The wise men, and the real death.

I’ve read this every Christmas for the past 4 years. It’s a portion from one of Frederick Buechner’s Advent sermons called, The Birth. It’s beautiful and haunting.

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“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” —MATTHEW 2:1–2

Frederick Buechner - Secrets in the Dark“‘Beware of beautiful strangers,’” said one of themagi-astrologers, the wise men, “‘and on Friday avoid travel by water. The sun is moving into the house of Venus, so affairs of the heart will prosper.’ We said this to Herod, or something along those lines, and of course it meant next to nothing. To have told him anything of real value, we would have had to spend weeks of study, months, calculating the conjunction of the planets at the precise moment of his birth and at the births of his parents and their parents back to the fourth generation. But Herod knew nothing of this, and he jumped at the nonsense we threw him like a hungry dog and thanked us for it. A lost man, you see, even though he was a king. Neither really a Jew nor really a Roman, he was at home nowhere. And he believed in nothing, neither Olympian Zeus nor the Holy One of Israel, who cannot be named. So he was ready to jump at anything, and he swallowed our little jingle whole. But it could hardly have been more obvious that jingles were the least of what he wanted from us.

“‘Go and find me the child,’ the king told us, and as he spoke, his fingers trembled so that the emeralds rattled together like teeth. ‘Because I want to come and worship him,’ he said, and when he said that, his hands were still as death. Death. I ask you, does a man need the stars to tell him that no king has ever yet bowed down to another king? He took us for children, that sly, lost old fox, and so it was like children that we answered him. ‘Yes, of course,’ we said, and went our way. His hands fluttered to his throat like moths.

“Why did we travel so far to be there when it happened? Why was it not enough just to know the secret without having to be there ourselves to behold it? To this, not even the stars had an answer. The stars said simply that he would be born. It was another voice altogether that said to go—a voice as deep within ourselves as the stars are deep within the sky.

“But why did we go? I could not tell you now, and I could not have told you then, not even as we were in the very process of going. Not that we had no motive, but that we had so many. Curiosity, I suppose: to be wise is to be eternally curious, and we were very wise. We wanted to see for ourselves this One before whom even the stars are said to bow down—to see perhaps if it was really true because even the wise have their doubts. And longing. Longing. Why will a man who is dying of thirst crawl miles across sands as hot as fire at simply the possibility of water? But if we longed to receive, we longed also to give. Why will a man labor and struggle all the days of his life so that in the end he has something to give the one he loves?

“So finally we got to the place where the star pointed us. It was at night. Very cold. The Innkeeper showed us the way that we did not need to be shown. A harebrained, busy man. The odor of the hay was sweet, and the cattle’s breath came out in little puffs of mist. The man and the woman. Between them the king. We did not stay long. Only a few minutes as the clock goes, ten thousand, thousand years. We set our foolish gifts down on the straw and left.

“I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the newborn child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.

“And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?”

Buechner, Frederick (2009-03-17). Secrets in the Dark (pp. 11-13). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (The entire book is available on Kindle for $1.99).

Preacher’s Remorse

I don’t get it often.

But I experienced a little bit of it this past Sunday. If I was to define it, it would be this.

Preacher’s Remorse | ˈprēCHərz  riˈmôrs | (noun)

An emotional feeling or sensation of regret or contrition usually resulting from a sermon during which the preacher/teacher either (a) over-shared from his/her own life and is feeling raw and exposed, or (b) remembered the “BEST ILLUSTRATION EVER!!” one hour after church ended, or (c) preached the entire message unaware of an obvious wardrobe malfunction.

For the record, I’ve had all three.

Just a few months ago, I went out into the lobby after church, and CJ walked up to me with a puzzled look on his face and said, “I’ve been wondering about this all morning. Is your shirt on backwards?”

I looked down. “Why, yes. Yes it is.” Preacher’s remorse version C.

The preacher’s remorse that I felt following this past Sunday was version A. The “overshare.” If you were at church, you would have heard me share simply and honestly about how — for Rachel and me in this current season — marriage is hard. Really hard.

And I talked about the new humanity that God is creating. A new humanity where all of the fierce loyalties and love and devotion that are typically reserved for immediate family, now must be directed to a much broader group! To all of God’s children. That is the implication of Jesus words in Matthew 12 when He turns to his followers and says, “This is my mother. And these are my brothers.”

I shared how Rachel and I are feeling the fierce loyalty and love and devotion of our little Kingdom family at Ekklesia. They (you all) are holding us up! And we need it! And it is so good.

In the days following Sunday, I’ve been plagued with a little voice inside my head that says “Preachers shouldn’t admit that! You are losing your public credibility. And what if people draw completely wrong conclusions? What if people think you had an affair? What if they think you’re separating? That was a foolish thing to share.”

There is an old song by Sara Groves called Loving a Person. The opening lyrics are as follows.

Loving a person just the way they are, it’s no small thing /
It takes some time to see things through /

Hold on to me /
I’ll hold on to you /
Let’s find out the beauty of seeing things through /

Truer words.

My preacher’s remorse has faded. I have to believe it’s OK to admit that marriage — loving and being loved — is no small thing. I had coffee with a good friend on Tuesday, and he said to me, “Amazing sermon. Seriously podcast-repeat worthy. It opens the doors for others to talk about their lives and their marriages. So good!”

Here’s to the beauty of seeing things through.

She Even Called Her Beautiful

This morning at church, nine of us had a chance to share some thoughts and reflections from our mission trip to La Limonada with Lemonade International.

If I had more time, I might have shared a little more about Beatriz — an absolutely beautiful 3 yr old girl being raised by a mother who was selling herself and her children at a bar in La Limonada for profit.

LI_Curtis01In this picture Beatriz is laughing and giggling and stacking hand-made coffee bags on my legs and head. She was as playful and joyful and mischievous and silly and innocent as my own daughters, Megan and Kyra, when they were her age.

At first, my internal anger was 100% directed toward this mother. Whoever she was, she didn’t even deserve the moniker.

Mother.

But then, in my mind, I began to wander back through the streets of La Limonada — thinking about the kind of desperation that would drive a mother to this. And my anger shifted toward the systems and structures that could allow such desperation to exist. Selling your child(ren) for sex is infinitely more complicated than being a bad mother.

If we had more time, perhaps I would have described the manner in which Tita told us the story of Beatriz’s mother. I would have told you about the compassion and sorrow and tenderness and great love in Tita’s voice. She even called her beautiful.

She didn’t hate her.

She loved her so much that it hurt her.

Like so much of our trip, I don’t really know what to do with that. I don’t know how to process that kind of love. I only hope that our world (and my heart) is infected with more of it.

Farther Along

Sometimes, I put my headphones on, crank up the volume, and listen to this song. Lots of truth. It does something good to me.

Lyrics

Chorus
Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand this, all by and by

Tempted and tried, I wondered why
The good man dies, the bad man thrives
And Jesus cries ’cause he loves em’ both
We’re all castaways in need of rope
Hangin’ on by the last threads of our hope
In a house of mirrors full of smoke
Confusing illusions I’ve seen

Where did I go wrong
I sang along to every chorus of the song
That the devil wrote like a piper at the gate
Leading mice and men down to their fate
But some will courageously escape
The seductive voice with a heart of faith
While walkin’ that line back home

So much more to life than we’ve been told
It’s full of beauty that will unfold
And shine like you struck gold my wayward son
That deadweight burden weighs a ton
Go down into the river and let it run
And wash away all the things you’ve done
Forgiveness alright

Chorus

Still I get hard pressed on every side
Between the rock and a compromise
Like the truth and pack of lies fightin’ for my soul
And I’ve got no place left go
Cause I got changed by what I’ve been shown
More glory than the world has known
Keeps me ramblin’ on

Skipping like a calf loosed from its stall
I’m free to love once and for all
And even when I fall I’ll get back up
For the joy that overflows my cup
Heaven filled me with more than enough
Broke down my levee and my bluff
Let the flood wash me

And one day when the sky rolls back on us
Some rejoice and the others fuss
Cause every knee must bow and tongue confess
That the son of god is forever blessed
His is the kingdom, we’re the guests
So put your voice up to the test
Sing Lord, come soon

Chorus

Album available here: http://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/album/love-war-the-sea-in-between

The Board Meeting

A few week’s ago, I sat in a district board meeting along with 8 other men — all pastors. I’m the “young gun” on this particular council. The main task at hand was to conduct an interview and make a determination on the ordination process of a young minister (and good friend) named Seth. This was his third interview.

Normally, this is a fairly simple process (and stops after the second interview). But when the ordinand-in-question holds to a more compassionate and messy, patient and complicated, grey and gracious disposition toward the LGBTQ community — a disposition this council is not accustomed to — the process slows down.

But something beautiful and surprising happened.

At the end of our meeting (with Seth still in the room) our District Superintendent asked each council member to share something encouraging with Seth. Perhaps how they’ve been challenged and impacted through the interview process.

The first pastor to speak was from a small town in Eastern NC, and he said, “There’s obviously a generation gap between the two of us, and I don’t even think I know anyone who is gay, but you’re helping me rethink some important things and challenging me to be more compassionate … and I need that. Thank you.”

And my spirit whispered, “amen.”

“There’s something inside of me that wants everyone to believe exactly the way I believe. But I’m learning that is not what the church needs.”
The man sitting immediately to my right, said, “There’s something inside of me that wants everyone to believe exactly the way I believe. But I’m learning that is not what the church needs. If the church only had me, we’d be in a real mess! It needs you. I always want people to think exactly the way I think. But that’s not what the church needs. And it’s not what I need. I need you, Seth.”

And again, my spirit let out a hearty, “Amen!”

I don’t always feel particularly excited about denominational affiliations, but this was certainly a moment when I was proud to be sitting in the midst of this room full of saints — people able to simultaneously embrace tension and faith.

And in case you’re wondering, Seth’s ordination was unanimously approved, and I’m thrilled that he is a part of Ekklesia!

A Lesson from The Poisonwood Bible.

So, I’ve started reading novels.

Turns out there are some really fabulous books out there! With my “completed-reading-list” as short as it is, I hesitate to lay claim to a favorite genre … but I’m leaning in the direction of Historical Fiction.

After making short work of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. The story begins in 1959. Fiery Baptist Preacher, Nathan Price, has moved his family from the small town of Bethlehem, GA, to the village of Kilanga, deep in the Belgian Congo, in the hopes that they might win the natives to Christ. The story is beautifully told from the perspective of his wife, Orleana, and his 4 daughters (Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May). Without giving too much away from the book, I’m so glad the face of missions has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Nathan’s missionary work was about as far from Christ as one can imagine.

But that’s not the part of the novel that most captured my attention.

One scene in particular, near the end of the book, has affected me. Many years have passed since 1959. Leah is a grown married woman. Her husband is a Congolese man named Anatole. It is January — the anniversary of much sadness for Leah. Anatole speaks.

“Wife, your face is as long as a crocodile’s!”

I’ll tell him it’s just as ugly, too, and my skin is about that scaly. I say these things so he’ll argue with me. I’m difficult in January. I know this. I need him to insist that I’m useful and good, that he wasn’t out of his mind to marry me, that my white skin is not the standard of offense.

I had to stop reading. How many times has Rachel needed this from me, and I have failed? How many times have my daughters needed this from me, and I have failed? “I say these things so he’ll argue with me … I need him to insist that I’m useful and good.”

This is marriage. This is parenting. This is friendship. This is being human.

I think the reason why I’m so enjoying my new foray into novel-reading is because I’m finding something I didn’t expect. I’m finding profoundly human stories that call to the deepest parts of me, thrusting me deeper into the way of Christ. The way of Jesus, who was so masterful at seeing and declaring the grace and goodness in those around him.

And … now I need another book to read! Any suggestions?

An Uninvited Guest

I had a meeting downtown yesterday with a couple of fantastic people from the Downtown Raleigh Alliance to discuss possible venues for our church’s upcoming JUST Art event in June.

After a few minutes of chit-chat about the weather and children and the Olympics and work, I had a panic attack.

Having a panic attack is not the best way to start a meeting with people you’ve never met. I had to pause, acknowledge aloud what was happening, take 30 seconds to recompose myself, and then our meeting continued.

When I got home after the meeting, I turned on Pandora radio, and the first song that came on was “Brokenness Aside” by All Sons & Daughters. The opening verse and chorus say:

all sons and daughters - brokenness asideWill your grace run out
If I let you down
‘Cause all I know
Is how to run

‘Cause I am a sinner
If its not one thing its another
Caught up in words
Tangled in lies
You are the Savior
And you take brokenness aside
And make it beautiful
Beautiful

I shared the story of my panic attack and hearing this song with a friend who wrote something beautiful to me in an email, saying:

“Maybe [hearing that song] is an instance of God showing his faithfulness and sovereignty by bringing about beautiful outcomes in situations where your brokenness was an uninvited guest … I wrote a good number of verses in my journal this weekend pertaining to God not despising our weaknesses (Ps 69:33, 22:24, 102:17)–thinking that if God welcomes these weaknesses, maybe I can learn not to despise them in myself so much. But that is still very much a work in progress, especially in a world that tries to dispense with brokenness and weakness as quickly as possible.”

When I received this email, I thought someone else might need to read it too.

 

Songs from Sunday

Songlist from 1/12/2014. 

The brand new song that we sang just before the sermon (the one CJ forbids us from “singing before the sermon ever again”) is, Called me Higher by All Sons & Daughters.

(NOTE: this is my first time using the iTunes widget builder. If it doesn’t work, blame apple, not me. Be patient after clicking play. It may take a few seconds before songs begin to play.)

Tips on being straight/gay in church

Part ONE

We met up for breakfast at the Flying Biscuit in Cameron Village. He and his family had attended a few times, and he wanted to clear the air. “We love the church. We love the teaching. We love the people. But we know that our presence might be hard for some. The last thing we want to do is cause trouble or be a headache for you as the pastor.”

flying biscuitHe and his partner have been together for 15 years, and they have 3 adopted boys, one of whom is special needs.

And if I didn’t know it already back then when we had this conversation, I certainly know it now. They are fantastic.

They are so gracious and kind and giving and considerate. My faith is bigger and better because of them. They serve regularly and faithfully in our community. And they are a great example of how to be gay in church. With limitless grace and understanding.

Part TWO

We decided to meet up at his house. He and his wife graciously had some questions about the growing LGBT community in our church. As they shared, they were not angry. They were not hurt. They were not defensive. Just questioning.

I’ve blogged about this topic before, and I’ve preached a message on it as well. If I had to summarize my “stance” (I hate that word), it might be this. Human sexuality is far more nuanced and complex than I grew up thinking it was. Perhaps the best thing we can do is be in relationship with one another; get to know each other; deeply and sincerely and genuinely. Friendship is a necessary first step.

We talked about this (and more) that night.

The very next Sunday, I saw him and his wife in the lobby laughing and talking and hugging and shaking hands with people within our LGBT community.

And if I didn’t know it already back then when we had this conversation, I certainly know it now. They are fantastic.

They are so gracious and kind and giving and considerate. My faith is bigger and better because of them. They serve regularly and faithfully in our community. And they are a great example of how to be straight in church. With limitless grace and understanding.

Church advice for my London-bound friend

My good friend of 8+ years is moving to London on a great and grand adventure through her work. (Jamie – you will be missed dearly!!)

Shortly after she went public with the news, we had a text conversation about finding a new church. Here’s the gist of our chat.

Jamie Tharp - church advice

I’m not typically one to toot my own horn (unless it’s about my skill at words-with-friends, music theory or bass fishing), but I think this was great advice! And the exact same thing can be said of small churches. If a small church is trying to be a big church, it is missing the point. But if a small church is trying to be a gift to the world, I believe God is smiling!

Oh Lord, help us, your church, to always be looking for ways to pour ourselves out for others. What you have been for us — a good gift — let us become for others. Amen.

Sometimes I think I'm certain. Other times I am certain I'm not.

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