Monday, January 23, 2017

Remembering Promises

January 23rd is the anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry in the United Church of Christ. It's been 12 years now since I made promises to adhere to a certain standard of life, faith, and interaction with those inside and outside the walls of the church.

Every year on or around this date, I try to make it a point to listen to the audio recording of that service, my UCC Book of Worship on my lap, as I pay special attention to several things.

First, the promises themselves. They include things like upholding the faith and order of the UCC, speaking the truth in love while also maintaining the peace of the church, ministering faithfully and without bias to people of the Christian faith, other faiths, and no faith. They are powerful words that I review and renew as an annual Examen, asking forgiveness for when I have not upheld them the way that I should have, and making them anew for the year ahead.

I also listen to the sermon the pastor of my hometown church preached that day. His words about not treating such a milestone like receiving a crown still ring in my mind: "If this feels like you're a king at a coronation...get over it." The nature of ministry is service and humility rather than power and prestige. This, too, is something that I strive to remember, as I have taped in my office a note that says in big letters, "It's not about you." Indeed it isn't.

As special as that day was and as much as that moment continues on as a point of affirmation to which I can return again and again, I can also remember the little things that didn't go right or that I would have changed.

The altar candles weren't lit. I overlooked securing an acolyte for the afternoon.

Right before the moment when all other clergy observe the laying on of hands, there was a little exchange between myself and the Association representative where I didn't know where to kneel or which direction to face when doing it.

The opening hymn was "Come Christians Join to Sing," which I didn't know until years later is the same tune as "Carmen Ohio," the Ohio State alma mater. A lifelong Michigan fan should know better.

As much as I cringe at these memories that occurred during such an important occasion, I also find them a fitting metaphor for the true nature of pastoral ministry. Sure, the role is an important one and has great potential for awe and carries with it a sense of the sacred and sublime. But living one's calling in real time brings great potential for the accentuation of the imperfect, because the imperfect is all there really is to begin with.

I have 12 years' worth of stories of snap decisions I've had to make, apologies I've had to issue, metaphorical fires I've had to help extinguish, events, situations, and people I've been slow to address or have outright lost track of, good intentions that have blown up in my face, and new initiatives that have failed.

But in those 12 years there have also been blessings I've been a part of (usually by accident), all manner of life passages I've helped celebrate, new initiatives that have brought energy, growth, and joy, difficult decisions I've been invited into, and many a relationship that has stretched me and made me aware of how much I don't know but also how much God is a part of it all.

The list of things I've found myself doing as an ordained minister that I was never told about are numerous, and quite humbling. You're never really prepared to sit in an ER keeping vigil with a family as a loved one's earthly life ends. You don't necessarily picture yourself organizing groups to pack food boxes or refurbish a house or hear a person's story in inner Cleveland while she feeds you rice and beans. You can't anticipate driving someone to the impound to get their car back so they can make it to their job.

No, ordination is definitely not a coronation. It is the beginning of a long series of humbling, strange, glorious, frustrating, uplifting, heartbreaking, miraculous moments, and you never know which it will be on any given day.

You just show up. You show up, remember your promises, and pray that God does what God does through you.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Vintage CC: Congregational Subtext

I wrote this back in May 2009. It's always important to identify what the real issues are underneath congregational complaints so that you can separate the distractions from the heart of the problem. But it takes work, skill, patience, and love...and maybe a good mediator.

I don't know how familiar my readers are with a TV show called Coupling. It was a British sitcom somewhat remeniscient of Friends that had a short-lived American equivalent. The American version sucked, the British one is much better paced and had better actors.

Anyway, there's one episode of Coupling where one of the characters, Jeff, talks about a made-up character named Captain Subtext. Essentially, Captain Subtext can detect what someone really means whenever they talk. This eventually leads to a hilarious scene where we're able to see and hear the world through Captain Subtext's subtext-detecting helmet.

Pastor and author M. Craig Barnes makes a similar point in his book The Pastor as Minor Poet, noting that congregants typically mean something other than what they say, and the pastor's call is to help them identify the issues below the surface. He gives an example of a couple who visits his office to complain about their new choir director, and he helps identify that they're really less angry at the new director and more grieved over the retirement of the former one. But it takes the active listening of the pastor to bring that subtext to light.

I can point to easy examples from my own ministry. For instance, "A lot of people don't like the guitar in worship" may really mean "My wife and I and one other couple don't like the guitar in worship." "You don't visit people enough" really means "I wish you'd visit me." "We need more activities for the senior high youth" really means "I wish my grandkids were more active in the church." These types of comments attempt to sound universal, but they're really issues that individuals are dealing with. And again, it's helpful for the pastor to listen for these subtexts and name them.

Any of the first set of statements could easily degenerate into an argument...it'd certainly take a lot for me to resist going on the defensive. And I think there's something to be said for simply helping a church member to understand why the guitar is included, or that one does in fact visit people regularly, or that you've been planning senior high activities for some three years now. And I've done that as well, most likely with some degree of defensiveness. But that's probably still not the real issue for the person making the statement, so it shouldn't be left there.

Addressing the subtext can be helpful for a couple reasons:

1. It gets to the real issue, to restate the obvious. The temptation is always to stay at the surface, to go on the defensive, to address the pragmatic and immediate. But there is likely more going on...more that is happening within the person raising the issue. And addressing that issue will be ultimately more helpful, as it will help him or her become aware of that issue.

2. It creates potential for deeper conversation and relationships. If the person is open to hearing about that subtext, he or she will be able to journey through a time of deeper self-awareness and deeper trust between pastor and parishioner. That sort of thing is what the church is meant to be about, beyond the sorts of mundane institutional matters that it may otherwise get hung up on.

3. It also helps the pastor identify his or her own subtext as he or she helps another identify theirs. A pastor needs be aware of one's own reactions and internal issues, as they may create temptation to be defensive as well, to simply "play the game" begun by the surface issue, and to be more potentially destructive than pastoral.

Identifying the subtext can be good for the overall church culture as well. If issues are brought to light within individuals or within the entire congregation, the church as a whole can be affected in positive and life-giving ways. If both sides are willing to do the work, addressing subtext can encourage faithfulness in ways that neither may have expected.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Energy for the Work - A Prayer for MLK Day


God of love, justice, and peace: we are still daring to dream.

We set aside this day to hear again about that dream; to read words written in Birmingham, to listen to stories of freedom and equality hard-won and to be reminded of the need to march further.

It is a day where we face the temptation to keep such words and stories encased in history where they make us more comfortable, and we may reflect on their meaning, but not too much.

It is a day for you to jolt us from our passivity and to remind us that justice doesn't come by speeches and remembrances, but by continued attentiveness to how all your beloved children are still fractured, still oppressed and oppressing, still crying out for a transformed reality struggling to bloom.

O God, rather than rest on speeches and letters, instead may they serve as energy for the work still to be done. May they be fuel for the inner fire needed for us to help dreams be realized. Amen.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Winter/Spring Reading

Last year I joined Goodreads. It was partially prompted by the publishing of my own book so I could make sure it was added and I could be a "Goodreads Author," which doesn't really seem to entail much.

But anyway, I joined, and quickly decided that I was going to take on a reading challenge of 50 books, which I met and actually surpassed by 10.

The problem I found with doing this challenge was the intentional quickness with which I read. I don't think I savored or digested some of the books I read because the challenge loomed too large inside me.

I am doing a reading challenge again, but I've cut back on the number so I don't feel so rushed to meet it.  I already have a list of books to read (hopefully at a leisurely pace) before summer. Here's what's currently on my nightstand, what I'm anticipating to be released soon, what I've already read since January 1st, or otherwise I've made top priority over the next few months.
  • Trouble I've Seen by Drew G.I. Hart
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard Merritt
  • The Walking Dead Volume 27 by Robert Kirkman
  • Not Your Parents' Offering Plate by J. Clif Christopher
  • Outlaw Christian by Jacqueline A. Bussie
  • All About Love by bell hooks
  • A Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann
  • The Crucified God by Jurgen Moltmann
  • The Rules of Supervillainy by C.T. Phipps
I admit that this is not a very diverse list. Other than one novel and one graphic novel, there's no fiction. I plan to correct that once we hit June, but in the meantime I think it's important to spend time with the texts above. And there's always the possibility that something else turns up between now and then. I'm always up for that.

What's on your reading list the first few months of 2017?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Pastoral Prayer for Baptism of Christ Sunday

based on Matthew 3:13-17

God of wisdom and love beyond our knowing, we answer to many names. Some names are bestowed upon us by relationship: grandparent, parent, son, daughter, sister, brother, friend. Some names are entrusted to us, by role or profession, by what we are gifted to do. And some names are forced on us due to a calling to which we are hopelessly linked, or to limit us by one in authority. We embrace some names while striving to reject or shed others, ever struggling to discover our core being.

Above these other voices affixing to us identities of various kinds, there comes one from divine places that claims us as Beloved. As we shudder at the weight of familial roles, as we strain to live up to vocational responsibilities, as we try to shake loose unwanted perceptions, you speak through water and Spirit to say that we are loved eternally and unconditionally, and that you are pleased with us who ultimately return to you as bearers of your life breath.

God of many names, help us to know ourselves. Open our eyes to see our connection to you, open our ears to hear how you identify us as your children, and open our hearts to receive the truth of who we are. Amen.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Small Sips Mourns the Bothans

Starting with something geeky. Rogue One made my year-end list of best movies. It was a Star Wars movie, so that weighted the scale a little. But it certainly wasn't just due to its association with a beloved franchise, but also its effect on it. Eleanor Tremeer explains how this latest installment--a prequel to A New Hope--changed the original trilogy (POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD):
In Return of the Jedi, when the Rebel Alliance faces the second of what now seems to be an endless parade of Death Stars (I mean, that's basically what Starkiller Base is in The Force Awakens), Mon Mothma explains that the crucial plans to this battle station came at a price.
"Many Bothans died to bring us this information."
It's almost an offhand comment, and that's the last we hear of these mysterious Bothans, as they are merely tools to establish the gravity of the situation.
But with Rogue One we get an up close and personal look at what the Rebellion was really like: The sacrifices made, the morals compromised, the brothers-in-arms lost to this relentless war. Rogue One is emotionally brutal, as each beautifully nuanced, well-rounded character meets their sometimes dramatic, sometimes mundane end.
I hadn't considered it the way this article does, but Rogue One is basically a movie about a handful of the background characters, the ones who fight alongside Luke, Leia, and the others. And it turns out that their roles are just as dramatic, captivating, and crucial as the ones we hear way more about. Their fulfillment of duty and sacrifice allow the ones front and center to do what they do.

If you've seen the movie, the whole thing is worth a read. If you haven't, bookmark it for after you have.

So after that obviously I have to mention this. Last week I and many others were devastated by the news of Carrie Fisher's death after she briefly tried to battle back from a heart attack. Besides being Princess Leia, Fisher was an active and outspoken advocate for mental health issues, which included her being honest about her own struggles. In response to a question from someone wrestling with bipolar disorder, she had this to say:
We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic - not "I survived living in Mosul during an attack" heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder. That's why it's important to find a community - however small - of other bipolar people to share experiences and find comfort in the similarities.
Don't I sound like I know what I'm talking about? The truth is, I've never done what it sounds like you're doing: balancing school, home and work. I left home and school. So as difficult as it seems like it can be, you're ahead of the game. You're doing more than I did at your age, and that's courageous.
Her entire answer is worth a read. I take time to give thanks for this part of her public life as well. She helped combat stigma and change the conversation from one of fear to one of acknowledging the difficulty while also offering hope.

Yeah, me too. M. Craig Barnes writes about why he worries about pastors of politically divided churches:
In this stark conflict the pastor stands in the pulpit struggling to say something that’s both unifying and prophetic. It’s easy to gloss over the divisive issues of a congregation with a declaration about spiritual unity, and it’s easy to make a congregation afraid of the “them” who are to blame for our problems. But it’s very difficult to preach to a divided “us.”
This goes to the heart of the pastor’s calling. We are not cheerleaders who lead the congregation in fight songs for our side of a political game. Nor do we wander around asking, “Can’t we all just get along?” Our calling has always been to proclaim the gospel for our life together. So what does it mean to be the pastor-preacher who has taken a vow to love everyone in the congregation in such a divisive time?
Barnes doesn't offer a one-size-fits-all answer, because there really isn't one. There will be times to be prophetic, times to be pastoral, times to push and refrain from pushing. But since ministry is an art and not a science, it takes discernment to figure out when to do what, and then courage and centeredness to actually do it.

Your argument is invalid, mostly because the other person doesn't care. Daniel Camacho proposes that more will be needed the next four years than fact-checking:
The question of violence vs. non-violence in this political situation can easily function as a subterfuge that paralyzes resistance. We must protect the vulnerable whether this includes Muslims, immigrants, women, or the LGBTQI community. The important thing to keep our eye on is the power we do possess and the various avenues by which we can resist. What can resistance look like? I think we will have to utilize all of the legal, political, economic, activist/organizing, artistic, and religious means available to us.
Essentially, authoritarian and fascist regimes don't care about logic. What Camacho argues for instead is action, resistance, pushback...something stronger and more noticeable than fact-checking. This is why my word for the year is Engage, and why I have a lower tolerance for social media.

You always remember your first, for better or worse. Jan Edmiston offers some marks of a great first pastoral call for those who are seeking them:
What I’ve noticed is this:
  • A good first call is all about God.  It’s not about “getting ordained” or “paying the rent” or “being in the same town with ___” or “impressing the parents” or anything other than being where God calls you to be.  You do not want to be where God isn’t calling you to be.  #disaster
  • A good first call will bolster your pastoral identity.  Whether your first call is in a parish, a hospital, a school, a homeless shelter, an interfaith organization, or a soup kitchen – if you are called to professional ministry by God in that particular setting, your understanding of yourself as a pastor will blossom.
  • A good first call is among people who allow you to have a life apart from work.  Your people will want their spiritual leader to have a social life, an intellectual life, and – yes – a spiritual life that will be fed beyond the congregation/ministry site. They will expect you to take your day(s) off.  They will be happy when you take vacation and study leave because they care about you.
  • A good first call allows for mistakes and missteps.  New pastors fail in small and huge ways.  Forgiveness goes both ways.
I was very fortunate and blessed to have a first call in which these positives largely played out. I know others, however, who did not experience some or all of these things, yet in many cases were still able to learn from and transcend them in order to know that they are affirmed and gifted for ministry. Jan's list is important both for those seeking or living out their first call and for churches serving as a first call for someone. Self-awareness on both sides is important.

Love-based action. Christine Grillo recounts a conversation featuring Wendell Berry. The whole thing is very good, but I've been drawn to this part:
On climate change, he said that while he acknowledges it, he finds it to be a distraction. By focusing on climate change, he said, we turn our focus away from the multitude of things that are wrong. “We need a broad-fronted economic movement to protect everything that’s worth protecting, to stop damage to everything that’s worth keeping,” he said, suggesting that such a movement would need to become part of every day life for everyone. “A whole program like that needs to be carried out by whole people who are not ashamed to use words like love, honesty and fidelity.” He also suggested that the reason we’re not seeing enough traction on climate change is that we are using the wrong tactics to make people care—fear, guilt and anger. Instead of basing our entire strategy on how scared we are about the future, we should base a strategy on love. “We all need to find things we love to do, and do them,” he said.
“We’ve been talked out of love, mercy, kindness,” he said, laying some blame at the feet of scientists who strive to reduce or quantify such qualities. “We’ve got to take those things back.”
This is a similar sentiment to what I shared in my One Word post on Monday. Yes, there is both good reason and good times for anger and even fear, but what can one do every day to help and to inspire others to care enough to start helping as well? Maybe it sounds too idealistic to think this way. I've just been wondering how to live out the change that is needed in order to actually bring it to fruition.

Misc. Dan Hotchkiss on organizing teams in churches as opposed to committees. Jan again with a love letter to straight white guys. Brittany Caine-Conley on her experience at the Standing Rock protests. Churches should really, seriously, really give up their stereotypes of Millennials. 2016 didn't cause celebrity deaths, stress did. Everyone remain calm.