Tag Archives | scripture

Your words need more melody

index (28)

It’s funny, isn’t it, how certain comments will stay with us and gnaw at us and maybe grow more irritating the longer we think about them?

Or maybe it’s just me. I work in the world of words, after all, and I like to string them together in what I hope are interesting ways. And so when I hear a curious comment, or a word that hits my ear at an odd angle, I think about what it might mean.

I don’t know if investment bankers or stock analysts do this, but I do.

“Your German needs more melody” is what my German teacher, Frau Proksch, said to me a couple of weeks ago in Berlin. I was officiating at a wedding at the end of the week, in nearby Potsdam, and so after several wearying days of intensive language classes, I asked her if she would coach me a little in the lines I planned to speak at the wedding.

After we practiced a few times, she said unexpectedly: “Your German needs more melody.”

When I have dared to use a German word in a sermon (not such an odd thing to do in a mostly German-speaking congregation), the typical reaction has been laughter. Like the time I used the word ankommen to make the idea of Advent a little clearer, there was laughter, which was a bit disconcerting because laughter was not the response I was going for at that particular moment. And ankommen is not an especially funny word. What was funny was that I dared to speak it at all.

Anyway, I’ve thought about the melody of my spoken words lately and have decided that my words are not the only ones that could use more melody. I have been listening to a few of the speeches at the political conventions in the U.S. these last two weeks, and I have to say, there isn’t a lot of melody. A lot of shouting, maybe, a lot of anger, but not much melody.

Could it be that my problem is really the whole world’s problem right now, or at least the part of the world I come from? Could it be that there is so much anger and cynicism and (at least in my case) despair right now that melody is in short supply?

The psalms have become my favorite devotional reading in the last weeks and months – mainly the laments. I need someone to express for me, in spiritual language, what I am no longer able to express, in spite of that love of language I mentioned earlier. In Psalm 137, a psalm filled with anger and cynicism and despair, if there ever was one, the writer reflects on the exile to Babylon and states that his words too have lost their melody: “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

The idea is that the circumstances are so wretched, so hopeless, that it has become impossible to sing. I know that foreign land. I am there now – not Switzerland, but a spiritual place, a land of fear. My words have lost their melody.

“By the waters of Babylon –

                there we sat down and there we wept

                when we remembered Zion.”

Comments { 4 }

My last pilgrimage

IMG_5340

I returned last night from my seventh pilgrimage to Israel.

Except for the people who stayed behind for a visit to Petra (across the border in Jordan), everyone returned safely and in good health. I always breathe a big sigh of relief when everyone finds their luggage and waves goodbye at the airport.

I also resolve never to go again. “This is definitely the last pilgrimage for me,” I told myself last night. Frankly, I’m not sure how excited I can get about one more boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, or one more visit to the souvenir shops in Bethlehem. I have had my fill of olive wood trinkets, long lines at holy sites, and 6:30 wake-up calls from the front desk – “Please have your bags outside your door by 7:00!”

But then, a few years will pass, and another group will convince me that it’s time to go again. I have given in each time.

During my first visit I cried pretty much every day for the first three or four days. Maybe it was the jet lag, but something about seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time brought waves of tears. Members of that tour group probably wondered how much blubbering they would have to tolerate from their pastor. A lot, as it turned out. Every new site brought more tears.

And I still cry, more than 20 years after that first visit.

Last week I found myself for the first time at the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus preached for the hometown folks and nearly got himself tossed over a cliff outside of town. The structure has been rebuilt several times, but the floor, we were told, was the original. I had my doubts about that, as I did with the authenticity of many of the sites we visited, but still … I found myself there last week, reading the story from Luke’s gospel for members of my tour group who were seated in small plastic chairs, and I was weeping over the thought of it – that Jesus had once stood somewhere near there and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scene has never been more vivid in my imagination.

This, I have come to realize, is the meaning of pilgrimage. No one knows anymore where Jesus preached that sermon in Nazareth – or where exactly he was buried – but none of that matters. We go to breathe the air, smell the smells, hear the sounds, see the rocks (they are everywhere), and then remember the stories. We go to have our faith deepened and renewed, to see for ourselves where all of it happened, to have old stories come alive.

My only souvenir this year was a little twig from an olive tree at the Garden of Gethsemane. I tucked it into my travel Bible where it will stay until the next time I go. Can you imagine how many pilgrims over the years have pulled on the branches of those trees?

I am glad I was there … again.

IMG_5261

Comments { 3 }

The sickness unto death

swiss_christmas_lights_by_cadaska-d4kj37o

I woke up this morning feeling lousy – cough, sore throat, you know the combination.

I attributed my condition to my 15-month old grand-daughter who, in addition to being beautiful and brilliant, is a petri dish of micro-organisms, enough germs and bugs to take down a healthy adult male, which is what I was until a week ago when I couldn’t resist holding, cuddling, and reading to a sick child.

So, today I am sick, but have no regrets about it. I am also aware that what I have is “not a sickness unto death,” which is what Jesus once said about his friend Lazarus’ illness. I should be back to normal in a few days.

One reason – among many – that I enjoy reading the gospels is to notice the way Jesus often left his listeners scratching their heads: “What did he just say?”

Did his listeners the day he described Lazarus’ illness know what he was talking about? Maybe, but I have my doubts. In fact, it’s not clear why Jesus didn’t hustle off to Bethany when he first received word of Lazarus’ illness. What could have been so important that he couldn’t drag himself away to see his dear friend one last time?

That’s Jesus for you, I’ve always said. Mysterious, unpredictable, making comments that leave you wondering for days, pondering what he might have meant. The way I imagine it, it was only years later that his followers came to understand what he had in mind by mentioning a “sickness unto death.”

For most of my preaching life I have been content to let mystery be mystery. In other words, I have been content not to answer every question, to allow some things to gnaw at us, to keep us awake at night. I love to send my congregation away on Sunday afternoon with something to think about for the rest of the week and, if I’m lucky, for the rest of their lives.

And that approach has worked for more than 30 years in what is still a mostly-Christian culture, the United States. Today, though, I find myself in what cannot be called a Christian culture, in spite of the ringing of chuch bells at all hours, and interesting questions to think about no longer feel quite right.

My people – not all, but a few – are telling me that I need to “connect the dots.” I need to make things clear, when – almost instinctively – I prefer the open-ended question. In a truly missional context, it may be that we no longer have the luxury of enjoying the mystery and pondering the questions. It may be that certainty must win out over mystery.

From the bookshelf behind me, I grabbed Kierkegaard’s slim volume titled, The Sickness Unto Death, and opening it I recognized the underlining and enthusiastic marginal notes of an undergraduate philosophy major, which is what I was or pretended to be. Kierkegaard’s explanation for this “sickness unto death” is rooted in the spiritual condition of despair, and I am persuaded that he’s right about that, though I can’t help pointing out that the best explantion I know of – Kierkegaard’s – took a number of years to develop. And frankly, there is probably still more to be said.

Flu symptoms are nothing to be concerned about – my own or whatever it was that drove poor Lazarus to his untimely death. It’s the other conditon, the spiritual condition, that Jesus was always far more concerned about. It was the other condition that Jesus came into the world to do something about.

Let there be no ambiguity about that.

 

Comments { 10 }

Pat Robertson and me

pat robertson

I never thought I would be saying thank you to Pat Robertson, the American Christian broadcaster, for one of his public pronouncements, but today I’m – well, it surprises me to say so – in basic agreement with what he said.

Of course Robertson and I agree on a great deal when it comes to Christian faith – that Jesus Christ is our lord and savior, for example – but occasionally, over the last several years, there have been some cringe-worthy moments when I wanted to distance myself as far as possible from him, a painful thing to do with a brother in Christ. (His comment that Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in and around New Orleans, was God’s judgment on American abortion policy was particularly difficult for me.)

But today I’m grateful for his courage.

On Tuesday night, in case you missed it, Bill Nye (known in the U.S. as ‘the science guy’) debated Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Ham (an Australian) is what is known as ‘a young-earth creationist.’ He takes a very literal view of the opening chapters of Genesis.

Let’s acknowledge up front that the debate was short on science and long on entertainment. Beyond that, the audience was decidedly on Ham’s side – not surprising given the venue – and seemed to be looking for applause lines whenever Ham spoke. The winner, if there was one, was more than likely the person you agreed with at the outset.

So, maybe the only question to answer in the end was not who won, but was the cause of Christ and his kingdom advanced in any way?

And here is where I find myself agreeing with brother Robertson who was quoted as saying, ‘Let’s be real, let’s not make a joke of ourselves.’ I’m afraid that what happened Tuesday night was a spectacle which portrayed the Christian faith in the worst light possible.

If I had guessed as to Robertson’s views, I would have thought he was closer to Ham than he turned out to be. But that’s just the thing: within mainstream Christianity today, there are many different ways of describing the origins of the universe. Some agree with Ham, but many do not. Some would describe themselves as ‘theistic evolutionists.’ Others subscribe to something called ‘intelligent design.’ And still others (such as the geneticist Francis Collins) would say that they are in basic agreement with the results of science and that faith exists to answer different kinds of questions – why, as opposed to how, the universe came into being. You would not have known from Ham’s comments on Tuesday that there was any discussion at all within Christian circles about this issue.

After the church’s experience with Galileo (it took only four centuries for the Catholic Church to acknowledge Galileo’s enormous scientific contributions), you would think that Christians would be a bit more modest in their engagement with the scientific world.

‘Let’s be real, let’s not make a joke of ourselves.’ And to to that I would add, ‘Let’s be more mindful about the ways we engage the culture around us.’

(Note: For the life of me I can’t find any exclamation point on this new European keyboard. That may be the kernel for a new blog post – and what it says about my host culture – but for now I feel just a bit limited in the way I express myself. There are other formatting peculiarities too. Please be patient. As with the train system here, it’s taking me a while to learn my way around.)

Comments { 4 }

Praying at Epiphany

adoration of the magi

Ernest Hemingway’s advice to writers – “write hard and clear about what hurts” – could probably apply to those of us who pray as well.

A dear friend who had been through a particularly tough year wrote to me not long ago and asked for scripture to guide her thinking and praying.

Without thinking too much about it, a reflex more than anything, I suggested that she read the psalms.  “Not all the way through,” I wrote. “Just dip in, here and there.”

A few days later she wrote back to say: “I had no idea how dark the psalms are.”  The tone of her email suggested that they might have been too dark.

For every “make a joyful noise” in the psalms, there are several more: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The psalms teach us to pray.

Religious professionals – by which I mean people like me, the people for whom Jesus reserved his harshest words of condemnation – tend to think that people want to feel better about themselves.  We reason that when they come to church they want to feel better when they leave than when they arrived.

One church member told me recently that he comes to church to “get really pumped up about Jesus.”

And so, consciously or not, we tend to plan worship along those lines – more uplift than reflection on what hurts.  After all, you can’t drag people down and then expect to send around the offering plate.

But the history of spiritual writing suggests something different.  More people, it turns out, should pray “hard and clear about what hurts.”

Over the last year I’ve prayed quite a few Ernest Hemingway-style prayers.  Weighed down by worry and anxiety, I didn’t get all that “pumped up about Jesus,” but I did sense that my spiritual life was deepening and expanding in a way that it never had before – or that it hadn’t in a long, long time. I was praying honestly and transparently, hard and clear, about where I was in my life.

It wasn’t easy.  It never is.  But with the light of the season approaching – Epiphany – I find my spirit slowly and surely being restored.

From one of my favorite hymns at this time of year…

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

(Art credit: He, Qi. Adoration of the Magi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.)

Comments { 2 }

Inspired to take action!

reasons to be optimistic

My daughters have heard more of my sermons over the years than just about anyone else.  That’s because when they were children I dragged them to church every Sunday.  Actually, their mother did most of the “dragging” because I was usually at church long before either one was awake.

Over the years, whether they were interested or not, whether they wanted to be in church or not, they heard lots of talk from me about Jesus – the claims he made, the things he did, the company he kept, that sort of thing.

I wasn’t always sure what the effect of all that talk would be 20-30 years later.

And so, I’ve asked each of them several times over the last couple of years to guest blog for me – not about what it was like to grow up in a pastor’s home, but about their faith, how they think about it now, how it affects their lives.  Or doesn’t.

My younger daughter, Elizabeth, is a global health researcher for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the University of Washington in Seattle, and this is her most recent response:

I read Melinda Gates’ tweet today about a list of reasons to be optimistic about 2014 and was not surprised to learn that most of the reasons were global health-related. For decades some of the world’s smartest people have been working hard to overcome some of the world’s largest scourges – with a surprising amount of success.

I like to keep up with the Gates Foundation, partly because they fund my current work, but also because I identify with the Gates’ motivation. The myth around the foundation’s origin is that Bill Gates read a health economics report and was inspired. In 1993 the World Bank published the World Development Report, entitled “Investing in Health.” The report laid out an action plan to tackle global health issues. Basically, it said: these are the diseases that affect the most lives, this is how you treat/prevent them, and this is how much it would cost.

To completely over-generalize, Bill and Melinda Gates saw what was possible with their resources, they decided they could not ignore the situation, and they took action.

The foundation is not religiously affiliated, yet their mission resonates with the believer in me. My main take-away from a childhood of church-going and countless “something about Jesus” sermons is that Jesus wanted us to take action on behalf of the vulnerable. In other words, he wanted us to figure out what we are capable of doing for our neighbors, and do it. In fact, Jesus recommended doing some pretty radical things, including selling everything you own and giving it to the poor.

Is that hyperbole, or was he serious? I’ll let my dad weigh in on that one.

But that is why my faith has led me to global health economics; the field allows me to identify issues in poverty and contribute to creating an actionable plan.

Melinda Gates wants us to be optimistic about 2014, and I think we should be. There is no shortage of ways to heed Christ’s call to action.

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)

Comments { 14 }

No more let sins and sorrows grow…

creation groans

Romans 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

I’m aware this Christmas Eve 2013 that I am joining with Christians all around the world, millions and millions of us, to wait patiently, though groaning inwardly, for God to complete what was started in Bethlehem a long, long time ago.

Come, Lord Jesus.

I wish all of my readers a very merry Christmas and a joy-filled new year.

Comments { 8 }

Jesus saves – and then some

Jesus saves

In last Sunday’s sermon, the fifth in a series on what are sometimes known as the “hard sayings” of Jesus, I was doing my best to explain what Jesus meant when he said, “Your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19).

Somehow the translation “made well” doesn’t capture the richness of meaning that Jesus intended.  And yet the word Jesus used is very nearly impossible to translate.

But, I said, the word contained precisely the ambiguity (or the richness) of meaning that he wanted.

Did he mean faith made the leper physically well, or that it made him whole (as in having his humanity restored), or that it saved him?  And the answer is, “Yes!  All that and more.”

Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible known as The Message, has Jesus saying, “Your faith has healed and saved you.”  (Contemporary translations apparently don’t like ambiguity.  Better to make things clear.)   But even that translation – with apologies to Peterson for the heroic work he has done with The Message – doesn’t quite do it.

I started to wonder if there were any words like that in the English language and Googled “untranslatable English words,” thinking that “very nearly impossible to translate English words” was not a good search.

And as almost always happens with Internet searches, I came up with some interesting information, much more than I could possibly use.  Turns out, English has lots of words like these – from “bling,” to “cheesey,” to “poppycock,” to “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”  Even using Google as a verb is arguably an example of this phenomenon.

In fact, most languages have words like these.  And when English speakers come across them, we Americans typically import them into the language without translation.

At a favorite restaurant in Holland, Michigan (de Boer’s Cafe and Bakery), the serving staff wears T-shirts with the Dutch word “gezellig.”  Apparently the German language translates the word “gemutlich,” but the word has no real counterpart in English.  Cozy, friendly, comfortable, pleasant, easy-going, and genial are all candidates, but – hey! – why translate when everyone knows what “gezellig” means?

So, back to Jesus.

When he said to the leper who had been healed that his faith had made him well, he was saying, “Your skin is clear, yes, but you’ve just been given something a great deal more precious.”

I feel as though I’ve been given the same gift.

Comments { 1 }

Bill Benson and the Village Mountain Mission

Dominican Republic1

A little over 12 years ago, after a few years of sailing the Caribbean in retirement, the brother of one of my church members sailed into a small inlet along the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.

Like many sailors before him, he was looking for some shelter during a storm.  But something happened on that brief visit that changed his life.

Bill Benson had retired from a career with the Boy Scouts of America and was enjoying a well-deserved retirement on his sailboat.  His plan was to keep sailing the Caribbean and to finally spend some time with his wife after years of seven-day work weeks with the Scouts.

(This is the place in the story to tell the old joke about how to make God laugh.  You tell him your plans.)

What happened was that Bill fell in love with the people of the Dominican Republic and – importantly – he saw their need.  The Dominican Republic isn’t as poor as Haiti, which shares the same island, but it’s plenty poor and its educational system is among the worst in the western hemisphere, worse even than Haiti’s.

Bill spent the better part of the next two years riding around the island on a motorcycle, trying to figure out how best to be of help to these people.  Finally – and it’s a good story, but really it’s his to tell – God let him know that two years of research was enough and that it was time for him to get started.

So, Bill founded the Village Mountain Mission. He bought a beautiful piece of land in the Dominican Republic.  He acquired some vehicles.  And he started inviting mission teams from the U.S. to join him in building houses, and starting schools, and providing medical care.

I’ve gone on mission trips just about every year for the last 20 years, usually to places in this country and usually with high school students, but I’ve also gone with church members of all ages to places like Haiti and Peru and the Philippines and (last November) to South Africa.

This one, I have to say, was the toughest yet.  I returned last Tuesday night and have never been so glad to get home.

The work was hard, there was no escape from the heat, and the living conditions were … let’s just say they were primitive.

I don’t like camping.  Never have.  And this was tougher than any camping trip I’ve ever taken.  But Bill wants mission teams who visit the Village Mountain Mission to eat and live the way the people of that island eat and live.

And mostly we did.

But … and every person who has ever gone on a mission trip will tell you this, I returned tired and happy.  I learned something – about myself, about the Dominican Republic, and about what God is doing in the world.

I had the privilege of riding in the front seat with Bill Benson several times during the week we were there, and so I had an opportunity to see up close what a 70-something man looks and sounds like when he gives up retirement to follow God’s call in his life.

To be honest with you, I have never pictured my own retirement like that, like Bill’s.

And then I came home and read the scripture reading I had chosen to preach about tomorrow, Jesus’ parable about the “rich fool.”  Jesus of course doesn’t tell us that the rich fool was retired – in fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything in all of scripture about retirement – but I couldn’t help reading this little parable as a story – and maybe a warning – about retirement.

Jesus’ parable is a story about someone who has accumulated a great deal over the course of his life, someone who has been very responsible with his property, and someone who should probably feel good about all that he has.  And nowhere, it’s important to note, does Jesus criticize the man for having worked hard and done well.

And yet, Jesus is not at all flattering.  As Jesus tells the story, God is displeased with the man – not for his hard work, and not for his wealth, but for his attitude, his unwillingness to notice anyone around him.  He’s all caught up in himself.  And God uses the word “fool” to describe him, a word that in biblical terms is, well, rather harsh.

I serve a church with plenty of retired people – and with plenty of people who are at least contemplating retirement.  I don’t usually go out of my way to step on toes, but I’m thinking that tomorrow I’ll talk about Bill and I’ll ask a few questions about retirement.

Like, what is it exactly that God asks of us?

(Photo credit: This photo was taken by a member of our mission team.  Thanks, Anna.  Remarkably, if you face one direction, you see sugary sand, palm trees, and that wonderful blue Caribbean water.  If you look the other way, you see abject poverty and thatched-roofed huts.  All week long, as we built a house for a family in the village of Cambiaso, the contrast was jarring.)

Comments { 5 }

Call me “Doug”

Pastor_MEME

“What titles are we going to use – Reverend, Doctor, Pastor, or some combination like Reverend Doctor?”

The question was asked because we weren’t being consistent.  One pastor on my staff preferred one thing, another pastor preferred something different.  So, what titles will we use?  A fair question, except that I was conflicted about the subject.

The first time someone called me “Reverend Brouwer” – I’ll never forget where I was and who said it – I felt awkward and uncomfortable, which the person who said it surely intended. (Thereafter, he would call me “padre” to get a similar reaction.) True, I was newly ordained, but for heaven’s sake I was 27 years old and didn’t think of myself as all that “reverend” – and all that that word implied.

I have never liked “reverend” much.  Now, mostly funeral directors call me that, the ones who don’t know me very well.

Then came “doctor.”  I liked that one better.  For a while.  Not many people called me “Doctor Brouwer,” but when I heard it, I thought, “That has a nice ring to it.”  Kind of academic and smart.  My elementary school teachers (and some of my high school teachers) would have been surprised to hear it.  In fact, I think that’s why I liked it.  I had proven something to myself, if not to any of them.

But “Doctor Brouwer” is not very pastoral.  It doesn’t project the sort of warmth and caring and approachability that I imagine in myself.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Leaving Church, describes such deference as “well intentioned…[but also] as distancing as a velvet rope in a museum.”  Most pastors I know hate the thing with the velvet rope.  Taylor left the ministry altogether because of it.

To beat some of my readers to it, I should mention the term “dominie.”  It’s a term the Dutch Reformed often used for their pastors, usually not in an endearing way.  From what I’ve heard these men – and they were always men – didn’t care much about their warmth and caring and approachability, so the term has come to suggest a sort of distant and cold pastoral identity.

I’m no dominie, thank you very much, at least I hope not.

A few years ago I was serving a church where titles seemed to matter a great deal to church members. I could understand titles meaning something in a business or work setting, but not at church.  I wondered why we used them so often in newsletters and other publications.  So, I mentioned in a sermon that I had taken my diplomas down from the wall and put them in a closet.  I wanted to claim my baptism as my most important credential.  I even referred to the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 3 about his own accomplishments and how he counted “all these things as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

After the sermon, a church member confronted me in the Narthex, more loudly than necessary, about how much his degrees meant to him and how hard he had worked to get them.  After that I didn’t press the issue.

But I still wonder about titles at church.

When my children were growing up, I told them to call grownups “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” unless those grownups told them it was okay to use their first names.  So, what about grownups who are pastors?  Over the years most children have called me “Pastor Doug.”  When I first heard that, I wasn’t sure I liked it, and for a while I wore it uneasily, but gradually it grew on me.  Just the right amount of respect, but little of the unapproachability.

I think of myself as Doug.  You’re welcome to call me that.  If someone wants to give me a title, let it be “Pastor” Doug.  I like that too.

Comments { 10 }