Each week I have to put pen to paper and try to think of something clever, witty and captivating to say to a fairly dour audience. This is not to say that my friends sitting in the pews at the Pawlet Church are excessively stern people, it’s more about the context. People, for the most part, come to church expecting something serious. That maybe four years at the Fordham School of Religion has given me the key to unlock secrets in the Bible that mere mortals don’t have access to. That perhaps I hold a slightly elevated place in the world, closer to heaven with easier access to messages God wants us to hear.
I would love to believe that these things (and more) are true but they’re not. The difference between me standing at the pulpit and them sitting in the hard pews is that I said yes. I said yes, I will be the one to go to the mats with this, I will make my life available for God to use so that other people might experience some kind of insight or enlightenment. I will work every weekend when everyone else is at a bar-b-que, yes.
Everyone has the ability, the opportunity, the time; it’s just that I said yes when someone made the suggestion.
Maybe I heard something in that suggestion that resonated with a deep and mysterious place within myself. A place I previously hadn’t been aware of. I would say that’s possible, given how comfortable I felt the first time I stood in front of a church, after a lifetime of terror in the face of public speaking.
And then, of course, in time the double negative kicks in … I can’t really not do this. Once you’re called to something and you respond and you see how natural it feels and then the effect it has on the world, even when it’s hard, even when you’d rather stay in bed on Sunday morning, you keep at it. There is a draw and a sense of obligation.
When I was a kid I dreamed of becoming a teacher. I created a makeshift classroom in our basement and played out my little fantasy there with the neighborhood kids. I knew that luring them into “school” after they had spent all day in school was going to be tricky, so I offered snacks. We all know this—food gets ‘em every time.
I did, indeed, become a teacher. I spent time in kindergarten and second grade and fourth grade classrooms. I worked with teenagers, I taught new Americans photography skills, I tutored a woman in her 60s who wanted to get her GED. Subtract one letter and add two later in life and what you have is a preacher. Not a lot of difference otherwise, really. Variation of subject and venue, but what I’m doing now isn’t that far removed from what I was doing back then. No tests, at least not the paper kind.
Wrestling with scripture now, each week, isn’t easy. I’m not terribly intellectual about this. I know that there are many ways to approach this body of work, but the one that makes sense to me is through the heart. There are lots of very intelligent folks sitting in classrooms in the finest divinity schools in this country turning faith into theology, sorting through Biblical language and meaning all the time. That was never my schtick. I entered church through the side door, skeptical every step of the way. Like most people I have found churchy spaces to be dusty, scary, foreboding, irrelevant, and so I have tried to just be myself and let the chips fall where they may. Plenty of weeks I don’t have a clue what was going on with John or Abraham or Rachel or Isaac or Jeremiah, but a lot of the stories I find to be enchanting and I try to draw out that spark of delight and possibly a little bit of meaning for those who are willing to devote their Sunday mornings to learning something and growing community.
I’ve gotten better at it over time, at least I hope I have. In the early days of preaching I borrowed heavily from theologians and modern churchy people, the hipster ones with tattoos and cool glasses. Eventually I settled into my own skin and rhythm and began to trust that God put plain old me in a church because of who I am, not so I could pretend I’m someone else or regurgitate what’s already been said.
I’ve run into a lot of characters along this rubbly and twisty road. Fascinating people. tormented people, hilarious people, humble and kind-hearted people, some alive, some dead. One of my favorites is Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, Hasidic rabbi who lived in the late-17 to mid-18 hundreds. He said something like … your holiness is in the fact that you’re human; God already has plenty of angels.
Our holiness is often, in fact, in the very darkest parts of ourselves, as long as we’re willing to go there. The thing I love most about God is that God seems to want to take the very worst of us and mold it into something new and useful. In a terrific and unexpected plot twist, our very brokenness becomes our gold and the portal through which we can work to make this world a better place.
God isn’t going to walk in through the back door or slide down the chimney. God arrives in your hands and in my heart and in his feet and her eyes. God becomes God in the world through each of us, our choices, where we plant our lives, how we treat others. And this really is what I try to convey each week. Sometimes it feels quite redundant and then I think … well we live on a planet awash with immeasurable beauty, filled with a mind-boggling array of species, including seven billion of us humans. People like me, doing this work, are really just trying to draw your attention to this miracle. Faced with what could otherwise be a crushing truth—how amazing each one of us is and how majestic this place—we turn it into something sacred, worthy of the love we possess. And oddly we all seem to need that message, over and over. Once is not enough. I walk with the dying and then turn to all of you, still living, and fairly shout, Your Days are Numbered, Quit Squandering Your Life! You are going to die! The people you love are going to die! I could spend every day of my life running all over the planet shouting this truth and people would still spend seven hours a day looking at their phone screen. It makes no sense.
I guess it gives me job security, though.
And so every Sunday I rise from my cozy bed and put on something clean, maybe a little spiffy, cover the dark circles under my eyes, try to figure out which shoes will be comfortable and yet appropriate and head to church. We are a small group by most standards, maybe thirty people any given week, but we seem to be interested in something important. We seem to be interested in continually looking outside ourselves for some answers. We are willing to take a chance on a bigger picture. Most of us have probably been touched by the inexplicable movement of something otherworldly here in the worldly. And once you have seen that light, felt that magic, transcended the mundane, you’re a different person and it’s hard to go back.
Naturally, there are snacks involved. When the hour or so is over and I retreat from the stage, we all walk to the back of the church and eat and drink together. That’s when we find out how our neighbors are doing, who may need what, where everyone is headed for the day. We connect.
Of course our holiness is in our humanity—all of it— whole, broken, welded back together a thousand times. It’s all that we have. And it’s everything.