Thomas

I am a recovering cynic.

I can admit it to myself, now that I have some clarity about my professional future. The decision to move to Dakota Wesleyan University this coming June is a huge one for me, but also the right one. And now that the weight of uncertainty has been lifted off me, I can see that I had been traveling down the dark road of cynicism.

That’s not to say it wasn’t an honest path. I have blogged and written for several years about the dangers inherent in the new systems adopted in my current annual conference, and in many others across the country. In my observation, those dangers have manifested themselves in both administrative chaos and a loss of collective identity, clouding not only our mission, but also our very way of relating to one another.

But just because something is true doesn’t make it good mental fodder. And as I prepare to leave for a new ministry setting, I realize that, while I still think my observations are true, the way I held them was toxic.

Somewhere along the way, I became a cynic. I reacted to the systemic problems I saw by assuming that everyone involved (myself included) is caught up in self-interest. I gave up on people. I lost hope.

But, as he has done in many other ways, Thomas brought me back into the light.

Last week’s lection belonged to John 20, the story of Thomas and his doubts. I have always hated that this reading appears the Sunday after Easter. Perhaps it’s inevitable, though. The disciple known mostly for his doubts about the resurrection gets assigned to a week in which few people show up to church, and probably fewer pay attention.

But Thomas is the most important disciple in my spiritual journey. We forget that, when Jesus set his eyes on Jerusalem for the Passover, Thomas was the one who urged the other disciples to go with their Lord, despite the dangers. “Let’s go,” he said, “so that we may die with him.” Loyalty and courage. That’s what I want to be known for.

I even count Thomas’ famous doubt to his credit. He has the intellectual honesty to stand on what he sees, despite the pressure of his friends. He was not one for cheap buy in, which never leads to anything good anyway.

Thomas was a skeptic. He needed to see the story, not just hear it. I can relate entirely.

But this year, I see something new in Thomas’ story. Although he did not believe his friends, neither did he stop believing in them. He did not write them off. The next time they met, Thomas was still with them. If he had not been, he might never have seen Jesus alive again.

Throughout my adult life, I have clung to Thomas as my patron saint. I have questioned, doubted, been skeptical, asked questions. I think that is a part of my calling from God, and I will continue to do so.

This year, however, Thomas says something a little different to me. He reminds me to keep the faith, to not lose heart, to not give up too soon. To be a skeptic, but not give in to cynicism.

That may not be an easy path, but it’s one much better lighted. And so far, the going is infinitely more pleasant.

Some Kitty to Love

When our pet of 13 years died last fall, we mourned for weeks before adopting a new one. When Buster, the replacement cat, was lost to a freak accident during a thunderstorm, we mourned again. But the boys bounced back quickly this time, and over the weekend we adopted a rescue kitten from a friend.

Our newest Van Meter, maybe the most awkward yet.

Our newest Van Meter, maybe the most awkward yet.

What we did not expect was the arrival of the mama cat along with the kitten. But when the carrier door opened, out stepped a full grown female, who immediately parked under the couch and decided she was home. Within five minutes, they boys had named the grown cat Lucy and promised to take good car of her and the kitten, now dubbed Emmett. The car drove away before I could finish mentally adding up vet bills.

It took several minutes before I finally got a good look at Lucy the Mama Cat. When I did, I saw perhaps the most awkward animal I have ever encountered. Her body is snow white, except for two patches of gray fur on her forehead. Her tail is completely gray and skinny as a pencil. She looks like a barn cat wearing a badly tattered arctic fox suit.

And she was now mine. I had to feed her and care for her. I would have to take her to the vet and clean out her litter box. No matter how awkward she looked–and she looks very, very awkward–she was now family.

But that’s the way it works, I suppose. You don’t get to choose family, and often you wouldn’t if you had the chance. The same can be said for classmates and coworkers and people you ride the bus with. Oftentimes, it’s the most awkward among these who attach themselves to you, who crawl under your couch and refuse to leave you in peace.

If God asked me, I would give him a list of those, human and feline, who I would just as soon not share the planet with. I have my own problems to deal with, thank you very much, and it’s hard enough to love those I have a natural affection for. I doubt very much that God would care in the least. He’d send me on my way and I’d have to figure out how to make the best of it.

Lucy has claimed her space

No, not dead. Just rolling around for fun–and why not?

So we have Lucy the Cat, who now is family. And I have to learn to love her. Experience tells me that I probably will, but also that it may take some work.

The Monday after Easter brings with it a healthy dose of reality along such lines. The pageantry and lofty worship services are over. Christ is risen. Now what?

Now we get back to the work of loving our neighbors, regardless of what they look like or how they come to us. We get busy caring for those who claim part of our space as their own. Like it or not, that’s the work we’ve been given. Whatever walks out of that carrier, we’ve got to find a way to love it.

And if we’re smart, we do so by remembering that we are the awkward ones too, and that somebody along the way has done the same for us.

Celebrating Spiritual Oaks

With the hectic schedule of spring, I almost missed the fortieth anniversary of one of the most unbelievable events to occur in my lifetime—and along with it a spiritual discipline that is in danger of extinction.

Forty years ago this month, Henry Aaron hit is 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time list despite racial slurs and death threats from those who, at the far edge of the civil rights era, still clung to the principle of African American inferiority.

Even for the most colorblind of pure baseball fans, Aaron’s feat was hard to fathom. The Babe was one of the most colorful figures in American pop-culture. He hit 60 home runs in 1927—more than any other team in the league. He promised home runs for sick kids during hospital visits. In one of the most hotly debated moments in baseball lore, he allegedly called his shot in a 1932 World Series game. Babe Ruth was—and in some ways remains—larger than life.

Contrast that with Hank Aaron. A quiet man who shied away from attention and controversy, He did not court stardom like Ruth. He stayed in the background among his own peers, lacking the flash of Willie Mays or the emotional displays of Mickey Mantle. Aaron never hit more than 47 home runs in a season. His totals seemed to sneak up on the baseball world, which made his overshadowing of the Babe all the more difficult for some fans to take.

Consistency, it seems, is rarely the path to popularity.

When applied to baseball, this principle means little. It is, after all, only a game. But when we apply it to Christian leadership, some sinister properties begin to emerge.

In my tribe of United Methodist clergy, the pressure to be a superstar is enormous. Our administrative leaders have become increasingly enamored with numbers over the past few years—particularly those that indicate an uptick in religious market share. “Growth” as defined by professions of faith and worship attendance is the altar at which we pastors pray as we consider our next appointments. Although its application is often arbitrary, the stated principle is clear: unless you can produce numbers that trend upward, you are not worth much as a pastor.

On one hand, I understand the thinking behind this. A big part of our job is to open doors through which people can encounter Jesus. I have known clergy who are unskilled or just plain lazy in that effort, and the cry for greater accountability often points to those few.

But a larger number of my coworkers spill more than a little blood in the pursuit of faithfulness. They work for less than money than those with similar education. They sacrifice daily for the sake of the mission. Many of them have been doing so for years and continue to do so, despite the dearth of encouragement that has accompanied the rise in the cult of growth.

How do we value such people, who sow the seeds of God’s love despite the rocks and weeds and birds that stand in the way of a visible harvest? Perhaps, as an institution, we don’t.

But we should.

A few years ago, I heard Richard Foster speak about maturing as a Christian. He brushed aside the quick programmatic approaches that are the backbone of many congregations.

“It takes 8 weeks to grow a squash,” he said. “It takes 80 years to grow an oak. But which one would you rather be?”

The interviews with Henry Aaron last week focused mostly on the moment of April 8, 1974, when he hit an Al Downing pitch out of the park for his 715th home run. But that moment would never have happened without years of hard work and consistent play. Such an oak as Hammerin’ Hank didn’t grow overnight.

Neither does a lasting follower of Jesus.

So while the world—and too often the contemporary church—continues to flit about from superstar to superstar, this seems like a good time to celebrate the less spectacular among us. It’s a good time to say thank you to those whose mark is not momentary success, but sustained excellence. Such are the people who make spiritual oaks possible.

What to Do?

“Knowing what I know, what will I do?”

This question, posed by Stephen Garber in Visions of Vocation, has been rolling around in my head for several days. It is at once freeing and paralyzing.

Garber uses his question to help shape a larger discussion of vision, ethics,

The Lincoln Memorial, which we visited over spring break, reminds us of someone for whom knowledge and action required the utmost courage.

decision, and action. He suggests that almost every great story imposes the dilemma on its characters. Some wrestle with the responsibility of knowing, some with choosing, some with putting choice into action. Regardless of the angle of engagement, every enduring character must deal with with the question.

Knowing what I know, what will I do?

My favorite recent encounter with this dilemma comes from Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The story tells of two doctors, one a world-class surgeon and one the self-proclaimed worst doctor in the country, trying to choose their paths in war-ravaged Chechnya. The moral landscape of their communities has collapsed through years of oppression, torture, and deprivation. Their own lives have been wrecked by family conflict and desperate choices. How do they bind up such deep wounds, both in themselves and in those left in their country?

I could go on, as any good bookworm would. Stories like this give us the chance to examine areas of humanity and morality to depths we don’t often explore. They allow us to talk about right and wrong and love and heartbreak in general terms. The fact that the events happen to characters and not to us shields us from the blast of what we might discover.

But stories like Marra’s also call us to account, particularly in terms of knowing. His characters struggle with vision. They fight against internal and external forces in an effort to see the truth of their situation, cruel as it may be. Only when their vision clears do they finally see and act.

It makes me wonder about our own blind spots. We often barricade ourselves against what we don’t want to know, whether in terms of politics or finances or our loved ones’ behavior. It is often easier not to see, because to see might mean to know, and to know conjures up the nagging question once more. Knowing what I know, what will I do?

When I think about this in terms of my own professional world of church and academics, I sometimes get frustrated–and I think with good reason. These institutions behave as institutions, at times more concerned with self-protection than with mission. Part of my calling as a writer and a pastor is to see things that others do not and to point it out in a helpful way. Sometimes, that’s with the fervor of a prophet. Sometimes with the nuance of a storyteller. Sometimes, neither method seems to break through.

Still, for all the faults with me and with the institutions in which I live, I think the ideals of courageous thought and action give us something to work toward. The difficulty is to keep power or fear or money from lulling us into blindness. Our Christian identity depends on our ability to create an environment in which clear vision and courageous action are not only possible, but expected.

So, knowing what you know, what will you do?