Speaking for God

This morning I received an interesting email, sent to the email address found on the KC website. It was from someone whose name I didn't recognize, and it asked, "Is there a hell beyond this life, and is anyone actually going there, and if so, why?"

Wow. Those are really big questions, and its pretty amazing to me that anyone would suppose I would have an answer to them. So my first reaction was to feel humbled. What an awesome thing to be in a position to speak or write about those questions, and to have my answers be given some kind of authority becuase of my position.

And shortly thereafter I began to feel annoyed. I was pretty sure, after all, that the person who asked the question wasn't really looking to me for insight. Rather, I was pretty sure the questions were asked for the purpose of engaging me in a debate for the purpose of proving that he was right and I was wrong. And in the end, conversations like that are really not the way I like to spend my time.

So, I wrote back and suggested that since I can't speak for God, I can't give answers to those questions. I can speculate, but in the end, what's the point of arguing about my speculations versus anyone else's? Well, that response led my correspondent to ask: "Isn't that precisely what a pastor is called to do? Who is it you speak for from the pulpit week after week, if not God? Are you just speaking for yourself? And if so, what sort of "ministry" is that?"

Despite it's irksome tone, I think that's a pretty good question. Each Sunday as I begin to preach I say a prayer based on Psalm 19, "May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts together, be acceptable to you O Lord, for you are our strength and our redeemer." I love that prayer because it helps me to remember that everyone in the room is working with me as I preach, but that in the end, what happens will happen because of God. My prayer is that somehow, in the midst of all my words and all our thoughts, the Word of God will be spoken and received. But I would never, ever suggest that when I open my mouth to speak, I'm speaking for God.

I do know that I am called to stand in for Jesus at times--when I invite people to his table at communion, for example, or when I sit at someone's bedside in the hospital and hold their hand. In those moments, I know its "not about me", but about the one in whose name I act. We often talk at KC about being instruments of God, or being put to use by God in the world, often in ways we don't expect.

So, I imagine there are even times when the words I speak are used by God to teach or console or inspire. But also know that a lot of what I say is colored by my biases, my particular life experiences, my place in the world. I would never suggest I could untangle true insight from the stuff that mixed in.

Luckily, I have found that I don't have to. My job--my calling--as a preacher, as a pastor, is just to show up to God with as much honesty as I possibly can, to listen as well as I can, and to witness out of the relationship with God that results as simply and clearly as possible.

Being a "200 Level" Church

"Yours is kind of a 200-level church," my mom concluded after her first visit to KC. She was making reference to the way college courses are often classified: beginning level classes are 100-level, but 200-level classes require some kind of prerequisite. Those classes are for people who have already been exposed to the topic, have some background in the area of study, and are interested in going deeper.

There's some obvious reasons why my mom would make this assessment of our community. For one thing, there are a number of people in our community who are "recovering" from their childhoods or young adulthoods in some other church or tradition. We've got former Roman Catholics, evangelicals, Mennonites and Christian Scientists, each with their own story of why they left and why they aren't going back. In addition, there are a number of people around KC who have been engaged in a very serious way in their spiritual journey for many years--people who have been trained as pastoral counselors or spiritual directors, people who have gone on many retreats and pilgrimages, people who read about spirituality and biblical scholarship and Christian theology for fun.

So there are a lot of people who see KC as a "next step" in their spiritual journey. They didn't start that journey here, but they came to KC because it seemed like the kind of place that would help them go further.

I'm proud to be part of a community like this. It makes me feel like I can go deeper with my teaching and preaching, and there will be plenty of people who can keep up. What's more, I find it very encouraging to be around people who are farther along the path than I am. It makes me want to keep walking with Jesus. It helps me stay unstuck.

But there was a part of my mom's comment that gave me pause when she first said it. I wondered, are there "pre-requisites" to being a part of our community? There aren't any explicit pre-requisites. We're a pretty friendly bunch, and when you walk into our barn, we are really good at welcoming you, whoever you are. But I wonder if there are implicit prerequisites? If you are a brand-new Christian, or if you aren't a Christian at all, and you walked into KC, would you have a sense of stepping into a 200 level class without having had the introduction? Would you get drawn into the journey by hearing about ours, or would you end up feeling left behind?

These questions re-surfaced for me last week at the Emergent Gathering, and they seem to have been on the minds of other people as well. Is Emergent a 200-level organization, or even a 300-level one? If it is, what about the people who step into the conversation without having done any background work? Is it really right to invite such people in to every event, or would it be better to establish a beginner track and an advanced track? If there are too many beginners, won't all the advanced people lose interest and leave?

I'm not sure if organizations like Emergent work the same way that churches like KC work, but I imagine there are some parallels. And my experience at KC has led me to think that the whole idea of entry-level religion is not nearly as helpful as one might think. I think we often underestimate how much preparation God has done in our hearts and souls before we even step into a church, a conference or a conversation. My experience at KC has taught me that a huge amount of growth can happen in someone when the moment is finally right. Maybe the people who stick around our community for more than a week or two are people who are ready to grow. But that's a pre-requisite I can live with. You don't have to be there already, but you do have to be willing to walk.

Having enough high intentional Christians around this place means that this place will never be defined as entry-level only. But I'm okay with that. An easy-to-follow, easy-to-understand version of the Christian journey doesn't catch a person up in the same way as the real thing. If it's shallow, it usually feels that way, even to a newbie.

What's more, I have been struck time and again by how much the "advanced" Christians at KC get out of talking to someone who is much newer on the spiritual journey. This happened last spring when John Lobell and I taught a class on evil to an amazingly mixed group. We all learned from each other in that group--we learned different things from different people, but we all were learning.

So while there are many other things that we don't really have a handle on at KC, this one feels about right. The high level of intentional spiritual journeying in this community makes it a good entry-level congregation, as strange as that may sound. Our experience has been instructive for me as I continue to engage in Emergent Village's visioning process.

Being Brave in Santa Fe, part 2

So, the second day I was in New Mexico (Wednesday of last week) I woke up at 4:00 am in the morning, local time, which meant I actually slept in a little according to my internal clock. I dozed for another hour or so, but by 5:00 am I was ready to get moving.

I was sleeping in a tent in a campground where I was the sole inhabitant. Maybe it was because of Georgia O'Keeffe's inspiration, or maybe it was because I had made it through the night without being eating by coyotes, but I was feeling braver than usual. So I washed up and drove into Santa Fe in search of the Atalaya Mountain trail which the website I had printed out assured me was one of the most popular short hikes in the area.

So I found the trailhead, found where to park the car and hiked the three miles up to the peak at 9,100 feet. I looked around and thanked God for the place and the day and my life and the world, ate some trail mix, called Dan, and then I hiked back down. I never saw another person the whole morning.

Maybe that doesn't seem like a huge big deal. But for me, it took a lot of guts to do it totally by myself. I grew up in a family that liked to camp and hike, but I never liked it much and completely quit when I was 12. When I met Dan (almost 20 years ago!) I realized that he loved hiking so much that if I was going to love him (and if he was going to love me) I was going to have to go along. We hiked in Scotland and in Switzerland and in New Hampshire, and sometimes it was great, but a lot of the times I was cursing him in my mind for having dragging me along, too fast and too far.

When we got married, Dan's sister Carla joked with me that our vows should read, "I, Heather, agree to go up any peak in any weather, and do solemnly swear to take all the spur trails and still beat book time." I laughed when she said that--sort of.

Kids turned out to be the solution to our hiking issues. They loved to hike, but for a long time they couldn't hike very far or very fast. I finally found my natural pace, and then, as they grew and sped up little by little, so did I.

When I reached the peak of Atalaya, I was at first full of self-congratulations. Finally, I did it on my own! No one made me, no one dragged me or pushed me. I came on my own. Aren't I brave!

I took out my cell phone to call Dan, just to so I could crow about my accomplishment. But somehow, when he picked up, I found myself saying "Thank you!" instead. Yeah, I walked up the mountain myself. I didn't do it to prove anything to him. But I did it because for 20 years, he has loved me and loved mountains, and somehow, in the process, my heart expanded.

So this is who I am, I thought as I walked down. I'm brave and confident and independent. And I'm connected and appreciative and loved. Both. And. Thank you, Jesus!