Thursday, June 05, 2014

"Do What You Love"? I don't think so.

Last night we had our youth group’s annual Party for the graduating seniors. It has become a tradition to hold a dinner party for each year’s graduating class and present them with a gift and a letter. I’ve started to think of this informal gathering as a baccalaureate of sorts, a chance for the church to offer some intentional reflection on the next step in their lives. I usually read a verse of Scripture and offer a few words of my own. Here’s what I tried to say:


“Do What You Love.” It has become a common mantra these days, especially when it comes to motivating and inspiring people who are graduating or contemplating a new career. The sentiment has been around for a while, but Steve Jobs made it popular during a famous commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005. As far as mottos go, it’s pretty compelling. I can’t disagree with that. After all, who can argue with love? If love is at the core of whatever it is one is doing, what could be wrong about it, right? If you’re trying to discern your future, who could think of a better guide than your love?


Actually, I don’t think “Do What You Love” is a very helpful mantra, and I think there is a better guide for discerning your future. As you prepare to graduate, I’m not going to advise you to “Do What You Love.” That doesn’t mean I don’t think you should do what you're good at…or that I don’t pray for your happiness…or that I think you shouldn’t seek to love. What it does mean is that, for all its attractiveness, primarily seeking to “Do What You Love” is not going to be a helpful motto for you in the long run.


First of all, let’s be honest: you’re going to have to do a lot of things that you DON’T particularly love, and some of you may even end up in careers or jobs that you don’t find particularly invigorating. You’re going to have to do them anyway, and you may need to end up learning to love (or at least appreciate) the things you find yourselves doing because they provide for your family, or because they’ll open doors for you further down the road. In fact, doing some of the things that we’re not too crazy about often end up making us better, more well-adjusted people.


However, the main reason I don’t find “Do What You Love” to be a helpful motto is because it turns out to be a very self-centered, narcissistic viewpoint. It puts all the focus on you. “Do What You Love” really listens only to itself. I’m concerned that, more often than not, it will teach you to care really only for yourself and your own needs. “Do What You Love” essentially puts you at the middle of everything.


And you’re not at the middle of everything. God is at the middle of everything.


To see what I’m trying to say, look no further than Jesus’ example. I’m sure he would have loved to go anywhere other than Jerusalem where he knew he would undergo great suffering. I’m sure he would have loved to slip away from that destiny under cover of night and go live a life of private fulfillment elsewhere. Yet he sought to listen to God’s call instead. I’m not sure we can say that Jesus thoroughly loved the cross experience, but there was love in it. Love for the world. Love for you and me.


Therefore, I would like to modify this short, popular “Do What You Love” motto in a way that I think actually will empower you to use your gifts and lead you to a fulfilling life: “Listen to how God calls.” As you move from here, listen to how God calls you to pay attention to the needs of others. Listen to how God calls you to use your gifts for the sake of the world. Listen to how God calls you to sacrifice every once in a while—your time, your energy, your treasure—and not just so that you can get ahead somewhere down the road. God calls us to sacrifice so that our lives become a real part of how God is making the world better in Jesus Christ. That’s where the love is. And I believe that you and I both can respond to that love and be a part of how that love continues to work in the world. Listening to how God calls each of us to this type of love is key. That goes not only for the grand sweeping arc of your lives—your career, your decisions regarding family—but also for each little moment on the way.


Don’t forget that listening to this call will involve the help of other people who are also striving to do the same. If you don’t know how God is calling you to serve others and use your gifts, then the community of Jesus’ followers can help with that. If you don’t even really know what your true gifts are yet, that’s OK. What better place to figure them out than hanging around those who believe you have them and can point them out to you? So, as you leave high school and youth group, don’t forget to make yourself present on a regular basis among the people who acknowledge that there is a God who has suffered in love for us and calls us to respond. In a life that in fact involves doing plenty of things that you don’t love you will find yourselves in plenty of situations where you’ll need the support of Christ’s people.


So, remember that God is really at the middle of everything, and that following only the desires of your own love can start to push you there instead. Listen to how God calls. I wish I could tell you that it will be easier than just doing what you love, but I can't. It will probably, many times, be more frustrating. But, in the end, it will be more fulfilling. You might not always get to do what you love each and every day, but if you listen to God’s call something even better will happen: God will be doing what God loves…through you.




Monday, May 19, 2014

Sticks and stones

We have come to that time of the year when people share and post speeches and quotes and memorable quips that they’ve heard and read. Whether it’s the sage advice dispensed in commencement addresses, the admonition pronounced in baccalaureate sermons, the tokens of wisdom inscribed in yearbook covers, or the speeches given by valedictorians that are imbued with equal amounts of nostalgia and hope, it seems that the end of the academic year offers plenty of opportunities for people to offer or listen to words...words that have the power to inspire and form imagination and shape lives. I even ran across a website today that claims to have sorted through hundreds of commencement addresses given at universities and colleges over the past century or so and sifted from them the pithiest one-liner nuggets. It is interesting to me that in this age of the digital, CGI-enhanced screen we still choose to punctuate major life events with someone standing up at a podium and talking.
Words are my stock and trade. By virtue of what I do for a living, I find myself delivering sermons, writing personal notes, and teaching classes on a very regular basis. I do a lot of talking and writing. Despite all the effort and time I throw into those things, however, sometimes the most important (or most damaging) words I ever offer are the terse expressions of sympathy in the midst of a crisis or the off-hand remark I make in passing after worship. Whatever the scenario, in the back of my mind rings the wisdom of a theology professor who taught us to pay very close attention to the particular words we use, especially in the study of theology, because ultimately that practice is a reflection of how we pay attention to the Word of God that is to form our lives.
All this, and yet I often get cynical about how much famous quotes and memorable lines really matter. Words, after all, aren’t everything. Actions matter greatly. Fancy rhetoric can only mask inauthenticity for so long. And people who quote things all the time get annoying. Besides, I'm keenly aware that a great many words—including a heaping helping of my own—are just meaningless bluster meant more for the pride of the speaker and his or her need to be remembered than they are for the edification of the listener. Furthermore, placing so much weight on eloquent turns of phrase can diminish the contributions of those who may not be as articulate or those who are never really given a chance to speak.
Nevertheless, all this talk about speeches and the imparting of wisdom has caused me to reflect on the fact that certain phrases and quotes have been very influential in my own life. I can’t deny it. There have been a few choice passages that I’ve come across, often at critical points in my life, that have had a profound influence on my well-being, my identity, and my ability to move ahead. I have been reflecting on these quotes and passages lately and thought I’d offer them here. This is not meant (I hope) to imply any narcissism or self-divulging on my part, as if my navel-gazing has produced wisdom of which others should be in awe, but rather just a way of taking honest stock of certain words that I’ve heard or read that have, like it or not, stuck with me for a long time.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” (accredited to Eleanor Roosevelt) This alone got me through large portions of high school.
“Live in the moment.” (Ward Williams, a guy in my high school orchestra and drama club who graduated two years ahead of me) He actually directed this quote to me, and it helped me realize that I was spending too much time resume-building in those days.
“Deal with it!” (Mr. Huie, Middle School teacher and drama director) Mr. Huie would shout this to us while we were in the middle of a class presentation or play practice whenever we would start to focus on something that was going wrong or were beginning to complain—rather than making do and getting on with things.
“I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.” (Charles Swindoll) This, along with a larger portion of the whole passage, was printed inside of the manual for the first job I ever had. I didn’t realize it until now, but it’s basically a longer riff on Mr. Huie’s wisdom above.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. Behold, everything has become new.” (the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17) This was the verse I chose for my confirmation. I can’t even remember where I found it. Maybe off a page of ‘inspiring Bible verses’? I doubt I was tuned in enough in 9th grade to have heard it in a sermon or read it on my own. Regardless of where I got it, I’m glad I did. The grace of Christ always makes things new. Over and over. Second chances abound. It’s amazing.

(no mediocrity)
(Emmett Wicker) More of a visual than a quote, this was handwritten on a large piece of posterboard. The speaker used it as his object lesson for our last pep talk before the first batch of campers arrived on my first summer on camp staff. He didn't tell us what the M stood for until he had been talking for a while. It was very effective rhetorical device. It was a great motivator and it has inspired me  at least to aspire to perfectionism in all of the jobs I’ve had (not that I’ve succeeded).
“What you are should speak so loudly that people cannot hear what you say.” (Dr. Martha Roy, in a paraphrase of Ralph Waldo Emerson) Perhaps this is ironic. It’s a quote that downplays quotes themselves. Character is more complex than just what comes out of your mouth. Dr. Roy, the 87-year-old matriarch and organist of my internship congregation in Cairo, embodied this quote, and yet—again, ironically—she may have been the most eloquent person I’ve ever met.
“Thank you, dear Lord, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.” (Garrison Keillor). This is the final line of one of his stories from fabled Lake Wobegon, State Fair. I listened to Keillor quite a lot growing up, but this one I heard when our English teacher read it to us in class one day. It is not very profound, but for some reason it is my favorite piece of writing of all time.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Quick Questions for a Dogwood on My Way to Work

Who is here to admire you but humans?
Do the birds? The squirrel that just darted in front of my car?

Who made you, and whatever for?

But more to the point:
who made admiration?

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Abraham responds
to God’s call to follow and
in faith
enters a new home

Nicodemus responds
to Jesus’ questions and
learns faith
will help him
enter a new home
the kingdom of God.

May we respond
to your Word
with faith
that opens our eyes
to see
we already have a home
in your presence.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Southerner's Snow Serenity Prayer


Give me the serenity to accept the things that must be cancelled outright,
The creativity to re-schedule the things that just need to be postponed,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

the church parking lot, rendered absolutely useless by an impenetrable 3-inch-deep blanket of snow

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

some things stay the same

A few weekends ago I served as a chaperone for one of our senior high youth events at a retreat center in central Virginia. It is one of the many youth trips I’ve had the pleasure of attending over the past five years in my role as Associate Pastor at this congregation. The following is a portion of a letter I wrote after the event to the parents of the youth group now that I begin a transition into a new role in the congregation:

My new call as senior pastor will undoubtedly change the amount of time in which I interact with the youth group at Epiphany. In the short term, I will still be fairly involved in the programs, but eventually I will step back as we call a new associate pastor and adjust staff responsibilities. However, I will not disengage from the youth group (and going to youth events) entirely. A desire from the congregation for me to have regular contact with youth ministry is something I heard loud-and-clear in the call process for senior pastor and also read in the survey results. I hope to work with a new associate pastor in new ways that allow us both to have a hand in shaping youth ministry, which is not limited to the youth group. It also includes confirmation and the other ways youth are active in the life of our congregation. In addition, the creativity and commitment from our cadre of Timothy Ministers will be invaluable as all this begins to take shape.

I guess it goes without saying that change is afoot. But, really, when you stop and think about it, isn’t the church always changing? Seniors graduate, middle schoolers become new high schoolers, elementary school students become new middle schoolers. Pastors leave and new pastors are called. Families move away; new families join. And, of course, there are deaths and there are births. But the changes that the church experiences are not primarily due to life cycles and school schedules. To be honest, the Holy Spirit is the true agent of change. The Spirit is always moving among the church, bringing about new ministries, new possibilities, new strengths and new ways to witness to the power of the cross. This change can be invigorating, but it can also be a little frightening at times. 

This weekend, as I looked out at the rows of youth swaying to the rhythms of the worship songs, I was momentarily struck by all this change and motion. I’d seen it dozens of times before, their arms all linked across each other’s shoulders and drifting back and forth like waves in the sea, but this time it seemed to symbolize the great shifting in my own vocational life. I felt almost adrift. Then, in the midst of all this my eyes wandered over to the stage. I noticed that standing middle of it all—still and very solid—was the altar of the Lord, set with the bread and wine for our worship. It was a moment of peace and realization for me: in the midst of whatever God’s people face, Christ will provide stability. There, in the midst of all our comings and goings—in the midst of all our hello-ing and goodbye-ing, our readjustments and reassignments and, of course, our living and dying—will be Jesus. Always. Constant. A Mighty Fortress. “Though the waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (Psalm 46). This is good. This where my hope needs to rest. Not with me or with any particular role or set of gifts I think I may have or anyone else has. The change brought about by the Holy Spirit is always anchored in the real presence of Christ. [And any metaphorical relationship that Scripture bears to spending a weekend with 300 energetic youth on an icy mountain is completely unintentional, by the way].

All this is to say that I am thankful for the 5 years I’ve been the associate pastor at Epiphany Lutheran Church and I’m so grateful I’ve been extended the call to serve for many more! I am most thankful for that constant presence of Christ I have found among you.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Spiritual but not religious" lets people off the hook

Many people who are a lot more articulate than I am have made observations about what might be meant when people describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" and about the rise of those who claim to be "religiously unaffiliated." I hear these terms fairly often, as well, although I can't say whether or not I hear them more or less often than I used to. And, to be fair, I don't actually hear all that many people claim these things with my own ears (maybe because 95% of the people I regularly come into contact with, by virtue of my day job, are so-called "religiously affiliated"? I probably need to work on changing that somehow). Nevertheless, I do read a fair amount about it and pay attention to various discussions on-line, so I thought I'd offer a brief explanation of what I hear when people say they are "spiritual, but not religious":

When people say they are "spiritual, but not religious" what they really mean is, "I'm spiritual, but I am not church-going." Or, perhaps to broaden it a bit, they mean, "I'm spiritual, but I eschew consciously worshiping the same things with other groups of people."

Likewise, when someone describes themselves on a form (or somewhere else) as "religiously unaffiliated," what they really mean is they do not affiliate with an organized, named religious community.

To say it another way, everyone is religious. Everyone has a religion...or, as is often the case (even with church-going folk) more than one. There is no such thing as "not religious" or "religiously unaffiliated." As humans, we do not have a choice about that. It comes with the territory of being a species that, by nature, asks questions, seeks meaning, creates value structures and makes sacrifices of time, energy, and often health, to maintain them. No living, sentient human can avoid this, and to try to deny one's religiosity is to be ignorant about the formalized systems of meaning and values one has already constructed. It is to be ignorant that each person already pins their hopes for a "good life" or the future on something, even if it is only themselves and their own abilities. That, in an of itself, is religious.

Nope. It doesn't really work like this.
I do not believe this is just semantics. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, offers a definition of a god. He says, "A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in times of need." A few sentences later he is even more confrontational: "that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is really your God." I know I have not yet met every single person in the world, but I'm pretty sure that applies to everyone. Everyone, after all, pins their hopes for the future on something by virtue of the fact that they probably expect to be breathing into the future. Note that, in Luke's gospel, when Jesus gives warning about the dangers of worldly affluence, he describes wealth as a master, a god. He does not speak as if there is one God and we should serve Him because God is good or that it is right. He says, rather, "No one can serve two masters." He acknowledges that for many people mammon assumes that role of future-holder. Sundry other things may be substituted in that place, especially in our era. One can easily say, then, that having any one of these gods necessitates having some type of religion, some way of structuring these hopes for the future.

However, thanks to a multitude of cultural influences, the term religion has come to be synonymous with "organized religion," be it Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Scientology, or what have you. But Luther's definition, I believe, is far more descriptive and helpful in pinning down everyone--not just the self-proclaimed religious--when it comes to examining everyone's value systems. In short, to be able to describe one's self as "not religious" is basically to be let off the hook. Besides narrowing the meaning of "religion" to mean only organized and named religious groups or patterns of thought, such a category ("not religious," "religiously unaffiliated") does not focus the same level or depth of critique on everyone's inherent value system. As Luther, and Aquinas before him, observed long ago, everyone is "doing it." Everyone places their heart in something. Everyone, if they know what's good for them, should take the opportunity to examine that with equal emphasis.

Where this thinking takes me, I'm not sure. I know that, on a personal level, when I hear someone describe themselves in those terms I reach a different conclusion about them than they probably want me to reach. The conclusion I reach is that, sure, they have values and are probably very religious and structured about them. They most certainly give worth (read: worship) to something. They just don't want to be identified with a particular sect or denomination or group-think. And that's OK. But I know they're religious. The two of us actually have more in common than they realize. I often wish they could sit down and admit it and really give some deeper thought about those things in which they "find refuge in times of need"...the things they really do worship. Maybe they do give deeper thought to it, but I still don't want either of us to feel that they've been allowed a free pass, as if my step, for example, towards identification with the church is qualitatively different than their step away from it.

But I also think it might open the door for a new kind of evangelism in this post-Christendom age we are encountering in the West. With such a definition in-hand, it allows practitioners of an organized religion to throw the question back to those whom they may be trying to convince of the validity of their faith with an equal challenge, equal footing. No longer should the "religiously-affiliated" feel put in the place to argue the merits of having religion versus not: You say you're not religious? Really? Are you breathing? Tell me, then, about the places you entrust your heart and your future. And I'd love to tell you about mine. Now, let's talk.