Monday, May 9, 2016

The "Song of Songs," as a Mother's Day Message

Yesterday was Mother's Day. One of the new realities I've come to enjoy in the United Church is that on these sort of secular holidays I can preach a secular, topical theme. I don't have to go with the lectionary, or the exegesis of some unrelated text. On the other hand, these Sundays can come with surprises too. In this case, it was a solo sung by Kimberly Briggs based on the Song of Songs, "Arise, My Love, and Come Away" (Mark Hayes). 

So the challenge is tying together a secular holiday for mothers with a passionate text about the joys of making love. I had fun with this one!

            When it comes to life, we all understand that there is both an ideal we dream of, and the reality we muddle through. Take sex, for example.

            The sexual ideal is beautifully described in the Bible’s Song of Songs, a selection of which Kimberly just sang. Here the lover—much like Romeo under Juliette’s balcony—the lover is pictured standing outside a bedroom, peering in through the lattice work. He whispers, “come away with me. Flowers are blooming, turtle doves are cooing, juicy figs are growing—and he means, “let’s do the same, let’s ride this wave, let’s enjoy the fruit of our own vineyards.” 
Meinrad Craighead's Song of Songs

            Nothing is said or sung here, in the Song of Songs, about life-long vows, nothing is said to exclude the love of a man for a man or a woman for a woman, nothing much is said here, in the Song of Songs, except, “God, I adore you, let’s make love.”

            The Song of Songs celebrates a sexual ideal. “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley. My lover browses among the lilies, he is like a young stag on my gentle hills.” You can see it. “Dark am I, yet lovely.” You can savor it. “Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.” You can smell it. “My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.” And you can touch it. “I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh.”

            No wonder that, over 100 years ago, an old Calvinist theologian named Cornelis Vanderwaal wrote of the Song of Songs that it is about how “the beginning of eternal joy can already be tasted in one’s sexual life.” At least, that is the ideal.

            Unfortunately, no matter how sweet our own first introductions to love were—if in fact, they were sweet; no matter if our lover is as beautiful as Helen of Troy or handsome as Ryan Gosling, the reality of a lifetime of sexual love rarely lives up to The Song of Song’s poetic climax.  

            As we grow older, our hormones ebb and the intensity of our passions subside. Our children stay up later and their busy activities leave us exhausted. We have headaches or want to watch The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Perhaps our partner snores or has hot flashes so we move to twin beds or maybe even another room. When we stand before the mirror, we realize, one day, as hard as it is to believe, that we are not as impressively sculpted as we surely once were. So the nature of our intimacy evolves. We discover that instead of “falling” into each other’s arms, in bed, we’re making appointments; instead of acrobatics we are cuddling; and instead of “making it,” we’re making tea or spreading jam on biscuits for each other.

            Life is like that. We all dream of experiencing the perfect ideal. Some of us may even have a few days or months where such dreams come true. But then life goes on . . . and we discover that it’s not so bad.

            Our family lives are like that too—a mix of the mundane and the ideal. We live, even now, in the shadow of the fifties ideal—mom and dad, one son and one daughter. Dad has a good job and mom looks after things at home. Eldest son goes off to college to study engineering and young daughter snags a boyfriend who has a great future in plastics.

            In some ways, this notion of being able to have an ideal family hasn’t changed much over the years. You see, the notion of an ideal family has always been and still is, imaginary. The truth is we all have children who struggle in school, marriages that are in need of frequent repair, and finances that are challenging. We all have family members who struggle with depression or addiction or debt. All of us belong to real, rather than ideal families.

Peruvian Madonna and Child
            It was much the same for Jesus. There is the imaginary ideal, seen in a million paintings from the past two thousand years, a pretty Mother Mary with a beautiful haloed baby Jesus on her lap, Madonna and child, blessed forever. What an incredible family!

            But if the gospels are to be believed, that ideal is imaginary. The truth is, Jesus was born in a stinky stable because Joseph didn’t properly plan ahead. When Jesus starts doing miracles, his brothers refuse to believe in him, says Matthew. When Jesus starts preaching and drawing a crowd, his mother and brothers, according to today’s scripture in Mark 3, try to whisk him away from there, because they think Jesus is crazy. Jesus’ family, in short, doesn’t believe Jesus is special, do think he really ought to keep his mouth shut, and would have institutionalized him in a minute if that was possible.

            So is that all there is to life? A flash in the pan—that fleeting moment when you have it all? A moment or two of sublime satisfaction in bed and then a long decline? Is that all there is, a family occasionally firing on all cylinders, and always putting on a good show? But mostly a family that just muddles along from one minor catastrophe to the next? Is that all there is? One perfect day each year, Mother’s Day! But every other day a rat race, a struggle?

            I hope not. In fact, I don’t believe it for a minute.

            Look, the ideal, when it comes to the Song of Songs, is lovely. But its vision of romantic love is especially lovely as one gem in a string of pearls, each pearl of human experience lovely in its own way. There is that sexual high that many of us remember and treasure in our hearts, and still experience from time to time—but everything else that goes with romance is lovely too, and gives romance a structure and beauty that does not have to fade. From holding hands, to knowing ahead of time what the other will say, to being a safe place for your lover to reveal what is really on his or her heart, to raising children real romance, including the pleasures of sex as one facet of committed, enduring love—romance is just one of a string of experiences that bind two people together and sustain them for life.

            It is much the same when it comes to family life. We all like to portray ourselves as belonging to ideal families, and once in a while all of us are, in fact, supremely happy with our family life. But the truth is that our families are always as flawed as we are personally. Kids and parents argue. Husbands and wives can’t agree on discipline. Daughters act out. Sons choose not to go to dad’s alma mater. We all juggle diaper rash and spilled milk and financial setbacks and boyfriends that scare us and illnesses that put the fear of God in us. That’s family life.

            But family life is also a large part of the only life we have, a large pendant hanging from our string of pearls. We ought to seize that life, those moments and days, and embrace them, because this is the only life we have.

            Living merely for the mythical ideal is a trap. When it comes to family life, we don’t need a red carpet and exploding flashbulbs to enjoy the company of the one on our arm. We don’t have to earn a million dollars and finally buy that Maserati to be loved by our children. No, each moment we live together, even when it is a moment of deep struggle, is a prerequisite to every other moment in the chain of being, including those occasional Hallmark moments. But all moments should be embraced as a gift.

            Of course, when the ideal falls into your lap, momentarily, or even by design, it is a special moment; the lovers of the Song of Songs are living the dream. Dedicate your life only to such dreams, however; live only for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and you will be mostly, bitterly, disappointed.

            Today is Mother’s Day. We all have mothers, some of us are mothers—whether because we’ve had biological children or because we’ve adopted, legally or spiritually, children and disciples and crowds of people who listen to us. And what all our mothers have taught us is that along with all the other beautiful and ideal things mothers may do—break glass ceilings or be the life of the party or become famous like Margaret Atwood or Sophie Gregoire—along with all the other beautiful and ideal things mothers may do they all confess that there is nothing quite as wonderful as falling exhausted into bed at the end of the day, knowing that they have done their best to love a partner, clean a child’s nose, and make the home a safe place all who enter. It wasn't all ideal, but it was altogether lovely.

            This living in the moment, living for those you are with, living with those you love, muddling through when things are not ideal, but muddling through none-the-less, this is doing the will of God that Jesus mentions in our text. Doing this is what makes us brothers and sisters of Jesus, too.

            And the Spirit of God suggests, whether this is an ideal moment or a muddling-through moment--the Spirit of God suggests enjoy it, and give thanks. For all of life, both the ideal climaxes and the less scenic, mundane stretches--all of life is a divine gift.  

Monday, May 2, 2016

Practical Advice for New Pastors

            A young seminarian asked me, recently, what practical advice I’d give to a young pastor starting out. I stammered. I wasn’t sure where to begin. What would I say? Not about theology, or cultural engagement, or morality, or exegesis—but practically speaking?  

            So, after making up a list of thirty or more possibilities, I narrowed it down to ten—ten practical bits of advice for young ministers starting out.

ONE: Take a lot of time to write your sermons. There are a hundred-and-one reasons for doing so. But here is a key one—your audience is used to stellar one-man shows, and won’t hesitate to switch the channel (its called tuning out) when you fail.
            Sure, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and Oprah, are all exceptional. As pastors, we can’t expect to match any of them for comedic timing or penetrating interview skills. And, frankly, most people in church audiences are looking for something else, something more, that these personalities rarely offer. You should have that, “something more.”
            In general, however, modern audiences schooled by fabulous television hosts won’t accept sloppiness or boredom either. To me, preaching to today’s audiences is the biggest, most difficult challenge ministers face. And so, at a minimum, young ministers must invest a great deal of time crafting their messages, massaging the delivery, and improving their craft.

TWO: Pastoral Visitation. If one sermon a week takes twenty hours, make sure that at least a few more hours are spent doing pastoral care. Your congregation won’t believe you love them if you don’t know like (I know this is trite) a shepherd knows his or her flock. Visits can be in the office, at their homes, over a coffee at the corner cafĂ©, or whatever. But they need to be real. Don’t neglect getting to church early and staying long. But get out there and visit.

THREE: Make sure that funeral sermons are personal. I’ve met a few pastors who say that they do the same funeral sermon over and over—or the same wedding sermon over and over. Big mistake. Funerals, baptisms, weddings are formative experiences that may be remembered for a life time. Make sure that you have something to say that is personal, pointed, and real to the people involved that will build your personal relationship with them. What’s more, many of the people who attend such events never get to church otherwise—so make the most of their visit by speaking memorably to them.

FOUR: Apologize. Often. Because we all make mistakes. Apologies invite real relationships and trust. They open doors. They are always a lesson offered. Apologies disarm battle fields. The defensive pastor fails sooner rather than later, because after a while the pastor’s “stubbornness,” or “tin ear,” becomes the issue.
           A corollary of the apologize rule is the congratulate rule. When the congregation, or volunteers, or committees have nothing to apologize for, because they've done a great job, say so loudly and publicly!

FIVE: Don’t wimp out on stewardship leadership—but don’t ever, ever use guilt to raise funds. Support the finance team by showing a great deal of interest in their work. Commend them for what is often an anonymous (and busy) job. Congratulate the congregation on every success and challenge met. Lay out needs with clarity, and, if you can, wit. Remember, if the church doesn’t ask, it won’t receive.  

SIX: Try to learn all the kids’ names. This is hard for me. I stumble. I remember one week and then forget the next. But kids want to be recognized. They want to be noticed. They need to grow up confident that the church values them as individuals. So learn their names. The parents will notice too.

SEVEN: Every church has a leadership team—a council or consistory or deacons or whatever. The leadership team members come and go. Be nice to them. But, besides the leadership team, every church has the real opinion leaders, people whose influence remains strong whether or not they’re on the official leadership team or not. The smart pastor soon figures out who these people are, establishes a gracious relationship with these people, listens hard to what they have to say, seeks their input on critical issues, and stays in touch with them at all times.
            Every pastor has a vision (or should have one). Achieving that vision depends on support. So you have to know which relationships to cultivate so that you have a place to stand when you need that support.

EIGHT: Laugh. Church should have its serious side, but it should be fun too. Don’t make fun of other people. Use humor in your sermons. Laugh at your own foibles. Every minute of genuine laughter in the church earns a solid hour of spiritual satisfaction, and the desire to return for more.

NINE: Establish some clear work boundaries when it comes to time on the job. I used to put a very polite note in the bulletin, occasionally, requesting parishioners to not call me between 3:30 pm (when school was out), till 8:00 pm (when the kids were in bed). I also let people know what my days off were (yes, ministers should not work more than five days a week). In such announcements, make sure to add that you are always available in case of emergency. And I love my time off!

Ten: A “Thou Shalt Not,” bit of advice. Don’t do counselling. “Cure of souls,” that is, seeing people to pray with them, or assure them of God’s love, is one thing. And as a pastor, ministers need to get to know their flock (see 2, above). But you didn’t go to school to get a degree in psychology. You have little to no idea of just how complex the skills or clinical best practices that a good couples counsellor or family counsellor needs to learn over years of school and many hours of supervision. You have little to no idea of the many different theoretical approaches involved in different forms of counselling. My observation is that most pastors deeply immersed in counselling are making it up as they go, and using their counselling as an excuse to avoid spending the time they should on number one and two on this list.