaving power to only a few (the 1 percenter's), and nothing but powerlessness to the 99% of us.

The world of Jesus and his disciples is essentially the same when we come across them in John 2.  The 99% were powerless.  Romans occupied his homeland and were doing business with the priesthood for political rest.  Israel had become – yet again – a key military point in the supply line to dominate distant regions of land.  And the worst of it was that Israel’s people, the ones to whom Jesus belonged and with whom Jesus most closely sympathized, were being sold out by the religious leaders to the political system.

By the time Jesus walked into the temple that day in the middle of the Passover season, it was clear to him that the temple had become a shell of its former glory.  Instead of being a holy place, its core identity and function had gone missing.  It had become a shopping mall, a bank, and a government building all rolled into one.
All his righteous anger seethed.  It fumed.  It boiled over.  His pressure relief valve triggered and he exploded.  Jesus makes a whip and from cords in a fit of anger begins driving the people out of the temple like he’s driving cattle.  Imagine the sweat, the tears of rage, his furrowed brow.  It’s animated for us in children’s Sunday School pictures with the title “Jesus cleanses the temple.”  It says that in the heading of some of your Bibles, too.

cleanses

It’s an appropriate word for what happened.  It’s an appropriate word for the season of Lent when we think about forgiveness of sins and how we experience cleansing in confession, cleansing that is only found through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.

cleanses

Like a good spring-cleaning from top to bottom, Jesus cleanses the temple.  He’s dusting out the cobwebs of a musty old religious system, as we’ll soon see.  He’s decrying the elite priests, he’s calling out the Roman occupiers.  Jesus conducted a “Occupy Jerusalem” protest of his own because he wanted to cleanse the temple of its consumerism, politicization, and the power plays of the elite priests and ruling class.  Jesus occupied the temple in anticipation of his final protest site, the place where his purpose would become clear and his work decisive:  Jesus was heading to “Occupy Calvary.”

Join us this week for worship to discover why Jesus occupied Jersalem and Calvary.  The answer is so close to home it may surprise you.  John 2.13-22 is the focal passage, so read it at home and bring your Bible to church.  We gather for worship at 10:30 am and Bible study is at 9:15 am.  Don't forget the clocks move ahead one hour this Satuday night!

See you Sunday,
Pastor Gary