Tom walked into my office looking glum. He tossed his backpack on the floor, fell into a chair by my desk, sighed, and then rummaged through his bag for the registrar’s form. Tom is a first-year seminary student, and I’m his counselor. We walked through the courses he would be taking, most of them part of our core curriculum. Tom’s lack of enthusiasm was screaming at me. Finally I took the bait: “So, Tom, what’s the matter?” His hands went up in the air as he shot back, “What’s the deal with all of these required courses? When do we get to study things that are relevant?” Ah, I thought, the old “Let’s make thousands of years of inherited tradition relevant to me” argument. I’d just had a similar conversation with a woman in the congregation where I serve, who wondered why we repeat the “same old creed” each Sunday.
Jean sits down with the rest of the committee members, and the meeting gets started. She's in her familiar light blue cashmere cardigan sweater, her reading glasses hanging from a thin black woven cord around her neck, her gray-streaked hair pulled back into an efficient bun. She is as proper as always. But tonight her face is completely blank, as if she doesn’t dare reveal anything. She says nothing. “What’s up with Jean?” I wonder.
It had been almost three months since I made a pastoral call on Jack Matthews, who is one of our elderly parishioners now living at Pittsburgh’s West minster Residences. He mentioned this to an elder, who might have said something to a few other church members.
In a time when people are profoundly confused about fundamental identity issues and desperately trying to construct life as best they can, it is critical that pastors recover the poetic dimension of their ministries. What the congregation needs is not a strategist to help them form another plan for achieving a desired image of life, but a poet who looks beneath the desperation to recover the mystery of what it means to be made in God’s image.
Early on Easter morning, some women from Galilee went to the tomb where they had left Jesus. They came because they had been up all night, as people in grief often are, and because it is somehow easier to grieve at the grave site.
When I was in grad school, my family moved into an apartment in South Chicago. When we saw that the door of the apartment had four locks, we wondered why we needed so many. I soon discovered that the benefit was mostly emotional. When we got inside at night, after being worried about whatever, we could shut the door on the world and turn lots of little levers. “Click, click, click.” I think of that door when I’m listening to people describe how they cope with their fears.
Life is details—phones that keep ringing, e-mail that has to be returned, computers that crash, copy machines that jam, and children who are sick when we need to be at work. We struggle with the details of bodies that don’t work as they should, with doctors, specialists, medical tests and pills. Our children juggle homework, athletics, orthodontists and piano lessons. Then we all go to church on Sunday, and what do we find but more details?
Isaiah knew his congregation. His word from the Lord spoke into the chaos and confusion of a people who had suffered not only a disruption of life, but also a disrupted understanding of God. Their cherished expectations of what it meant to be the covenant people had crumbled along with the destroyed Jerusalem. God had allowed this destruction of their naïve theology, and now they were exiled from both the land and the notion that God would protect them. It was this befuddled congregation that assembled to hear Isaiah’s sermons.
John begins the Easter story with the words, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark . . .” This is always how our discovery of the risen Christ begins—in darkness. While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to a tomb because earlier in the week Jesus had been killed. With him, her hope died.
When the promising young Hebrews were dragged into exile in Babylon, they were not kept in prisons or even camps. They were free to marry, build homes, plant crops and exchange goods. Some became quite wealthy. They were also free to assemble, elect leaders and worship.
The 23rd Psalm has led us in the paths of comfort all the days of our lives. But sometimes we have trouble hearing the things that are closest to us. Psalm 23 was a cherished hymn for the Hebrews. So when we read and sing the psalms as Christians, we are to some degree also in Jewish territory. It is wise to remember the nature of the Jews’ history with God.