Monthly Archives: December 2014

Hail Mary


Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation (ca. 1472-1475)

Christmas is the one time of the year that it’s okay for us Protestants to talk about Mary. The Protestant movement of the sixteenth century was a reaction to perceived abuses in the Catholic Church. Anything considered idolatrous or unbiblical was rejected. The reformers saw popular devotion to the Virgin Mary with all of the statues and images and prayers to her as superstitious at best and idolatrous at worst, so they said it had to go. That’s why Protestants have a kind of spiritual amnesia when it comes to Mary. She appears in nativity scenes, Christmas pageants, and old familiar carols. But after Christmas Mary gets wrapped in bubble wrap and put away for another year, and then she’s forgotten.

But we shouldn’t forget about Mary. She’s the mother of our Lord. Instead of forgetting about her, we can learn from her example. Mary was the first and greatest disciple. When the angel Gabriel told her she would conceive by the Holy Spirit, she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Her immediate reaction was humble submission. She didn’t protest or bargain with God. She didn’t complain that a miraculous conception might get in the way of her plans to marry Joseph. She simply said yes to God’s will, even though God was calling her to do something that would cause both great joy and great suffering.

Mary’s obedience can be seen throughout her life. At Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle turning water into wine, Mary said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).  That’s good advice for us all.

When Jesus was being crucified, and his disciples had fled, Mary remained, watching her son suffer. From the cross, Jesus entrusted John, the beloved disciple, to his mother’s care, saying to Mary, “Behold thy son!” and to John, “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27).  There’s a sense in which Mary became not only a surrogate mother to John but to the whole church. Without Jesus there would be no church. Without Mary there would be no Jesus. Mary was also present in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, praying with the other disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And even though we Protestants don’t pray to Mary the way Catholics do, I believe Mary prays for us in heaven because spiritually we are all her children.

Just as we are all children of Eve, we are also all children of Mary. Through Eve’s disobedience sin entered the world and passed unto every one of us. Through Mary’s obedience, the remedy for sin entered the world: Jesus Christ, the Savior. Mary is the new Eve.

The miracle of the incarnation is the greatest miracle and it required Mary’s cooperation. The word “incarnation” means God took on real human flesh and blood. Jesus wasn’t half God and half man. Jesus was no demigod. He was fully God and fully man. As the Nicene Creed puts it, Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”

The baby Mary carried in her womb and nursed at her breast was none other than the God of the universe. That’s why she’s called the Mother of God. Not because she came before God or caused God to exist, but because her baby Jesus is truly God. The churches in the East call Mary theotokos, which is Greek for God-bearer, or as Jaroslav Pelikan translated it, “the one who gives birth to the one who is God.” The greatness of Mary depends on the greatness of Christ.

When she gazed into her infant’s eyes, did she see the galaxies he made? When she nursed him at her breasts, did she realize that he was the bread of life, sent from heaven? As she fled to Egypt with Joseph to save Jesus from Herod, did she realize that she was saving the Savior of the world?  When she watched her beloved Son die, did she realize he was dying so that others might live?

These are some questions for us to ponder when we get out the bubble wrap and put Mary away for another year.



Filed under holidays, sermons

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There


The image of compassion: a mother running along the bank of a rapid river, keeping up with her drowning child, running along the bank because she had no arms.—Lindsay Hill, Sea of Hooks, citing Patrul Rinpoche

An older man in my congregation called me last week because he forgot his wife’s cell phone number. The doctor’s office had called and he needed to relay an important message about a cancelation. I told him I didn’t have her number but I would try to find it and call him back. I called a couple of people who didn’t have it, and then I remembered that the wife sings in our choir. I got the choir director on the phone and she said yes she had the lady’s number but it was saved in her own cell, the one she was talking on. She’d have to hang up and call me back. She did, and I wrote down the number. Triumphant, I called the man back but as I went to read him the number I realized I had written it down wrong. There were only nine digits, not ten. I apologized and told him I’d have to call him back again. I tried and tried but couldn’t get the choir director on the phone. No one else I could think of had the number. An invisible vise squeezed my chest. I hated that I couldn’t assist someone who reached out to me. It’s lonely at the intersection of compassion and helplessness. I’ve been there many times.

The first death I dealt with as a pastor was tragic. The wife of my chairman of deacons took her own life violently on a Sunday morning with her husband and seventeen-year-old daughter at home. A neighbor of the family called me and said I needed to get over there right away. I did. A lone deputy sheriff was there, retrieving something from his squad car. He saw me walking up the drive and asked if I was the coroner, I guess because I was dressed for church, wearing a dark suit and tie. I said no, but wished I were. I thought it would have been easier dealing with the dead body than the live, grief-stricken people. I went in and saw the husband looking shell shocked and the daughter with swollen eyes. There was no Bible verse, no counseling trick, nothing in my pastoral toolkit that would make this situation better. I sat next the husband, put my hand on his shoulder, and said nothing. We sat in silence together for a long time.

What do you do when you desperately want to help but you’re powerless?

You must learn to say to yourself that you have no arms; that there is nothing in the world you can fix.


Filed under books, devotionals, personal

How I Failed As a Pastor

arrows missing target

The first church I served as pastor was difficult. No, impossible. At least that’s how it seemed at the time. I realize now it was as much my fault as theirs. I was twenty-four when they called me to be the spiritual shepherd of their flock. I learned immediately that just because sheep pick you as their shepherd, that doesn’t mean they will follow you.

The biggest problem was my lack of compassion. There are three rules for ministry. Any pastor who masters them cannot fail. They are as follows: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. This approach works whether or not all the people love the pastor, love the pastor, love the pastor. (The ego-shattering truth is pastors are sometimes as difficult to love as sheep.) Jesus was often moved to compassion when he looked upon his sheep. I was – and still am – too often moved to anger and resentment.

My parishioners in that first church could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought they should be. Then again, I could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought I should be. Whoever said “people rise to the level of your expectations” never tried leading a church. Most people already have their hands so full trying to meet the expectations of their bosses and families, and often failing to do so, that they have no emotional resources left to try to meet their pastor’s expectations or even figure out what they are. As cynical as it may sound, one key to being a successful pastor is low expectations. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. It doesn’t mean I give up on my people or assume that God has. It means I love them enough not to ask them to jump through my hoops.

Another problem was that I believed ministry functioned the way seminary did: work hard and you’ll be rewarded. You’ll make A’s and earn awards. I worked hard in seminary. I made A’s. I earned awards. I went to my first church and failed. Why? Churches aren’t seminaries. Most of the lessons I learned in the seminary classroom didn’t apply directly to pastoral ministry. When I went to my seminary professors for advice about what to do with my failing ministry, the best they could offer was that I should leave my “preacher-killing church” before I gave up on the ministry altogether. I liked the advice because it allowed me to shift all the blame to my congregation. But it didn’t help the congregation or me. An opportunity for growth on both parts was squandered.

Becoming a pastor is like going to the foreign mission field, especially if you grew up in the suburbs and you’re called to a rural parish as I was. A pastor has to become a cross-cultural expert. In order to be effective a new pastor must learn the language and the culture. That takes time. In my first church I never stuck around long enough to learn what made them tick. I was too impatient. When they didn’t follow my lead, I bailed.

Monks take a vow of stability, meaning they promise not to leave the monastery they first join. There’s a story in the Lives of the Desert Fathers about a monk who told his abbot that he was troubled by thoughts of leaving the monastery. The abbot said, “Go and sit down, and entrust your body to your cell, as a man puts a precious possession into a safe, and do not go out of it. Then let your thoughts go where they will. Let your mind think what it likes, so long as it does not drive your body out of the cell.” Pastors would do good to learn a lesson about stability from monks. To put it in non-monastic terms, you have to be more stubborn about staying at your church than the people in your congregation who want you gone.

Twenty plus years after my failed pastorate I find myself serving a congregation that reminds me a lot of that first one. It’s in a small town and most of the older folks grew up on farms. The church was in a full-blown crisis when I arrived as interim pastor. I had just left active duty with the Navy and a plum job teaching at the Naval Academy. I had no intentions of staying. I just needed a place to hang my hat for a while until I found something better. That was two and a half years ago, and I’m still here.

There’s no guarantee things will turn out any better than they did at my first church. True, I’m no longer a naive twenty-something out to save the world. I’ve learned that I can’t save myself much less anyone else. I’m also a little more patient and a little less demanding than I was two decades ago. Still, at some point I may get frustrated and bail. In the meantime I’m going to do my best to take my own advice: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. That’s not always easy but I’ll keep trying, because love covers a multitude of sins.


Filed under ministry, personal