Saturday, November 29, 2008

Oh! You better watch out!

"Oh! You better watch out, You better not cry, You better not pout, I'm telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town! He's making a list, He's checking it twice, He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town! He sees you when you're sleeping, He knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good, So be good for goodness sake!"

The words to that song drive me over the edge where Christmas is concerned.  It's sung as some innocent children's song to get our little ones ready for the celebration, but those words are anything but innocent.  They turn a made-up person into a god, and a mean and vengeful god at that.

There was a real Saint Nick, as far as we know.  But his story is far from the current Santa Claus myth.  The original was a man who inherited a great deal of money and gave every bit of it away in order to relieve poverty and suffering.  He didn't "know when you've been good or bad."  He just heard of those who needed help and used all he had to offer it.  Those actions are quite fully reflective of the nature of God's love and grace for a suffering world.  The words to the song above can be used to scare children into what they perceive as goodness.  Santa becomes an all-present eye with all knowledge about all people who is busy tossing people, especially children, out of any hope of receiving gifts.  Such words are actually threatening when taken literally.  Such a distance from a God who is far, far more interesting in loving us to holiness and faithfulness in mind and heart and hands!

I think Christmas celebrations are lots of fun, and the idea of a holy saint who comes around and offers gifts to children is delightful.  Such an idea helps make the bridge to recognizing a holy God who offers us the chance to become children of God and inheritors of all that God has and is.  But this song and much Christmas advertising and some Christmas movies turn Santa into God rather than seeing him as a human representative of God.  Santa is not God.  At its joyful best, Santa represents God's goodness and generosity.  At its worst, Santa is the stand-in for uncontrollable human greed because the focus is on what we get rather than what we give.

I wonder what it would be like if Santa would take children on his knee and ask them, "What would you most like to give to someone else this Christmas?"  Or, "What could you do for someone this Christmas that would show them how much you love them?"  If that were to become the focus, the letdown that often comes on Christmas morning as overly stimulated children who have focused only on what they get often say, "Is that all there is?"  It could easily change to, "What more can I give today?"  Even young children can be taught the real joy of giving, of how much fun it is to serve someone else, of the satisfaction of relieving suffering in some way.

I'm working on hanging in. Just feel slammed by learning just a week ago that our church Administrative Assistant has a fast growing and always fatal liver cancer. No warning, symptoms only started a week before the diagnosis. Aggressive treatment may buy her some time. Right now, it seems to be harder on me than on her. She's just been doing this work for the church for a short period of time, but we had already formed a good friendship and it quickly deepened in the hours we spent working together.

Last night I spent a couple of hours at the hospital with a large and loving family who are watching their mother die of lung cancer. They needed me to break open the conversation with her so they could all start talking more freely and honestly and lovingly. It was a powerful time of prayer and healing and love and support, and, naturally, left me even tireder. I so understand why Jesus kept needing to withdraw to the mountains for prayer and why the people followed him when he did. Words of honest love are so hard to find--we're busy putting Christmas wrapping on gifts of decay and deceit instead.

Did have a lovely day yesterday with my 17 month old granddaughter. She's the first child of my overwhelmingly brilliant middle son and I know that people have been holding their breath to see how much of that will be manifested in this child. She's adorable and was loving with me even though she has not seen me for nearly a year. She did say what I think was her first complete sentence yesterday. As I was changing her poopy diaper, I distinctly heard her say, "I made poop." That's got to be a classic statement of the human condition. Great place to start.

My Beloved husband is being incredibly supportive as he sees this melancholy crushing me to the ground right now. We've both learned to treasure it and hold it carefully when it hits. I had thought it might not be so bad this year since I live in a house with so much more light, and I'm very much affected by the shortened days. I was exceedingly wrong.

Yet, tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent. It's the season of watchfulness, of waiting, of wondering if God really is on the move. Good timing for me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nov 18, the day before Charge Conference

I finally finished all the Charge Conference reports on Sunday.  Later that night, with some help from my Beloved, I wrote my newspaper article about the process.  You can read it here:  I really dislike forms--most of them don't make much sense to the way my mind works, so having to work through multiple ones, and ones I consider very poorly designed, has been very, very frustrating.


Tomorrow, the District Superintendent will be here and he, along with however many of the congregation show up (and I don't expect many) will hear a few of those reports, they'll vote on whether they will or will not approve my salary for next year, and whether we will change the name of the church from Krum UMC to First UMC, Krum.


I wonder about this vote on my salary.  A decent raise was recommended by Staff/Parish, and the Finance Ministry folded it into the budget, but it still has to come before the church for discussion and approval.  I was at a clergy luncheon meeting yesterday and spoke with a friend of mine who is pastoring a troubled church in a Dallas suburb. She said that she was informed by her Staff/Parish committee that they wanted to cut her salary by more than half and go to a part-time clergy person. She, of course, informed her District Superintendent, who came down pretty hard on my friend, suggesting that she might want to re-think her call to the ministry of the ordained.  I found this response shocking--the problems at that church have been a long time in the making and this friend has been there only since June.  Anyone with any knowledge of systems and institutional life and the change process knows that no quick fix works there. 


Anyway, to get back to the salary situation--what if there are those who don't like what I'm doing--but who won't speak with me face to face about this--decide to use the Charge Conference as a way to indicate their lack of confidence in me and both speak against and vote against the raise?  I know I"m still wrestling with these unseen undercurrents that I just can't seem to bring to the surface, and that doesn't help right now.  But it surely does seem like this simply helps put pastors on a performance basis--either do what the moneyed people of the church want, or be prepared to be embarrassed.  I don't know if there is a better way to handle this or not.  I just know I feel so exposed about this.  No one else has to disclose their salaries, but I most definitely must.  Very awkward.  Probably as awkward for them as it is for me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

50% Approval Rating

As I continue to ponder the challenges of being a pastor, I find myself really, really bugged by something.  I recently heard from a friend who is pastoring a small, struggling church in the Midwest.  She mentioned that she has only a 50% approval rate by the congregation and was not sure of her future in the church or in the ministry as an ordained clergy (she is not United Methodist, but is part of a denomination where she must receive a call by a congregation in order to serve as a pastor).

The more I think about this, the more appalled I am.  How on earth is it kingdom of heaven living--or to use a term that may speak better to us, how it is "with-God" living--for a congregation to take a poll and ask them whether or not they "approve" of their pastor?  This turns the pastorate into a popularity-people-pleasing treadmill, and the only outcome is death, both for the clergy person and for the congregation.

It's not the congregation's job to "approve" of their pastor.  It's their job to come together as a community of those who are called by the name of Christ and figure out how to live as disciple of Christ in a world that makes it pretty darn hard to do that.

Now, this doesn't mean that they have to agree with their pastor, or even like their pastor.  It does mean that they had better learn to love their pastor, however, and to treat that pastor in the way they wanted to be treated.  This also doesn't mean they put up with shoddy work by their pastor.  There are performance standards for every occupation, and we as clergy certainly need to live and work out of high expectations.  High expectations always seasoned by grace, of course. 

If I have to make decisions as a pastor concerning the direction of this church, and those decisions are based on whether the congregation will approve of them, I will be less and less likely to make the hard ones that God often calls us to make.  Ones like insisting that if we are going to be disciples of Jesus that we really do have a cross to pick up, and we really might have to give up everything they own if we want to save our lives.  Those are not the kind of words that bring high approval ratings.  They probably helped to send Jesus to his agonizing death. 

The pastors with the highest approval ratings are those who run cults with an iron fist and stamp out disapproval with shunning, expulsion, torture, or other methods of making sure that dissent is not tolerated.  I'll pass on that.  I want to grow a congregation of mature, adult Christians who own their own spiritual lives and have learned to discern for themselves how the Spirit of God is working.  They may not approve of me, and I may not approve of them all the time, but if we really are mature, we'll sure honor one another and trust that God is working through all of us, not just through some power-brokers who decide who stays and who goes by the level of approval. 

 I just find this whole approval rating thing distasteful.  Would surely like to hear from others who might be able to shed further light on this.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Case of the Paranoid Pastor

While I was working out in the yard today, on this gorgeous November afternoon after a glorious morning of worship at my church, I felt the tentacle of paranoia began to wrap around my soul and pull me into that place of darkness and fear.

I've been re-reading the past few days the beautifully written book called "Leaving Church" by Barbara Brown Taylor, an ordained Episcopal priest who decided to leave her parish and her life as a priest.  Our stories are eerily similar at the moment.  Both of us pastoring in small towns, both seeing some success, although hers is considerably more than mine and I doubt that I'll ever be in demand or known as the "preacher of the year."  However, someone did come to church this morning because they listened to my messages online and wanted to experience them in person.  Both of us really eaten up by our positions and by our ministries.  Both of knowing that no matter how much we do, it is never enough.  

It is never enough.  There is always someone I won't have visited adequately in the hospital, someone who didn't find grace in my words and actions, someone whose special moment I forgot; always sermons inadequately prepared, articles hastily written, paperwork undone.  Always someone I've disappointed so egregiously that they've decided never to come back to this church as long as I am pastor here.  

I know there are rumors floating around, people not coming to worship because they are unhappy with other people there, or, more likely, with me.  I also know that while I may be doing a lot of things right, it is rare that I will hear about them.  And I will often not hear about the things I'm doing wrong until there is an explosion and someone says, "You mean you didn't know about this?"  People talk around me, not to me.  And all I know is something is wrong, something is off kilter.

And yet we had this really wonderful morning.  Much joy, much connection with the holy moments.  Many things are coming together, plans beginning to see the kiss of the Holy Spirit on them.  

But I'm worried, and having trouble get past it.  All I can do is wait this out, wait until someone speaks, wait upon the Lord in prayer and supplication, wait.  Wait and know that this is God's church, not my church.  Wait until someone is willing to break the silence.

Interesting time.  

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Political Discourse

We are a bruised nation.  We're bruised economically, we're bruised internationally, but mostly we're bruised internally.  We're bruised because the uncivil discourse that characterizes most political campaigns bruises and soils our individual and national souls.

While it may not be articulated in exactly this way, the sentiment seems to be growing:  if people of local, state and national prominence can speak of one another so distastefully, get away with it and even win elections doing it, then we can get away with it in our more intimate interpersonal encounters. 

I've lived through numerous presidential elections.  After each one, people will say, "Stop the negative campaigning." But it never happens, because the game is to win at all costs. So what if the cost is littered reputations, piles of innuendo, and downright lies spoken and written?

Of course, after the elections, the winners and loser always say all the right things.  Everyone shakes hands, and talk about taking the high road to local, state and national cooperative politics.  But I contend those bruises have infected us so deeply that a few words spoken after the multiple hits are no more than extra-heavy makeup over an infected sore.  All surface--and with no change to disease-laden bacteria brewing beneath the temporary cover-up.

It is utterly ridiculous to insist that what we are exposed to does not affect how we think and act.  A recent study suggested that young girls who watch the kind of TV shows that indicate no restraints upon the expression of sexuality are more prone to become pregnant long before they are ready for the responsibilities of motherhood.  Almost immediately, the results of the studies were disputed, saying that it was more likely that sexually active teens were drawn to sexually permissive TV programming.  Right.  God forbid that parents might have to take responsibility for watchfulness over the TV viewing habits of their offspring. God forbid any of us might really want to pay attention to the slow corruption of our civility when we unconsciously model that which is beamed into our eyes and ears by the ubiquitous presence of ever-on media.

Sexually oriented media rarely if ever present moral and sexual restraint as normal, but as something to be fixed as quickly as possible.  In the political arena, the profound lack of civil discourse is now presented as normal. That normality bruises us all. This infection underlying our bruised souls denies the restraint and thoughtfulness demanded by truly civil discourse.  Our infected souls laugh at words of Jesus that read like this:  "You're familiar with the command to the ancients, 'Do not murder.' I'm telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother 'idiot!' and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell 'stupid!' at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill'"  (Matthew 5:21-22, The Message Translation). 

Words do kill.  And we are rapidly killing each other.  It is time for us who call ourselves civilized to begin to act like it in every area of our lives. This is especially true for call themselves both civilized and Christian.  For the Christian is more literally a "Christ-follower."  One who follows Christ knows the power of words to heal and the power of words to kill.  Let us be the ones to actively re-introduce the world to truly civil discourse, with words that give life, rather than death. 

Did you agree with the results of the last elections?  Then season your agreement with humility.  Did you disagree with those results?  Then choose your words of disagreement with caution and undergird them with the rules of civil discourse.  See if you can breathe life to your own ideas without having to bring destruction to others in the process.  Let us be a truly civil people and heal the infection that has left many aching with pain.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Your Headlights are Off

"Did you know that your headlights weren't on?"  That's the first question that popped out of my mouth after a frustrating 30 minutes trying to find a friend of mine who was supposed to meet me at a restaurant in Frisco.  Her reply, "At least I was driving on the right side of the road.  Give me some credit!"

She's been living in England for three years, and had flown in for a short vacation.  All her plans were made at the last minute, so our own get-together was hurriedly planned and not well-thought out.  As I discovered later, she doesn't have a much of a sense of direction, so my instructions, "go north on the Tollway to the exit and then go back south on the service road" only confused her.  Thanks to cell phones, we we're finally able to get to the same place. But it was dark, and in her borrowed car she had no idea that the headlights didn't come on. As she said, "I was driving with the light from the streetlights."

During our conversation, she mentioned a difficult decision that was before her.  She had been turning to many others for guidance with this, but was getting a variety of opinions and still found herself torn and undecided.  For some reason, she could not trust her own soul with this, and the conflicting words from friends left her very disturbed.  I suggested that perhaps she was driving with her headlights off--using the light from others rather than turning on her own light so the path was better able to be seen.

I'm not sure she appreciated my suggestion, but think that a lot of people do just what she seemed to be doing.  We want to seek guidance from God, but are so untrusting that we can actually hear God's voice for ourselves that we rely on streetlights from others rather than our own headlights to move forward. That works while we are on well-lit and well-traveled roads.  It becomes very problematic when we move off the popular street onto less well-traveled spots. 

Finding the general guidance of God is pretty easy:  loving God with all that you are and then loving your neighbor as yourself.  Those are the main streetlights that light our paths.  It's the specifics of loving God and neighbor as self that can get pretty confusing, and the way we love God and others is different for each person.  That's why we've got to use our own headlights as well as the streetlights. 

So how do we turn on our own headlights?  I remember first hearing a very, very famous preacher and scholar getting ready to talk about finding the will of God.  I was just starting my years as a graduate student and I, along with hundreds of others, sat waiting with our pens poised to write for wisdom that would change our life.  The famous preacher said these things, "Pray, read your Bibles, and go to church."  We all looked at him with some dismay.  This is all?  Isn't there some mysterious way into the mind of God where we would know exactly what to do. 

Not really.  If you want to drive with your own headlights on, that's what you do:  pray, read your Bible, and go to church.  After a while, you'll begin to know the mind of God, and the road will become very clear.  It was a piece of good advice I've never forgotten.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Continuing Thoughts on "The Stories I Hear"

I find myself still shocked by some of the events and conversations of last week, and others that are continuing this week.  Every pastor, when coming to a different church, no matter what the circumstances, gets to enjoy a honeymoon period.  Everyone is on good behavior, and we're all hoping the best will happen.  We look at one another with generosity and often hide some parts of ourselves and our thoughts for fear of being unloved if exposed.  So, while honeymoons are great, real lasting love doesn't begin to develop until the honeymoon is over.

The honeymoon is over here.  Hurt feelings, disagreements, tensions, things that almost look like rudeness are surfacing now.  That's OK--this means a new level of openness and vulnerability is happening here.  Again, a time for real love, not pretend love, to develop.  So, I ask myself, why am I so shocked?  I'm hardly new to church life.  I know these things happen.  What's going on?

I keep returning to the purpose for the existence of the church.  In the United Methodist Church, we say that we exist to "Make Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World."  That statement opens doors to multiple questions.  First :  What does it mean to be a disciple?  Second, what on earth do we mean by the transformation of the world?  Third, isn't there anything here about being "saved?"  Fourth, what about the people who come to church who have no interest in being a disciple of Jesus Christ, however we are going to define it? 

Church entry standards are very low.  But Jesus' requirements for being a disciple seem awfully high--like leaving everything behind and laying down our lives for one another.  Or, to put it simply and scripturally, loving God fully and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.  I'm just not seeing the last one happen real well right now.  And I know myself well enough to know that I have to start fixing this by looking very, very hard at myself.

We have such expectations of one another in the church.  Expectations that we will really act according to the law of love, but mostly those expectations are laid on others while we assure ourselves that we always act from love.  That, of course, is a load of baloney.  Most of us fail to love ourselves well at all, so we look for others to do that for us, blind to the fact that the lack of healthy self-love means we absolutely cannot love anyone else in a way that brings any glory or holiness or honest connection in our relationships to each other.

More on this later, because I'm aware at this moment that my own lack of self-love is hindering my writing and thinking process.  It's time to take care of some important tasks that indicate real love.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Oh, the stories . . .

"Oh, The People You’ll Meet And The Places You’ll Go”. . . that’s the title to a Dr. Seuss book often given to people who are changing something in their lives—a graduation from high school, or perhaps a new job, or the first time to travel to someplace very different.
It’s a celebration of possibilities and future.

“Oh the stories you’ll hear and the heartbreak you’ll know”. . . .That’s my current paraphrase of the book title as I consider the life of being a pastor.

After two and a half years here, I have a sense that the congregation has begun to trust me and to invite me more into their lives. They tell me their stories. They give me the pictures of their lives.

Each story flows with rich colors.. Bright colors of happiness and fun swirl around somber colors of heartbreak and struggle. Each life creates a unique painting, and each stroke of color adds to the whole.

Each life painting differs radically from all others. Some are like the Old Masters, serious, rounded, hinting of a stability and perhaps desperation behind them. Others are like modern impressionists, more wild and open to multiple interpretations. Some seem simply two dimensional, not yet well explored. Others go so deep that an infinite universe is contained in them.

My own life gains color by those stories. My mind hosts a repository of secrets and confidences, kept there forever, swirling around, clashing against each other. Today, those clashes have brought me to a point of understanding why Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying he longed to gather them under his arms, as a hen does her chicks. For I am weeping with my own anguish today.

Stories fill in the background and open our eyes to motivations and reasons for actions and words. Often, one small piece of us collides with one small piece of another person and then misunderstandings abound. The piece we just ran into is without setting or understanding of the whole. It is like the proverbial group of six blind people describing an elephant: The one who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

When we interact with just a piece of another person, it’s easy to say that person is a solid pipe or a wall or a rope, and not know that such a person is all of those and a whole lot more besides.

As a pastor, I get to interact with the sorrowful, painful, anguished, and sometimes rabidly unrepentant sinful sides of others. These are the facets rarely presented freely when in public, and I hold the privilege of seeing these things very seriously. Thus the secrets forever sealed in my brain.

But when I see someone else proclaiming judgment on another, “She’s a rope; he’s a tree branch” without understanding the bigger picture, I want to cry out, “Stop! You don’t know enough to make this pronouncement!”

“Stop!” I cry. Stop. Stop deciding that you know the hearts and motivations of another when hurts they may have brought your way were probably wholly unintentional. And if they were intentional, then the person doing such actions is in need of passionate prayer, for such a one sits at the edge of hell, nearly lost from God. Why are we so eager to push people further into that hell rather than invite them back into the “with-God” life? Why, I cry out though my tears, are we so ready to discard people into the junk heap when we find ourselves with a bruised toe or bleeding head from these collisions? Are we eager to find ourselves in that junk heap—that place of malodorous waste, steaming with the bacteria of decomposition? I doubt it. I really, really doubt it.

Yes, I sit here and weep today.