Friday, March 23, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Granny P

I am traveling with my family this week to the funeral of my son's great grandmother, Granny P.  She was 93 when she passed away and had been in an assisted living facility for some years due to Alzheimer's Disease.  The last few times we visited she did not really respond to us, but my son was convinced she smiled at him.

I believe him.  Because that is what she always did with him.  She would watch him when he was little and say over and over, "perpetual motion, he's perpetual motion." And she would smile.  She was part of his life and he adored going to visit Baba, one of his grandmothers, and her mom, Granny P, his great grandmother. 

While there - anytime we visited - she would ask him about his puppy, go for walks with him, and they would play on the floor with red puppy and a toy train for hours.

On one visit when he was a toddler, she became convinced that his little red puppy (a stuffed animal he took everywhere with him) was in fact hers.  The entire time we were there she would secret it away and we would have to go retrieve it for him.  She was not aware of what she was doing but he knew she was taking something that was his.  He was confused, but trusted us to rescue it for him. 

When we got ready to leave one time, she once again had gotten red puppy away from him.  We distracted her the best we could and searched her room until we rescued red puppy from behind some blankets in her closet.  She had hidden it extremely deeply in the closet.  But we were not about to leave without it.  We still tell the story and he knows it well.

This weekend at the memorial service, grandkids and great grandkids were asked to bring pictures or other items to remember Granny P.  My son brought red puppy (yes, we still have it even though he is now 13 years old).  He will tell the story of her thinking it was hers and taking it several times.  Some will laugh and some will wonder what the story means.  For him it is a memory of being with her.  It is a memory of her interaction with him - despite her disease.  He does not know her from her prime.  He remembers a funny lady in a hat who took his red puppy and called him "perpetual motion."

But he still remembers her.  He wanted to be here to say goodbye.  And he wanted to share his wonderful memory of her.

That is what memorial services and funerals are all about.  They are about remembering the roles our loved ones play in our lives - whether briefly or over an extended period of time.  It is a chance to compare memories with others and to say thank you for the roles our beloved family members played on our journey.  It is a time to laugh as much as cry.  It is a time to drink deeply from the family well.  It is a time to remember.

Yes, my son still has red puppy.  He keeps it in his keepsake box.  He keeps it because he got it from his aunt and uncle for his first birthday and it reminds him of Clifford, the Big Red Dog, who his Baba introduced him to.  And he keeps it because Granny P took it from him and his parents rescued it for him.

Sharing that memory makes him happy.  Remembering Granny P makes him smile.  Remembering those who have walked this life journey with us is important.  This weekend is all about that. 

Drink deeply from that well, my friends.  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Women- We Need to Tell Our Stories

I grew up in Texas, which is an extremely oral culture.  We tell stories.  We tell little stories about the people who used to live in the house on the corner or the football game when we won the state championship.  And we tell BIG stories about our history – about the battle at the Alamo; about being a country before being a state; and about Texas legends like Travis, Austin, Crockett, and others.  Telling stories in my culture is vital.  It is as much a part of Texans as breathing.

I also grew up in a story telling household.  We heard stories about ancestors who fought in the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression as some of my relatives call it), my dad juggling a watermelon and dropping it all over the kitchen floor as a kid, and an intriguing story from my Great Aunt Edna about the little people who lived in the moss outside her window. 

These stories are a part of me because they are part of my story.  My life story.  The story of me.  It is an important story because it is my story.  And to honor it – I have to tell my story.  A huge part of my story is my faith in God, my being a follower of Jesus, my devotion to my vocation, my growing up in Texas, and my love of family.  Telling the story of me and my faith journey is essential. 

I teach my students to honor their stories.  I teach them to be proud of their journey – their life journey and their faith journey.  And I teach my preaching students to tell the Gospel story in profound, personal, and relevant ways.  Telling stories is important in the life of the church.  The story of the Hebrew people makes up the Old Testament, the story of Jesus is told in the Gospels, and the story of the early church is recounted in the Epistles.  These stories are important to read, hear, and respond to.  They are the stories of our faith.

Yesterday, I spent time with a group of women attending the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia’s Women’s Day event.  We talked about the stories of women from the Bible – Eve, Esther, Rachel, Leah, Elizabeth, Sarah, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Salome, Mary Magdalene, Dorcas, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Priscilla, Huldah, the Woman with the Issue of Blood, Mary and Martha, and others.  It was a powerful time of conversation.

We also talked about the importance of honoring these stories and the women’s own stories in the life of the church.  Some of these stories are told in the church on a regular basis – in worship, in preaching, in study, and in communal gatherings.  But unfortunately many are not.  Women’s stories are often either omitted or told only to forward the story of the male characters in the story.  At the very least women get their stories told on Women’s Sunday or Mother’s Day.  Some churches are much better than this – thank goodness – but some are not.

Today, we also hear women’s place in society and their rights to make decisions about their own lives being bandied about as political power plays.  Whether you agree or not with the topics of debate – the way men in power are talking about women without asking women to participate in the decisions is repugnant. Women are being silences in many of these discussions.  We ought to be able to tell our own stories and have a role in the decisions that affect our own lives.

We have to tell our stories.  We have to tell the stories of women in our lives.  We have to tell the stories of women in our faith journeys.  We have to tell the stories of the women of the Bible and women who have and are leading the church.

Women’ stories are important.   ‎A friend shared the following quote from Muriel Rukeyser on my Facebook wall today - "What if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."
Our stories are the stories that would split open the world.  Our stories are the stories of the world – the stories of the church – the stories of us. 

Tell them – often and everywhere.  Tell them.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dinosaurs and Dragons in Church

 A friend called last week to talk about a conflict in their church.  It was about a resistance coming from some of his members to change things for a new day according to the friend, a pastor of a mainline denomination.  He commented that the dinosaurs in his church never want to try anything new.  They often say the seven deadly words that can stop church growth and new possibilities for vitality – “But we’ve never done it that way.”  His frustration was palpable even over the phone.  He was disheartened and frustrated. 

Another friend of mine had called just the week before – another pastor friend – to talk about a “problem person” in her church.  The person she was calling about was causing all manner of conflict because she did not get her way in a recent church decision.  So the member was acting out in aggressive ways.  The pastor called to see what I thought of how she was dealing with this behavior.  She was struggling with the anger spewing from her member that seemed out of control.  The pastor was tired and confused.

In every church you can find examples of both dinosaurs and dragons.  Dinosaurs can and will often cling to out of date realities and long for bygone days of the past.  They can also be the holders of tradition and heritage.  Dinosaurs can be the foundations upon which our mainline churches are built.  The difficulty is when the demographics of a community demand change, a new type of worship experience, or an innovative outreach strategy and the dinosaurs refuse to change to allow for these new possibilities.

You will likely also run into various dragons in the church.  Some stomp around throwing their power around like a bulky swishing tail and others literally and figuratively breathe fire whenever they are angry.  They can make life in the church very problematic – for both laity and clergy alike.  They can become angry over what seems like small things – moving a painting from one room to the other or the changing of the location of a meeting.  They can make the process of decision making extremely difficult by breathing fire in meeting after meeting, in worship and in study, and in formal and informal settings.  They can leave a path of destruction that baffles those around them with their angry behavior.

So what do we do about dragons?  One of these friends who called recently said the best thing about them is that they will simply die out eventually.  But what of the church in the meantime?

There are ways to deal with dragons and their issues from Marshall Shelley’s Well-Intentioned Dragons: Ministering to Problem People in the Church:

1. When criticism or critique is offered – “consider the spirit in which it is offered.”  Even in anger the critique may have merit and one would be wise to at least consider the criticism’s possible realities.
2. When the criticism or critique comes in the midst of “hot anger” this “is a sign that something more is involved.”  Anger, fiery or otherwise, that is beyond the expected norms in any given situation could likely mean there is something more that the person is frustrated or angry about.  Try to work on discovering the root of this anger in order to deal with the fallout.
3. When criticism or critique is offered – respond prayerfully.  The best model we can offer when people are angry is to pray for and with them about what they have concerns about.
4. When criticism or critique comes in concrete forms – give these instances of critique more weight.  The more concrete someone is the more validity their issue may be.  Explore what they are offering and examine them carefully for possible issues you can address.
5. When criticism and critique comes – deal with them calmly and with great care.  Dismissing the concerns out of hand only adds anger to the situation.  React calmly and they might as well.
6. When criticism and critique comes – deal with it corporately.  Gain perspective through the advice and counsel of others you trust.
7. When you are finished with all of these considerations you must act – either by making changes or letting the person know that you have weighed their issue carefully and determined that a different decision has been made.

Dealing with dinosaurs can be just as tricky.  Dinosaurs are often feeling like their issues and needs are being left behind for new people, new ideas, and new methods.  They believe what they hold dear in the church is being taken away from them piece by piece, step by step.  Their desires to cling to the past can be dangerous to a church that finds itself in the position of moving forward and reaching new audiences. 

Honoring the past while making room for what’s next can be tricky.  Sometimes it involves being a chaplain to “what was” to its final end in order to create “what can be.”  Sometimes it involves radically envisioning a new beginning that the dinosaurs can support as an additional ministry of their church.  Sometimes it means spending time learning the story of the dinosaurs so that one can tell a new story they can respond to positively. Sometimes it means leaving the dinosaurs and dragons behind and starting something completely new and different.  All are hard.

When dealing with the dragons and dinosaurs of your church follow some important advice – they are not the enemy.  They are children of God just as you and those who agree with you are.  They are part of the beloved community and as such need our care and love.

When dealing with angry dragons and prehistoric dinosaurs – handle with care.  Likely they are as afraid of you as you are of them.  Communication and shared beliefs are important to honor.  Take the time to deal justly and compassionately with them and you might be surprised how much progress you can make.

Handle with care = love, honor, respect, and grace.  But it also means moving on to a new reality when necessary – both dragons and dinosaurs no longer exist in the real world, but they can be all too real in the church. Remarkably they can help us honor the past and move into the future.

Hopefully the church of what is to come learns the lessons of the past and makes decisions that honor it while not clinging too tightly to it.  The church of what’s next needs to be birthed.  NOW!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jumping On the Downton Abbey Bandwagon

For several months I watched friends and family posting on Facebook and on Twitter about the PBS show Downton Abbey.  I saw humorous quotes and intriguing insights from some good people about the show but was not watching it at the time.  I am not usually a period-piece TV viewer.  But I was getting pulled in by the gushing these folks were doing over the show.  So I decided I would try it – and got on the VERY LONG wait list on Netflix so that we could view it at our own pace in our living room.  It took a while but we got it and decided to watch it that very night.

To be honest, I was hooked the first five minutes of the show.  I was intrigued by the upstairs/downstairs reality of the show.  For the few not watching it yet, it is the story of the Crawley family and their lives in their majestic home, Downton Abbey.  The Earl, Robert Crawley, his wife, their three daughters, and the Dowager Countess, the Earl’s mother, have ups and downs aplenty, but for the most part it is a story of their relationships one with the other.  It is a gorgeous home and is a story of great wealth and privilege during a drastically changing time in history. 

But it is also a story about the household staff that keeps Downton Abbey humming.  From the butler, Carson, down to the first and second footmen and various house maids, we get to see the lives of the extraordinary people who kept the aristocracy of Great Britain alive and well in the early 1900s.  And we get to see that they had extraordinary lives themselves.

The thing that is interesting about the show is the interactions of all of these people in the midst of a fast changing world – women’s rights, World War I, changing roles for the aristocracy, gender expectations, modern technologies (electricity, cars and the telephone), and shifting politics.  Change is hard for everyone.  Carson is not sure what to do with the telephone, Sybil gets into trouble trying to be a modern woman, war disrupts all of their lives, and the household staff is full of clashing personalities of both the good and evil varieties.

I resisted this show because I was not interested in the rich v. poor story I assumed it would be.  I resisted because I did not want to watch something just because others were fans.  I resisted because ... well just because.

But I am on the Downton Abbey bandwagon now.  We have just finished with the first season.  The Frist World War has just been declared.  And I am delighted with my decision to watch Downton Abbey.

I am enjoying learning about a period of time that I studied historically but not very socially focused.  I have learned that taller footmen earned more than their shorter counterparts. I have learned that while we are debating the rights of women to be their own persons today, this is indeed a longtime issue with much more progress needed. 

I am a fan of Downton Abbey.  But more than anything else I am a fan about learning about the lives of others.  I am a fan about growing in my understanding of the world around me – even the world as seen through the upstairs/downstairs lives of the Crawley family in early 1900s Great Britain.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Surviving the Storm

Photo taken by Julie Pohl

The above image is of a hymnal from a United Methodist Church destroyed in a tornado on February 29, 2012 in Harveyville, Kansas. The hymnal survived.  It was found in the midst of absolute ruin.  It was beaten and battered – but it survived.  It is proof that things -- and I believe humans, as well -- can and do survive the storms that come into our lives.  Yes, damage can be left in the wake of storms and it can be devastating but it can also provide for growth, change, new possibility and re-creation can occur.

Sometimes we wonder how we are supposed to endure all that comes our way.  Sometimes it feels as if we are living a life of sheer survival.  Sometimes we feel like the good moments are merely reprieves between the storms. 

But the truth is … life is a blessing.  That blessing is a series of ups and downs.  It is a bounty of experiences and opportunities.  It is a feast of people, places, and events that are part of our journey.  It is a journey that is rich with possibilities and options.

In my younger days, I would moan and complain about the “crap” that would pile one on top of the other in my life.  I thought it was some horrid test that I was failing. Illness, car expenses, lost jobs, stresses, and other stuff seemed to come over and over.  It felt like evil and negativity were laying traps for me.  It was frustrating.

I remember hearing that God never gives us more than we can handle.  But, I thought, obviously God was overestimating what I could handle.

As I have matured in my faith, I understand that God is not testing me ... it’s life.  Life happens.  Good things come our way and difficulties do, as well.  It is the cycle of reality.  We have mountains and valleys.  If we focus on the valleys – we will miss the amazing journey up and around the mountain – and the view from the top.  If we only focus on the mountain top we feel betrayed when we find ourselves in the valley.  It’s the whole journey – not one extreme or the other – that helps us grow in our life and in our faith.

As Brian McLaren writes:  “Yes, thank God, in this life there are green pastures, still waters, overflowing cups, and laden banquet tables. But there are also valleys of the shadow of death in which evil lurks and enemies wait for a misstep or mistake upon which to pounce. To sustain us through those dark valleys, we are given simple words of aspiration, refusal, and lament: when?, no, and why?” (word 9, from Naked Spirituality pp. 181)

And what I trust is this -- “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  Philippians 4.13:  (NRSV).  Or maybe another version works for you:  “Christ gives me the strength to face anything.” (CEV)  This passage is so important in my life.  It reminds me that I am strong – I can survive – because Christ has given me strength to survive and thrive.

No matter what – mountain or valley or in between – we are not alone.  We are not too weak to endure.  Christ is with us on our journey.  Christ strengths us to endure. 

The journey continues …