Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Long Journey Nearly Over

On Monday, February 25, I met with members of the Board of Ordained Ministry of the United Methodist Church for a morning of interviews. In preparation for this time, I had written a definitive statement of my systematic theology, a defense of the sacraments, my understanding of an inclusive church and ministry, and my willingness to enter into a life of itinerant ministry, serving wherever the Bishop and Cabinet deem appropriate at any given time. I turned in two recorded sermons and the manuscripts of those sermons. I wrote an original Bible study. All this was accompanied by an evaluation from a church committee called the Lay Evaluation Committee who had the responsibility to carefully observe my ministry and offer helpful feedback and correction, a report from a group of other clergy who paid a site visit to the church and met with some of the people serving in leadership roles, another evaluation by a mentor pastor with whom I have met monthly for three years, a report from the convener of a Covenant Group with whom I had also met with monthly for three years, the results of a psychological exam, a medical exam and a background check, and a letter of recommendation by my District Superintendent.

Those doing the interviews had carefully read this paperwork and listened to the sermons. They had prepared a list of questions for me to answer, but I did not know what those questions would be until actually entering the rooms where three teams did the interviews. The questions were probing and thoughtful. They asked for clarity on several areas where I had not expressed myself clearly. Without a doubt, they wanted me to succeed and gave help where they could.

And then we waited. There were three of us being interviewed that morning. We sat in a beautiful, sunny room at the Prothro Center at Lake Texoma, supported by colleagues and sustained by refreshments. We talked of anything we could think of, except how long it was taking the committee to make the decisions. Nearly two hours later, each of us was fetched by a host who walked us in silence to the building where the interviews had been held. We were ushered into separate rooms and there, for the three of us, each team stood and clapped for us, and then offered individual words of encouragement and affirmation followed by prayer and hugs all around. Such relief—and yes, tears filled my eyes.

Not all of us made it. I have just finished the final three years of a nearly ten year journey. These last three years were a probationary process called the “residency program.” Fourteen entered it together, having been commissioned in June, 2005. Three dropped quickly for personal and heartbreaking reasons. Two were told earlier that they would have to repeat the residency and were not eligible for interviews, and another was delayed for educational reasons. Two more didn’t get past the interviews—they were “continued” and will be given instructions for necessary correction and growth and another opportunity next year. And so we are now seven. Seven happy people, yet our happiness is tinged with sadness and concern for our colleagues.

Clearly, this is a complex process. For good reasons, the United Methodist Church wants to make sure that their clergy are people of both character and competence. Clergy orders should be free of sexual scandals, and there have been too many of them exposed in the last few years. Pastoring churches takes special gifts, a lot of endurance, much faith, and multiple skills. Not to mention a willingness to spend years getting credentials and not seeing much financial reward for all those years of education. Yet to those of us who are called to this life, there is no other life that will do. This is it, and we know it. In that knowing, there is much, much joy.

Thank you for walking through this with me. I’m truly grateful and full of resurrection hope. Thanks be to God.

Medicine Cabinet Discernment

"I can always tell the state of someone's soul by examining the medicine cabinet. And it's always easy to take a peek when I visit a house. A well-kept medicine cabinet is a well-kept person--such a one can be trusted."

“I can always tell the state of someone’s soul by seeing how well that person cares for the family pet. Ten minutes a day is the absolute minimum that must be spent on grooming the animal. If that is not done, there is something very wrong with the person’s soul and that person is not worthy of my trust.”

“Let me look at a person’s desk or work space and I can tell you whether that person is emotionally and mentally healthy or not. The order in which that space is kept is a clear indicator of that person’s mental health and trustworthiness.”

Yes, all those statements above are actual quotes. In each case, they were given as an explanation of how they decided whether to trust another person or not. Medicine cabinets, pet care, work spaces—each an external sign that, according to these people, were sure indicators of inward health and wholeness and trustworthiness.

In each case, the individual was looking for an external indicator that would signal an internal state. Just about everyone I know has these indicators, although not everyone is bold enough to express them. People who reorganize homes for a living are sure they can see into a person’s heart by they state of order or disorder of their living spaces. People who love gardening can state positively that the state of one’s lawn or garden tells everything that needs to be said about the inhabitants of a residence. Fitness experts confidently assert that an unfit body clearly means that the person living in that unfit body has major character deficiencies. Fashion experts . . . well, you get the idea here. People use their areas of expertise as lenses to make decisions about the interior lives of those they see.

Why do we do this? Because we, unlike God who really can see deeply into the heart, really do have to depend upon the exterior for the majority of the decisions we make about other people. But the pressure!!!! If you and I don’t: clean out our medicine cabinets, keep well-groomed pets, have pristine work spaces, perfectly ordered houses, fertile and well-tended gardens, and superbly toned bodies then we are judged as less than fit, healthy, etc.

Worse, people who do manage to do all those things are judged as worthy of being trusted. And the very opposite may be true—for such people may have mastered the art of looking perfect on the outside, but may have neglected any real interior character formation. And character ultimately trumps all these outward signs. In the end, it is all about character, or soul health. The rest falls by the wayside.

I suggest to you that there is a far more reliable way to discern a person’s true character than by relying on some arbitrarily determined outward characteristic. It is this: Does the person hold to a single standard or a double standard? In other words, will that person (or will you) really treat others in the way he or she would like to be treated, or does the person (or you) make all excuses for his or her own behavior and decisions and permit no excuses for someone else’s behavior and decisions? The answers here are a lot more reliable in the long run than ones learned by snooping through medicine cabinets and sniffing pets.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Time is NOW!

“Of course, spiritual things are important—but there are other things a lot more important at the moment.” “I’ll find time for God later. Right now, there are too many things pressuring me.” “My children will make their own faith decisions when they are adults. I don’t want to influence them one way or another.” “God can wait until I’ve had all the fun I want to have.”

As a pastor, I find these words both troubling—and common. I also know on a personal level how easy it is to put my own spiritual health on the back burner and deal with things that I know and that seem much more urgent and important now.

In the midst of pondering these things, a troubling biblical story is beginning to make sense to me. At one point, someone comes up to Jesus and says that he wants to follow him, but has to go and bury his father first. Jesus’ reply grates on modern ears, “Let the dead bury the dead,” he states. Or in a more modern version of the Bible, the words are translated, “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God's kingdom!”

These words seem unfeeling—how could Jesus even suggest that one should not deal with the death of a parent? Is that not important? But I’ve realized that when the man says, “First I have to bury my father,” what Jesus heard and understood is this, “I’ll follow you some day, after I’ve done all the usual things I want to do, including living at home until my father dies and I inherit my portion of the estate and am nice and comfortable. Then I’ll come.” In the first century world, a person “buried his father” by staying with the family until his father died a natural death—which could have been many, many years off. In other words, these are just first century words for “Of course, spiritual things are important—but there are other things a lot more important at the moment.”

Jesus’ reply really doesn’t give any wiggle room. The time is now, according to Jesus. The time is now to leave behind the old way of living—which is really death—and discover real life. Will you accept the invitation now into life—or just keep putting it off?

As a confirmed procrastinator in certain areas of my life, I know what an interesting habit that can be. Once I’ve decided that I will not deal with a particular issue when it first presents itself, I’ve discovered that the act of putting it off takes on a life of its own. I sit here looking at my desk—for two weeks, there was a piece of mail I needed badly to deal with. And after the first time I said, “I’ll get to it another time,” it seems like that was all I could do with it. I did finally open it, took care of it, and in the process, cleared a bit of a backload all around. But it fascinated me how easy it was just to keep saying, “There’s always tomorrow.”

I do believe God is infinitely patient with us, but I also believe we can get in such a habit of saying “no” to God that after a while we are unable to say “yes.” I also think much of this comes from a deep-seated fear in most of us that God is going to ask us to do something we really don’t want to do. Yet, Jesus’ words are intriguing—they are a call to move from death to life. But we often find that call so disturbing. I believe that many of us would rather stay in the death we know (“let me bury my father and live the life I’ve always known and then I’ll consider coming”) than move to a life that might be challenging and mysterious and different.

Among the things that had been sitting on my desk this week was a need to arrange for a post-Easter flight to Paris, France. My oldest son, his wife and their two small sons live there now and they’ve been giving multiple invitations for me to come for a visit. As much as I want to see them, I found myself reluctant to actually commit to a ticket. It would be easier to stay here (i.e., let me bury my father) and just continue to communicate with them by email, photos and video conversations. I’m not the world’s best traveler, and there is a big part of me that would rather just stay in what I know rather than explore the unknown.

But I heard the invitation, and finally booked the ticket. And then I thought, “ARRGGHH, I don’t speak French and can barely read it! I’ve never been to that airport in Paris! How will I find them when I get there? How will I know what to do in that different place?”

And then I received a sweet email from my son giving a careful description of what I’d see when I land in Paris and how to find him and the family in the airport. And, should I miss him, he gave further instruction as to how to reach his cell phone from a French phone. How like him to know that I should have such questions—and to quickly offer all guidance as well as great expression of pleasure that I should be coming soon.

And what a picture this became of God who continually invites us by saying, “The time is NOW. Come, respond to My invitation to life, even if you don’t know what it looks like. I’ll lovingly guide you—but you have to agree to come first. You’ll never regret accepting this invitation—and your life will never be the same again.”

The time is NOW. Hear the invitation from death to life. Don’t put this one off.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Tote Bag Repentance

I’m continuing to consider the theme of “do no harm” during this Lenten season. So many resolutions to “do no harm” have really awful unintended consequences that I’ve finding this a particularly prickly path. However, I, along with a lot of others, may be on to something that really “does no harm” and does much good.

There are two items ubiquitous to modern American life that are coming under increasing scrutiny as really nasty for the environment: plastic water bottles and plastic shopping bags—the kinds we get at grocery stores, convenience stores and just about every other place where we purchase routine items.

Of course, most people know now that this bottled water phase has been one of the bigger hoaxes foisted on the American public. Bottled water is at best no more pure than tap water, and sometimes less pure. And tons more expensive. Nonetheless, those bottles are convenient when needing a drink of water away from home and to keep in the car—so just buy one bottle periodically and keep it refilled. That will solve a lot of that ecological mess.

Now, for plastic bags: Personally, I try to keep them and reuse them as much as possible, but there really is no way to re-use all of them. Even with a small household, I can easily get up to 10 or more of these a week. I can’t imagine how many bags a house with a lot of children and many groceries to buy might accumulate in just a few weeks. Certainly, they can be recycled, and that’s a good idea. But, having my conscience pricked by reading too many “green” magazines, I decided I’d try the permanent tote bag routine.

I know that in many parts of the world, people routinely carry around with them either string bags or tote bags of some sort in which to place last minute purchases. It’s time for us to copy that habit and start carrying our own. I’ve been doing this for two weeks now. I’m still not in the habit—I tend to empty the bags and then forget to return them to the car. And the grocery checkers have also got to change their habits and learn to use them when they are presented to them. But I have started.

There are several questions I’ve yet answered. Here’s the first: I purchased a couple of inexpensive ones at a grocery store and those bags, roomy, with flat bottoms, are emblazed with the name of that particular store. Now, what do I do if I want to shop at a different store but have only the bags emblazed with the name of a competitor? Does this mean I need to purchase different tote bags for each store where I shop? Do I need to keep a collection of bags in my car to use at different places? Am I going to hurt someone’s feelings if I use the wrong tote bag at a particular store?

Also, what does it say about me if I insist on using “cheap” totebags instead of designer ones? According to one fashion maven, “No other fashion accessory matches a woman’s need better than a beautiful designer tote bag. When your suitcase is too large or your purse is too small, a designer tote bag always makes the right choice.” Oh dear—what if I’ve made the wrong choice? What if I’m too cheap to buy the “right” bag (actually, this is not a “what if I’m too cheap” it is a “I’m very much too cheap!”).

Oh well, enough of the unanswerable questions, and back to the subject at hand. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we see if the Krum community can become a “plastic bag-free” town? This could be a fun challenge for us as a community. Think about it: Let’s suppose for a moment that the average person gets five of those bags a week (and that’s got to be a low guess). With around 4000 people in the nearby community, that number balloons to 80,000 plastic bags a month! Eighty thousand bags that wouldn’t go to landfills or fly along the highway or get caught in trees or bushes. Did you know these bags never decompose? They eventually break down in the smaller and smaller parts, but they end up being ingested and ultimately becoming part of the food cycle. Definitely not healthy for any living creature.

This could make not only a great Lenten discipline but a new and healthy habit for the rest of our lives. Caring for God’s creation can only bring pleasure to the Creator, and that sounds good to me.