Saturday, July 30, 2011

Family is Messy!

I got a call from my niece this morning to tell me something I posted on Facebook meant something other than what I understood it to mean.   It was something I did not know – but she sure did.  And she was calling to rescue me from my stunning cultural ignorance.  The funny thing is that her parents and my parents were all in the room for this call – and they took great delight that I said something I did not understand.  I could hear the chuckles and guffaws through the phone.  (Hint: it was something sexual that I inadvertently copied from a friend without knowing the full meaning).  The funniest part was the laughter of all of them as my niece schooled me.  It was a hoot.  My 70+ year old parents were laughing that I did not know something like this.  And I am sitting here half way across the country wondering – how the heck did they know?  It just struck me as ironic.  I laughed about it for a long while.

Family can be hysterical – and it has been as a hoot in the midst of drama many times in my life.  It can be a gift – and has been so many times in my life when my family came to my rescue or celebrated with me a great victory.  It can be messy – and it has been when my family and I have not been on the same page about who I am and who they thought I was.  It can be enlightening – and it has been as a light in the darkness at times in my life.  Family can also be hard to define – and it has been with both my family of origin and with my family of choice but I love all of them.

We are all born within a biological family and sometimes those family connections can be very painful.  I know some folks who continue to struggle with issues from their family of origin.  I am pained by their suffering.  I pray for their healing.  I also know folks – like myself – who have had a pretty wonderful experience of family.  I am not saying we have always had it easy – I have two sisters with whom I have had arguments with over the years.  I have parents who have not always agreed with my decisions and I have not always been happy with theirs either.  And I have not always been pleased with how my family reacted to things happening in my life.  A Norman Rockwell Family - we ain't!!

But guess what – they have been there for me.  I have been amazingly blessed by the Creator with family of origin and family of choice.  They have been as supportive as I could realistically hope for.  They have had my back.  They have loved me anyway (a favorite expression of my Mom and Dad).  They are my family and I will defend them to the bitter end.  They would do the same thing for me – at the drop of a hat.  And that has made all the difference. 

Yes – family is messy no matter how you define it.  My prayer for all is that they find family – either by birth or by choice that they can love and who will love them back. 

It will be messy – I promise.  But I would rather have a messy family than none at all.  Thanks for the journey, family.  I love you all!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Preaching for Connection

I was talking with a colleague from my church this week and the topic of preaching came up in our conversation.  The topic more specifically was whether or not preaching without notes was favorable to preaching with a manuscript.  Since I am a preaching professor who encourages the use of minimal notes or an outline, my opinion was pretty clear.  However my colleague was uncertain about how to make this happen in their own preaching.

Two facts jumped to my mind immediately – one was the fear often involved in moving away from a full manuscript and the other was the fact that connecting to a congregation through physical presence and eye contact is easier without a manuscript.  [First a disclaimer – yes, I believe that preachers can connect to congregations with a manuscript, but it takes more effort and intentionality than many manuscript preachers in my experience have been willing to put forth. Not true for all but certainly true for many.]

So a few thoughts about making connections and preaching.  We live in a society where people are often isolated and in need of finding a place to belong.  People are in need of feeling connected to each other and to God.  People often are searching for direction in their lives.  People are using many different entry points to find connections – social media, technology, web dating, etc. 

Worshipping in and with a community of faith can bring people to a point where they begin to find a place and connections.  As the preacher in the service, we do not want to be a barrier to that happening by not connecting with those in worship.  When a preacher makes limited or no connections when they preach, it leaves folks confused and isolated.

The process of moving away from a full manuscript starts with a simple promise – to memorize any narrative story in the sermon and to become so familiar with the beginning and end of the sermon so as not to need to read them word for word.  This is a scary start but can be done easily by using a personal story and a narrative you feel connected to in some way. 

The next steps can be done over the period of weeks or months – moving from a manuscript to extended outline or to a manuscript with key words replacing sections of the text.  Over the course of weeks, the preacher can diminish their use of notes to a simple page of key words, a limited outline, or no notes at all.  Each preacher has to determine what works for them.  Other techniques and ideas will be coming in the future, but making the intentional decision to use fewer notes means spending more time connecting to the people instead of reading one’s manuscript.  I encourage you to try. 

Take baby steps.  This next week – try to just memorize one piece of your sermon and see how freeing it can feel.  Connections matter.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Suck It Up and Lead!

I remember when I was first elected to office – it was for a youth group office in our local church.  I was excited to be elected as a “leader” and was ready to “lead” the youth.  I was pumped.  My job though was the Treasurer and the Youth Leader was the one who really had the power to spend money for the group.  I was a leader with no real power.  I was a leader with no real job.  It kind of frustrated me.  I was taking my job seriously but it was not a very serious job.  However, as a young leader I wanted to make the best of my role and I worked with the other youth and adult leaders on creative ways to both make money for our group and to donate funds to charities we thought were important.  It was a lot of fun.  Years later I remember making an impact and being proud of that effort.

Today our political leaders have a serious job – and they are not taking it seriously.  They are playing politics with the budget, our debt, and with the American people themselves – and they are taking for granted the trust of their voters.  I am so tired of their games.  The shenanigans that are going on in Washington are despicable.  The way our politicians understand leadership is so foreign to everything I believe it is.  It is almost as if they are completely disconnected from reality.  They don’t seem to know what leadership means. So …

Leadership –noun
1.the position or function of a leader: He managed to maintain his  leadership of the party despite heavy opposition.
2. ability to lead: She displayed leadership potential.
3. an act or instance of leading; guidance; direction: They prospered under his leadership.

The definition of leadership is to function as a leader and to guide.  But it also implies the ability to lead.  Maybe that is our issue?  Perhaps we have leaders who do not have the ability to lead in Washington.  But they are there – and they have a job to do despite their abilities or lack thereof.  So our elected politicians need to lead.  They need to put the best interests of the people – especially the last, the least, and the lost of our society – in front of their need for political gains.  They need to be more concerned with the future than their immediate games.   They need to work together instead of working to one up each other.

I am a person of faith – and I believe the decisions we make reflect our values.  Decisions that put persons already in precarious situations – the elderly, the poor, and those on fixed incomes – in further distress are immoral.  Fixing our mess of an economy on the backs of those who have little resources is just wrong.  It is time for our leaders to lead.

Maybe I am unrealistic but surely our leaders can find a way to lead.  Isn’t it time for that?  It’s their job!  So suck it up and lead!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Whiny Does Not Work!

I admit it – I am a bit whiny today.  It is 103 degrees with a heat index of 116 in Philly right now.  I used to live in Texas and it got HOT there.  But here there is so much more humidity and no central air conditioning so I am whiny today.  I have worked inside all day near my window unit air conditioner.  It is still not very cool.  So I am whiny.  And the truth is – it is not working for me.  Whining has not made it cooler or more comfortable.  Whining has not made me happy or helped me feel better.  But I have whined nonetheless.

The reality is – I am lucky.  I have a home, an air conditioner, and the money to pay the bill (I hope. Though I do live in fear of my next PECO bill).  I am lucky that I do not work outside or rely on the weather for my livelihood.  Farmers all over the country are losing crops and entire growing seasons.  The elderly and poor are suffering without resources to stay cool.  Dozens of heat related deaths have already occurred.   In some areas – the heat is joined with months of no rain and wildfires to boot.  The toll this heat wave is taking on our country and its people is incredible.

Today I awoke to hear about bombings in Oslo, Norway, the continuing squabbles over the debt ceiling in America, and more insanity – from a 51 year old actor marrying a 16 year old to the hacking scandal enveloping England and beyond.  There is a lot of stuff going on in the world that is downright crazy serious.  There are people unemployed and children sick with preventable diseases, yet we continue to make decisions that keep the poor in poverty and allow the rich to get richer without paying their fair share.  And we allow those with few resources fend for themselves.

I saw this status update on Facebook yesterday, “I was going to complain about how hot it is, then I realized that: 1) It isn't really 109 degrees; 2) I'm not 5,700 miles from home; 3) I'm not dressed in a full BDU uniform and helmet and carrying 70+ lbs.; and 4) There is very little chance that anyone will shoot at me or that I might drive over a bomb in the road today! Thanks to all who serve. Repost so they all know how thankful we are for our Freedom!”  It was another reminder that we are extraordinarily lucky and blessed.  I need to remember that – and that whining isn’t going to keep me cool.

So thank you to those folks to labor in this heat.  Thank you to the farmers and farm workers whose livelihood is so connected to the Earth and her temperatures.  Thank you to the leaders who remember the needs of the poor and elderly when they make decisions.  Thank you to those who work for social change to make the Earth and her inhabitants our priority.  Thank you to those who care for those effected by the heart – doctors, nurses, medical personnel, EMS personnel, and volunteers for various organizations around the globe working to make life better.

I may get whiny now and then – but I hope that in those moments I remember others and all that they endure.  May I work alongside them to create the Kindom that God intends – where the needs of others are important to all.  Whiny won’t help anyway!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Walking to End Gun Violence

One thing that is very important to me is being an active participant in my community. Another thing that is important to me is setting an example of social justice involvement for my son.  One last thing that is essential to me as a person is working to end gun violence in our society.  So when I moved to Philadelphia, a city with a large gun violence problem, getting involved with the issue was a natural fit for me.  I am on the board of a group called Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence, a local affiliate of Heeding God’s Call.  Neighborhood Partners (NPEG) is devoted to reducing the number of persons injured and killed by the use of handguns that are obtained by straw purchases and then distributed or sold on the streets illegally. It consists of numerous churches, synagogues, and civic organizations in Philadelphia and is affiliated with the faith-based group Heeding God’s Call.” (NPEG Facebook page)

This group is not trying to stop others from legal gun ownership or recreational use of guns.  We are, however, trying to end the practice of straw purchases at gun shops.  This practice is when a person, who cannot pass the background check, enters a gun shop with someone they have paid, who can pass the check, to purchase several guns at one time.  These guns often make it into the hands of criminals in our city and the resultant violence from these weapons is criminal.

One of the things this group does is hold vigils in front of an area gun shop to try to convince them to sign a Code of Conduct pledge that Wal-Mart and other gun shops have signed to make sure their gun purchases are all legal and aboveboard.  Some may disagree with this endeavor but it is something I believe in passionately.

So we pray as a group and carry signs asking for the gun shop owner to sign the code.  A sign I love to carry says, “Honk to end gun violence.”  We get a LOT of honks.  It is something I take my son to.  He walks the “picket” line with me.  He is passionate about it as well.  He says it is his way to affect the future where he lives.  And it makes me proud that he has over half a dozen picket line experiences under his belt. 

As I said – I am not trying to stop anyone from buying or owning guns (even though I wish that for our culture).  I am trying to make my community a safer place for my family and for other families in the city and wider world.  And as I walk the picket line – or vigil line – or sign line (I really do not like the language that is available for what we are doing but will use it for now) – I know I am doing a small part to make the world safer and less violent.  Some folks do not like what we are doing but for me and my family – it is an important part of our faith and community life.  And walking for justice with my son is an amazing thing.  

We walk for those who can’t.  We walk to make a point.  We walk to change hearts and minds.  We walk to make a difference.

What are you walking for?  For what cause are you giving your time and your efforts?  May you find something that gets you on your feet and into your community.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

My YaYa Seatmate

I was flying home this weekend from a Wabash Institute Pre-Tenure Seminary Faculty Consultation in Indianapolis and wanted nothing more than to take a nap for the almost 2 hour flight.  I was tired after a late night karaoke party on the patio with the other participants and staff.  When I boarded the plane I noticed a smiling elderly woman in the seat next to mine.  I told her I needed in to take my seat and then settled in for the flight.  We did the normal introductions and I took time to ask about her travel plans.  She was on her way to visit her son in Boston and to play with her grandkids.  She showed me pictures of her grandkids and bragged about her son, the doctor.  I asked where her accent was from – “I’m Greek.  I’m YaYa,” she said.  Next she asked about my family and I showed her a picture of my son, Shelby. She was suitably impressed – as I was with her pictures.  As the plane began to taxi I put my head back and closed my eyes.  Naptime!!

Then it happened … she asked me what I do for a living.  I wondered – “Do I just say I teach or tell her the full story?”  I erred and said “I teach preaching to persons training to be pastors.”  Oops. Big mistake. “What do you think about a priest who talks about money every week?  What about preaching and being boring?  Do you believe in a third world war that will start in Jerusalem?  (she was born there – she told me five or six times).”   Her questions kept on coming - one after the other - about faith, preaching, world religions, church life, etc.  I answered with simple but complete statements hoping we could settle back into rest.

As we were flying and talking, I had noticed a few times that she emphatically talked with her hands – and poked my right arm with her finger to emphasize a point.  She then began to roll up her magazine and started hitting my arm to make sure I was listening and that I got her point.  She would say, “Bravo, bravo” if I agreed with her or said something she liked.  And then she would hit or poke my arm.  That was our trip – she would ask me a question, I would answer, and she would give me her “Bravo, bravo” and whack my arm.

Several times I put my head back to rest and she would pause – read for a minute or two – then ask another question if I moved a centimeter.  I never got my nap – and I have a sore arm today from her pokes and hits.  But she was a fun seatmate.  Her zest for life at 78 years of age was infectious.  Her emphatic belief in what she was asking and saying was amazing.  Her joy of life and enthusiasm for interaction was adorable (but also painful – so I may put some Windex on it today - LOL).

I just hope that I am that excited about life, faith and learning when I am 78 years old.  So “Bravo, Bravo!” to my YaYa seatmate. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I Needed a Timeout

I have had three careers over the course of my life.  I taught High School History and Government for 9 years, pastored churches for fourteen years as a United Methodist clergyperson, and have been a seminary professor for four years teaching Preaching and Worship, Ministry Formation and UM courses (among others).  In that time I have obviously felt called to move from one place and profession to another.  During those times of calling and change – I reflected on my call and how God wanted to use me in the world in new ways.  And those reflective times sent me back to graduate school twice – once for a Master of Divinity degree and then for Master and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.  But this week I have been blessed with a rare opportunity to reflect on my vocation as a seminary professor and my identity as a theological educator.  I was chosen to attend the Wabash Institute’s Consultation for Pre-Tenure Seminary Faculty over the next year (1 week this week, 1 long weekend in January 2012, and 1 week next summer).  This is a group of 14 pre-tenure profs and 5 leaders reflecting intentionally on teaching; on our identity in seminary education; and the role of power, gender, and rank in our lives as faculty members.

One of the first things I noticed about our schedule was that there was a lot of free time scheduled.  I was perplexed.  Shouldn’t we be working the entire time?  Shouldn’t this week wear us out?  Shouldn’t we have more homework to do?  We’re going bowling?  We're going on a canoe trip?  We’re learning to drum?  Seriously?

Then after only 1½ days of us talking together – formally and informally – I know why we have down time.  It is exhausting work.  But it is work that is so worth it.  We are asking BIG questions about our lives as educators, our goals for our students, our values as educators for our students’ learning, and how our courses reflect those goals and values.  Taking time to assess our work is important.  It is not the first time I have done this – but this guided and collaborative process this week is a gift beyond what I usually do.

Being with other seminary colleagues who are exploring who they are and who they want to be as theological educators is a powerful experience.  Getting to know them and hearing their stories and experiences is phenomenal.  But  I wonder how often folks really take the time to assess their vocation - their work?  I wonder how much intentional time people spend discerning why they do that they do in their work?  I wonder why it took a week away to ask some of the questions I am asking.  But I am so grateful for it?

I needed this time out.  I did not know how much I needed it until I got here.  So bring on the drumming lessons tonight.  I wanna see how this helps me become a better teacher – because I know it will. 

I promise to think even more intentionally about what I am doing from now on – but I will also try to remember to take a time out more often.  Amazing how great it is. 

Try it sometime …

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Growing Up With my Kid!

Today I walked my 12 year old son, Shelby, to the gate for his first solo flight.  He is off to Arlington, Texas to spend the week with my sister and brother-in-law (and my parents for part of the week).  He is so excited about the time with them and about heading off on his own.  I, on the other hand, am feeling a bit sad.  Not sad because he is going off on an adventure and I will miss him.  I am a little bit sad to see how grown up he is and how quickly he has become a young man.  It seems like only yesterday that we were walking out of the orphanage in Yekaterinburg, Russia with a 9 month old adoptee.  But today he is a creative, intelligent, funny, compassionate, and talented young man.  I am so proud of him and of WHO he is becoming.  It is not always easy.  Sometimes being a pre-teen is rough – and so is being the parent of a pre-teen.  He is going through changes all the time and I am just trying to keep up.

So being sad is just about me.   I am much more encouraged by who he is.  He is a justice fighter.  He speaks up naturally when an injustice occurs.  He protects the underdog and cheers for everyone equally.  He is absolutely baffled that some people are homophobic or racist.  He sees people as equals and cannot understand those who don’t as well.  He wants to do a march on Washington, watches C-SPAN, and debates the debt ceiling with wisdom beyond his age.  He also cracks jokes that only a mother would laugh at, can text faster than a human ought to be able to text, drives me crazy with his antics, blows things up to scare me to death, and has a mess of a room.  Shelby is a typical 12 year old.  One minute he is a young man – the next he is still a bit of a little boy.  But more and more – he is a young man with opinions and interests all his own – apart from me.

I know when he becomes frustrating and emotional that it is his age and the changes he is going through. He is just like every other pre-teen. I know he loves me and would never do anything to intentionally hurt me.  But sometimes being a pre-teen mom is tough.  I have to remember that nothing he says or does is personal.  And that’s hard.

So I promise to grow up with him.  I promise to guide him.  I promise to try not to take things personally. I promise to set limits and sometimes make him mad.  I promise to try to overlook his messy room and not press my OCD on him too much. I promise to encourage him and laugh at his jokes.  I promise to ground him if he comes in late.  I promise not to pry into his personal life … and I promise I will pry if I have to.  I promise to love him anyway.  That’s what being a parent is all about.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

22,000 Caylee Anthonys a Day

This week has been an odd one for news junkies.  I like staying up to date on politics and the world, but this week news outlets have been full of Casey Anthony updates – Breaking News Flashes and in-depth analysis.  (Several talking-heads seemed about ready for their heads to explode the day the verdict came down. )   The news of her acquittal of murder and child abuse charges sent shock waves in many circles.  Many were angry and outraged over the “miscarriage of justice.”  They were incensed that Little Caylee did not get justice.  A cry went out to light front porch lights in honor of her memory.

My Facebook and Twitter literally BLEW UP with comments condemning the jurors as idiots and morons, calling the justice system a mockery, and calling for Casey to burn in hell.  There were entire comment streams debating whether or not it was “Christian” to call on her banishment to hell.  Some posted warnings that Casey had better get out of town before someone took “justice out on her a$$.” The vitriolic language surprised me.  There were calmer heads out there but they were quickly hushed by the negative comments.

I had not followed the case closely, but had heard enough to know that most experts thought she would be found guilty.  I was not infested in it but know many who were.  The truth is that our system of justice is sometimes – ok, maybe more than sometimes – flawed.  But it is the best system we have.  And honestly I would want 10 guilty people to go free with a valid process before one is unjustly convicted. 

So my quandary is this – how do we “get justice for Caylee?”  Do we convict a person without appropriate proof of the crime?  Do we condemn Casey to hell?  Is this an eye for an eye situation?  How do we equate our Christian values of forgiveness and reconciliation with this?  What does it mean to be a Christian and still be angry?

I wish I had easy answers, but there are not any.  It is hard to live up to our call as persons of faith to be lovers and reconcilers.  But that is what we are called to do and be.  No matter how hard it is to believe, Casey Anthony is a child of God.  She is a lost and flawed child of God, but all of us are as well.  I do not wish to judge her but know she needs a lot of love and support.   I deplore acts of violence – by anyone against any person, but especially against children.  So I am saddened by the loss of Caylee.

But every day there are 22,000 Caylees who die around the world – of gun violence, abuse and neglect, hunger and often preventable disease, etc.  That is one child every 4 seconds.  That is 15 children every minute.  An American child is reported abused every 10 seconds.  34 people die every day of gun violence.  These facts anger me – my righteous indignation flares up about these things and I am working to make changes. 

We can all help the unknown victims – by honoring all of them, by working for change, and by being present in the lives of all the kids around us.  So tonight and every night – my porch light will be on because I want to be a light in the darkness for all of the children who die needlessly every day around the world.

But turning on the light is not all I am going to do.  What about you?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

My Country’s Better than Your Country! Really?

It is 4th of July weekend and I have been hearing once again the alarming cries of how great our country is, how free we are, and how our country is the best in the world.  In many ways this holiday is one I have issues with (not the only one peeps).  Yes, we live in an amazing place with astounding opportunities that are not available to others around the globe.  We get to protest our leaders, for the most part, without fear of recrimination or death.  We are able to read a free press – even though it is slanted in so many ways it sometimes does not seem worth it.  We are able to live our lives, enjoy our liberty and pursue happiness.  That’s all wonderful stuff we get from the blessings of being an American.

On the other hand, our “free country” is based on a history of 400 years of slavery and native oppression that both have left lasting repercussions that we are not adequately dealing with.  Our educational system hardly ranks among the world’s best.  Our health care system is broken, despite changes that have helped keep young people covered longer and stops insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions (among others).  Our political system is so polarized we cannot get bills passed without wrangling for political benefits or castigating the “enemy” at every opportunity.  Our country suffers from a widening gap of those who have much and those who have little.  The lower class swells, the rich get richer, and the middle class evaporates.  Our country’s dream of living “free and equal” continues to elude many groups – because of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, the people they love, the jobs they lost, the house they can never afford, the way they decorate their skin with art or holes, etc.  Our country continues to exhibit shocking symptoms of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, size-ism, classism, etc.

So … we’ve got BIG issues.  We have problems that need BIG resolutions.  We have problems that have lasted for generations without as much progress as we need to have achieved.  And to get things done our leaders need to work together, our neighborhoods need to work together, our churches need to embrace the needs of the people for acceptance, and our families need to come together to work for change.

Yes, we are a great country, but we need to live up to that greatness.  We need to live up to that moniker before we proclaim it too loudly.  We have miles to go to be who we profess to be.  I love this country – don’t miss that point.  I am proud to be an American, but we need to be all that America stands for.

Happy 4th of July – to a great country that can be so much greater!