Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Do Not Resolve ...

 This weekend is full of traditions.  We will ring in the New Year at home watching favorite movies and will eat black eyed peas on New Year's Day so we will have good luck.  We will call our family and wish them a great year.  We will stay off the roads and away from drunken revelers. 

And we will skip the New Year's Resolution thing.  I have given up on this tradition.  Too many folks make meaningless promises, break them too quickly and then feel guilty.  So I will skip the meaningless resolutions.  I will not resolve to stop something or start something new.

However, there are some things I will continue this year. 

I will continue to love God, follow Jesus, live my faith and share it with others.  I will continue to love my family beyond words.  I will continue to parent my child and hold him accountable for his mistakes, while also letting him know how much I am proud of him. 

I will continue to teach my students with all that I have in me.  I will continue to support the causes that are important to me - progressive politics, gun control, ending domestic violence, supporting women's causes, and others.

I will continue to spend time working to end economic injustice and hunger.  I will continue to work to end straw gun purchases in Philadelphia.  I will continue to be proud of my church and the advocacy we are involved in.

I will continue to love action movies and mystery novels.  I will continue to enjoy the TV shows I love to watch.  I will keep on blogging and studying social media and preaching.  I will continue to support my family and friends in their dreams.  I will continue to be a fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees (even though it causes me grief in Philly). 

I will continue to be obsessed with Dr. Who and Torchwood.  I will continue to be upset when stores put out Christmas stuff before Halloween.   I will continue to be silly with my son.  I will continue to tell jokes badly and to laugh as often as possible.  I will continue to be happy with who I am.  I will continue to pray for those in need and believe in the power of those prayers.

So I am not resolving to do anything new next year.  I will continue to be me and all that that implies.  God made me … God loves me … and God will continue to guide me.

May you continue being who you are and who God made you to be.   May God guide you into the new opportunities this coming year allows.  May you continue to love God and share that with others.  May you know peace and may your faith continue to give you strength.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent and Christmas Are Not for Sissies!

Christmas is an amazing time of year.  It is filled with shopping trips and lists of things to do.  It is filled with writing cards and spending time on line at the local post office.  It is filled with family gatherings and craziness with relatives you seldom get to spend time with.  It is filled with rich food and too many snacks sitting around to munch on.  It is filled with long lines and gift returns.  It is filled with company parties and too many adult beverages.  It is filled with hectic schedules and stressful travel arrangements.  It is filled with rushing about and feeling behind too much of the time.   It is filled with much, too much that can drain us spiritually and emotionally from the true meaning of the season.

But the Christmas season is not yet here – it’s close but it has yet to arrive.  We are still in Advent – the liturgical season of preparation for the coming of the Christ child - despite how we might be living in the present.  Advent is a time of expectant waiting and anticipation for the Second Coming of the Christ as well.  It is about being ready.  It is about preparing ourselves to receive this amazing gift.  It is about celebrating the first coming while preparing for the second.  It is the beginning of the liturgical year, but too often we rush through it without embracing the opportunities it affords.  I have seen far too many examples of this in the past month.  And I have fallen victim to it a few times as well.

We want to rush through Advent to get to Christmas as quickly as we can.  We rush into singing Christmas hymns because we cannot wait.  We rush into the stores at midnight on Black Friday because Christmas shopping cannot come too quickly.  We rush into the joy of Christmas without wanting to experience the despair often associated with anticipation and waiting.

Rushing past the waiting is easy.  Waiting for the coming of Christ is hard.  It’s not for sissies.  It means embracing the reality of being on a journey that brings us closer to God and closer to the coming of our Savior.  But it means waiting in the brokenness.  It means taking the journey without shortcuts. 

We wait for a Savior that comes to heal our broken world, who comes to free the captive and give sight to the blind, who comes to bring justice to those who are afflicted and oppressed, who comes to make the world what God intends, who comes to bind our wounds, who comes to make things right.  But we have to wait and prepare for that coming.

Waiting is still where we sit – for a few days more.  If you, like me, have rushed too much into the Christmas Season too quickly – take these last few days and nights to truly prepare.  Take these last few days to wait expectantly.  Take these last few days to hear once again – or for the very first time - the lyrics of the great hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Getting out of the Helicopter

I have heard of some pretty serious hovering parents – often called Helicopter Parents – in my life and I try not to be the same way.  I protect my kid as best I can but I have to let him lead his own life.  I cannot hover over him and/or force him to make the decisions I want him to make.  I understand that sometimes he will make good decisions.  And sometimes he won’t.  All I can do is teach him the best lessons I can and guide him as I am able/or as he needs me.  But that type of parenting seems to be at odds with some others I know.

I happened upon a TLC show recently called “Toddlers and Tiaras” that scared the living daylights out of me.  These parents – mainly Moms – are so enmeshed in their kids’ lives and successes that they have little identity outside of their children’s.  They dress them as adults, slap on absurd amounts of makeup, sprinkle them with glitter, and teach them to dance in sexy (often inappropriate – in my opinion) ways to win child beauty pageants.  The show made me very uncomfortable.  I watched half of one episode and was almost ill by the end.

One of the interesting things about the show is that they depict these parents in each episode without narration and without really making any judgment as it airs.  However, one glance at their website and you see sections entitled “10 Most Controversial Parents” and “Oh No They Didn’t.”  It is clear the show is intended to show the absurdity of these parents’ decisions but at the same time they are also putting on display the huge industry that is child beauty pageants and all of the companies, professionals and coaches that are behind the scenes.

While I understand the need to be nonjudgmental to get folks to be on their show – I had a tough time watching it at all.  As I mentioned already – I barely got through half of one episode.  I found that I could not watch it without almost yelling at the TV – “are you kidding me?” and “Mom, get a life!”  There are even moments on these episodes when the children show how much they are disinterested in the pageants and how angry they are with their hovering, pushy parents. 

Granted, I am making a judgment on this show after a limited viewing but it did not take me long to have my fill of these helicopter parents (I must admit, however, that I perused some clips on their website while preparing to write this blog entry).  I know that is judgmental – but I could not help it as I watched the show.  Putting a cone bra on a two year old is more than I can take.  Making a deal with a three year old to keep her fake nails on all day by promising her a pink gun is more than I can comprehend.

And as I was watching this show – I realized that there are certainly times when I helicopter over my own son.  But I have never had him take part in something he had no interest in, wear make-up/what I wanted him to wear to show off, or dance on stage to win cash and prizes – thank God.  And I hope beyond hope that I never find my own self-worth essentially caught up in him and I hope that I never push him into a position where he is uncomfortable (as many of the kids and Dads were on the show). 

The truth is -- there are times that I wonder what he is doing and I want to know the details of his decisions.  But I have to resist.  I trust him.  I raised him well and want him to be his own person.  If I want him to be himself he has to make his own decisions, make his own mistakes, and make his own way on his life journey. 

So even though there are times I will want to hover – I resign as a hovering parent.  I am stepping out of the helicopter.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Worship is Not Just for “Natives”

The other day I was asked by a pastor friend why some of his newer members sometimes ask “clueless questions” about worship.  “They should know this stuff,” he said.  It was an “aha” moment for him when I asked if these folks had grown up in the church.  They hadn’t.  Then he said, “Well, I guess I’m the clueless one.”  It was an odd conversation because I would think it was obvious – but all of my church visits over the past few years have proven how out of touch many of our churches are with those who did not grow up in the church.

I have led, participated in, and sat in worship services all of my life.  I was raised as a Preacher’s Kid and have been a United Methodist clergyperson for 20 years.  Being part of that means I have been in a lot of worship services.  One thing I have worked very hard to keep in mind as a worship leader is that not all of the folks sitting in the pews know the language, practices, and rituals of worship.  Many worship services assume a level of understanding that is just not true anymore.

People are not as denominationally loyal today as they once were and many have not grown up in the church.  When they do make the effort to come to church seeking a connection to God we should do all we can to welcome them and make the worship service as accessible as possible.  First and foremost we need to create worship that is awe inspiring and praises God.  We need to create worship that connects us to God, makes the Gospel story of Jesus Christ come alive, and empowers us with the Holy Spirit.  We need to create worship that is rich with the sacred and ritual that help us experience God’s presence.

However, we too often create worship that is for “natives” – those who are part of the insider culture of the church.  We too often create worship that is not inclusive of children and folks not part of the traditional church culture.  We often create worship that does not speak fully to the needs of the people in our pews and definitely does not speak to the needs of those who are not usually present.

I am not saying we do worship poorly.  We often do amazing worship.  We frequently create and participate in worship that feeds the people present.  We often lay out a banquet of Gospel and Grace that nourishes and enlivens.  However, too many are still walking away starving.  Our worship is regularly too heady and lacks passion and engagement.  And often it assumes a level of experience and knowledge that is dangerously unaware.  We use books for worship that can be confusing and difficult to use – and we do not help people with them.  We use prayers and litanies that insiders know and others do not – and we assume those not used to the words will figure them out.  We use language that not everyone in the room understands – and hope they “get it.”

I think we all need to examine our worship and our preaching to make sure it is accessible to folks who may not know the secret handshakes or have insider status in our churches.  We need to use language and images that bring life and depth to our worship and preaching that anyone could understand.  We need to enrich our worship and spirituality with rich spirituality.  We need to create environments of welcome and are multi-sensory. 

We definitely need to feed the folks in our pews, but if we starve those who show up without experience in our faith traditions – we have failed them.  We can do better.

A recent article on United Methodist Communications website addresses this topic and offer 5 trends in worship to address the needs of those who are not traditionally part of our worship.  You can see this article at -

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Being Inspired

I was asked recently what inspires me.  I had a hard time answering the question.  Not because I did not know what inspires me, but because there are so many ways to answer that question. 

I get inspired in my personal life by beautiful nature, blessed friendships, connections to family, the laughter of my child, walks in the woods, awesome sunsets, opening buds of flowers, changing colors in the fall and so many other things.  I also get inspired by music, art, pop culture (some, not all), movies, and stories of overcoming obstacles. 

And I get inspired by the turn of a fantastic double play by baseball players who are paid too much, but jump up and down like little boys when they make a great play.  I get inspired by theater and a lofty song sung from the heart by a tremendous talent who has committed to their craft for years and paid their dues.

In my professional life I get inspired by the work of other homileticians (preaching professors) who work to teach their students options to express the Gospel in ways that engage and lift the people in their pews.  I am inspired by my students who reach for new learnings - sometimes forward bursting with enthusiasm, sometimes backward to safe shores, and sometimes shakily with fear and trepidation but who reach anyway. 

I am inspired by the affirmation of others who like my work. I got some of that this past weekend in Austin at the Academy of Homiletics.  Folks responded to my work and asked me questions that will lead me into further exploration.  I sat with PhD students who shared what they are working on and it inspired me to keep at it.  I had breakfast with fellow scholars from Drew University who are in the Academy and heard ways they are doing fantastic things in their field with the education they received from that institution. I got inspired by being in the room with some of my heroes of the art of preaching and hearing their stories of teaching and preaching.

I am inspired in my spiritual life by great preaching (of course), rituals that move my soul, the singing of many traditional hymns and some contemporary stuff, meditation and prayer, reading the Bible, working on a sermon, being in cathedrals and back rooms of pubs doing worship, talking about my faith with other journeyers, and feeling the breath of God.  I am inspired by the social justice work done by so many churches and individuals on so many issues - but especially working for the poor and marginalized.

I am inspired by the questions my teenage son asks about life and death, the ways my church celebrates the Eucharist, the prayers of the people of God lifted in unison, and the lighting of Advent candles in preparation of the Coming of Christ - as a babe the first time and again in the Second Coming. 

These are just some I the ways I am inspired generally and how I have been inspired this past week.  I hope you have a hard time answering that question, too.  I hope it is hard to think of an easy answer because so many different things inspire you in many, many ways.

I thank God for inspiration and for the opportunity to use those inspirations in my life, my work, and my faith.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hate in a Smiley Face Card

I received my first anonymous hate mail today at my school.  It came in a card shaped envelope with my (misspelled) name typed on the front with my school address.  Inside there was a cute smiley face card.  I opened it and found a typed note – it was nasty and vile and attacked me personally.  The language was ugly and it sent me spinning for a bit.  I was not prepared for the reaction I had to it.

I have always taught my seminary students that there will likely never be a day in ministry when someone is not upset with them.  Often these folks let us know when they are frustrated with us either by confronting us in person or calling us to talk.  Sometimes they act out in a committee meeting or other group to let us know their feelings.  But this felt different.

I have been picketed by Fred Phelps’s church, Westboro Baptist, after being interviewed for the Kansas City Star followed General Conference in 2000 when they reaffirmed the language in our Discipline (church law) forbidding gays and lesbians from being ordained.  I stated in the article that I was pained by the decision and hoped we moved toward full inclusion someday.  Westboro picketed my church the next week.  It was nasty and painful, but this felt different.

This time it was anonymous.  In church ministry we often know when folks are upset.  When Westboro picketed me I knew who they were and why they were there.  But this was different – this felt so personal.  It was aimed at me personally.  So it felt personal.

The smiley face threw me off.  The cute and sweet smiley face that has always stood for fun and humor made it feel safe to open. That’s exactly what they expected.  They expected me to open it thinking it was safe.  And they expected it to hurt me, which it did.

And that made me mad.  I was upset about the power of that card to make me feel badly.  I have heard for years that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  But that is bunk.  Words do hurt.  And words have power.  We have to choose to use our words for good and to not give too much power to those that aim to hurt us.  I gave those words too much power today, but I also knew I just had to process it some.

This evening I found out several other seminary professors around the country got the same cards today.  So it was not just me – and that helps in some way but also makes me even more determined to NOT let them win.

We have made someone mad – by speaking the truth about our beliefs or about who this person believes us to be.  Whatever the cause I will not be deterred.  I will continue to be who God made me to be.  I will continue to speak the truth and cry out for justice in many different ways.  I will continue to try to counter hate with love.

And no little smiley face card filled with hate will stop me.  So whoever you are … you DON’T win.  Love does.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Being Part of the 10% ... Having An Attitude of Gratitude

A favorite image of forgiveness to preach about this time of year is the passage in Luke 17: 12-19 of Jesus healing the ten lepers of their disease.  In the text - as Jesus is passing by them - the ten leprous men cry out for him to heal them and he tells them to go show themselves to the priests. As they went they were healed. All ten are miraculously healed by Jesus but only one of them returns to Jesus to give thanks for that act of compassion. 

Much is made of only one returning.  Most talk about the lack of gratitude on the part of the nine who left and never returned.  Some will talk about the fact that the others may have been so overwhelmed with their ability to reconnect that they rushed to be with their friends and families or that they left to go profess thanksgiving in their own faith traditions, but the one who came back to give thanks gets the most mentions.  The nine are often chastised as being ungrateful, even though we have no clear idea why none of those nine returned.  The point of the use of this text is the gratefulness of the one.

So the logical question for this Thanksgiving Week is to ask how grateful we are. Do we have an attitude of gratitude? Are we part of the 10%?

I know this past week or so I have had some amazing experiences:

·         My son turned 13 and his team won their soccer league championship game
·         I became ill and had great health care options to get better
·         I was asked to preach at RevolutionNYC Church in Brooklyn and had a blast doing what I love
·         My father had foot surgery and came through with flying colors
·         I am off this week and get to enjoy some resting, writing, and being with family time.

These are all things that I am extremely thankful for, but there are so many more.  I am thankful for my home and the roof over my head.  I am thankful for the heat that keeps my family warm and the food in our cupboard that keeps us fed.  I am thankful for my education and experience that allows me to do what I love for a living.  I am thankful for my sisters who keep me sane and help me through tough times (even though they can sometimes also drive me insane).  I am thankful for my parents who are healthy and active into their late 70s and who have supported me so amazingly throughout my life. 

I am thankful for those people who have fought for my freedom in the armed forces and in civil rights and social justice movements throughout our history.  I am grateful for my faith and all of the people who led me to understand God in ways that make me strong as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  I am grateful for my church family that blesses me weekly with their worship and willingness to support each other.  I am grateful for my denomination, even though I disagree with it on several key issues.  I am grateful for new trends in creating and being church that gives me hope for faith communities of the future.  I am grateful for the school that my son goes to and for the education he is receiving.  I am grateful for friends and family who are special parts of my life journey.

I am grateful for the opportunities that living in America provides and for the responsibilities I have as a citizen to hold my country’s feet to the fire.  I am grateful for Occupy Wall Street and the ways they are calling for justice and economic balance. I am grateful for the election process that lets us get to know our candidates, even though they make me crazy with their limited plans, promises and partisanship. 

I want to be part of the 10% this week … but more than that I want to be part of the 10% all year long.  I want to live with an attitude of gratitude.  I want to turn around and walk back to the one who makes me whole and say “Thank you, Jesus.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Yikes … There’s a Teenager in my House

Tomorrow my son, Shelby, will turn 13.  When we brought him home from a small orphanage in Yekaterinburg, Russia 12 years ago, we never could have dreamed of the young man he would and has become – especially since he cried almost the entire way on the airplane from Moscow to Zurich to Atlanta to Kansas City.  We weren’t sure if this was a bad omen or not.  But we were just grateful to be bringing this amazing baby home to America.

Then he was a 9 month old with sparkling blue-grey eyes and curly blonde hair.  He was loved by the caregivers in his orphanage and was tagged as “extraordinarily healthy” by the Embassy Doctor in Moscow.  His passport picture looks like a wise and seasoned person of more years than his 9 months could possibly have experienced.  He was a compassionate toddler who rubbed the TV when he saw someone crying and begged us to stop their pain.  He was an active little guy who climbed anything like a monkey and asked more “Why?” questions than anyone could possibly answer. 

Now he is a mature and compassionate advocate for ending gun violence and watches C-SPAN for enjoyment.  He is a super soccer player and an electronics genius.  He is a great student and a loyal friend.  I have seen him stand up to bullies on his bus route and call racists on their inappropriate jokes.  He is funny, creative, and often silly beyond words.  He can still ask more questions than anyone could possibly answer but now they are sometimes even harder to answer – but not always.

Being 13 is a big thing.  It means being a teenager and making more decisions for himself.  It means his hormones will continue to change and there will be ups and downs in our relationship as he ages – but I am so proud of who he is and who he is going to be.  It means his interests are changing and his relationships with others are more complex.  Having a teenager in the house will be tough at times – but being a Mother is such a blessing.  He is a good kid and that won’t change just because the magic number 13 passes tomorrow.

So tonight I give thanks for his birth mother who chose to give him a better live by giving him up.  I give thanks for the caregivers who cared for him in the orphanage.  I give thanks to the agency reps, interpreters and drivers who helped us through the adoption process.  I give thanks for the members of my family who supported the adoption.  I give thanks to his coaches, teachers, and pastors who helped make him the young man he is today.  I give thanks to the many people who have been part of this journey.

And I thank God for him and for the opportunity to be his mother.  What a blessing.

Monday, November 14, 2011

being spiritual but not religious

I have read several blogs, articles, and research data lately about the numbers of younger adults who claim the label "spiritual but not religious." Some believe the number of persons claiming this status could be as high as 1 in 5 overall and as high as 72% of Millennials (18-29 year olds).  That is a significant number of younger adults claiming that status.

The first time I saw this data I was stunned by the honesty and audacity of naming who you are in these studies.  While it is also distressing to some degree as a minister of a mainline denominational church, I find the truth telling important.  Owning that you are not sold on how faith is expressed in the institutional church is becoming more and more common.  And denominational studies show us that the number of folks in the church is in decline.  So we need to pay attention to this information.

The truth is that sometimes I want to claim no connection to the church as well.  There are times when the church makes me feel so badly about Christianity that I want to flee.  There are too many people who feel hurt by the church to ignore that fact.  And there are too many people who see the current expression on the church as irrelevant to brush that off.

So what do we need to do?  Some say we should become more orthodox so that people know what we stand for (and by extension what and who we are against for way too many) explicitly.  Others say we should be more flexible in who we proclaim we are so that we attract many different groups.  Still others want to bring in all of the elements of modern culture to be more in tune with the very generation we are missing in our churches.  All of these ideas are short-sighted and cannot alone reverse the process of decline or the leaving of church by many younger people.

Part of the problem many churches have is that they are unsure who they are.  They are unsure who they are serving. And they are totally disconnected from the community around them. Many of our churches do not even know who the people are who live in their vicinity.  How can a church appear relevant if they sit in isolation with no clue what is happening in the homes and businesses next door and around the block?

Another problem is that many churches continue to live in the past.  They long for days gone by when they had more members or more money and they mourn that loss. Others know that “golden age” is no longer their reality but they worship, plan and live as if that was who they still were.  This kind of disconnect is dangerous and misleading to all.

A third problem is that the most public event we have as communities of faith - our worship and preaching - is too often listless, not awe inspiring and lacks passion.  Too many gather as social clubs to "do" worship without energy or enthusiasm about what we have gathered to proclaim.  Too many are going through the motions of doing church - not truly BEing the church in the world.

I have some ideas … maybe they will spark some thoughts and discussions for you as well.

So how do we begin to turn the tide?

First, we have to leave the comfort of our pews to live and work in our communities.  We have to build relationships with the people who live near our communities of faith.  We have to BE the church in communities by meeting people's needs where they live.  We have to be connected to the people around us in as many ways as possible.

Second, we have to create worship that feeds people from the feast that is our faith.  We often come to the feast starving but the food served is not something these "spiritual but not religious" folks are interested in eating.  Many are using 16th century liturgies, with 17th century building styles, and 18 or 19th century music in a 21st century world.  There is nothing wrong with tradition and for many still in the church these are important things to hand on to.  But we also need to create worship that enriches newer generations – that is relational, participatory, awe-inspiring, image driven, experiential, connective, and missional.

Third, we have to live out our faith in compassion and justice ministries.  We have to be active in making the world a better place.  Working to feed the poor by sending canned goods to a shelter without engaging those in need is good but it is also problematic.  Sending in a check for world mission is noble but it does not get our churches engaged in the world.  We have to do the work of living out our theology in public – calling for the end of injustice and working to make that happen.  It is time we live and work missionally IN the world.

Finally, we have to be open to listening to the needs of those who see the church as irrelevant and see what it is they are looking for.  That does not mean we have to give up everything to do what they want – but without the conversation we lack the option to be in that conversation. 

I do not claim to have all of the answers – but maybe what I have here are some options for a conversation that is sorely needed.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Time for the Church to Occupy!

Part of an interfaith service at Occupy San Francisco.

As I write this I am recovering from a viral inner ear infection called labrynthitis and sitting in my house with heat, electricity and cable.  When I got sick I called my primary care physician and got in the next day.  I received prescriptions from him and went to a local pharmacy and got them filled.  My insurance paid all but $8 of the bill. I have an amazing job I love that provides me with insurance and payments into my pension account.   My home is not luxurious but is quite adequate for my family.  I have money in my bank account and get to do things with my family that are fun and interesting.  My child goes to a safe and excellent school.  My extended family is relatively healthy and most have good jobs and stable families.  I am lucky. 

I know this intuitively but often get caught up in the issues of my days and weeks and forget.  I know this but sometimes I – probably like many of you – need a reminder.  A transformer blew outside my house yesterday morning and I was without electricity for all of 2 hours.  It was inconvenient but my house was warm and I had things to do to occupy my time.  I have friends in areas affected by the recent storms that are on day 5 without power.  I am lucky.  I know this.

As I write this Occupy Wall Street protesters are sitting in the cold and enduring the elements to protest an immoral, greedy, and unjust economic system that keeps the poor in poverty and protects the rich.  Members of the global community have been rebelling over the last few months in a number of ways.  The Arab Spring has removed dictators from several countries’ leadership and brought new levels of freedom to peoples of the world.  Women in countries where they have limited rights are crying out for education, driving privileges, and voting rights.  Seeking a better world and gratitude for these changes is everywhere – it seems.
Occupy movements are springing up all over the world.  Many are collecting donations of food and are feeding not only those in the movement but the homeless in their areas as well.  This kind of egalitarian and compassionate living is not just being protested for – it is being lived out by their actions.  They are doing what many of us would like to do – but we feel compelled to stay in our own cocoons of safety or are too scared to be part of it or we don’t know how to be part of it all.  Sometimes their purpose seems scattered and I wonder how their efforts may actually create change – but I am grateful they are there.  And I too am figuring out how I can be part of it.
Where is the church in all of this?  I think we ought to be right in the middle of these movements.  I know of clergy groups walking with Occupy across the country.  Ministers are offering pastoral care and Eucharist to those who wish.  Many churches have
Marilyn Sewell, in a recent article on Huffington Post, said, “The church's proper role is to stand on the side of the disenfranchised and to call out wrongdoing and injustice in our society. Jesus did not say," I have come that you might be comfortable." He said, "I have come that you might have life." OccupyWallStreet has given the church an opening, a decisive moment in history. The Holy Spirit is not on the side of safety and stability. When will the church find its prophetic voice?
It’s time to occupy a sense of thankfulness for all that has and is changing.  It’s time to occupy and take advantage of our opportunity to speak out against injustice, greed and immortality.  It’s time for the church to speak prophetically.  We sit too safely in the cocoons of our worship spaces – we need to meet the people in our communities where they are, we need to stand for something, we need to cry out against violence and abuse, and we need to be the church reaching out to the world.  We need to occupy the places where marginalization is happening and to close those gaps.  This is the time and the church is able.
We are fortunate, many of us, so we should be grateful and honor where we are in life.  And that allows us to speak – we have to utilize that right and responsibility. 
It’s time – let’s occupy.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Defying Gravity - A Song that Makes Me Fly!

I have an absolutely favorite song – most of you probably do.  Mine is a song that I can listen to anytime, anywhere, and at any moment -- and no matter what I happening in my life it makes me smile.  It is a song that takes me to a place that helps me through good times and bad.  It is a song that reminds me of being in the theater in New York City hearing it for the very first time.  Every time I feel down and need a lift – I listen to this song and it turns me around in ways that still surprise me.  The song is “Defying Gravity” from the Broadway musical Wicked. 

The musical is based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, which is written as a parallel story to the Wizard of Oz.  It is the story of how two very unlikely young women, Glinda and Elplaba, become friends.  As the story progresses through many twists and turns, Glinda becomes the Good Witch of the North and Elphaba becomes the Wicked Witch of the West.  The musical is an intriguing and fascinating journey of friendship, betrayal, love and loss that brings the two women to their respective roles in the later Wizard of Oz.

The song, “Defying Gravity,” is sung by Elphaba after she makes a critical decision to take off on her own when her request to the Wizard is turned down and he uses her for his own purposes.  You see – she was born unnaturally green and longed to be like everyone else.  Her friend, Glinda, was a perky, popular blonde who seemingly had it all.  Elphaba longs to be normal and when the Wizard turns her heart’s desire against her she flies off into the western sky being defiant about her desire to bring down his evil rule.

“Defying Gravity” is a special song for me.  In it Elphaba is determined to go off to fight the wizard.  Glinda tried to convince her to stay but to no avail.  To the request for her to stay, Elphaba sings …

So if you care to find me
Look to the western sky!
As someone told me lately:
“Ev’ryone deserves the chance to fly!”
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who’d ground me
Take a message back from me
Tell them how I am
Defying gravity
I'm flying high
Defying gravity
And soon I'll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz
No Wizard that there is or was
Is ever gonna bring me down!

There are people in the world who do not want us to speak the truth.  There are people who do not want to see the good in others.  There are people out there who seemingly want us to fail.  There are people out there who want to turn our heart’s desire against us.  There are people who do not understand our passion or our zeal. There are people out there, like the Wizard, who want to bring us down.

Not me – I fly knowing that I am who God created me to be.  I fly knowing that others are green like me – not like everyone else but still proud to be counter-cultural, truth speaking, and loving despite the hate in the world.  I fly knowing that God wants me to call our church and our world into doing the right things.  I fly knowing that I am doing what God called me to do – in my personal and professional lives.  I fly knowing that nobody in all of Oz … no Wizard that there is or was … is ever gonna bring me down!

What a song!!  See you in the sky!!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Agreeing to Disagree in the Church

In every church and/or denomination there are disagreements.  Sometimes the disagreements are about seemingly “small” things – the color of the new carpet for the sanctuary, whether to move the worship time earlier in the summer since the church does not have air conditioning, whether or not to place a memorial plague on the new baptism font, or what time the youth group should meet for pizza.  Obviously these small disagreements can also be seen as HUGE issues depending on the nature of the deciders and the emotions behind the decision needing to be made.  I have seen churches make quick work of these decisions and I have seen them become acrimonious and last for months on end.

Then there are the other more difficult decisions churches have to make.  Sometimes they are about finances – whether or not to build or to close or to add staff.  Sometimes they are about outreach – whether or not to provide a food pantry for the community or to do some other hands on ministry.  Sometimes it is about advocacy – whether or not to speak out against an injustice for those who have no voice.  Sometimes it is about pastoral ministry – whether or not to call or ordain a particular pastor or not.  Sometimes it is about theology – what we believe to be the core theological issue related to baptism or Eucharist or how we think of God.  Sometimes it is about scriptural interpretation – whether or not a particular text means one thing or another or several things at once.

In many churches today disagreements are happening on a regular basis.  Some of them are about seemingly small issues that have become big ones.  Some of them are about BIG issues that are sometimes being thought about in small ways.  Some of them are about big issues and deserve a big table to discuss them around.  No matter what the issues are they all have an impact on those involved – either directly or indirectly.

I am part of a UM Clergy group on Facebook that was created to discuss ministry issues and be a network of support for each other.  Unfortunately, it has devolved into a debating group about the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage on too many threads of conversation.  The issue deserves serious and continued discussion, but that is best done in one-on-one and in small group dialogues where people establish relationships and a level of trust so that they can hear and be heard by others in the group.  This kind of anonymous posting on a Facebook wall and then debating by belittling and demeaning others’ points of view has become tiresome and overwhelming.  There seems to be little room for disagreement without denigrating the person who holds a different perspective.  There are times when even asking a question about a post prompts a tirade.   And on occasion I have posted as well – though I think I have tried never to get personal.

There have been significant changes in how we interpret biblical passages regarding slavery, women in ministry and other passages throughout history.  I believe passages related to homosexuality should be given the same kind of intense scrutiny and interpretative perspective. 

In my tradition we hold Scripture as being primary, however we also are called on to use our own reason, experience and the tradition of the church to determine how we come to theological conclusions and often how we interpret texts.  It is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and it is formative to how we as Wesleyans view the reading of biblical texts and the living of our faith lives.  Wesley did not create it – Albert Outler did in his edited work on Wesley in 1964. Outler regrets the term today because it seems to make Wesleyans, and others, think of these four sources as being equal.  And for Wesley they never were.  Scripture was always primary.  But the other sources are vitally important considerations in our theological endeavors. 

The very nature of this quadrilateral means we as Wesleyans have ample opportunity to disagree.  We all read the same Scriptures but the rest of our quadrilateral informs that reading and helps us determine how we come to theological understandings.  Our tradition is varied depending on where we come from, our congregational traditions, and interpretations of our denominational tradition.  We all think differently and reason using differing levels of education, understanding and interest.  Our experiences are as varied as we are - all living unique lives of varying opportunities and possibilities.  All of this means we are bound to come to different theological positions - that allows for the full richness of our denomination.  The fact that we do not all agree is part of who we are.  I never want to lose that.  However, it has become dangerous in some circles.

For many the use of Scripture has become a stick with which to beat others on the head in an attempt to force them to agree with another’s perspective.  For many the use of Scripture has become a way to force others to live out their lives guided by someone else’s archaic understandings of biblical interpretation.  For others it is a grace-filled word of love and grace that opens us up to amazing possibilities.  For still others it is the guide for all things good and noble.  For many it is the Word of God – laid out for us in the Old and New Testaments.
I do not believe we can solve difficult issues by arguing past each other and by pressing our points of view at the expense of relationships.  I do not believe that by belittling others we win points in theological discussions.  I do not believe that the scriptures are weapons.  I do not believe that we make headway by being mean to each other.

I get frustrated with the slow nature of change.  I get tired of trying to get people to listen to other possibilities.  I get annoyed by the reality of exclusion in our churches and in my church in particular.  I disagree with the way many of these texts are used today.  I believe God calls all kinds of people and the church should be open to their gifts for ministry – all of them.  It is God's role to call folks - not mine.  It is my job to affirm those gifts and help nurture and support them.  It is my job to engage those gifts in seminary and prepare those persons for transformative ministry in the world.

You may not agree with me – but I welcome the discussion.  I welcome an open and honest discussion that uses all of our sources as interpretative tools – not just one person’s view of only way to read a text or point of view.  We can talk about carpet color or about the nature of the church or about what we believe the church is calling us to do and be.

So … let’s talk and listen to each other.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Care and Tending of Clergy

When I was pastoring a church full time I heard many of my pastor friends talking about burnout and dissatisfaction with their vocation.  As a seminary professor I hear students excited about entering into ministry but hear from them several months or years into their calls who say “you did not tell me about all this stuff I have to deal with.”  (I know I did tell them but they were so idealistic they only heard the good stuff.)  I teach students that pastoral ministry is the most blessed and holy thing they will ever do – but it is the most frustrating and draining thing that they will ever participate in as well.  I often hear some stories of vocational celebration and blessing – but all too often the stories I hear are heartbreaking.

Taking on the mantle of spiritual leader, pastor, chaplain, or minister is a major life decision.  It means taking the risk to respond to the call of God on your life.  It will affect your family and your personal relationship (as seen in the data below).  It will affect your spirituality and your health.  It will bring you amazing fulfillment and take you to the depths of despair.  It will cost you friendships and potential relationships.  It will test your limits and limit your vision, especially on bad days.  These are realities – unfortunately – of this vocation. 

But it will also bring you closer to God and to the people of God.  It will bring you into moments of sincere need at the bedside of a dying person and into moments of beautiful grace at the baptism of a new baby.  It will take you to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist and to the pulpit to preach the Gospel of grace and love.  It will allow you to bless relationships at their beginnings and to celebrate the lives of those who have died.  It will offer moments of amazing connection and possibility.

I pray for all of those who answer the call to pastoral ministry.  I was asked to lay hands on a friend at her ordination last night and felt so blessed to be asked to do so.  I said yes because I believe in persons answering that call to serve God.  But I also know the toll it can take on the person who answers and all who love them.

The way to answer and not become a statistic like those below is to pray daily, take a day off weekly and weeks off each year, rest your body, mind your relationships, spend time with God, nurture your creative side, pray, take care of your body and soul, play with your kids and other children in your life, find a hobby that makes you happy, go to the movies, pray, go on dates with your spouse or significant other, read a good mystery, pray, spend time with a friend, and stay connected to God. 

Don’t become a statistic.  Take advantage of your relationships with other clergy to watch out for each other.  Find a place to talk with someone who can help you.  Do not Lone Ranger your ministry.  Do not become a statistic of pastoral ministry – be enriched by it.

And to all laity out there – take care of your clergy leaders.  Make sure they take their days off – you get your weekends, clergy usually do not.  Ask them about how they are doing and pray for them daily - and for their families.  Love your pastors but hold them accountable for their self-care.

The care and tending of clergy takes a village – treat yourself and the clergy in your life with care.  God chose, called, equipped, commissioned and sent them – God deserves the best from us in helping them answer their call.

Stunning Clergy Statistics:

·         90% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week.
·         80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. Many pastor’s children do not attend church now because of what the church has done to their parents.
·         95% of pastors do not regularly pray with their spouses.
·         33% state that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
·         75% report significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.
·         90% feel they are inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands.
·         80% of pastors and 84% of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged as role of pastors.
·         90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.
·         50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
·         70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
·         70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.
·         70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.
·         40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
·         33% confess having involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church.
·         50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
·         70% of pastors feel grossly underpaid.
·         50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.
·         1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.
·         94% of clergy families feel the pressures of the pastor’s ministry.
·         80% of spouses feel the pastor is overworked.
·         80% spouses feel left out and under-appreciated by church members.
·         80% of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose a different profession.
·         66% of church members expect a minister and family to live at a higher moral standard than them.
·         The profession of “Pastor” is near the bottom of a survey of the most-respected professions, just above “car salesman.”
·         4,000 new churches begin each year and 7,000 churches close.
·         Over 1,700 pastors left the ministry every month last year.
·         Over 1,300 pastors were terminated by the local church each month, many without cause.
·         Over 3,500 people a day left the church last year.
·         Many denominations report an “empty pulpit crisis.” They cannot find ministers willing to fill positions.

(Pastoral Statistics provided by the Fuller Institute, George Barna, and Pastoral Care Inc.  Thanks to for this information