Being in Need

Matthew 21:1-11

Earlier this week, my husband and I went to Clarendon for a lovely breakfast on our day off. After our meal, we got into our car, Brian turned on the ignition, started to drive off, until we heard a strange sound.

Earlier that morning, I noticed a slow leak in our front tire. I had just filled it with air, and patching the tire on my to-do list. But when our car sounded like it was scraping pavement, I did a little investigating and saw that the wheel was as now as flat as a White Castle hamburger patty. Evidently, our tire was not going to wait until I got to number twenty-seven on my to-do list. It wanted attention that afternoon. So quickly, it moved to number one.

My husband and I sat in the car for a moment, formulating our plan. Where was the nearest tire store? It was just a few blocks down the road. Did we have anything on the calendar that we needed to cancel? No, I had blocked off the day for my taxes. Did we have AAA? No, I let that expire a year ago.

So, we hopped out of the car, rolled up our sleeves and began to work on getting the spare in place. When we opened up our trunk, we both took a deep breath. It was full of junk. My husband’s church was getting ready to have a garage sale, and so number 7 on the to-so list was to get a houseful of junk to the Palisades Community Church. We had to take out all of the stuff, place it on the sidewalk, before we could get to the tire.

The whole time, I kept thinking, I hope no one stops to help us. I really hope no one stops to help us. I was embarrassed. Embarrassed that we had a flat. Embarrassed that our car was filled with junk, like we were 2011’s answer to the Beverly Hillbillies.

I was sure that who ever stopped would ask me the usual questions like, “Now why don’t you have AAA?” or “How long have you known about this slow leak?” They would not be questions of pure curiosity. They would be lectures, presented in the guise of concern. I was thankful that my husband was there, not only because he was able to get those lug nuts free without using the kicking method that I’ve developed, but also because he would be a guarantee that no one would stop.

When we got tire replaced, I got back into the car. I was feeling a rush of accomplishment. You know people like me who spend all day in from of a computer, we feel overblown sense of importance when we can finally do something with our hands. I felt like I should sign up to be a part of a pit crew.

Brian got behind the wheel, sighed and said, “I hate living here sometimes. Not even one person could put down their smart phone long enough to stop and help us.”

“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head, “can you believe that?” Then my eyes shifted from side to side.

That moment reminded me how much I hate to ask for help. I don’t know why. I just hate needing help. I hate being helpless. Maybe it comes from having a disabled father, and so my role growing up was always the helper, and so I’m uncomfortable with being in need.

Maybe it comes from being a working mom. An article came out in the Post this week about the salary gap between the genders. Did you know that when a man has kids, he can count on an increase in salary. But when a woman has children, she can count on a decrease?
“Why is that,” you ask? I guess it’s because society assumes that we’re not going to be able to excel once we have kids. The cultural expectation is that it will make a man more loyal to his job, but a woman will need more time off, more flexibility, more sick days, more family leave. She will need more.

So working moms work to prove that we have no needs. It’s like we all go to working-mom school, where they teach us things like, “It’s easier just to do it yourself than to ask someone for help.” Or “give your child Tylenol at exactly 8:15, because she’ll feel fine by the time she gets to school.” It’s why salaried women often work longer hours than their male counterparts—we want to prove that we’re not on the Mommy track. We don’t need anything.

It was in the midst of this that I come to this passage. And the words of Jesus kind of hit me. Jesus is telling the disciples to get a donkey and a colt. Actually it kind of looks like Jesus is asking them to hijack a donkey—they’re just supposed to take it. Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. And when the owner asks why they’re kidnapping his animals, the disciples should reply, “Because the Lord needs it.”

“The Lord needs it.” That makes me pause.

What does Jesus need? Does he simply need the donkey? Or is there more to it than that? Does he need the splashy entrance to set up the crucifixion? I mean, does he need to make a big deal out of coming into Jerusalem so people will know that he’s there, kind of like Lady Gaga showing up to an Awards Ceremony in a giant plastic egg?

Or does Jesus need something else?

I’m pretty orthodox in my views of Jesus. I believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. But there have been questions throughout history about the nature of Jesus. And in this Holy Week I encourage you all to think about what you believe.

The councils of the early church wrestled with this a lot. Was Jesus a created being, as Arian taught? Did Jesus have two natures, one human and one divine? Did teach different nature take over at different points of his life? Did Jesus have a human body and a divine soul? Could a human body and a divine soul be connected?

These are all questions that the early church struggled with, and most thinking Christians still struggle with how it might work.

When I was growing up, my understanding of Jesus was pretty heretical. My thinking was in line with Apollinarianism. Which meant that Jesus had a divine soul and a human body. So, to me, Jesus was kind of like Superman without the kryptonite. He had superpowers and he could do lots of super things. Just like Clark Kent was a news reporter, Jesus had the form of a carpenter guy.

I certainly never believed that Jesus needed anything. That would be… too human. Superguys don’t need stuff. When I thought of the Holy Week in which we are entering, I thought that Jesus was all-powerful, and he was just going through the motions of death so that he could be resurrected. Kind of like how Superman would go through the pain of becoming a human train track so that the people on the train would be saved. He didn’t have to do it, but he knew that it would help people, so he did.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’m realizing how important it is that my understanding changed, and how my understanding of God affects my understanding of humanity, and it affects my understanding of myself.

The Council of Chalcedon (which took place in the 5th century), made some decisions. It said that Jesus is truly, fully human and truly, fully God. There are certain things that make us human: our emotions, the fact that we are born and that we die. For someone to be fully human, there is something else: We need.

We need practical things like food and water. As infants, we need physical contact. We need to love and be loved.

And in this Holy Week, as Jesus turns to the disciples and tells them that he needs a donkey, I wonder if he is saying something important to us. He knows that something dreadful is about to happen. He’s been hinting at it for weeks. And I think that Jesus needs the praise, he needs the love, he needs the palm branches and the affection. He needs to gather with friends, he needs to share a meal with them. He needs to feel the feet of his loved ones. He needs to see his mother as he’s dying on the cross. He needs the shouts in order to endure the vicious cruelty. He needs the waving branches in order to endure the public execution.

He needs it.

I have some dear atheist friends who often argue with me that we serve a narcissistic God, because God needs to be praised. They’ll say to me, “I don’t need to be praised and thanked all the time. Why should God expect it?”

I guess I look at it differently. Because I like that we have a God who needs—just like a baby girl who is being baptized, just like a grown man who is facing death—we come to this Holy Week knowing that we have a God who needs. And when we realize that, we understand something about the humanity surrounding us. We know that it is part of the human condition to need. We are not autonomous, we are not superheroes, we need one another. We need affection, we need love, sometimes we need help on the side of the road. Sometimes we need to take family leave. Sometimes we need food. Other times we need unemployment checks. And that does not make us weak, that does not make us failures. That makes us human.

“The Lord needs it,” the disciples told the owner.

Jesus needed a whole lot of things. And when we are facing difficulties in our lives, may we be like Jesus. May we realize that we need things too.

To the glory of God our Creator, God our Liberator, and God our Sustainer.

Is There a Distrust of Larger Churches?

Three things have happened in the PCUSA which have caused me some discomfort, as people have thought about the future of our denomination.

1) In 2008, Beau Weston wrote a paper on “Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment.” The “Establishment” was to be made up of all kinds of people, but mostly tall-steeple pastors.

2) More recently, a group of male pastors of mostly large, conservative churches wrote a letter stating that the denomination is “deathly ill” and outlining their hopes for the future.

3) Then there was a NEXT Church gathering, which was a conference that resulted from a conversation that was largely initiated by progressive big-steeple pastors.

I have many friends in the NEXT Church group and I was invited to the initial conversation and the gathering. Scheduling conflicts kept me from participating, but I would have loved to be a part of the discussion and the resulting conference. I was out of the country.

As soon as I returned from international roaming rates, I excitedly checked the #NEXTChurch Twitter hashtag to find out what happened at the event. I have to admit, my heart sank when I read the timeline. Many of the tweets explained that it was an event where four people preached, and three of them were men from tall-steeple churches. Testimonies were given, by mostly men. After some initial questions, I heard the gender equity was pretty good, especially during worship. In the breakout groups, mostly men moderated the conversation, but men and women reported that the gender balance was okay and that the racial ethnic representation was good in the worship leadership.

As I waded into the conversation with my tactless sass and a bit of misinformation, friends pushed back. Some pushback was good. I retweeted something on gender representation that was false, and I apologize for that. A seminary student said that I needed to make more friends among the organizers.

White guys commented on blogs how annoying it was that people (um, I would be one of those annoying people) are always bringing up how many women and people of color were involved. I know, I write about this a lot.

One friend pointed out that there seemed to be a distrust of big-steeple churches. He rightly explained that the big-steeple pastors had the resources and the power to pull the gathering off, and we should be thankful that they did.

I felt my own distrust rising up when he mentioned it, and I’m not sure why. I am the Associate Pastor of a 350-member church. It’s not a powerful church position. But, let me be clear. When my congregation called me, they asked me what my long-term career goals were. I answered, “I want to be the Head of Staff of a large, progressive congregation.”

I am very content where I am. I love my congregation. But, I don’t expect that I’ll be at this position for the next 30 years. I don’t think that God is calling me to big-steeple church any longer, but that has certainly been my hope up until recently. I guess I just want to put those cards on the table as I wade into this topic, because I have not had animosity against large congregations. I have felt called to serve in one.

So where is the frustration coming from?

It is a pattern in the Presbyterian Church (and probably in most organizations), that when a group wants to advocate for something in particular, then they will craft a letter ask the most powerful person that they know to sign on to it. We are denomination with a democratic structure, but we also know that some votes can count more than others. More than once I’ve felt frustrated by watching my influential colleagues throw their weight around.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), the stats are pretty interesting. About 65% of our congregations are made up of churches that are under 150 members. When we imagine the future of the church, we know that the big-steeples are pretty safe. Even the conservative ones, who can’t abide by a democratic change in our polity, have enough power that they will probably end up with their property and be largely unscathed when they sever themselves.

The 65% often cannot afford a pastor. Many have a membership of people who are over the age of 65. Most will be coming to the end of their life cycle in a decade or so. Are we willing to be a church of the 35%? Or will we start looking toward the edges for innovative ministry?

The big steeples have ministry models that many smaller congregations cannot replicate. The vast programs, staffing structures, beautiful buildings, and musical excellence are out of reach for most churches. The congregations that are growing the fastest are immigrant congregations. Many new congregations are finding deep community in smaller forms. As these churches are being planted, many appreciate the depth of their community and realize that they might lost something when they become larger.

I guess what I’m getting at with all of this is that the future of the church may not come from the tall-steeple pastors’ imagination. I am thankful for their voices in the discussion. I acknowledge the vast sum of money that they spent to put on a conference. But, as we look toward the future, I hope that we can keep looking at the edges. I hope that we can keep listening to immigrant communities, women, people of color, younger people, and those who are engaging with technology. I have a deep longing that those who are engaging with technology will not turn into another boy’s club, commenting about how annoying the girls are for wanting to be a part.

There are people who have not been able to attain the large pulpit, who are doing something different, who may not have much weight to throw around, and yet, they need to be heard in these conversations.

(Oh… and to be clear… my post is a paltry, late rehashing of some really good work that’s out there: namely MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s post, Landon Whitsitt’s post, and John Vest’s post.)

A Word of Thanks for All Those Who Have the Strength and Courage to Tell the Truth

Vienna Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the largest and most conservative Presbyterian Church (USA) churches in our area, is seeking forgiveness after the horrifying details of a sexual abuse scandal have come to light. In 2005, the church leadership thought that their youth director, Eric DeVries, had been inappropriate with a member of the youth group, and so they forced him to resign and reported the case to Fairfax Child Protective Services.

Then in 2008, incoming Associate Pastor David Jordan-Haas realized that there was more to the story and would not ignore the whispers he heard about the youth director. He began asking questions and the sordid details came out, showing that DeVries was particularly adept in the art of religious seduction. Using the stories of Scripture to ensure teenaged girls that they would some day be together, preying on them during youth group trips, Eric DeVries may have enticed as many as twelve teenaged girls.

As a Presbyterian pastor who also serves in the metropolitan D.C. region, I am part of a Presbytery, a governing body that connects our congregations in our worship, mission, and discipline. I am overwhelmed with sorrow that this has happened. I shudder when I think about the emotional and spiritual damage that has been done to these women.

I know that in the days, weeks, and years to come, members of the Presbytery will be trying to resolve why the initial response to this tragedy was paltry. Was the denominational leadership too quick to move on without fully investigating the incident? Did we work as hard as we should have to listen to the victims and seek justice for them?

Those are the concerns ahead of us, but until we get into those difficult questions, I want to stop and say thank you.

To the women who have been carrying the memories of this abuse, hiding these hand-scrawled notes, and trying to make sense of the church in light of these relationships, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the courage and conviction it took for you to speak.

I don’t know how your faith is in all of this. I know that mine is shaken by the events that have taken place, and I only read about it in the newspaper. I didn’t have to live it. But, please know that this pastor is extraordinarily proud of you for finding your voice. You have spoken out, even when you thought that people would not believe you, when you were afraid that they would blame you, or when you thought they would laugh at you. You had the courage to demand justice and wholeness. And, for you and for all of those who speak on behalf of the abused, I am deeply grateful.