Monday, May 22, 2017

Pastor Iron Man

I had a dream last week. I was at a church, which didn't look like the church that I pastor but I knew that it was my church in that way you know things in dreams.

I was about ready to lead worship and was heading from my office down to the sanctuary, but in my dream I wasn't wearing my usual alb. Instead, I was wearing Iron Man's suit.

Yes, I was dressed like Iron Man. And I wasn't actually walking to the sanctuary, but flying to it. Because you see, I was dressed like Iron Man, so why wouldn't you fly when you're dressed like Iron Man?

I flew all the way down the hall, all the way down the aisle, and up to the pulpit. And I started to lead worship, dressed as Iron Man.

And that was it. I don't remember actually talking to anyone in my dream and I don't remember what the worship theme was or what time of year it was or anything. I just remember that I was standing in a church--my church--in Iron Man's suit.

I have a lot of dreams where I'll think about them for a few minutes after I wake up and then let them fade from my memory, but every so often I have one that seems to demand that I let it hang around for a while. These dreams seem to want me to consider their implications, like my subconscious is working something out and I need to keep processing it in wakefulness in order to resolve it properly.

So why was I flying around as Iron Man in a church? I have a few ideas, but I have to give some background for it to make sense to anyone else.

My first few years of pastoral ministry, I was hit square in the face by the reality of the Church's situation. Not just my particular church, but the Church with a capital C, although my church was a microcosm of those larger issues.

I could see how played out certain forms and traditions were, how lackadaisical people had become about doing them or justifying why they were done at all.

I need to say early that this wasn't, and isn't, just about worship. That's still the big third rail issue in a lot of places (and on a lot of blogs), and these issues did manifest in that area as well, but it wasn't just that. It was how we organize, how we teach, how we reach out to the community, how we think about serving in mission.

When I started in ministry, it all seemed to be changing. What little theory and practical experience I received in seminary both wasn't an adequate amount, nor did it account for these deeper problems that seemed to crop up so fast after starting my first call.

So I had to read. I had to educate myself both on the ground and to understand why certain things were happening. I read about cultural shifts, the end of Christianity's dominance in societal spheres, the crumbling assumptions about shared values and practices in the marketplace. And I read about people and places that were doing something about it, trying new things like increased approaches to technology, utilizing pop culture as entry points, starting fresh without any of the traditional norms.

I tried some stuff myself. Some of it worked and some of it didn't. But along the way I explained why. I tried to share what I'd learned about these changing times. Some of it took root, I think.

By the time I ended my first call, I thought I'd learned some things. I thought I was better prepared to do this again in a different way someplace else.

But it all seems to be happening faster now. The number of activities competing for people's time and attention seem to have increased exponentially. The "spiritual but not religious," "nones," and "dones" are only becoming more numerous. I just found out this last week that not only do I need to keep worrying about Millennials, but I already have to start worrying about the generation after them, too.

Individuals and families in my own setting are just as caught up in all of this. I'm watching it happen in real time; it's not just something happening out there.

At some point, I just accepted that this is how things are. I stopped panicking and just started trying to live into it. And I'm not sure exactly when. But maybe that's good. I don't need to pinpoint the moment I stopped thinking so consciously about it and kept showing up to work every day, hoping to respond to it as best I can.

Every once in a while, I become surprised all over again. I become surprised at how much the church has to compete with, how dominant technology and online methods of interaction have become, how forceful some are in expressing that what we're doing isn't enough for them or that we should be changing faster.

And while I wait for that surprise to finally wear off again, I show up. I show up, and I keep asking how we can do things differently. Faithfully, but differently.

As I've done this, I've struggled with two issues that inevitably have only made this adaptation more difficult. The first thing is that I try to do it all myself, as if I'm wearing a protective armor where I know what I'm doing and nobody else could possibly do it as well. And the second thing, because of the first, is that I end up thinking and acting as if the church is mine to save all on my own, as if I'm a superhero flying into battle.

I've also learned what happens when I try to do it all by myself. I stretch myself thin, I cut corners with my self care, I take the burden of the whole damn church onto myself because I think I have to, and I block others out while I do it. And then I get frustrated and tired and resentful and I end up being no good to anybody.

So here's where Iron Man comes in. He wears protective armor before flying in to save the world from some grave threat. And here I was in a dream, wearing that exact armor flying into the church presumably to preach and pray and read the Bible, but probably also thinking I need to save it all by myself.

I know the old thoughts and habits. They're creeping up again even as I thought I'd learned my lesson. I'm trying to be the church's superhero in the face of rapid change, and it's not going to go well if I try to do this by myself.

I think my subconscious knows this, wanting me to get out ahead of it before things get bad.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Summer Reading

The summer months will soon be upon us, and I've been compiling my latest list of works I intend to read between now and my favorite season of the year.

I do like summer for many reasons. It means the local ice cream stand is open, things are a little less busy at the church, my family's annual trip to the beach is coming up, and I can hang out on our back patio.

Here's my current plan of what I'll be reading while I enjoy those things.
  • My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
  • What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell
  • How to Survive the Apocalypse by Robert Joustra
  • Contemporary Churches by Louis F. Kavar
  • Crazy Is My Superpower by A.J. Mendez Brooks
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfield
  • Cold Magic by Kate Elliot
So, one graphic novel, just a few theology/churchy books, a memoir, and a few novels. I like to keep it light this time of year.

What's on your reading list for the summer months?

(Does it include this book?)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Searching for the Fountain of Youth Group

I have a new post up at the UCC's New Sacred blog entitled Searching for the Fountain of Youth Group:

My senior high youth group  was bright, engaged, eager to share opinions, and compassionate.

I still carry those days with me as my entrance into Christian discipleship: the informal yet passionate conversation mixed with opportunities to participate in service projects were my first, lasting taste of what it means to be part of the church.

I believe that many others who have been a part of youth groups could say similar things. But after graduation, that energy disappears and something else takes its place.

Read the rest at New Sacred.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Vintage CC: God's Feminine Side

This post comes from February 2012, when a popular author challenged bloggers to write something about female images of God. This is what I came up with. I thought it appropriate as we head into Mother's Day Weekend, especially as that day factors prominently into the post.

During my third and final year of seminary, I was student pastor of a large UCC church just down the street from the school. Out of my entire seminary career, it was the only contextual education experience where, stereotypically, the seminarian was given everything that nobody else on staff wanted to do: I coordinated the senior high ministry, I organized the Thanksgiving Day service (producing this wonderful memory), and I preached on two Sundays that nobody else wanted, namely Scout Sunday and Mother's Day.

I didn't really get the big deal about Scout Sunday, but I did understand the bother with Mother's Day. There is a certain contingent that perhaps expects or prefers the gushing, wine-and-roses sort of sermon about wonderful mothers and motherhood on that particular day, but to go full bore with this tact easily leaves out those with bad relationships with their mothers, those who are unable to be mothers, those grieving their mothers, mothers grieving children, and so on. So let's give it to the seminarian and let him deal with it.

I ended up giving a sermon about God as parent, trying to stay pretty neutral about the whole thing. I celebrated how God acts as parent for us, watching over us and encouraging us. I did my best to avoid pronouns and favoring God as Father or Mother in particular and probably at least implied that God is beyond male and female designations even as they are helpful to understanding who God is and what God is like. I was pretty pleased with how it turned out, to be honest.

As I received people in the greeting line afterward, an elderly lady came up and shook my hand, but her handshake was such that she wanted me to lean down so that she could say something. I obliged, and was subjected to a 30-second half-whispered rant right in my ear about how God is male and should be addressed as Father, after which she promptly stormed out of the narthex.

Obviously, I'd struck a nerve that morning. There has long been a debate in my denomination, the United Church of Christ, about which gender-specific pronouns to use for God, if any. Our most recent hymnal caused one such stir, and a recent change to our Constitution and By-Laws caused another. And if you talk to the right people in my congregation, you can still hear all about a former pastor addressing God as Mother Hen during a prayer, and this happened two decades ago. These serve as examples of just how heated the debate over God's gender can get, and how important it is to people that God be addressed in certain ways.

What's really at stake in this debate? It really depends on who you talk to. For some, it's a matter of staying true to a Biblical image of God and, more generally, staying true to a correct interpretation of the Bible. Those who insist upon God's maleness will point to Jesus addressing God as Father, among other instances, to show that this is a position scripturally tested and approved, so why are you arguing otherwise? This may inevitably lead to a more general argument about correct scriptural interpretation: if you don't address God in male terms, as the Bible clearly does, then what else don't you believe about the Bible?

In truth, God is sometimes depicted as having more feminine characteristics in the Bible. I offer a brief quote from the post I link above:
But in addition to masculine imagery there are many feminine images as well, such as mother (Isaiah 42:14, Numbers 11:12, Isaiah 46:3-4), seamstress (Nehemiah 9:21), and hen (Matthew 23:37), among many others.
Yes, there really was Biblical precedent for that former pastor to address God as Mother Hen. Whether I personally would have chosen to do that in this context is another matter. Regardless, there come instances in scripture where God is more the tender nurturer, the concerned gatherer of offspring, or the one crying out in labor while birthing a people. The first two, it is worth mentioning, can be done by fathers, but certainly not the third.

Besides that Biblical imagery, aren't there times when we need God to be more the nurturer, comforter, gatherer, birther? There are churches and ministries that thrive on emphasizing God as warrior, king, MMA fighter (don't get me started), but there come times when we need God as more of a gentle encouraging presence in our lives, healing and assuring and embracing. This is why at times the prophets and others chose the imagery they did. At times Israel needed God to go to war for them, and at times they needed God to speak comforting and reassuring words. In times of grief or despair, do we really need God-as-warrior telling us to suck it up, or do we need God-as-comforter helping us to recover? The Biblical writers had no problem recognizing when each was needed, so many modern Christians would do well to explore the diverse images for God that address our diverse needs.

There really is nothing to be afraid of regarding God's feminine side. After all, God created humanity, both male and female, in God's image (Genesis 1:27). There is plenty of room to consider how men and women are both created in God's image, and how in turn God's image is embodied in each. God exhibits traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics in human experience recorded in scripture, throughout the theological writings of the church, and in modern movements, and so we would do well to celebrate them all rather than emphasize some and downplay others. The latter actually limits God, while the former more fully recognizes how we may experience God and how God is present and active in the world.