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

Monday, October 10, 2011

Calling an Audacious Community

I was asked recently to preach for the installation service for a PhD student at her new church in central Pennsylvania.  I was happy to agree to preach at the service and enjoyed greatly seeing the affirmation of her calling and the acceptance of her by the congregation. Present were her Bishop, Synod Dean, extended family, colleagues, and her church community – both past and present.  It was a moving service.  The congregation affirmed the call of the pastor to their church through ritual, symbolic gifts, and an acclamation of her family’s presence.

The text she chose for me to preach on was Isaiah 42: 1-9 – the Servant of the Lord.  The image I love so much in that passage is the image of a communal calling.  God is calling on the community – Israel – to bring righteousness and justice to the nations.  It is a communal message calling the people of Israel to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and to free those who sit in darkness.  The community is called to be the instrument through which the nations are called into relationship with the Divine.  It was to be through Israel that the nations came into the light of God’s salvation.  This is the power of community called to act.  That is an audacious notion – a whole people being called into servanthood.  It is a stunning call. 

This passage is later seen as a Messianic prophesy of God’s servant bringing justice, eyesight to the blind, freedom for the captives, and light in the darkness in a more individual manner but this passage in Isaiah is about the community being who God called them to be.

Being a called community is important.  It is a sacred and holy thing to respond to God’s call on our lives as individuals and as communities.  It is vital to acknowledge and accept that calling.  Acting on that call is sometimes more difficult. 

God calls us into community and God calls our communities to act.  To do this God chooses us, calls us, anoints us, equips us, and commissions us.  Some communities answer their call by being involved in prison ministry.  Some answer through advocacy around issues of hunger and poverty.  Some answer their call by working for a greener world.  Some answer their call by being the place for youth and children ministries.  Some answer their call by working on health care issues.  Some answer in other ways.  But all are called to answer that call – to be the community of faith called into action by God.

Being part of a community of faith is a wonderful thing.  But it takes more than gathering in community for worship and praise – even though that is a vital part of their communal lives.  Living up to the call of a community of faith means being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. And that means getting up off the pews and putting one’s faith in action.  Living and working as a community means making a difference in the world – and that is an audacious thing! 

So communities of faith out there – answer the call of God and go be audacious!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

We Can’t Always Get What We Want

There are few things that I like less than being reminded that there are times in life when things do not go my way – or the way I want them to go.  I heard it as a child from my parents and I found myself saying it to my son recently.  Being able to hear that is hard sometimes – despite your age or life experiences.   Being willing to accept that is a sign of maturity. 
I think it comes most often when I am being impatient with issues of control in my life.  I want things the way I want them and when they aren’t happening like I want – I feel it and express my displeasure. Sometimes I do it quietly and maturely.  Sometimes … not so much.  I get frustrated like everyone else.  I try to handle it well.  Sometimes I fail.
I was with a friend some time back who has an infant.  I love babies.  They are so cute, sweet, and cuddly … until they aren’t.   When babies are not happy – they express it with their bodies and their voices.  They are not able to differentiate when they should be patient.  They want something NOW.  There is no waiting.  And they cannot speak to tell others what they need without screaming their little lungs out!
The funny thing (and it’s not really funny) is that I have seen grownups doing the same thing. Stomping their feet in frustration when they don’t get their way. Sometimes they scream and cry out against the injustice of it all.  They moan about others not tending to their needs or others not treating them right.  And I have been guilty of it, too.  But injustice?
Seeing injustice in these situations is just so far from the truth most of the time.  In my life – and in the Christian faith - justice is something that is extremely important.  The astonishingly high number of people without jobs, parents and kids without adequate health care, folks waiting for justice from their government for equal rights, people living without appropriate housing or enough food to feed their families, rampant gun violence on the streets, and a government unable to work for the greater good are stunningly wrong.  These things are unjust. 

Recently people were in the streets crying out for justice for Troy Davis, are right now marching on Wall Street to demand financial accountability, and are working for immigration reform that is just and fair.  People are creating community organizing frameworks to work with their local officials to create jobs and education opportunities.  People are demanding that their government officials work across the aisle to make decisions that will move our country forward (whether they will do it or not is another story).  People are participating in the process of justice making to change the systems that keep folks in poverty. 

All of these things are positive.  All of these things make me smile.  They remind me of my favorite scripture passage – Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Doing justice is hard work.  Doing justice, though, is what we are called to.  It takes action, patience, and community.

We may not get what we want – but trust me – we definitely won’t if we don’t work for it.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Blazing Colors

I grew up in the Texas Panhandle.  The county I lived in had a chain link fence around and an historical marker by the first tree planted in the county – and no I am not kidding.  There were no massively tall trees from centuries of growth.  I grew up in a flat, hot, dry place that had its own kind of beauty – but fall was not a time for beauty.  It always seemed to me that one day the trees were full of amazingly beautiful green leaves and the next day they turned brown.  I have been told that the ground water levels and extreme heat just do not support slow, gradual color changes in the fall.  (I know it also has something to do with the changing length of days, cooler temperatures, and chlorophyll changes.)  So fall was not a time of the year that I spent much time thinking about – it was a time for football and cooler weather but not much else.

As an adult I moved to Kansas City, MO to attend seminary.  It was a beautiful early fall day and I was riding with my seminary roommate to a store when it happened – I screamed and she almost wrecked the car.  She asked quickly – “what happened?”  I could barely speak to answer. I had screamed because I saw the most amazing thing I had ever seen – and I still remember it vividly to this day. What I saw was an entire hillside of blazing colors.  I had seen pictures of fall leaves in magazines.  I had seen fall leaves on TV and in movies.  But I had NEVER seen them for myself.  I was overwhelmed.  I was stunned.  I was awestruck.  It took my breath away.  I was so overwhelmed that I just sat in tears looking at the glorious colors.

It was the most beautiful and spectacular sight of my life.  Red, purple, maroon, yellow, and orange blazed with stunning glory. To this day I pull over when I see the first fall foliage and take pictures.  The leaves simply leave me breathless.  They are the thing I look forward to more than anything else in nature.  My eyes and heart long for them each year.  My spirit soars when I see them.

And I am not the only one.  There are websites that track the color changes for “leaf peepers” to know where and when to see the colors.  There are apps for smartphones so that you have the changes at your fingertips on the go.  One of the most amazing things about fall colors is the short duration of the spectacular colors.  They do not last very long and that makes them ever more special.

Those beautiful fall moments make me pause, praise the Creator, and enjoy the breathtaking colors.  I love fall and fall colors!  I also love that God has gifted us with a creation that screams at us to notice, calls on us to pay attention, and needs our care.  May we notice more often, gaze with awe, and care more deeply in all things we see and do!

Thank you, God, for the gift of fall.