Christianity–Reformed Style

I have been around Presbyterian circles long enough to know that many of our congregations pride themselves on an open-ended search for truth and nurturing a deep curiosity about life. When it comes to talking about faith one is more likely to hear the word mystery than certainty from a Presbyterian pulpit.

racismI have also been around long enough to know that the above-mentioned is not the perception of most people in the community. It doesn’t matter what denomination you hail from or even what religious tradition you pledge allegiance to. A persistent and prevalent perception in the community is that if you are part of a religious organization you are most likely rigid, intolerant, possibly racist, sexist and most likely homophobic.

I don’t know if you are like me, but I am careful about how quickly I reveal that I am a Christian, a Presbyterian or a church professional when meeting strangers. I always hope that I have a few minutes for people to get to know me first so that when they finally discover that I am a church person their first reaction is, “Really, but you seem so open and nice?” Then I have a chance to say that not all Christians are like you think.

Iblock party am now old enough to know that it wasn’t always this way. I remember growing up nearly a half century ago and feeling no embarrassment about going to church or stating which church I attended. The funny thing is I am not sure how much we church people have changed over that time. In fact my hunch is most of us have actually become more open, increasingly tolerant and less inclined to think in absolutist terms than we were decades ago.

But something has changed. The dominant religious voices who get the airtime are often the most strident, the least compassionate, and the most judgmental of people who think and look differently. If community-based Christianity was the norm in people’s minds fifty years ago now it is judgment-based Christianity.

Quite honestly, I grieve that I can’t say that I am a Christian without also having to immediately describe what kind of a Christian I am. I could have never imagined a day when my spiritual values were closer to that of a humanitarian atheist than to Bible-thumping fundamentalist Christian.

perceptionBut I write this because, despite all the times I have said that the church must change, I am convinced that we in the Reformed tradition have more of a perception problem than a substance problem.

The people of our communities are looking for safe places where their questions are heard, where their open and curious search for truth is affirmed, and where diversity of thought and experience is welcomed. The cool thing is that already describes the vast majority of our churches.

Yes, we do need to change. Some of what we do is just plain old and tired. Our structure often gets in the way of good ministry rather than supporting good ministry. And we still use “that’s the way we have always done it” way too often.

But at our core we are not the perception that many in the community have of us. Rather than being rigid and intolerant we are theologically flexible and open people. Rather than beating people over the head with the gospel of judgment we prefer to bless people with the spirit of grace. Rather than being absolutely certain about who God is we are people who trust in the Divine mystery.

At our core and in our substance we are just what the community is searching for—openness, tolerance, love, grace and acceptance in the name of a God whose character is exactly that. This is the Reformed way.

Maybe we don’t have to change as much as we sometimes think we do.

Maybe we just have to do a better job of telling our story!

Is God on the move?

It was about ten years ago when I began saying publicly, “I believe that the future of the Church will come from the dialogue between our rich, historic religious traditions and the emerging spiritualities of our time.”

I was reminded of this belief once again by the most recent edition of The Pause, the weekly e-newsletter of the NPR program, On Being hosted by Krista Tippett. While I enjoy and appreciate much of the content of The Pause, it was less the content of this past edition than the source of its content that piqued my interest.

prophetic imaginationYou will likely recognize the name of Walter Brueggemann, the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary, and the author of The Prophetic Imagination. If you have been around Presbyterian circles for any length of time you will likely have heard him quoted from the pulpit, studied him in classes or even heard him provide the keynote address at one of Cascades Presbytery now-defunct summer conferences. He is certainly considered one of our tradition’s theological pillars.

Krista Tippett had created a blog dedicated to reflecting on Zora Neale Hurston’s quote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” One of her wise subjects was one whom we claim as one of our own—Walter Brueggemann—in an extended interview and podcast.

Again, for the purposes of this blog I am less interested in what Brueggemann had to say in this interview with Krista Tippett than I am in the simple fact that Ms. Tippett relied on our good friend, Brueggemann, to bring depth, wisdom and insight to her newsletter.

On Being is largely funded by a number of organizations that should give us a real sense of hope that spiritual reflection, religious values and theological dialogue are not disappearing from our culture as some seem to fear in this climate of church decline.

Just look at this list of funding partners to the program On Being:

It is clear that none of these institutions is solely dedicated to the Reformed tradition and to our particular Biblical narrative. But I find it unbelievably hopeful that there are major institutions (beyond the Church) which are dedicated to building a spiritual foundation, to creating a future of universal spiritual values, and to supporting public theology.

On Being is broadcast over 400 different public radio stations around the country reaching millions of people every week. The fact that her work and her interviews are largely supported by organizations that are dedicated to furthering the spiritual depth and theological integrity of our world speaks to how much the work and language of the Church has been adopted by institutions that claim no specific religious identity or narrative.

But this is a good sign, in fact, a great and hopeful sign.

If Krista Tippett is listening to and calling on Walter Brueggemann I have faith that the future is very bright.

Something good is happening. Theology no longer belongs only to the church. Spirituality is not just the language of the religiously faithful.

It appears that God is on the move.

Our job is to try to keep up!

Silent Night…

I regularly receive the email newsletter The Pause from On Being, the NPR show that is hosted by Krista Trippet. I find it a fascinating read as many of the articles seem to espouse Biblical values even if those same articles rarely appeal to the actual Biblical narrative. Given that we are rapidly speeding our way toward Christmas a particular vignette caught my eye this week.

Foot massageThey were telling the story of Parker Palmer and a particularly difficult time in his life when he was suffering from clinical depression. The story was very simple. He had a friend who came by his home every day at 4 p.m., sat down, and just rubbed Parker’s feet. Few words were spoken. No advice was given. No self-care reminders were offered. Just a simple daily massage of Parker’s feet in near silence.

Palmer wrote of this experience that “…somehow he found the one place in my body where I could feel a sense of connection with another person, relieving my awful sense of isolation while bearing silent witness to my condition.”

Reflecting on this, he added, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard, and companioned exactly as it is.”

Jesus SavesThere is something deeply profound about this statement. I believe that it touches the very heart of the Christmas story. A cursory glance at this statement may leave us wondering whether Parker Palmer actually challenges the meaning of the Christmas story. We know that the literal translation of the name of Jesus is “He saves” and the Christmas carol Silent Night proclaims “Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born.”

“What do you mean that we don’t want to be saved? Doesn’t this crack the very foundation that the Christmas story is built upon,” we might ask. Parker Palmer says, “The human soul doesn’t want to be…saved. It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard, and companioned exactly as it is.”

two kids arm in armI wonder if active salvation and silent witnessing don’t necessarily have to be opposites. I wonder if there is a connection between being seen and heard and being saved. Often when we think of the saving power of Jesus we think of our need to be rescued from something. I wonder if Parker Palmer has uncovered a deeper truth of the Christmas story. I wonder if God’s act in Jesus was not about saving us from our sin, but was simply an act of witnessing, seeing, and hearing us exactly in the state that we are and, as a result…saving us from our sin. I wonder if Jesus’ motivation was simply to witness and to be present and that salvation became an appreciated and much needed by-product.

Parker Palmer tells the story that his friend did not actually rescue him from his clinical depression. But he did say that in the act of simply being with him, witnessing his struggle and pain, and massaging his feet, that Parker Palmer was eventually rescued and “saved” from his clinical depression.

Yes, Jesus saves. But I wonder if this act of God through Jesus on Christmas morning was really more an act of simply being with us exactly as we are—content and discontent, believing and questioning, joyful and hurting. Strangely enough, the power of being seen and heard often saves us in the end.

Maybe God didn’t show up in Jesus in order to save us. Maybe God came just to be with us and to massage our feet and our souls. And because of God’s silent, witnessing presence we ended up being saved anyway.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

O Come, O Come, the one who is simply with us.

“Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Silence, witnessing, presence, being seen, being heard. God with us.

What more do we need?

And and But

And and But.

I wasn’t always good about spiritual disciplines, but after my divorce twelve years ago I fell into a morning practice that included about a half hour of gentle yoga, a short reflection on some piece of reflective writing and a form of prayer journaling called Morning Pages. I was searching this week for the right Holy Breadcrumbs topic. Usually the topic is waiting for me minutes after completing my prior blog, but this week I just couldn’t seem to land on something that just had to be said.

god and improvThat is…until I opened the book I am currently using for my morning reflection, God, Improv and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana. In this book she discusses God as one who honors the Yes/And. Apparently it is an improv rule that when one person makes a statement the other person has to affirm it and add to it. One cannot say to a statement that the sky is purple, “No, actually the sky is orange today.” One has to say something like, “Yes, it is purple and I plan to hold our Advent services outside today since the sky matches our liturgical colors.”

Where MaryAnn threw the arrow of self-revelation at me is where she said, “Many of us tend to be “Yes/But” people. Right away I knew that she was talking about me. I remember working with a spiritual director over twenty years ago who kept encouraging me to link two thoughts together with the word “and” rather than “but.” BUT, unfortunately I was unable to do it!

Even in my first paragraph I was careful not to censor myself for the purpose of this blog and discovered the word but naturally flowing out of me. I used it twice in a blog that is not supposed to be about buts! Alas, MaryAnn has nailed me. As much as I try to be a Yes/And person my default position is more often Yes/But.

purple skyAs I reflected on this I realized that something happens when we change our language from but to and. Instead of two ideas or two statements being in conflict with each other in either/or thinking, it opens up the possibility of a third way where two seemingly opposing ideas can both be true. But puts a brake on possibility thinking; And opens up the window to a myriad of possibilities and ways that haven’t even been dreamed up yet. The sky is purple! Okay, let’s hold Advent services outside and sing Prince songs (reference to his Purple Rain album)!

I think this is going to be important as we learn to live into a new future as Presbyterians in this beautiful Cascades region. We will have to learn to live with both despair and hope, endings and beginnings, deaths and resurrections. It’s not that the church, as we know it, is coming to an end, BUT a new beginning is just around the corner. It’s more that the church, as we know it, is coming to an end AND a new beginning is just around the corner. The first statement minimizes the experience of endings since beginnings are on their way. The second statement asks us to embrace the divine character of both endings and beginnings, death and resurrection all at the same time.

you got thisI realize that I have caught myself saying, “I believe that this presbytery has a very hopeful future, BUT we are going to have to change how we do church.” I wonder what would happen if I began saying, “I believe that this presbytery has a very hopeful future AND we are going to have to change how we do church.”

Can you feel the difference? One puts the brakes on; the other invites us to move forward. But seems to separate hope and change into two separate events; And says the two can co-exist like good marriage partners.

I have been aware of my obsession with but-thinking for over twenty years. I have to admit that this will be a difficult shift for me. AND I promise to do my best (it took all my will power to not say “but” there!).

I invite you all to join me in moving from BUT to AND! I believe we have a very hopeful future before us AND I believe that we will have to embrace a radical reorientation of what it means to be church.

Change and hope can exist in the same sentence.

 

 

Barbershop Education

“I don’t know what I would need the church for. I can go out and make a difference on my own.”

Hair stylistIt’s amazing what one learns at the barbershop. This past week I was part of a conversation with a person who had grown up in the church, had participated in numerous mission trips as a high school student and had, as is stereotypical, slipped away from the church in her late teens. Eventually she went on to get a license as a hair stylist.

Knowing that I was deeply involved in the life of the church she honestly admitted, “I don’t know what I would need the church for.” Then she proceeded to tell me how every two weeks she donates half a day at the local shelter for homeless youth. There she offers free shampoos and haircuts to these youth whose hair is often matted, unwashed, and out of control. What a gift she offers. What a gift she receives.

homeless youthBut I was struck by her revealing admission that she didn’t see any need for the church since she could go out and make a difference on her own. The good news is that her perception of the church is largely about serving others and reaching out to the “least of these” in true Matthew 25 fashion. At one level she clearly gets church. Many Sunday church services end with some sort of admonition like, “Now go out and serve this world in the name of Christ.”

The good news is that this person clearly got the message in her youth that church and faith and life are about service. She didn’t say it this way, but it was as if her explanation for not going to church was about taking out the “middle man.” “Why waste two hours on Sunday hearing about my need to serve when I could just use those two hours actually serving,” seemed to be her thinking.

mentoringI share this with you because I think it is important that every church and every pew-sitting Presbyterian wrestle with her question of “why go to church if I can just make a difference on my own.” I also think it is important because I have heard stories, too many to count, of life-long Presbyterians who say, “My children puzzle me. I raised them in the church and now they just see no reason for going. And it’s not that they are bad people. They are teachers and social workers and counselors and caseworkers. They just don’t go to church.”

If we are to have flourishing congregations and practicing Christian communities well into the future we will have to have an answer for those who are out doing Matthew 25 ministries despite their lack of church membership and participation. How do you reach people who are doing our service work as well or better than any one of us who are card-carrying members of the church?

This particular hair stylist grew up in the church, participated in mission trips and clearly got the message that faith is about service. She just doesn’t go to church now.

My question for you to ponder is this:

“Is this person now a lapsed Christian or is she a missionary out working on our behalf?”

How do you see her?

(Comments are invited. I would love to see the discussion this starts.)

Dots. Lots of dots.

Connecting the Dots.

This will clearly just be a picture into my mind and my thinking. I can’t tell you exactly where these thoughts are going to lead. They might dry up and die almost as fast as I write them. On the other hand, they might just be the seeds that blossom into a much broader vision for the presbytery. But for now I simply want to give the benefit of what is going on in my chaotic mind and in my dreamy head.

I have a number of dots, some isolated experiences that when taken together might just paint a bigger picture. Here are the single dots:

  • At the presbytery meeting at Columbia, Vancouver we heard the report of First, Trout Lake and their ministry to the Pacific Crest Trail hikers. Trout Lake is a major re-supply site for the hikers, but it is about twelve miles from the trail to the town. First Church leaders organized a shuttle service that runs about four times a day transporting hikers to and from the trail. In addition, they offer their property for overnight campers and make available bathroom and kitchen facilities.
  • spokenhostel beds
    Spoke’n Hostel in Mitchell

    This last Sunday, while driving back from a long Thanksgiving weekend I located a place in the tiny town of Mitchell (where the Painted Hills are located) that I had heard about, but not actually seen. Spoke ‘n Hostel is a church building that has been re-purposed as a combination hostel for cyclists on the Transamerica Bike Route, a Sunday worshipping community, and a once a week community center.

  • Tuesday I attended a regional planning meeting in Newport for the completion of the Oregon Coast Trail (a 357-mile hiking trail). At this meeting that attracted mayors, county commissioners, Travel Oregon, and even the governor’s office we were told this interesting fact: Currently hospitality on the trail is limited to either expensive motels and hotels or to camping. What was missing were the $20-$25/night community hostels that many pilgrims prefer.
  • caminoLast night while researching a possible study leave for this next year I came across an interesting fact. Many of the albergues (pilgrim hostels) on the Camino de Santiago in Spain are run by churches. One church had bunk beds put in the loft of their building to accommodate Camino pilgrims.
  • I have thought deeply about how the spiritual discipline of hospitality runs deep in our tradition and how we are always looking for ways to practice Christ-like hospitality in our changing contexts.

Those are the dots. It makes me wonder, though, whether these are not just isolated and disconnected dots, but represent the faint outline of an emerging picture.

Pilgrimage. Hospitality. Making room at the inn. Partnering with the community. Reimagining building use. Responding to God’s gentle nudge.

Dots. Lots of individual dots.

I wonder if there will be more to connect the story.

Gratitude is Gratitude

I will admit that I have not read Diana Butler Bass’ book Grateful: the Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.” I am relying completely on the reviews of her book to feed the subject matter at hand—Thanksgiving and gratitude.

I do feel a great sense of responsibility in

Thankful

this position as your Presbyter for Vision and Mission to find the ways and the places where we in the faith community can connect with the broader culture and the secular society in which we find ourselves nestled. Given that this is the week when most of us—family, friends, neighbors, and strangers alike—will celebrate Thanksgiving I found myself pondering the place that gratitude plays in our lives.

I was struck that this is one theme that generally ties both the religiously faithful and the secular spiritualist together. One does not have to search very far to find a whole array of resources on gratitude. There are gratitude journals, gratitude cards, dozens of Ted Talks on gratitude, and even a whole tome by Butler Bass on the power of being grateful.

GratefulWhat I found interesting, but not surprising, about the reviews of Butler Bass’ book is that, despite being a Christian, it appears that her book is not a reflection on why we should be grateful to God, but is a reflection on the power of gratitude to make us healthier people, more connected to the earth and to each other, more aware of the presence of  the one we call God, and able to create a world that is more nurturing and hospitable to all of us.

I am sure that this sounds like a “Big Duh!” But I believe this distinction between focusing on God as the object of our gratitude and focusing on our healthier lives and world as the result of our gratitude is important. It is important because it may provide a natural bridge between those who believe in God and those who just believe in living good, moral, spiritually rich lives.

I found myself wondering, “Do we believe in God as a first step toward becoming grateful people?” Is gratitude the goal or is belief the goal? Is the object of our gratitude more important than the actual practice of gratitude? If gratitude is disconnected from a belief in God does that disqualify the practice of gratitude as a spiritually rich gift?

smiling gratitudeThis Thanksgiving some of us will gather around tables with family and friends and express our gratitude to God for all the blessings of this year. And some of us will gather around tables with family and friends and express their gratitude to life in general and to each other for the blessings of this year.

We in the Christian community believe that blessings come from the very source of our lives—namely the Creator God to which our Biblical narrative points. But our next door neighbors will likely be practicing gratitude as well. Our friends and co-workers and people we have not yet met will also be giving thanks in their own way.

I am grateful for that we have a religious narrative that grounds our gratitude in the One who is the beginning and the end and the reason for our very being.

I am also grateful that others will express their gratitude in way that makes them emotionally and spiritually healthier people, connects us to each other, and creates a world that is more nurturing, forgiving and hospitable to all of us.

 

There is gratitude for God and then there is just plain gratitude.

I am not sure the two are all that different.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I am grateful for all of you.

“Now That’s Something!”

Now that’s something!

Common Table 1
One of the questions we used for discernment

I just returned from a 3-day retreat at Pacific City for a new initiative called Common Table. Sponsored by our partner Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and the Portland Leadership Foundation, 32 of us met to explore whether we, in the faith community, could present a unified face in the state of Oregon during this time of troubling divisiveness. We thought, “If a diverse bunch of people in the faith community could find ways to come together, treat each other with respect, and unite around some common goals then the rest of the community should be able to do the same.” It is no secret that in this divided nation some of that division has its origin in religious fervor and narrow agendas.

Attracting as much diversity to the proposed meeting was central to our goal. We were a diverse bunch of folks. Here is a snapshot of the diversity represented around the table:

  • Mainline Protestant (including yours truly)
  • Buddhist
  • Evangelical Protestant
  • Sikh
  • Native American
  • Muslim
  • Jewish
  • Church of Latter Day Saints
  • Welcoming Congregations (LGTBQ)
  • Roman Catholic
  • African Methodist Episcopal (AME)
  • Young Life
  • Religious Society of Friends

As you can see it was ecumenical (meaning many Christian voices), it was interfaith, and it crossed numerous spiritual traditions.

The goal was to see if we could come together around a common purpose, a shared agenda, a mutual mission. Wisely the organizers facilitated this around a “common table.” We shared many meals together, prayed, meditated, sang and walked on the magical beach just outside our conference room.

Common Table 4
The sunset that united us all

One evening we simply stopped. If our traditions had a way of reminding us of our differences and uniqueness the sunset reminded us that we all belong to the same earth and enjoy the same mystical connection. At 4: 52 p.m. we all stood together facing west and stared in awe as the sunset massaged our souls in unison.

I want to tell you that I went away feeling very hopeful. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not that we resolved everything or that we came up with a mission statement to which everyone could agree. No, I walked away hopeful because even in the places where we still had division and suspicion, we were able to say those things aloud to each other.

I was sharing this with a colleague shortly after my return and she said, “Wow. That sounds like you had created a safe space for people to be honest with each other. Now that’s something.” She was right. We didn’t resolve everything and go away singing “Kum Ba Ya,” but we did acknowledge that which still separated us and decided to stay at the table anyway.

I am hopeful.

I am hopeful because I have seen numerous protests across our country where division is the source of hurled insults and thrown rocks…

I am hopeful because a day does not go by where Republicans and Democrats don’t demonize each other and tear each other down…

I am hopeful because much of what I see in this time is rooted in hatred and fear…

I am hopeful because despite all the negativity that we have experienced, at this retreat faith leaders acknowledged that we still have work to do, we still have great differences, we still harbor lingering suspicions of each other…

…AND we sat at a common table anyway.

Now that’s something.

Brian is a Big Tease!

I wonder if many of you think that I am just a big tease!

crystal ballIf you have been around me long enough you will have heard me say something to the effect, “We are going to have to tease this vision thing out.” I imagine that that might be frustrating for some. “Why can’t Brian just come up with a vision and then tell us where we are going?” Believe me, I would, if I had access to the magical PCUSA crystal ball!

But since I don’t have that crystal ball and I don’t know of anyone else who has it either, I guess I’ll go to Plan B—that is, to tease this vision thing out!

I write this not just because I want you to understand my style and the method to my madness. I write this because my style is absolutely dependent on you and your response to “my teasing.” Until this vision thing becomes clear I am likely to toss out all sorts of ideas and possibilities. I am likely to play it too cautious at times and not cautious enough at other times. I am likely to risk offending you, even if only for a moment, for what I do say and don’t say.

Why do I do this? Because how you choose to respond or not respond tells me a lot about what you care about, where the energy is, how the Spirit might be working, and under what rocks this vision thing might be hiding.

people in parkI truly believe that the vision for the presbytery already exists within the hearts and the minds our members and congregations. I truly believe that our future vision already exists within the souls of our communities and among people we have not yet met. We don’t have to come up with a vision; we only need to discover it!

But how do we discover that vision? I suppose one could send a survey to all 14,000 Presbytery of the Cascades members and compile our answers. But honestly that is so old school. We Presbyterians have engaged in dozens of surveys like this and, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t shifted the momentum of the PCUSA. We still lose 3%-4% of our members every year despite filling out numerous surveys year after year. Surveys give us information, but don’t shift our life.

I biteI believe that this vision thing can’t be accomplished by our usual tactic of coming up with a surefire 7-step plan to vitality and growth. This vision thing is going to have be teased out. And teasing has a way of getting to the truth of a matter by pushing a person’s buttons. Have you ever teased someone and discovered their boundaries, discovered the line that shouldn’t be crossed?

So here is the deal I will make with the presbytery. I will take the risks to tease this thing out. I will sometimes say something when I shouldn’t have and I will sometimes not say something when I should have. I will push the envelope a bit. I will test our limits. I will take the risk to cross some lines.

What I need from you is to engage in this process. Tell me when I have gone too far. Tell me when I have not gone far enough. Tell me when I am playing it too safe. Tell me when I am not taking enough risks.

In order to get through this we will need engagement on all our parts. I will need to step out into new territory, but I will also need you to slow me down when I am going too fast and kick me in the butt when I am going too slow.

How do you let me know when I am on the right track or off the deep end?

Respond to my blog.

Email me or call me.

Discuss any wild hair ideas with your committee, your Bible study, your congregation, your clergy support group, and with your hairdresser.

Agree with me. Disagree with me.

Support me. Oppose me.

Compliment me. Complain about me.

Do anything except stay silent and non-engaged!

I need you and you need me.

Okay…enough teasing for now.

Words Matter

“In the beginning was the Word…” John 1: 1

For many years the opening prologue to the Gospel of John has given me much to ponder. I still don’t know exactly what those words mean, but I do know that they have a way of working on me, pulling me into some sacred direction, and giving more depth to my life and my faith. Today, in our current environment, that opening prologue clearly is calling me to say out loud, “Words matter.”

WordI feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but recent events such as the pipe bomb scare and the horrific massacre of Jewish worshipers in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and the ensuing dialogue about who is responsible, forces me to say what shouldn’t have to be said, but must be said again.

WORDS MATTER.

Why do I say this? Because I wouldn’t be writing this blog every week unless I believed that my words had some impact on the life and the spirit of the presbytery. I don’t HAVE to write a blog. In fact, my life would be much easier if I didn’t carve out a three to four hour period every week to write. I have enough emails to respond to, committees to support, staff to supervise, and churches to visit that adding a few hours just to write a few words takes a monumental effort of discipline and organization. If words don’t matter I will quit this silly exercise right now.

CrosswordBut I write because I believe that words matter. I write because I believe that a few words can actually have more effect on our presbytery than checking off a long list of “to do’s” in my daily calendar. I write because words have power. I write because worlds are not built just with our hands, but are built by the sentences and paragraphs that we fashion into concepts, inspiring sermons, and revealing poems.

And here is the thing about words. I am in a position of some authority. I don’t believe that I am so powerful that I can say something and expect that everyone will immediately follow my lead. But I do believe that my words have the power to subtly shift how we think about ourselves and what commitments we make. I might be wrong but I believe that my words have a subtle way of giving permission for our behavior and for constraining our behavior. I am in a position where I get to set the tone for the life of our presbytery. I am in a position where at least some people are taking what I say seriously and acting on what they hear. I do not take this responsibility lightly.

Here is the deal. If I say something that causes you to act in a way that is irresponsible, you are responsible for making the choice that you made. I can’t make you do anything. You get to be ultimately responsible for your choices, whether they are good or bad. But that doesn’t get me off the hook. Because I am also responsible for creating an environment where your irresponsible choice was made easier, seemed more permissible, and had encouragement from me in my place of authority. I can’t make you behave badly, but I can nudge you in that direction by what I say.

Jewish signTo those who say that our highest elected officials can’t be held accountable for the decisions and the actions of a pipe bomb suspect, I would say that they are technically correct. To those who say that blame for the slaughter of innocent Jewish worshipers can’t be placed on the shoulders of those who overtly endorse violent behavior, I would again say they are technically correct.

But those of us in positions of authority don’t get the same pass that Joe or Sue on the street get. It’s one thing for your next door neighbor to say “Any guy who can do a body slam is my kinda guy.” It’s a whole other thing for me to say something like that, for a parent to say that to a child, for a principal to say it to a student, for a pastor to say it to a parishioner or for a president to say it to a country.

Those of us in positions of authority recognize that our greatest tool is not our ability to fix a car or serve a meal or design a house. Our greatest tool is the platform we have been given to use the power of our words. Words always matter. But in our positions words can mean the difference between hope and despair. Words can make the difference between feeling a violent impulse and hearing permission to act on it.

“In the beginning was the Word…”

Don’t tell me that words don’t matter.

This is the stuff of life and death.