Punished & Wounded

The Coffee Oasis asked a number of local pastors to write a meditation for Holy Week on different verses from Isaiah 53, specifically the ways Jesus joins the suffering of our homeless population. You can find all of those entries here. I was asked to write a meditation on verses 4-5 and am including it here.

We considered him punished by God.

Wounds beg for words of explanation
A story that justifies the suffering I see
on this tortured and weary face
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents
That he was born blind?”
If he’s a sinner I can ignore his wounds
they are his punishment, after all.
So I will conjure a story for him
a tale of his laziness
of his selfishness
of his having wasted plenty of opportunities
so that
if I have compassion,
it is because I am saintly, but
if I ignore
it is because he is a sinner
bearing the consequences of his waywardness
struck down by God.
Punished.
Afflicted.


My own wounds beg for words of explanation
a story that justifies my suffering
as they fester into resentment
infecting my soul with a self-righteous sense
of victimhood;
as if they were caused only by others
these wounds I keep reopening
O! I am afflicted!
O! I am stricken!
Or sometimes
they fester into shame;
I am being punished by God
because I am hated by God
despised and rejected by God
unloved.


The wounds of a crucified man
beg for words of explanation
hanging naked for all to see and scorn
in shameful scandal
open wounds festering,
we considered him punished by God.
“Who sinned that this man hangs there like that?”
No,
this man didn’t sin. 
This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Wounds beg for words of explanation
No story can justify the suffering of this crucified man
but his story
is of a suffering that justifies
this tortured and weary face
suffering with all who have been
naked and homeless for all to see
despised and scorned
suffering for those who would be rejected by God
the punishment that brought us peace was on him
by his wounds we are healed
by his wounds we are loved.

Loving God, forgive me for the ways I try to make sense of the suffering I see in the faces of those experiencing homelessness by reckoning (even if only silently to myself in the dark places of my heart) that they are “reaping what they’ve sown,” scorning them as being in some way “punished.” I shudder to consider what assessment I might have made of you hanging on the cross if I were some first-century sojourner in Jerusalem, unaware of this Jesus of Nazareth. Thank you for loving me in spite of all that is despicable and detestable within me. Thank you for your healing wounds.

In Praise of Presbyterian Polity

The key for getting folks to click on your blog post seems to be finding a sensational, evocative, or controversial-sounding title. I suspect “In Praise of Presbyterian Polity” checks precisely none of those boxes. But this post is, a little bit, about avoiding sensationalizing, so maybe it fits.

As a millennial pastor in a declining mainline denomination, I have often found myself apologizing for our polity everywhere I go. It’s so slooooow. Everything has to go to a committee, even changing a light bulb it seems, ha ha ha.

Even the professor who taught my Presbyterian polity class in seminary seemed to take this posture: he decided to spend half the course on leadership theory in attempts to be “more relevant,” even though the class was called Presbyterian Polity. I remember next to nothing from his lectures on leadership theory, but I’ve run into a whole lot of things in day-to-day ministry addressed in the Book of Order that I sure wish in hindsight he’d spent a little more time explaining to us.

On a recent walk with Brittany she had actually asked me a question about Presbyterian polity (not a regular topic of conversation in our marriage, I assure you), and as I described to her words that seemed to belong to other centuries: synod, diaconate, I found myself marveling at how almost comically out of place they all seemed. I sometimes feel like I’m spitting up on friends who are my age when I tell them I’m a P r esby t e rian, as if I’ve just stained their trendy H&M shirt with some ancient and unwanted-forgotten-for-a-reason word vomit. In an age ruled by immediately Googled answers and on demand Pinterest recipes and YouTube how-to videos for a quick troubleshoot to any problem, the Presbyterian insistence on process does feel increasingly out of place. I confess I’ve lifted an envious eye more than once to trendy megachurches that move with great expediency because they just go do stuff, rather than sending it all through a process.

As our conversation continued and I listed more archaic words, I found myself reflecting aloud to Brittany, “I’m not sure Presbyterian polity is going to be able to last in this century.” Then I was surprised by the next words that came out of my mouth: “but I think we might need it to.”

I feel that even more acutely after watching the chaos of this election cycle… and the past week’s events.

Don’t misunderstand me here. First of all, I have plenty that I dislike about Presbyterian polity. I live in it, and I run up against its shortcomings all the time. It’s a far cry from perfect. My three-year ordination process, for example, usually felt like it fit better with the structure of higher-ed from the 1960s, but not the new millennium, and that it was more about setting up red tape and hoops for me to jump through and making sure I had to do everything older pastors had had to do, than it was about equipping or evaluating me for ministry (or preparing the church for having me in ministry). Secondly, I’m not saying Presbyterian polity will save the world (now there’s a catchier blog title). But. Maybe we need it more than we think.

Some years ago, David Brooks wrote a column about our increasing impatience with process in American political life. We want to get our way, we want to fully get our way, and we want to get our way right now. As such, we elect and idealize leaders who promise not to back down or take no for an answer, thinking we can shortcut the process. And… surprise surprise! We find gridlock when the other party is doing the exact same thing in their own caucuses and ballots, resulting in an inability to collaborate or compromise, to do the true nature of politics: work together for the common good. On the church side of things we follow pastors like celebrities, deifying and idealizing the ones whose star catapults them overnight as their church swells rapidly in attendance under the force of their captivating vision and charismatic persona. Presbyterianism is remarkably unsexy compared with that.

And yet, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to eschew the slowness that process demands for the quick results personality offers to us. Maybe something that impresses upon us slowing down and deliberating with others over even some of the smaller decisions is needed more than ever in our fast-paced, immediate answer world.

We live in an age that where it is easier than ever to make our opinion known to the masses, and that tempts us into thinking we should then always make it known, our individuality of prime importance. As CKPC’s founding pastor John Haberlin is quick to point out: the ruling body of our church is called the Session because it only has its full given authority when it is in Session. Together. Individual elders in our church may have recognized authority within our congregation through their influence or natural leadership, but their full constitutional authority comes only when they are all together. Discussing, dialoguing, listening, praying, voting. No single personality gets to steer it if everyone understands their role properly (though many personalities have of course tried to in the history of Presbyterian churches).

Oftentimes you’ll hear people say: “I want to steer clear of church politics.” And I one-hundred percent understand what they mean and agree. They’re saying, I think: “I want to stay away from drama and gossip and posturing.” We all do, pastors get pulled into that kind of thing all the time, and it’s soul-sucking. But as I spent some of this morning on the phone with Peggy Iversen, our nominating committee elder and chair, I found myself even a little excited by church politics, in a different sense of the word. As we talked about all the work she has set before her (thanks Peggy!), I realized: this is going to take a while. Why? Because our polity is one that is designed to involve a lot of people. It reflects our tradition’s theological commitment to the “priesthood of all believers,” that the people called to do the ministry of the church aren’t just the ones in the pulpits, but the whole church, praying and working together to discern where God is calling us to go. That’s a church politics I want to be involved in.

Our polity is not gospel. It’s time-tested, but it’s not Holy Scripture. It needs more than a few tweaks and reforms (and is actually designed for that). My dad used to say he was a Christian with a capital “C,” and a presbyterian with a lower case “p.” Our polity not perfect, but maybe some of the things about it that cause us to recoil should lead us to reflect just as much on our own shortcomings (like impatience with process) and the problems of our cultural moment as much as we reflect on what we’d change about the Book of Order.  

Maybe our polity can’t survive in this brave (and fearful) new (and chaotic) world, but maybe we need it to.

Are They Christians?!

I recently watched someone post a prompt on social media that was designed to be a collaborative space for church leaders to share ideas about how they were going to respond to the latest restrictions in our state. This thread rapidly devolved into a den of vipers devouring one another, pointing fingers, calling names.

“These leaders are letting fear, not faith, control them.”

“Those leaders don’t love their neighbors or the vulnerable and only care about their own rights or sense of normalcy.”

You’ve all seen the reductionistic arguments a million times by now. Even if you haven’t seen that particular thread I’m referring to, you’ve more or less still seen that thread somewhere else.

I’ll be honest, I got a little depressed. These are Christian leaders?

Like so many of us, these past eight months have shaken my faith… not in God, but in the American Church. Problems I knew existed—but naïvely thought were more peripheral—have been brought to the surface; open wounds oozing a witness to the world that looks so little like Jesus’ healing touch. We’ve seen it in Christians’ response to the pandemic. We’ve seen it throughout the General Election. The venom. The vitriol. And I don’t make any claim whatsoever to have any ability to rise above it; I have convictions and concerns too, after all. I’ve been shocked to see thoughtful Christians I respect defending behavior and viewpoints that seem so diametrically opposed to the gospel that I’ve wondered what Bible they were even reading.

But enough of all that. The problems are well-known to us. We’re living them, after all. Instead, I want to provide an encouragement in two simple points.

1) I thank God for Matthew 13:24-30. The parable of the weeds (or the “tares” if you prefer). There’s a beautiful harvest planted by a Good Farmer. But an enemy sneaks in and plants a bunch of weeds in the field overnight. What should be done? Find the weeds, surely, and rip them up. “‘No,” says the Good Farmer. “If you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest.”

Let both grow side by side.

This parable offers me the freedom of humility on two fronts. First, it reminds me that it’s not my job to pull up the weeds. “But they’re choking out the good crops! They’re damaging the witness of the church at a time it’s desperately needed!” No. Go ahead and let both grow side by side. But this parable brings me humility’s freedom in another way: every single Christian in my life who I might be tempted to label as a “weed” is, without exception, absolutely convinced (so far as I can tell) that they are the faithful followers of Jesus.

And that means I might be a weed, too. And so might you. Yes, you. I don’t say that to terrify us or shake our assurance of salvation, that we might be ourselves the ones who are weeds to be gathered “in bundles to be burned.” I don’t think that’s the point of the parable. Rather, I say it, once again, to lead us to the freedom of humble prayer and worship. Only by God’s grace might I be a good crop bearing good fruit, and I throw myself on that grace every moment of every day; in my decisions, in my considering complex questions, in my desire to be a witness to Jesus at a time it’s desperately needed.

2) Jesus among the crowds. I’ll be honest, I’ve craved quiet lately. It’s a strange thing to crave, I admit, amidst so much isolation from one another. But I don’t so much crave auditory quiet, but rather quiet from the din of everyone’s opinions flying everywhere on every single matter. But I’ve been nudged the past few days not to seek God in the quiet, but to ask where God is in the noise. And here’s where I’ve seen God in the noise: Jesus amidst crowds. So many crowds. Those crowds were undoubtedly filled with people who had skewed perceptions of him and his mission. People who were getting the gospel all wrong. People who were following him for all the wrong reasons. People who were trying to fit him into their box, or prop him up into their agenda. Some were even there to try to trap him or defy him. And yet Jesus commands the attention of every single one of them. Misguided or not, they can’t help but keep their eyes fixed on him, they can’t help but follow him. And it’s in that space where Jesus begins the work of transformation for each and every one of them.

In the sometimes disheartening and depressing noise of Christians and Christian leaders shouting louder and louder, this much remains true: they can’t keep their eyes off of Jesus. A distorted image of Jesus? Yes. Sometimes even utterly grotesque. But surely Jesus can break through even that. I hope so. Because I know sometimes my selfishness leads me to concoct a distorted image of Jesus that serves my interests a little too well. And yet he still breaks through all of that.

Sometimes Jesus avoids the crowds, sometimes he escapes them or dismisses them, but oftentimes, he shows up in and amidst them. Jesus spent a lot of time in crowds. In the noise and the clamor and the chaos. And he leads them, and he teaches them and feeds them, and he heals them and transforms them. This is the Lord of the still, small voice. But it’s also the Lord of the crowds, of the noise, the Lord of the wheat and the Lord of the weeds.