Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Covenant Group

One of my favorite quotes, ever, is about the astonishing, breathtaking potential of people all around us:

"It is a serious thing. . . to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, in a nightmare. . . All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . There are no ordinary people. You never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization, these are mortals, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we work with, joke with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. . . And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner - no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love. . ."

C.S.Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Over the last 32 years, I have watched the glory of which Lewis writes emerge in 3 men. For the last 19 of those years, I have seen such "everlasting splendours" up close and personal. In my covenant group - Peter, Allan, and Trevor.

We met in seminary. They were fresh out of college. I had just gotten married, was 3 years older, all my classmates had graduated, and basically Susan and I had no friends. So, they as freshmen and I as a senior fell in together. And by the appointment of God, I think, we were forged into something of His own making, although that would not become clear for years.

After we went our separate ways, the other 3 ended up serving PCUSA churches back east, while Susan and I migrated back to Susan's home church (PCUSA also) in the Pacific Northwest. We stayed in touch. But then, in 1990 we began to meet together as a covenant group, meaning that we made promises to one another and to God that bound us together in love. We agreed that it would be an annual event. We've now been meeting yearly 19 times. We travel once a year from long distances and from all around the country, to meet for 5 days.

Along the way, we have shared pretty much everything about ourselves with each other. We take turns doing self-disclosure each year, sometimes for 3-4 hours apiece. We know each one's weaknesses, failures, fears, temptations, spiritual gifts, losses, griefs, dreams, nightmares, favorite books and movies. We know each other's spouses, parents, and children. We came to Trevor's side when his son Colin got killed as a freshman in college. We have sorrowed in the deaths of parents.We have agonized as each one has left one call to serve another congregation. We cook together, celebrate national championships together, go running together, argue about theology together.

In all of this, we have shared so much of life that we never have a need to start back at the beginning. We share a common education, the same denomination with all of its flaws and painful recent history, are from the same economic class, bear the same color and gender, are of the same nationality, and are within 3 years in age of each other. When we regather, we simply start where we left off. There's so much that never needs to be said, so much to be built upon, so much equity we have with one another, so much hilarious and delightful history we have made or lived together, so many of the same books we have read. We are living through the same huge cultural phenomena at the same time, die daily from the same agonies, have the same profession. I'm sure that many of you will say, "How BORING!" But in a world that is saturated with impermanence, a crass consumeristism that breeds faithlessness and betrayal, this group is one of the greatest comforts of life, evokes some of the greatest joys in life, gives hope in the midst of a hard, cruel valley of the shadow of death, revives the soul for the next leg of the journey, provides the next year's reading list(!), kicks one another's butt, quiets the incessantly accusing voices we hear inside, and demands a greater attentiveness to the most important part of the call to pastoral ministry: to love the people place under our care.

And perhaps most importantly, we help each other to believe that none of us is a mere mortal. That each of us is someone of astonishing beauty, the very reflection of the living God. And we gain eyes to see who is really there, not the mask that is on the outside.

In all the world, everyone needs a covenant group in which Christ is present and given His rightful place. If you don't have such a group, seek one. Pray for one. Call people to form one. Don't stop until it happens. Because life is too hard to go through on one's own. And, to use a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 3:18, "We are what we gaze at."

Monday, April 7, 2008


Seen any good movies lately?

Susan and I don’t go out to see a lot of movies. There’s always something else that needs to be done, or so it seems. We’ve been known to be picky about what we see. Movies can cost a lot. But every once in a while, we get a sense about a certain movie, a sense that there’s something there worth taking in.

Like Juno, for instance.

Don’t get me wrong, Juno’s not a safe haven for Christian sensibilities. It’s laced with profanity and adult themes. It’s about a high school girl (Juno) who gets pregnant, decides she’s too immature to raise the baby, and seeks a couple who would adopt the child. There’s barely a hint of the Judeo-Christian worldview at most turns. Everything seems to be playing out in a postmodern, post-Christian setting. The Church is treated as irrelevant.

But there’s something there nonetheless. The characters, easily boxed and labeled early in the movie, become real as the movie progresses. As the drama unfolds and the conflict builds, it’s as if their true selves are revealed. Indeed, in some notable cases, they mature and develop. Juno’s dad comes off as a brusque, distant, judgmental type when Juno tells him she’s pregnant; later, he embraces Juno with something akin to what you and I might call hesed, that covenant love in the Old Testament that makes promises that bind us to others unconditionally. Juno’s stepmother is sensible and cold towards Juno in the beginning; later, she blooms in courage and protectiveness for her. Vanessa, the woman who is seeking to be the baby’s adopting mother, is revealed at first to be anxious, controlling, and fearful; but in one of the most tender scenes in the movie, she melts, pressing her hands and face up to Juno’s belly, to feel the baby moving. Vanessa becomes increasingly transformed into a woman of centeredness and strength.
But Juno herself goes through the most significant transformation. She grows from child to young woman. She discovers and affirms that the fetus has feet, is a live human being, and must not be aborted. She sorts out who is authentic and trustworthy because of their honesty, compassion, faithfulness, and courage. Juno faces the rejection and marginalization from many of her peers with her own courage.

Through it all these characters manifest something like what C.S.Lewis highlights in The Great Divorce. In this thin volume, surely one of the most brilliant works he ever wrote, Lewis shows people arriving in heaven from hell as ghosts. “Now that they were in the light, they were transparent. . . man-shaped stains in the brightness of that air.” But the longer beings remained in heaven, the more solid they became. They were transformed. They became who they were meant to be, real, in their glory.

That’s what God is up to in this life. God is making us real. We’re meant to be solid selves, not whispy images. We are meant to be in all our glory, which is borrowed, of course, from Jesus Himself. Juno has the right idea. Jesus has the right stuff to make it happen.

I am thinking that watching movies, like reading books, is the exactly right setting to call us into prayer. To prompt us to pray for God to work what is good and right in what we are seeing and hearing in our lives as well. Seen any good movies lately?