Spills

In August 2000 I had a catastrophic bicycle accident (see I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail). I was months later diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that eventually led to my early retirement on disability. I was rummaging around in the files and found this piece I wrote for Colleague after the crash. It’s called Spills:

In the movie Regarding Henry, the main character, Henry, who is played by Harrison Ford, is a cutthroat New York lawyer and general all–around stinker. He’s cheating on his wife with someone at work, his business ethics are shaky at best, and he’s a merciless martinet with his young daughter. When she spills her juice at the table he flies off the handle at her. But Henry’s life changes when he goes out for cigarettes to the corner store and interrupts a robbery. The nervous robber shoots him in the head with a Saturday Night Special and Henry fights for life and later, for recovery to his old life. He’s also lost his memory and had a personality change. At his first meal at home after his discharge from rehab his daughter again spills her juice, and she immediately recoils in anticipation of his outburst. “That’s alright, honey,” her father tells her, “I do it all the time.” Whereupon Henry knocks over his own glass: “See!”
When my kids were toddlers such spills were commonplace at our table, and we did our best to be patient. “Don’t cry over spilled milk” is part of every parent’s lexicon. The word spill means “to cause or allow (a substance) to run or fall out of a container.” By extension it came to mean to fall. Last summer I had a spill and went over the handlebars of my road bicycle. As a result of that spill, I separated my right shoulder, broke a rib, and sustained a traumatic brain injury that left my wits addled for a number of months. Because of my separated shoulder the first few times I tried to pour juice or put milk on my cereal I spilled it all over the kitchen counter. It gave me new empathy with what my children were facing as toddlers.
Life is a series of spills. Like Henry, we do it all the time. We run or fall out of our container, and it makes a mess that we then have to clean up or fix. The conventional wisdom is to not cry over spilled milk, and to pick yourself up after a spill, and I think from a human point of view that is exactly what one should do. So I plan to get back on my bicycle as soon as it, and I, are ready, whenever that is.
But from another point of view perhaps we should cry over our spills, if we can see in them the larger spilled-ness of our lives. The Christian faith knows that we humans are never quite what God intended us to be. To carry our earlier image of the spilled life, we have fallen outside our containers. We may not be empty, but we are not as full as God wants us to be. Ironically, in Christian theology we call this “the fall” and it is not just about our ancestral relatives in the Garden of Eden, but a truth about human life in general. We are perennially and constitutionally estranged from God, from one another, and from our natural surroundings. As one of our prayers says, “we worship ourselves and the things we have made.”
And so human life is a series of spills and perhaps God does cry over our spills, not over spilled milk, but the kind of wasteful spills that we know, relationships gone sour, talent squandered, potential wasted and the fearsome losses of war. The Christian answer is not then just to pick yourself up, because the truth is we can’t pick ourselves up. There are spills you can fix, be they milk on the counter, or the bruises and fractures of a fall from a bike, but there are spills from which we never recover.
The fixing must come from God’s side. And the good news we preach is that God does this. God not only cries over our spills, he wants to fill us so that we are whole again. At baptism we pour water into the font and the child is washed and cleansed as a sign and seal of the new life that God promises to pour out to us. And one of the things we are demonstrating when we participate in that symbolic action is this: that although the child is herself a miracle, a gift of God, she will need the gifts God gives to have the new life God wants for her. At the Lord’s Supper we take the cup and fill it and recite the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Drink this all of you, it is my blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
We are close to the heart of things in these gestures, when we can realize that in Christ God pours out his own life, that we might have life, and have it fully. That’s a great paradox: human life spills, but God fills, spilling his life so that we might have life and have it in abundance; giving us his life-giving Spirit even as we fall out of our containers and face the potential and sometimes very real emptiness of being human.
We can’t fill our own containers, only God can do that. He’s made us to be filled, and “our hearts are restless until we find rest in Thee,” until we realize we cannot do it ourselves, only God can. Henry only becomes lovable when he accepts his newfound vulnerability. It’s a hard lesson. Some of us must learn it again and again. And it goes clean contrary to the conventional wisdom of the world, which is that to win you must be strong and tough and self-sufficient, needing nothing or no one. But in fact we do need others and we do need God. Because life is a series of spills, and in them God gives us opportunity to come to terms with our need for him, and to accept the life he gives us as a gift, when we stop trying to manufacture life for ourselves without him. So don’t worry so much about your everyday spills. They are part of life. Hey, I do it all the time.

 

The Tools of a Learned Ministry

Kim Fabricus’s letter commenting on the books on Richard Bauckham’s bookshelves inspired me to dig up this piece I wrote about my books for Colleague in 2000 called The Tools of a Learned Ministry:

I love books. I come by it honestly since I am the child of librarians. My mother had a library degree from Columbia and over the years worked successively at the New York Public Library, the General Theological Seminary, and the Wandell Middle School in Saddle River, New Jersey. My father, who was somewhat of a vocational dilettante, also had a library degree from Columbia and worked for a time at the General Theological Seminary. My mother’s 89 year old sister Grace, whom we call Aunt Tia, is also a librarian and just recently retired from running the library at her retirement community in Sun City, Arizona. My big sister has a library degree from Rutgers and is an archivist at the John F. Kennedy library in Boston. I like to say that I am the black sheep in the family, because I went into the ministry.

I grew up around books. Other families had wallpaper, we had shelves of books covering our walls.In the summers I spent countless hours at my mother’s school library in the stacks, finding treasures to read. I thought every family went to the public library on Saturday mornings to get their books for the week.

As a young adult I came back to the Christian faith largely through books. I met several of my guides and mentors only through books:Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, P.T. Forsyth, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Frederick Buechner, to name but a few. In the pages of their books it seemed that God was real and alive, and so he became for me.They sent me back to the Book where the story behind all their stories is told.

When I am in a discussion I usually have a book to recommend, and, consequently, I have been accused of holding to a belief in “salvation by bibliography.” I plead, at least in part, guilty.

When I entered ministry I was delighted to be in a profession among whose tools were books. I recall going into pastor’s studies and just staring at the books.Look at all the books! Shelves of commentaries, big reference works, multi-volume works of theology. I couldn’t believe anybody could be so blessed as to work in a room surrounded by all those books. Not just to read, but to touch and look at, for books have a kind of talismanic power just by their presence in a room.

In seminary we young theologs used to love to visit pastors and admire and covet their books. Was it too much to hope that someday we would have books like that? Well,it has taken twenty-five years, but now I am one of those pastors. I have a whole roomful of books. Fred Buechner calls his library “The Magic Kingdom,” and that is how I feel about mine.I have accumulated my many books over the years, writing my name and the year of purchase in the flyleaf, and so they are a record of my interests over time. They tell a story. For example, at some point I stopped buying ministerial “how to” books because I guess I felt I knew “how to.” I went through a Henry Nouwen stage and then suddenly in the 80’s,it stopped. I have a stack of books on the arms race from the late seventies. I have at least one commentary on every book of the Bible. I have old books from the eighteenth and nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I have a Shaker Bible given to me by an antique dealer in my first church.I have an antique copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs that belonged to a friend’s grandfather, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century. I have books of poetry and prayers, dictionaries, handbooks, worshipbooks and novels.

These books are my tools and my friends. Some I use all the time; others I haven’t opened in years. Some are like youthful infatuations, purchased with high hopes, but the pretty cover promised more than could be delivered and disappointment soon set in. There are some I will never read. Others I read again and again. I have over a dozen books by P.T. Forsyth, most of them out of print,that I have collected at used bookstores and through the mail. Sometimes I will pull one of these off the shelf and read just a few pages

I’ve noticed a strange thing over the last few years. During that time I have been privileged to know and work with a number of young clergy and seminarians, men and women. Most of them are gifted, hard–working, dedicated and capable. There is a lot to like about them. But one thing is noticeably missing.They don’t love my books.They don’t stare at them, or touch them, or covet them.They don’t even notice them when they come into my study. They are more likely to notice and comment on my computer.

This worries me. Can the church maintain a “learned clergy” without instilling a love of books? Is it possible that books are really passé as some say? That in the future the digital age will restrict if not eliminate their use? I hope not. Because books are more than mere information. Throughout my life they have always been my companions and friends. They can invoke wonder and create mystery. They can witness to faith. They are grist for my sermonic mill. But they are more than that. They fuel not just my work but my imagination. I wouldn’t be the minister I am without them. I wouldn’t be who I am without them.

Churches with Adjectives


I’m against churches with adjectives. Years ago, when I was a pastor in Maine, I would sometimes drive by a church with a big sign announcing the church to be a “Bible-believing, fundamentalist, conservative, born again church.” I supposed they subscribed to the notion of truth in advertising, but that sign always bothered me. It wasn’t just the coded message that here was a church different from my own. The sectarian specifics of that sign offended my sense of the catholicity of the church. Why not just be the church without all the adjectives?

We are no better in the United Church of Christ. We have Peace and Justice churches and Open and Affirming churches. I am against these on principle, though I cannot imagine a church of Jesus Christ that isn’t for peace and justice, and who are we not to be welcoming to someone for whom Christ died? I remember when General Synod declared the UCC a Just Peace church. I thought at the time, what could this possibly mean? We clearly were not one of the historic peace churches, like the Society of Friends and the Mennonites. My father was a Quaker, and I know what being a peace church has meant, so what would Reinhold Neibuhr or Roger Shinn think of their beloved UCC saying it is a peace church? Perhaps it depends upon what “is” means.

There are other problems with adjectives for churches. I worry that declaring such adjectives betrays self-righteousness or pride, and offers a way to distinguish ourselves from other Christians, much as the Maine church with the big sign did. And the votes are suspect. Some congregations I know voted unanimously to be “Open and Affirming”, but the truth is, that the dissenters either quietly left the congregation or kept their doubts to themselves for fear of being called homophobes. Unanimous votes always make me nervous.

Shouldn’t the church be the one place where people who bitterly disagree can come together? I remember Will Campbell serving the Lord’s Supper to the Ku Klux Klan during the Civil Rights struggle, because he believed Jesus’ table was big enough for even them. I know that their sin and mine are only different in degree and not in kind, and the blood of Christ’s cross can cleanse us both. Flannery O’Connor has a short story in which her vision of the judgment shows the good people of the church coming up the aisle and even their virtue is burned away. Is it possible that our adjectives will need to be purged before we can all join the great congregation? We’ll be in line right behind those folks from Maine waiting for our adjectives to burn away with theirs.

So I’ve assiduously kept the adjectives away from the church where I have been pastor for nearly two decades. “United” is hard enough to live up to, but it is the “of Christ” that I have tried to have as the prevailing and controlling modifier for our life and mission. So here comes my mission chair with an enthusiastic proposal from the UCC that we become a Jubilee 2000 church. He wants to take it to the annual meeting. I’m between a rock and a hard place, because I think Jubilee 2000, a proposal to forgive third-world debt, is just the kind of thing the church should be for, and my mission chair is a great guy with faithful enthusiasm for mission which I don’t want to dampen in any way. So I sputter through all the above objections to a church with adjectives. “Can’t we just be the church?” I say. “Such resolutions don’t cost us anything,” I say. “They lead to resolutionary Christianity instead of revolutionary Christianity,” I say.

He sees my point, but at annual meeting we vote anyway and it passes, you guessed it, unanimously. So now we are a Jubilee 2000 church. Oh, and while we’re at it, we are also a Habitat for Humanity covenant church, and a Stephen Ministry congregation. We’re pretty proud of it, actually.

Lord, have mercy.

(This first appeared in Colleague,Vol. XXI, No. 3, May, 2000)