Worried about Ebola? I’m not judging you for that, and I’m happy to explain why I’m not judging you. But before going into detail on that, let me say that not judging you for your anxiety about Ebola is not saying it’s ok to freak out of your brainpan and act like the world is ending. There are, as many people are pointing out, horrendous things that are statistically more likely to happen to us before catching Ebola, and we still power on through life. Is it rational to be debilitatingly afraid of catching Ebola in our country? Nope. But is it kinda rational to be concerned about Ebola and the way it seems be popping up here and there? I think so.
And here’s my thinking on it:
1) Ebola is freakin’ scary. Each time I see a news story and the accompanying image is that shot of a viral strain I flash back to every zombie massacre I’ve seen in the movies. I mean, that image is “T-Cell mutants chewing on my leg” kinda freaky. It’s the same feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I hear another story about that flesh-eating bacteria that someone occasionally picks up here in America… sometimes, there’s just a lot sarcasm and not much comfort in those statistics, ya know?
2) For us in the States, Ebola is largely an unknown thing and definitely a new thing to worry about. It’s true that we normal folks don’t know a lot about Ebola; it’s not something we’ve thought about and dealt with in our lives. There seem to be worse ways to die, but none of them makes Ebola any more palatable as an potential illness in my life. We’ll have a learning curve as a society as we get more acquainted with Ebola, and we’ll calm down as we’re more knowledgable. Until then, let’s cut each other some slack.
3) When we’re dealing with things like Ebola, screw the point game. I’m not interested in what person “slammed” another or what commentator “schooled” someone on Ebola. Acting like this is a game of one-ups is not responsible or constructive. I’m all for facts, really. But when heath care workers are getting sick, and traveling, and we begin to see the stories unfold, it can be troubling and justifiably worrisome. Should we get hysterical? Of course not. Am I an idiot for having a concern about a seriously bad disease popping up around us? Sorta seems sensible to me. Will we sometimes see the authorities taking some strong steps to stay ahead of this? I hope so. We’d rip them apart if they didn’t and Ebola spread even more. I’m glad we are taking strong steps to contain this and working hard to identify Ebola cases. I’m glad we have an Ebola Czar.
So, am I ready to slip on my tin foil hat and go hide in the closet? Nope. Did I freak out and leave town when they brought an Ebola infected patient to a hospital A MILE from my house yesterday? Nope. (I mean, we already figured out years ago that the zombie-apocalypse would probably start from NIH.) But, am I going to laugh at people’s fears and concerns? Nope to that one, too. Again, no fear should be debilitating and no fear should cause us to lose hope. We should be wise and watchful, prayerful and engaged.
The pastor in me wants to remind you that fear is never the best motivation for anything. Even in life’s most difficult times our hope and our joy remain anchored in the love and goodness of God. Yes, life has its anxieties, its moments of terror and exquisite joy, the ups and the downs. Ebola is one of those anxieties, a terror and a down. Let us allow our own anxiety over Ebola to be a poignant reminder to pray for those in communities across West Africa ravaged by the disease. Let’s allow our own awakening to the seriousness of Ebola to be something that moves us to find ways to help and serve those far away neighbors.
Let’s allow one another to be concerned and maybe even a bit fearful about something as horrible as Ebola, and use that concern to become better servants to one another and the world.
It’s time for followers of Christ around the world to stand up and courageously declare that we aren’t angry and aren’t all dopey rubes who believe the internet memes and alarmist headlines that try to turn us against our neighbors! It’s time we said, “NO!” to more silly calls for boycotting companies that support the dignity and civil rights which we and our diverse neighbors all cherish! It’s time to be heard! It’s time we took a stand for the things in our personal lives and choices that matter before we lose them: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. And what about civility and honesty? We’ve been taught to be kind and to use our words to build others up! It’s time we got serious!
I’m not only not angry, I’m really quite happy. I enjoy my faith and my faith community. I enjoy exercising my right to choose a faith and pursue it, or not. And I’m happy that others have the same right. I’ve searched my scripture for a lot of years and just can’t find that elusive reference to the United States, or any Christian nation for that matter, but I keep stumbling across lots of things on my own life and choices and my responsibility to serve other people with sincere love and gentleness. It seems like there was a verse at one time telling me which political party I had to belong to in order to remain a Christian, but I can’t find it anymore. So, I’m just gonna be happy and let everyone know it! Hey people, love you!
And I’ll tell you something else while we’re at it… I love my neighbors! I love my Christian neighbors! I love my Muslim neighbors! I love my Jewish neighbors and all the other religious neighbors I have whether they are Sikh, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu or Wiccan, or two or those, or one I forgot to mention! I love my atheist neighbors, too! I love my gay neighbors and I love my straight neighbors! I love my old neighbors and the young ones! I love my male neighbors and female neighbors and trans neighbors. OMG, I love them all and I’m not going to let anyone try to represent me and say I don’t. I love them because they are amazing people, and I love them because my faith tells me to love them. I’m stuck with love! I may feel like loving less some days or caring less, but I’m screwed if I want to be hateful. Welcome to Christianity as Jesus taught it, huh? Judgement is out the door, meanness and carelessness is gone, and my right to get angry and tell someone off is finished. Distilling all the negativity and hurt down to love is rough stuff, but it’s the commitment I made at baptism.
And you know what else? I cannot believe that anyone is dumb enough to threaten their neighbors just because they believe differently from them! This is AMERICA! In America we are guaranteed the right to be
Christian the religious persuasion of our choice. If you’re silly enough to threaten and deny your neighbor their right to free choice, free thought and free speech, then please don’t be surprised when someone tries to take the same from you. And for goodness sakes, don’t use my religion to justify your ridiculous actions and words!
If you see or hear someone doing something incredibly stupid, mean, threatening or uncivil in the name of Christianity, please don’t think of me. And don’t think of Christ, either. For anyone interested in it, I made a cheat sheet on what Jesus taught about religion. If we are getting this simple set of ideas right, then we wouldn’t have all the arguments, boycotts and fights going on with our neighbors.
This is my response and repudiation of religious intolerance and meanness. This is my declaration of confusion at people using Christ to dominate, hate or condemn others. This is my way of trying to use a little light-heartedness and honesty to sincerely stake a claim on the love that Jesus taught and instituted with his life, ministry, death and resurrection.
Because of my faith: 1) I do not need to judge my neighbor, 2) I must craft my words to support and serve, 3) I am not interested in dominating (so if there really is a culture war then I’m screwed), 4) I love people because God loves people, 5) I love people because God made them to be amazing and lovable, 6) you and I are not stuck in a transactional relationship like people play at in our society, seeking personal gain… I simply owe you love and will try to pay off that debt, 7) this is how I will try to live as a pastor, a husband, a father, a brother, a son, a cousin, an uncle, a neighbor, a friend and a human being, and 8) I recognize that I’ll surely need some grace when I fail to live up to the standards my Christ taught and modeled.
Now, enough with the declarations. It’s bedtime. Thursday is done. Peace out.
God of unbridled love
and steadfast affection
for all of creation,
I desire your will in my life.
So I pray for my enemies
asking you to bless them
with peace and wisdom,
with joy and goodness.
I have in my sinfulness
offended others with my words
and hurt others with my actions.
These may think me an enemy.
Personal choices I have made,
for my own faith and vocation
with no intention to offend any,
may lead some to be my enemy.
Circumstances of my birth,
my nationality and ethnicity
being things beyond my control,
may still cause some to revile me.
For all of these I pray,
For all those I have hurt,
For those who hate my choices,
For those hating what I am.
I would beg that healing
come to any I have injured;
I pray for their peace
that they would be whole.
I pray peace for all unlike me
who dislike my choices and life,
that they would know joy
and I could better serve them.
I pray for those who hate
the very thought of who I am,
who believe me a burden,
that they might see you in me.
May we be reconciled
until no more enemies remain
and in your enfolding peace
we reflect your light. Amen.
So, yeah. That’s me in a clerical collar. I didn’t grow up in churches that used collars. In fact, we didn’t have robes for preachers or choirs either. We did have zippered robe-like things for baptisms, but I guess we didn’t find the clerical clothing awfully palatable. Last Sunday, as we set up a booth at the local farmers market to offer a blessing of the pets for all our neighbors, I wore a collar for the first time in my life.
Please don’t call me Father Todd or Padre. If you know me, then you know that I have a deep respect and sincere affection for priests of many orders whether Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopal. I also have an abiding respect for other traditions of Christianity that use the collar in various forms and ways. You can call me Vicar Todd… I kinda dig on that one.
In recent conversations and readings I have been introduced to the idea of the clerical collar as an invitation to speak with me about things spiritual. It has been regarded by some as a means by which others found them approachable and open for prayer or conversation. I’d like to think that a collar could do that for me, too.
Thinking about our Sunday morning of offering blessings for pets I must admit that I found people’s reactions as either very happy to see us or distinctly not interested in our blessing. There was very little ambivalence. We were all smiles and not at all intrusive. And we had many fun conversations with some of our Jewish neighbors at the market. I was asked twice if I was OK with blessing “Jewish dogs” and I was more than happy to bless them. Heck, I’m pretty sure I blessed at least one agnostic dog. It’s good stuff. More than one person got all smiley and affirmed the movie line/title, “All dogs go to heaven.”
I believe the blessing of the pets was a beautiful thing to do, and I’m glad we did it. I hope we do it again next year to celebrate St. Francis’ feast day and to serve our community. Not everyone wanted their pet blessed by us, and that’s OK. We were a blessing to many pets and their owners, and asked nothing in return. Good stuff.
And I didn’t feel like the fraud I feared I would see myself as when wearing the collar. That came as a bit of a surprise to me. I did my studies ahead of time and learned that many churches and traditions use the collar in many ways, so I wouldn’t be “stealing” from anyone’s rich (exclusive) claim on the collar. I’m also a very informal guy, and I wondered if the formality of a collar would seem ridiculous on me. It felt pretty OK.
I’m not sure what future the clerical collar has in my ministry and life. We’ll see how the Spirit leads. For now, I’m happy to have blessed some pets, and in the process, their humans. I’m so proud of and personally blessed by our faith community at Church in Bethesda who rallied and came together to help bless the doggies, keep the water bowl filled, over-indulge some furry friends with treats, and to offer smiles and hand shakes to our neighbors. It was a community event in every way.
I offer you a brief hymn of peace from my morning prayers… be blessed, today!
“some days i simply stop
and sing the old hymns
songs well worn
bells long rung
and i sit
and we are not
I didn’t mention it on a Sunday morning or even much in conversations with anyone until this past weekend, but this month marks our seventh anniversary at Church in Bethesda. Before moving to Bethesda I was a youth pastor, a worship AV tech, and a church planter, but this position has been my first and only position as a lead senior pastor.
There’s so much I still don’t know, and many mistakes are littered along the path of what God has done with us and through us. There have been joys and pains, disappointments and celebrations. I’ve been thinking this week about lessons I might have learned along the way in the last seven years, and I made some notes as my thoughts distilled. Here are a few things I think I’ve learned or at least begun to attempt to incorporate into my life along the way…
1) I’ve stopped ever making that dumb old joke about “working with people would be awesome, if it weren’t for the people.” In ministry circles you might here, “Well, church work is great, except for the people” or something along those lines… and invariably the person making the joke does love the people, they just have really had a hard time with relationships and interpersonal dynamics of late. Working with people is undeniably tough. Minsters get to not only see people at their best and worst, but also hear from people at their best and worst. As trying as the job can be, I’ve decided that such a joke about people has no appropriate place in my thoughts or words. I mean what does that line really mean? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone agreed with me? Or if they thought like me? Or would just do what there were told to do? Yuck. Where’s the Spirit, the creativity, the joy and growth in that?
2) I rarely say things like “the Bible says” or even use the word “Bible.” I tend these days to speak far more about “our scriptures” or even the “biblical narrative” in such and such place in scripture. If I want to mention or quote a passage, I’ll reference it’s author instead of referencing that name we print on the cover as if God approved that draft cover personally before it went into printing. The phrase “the Bible says” is misleading and is used far too hurtfully far too many times. The word Bible itself simply means paper or book, from the Greek ta biblia. It seems in Medieval times we coined the phrase Biblia Sacra, and now our English scriptures all come emblazoned with Holy Bible. God’s greatest work is in us, not on paper.
3) I can trust people. I could blame it on being Gen-X, or to listening to The Wall too many times growing up (or last week), but the bottom line is that I tend toward having “Introverted Cynic” stamped on my forehead. I often expect the worst, and like most other self-fulfilling prophecies, I can get the worst or incite the worst. But seven years of pastoring has shattered my cynical delusions. Dang it, people are so good and so beautiful, even when the hard days roll around. I can give myself to them, and it’s ok. I can give myself to you.
4) I can trust God. I have known some pain in the last seven years, and I’ve known some good times. Sort of a scriptural story, huh? Sort of a life story. There’s rarely a plot line in anyone’s personal or professional life that takes an arc of joy through only good times… instead there are challenges, obstacles and dark valleys of shadow to traverse, and through them all God is a constant of goodness.
5) If I have a blessing to give, I need to give it freely and with love. I remember singing it as a child in church classes, “He said freely freely, you have received, freely freely give / Go in my name and because you believe, other will know that I live.” The freely give part is from the semi-famous statement of Jesus in Matthew 10:8 when Jesus sends the Twelve on a very specific mission to preach in the villages of Israel. “Freely you have received, freely give.” Jesus will later expand their mission from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria and the ends of the earth, and I think the reciprocity of giving as we have received remains in effect. I need to be giving, freely sharing, reaching out.
There’s nothing earth shattering here. I wish that in seven years I might have discovered the magical way to eternally balance a church budget (or my own), or a hidden verse that could be prayed thirty times a day to cure male pattern baldness. No such luck. I think I would characterize the last seven years as a deepening as much as growth.
I know I’m different today than I was seven years ago, and I’m lead more and more to my knees with the Jesuit prayer I began using a while back to sign off on my blogs and had tattooed on my arm, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.” To the greater (multiplying) glory of God. And in that glory of God exists the blessing of the earth and all it’s people, animals and beautiful matter. Amen.