I have never read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Never read it. Probably never will. But I understand what it’s about. It’s a tale set in the Puritan town of Salem and the author weaves a story of sin and legalism and secrets where Hester Prynne is found guilty of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A.” That way she is always reminded of her transgression, even as she tries to pull her broken life together and raise her daughter. And, that way, her community is constantly reminded of her transgression as well.
It’s an interesting concept really–to be caught in a sin and have that sin, in a very public way, define your whole identity. What would our lives look like if our transgressions, whether or not they are as “severe” as adultery, were known by by our family, our neighbors, our employers? While I believe there would be room for the grace of God, it would make it almost impossible to experience forgiveness and grace by a flesh and blood community where you could be known by something other than what you did. Wherever you went, whatever you did, you’d be “the one who committed (insert horrible sin here).”
While we don’t have a Scarlet Letter for Adultery, we do have a scarlet letter for sex offenders. There’s a registry you can look at online. As far as I understand, if this applies to you, you need to tell local law enforcement of your past whenever you move. It’s something your employers will know. It’s something your neighbors will know. And it’s something that could mobilize whole communities to try to keep you away.
Let me be clear. I am not trying to lessen the horror of sexual crimes. It is something I know almost nothing about and have almost no personal history with, either in or out of ministry. I know that the wounds can be very deep and the ramifications for the lives of the victims is severe.
What concerns me is how, with the scarlet letter or sexual offense, persons will forever be defined by the offense, whatever that offense was and whatever the magnitude was and however many persons were directly affected and no matter the merits of the charges against them. Part of our understanding of grace is to be defined in a new way, to be seen as forgiven and reconciled, to be reborn, to be made new. I wonder what rebirth could possibly be like for one constantly living under the shadow of the old even if they may have moved on from whatever addiction or offense was a part of their history.
When I was in a previous location, I was director of Habitat for Humanity for a while. We were working on getting a new Habitat home built. And out of all the applications for persons to partner with our organization for a home, we chose the neediest family…one with a disability on top of their financial hardships. However, when we went public with the family’s name, we immediately started getting phone calls from donors saying that they weren’t going give their usual donations for this family. These donors were tipped off that one of the family members was a convicted sex offender…a fact we didn’t know because Habitat for Humanity (at least at the time) partners with families without regard to criminal past.
I was the one who had to go and talk with the family. I said that we would still be willing to work with the them and we’d stick by them. The family, however, said they wanted to back out. They had worked so hard to get their lives together, to work on forgiveness and redemption, that they did not have the emotional strength to dredge up all of the past again. They couldn’t deal with the finger pointing. They couldn’t deal with the nasty looks when out in the community. They couldn’t deal with yet more questions from employers and neighbors with whom they had worked for 10 years to be on good terms again. They backed out.
It was probably best.
But I didn’t feel good about it.
What if my sins were public knowledge? Even with (much) more benign offenses, how could I look people in the eye? What would they think when I walked into a room? Would I want to be in the public eye or would I want to hide in my home, trying to keep as low a profile as I could? What would it be like to have everyone know of my brokenness and woundedness in such a profound way.
My memories of this event came to the fore over the last couple of days as word of some robberies broke out in a town I’m more than familiar with. Robberies have a way of making folks feel very vulnerable in a small town. I know of which I speak. Even if you aren’t the one who had things stolen, if there were several thefts of neighborhood homes, you probably are close to one or more of the victims. It can be very unsettling to the small-town vibe people love…where we all know each other and trust each other and feel safe with each other.
In the social media discussion about these thefts the conversation pointed at someone in the community who wears that “scarlet letter”–he’s a registered sex offender. The discussion went to wear he works, to calling his employer and telling them that people like him aren’t welcome in this town, his offense was pointed out, and his picture was passed around social media with warnings to stay away from him.
My hunch is that this person had absolutely nothing to do with the robberies. The conversation has moved on to others.
Concerning this person, though, I cannot say he wasn’t guilty of whatever he was tried and convicted of. And, as one who makes sure we have background checks on all of our youth workers at church, it’s clear this person wouldn’t be able to help with Sunday School or Youth Group and would not be invited to babysit at the church or for my own children. I’ll assume that he was guilty of his crime and whatever time he served was appropriate.
But where does grace come in for one who wears a proverbial scarlet letter? How does one experience grace from others when you can never escape, not only from the consequences of sin but from the constant reminder of it? When does one get to take off the scarlet letter?
I guess for the ex-con or the sex offender, at least in a small town, the answer is “never.” And I, frankly, don’t know if it can ever be otherwise on this side of the resurrection.
And this has bearing for me now. I now live in a town with a prison. It’s maximum security. And many of the men there won’t be getting out for a very long time. What grace awaits them if and when they do get out? And how much grace will come from me?
There is a pretty bad section of road between Seward and Moose Pass. It’s about a 5-6 mile section alongside Kenai Lake where there are rocks on one side of the road and water on the other. It has been in need of some work. Widening it. Paving it. Clearing trees. Putting up new guardrails. As one who has to travel between these two towns each Sunday for worship and one who needs to drive this road to get pretty much anywhere else in Alaska (which I’ve needed to do over the last few weeks) it’s been kind of a pain. OK, it’s been a ROYAL PAIN. Oftentimes in Alaska, there is no detour because there is no other road between Point A and Point B. So, when you see the CONSTRUCTION AHEAD sign, your time frame for getting to your destination may have changed.
There is a horrible feeling that comes upon a driver, when you know you’re coming up to a construction area and the car in front of you is the last car they let past the flagger, driving behind the pilot car to the other side. It’s a sinking feeling with the harsh realization that you’re going to be sitting there for a while. And, this being rural Alaska, the cell phone service is often non-existent. They’ll be no checking email or surfing your favorite blogs or playing “Words with Friends.”
Sunday was another day of driving through the construction zone and the picture above is actually taken on the drive from Seward up to Moose Pass as I went to lead Sunday School. Fortunately, even though there’s still a “speed zone” though there, all of the construction vehicles are now gone and it’s smooth sailing. No delays.
Keep reading to see what I see when the trucks are gone
I feel a need to confess my lust. It’s a sin I know. But I have definitely lusted with my heart and my eyes and my ears. It’s hard not to. I appreciate beautiful form as much as the next guy. I know that the images the media feeds us accentuate the positive, “photoshopping” the blemishes from the photos and “whitewashing” all of the unseemly characteristics from the writing. But that hasn’t stopped me from being “tempted by the fruit of another” — to quote from a classic song by the band “Squeeze.”
While I could be talking about sexual lust here, I’m really not. Really. I’m talking about lust for other churches and ministries and being jealous of the hot-shot pastors whose blogs I read and coveting the ministries and worship experiences that they have going on.
Politicians can have a “lust for power.”
Librarians can have “book lust.”
Those who desire violence can be said to have “blood lust.”
We can have a lust for money — which we often cover up by calling it “capitalism.”
Really, if lust is a passionate desire or craving for something…which is why it is so very appropriate when considering the emotion of sexual desire…I think it’s fair to say–and confess–that I have a lust for churches…other churches.
I need to be perfectly frank here. This is not something that’s an issue all of the time. While I don’t want to say that this is a debilitating condition, this is not something that is new to me. I have a history with church lust, desiring that which I do not have, coveting the ministries of others, feeling inadequate in the face of others’ successes and like I just don’t measure up. And I’m not sure it’s all that unfamiliar to other clergy as well. But I can’t speak for them. I can speak for me.
Before I started out in ministry, way back in seminary, I remember being somewhat jealous of new clergy friends who were headed off to be associate pastors in big churches in Virginia or North Carolina or wherever it is they came from. They were well-connected United Methodists and seemed groomed for greatness. And, in my own little way, I had wished I was like them. I wished I was going off to “First Church, Big City,” ready to work my way up the ministry ladder. Perhaps I could be a Superintendent or Bishop one day. A guy can dream, can’t he.
But wait, there’s more!
I never got to be team captain in gym class…you know that awkward procedure where two youth (usually two of the finer athletes) were picked to assemble their team to take out onto the battlefield of dodgeball or “crab soccer” or “indoor olympics.” I was never one of the “finer athletes.”
And it was a very rare occasion that I got to be team captain out on the playground. I could hold my own in kickball, kick the can, or capture the flag. But I never caught or threw or ran with the best. So, it was often the case, as the two captains started picking through the crowd of kids to assemble their respective teams, I waited to see on which side of the field I’d land. I knew that I wouldn’t be picked last…but I wasn’t going to be first either.
Sometimes however, when the planets aligned in a particular fashion or the atmospheric conditions were just right or there was a moment of dumb luck, I got to be a captain. I took the role of choosing my team very seriously. It was going to be an A-Team. I wanted speedsters and catchers and ones with good arms. I had in my head the various positions or places I needed filled and started imagining who it was that could be in those roles. And, I was clear, everyone had to play well with others. Sometimes the kids who were the most athletic could tear apart a team. I knew this. I wouldn’t be seduced by their superior athletic ability even if I was jealous of it at the same time. They were still a liability to the overall experience.
When kickball was the game on the playground for a given day I had an appreciation for someone who was often under appreciated.
But wait, there’s more!
There is an oft-spoken rule to starting ministry in a new church. It’s more of a “guideline” or “suggestion” than a rule, really. There’s nothing carved in stone. But it’s pretty well reinforced. And it goes something like this:
When starting off in a new church, don’t try anything new for a year.
There are some variations on this I’ve heard, but the general meaning is the same. Some pastors go off into new churches full of ideas and suggestions and new ways of worship and doing things and they are fully convinced that their way of doing things is the right way of doing things so that everything else should be brushed aside. Aside from the ego involved in such a perspective, coming into a new ministry setting and changing everything implies that the work of predecessors and faithful members that preceded you was misguided or irrelevant or just plain wrong. It also means changing things without getting “the lay of the land” first; figuring out why things have been done the way they’ve been done and determining a congregation’s threshold for change in the future.
Just like individuals, congregations (which, of course, are made up of individuals) get uncomfortable when too many things around them start changing. We ALL like the familiar. We ALL get in ruts of doing things the same way they’ve always been done because it’s comfortable. We ALL prefer to stay on the beaten path at points in our lives. While we may look romantically at adventure and braving the unknown, I think we ALL like to feel safe.
And while no one is laying down a law for new clergy that says they can’t try anything new for a year at all, there is a sense that coming into a new church and shaking things up too much is going to end up badly for everyone. The congregation may feel threatened or feel like there’s no connection to their history that got them to that place. And the pastor may feel like she flying solo with little support from anyone else. So, at least for a while, there is an expectation for our clergy to figuratively “tread water” for a while. Yes, some new things can be tried. Yes, new hymns can be introduced or new classes taught. Yes, you can begin to do some visioning. But, as with literal “treading water,” you’re not really going anywhere.
I don’t want say that this period of time is wasted as if “treading water” is a bad thing here. You may not be “going anywhere” but this is the time to discern through prayer and observation, through studying the church and community, where it is that you need to go. When clergy get to churches they need to learn about the church, its history, its peoples, their preferences. They need to test some of the boundaries to start learning where change is needed or where the “growing edges” are for congregation and the neighborhood around it. They need to see where authority rests, who the saints of the church are, who are the ones who have been forgotten. They need to assess the community and learn the rhythms of a new town, with potentially totally different industries and community events than they are used to. They need to build up trust and respect and, just as they learn the congregation, the congregation needs to learn them. It’s a learning process. And without doing all of these, a pastor won’t understand what ministry, new or old, should look like in this new setting.
To throw in another metaphor, when I’m in a city and need to get from one place to another I often pull out a map (digital at this point) and examine it so I can find my way from Point A to Point B. When beginning a new pastorate you need to spend time looking at “the map” so you get a good picture of the people, the church, and the community. This way you get the lay of the land before heading out. You figure out where you are (Point A) and get a sense of where it is you need to be headed (Point B).
(Now we return to the water metaphor).
I’ve been in Seward and Moose Pass for nine months now. It’s not been “a year” as prescribed in the unwritten rule for pastors. But it’s been long enough. For the most part, I’ve been treading water. I’ve tried to keep many things the way they’ve been. Our committees have been the same. I haven’t shaken worship up too much. I haven’t branched out to new ministries in the community very much. And I’ve been trying to get a sense from each of the congregations..who they are, what they find important, what their histories and personalities are, and who they want to be. It’s been a very active time even if we haven’t moved much. It’s been productive.
But I can tell that persons are ready for some more at this point. I’m seeing and hearing an openness to exploring what it is God wants from us and that it might be something more…something deeper…something more engaging…something different.
This is not to say that where things are now, in either church, is bad. It’s not saying that at all. But it is to say that I think persons know God has a plan for them and that will be leading them someplace. Where that is we don’t know right yet and it could take a while to figure out where that is. We will probably try some things that will fail miserably. We will probably make some mistakes. And I bet we’ll know when something gets too uncomfortable.
But it’s time to stop treading water. It’s now time to swim.
And I’m excited about where God may be leading us.
In October my two older daughters and I will be in a community theater production of four Edgar Allan Poe stories. They will be in “The Masque of the Red Death.” I’ll be doing a monologue performance of “The Raven.” The other two stories will be “The Telltale Heart” and “The Black Cat.”
We’ve had several practices so far and the bulk of my work has been in memorizing Poe’s classic poem about the raven visitor and the memories woman. Poe calls her ”the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore,” who is “nameless here forevermore.” I’m about halfway through it at this point and I could probably get through all of it with some prodding along the way.
In order to learn it, I’ve been saying it in the car over some longer trips out of Seward. I’ve listened to a professional recording of it. I’ve carried it with me so I can read through it when I have a few moments…or a full ten minutes for the whole thing…during the day.
After the first practice I said to the director, “If I can make it through two months of repeating ‘The Raven’ without going crazy it will be an accomplishment.” It is DARK–and it’s not even the darkest of Poe’s work. And when I’m really getting into it, raising my voice, yelling even, it’s exhausting.
OK. Let me be clear. I understand that the title of this blog post is a little academic. Many folks who stop by this site probably have in their minds some notion of what “evangelicalism” is and probably very little notion of what “post-evangelicalism” would mean at all. They are loaded terms and any understanding of them is clouded by one’s own experiences. And I’m pretty sure that there are some folks who are going to get to a word or phrase or even shut me out. That’s a problem with the medium. This is a one-sided conversation and I can’t go into too much more detail.
For me “evangelicalism” wasn’t a part of my early vocabulary at all. I grew up in an environment in New York State that was heavily Catholic and heavily Jewish with Protestants of any flavor being the minority–but the “flavor” was mostly mainline or liberal (again, very loaded terms…forgive me). It wasn’t until I moved to Indiana where I experienced what is, I think by most people, understood to be traditional evangelicalism. Here the United Methodist Churches were more socially conservative. We were also surrounded by Wesleyan Churches, tons of Baptists, Assemblies of God, etc. Billy Graham, Promise Keepers, and Christian rock were part of the culture. Theologically, there was a much greater emphasis on having a “salvation experience” and making “a decision for Christ” complete with altar calls. I ended up having a discussion with a “Campus Crusade for Christ” leader when I was confused about being a Christian without having a cookie-cutter born-again experience but he, thank God, determined that I was already a “Christian” and “saved” since I grew up in the faith and accepted it. Biblically, the more conservative religious culture leaned toward “biblical inerrancy” and the King James Version. There was a much greater emphasis on “the end times” and “rapture” even having “rapture practice” at a camp at which I was a counselor one summer. Socially, the issues of premarital sex, teen pregnancies, and American exceptionalism were talked about at the youth group level (homosexuality was an issue for the adults). Perhaps some of this is a stereotype. However, I wanted to show how this was a far different environment than my New York upbringing. At that time, I had a hard time reconciling the faith of my childhood with the faith of my teenage years…indeed the faith stage at which I was called into Christian ministry.
It is true that, theologically-speaking, the church provides us with a new family. In Christ we call each other sisters and brothers. We have a new heavenly Father. The church has been referred to as “Mother Church” or “The Bride of Christ.” Jesus even tells us that we’ll need to leave our earthly, familial relationships behind if we want to be a follower. These are sharp words to hear in a culture where we’ve idolized the family, or some idealized expression of it, for far too long.
This does not mean that the family is unimportant though; even in relation to the church.
Late last week I read a statistic that made me stop and pause. The statistic went something like this:
Youth spend an average of 40 hours per year in the church but 3000 hours per year with their family. Which one, either church or family, do you think has a bigger role in discipleship?
Well, of course the family will have a bigger role in the discipling of our youth. That’s where the kids are learning what it means to be Christian, to be a human, to relate with others, to deal with money and conflict, and learning proper communication. The church only gets a little bit of time and much of that is built around offering praise during corporate worship–which is tied into discipleship but is not specifically geared towards them. Whatever skill you want to learn in life–piano, gymnastics, underwater basket-weaving–you can learn better with 3000 hours of practice rather than 40 hours. I’ve taken guitar lessons three times in my life and never put in any practice outside of the lessons. So, today, I still can’t play guitar. The same would go for discipleship.
But wait, there’s more!
This stopped me in my tracks today:
One of our biggest challenges to shaping church in mission is leading our churches into actually engaging God’s mission in our surrounding neighborhoods. To quote Dan White Jr. on this blog earlier this week, the “stubbornness to live connected, generous, vulnerable lives w/ our neighbors is the greatest challenge and deficit” of [the] church today.
How do the people of God become “present” in “everyday life contexts,” whether that be in the neighborhood, work, civic discussions, family, etc.? [How do] we lead our churches to be present in the places where God has placed us so that reconciliation breaks out, the gospel is heralded, and God’s Kingdom becomes visible and goes forth among us?
(This is from David Fitch’s blog)