Having My Head Examined

I feel part of this journey into ministry is the act of sharing it with those around me, both demystifiying and humanizing the “transition” from laity to clergy.  It’s a fascinating process, if exhausting and bizarre.  In my tradition (United Methodist), there are a great many steps toward ordination.  One of them is quite possibly the least pleasant part:  a psychological report.

There’s, first, a battery of some four or five psychological assessments that you have to sit down and take, among them the MMPI-2.  This is 567 true/false questions meant to chart your overall psychological map (anxiety levels, relationship with your own health, cynicism, self-esteem, familial relationships, etc.).  There’s also a fill-in-the-blank test that measures your mental health by how you respond to certain prompts (“I wish my mother would…,” “My biggest challenge is…,” “When I don’t know anyone at a gathering, I…”).  And there’s another true/false set-up of another 400 or so questions, and then a 200-question test…I took most of them right in a row (in retrospect, perhaps not the wisest thing to do but I did so want them over with) and it took me about five hours to get through everything.  (One other test didn’t have to be proctored by another person, so I took that home and did it while lying on my floor and wondering whether the Church was seriously worth seven hours of intense self-examination.  So the joke some folks make about I should have my head examined for wanting to be a pastor?  It’s not funny anymore.)

On every test there is the admonition to “be honest” and not try to answer the questions the way you think the Church wants you to answer them.  You know those kinds of questions; it’s like Buzzfeed quizzes on which Avenger you are.  The ones that slant toward Iron Man are pretty obvious and you’ll pick those if you want to be Iron Man.  But the Church wants (or says it wants) who you really are, and that is TERRIFYING.  I’ve done psych evals, I’ve been through therapy; I know what it looks like when I answer certain questions certain ways.  I know that this is not the “right” answer, that this is going to be a flag of some color in my mark-up.  Perhaps the hardest part of the tests was not the taking of them but the allowance for myself to be honest about the places I’m not all that well adjusted yet.

Once you’ve done the tests, they are sent to a psychologist who reviews them and also sits down with you for two hours to get a measure of who you are when you’re on the spot.  If you think the tests are fun, than this part is a rollicking party.  Said psychologist gets to ask anything he likes—and you can refuse to answer, of course, but that is itself an answer.  Again, the hardest part for me wasn’t necessarily the conversation but resisting the very strong temptation to shape the interaction so as to make myself look tremendously healthy and awesome.

Armed with the tests and this interview, the psychologist writes up a report about you and (after talking it over with you to see if you see anything egregiously incorrect in its representation which he may or may not change) that gets sent on to the various boards of the Church for their review and then FOLLOWS YOU FOREVER.

So do other reports, so it’s not like this is the end-all-be-all description of who you are.  But it is part of it, and it is unnerving as all get-out to have a nine-page (in my case) breakdown of all your insecurities and faltering places that complete strangers get to read.  Complete strangers who get to decide whether or not to support my call to professional ministry.  Complete strangers who get first this statement of clinical detachment from who I am and why I do things and how really, I’m not so bad once you get to know me.

I didn’t react well to this report at first, as you might imagine.  How could I?  It’s a hell of a thing to feel…well, to feel so very exposed.  I realize this is a hilarious thing to come from a weekly blogger, but both you and I know that I control how much of me you see, Reader.  I don’t lie to you, but neither do I come even close to telling you the whole truth—because you don’t need to know it.  And you do the same in your life; no two people hold the same information about us.  It would be silly to try that because our spouses should never be in the same kind of relationship with us as our parents or our bosses—but our spouses should know us deeply and truly and in the places where we cringe against the light because those aren’t beautiful.

So to have Church officials see those kinds of places?  Tough.  I don’t want them to see those, I don’t want to be that kind of vulnerable because it’s so easy to see the (constructive) criticisms and hear not that I don’t do well in this area but that I am bad, that I as a person should not do ministry; having your fears and anxieties and history on display like that is hellishly intimate in a very public kind of way.

But as I was striking out against that report in anger driven by fear and frustration (about which I’ll say more the week after next—which, oh, there won’t be a post next week because I’m off to be in a wedding.  I’m sorry I almost forgot again!), I realized God sees this all the time.  God doesn’t have to wait for a typed report to tell Him that I pull away from some situations, that my anxiety levels are not healthy, that it’s far easier for me to walk away from relationship than to stay in.  He knows that; He’s always known that.

But He loves me fiercely and He calls me to His service.

Whom then shall I fear if God sees infinitely more than psychological assessments and yet still values me as His daughter?  And what right have I to believe that I am less because of these imperfections when He continually makes me more by His love?

 

 

Lord, you have examined me;
    you have known me.
You know when I rest
    and when I am active.
You understand what I am thinking
    when I am distant from you.  (Psalm 139:1-2, ISV)

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Always, Always Learning

I am super educated.

I have a master’s degree in an esoteric field that most people equate with renaissance festivals.  I’m about to go get another master’s degree because, like potato chips, you can never have just one.  On one side of my family, mine is the first generation in three to have people who stopped going to school after their bachelor’s degrees.  With this kind of education comes a horrendous bias that I fight far less often than I should.

This past Sunday I went to the graduation party of a former student of mine.  She befriended me on Facebook after her semester in my class and still maintains mine was her favorite of the whole degree and that I was her favorite teacher.  We’ve kept in a distant sort of touch as she finished her schoolwork and I was surprised but delighted at her invitation to this celebration.  I bickered with myself until I got in my car on whether or not I was going to attend, but go I did—if nothing else, I wanted the connection to my old life of academia after a long weekend of church politics and procedures.  I also remembered how much it had meant to me when some of my teachers had attended my high school graduation party and wanted to be able to be that for this student, if possible.

She lives, I discovered as I wound my way through various country roads, in what is not affectionately called trailer country, a series of broken-down double-wides huddling amidst yards full of goggle-eyed chickens and rusted-out cars and gathered detritus.  This was the type of living, more than any other, that I was taught to fear growing up.  Get educated, I was told; make something of yourself so you don’t wind up stuck here with the trailer trash.

My heart breaks, Reader, to even admit these things to myself, let alone you.  I have since known dear friends who wound up in trailers for whatever reason; I have had family who made their way in their double-wides.  But the initial prejudice remains, and I as searched my way down the row of mailboxes looking for my student’s house, I hated the running judgment in the back of my mind.

At the party—just past the tarp-covered car on cinder blocks and the knot of people in faded t-shirts chain-smoking e-cigs—I met my student, a vibrant and hilarious young woman in a bright dress who hugged me fiercely and offered me sweet tea.  She introduced me to her father as a kindred spirit of geekery and we talked for some time.  Her father is, indeed, a delightful man and we swapped favorite post-apocalyptic books and talked about the film Kingdom of Heaven and how well-choreographed the battle scenes in Troy were.  He shared his amazement at the rise of acceptance of nerd culture in the last decade and I spoke of being able to connect with my students by knowing their references.  My student introduced me to her boyfriend and we talked about Star Wars and the university where I work and being incredibly socially awkward at these sorts of blind gatherings.  My student told me of what she plans to do and how she’s waiting a year before applying to master’s degree programs and I stood in their double-wide trailer with its clean and spare decor and this bright woman figuring out her way in the world and I felt so utterly humbled.

It is so easy for me, with my alphabet soup of degrees and my history of being The Smart Kid, to assign a lack of intelligence or drive or humanity to people in the trailer country.  We as a society don’t help because we continually portray people in those situations as trailer trash, as rednecks, as all manner of insults we save for those we deem uncultured and poor in various ways.  But this—this assumption is my sin, is my moment of standing with a cup of sweet tea and hearing God ever-so-gently tell me to get off my high horse because these, too, are God’s people.

I’ve had various people speculate as to what kind of church the bishop will assign me when I finish seminary, but several have said that it had better not be rural because I would be bored out of my mind.  I need the intellectual stimulation, I am told, and that may be right.  But far be it from me to tell God that I cannot serve in trailer country because they aren’t as smart as I am, because they won’t understand my sermons, because I am in some sense too good for that kind of a congregation.  What arrogance!  What foolishness!  Did my student’s father need to have read the Iliad (in English or its original Greek) to discuss film battle scenes with me?  Did he need to understand the liberties taken with the historical accounts of the crusades to speak of the power of his favorite movie?  Of course not.

I will never say that knowing these things is bad or that education is too much; it both angers and saddens me that we in the church almost fear education sometimes in the way that we talk about our faith and its history.  I delight in having read the Iliad, delight in learning Greek, delight in telling the stories of the crusades because we should never shy away from the richness of all that has come before, both good and bad.  But my knowing these things should never, ever give me license to forget that those who don’t know—and even, though it pains me to say it, those who don’t care—are still children of God.  God loves each of us, even those in trailer country, even those with several degrees, even those with a yard full of chickens and trash.

God is for all.  God is with all.  God loves all.  And I have no right to say that I am more loved or valuable than another.  Ever.

Thank you for teaching me, student, however unintentionally.

 

 

Were you born the first Adam,
    brought forth before the hills?
Did you listen in God’s council;
    is wisdom limited to you?
What do you know that we don’t know;
    what do you understand that isn’t among us?  (Job 15:7-9, CEB)

Becoming a Born Storyteller

Oh, my dear Reader, guess what?

I preached for the very first time this past Sunday.

It’s still unutterably bizarre to say that simply because those who preach are other people.  I don’t preach.  I am not a preacher.  I felt this way when I was not a teacher but I taught, when I was not a writer but I was published, when I was not a runner but I completed a 5k, when I was not a soloist but I sang by myself in front of an audience.  It’s not so much that I don’t believe I’m capable of any of these things as I simply don’t see myself in those roles—don’t people realize I’m still an unreliable 15-year-old?  Surely I can’t be doing accomplished things; other people do accomplished things, people who have their shit together.

Except that’s not true at all; anyone who tells you they have their shit together only has their ability to lie together.  We are all of us tripping over our own sets of mismatched baggage, hoping no one else notices the duct tape on that corner where the zipper always slides open just a little bit.  So for me to say that of course I don’t preach when, in fact, I have, is kind of silly.

And Reader, you know what?  ….it was pretty awesome.

I don’t say that to ignore all the parts that weren’t awesome.  I preached three different services on Sunday and shook like a leaf through every one.  I woke up at 2:15 in the morning (the first service starts at 8) because I was wound so tightly that I simply could not continue sleeping.  My anxiety was through the roof as I imagined all the ways I would screw something up, let someone down, or—absolute worst of all—simply not say what God needed me to say and substitute my own words instead.

For certain I have much yet to learn, but I’m willing to spend a lifetime learning it because at the end of the day I was flat exhausted but content, happy to have been doing something that fit like a glove you know you’ll grow into.  And part of that was, as I said in the sermon itself, that I got to tell stories.

You may have noticed, Reader, that I love telling stories.  I’ve been telling stories since I knew how to string events together.  It’s my favorite thing, really—that and listening to stories.  I love hearing the stories that others tell of their first date, their favorite dog, the character they made up in the 6th grade, the dream they had when they were 25, the moment they found the right job, the reason they’re people of faith.  Some people are born storytellers, knowing every place to pause and all the right gestures to create a scene somehow everyone can see.  Other people grow into it, feeling out their own understandings of themselves and their narrative pace.  Still others never find their groove at all, getting lost in rabbit holes and tangents and never able to finish their tales.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have stories, though; just takes a different kind of listening.

The thing about preaching is that a huge portion of it is learning to tell stories.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been telling them for twenty years; preaching is telling stories for a new purpose to a new audience and also a fair amount of getting out of the way of the God Who has a much grander story to tell.  One of the hardest things I found when writing my sermon was letting go of the things I wanted to say.  I had all these stories I wanted to tell—but they didn’t fit, and I knew they didn’t fit, even if I couldn’t have told you what I was trying to make them fit into.  In preaching, I have to learn to craft God’s stories rather than rehearsing mine.

The constricted freedom of this blog is definitely part of learning that, Reader, and I thank you for coming along with me and for helping shape how I understand this kind of communication.  This weekly challenge to pay attention to the God-moments of my life is fabulous practice for listening, and your comments on how you connected (or didn’t) with my stories help me understand that I can’t talk just to hear myself speak.  I have to keep learning how to pull apart the extraneous bits to get at what needs to be said.

Today in the Jewish calendar is Passover, the remembrance of the exodus from Egypt when the Hebrew people were “passed over” by God’s Plague of Such Desperate Measures that Children Died from It.  It is an annual holiday of Jewish people remembering who they are and challenging themselves to be something different—seder ends with “next year in Jerusalem,” that next year the Jewish nation will be together again in the land God promised them.  I get to go to a seder tonight at a local temple (srsly, I’m super excited) and listen to their stories, to the way they tell it for the first time and the fiftieth.  And that will likely make it into a sermon some day, because their storytelling will teach me how to tell stories, making me better at that craft.

Even though I was totally born with it.

 

 

And He told them a parable… (Luke 21:29a, AMP)

People of the Books: Simple Church by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger

I read this as part of a year-long look at how we do church and I must admit, it wasn’t my favorite of the nine or so books I had to read.  The concept of this book—take a good hard look at your church in the light of Clarity, Movement, Alignment (to mission), and Focus—is solid. This would have been a really great blog post or even a short series. It would make a wonderful diagram to hang in places of meeting, colorful yet stark. The message of getting rid of things that clutter your organization is useful for things that aren’t church; this encourages you to really be aware of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re using the resources you have to do that thing.

Here, let me help you understand this book:

…the healthiest churches in America tended to have a simple process for making disciples.  They had clarity about the process.  They moved Christians intentionally through the process.  They were focused on the elements of the process.  And they aligned their entire congregations to this process.  (ix)

There.  Ignore that this completely focuses on the American church and doesn’t give any thought process to the global Church.  Ta-dah!  You literally now know the entire book; the rest of it is just data and stories to flesh out these four ideas.


But then it tries to be more than that diagram and kind of shoots itself in the foot. For starters, it’s hilarious that a book about being simple is 276 pages long (although part of that is because the font is hella big; seriously, it’s not even the large print version and yet has to be 16 point, which is just unnecessary). What’s worse is that this is trying to be an almost scientific study; much of the text length is taken up with bar graphs of their research to come up with this model. Bully for them for doing a survey and tabulating the results, but once you look at their data versus their conclusions, it’s not all that scientific. Take, for example, their graph for respondents’ level of agreement with the idea that their church limits special events (p. 217). Ignore for a second the fact that they bias their data immediately by comparing “vibrant” and “comparison” churches, which is one step short of “good” and “crap” churches and those are absolutely qualified terms with inherent connotations. Then look at the accompanying textual breakdown where they laud the “vibrant” churches for their 25% agreeing strongly compared to 6% of the “comparison.”

I’m not terribly much a scientist, but in terms of social constructs 1/4 isn’t usually overwhelming support. Also, the very next step down (“agree”) is equal between the two respondent types. What? Okay, that’s a way to say that yes, the “vibrant” churches lean more toward saying yes to this concept, but it’s not overwhelming and it’s not undeniable evidence.  This presents results with way more strength than they actually have and discusses this theory as though it’s obvious and entirely correct. It’s a model for how to consider the structure of one’s church (even though it says on page 3 that “[t]his book is not about another church model”), and I’m a little too much of an academic to accept their celebration over mostly average data (especially when they present it with simplified explanations to support their theory rather than acknowledging the complexity of their own responses).

It also gets really repetitive, as in “okay, now that you understand movement, here’s alignment.  Alignment comes after movement.  Movement was this, and alignment continues that with…” and on and on.  I promise, guys, I can keep themes and ideas in my head for several chapters at a time.  Although perhaps their target audience couldn’t—I was never entirely sure who their target audience, was, actually, since they were talking about being vibrant and aware and using very savvy churches as the good examples but then using completely outdated technological references.  (In two separate places [pp. 11, 173] Rainer and Geiger explain that a blog is a web log or online journal; this book was published in 2011, so hopefully someone bothering to read a how-to-be-relevant church book is at least aware of blogs and also by that time blogs were so much more than the diaries of the MySpace days anyway.)  And there were some bizarrely sexist moments that popped up, like this disclaimer about what Mary and Martha must have been like:  “At least, that is what our wives tell us.  We don’t claim to know about Martha firsthand.”  (p. 12)  And your wives do?  Do all women have an ESP link that I’ve missed?

There was a jarring mix of self-righteousness and apology from the authors; they laud themselves for this hilarious prank they pulled (during the freaking recession, mind you, when folks would have done an awful lot for a job) posting a fake church job that asked for people to hold conflicting theological styles of leadership.  The authors mock the people who applied for it, saying that they were obviously not committed to being true leaders for Christ.  What?  A) That’s a dick move, which I realize is scandalously strong language but I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hate pranks and there were certainly better ways these guys could have proved their point without lambasting unsuspecting people.  B)  Turning around and putting that in their book, making money off of the idea that they somehow have a better understanding of what it is to be a focused Christian, is just annoying.  You don’t get the Jesus prize for holding to your ideological tenets, sorry.

But up against that is an almost constant apology for being academic in the way they do their research.  Christians aren’t stupid, guys, and if you’re going to make sweeping assumptions about what church should look like, then I want all the data you can give me.  Own your work.  I’ll skim what I need to.

I appreciate the examination of a lot of business models to stress the efficacy of simplicity (Apple, Gap, and Google are all mentioned) but that’s a double-edged sword—the Church isn’t actually a business, and if you’re saying it should be then we have an entirely different conversation we need to have.  And even in the comparisons there was a lot of vagueness (who is “we?” what is “growth” for you?  How do you understand that particular anecdote in relation to your main point? When you talk about “this word translates,” from which language do you mean?).

Good to skim.  Definitely good to take with a large grain of salt.  Stick with the opening infographic.

 

Rating:  2.5/5 stars     

Advent, Week Two: Masters in this Hall

I hope to goodness your week has been more fun than mine, Reader, and I thank you for your patience since this is a later-than-usual post.  Let’s listen to Christmas music together; hopefully that will help with pep and zest and hope and such.

Masters in this Hall (also known as “Nowell, Sing We Clear”) is not one of the well-known carols, I admit, but I’ve been pretty stuck on it ever since hearing the tune on a Celtic Christmas CD in middle school.  Then my choir sang it in college and, well, it’s been rolling around my head ever since.  It’s very bouncy, which may be part of the problem.  What else do you expect from a late medieval French dance tune, though?

For me it might be more fun to sing than hear because you get that sort of drinking-song vibe going and you get to do a lot of jovial belting.  The song is also like O for a Thousand Tongues in that there are elebenty billion verses even though most people don’t sing all of them; if you want to tell the whole story, it’s there for you to do so.

Because this song is a story.  The lyrics—whether of the short version or the long one—are the narration of a shepherd who has burst into a hall somewhere (presumably in England, since it was written by an English dude and they always write their music as though Jesus was born in Devonshire) and is telling the story of the shepherds coming to the nativity.

Note a few things, Reader.  Firstly, the tune is medieval but the lyrics are not, for all the fact that words like “hind” (a term for a female deer, pretty much out of use by the 1870s) and “holpen” (a Middle English past-tense version of “help”) and “nowell” (another Middle English borrowing, itself an Anglo-Normanization of the Old French “nouel”—why yes, I do have a tab of the Oxford English Dictionary open, how kind of you to notice) are used.  We like the folksiness of oldey-timey stuff, and our generation isn’t the first in that preference by any means.  Lots of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries romanticized the Middle Ages (looking at you, Alfred, Lord Tennyson) and felt that borrowing a sense of honor and chivalry was a great idea, especially when placed in the Christian narrative for this most grand and chivalrous Lord of all.

Secondly, the relationship of this.  It’s a shepherd announcing the news of Christ to masters, and while I get that I just said this isn’t truly medieval, let me explain why that would not work.  Shepherds have never been the creme de la creme of, well, anywhere, or any time.  In both the Middle Ages and the time of Jesus, they were pretty near the bottom rung of society, homeless vagabonds hired on to take care of property usually not theirs.  It’s a continual laugh that so much of the imagery of the Bible is pastoral (in the original sense involving pastures, not the clerical office sense) when nobody of any rank or awareness would get caught hanging out with shepherds.  On top of this messenger being a shepherd, he’s announcing this whole song to masters of a hall.

The late Middle Ages had less of a hall fetish than the early Middle Ages did, what with the Normanization of the Angles and Saxons and such (think Beowulf and the hall imagery there), but there was still a very clear distinction that a master in his hall was not someone to mess with.  It was certainly not someone to burst in on and announce this whole crazy scheme of talking to deer and fawning over a baby who’s supposedly God.  Also, it would be terribly unwise for a shepherd—most likely not rich since he’s still a shepherd, which is not a terribly well-paid profession—to tell these masters—comparatively rich folk—that God has come to “raise the poor” and “cast down the proud.”  (Unless you change the lyrics to make them more palatable and less, well, impacting.)

Which is kind of why I love the song—this shepherd has to tell his story.  This shepherd is so freaking exited about actually having seen the human God that he goes over the sea and sings this whole thing to these masters, speaking of the “good news” of God’s Presence.  “Masters, be ye glad!” he exhorts them.  “God is here!  Christmas is here!  No one should be sad!”

Which, while we’re still here in Advent and while we’re still in the mortal world, isn’t easy to hear, but this singer is just brimming with joy.  Societal expectations be damned, he has seen Christ, has gone to the manger with the rest of the shepherds and been told by Mary herself that here is the Savior, here is the King.  No one should be sad when that has happened, no one who hears that could think it anything other than gospel—literally “good news.”  (“Gospel” is a modernization of “godspel,” an Old English rendering via Latin of the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, euaggelion, from which we get “evangelist,” or messenger of good tidings.  I have no idea why I’m so keen to get my linguist on tonight, Reader, but I’m really glad you’re sticking with me for it.)

It’s funny that this is now usually a tune taken on by massive choirs showing off their skills and sound considering it’s written as this single shepherd addressing a panel of his societal betters.  But it’s one of those Christmas songs that celebrates here is the good news, the great news, the overwhelming news that must be shared no matter the costs and no matter the obstacles because Christ is born, God is here.  We sing loudly that now all people on Earth are helped.  “Wondrous joy had I,” says the singer.

May we all find joy that wondrous this season.

 

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.  For this day in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (the Messiah).”  (Luke 2:10-11, AMP)

 

On My Own Four Wheels

The wind today in the Land of Pilgrims is ferocious, Reader.  The remnants of a storm that woke me with insisting fingernails of rain tapping my window at 5 this morning sweep through the valleys between buildings on this campus, whirling up the tower past my office window.  It whistles through the top notch I can never close because I can’t quite reach it.

It is a day in which I’m very glad I’ll be getting in my car and driving home for a little while before a concert.

This has not been the week I planned, not at all.  For the first time in a while I had several evenings in a row without meetings or obligations, evenings I planned to spend blissfully curled up with my laptop while I cursed my characters in this first week of NaNoWriMo.  I did end up getting to do some of that, but I also got to spend several days carless and worrying about repairs.

I live in a small city, Reader, where there is public transportation but it’s not the most efficient or user-friendly.  It is not an automatic assumption here like it is in New York or Chicago or London.  This is still very much car country, and as a single person who lives alone and has a pretty crazy schedule I rely very heavily on my car.  No bus gets to all the places I go, so when I don’t have a car, I lose a lot of freedom.

By freedom, I mean independence.

How American a statement!  I remember my father’s father adamantly insisting he could drive in his later years even though he was going blind and deaf and had a heart that never decided on a regular rhythm.  He knew that losing his license would make him, culturally speaking, baggage; an old leftover ferried around by his family, a burden, an afterthought.  He was an incredibly independent and stubborn man and he fought that loss until the doctors themselves said no more, we cannot allow you on the roads.  It was a point of some soreness for the rest of his life—which was a little less than a decade.

No one plans for their car to fall apart.  Mine is old (but don’t tell her) and has certainly been ill-used.  This summer alone we travelled together some 9,000 miles in about 4 1/2 months; she has been put through her paces, as have I, and it’s showing in some of the repairs I have to do.  But when they crowd together, demanding to be heard in clanking rumbles of discontent; when the repairman say we will have to do this, and this, and this, and this…Reader, I get so frustrated.

Part of it is that I am frustrated I can’t fix this myself.  I pride myself on being able to do little fix-its and delight in around-the-house type jobs.  I like knowing how things are put together; when I was a kid, I would exasperate my mother by pulling apart her pens to see if they all had the same pieces and then putting them back together with mixed success, depending on whether or not I’d lost the spring in the deconstruction process.  She started using a lot more pencils until I was old enough to be able to handle the concept of keeping all the parts.

But I don’t understand cars, and specifically I don’t understand my car.  I haven’t had the chance to pull up in a driveway and pop the hood to just explore the engine; I haven’t taken the time to crawl underneath with a book or a friend and memorize the chassis layout.  It irks me, Reader, that I fit the stereotype of the clueless female who walks into a mechanic’s shop and has no idea why there’s an upper and lower engine mount.

It’s also frustrating because, for the several days that I didn’t have my car, I had to rely on other people.  The horror!  The outrage!  The humility of it!  Oh, Reader, how amazing it is to see all the places in my life that I still stay, “No, I’ve got this, I’m okay” even when asking for help is the most logical thing to do.  One of my coworkers lives literally across the street from me; she was more than okay with ferrying me around for a few days, especially since the only places I went were work, home, and the shop.  I’ve no doubt that it would have been a bit different if I had had several meetings I needed to attend, but even that could have worked.  After all, have I not done the same for her in the many times she’s had car trouble?  I didn’t think anything of it because I understood that this was something she needed and I was in a position to help her out; no worries.

Yet when the positions are flipped, ALL THE WORRIES.

Oh, how much I want to know everything and be able to do it all by myself, to walk around on my own two feet and drive on my own four wheels and need nothing and no one.

Until the wry voice of God whispers, Even Me?  I was not created to know everything; I was not made to do all things by myself.  Even Jesus wasn’t master of all trades; He was a carpenter’s Son Who wasn’t as good at fishing as Peter or at accounting as Matthew.  And that was fine, because He was good at His thing—He was very good at His thing, thankfully.  But His thing wasn’t every thing, and if freaking Jesus didn’t do everything, what makes me think I can or should?

No, little one, it is grace to be in relationship with others.  (Even though it’s really great to have my car back.)

 

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  (Luke 10:33-34, ESV)

People of the Books: The John G. Lake Sermons on Dominion over Demons, Disease, and Death ed. by Gordon Lindsay

I found this odd duck in a neighborhood garage sale last summer and, surprising even myself, decided I definitely needed a book of sermons for a quarter.  The purchase was partly to start expanding my understanding of sermons; I know medieval sermons and 21st century sermons, but not much in between.

This was originally printed in 1949, so it’s definitely in between.  John G. Lake (of whom I’d never heard anything before picking this up) was a preacher in the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s.  He apparently left quite an impression, considering he has his own ongoing ministry organization, mostly due to his healing ministries.  The editor of this volume himself says he was “dying from ptomaine poisoning” and was cured by reading typed sermons of Dr. Lake (“Dr.” being an honorary rather than degree-bound term).

And that’s the theme of this book—all are sermons of Lake’s describing how it works that we can, via sermon and prayer, heal people like God did, like the apostles did, in miraculous ways.  And Reader, I have no idea what to do with that.

Having come through a country church and known some country church people, I’m not unfamiliar with the concept of faith healing.  I know a woman who believes God made one of her legs grow so that she wouldn’t be off-kilter anymore, and another who had God heal her crippling arthritis.  And yes, I know well the story of the man Jesus told to get up and walk, right alongside the promise that we who follow will do even greater things.

But Reader, I doubt.  Part of it is having grown up with the charlatans that John Oliver so rightly tore apart on his show; part of it is being related to a doctor and a bunch of science types who understand the incredible complexity of the human body.  It doesn’t make sense to me that these kinds of healings are claimed miracles—even the illness of the editor is basically just food poisoning that can mostly be taken care of by being sure to flush your system out with lots of fluids, so who’s to say that’s not what happened rather than some magical sermons?

And that’s the thing that stops me cold—somewhere in the basic layouts of my subconscious, I apparently think of miracles as magic, even though I know that I believe in the concept of miracles and I 100% believe God is at work in our lives every day.  So why not here?  Why can I not attribute this kind of thing to His doing?  Lake himself goes to great pains to tie together belief in God and belief in healing ministries:

Healing is simply the salvation of Jesus Christ, having its divine action in a man’s flesh, the same as it had its divine action in a man’s soul, or in the spirit of man.  (17)

God hates sin and God equally hates sickness, for sickness is incipient death.  (23)

We used to have a little Englishman in our evangelistic party who would say to the people when they were praying, “Now let us stop praying for five minutes and BELIEVE GOD, and see what will happen.”  (28)

About the hardest thing to get hold of is a good old-fashioned Christian who believes God.  (40)

So where is my belief?  Where is my understanding that God can do whatever He wants to do?  Part of it is stopped back in that place of logic when Lake discusses his flat-out ban on medicinal cures as a sign of a lack of faith:

Drugs have always been the unbeliever’s way of healing.  God always was and is the real Christian’s remedy.  (43)

I would argue there are many things that require drugs, but then is that lack of faith?  And what of how to be healed—is it a matter of asking hard enough?  That can’t be, because there are so many who pray so earnestly and have nothing.

Healing is not always obtained by saying prayers.  It is obtained by obeying God.  (46)

“When a man’s spirit and a man’s body are filled with the blessed presence of God, it oozes out of the pores of your flesh and kills the germs.”  (108)

Men have assumed that it is necessary to persuade God to heal them.  This we deny with all emphasis.  God has manifested through Christ, His desire to bless mankind.  (132)

That is the secret of Christ’s salvation; that is the secret of Christ’s healing.  It is not trying to get healed.  It is trusting Him for it, and believing Him when He says He will do it, and the mind relaxes and the soul comes to rest.  (36)

That’s a little contradictory, then, because Lake’s stance is that it’s not about pushing God to do what we want but it is also about being what God wants.  I’m confused, because we can’t earn grace or healing; how then to explain the way some are not healed?  Lake doesn’t really give a final answer on that, and that may be because this is a collection of sermons rather than a full write-up of his understandings.

There are many things Lake says that I totally agree with and appreciate, like the idea that sickness as God’s will is a ridiculous concept:

They came to a man’s bedside and said, “Your sickness is the Will of God.”  Well, it is the work of the devil, and in the ultimate sense every death that ever took place was the work of the devil.  (68)

And that the Church has to broaden whom She lays all of her hats on:

The Modern Church must come to a realization of other ministries in the Church besides preaching.  In the Modern Church the preachers is the soul and center and circumference of his church.  The Primitive Church was a structure of faith composed of men and women, each qualifying in his or her particular ministry.  (127)

But Lake lived in such a different time, a different world.  I was prepared to read this and get rid of it, but I find I may be going over and over it for some time to come as I think about how I balance the rationality of being human and the absolute freedom of God.

 

Rating:  3/5 stars, since it inspired so much thought