Monday, September 29, 2008

Calling all AmEx card holders

American Express is having a contest called Members Project. It's slogan is "Your ideas. Your decision. Our Money." They will be giving away $1.5 million to help someone fulfill their dream and make a difference. A friend of a friend is part of the contest and needs your votes. Kiva project helps entrepreneurs in the developing world obtain loans for their projects. The only catch is you have to be a card holder to vote. So, if you have an AmEx card, and can vote, please do. Or, if you can email folks or blog about it and get the word out--Please Do! There are only 25 projects left and they announce the top 5 in about 15 hours--so vote soon!

Monday, September 22, 2008

When push comes to shove

It's relatively easy to talk about extending grace and hospitality to others when you know and like them and they are easy to get along with. A, the homeless man we've had so many interactions with, though homeless, which for many is a HUGE stumbling block, is a good guy who's likable and helpful. It's a stretch for many in my congregation, but pretty basic for me. Well, then came I. Not a homeless man who showers in our sprinklers and sleeps in our gazebo, but a young teen who is defiant, rude, and, as my dear Jenna would say, "a pain in the tookas!" I'm sure he acts the way he does for a reason and am also convinced he needs church. He needs stability, discipline, guidance, teaching, and compassion. But sadly his presence comes at a big cost to others. We're losing adult volunteers and youth participants because he makes their time miserable, from swearing, to spitting, to slurs he constantly violence the sanctuary space of church (not the building but the environment). He doesn't listen. I've tried bartering. I've tried consequences. I've tried discussion. I've tried reason. I've tried sending him home. He won't cooperate and he won't leave. So the question becomes what do we do and what is too much? Is our commitment to one kid who is in serious need or to the other 10 that are present?

I know, I talk a lot about "it's not either or, it's both and." But somehow I'm not seeing the alternatives these days. We're going to try stricter rules, bringing mom into the situation, and a male authority presence to see if that helps. But I'd hate for the other kids to see our efforts to work with I as a neglect of them.

Tonight I saw the parallels of the two situations--the one with A and the one with I. They are both ministry issues. It's not just about outreach or education or worship. It's about all of those things. And in both cases the presence of "the other" makes at least a few uncomfortable, scared, and anxious. "The other" has real and concrete needs we as a church are called to care for. And at the same time, the established community also has spiritual, emotional, and sometimes physical needs we also need to care for. So how do you do it? And how can I be consistent in both of these ministry issues when one presents a perceived threat and the other poses a real threat? Or is that the difference? Is that the defining line? And then what about those who pose "a real threat" who also need ministry, compassion, discipline, stability, and care?

The arguments, the murmuring, the fussing makes ministry challenging and frustrating, but these situations are what makes ministry really HARD.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Submit part II

Earlier this week I talked about submitting, especially in the face of conflict. And I mean(t) that. But I think I should clarify a little bit, after all, hindsight is 20/20. That night at the trustees meeting, we talked about some of the issues that have been raising so much controversy, but primarily avoided the issue of homelessness. Pre-meeting, after various conversations with colleagues/mentors/friends and a good bit of prayer I landed on submit. I also was well advised (thank you Dave) to ground myself in scripture (and not just one). At the meeting, I was ready to submit, nor forfeit, but submit, which did not mean "Ok, you win. We'll just kick the homeless off the property and call it a day," but did mean I wasn't going to prove I was *right*.

Instead, when the issue arose (at the last second of the meeting), I said, "Actually, this is a ministry issue, it affects all the ministries of the church and not just the trustees. So, we are going to address it at Ad Council next week when all the ministries are represented. If you have thoughts you'd like to share, you are more than welcome to come and do so."


Strangely, that was it. There wasn't argument or debate or people storming out in a fuss. It was clear. Maybe they didn't agree, but it was clear, and they accepted it.

The thing I want to clarify is this: while I thought I was submitting to them (at least as I went into the meeting), I was actually submitting to God, and in so doing, God created a way, or at least my will didn't get in the way. Think of it this way, before the meeting, I was fuming, irritated as all get-out that "good Christians" kept kicking people out, and those particular people might just be the one's we are supposed to be most intentional about welcoming in. I was ticked and I wanted to prove I was right about how we should handle things. But it was about my perspective in that, not God's. Now, ideally, my perspective on this comes from God's and there wouldn't be too many discrepancies, but I was still placing my will first and that was what the trustees would have had to cede to. But when I declared "I will submit," I actually declared--"It's all about you God." And that made all the difference in the world.

Now, this coming Tuesday night might turn out to be a nightmare as all the different sides come together and argue/discuss this issue. Or it might be that we edge just a little bit closer to the biblical mandates to care for the poor, love our enemies, and provide shelter/clothes/food/visitation to those who need it. Maybe.

But in any case, it is about God's will for our church. Not just when it's easy. Not just when it's desireable, but whenever it's God's will. I believe it is God's will for us to serve those in need. And, I also believe it is God's will that we submit to God, and to one another in love, respect, mutuality, and humility. So, I will try and do my part and pray God helps others do theirs.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When in doubt, submit

For the last few days I have been wondering or not "this is my battle to fight". I know there will be a multitude of issues and barriers throughout my ministry and the current ones are surely just the surface. I definitely think that justice for the homeless and inclusion of the youth (even if they're *those youth*) is a part of our call and discipleship. I also know that people will only follow you so far so fast and 3 months is still very early on in the game. I have been wondering whether or not these issues are the ones I am supposed to take a hard stand on or if I should let them go and wait and see what happens down the line.

I'm not sure who exactly said it to me last year but someone told me that the best answer for us in ministry is to submit. Just submit. In my head submitting sounds like giving up. Submitting means I don't actually stand for the things I say I stand for, and so I struggle to think that might be what I need to do. But I also know that alienating people and forcing them to go where they are not ready to go will not make them want to go back to that place and especially not to go beyond. In many ways I can suggest a new road. I can challenge us to see with new glasses or from a new perspective. And for those who are ready for a challenge, yes I can take them to a new place and challenge them to grow beyond their comfort level.

But that challenge, I fear, is not for everyone. If even a few are screaming, "I'm scared, get me off", then it's time to stop the ride and let them off. Yes, there are times to leave someone on, like if they begged and begged to get on the ride and you know it will end soon. But if you forced them onto the ride thinking they would enjoy it and it ends up being miserable, then you don't force them to go back on. Sometimes some people just need more time.

In some ways it's like when we took my niece and nephew to Disneyland a year and a half ago. They were young and enjoyed the characters and some of the rides. But there were many they weren't ready for. There were a few tears and a few protests and with that we knew not to try Matterhorn or Splash mountain or anything like that. This year was a different story. A little older, ready to take on new challenges and to risk more, we dared to do bigger and better rides and by in large, it was great! The kids had fun and we had no meltdowns or tear-filled rides. Sometimes, even as adults, we need a little more time, a little more experience, and a little less reluctance to take a risk. I don't mean to be condescending by comparing adults to children, but in many ways, psychologically, when we are challenged or fearful, human nature is human nature and it's clearest in children and still true for adults.

Many in my congregation trust me. They know me relatively well after only a short period of time and generally they are ready for more risks (whether that's in mission or in worship) and I can take them to new places. But for others, I am still an unknown. And not knowing me, they don't trust me. Maybe they've been burned in the past. Maybe they don't like change. Maybe they don't want to risk. Whatever the case, I can't assume everyone is on equal footing at this stage in the game.

So, I will submit. I will still continue to preach the gospel and live the Christian tenants as I understand them. But I will also defer to them as they are the people I am called to serve and that service must be done with respect, humility and gentleness--as defined by them, not just as I understand it.

Street logic vs. mine

Recently I got to talking with some of the youth that frequent Monday night Bible study. We regularly have discipline/cooperation issues and the other night was no exception--they walked off our campus and got in a fight down the street. When they left I had walked after them and got there after a neighbor had broken up the fight. I sent the boys back to the church and checked in with the other party to make sure everyone was okay. Though the boys are normally non-compliant, after the fight they were perfectly willing to follow directions. So, I had them sit and we talked about what happened and why they did what they did and I tried to have us talk about why fighting wasn't the right answer.

For the record, that was a losing battle. For them, fighting earned respect and proved you "aren't a pussy". It was not only acceptable, but necessary. There was no room for walking away let alone turning the other cheek. I had NO luck breaking through the fight-for-your-place mentality and was left with all I had--that may do what you do on your own time, but that is fully unacceptable when you're at church. So when you're on our clock--no fighting, not with other people at church, not with neighbors, not at all. Period. In fact, I don't even want to hear about it. Somehow, that made sense to them. They fully understood the issue of liability (even though I didn't want that to be the core reason), and one even cited "because it's church" as a reason for not fighting.

We were clearly on different pages. For me, there's no need or cause to physically fight. One asked, "What would you do if someone hit you? Would you let them do it again?" Probably. Or I'd walk away, because, in my mind, fighting back physically wouldn't fix it. I also raised that because I'm not physically aggressive, I don't even come close to that situation in the first place. It was lost on them. At one point I headed down another dead end road: "Who taught you that fighting is ok?" "My dad." "So if I called your dad and told him what happened he'd be okay with it?" "As long as I won, yeah." Brilliant. At least now I know why we're dealing with this in the first place.

Apparently I have a lot to learn. First, it was graffiti I didn't understand. Now it's the honor culture of the streets. I feel a bit inept. I don't get it. People talking smack or thinking I'm a wuss doesn't really factor in...ok, so maybe them talking smack does (just read yesterday's post), but it doesn't make me bristle and actually consider fighting. It's amazing to me that they don't see the cycle of violence and how it just perpetuates violence and feeds off itself. I mean, they're in junior high, so I suppose I get how they don't think on those levels, but really, how do their parents not get it and tell them differently. What did I miss in my education?!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Honeymoon shmoneymoon

When you get to a new church *they* tell you that there is a 6 month honeymoon. For the first two months at the new church, I believed them. Things have been fabulous. People are warm, helpful, gracious, encouraging, just all around wonderful to be in ministry with. And then month three rolled around and the gloves came off and to *them* I say: "What on earth happened to those other 4 months?!" Don't get me wrong. Things aren't horrible. But they're not honeymoon either. If there's not debate around the homeless, then there's debate about the youth, and if there's not debate about the youth, there's debate about the "renters" and if there's not debate about the renters....well, you get the idea. And for some reason all of this is coming out in the last 2 weeks. There's grumpy, murmuring, and fussing over everything from hedges to worship order. And this week...I'm tired.

Not that I didn't expect it. I knew things wouldn't be roses and homemade jam forever, but still. I've even been anticipating it to happen sooner rather than later. The "easy street" I've been on has made me pick up speed and after picking up enough speed I felt like I was hurtling forward at a rate I couldn't stop and figured there'd be a big brick wall around one of these bends. Apparently this week I hit it. I hit the wall of "no change in worship" of "not them" and "we can't let ______ leave because ________ is one of our best givers." Fabulous.

My saving grace this week? An email from a member who's getting really excited about reading and studying the Bible and loves the academic/archeology/historical/cultural side of biblical studies and is not only excited, but regularly includes me in her process and shares her thoughts! Thank God for signs that ministry matters despite the pedantic rigmarole.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Simple pleasures of the summer's harvest

Last week my dad came down for a visit. He actually came to meet with his sisters, but I was fortunate to have him stay with me for the week. With him he brought a 5 gallon bucket full of plums. I was THRILLED. I have been wanting to make jam all summer but didn't have the quantity of fruit I needed and felt it was frivolous to buy that much fruit just for jam. So, one afternoon between meetings I set to work. And I chopped fruit and cooked it up and added sugar and pectin and boiled jars and lids and made jam. I made 4 batches and came out with 20 some jars...something like that anyway. The majority of the jars I had were quart size....a.k.a. large family jars and they seem a bit excessive, but the jam is so good, I hardly think they'll mind. Plum jam might be my all time favorite. It's good not just on bread, but as a filling in a cake, or heated up and poured over vanilla ice cream. So good. It was nice to be able to be productive in the kitchen. I am out so often and have leftovers from many of the meals I share at a restaurant with a parishioner or colleague that I am hardly in the kitchen these days even though it's the nicest and largest I've had in years.

Here's to some natural sugary, fruity goodness!!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I am blessed

I mentioned before how much I love this church. Last Sunday was a blessing as far as worship goes. But it was also a blessing for the gifts that people bestowed upon me. This mug was one of them. A 5 year old gave me the package during passing of the peace and it was weird to open it right then, but as any good 5 year old would be, she was super excited to see it and helped me pull the tissue out of the bag and it was perfect. It makes me smile on the inside and out and makes me want to pour a cup of coffee and kneel and send some "knee mail".

I also received this beautifully drawn picture from that same 5 year old. She pulled out her purse and started pulling out a number of objects. I had flashes of my (almost) 3 year old niece and her
purse and could only imagine all the things I would soon see all over the sanctuary floor. But this masterpiece was one of the first and I was so touched--I am the green one am on the right, then J is right next to me and then "all [her] friends" next to her. As soon as she showed it to me my eyes welled up and I almost changed the whole sermon to use that wonderful gesture of love as a teaching/preaching moment.

It's not the gifts that are really important, but it's the amazing outpouring of love and care (expressed through those gifts) that overwhelms me all the time. I sometimes think that struggling in a setting makes you work harder, and less complacent, and drawn into deeper faith. But it's also really nice to be loved on and cared for and to be able to just be with the people without major drama. So I am very grateful for this time!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Psalm 23

I've sometimes found it helpful to write what I think a passage does not mean so that I can better understand what it does mean. One night at youth group a few years back, I had my youth do just that. Today as I returned to the Bible I had used that day, I found my own version. First is my version of Psalm 23 that goes contrary to the message I believe the psalmist meant. The second is my paraphrased version of the psalm.

The Lord does not guide me
I am continuously in need
I walk alone through the desert
parched and depleted
I am lost without a cause
I am desperate and scared and have nowhere to turn
You have left me.
You offer no consolation.
Nothing of you is familiar.
You mock me and reject me.
You jest with my foes
You abuse me and betray me
I have nothing to give
I only see despair and desolation in my path
I stand outside your welcome forever.

The Lord is my shepherd, my guide, my keeper
He takes care of all my needs
He provides riches and plenty for me
so that I may relax and rest.
the Lord guides me by still waters--making sure I am cool and have plenty to drink.
He replenishes my soul, he makes me whole.
He guides my path, so that I might do good to others
and glorify him, showing others God's greatness
Even when life is at its worst--without hope, dark and alone--
I will not fear because God is there
The Lord holds my hand and comforts me.
the signs of God's presence--
grace, joy, forgiveness, and justice--give me peace.
You show your greatness by making me great,
you do not let my enemies push me down
You bless me and I have more than I could need.
With you by my side,
I know good things are still to come
and that I will be with you forever.

What about the other?

For the next few weeks I will be preaching on spiritual disciplines. Last week was Bible study, this week is prayer, then fasting, meditation, tithing, and worship. For this week's service, we reorganized the order so it would flow with the theme. We're using the simple "PRAY" breakdown:

Praise and thanksgiving
Ask for others

In that vein we are trying to make all the music, prayers, and elements fit for each of those sections. I talked with our praise team singer about what my thoughts were and what I was hoping for for their music selection for each of those areas. Both she and I had an extremely difficult time finding a song for "ask for others". There are lots of songs about "me" "my" and "I" and how God works with the individual. But there were a scarcity of songs that ask for others. Sure, there are those songs that ask for help when I help others. But not so many that actually deal with praying/blessing/asking for others.

As I thought about (and stewed over) it, I couldn't help but think "no wonder the church is insular and belly-button focused". We know how much power music has in the faith life of someone, the words of a song often become more ingrained and more frequently used than those of scripture (you can see this when people believe there were cows at the birth of Jesus but in the scriptures there is no mention of "cattle lowing" despite the ever familiar words), so then why would it be any surprise that people become overly focused on their individual walk with God and not that of others when the music they hear and sing day in and day out has little to do with the other? I wonder what it would do to the spirit of testimony/evangelism/witness if more of our music focused on praying/asking/blessing would be a regular reminder that my faith walk is strong not because it serves me, but because it blesses others.

In the meantime, we're turning to Yolanda Adams and her song "Be Blessed" to stick with the theme of the day and truly ask for others.

Friday, September 12, 2008

On shopping carts, homelessness, and grace

Lately there's been a lot of discussion about this <-- I can hardly believe how often people complain about it's presence on the church property. It belongs to the homeless man who spends his days playing dominoes and cards on the steps of our chapel and his nights covered by the gazebo you see here. They say, "It attracts the wrong kind of people." My thought is, "The poor, the marginalized, the oppressed? Those "wrong kind of people?" I know we all come from a different place in life and I know that part of my journey has been overcoming my own prejudice against the homeless. And part of my process involved washing the feet of those who lived on the streets once a week for most of my senior year of seminary. I see things differently than many in my church. I know that. But even knowing that, their words still sting. Their words still get under my skin and I have to bite my tongue more often than not because using sparring words won't draw them through their prejudices, it will only make them resistant to me. So I save my words for teaching moments and pray that I will be able to offer grace to them as I hope they will offer grace to "that indigent".

I struggle because when I see that shopping cart, I don't see junk. I see 1/2 of all the belongings in the world that are A's. I see it and know it doesn't belong to some estranged "no-good-lazy-bum". It belongs to A.

It belongs to A, who is sweet, funny, and endearing. It belongs to A who spent years as a Sunday school teacher and was almost ordained in another denomination. It belongs to A who picks up trash on our property and helps clean up graffiti when the taggers strike. It belongs to A who helped me change a tire when a woman pulled into the bus stop in front of our church the other day with a flat. It belongs to A who came to worship as my invited guest and has continued to come back. It belongs to A who jokes with me and talks with me and looks out for me if I'm at the church late. It belongs to A who offers me something to eat when they're cooking on their little barbeque. It belongs to A who has been compliant whenever I ask a favor (like picking up cigarette butts, drinking only from a concealed container, or waiting to have a serious conversation when he's sober). It belongs to A whose ultimate trust truly rests on God. It belongs to A who is ready to present TRUTH in worship and to get people excited about God's truths in their own lives.

I'm sure I could have anticipated problems surrounding homelessness before I got to this church. I'm not sure I would have anticipated having more of a relationship established with "the homeless guy out front" than with the majority of my members. And I doubt I would have expected the ones who complain to be the ones to complain.

After three trustees decided to speak their piece at once about the *eyesore* under the gazebo, I told them I would take care of it and talk to A. At least that way I would know it would be handled with the amount of tact I thought he deserved. Immediately I went and spoke with him, and, of course, he understood. Expected it even. He was more than understanding and gracious. I knew that finding a new home for his belongings wouldn't be as easy as rolling it down the street and parking it. So I gave him 3 days. I even debated having him park it in my backyard. But then I figured the church owns that property and it would only be too long before I heard from the trustees again. He found a place the next day, but would take the two additional days to move everything. Of all places he will park it at Long John Silver's. As one member remarked, it's sad when a restaurant down the street does a better job of being the church than we do.

I don't think we're done with this discussion or this issue. I see this as a definite area of growth for the church. And growth in grace for me as I deal with them on this issue.

May God grant us wisdom, clarity, and mercy as we try and draw closer to God, to each other, and to the more gracious kin-dom of God.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

quote of the day

"I'm trying to let you know that while you're in those meetings some people somewhere are wishing you were somewhere else."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Prayer for sermon writing

please clear my head so I can focus on you and your word.
Show me the message you have for your people.
Clear all thoughts that distract me from hearing you.
Guide me to your message.
Inspire my writing that I might honor and glorify you in all ways.
In the name of Christ.

Friday, September 5, 2008

When the tables are turned

I recently met someone who seems completely un-phased by my pastor-ness. That may seem like no big deal to you, but to me, who yields (apparently) one of the world's scariest vocations, it's novel. It's been years since I haven't been seen through the half-nun lens of my clergy collar. I have to admit it's intriguing. To be honest, I don't even really get it. I keep waiting for it to actually register and for me to be launched back into the land of the weird. It's so weird actually that it's almost creepy, does he not see my pastor-ness?? I know he knows. He's heard me preach. And yet, still un-phased. Did I mention I don't get it? I don't know what to do with it? 'Cause I don't. I mean, being seen through the half-nun lens is now so much of how I understand myself that I almost want to force him into that box so I can deal with what's *normal*--you know, the stunned silence...the endless questions about why and how and what that actually means. Because at least I know how to deal with that realm of things. But this, this is new, and in being new, it's a bit intimidating. Who'd have thought that I, the great intimidator, would be intimidated?

I know that other people have jobs that don't completely consume their conversations with everyone else. The landscape manager I met the other day definitely falls into that realm. I had a hard time getting him to say 2 sentences about his job. But being a pastor means talking pastor stuff a lot, or doing pastoral care, or answering questions about theology, or engaging in the "great debates" of our day, know, the 1000 other things that pertain to working in the church and serving God. So it's hard for me to fully register what it is supposed to feel like to have someone totally disinterested (or at least not obsessed with) what you do. Because what I do is who I am and who I am is what I do, so I'm not even sure I know what it is to be separated from that identity.

You could probably send me into counseling for that! It sounds a lot like a typical female issue--the one where women only know themselves as a wife or a mother or a caregiver and struggle when they can't fill that role anymore or when the shape of that role changes dramatically. So I know I'm not alone in that, "what do you mean, who am I apart from that? that's who I am..." feeling. There are thousands if not millions of others whose identity is intricately woven together with what they do, such that they hardly know themselves apart from those actions and that role. But somehow, knowing that, and experiencing that are two different things. And being comfortable separated from an identity that has been who I am, and probably has acted as a shield on various occasions, sort of makes me want to run and hide.

On the one hand, I can choose being seen through the half-nun lens which includes a whole host of stereotypes that I regularly try and combat, and on the other hand I can choose being stripped of my identity-comfort blanket and delving into a whole new definition of myself. Now, why is it that option B sounds so much more alluring and yet option A sounds WAY better?!?!

The trickiness of church friendships

I realize that I'm still relatively new at all of this church ministry business, but really, I'd have thought that after 2 years I'd have a better handle on some of it. Specifically, I'd like to know how to navigate the waters of friendships within the church.

Growing up I remember our pastor saying that a pastor can never really be friends with someone in the church. For years I accepted that as the rule and only later in seminary began to challenge that. But then for two years in Hemet, I began to see how right he was. I could allow myself to get close to people, but I could only allow them to get so close to me. I often felt like I was navigating a tight rope as I figured out what could and couldn't be shared in these relationships. I couldn't talk about how hard my day was when it included counseling someone about a domestic violence situation or child sexual abuse or when it involved conflict with a colleague or with a parishioner. I was also confused by when parishioners saw me as friend versus when they defined me as a pastor. I was regularly labeled as "friend" but I always saw myself as "pastor" with the distinction being whether or not I shared personal details from my own life.

Changing churches and becoming the senior pastor has not made this little dance any easier. Granted, there is one particular family from Hemet with whom I consider myself friends, for real (though there is, of course, the added complication about what I should or shouldn't continue to know about that congregation). Here the difficulty is even greater because a lot of parishioners were very close to the last pastor and considered themselves "friends".

It's a distinction that sounds crazy when you explain it. Unless people are pastors or counselors I rarely find that they understand why there would be any kind of stress or problem around said friendship. Almost without fail I feel like a complete jerk digging myself a huge hole navigating the murky waters of "top-ten-reasons-why-we're-not-*actually*-friends". It's frustrating and confusing, both for me and for them. Most of the time I end up letting people define our relationship however they want and just rolling with it, intentionally trying not to clarify our "not real friend" status, since to them it's hurtful and has nothing to do with healthy boundaries.

But then I run into the problem of meeting a parishioner I get along well with and actually want to be close to, someone I'd want to share personal stories and anecdotes with, and then the reality comes crashing down: I can't fully give in to becoming friends with X because at some point I'm gonna have a really tough day and he's gonna say, "how was your day?" And I'm gonna say, "It was horrible." And either a) I can't tell him anything about why or who I was with or b) I say I had to deal with domestic violence and sexual harassment and whatever else and then later realize someone's going to say they met with me on Tuesday and he's gonna put 2 and 2 together and it won't be fun for anyone. Because then I've violated confidentiality and they all feel awkward, if not betrayed and hurt. So then in order to avoid that type of situation I just hold back and don't share the realities of my day, and then I end up not having "real" friends because I can't fully open up to someone and share what's really going on with me.

For the probationary membership essays there was a question that basically said, "Ministry is a very isolating vocation, what are your support systems?" I had heard that many times and felt prepared for such isolation--I have strong family connections and long term friendships that have remained strong across time and distance. Those relationships continue to be a source of strength for me. And yet at the same time I still have to admit that ministry is indeed pretty isolating. To constantly struggle with forming new relationships in your current context is a weighty battle. It's not just the battle of navigating the parish waters I described above, but it's also navigating secular relationships--not wanting to dissillusion people by sharing the politics of church, and dealing with some of the alien habits of secular folks, not that I don't know about them or haven't lived some of them, but gettin' down at the club isn't my gig and I struggle sometimes to be friends with folks when our interests and core convictions are polar opposites.

I keep thinking it shouldn't be this hard. Then I think that maybe I'm just nutty and that's why this is so challenging. I have enough clergy friends to know I'm not alone. At the very least, for those of us who are recent graduates, finding and making friends is tricky gig. Somedays it's so tricky that you wish God had called you to a more neutral profession. Sometimes it doesn't seem worth it. And then other days you see the true benefits of the work you do, and you're overwhelmed with joy, and you know that the lonely hours, while maybe not "worth it", are at least bearable since the blessings of ministry are so huge.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A different take

The Questing Parson shows a different perspective on the theme "It isn't about me". Check it out here.

Not the words you want to hear

This morning I drove out to Riverside National Cemetery. I received the call yesterday to do a funeral for someone who died and had requested a Methodist minister to do the service. The original call had gone to first church, but both of their pastors are out of town, so I was next in line. I was sick and getting worse and did not want to wear myself into the ground, so I tried to think of the alternatives. I knew Pastor C at the other UM was in Korea and wouldn't be able to help. I didn't know about Pastor D at the other other church. So I asked the secretary from first to give Pastor D a call and see if she could do it, if not, I'd take it.

She called back in minutes and said she wasn't available. So I took the contact info for the next of kin and started calling and putting info together. I had numerous calls throughout the day with family members to sort out the details and it felt like most things were in line. I didn't have any contact with the mortuary, but this is my third funeral here in Riverside and no contact with the mortuary is about par for the course. (For the record, I was a much bigger fan of working with the mortuaries in Hemet, they knew what was up....probably b/c they spent years working in a retirement community, but whatever).

So anyway, back to this morning, I pull up to the guard station 10 minutes ahead of time and say, "I'm here for the John ______'s" service. The nice man looks at me and says, "we don't have a service for that name scheduled today." Awkward silence. The man looks at me and says, "Is there any other name it would be under?" Umm...what about ______? Nope. Okay. "Well, I've been sending the family over to the administration building." Okay. Thank you.

So I drive to the administration building and see a bunch of folks waiting around. Not sure if they're the family or not since I've never met them before, I tentatively ask, "Excuse me, are you all the ______ family?" Fortunately they were and so I was introduced around. Then I checked in with the administrative people and tried to figure out what on earth was going on. They didn't seem to have a clue.

The family took it suprisingly well and was not torn up about the confusion. I can't say that I would be so level headed on a day like that. The brother even said to me, "Hey, we have everything we need, we have the body, we have the pastor, and we have all of us. We're not going to watch the burial anyway, we're just going to say goodbye." He was right. All we needed was a shaddy spot somewhere to remember and honor John. But I encouraged him to wait a little bit longer.

After about 15 minutes they finally got a shelter/gazebo for us and escorted us around to the back of the cemetary. It would have all been perfectly normal except for the cemetary guy who told the family "this is sort of out of the ordinary, this wasn't supposed to happen today, so we're pressed for time." His warning made me a little too conscious of time so I didn't allow for family members to share (not that there's a lot of time for that in the normal 15 minutes they allot anyway), and I forgot to say the scripture verse they had selected.

But otherwise, it was a decent service and they got to say goodbye to their loved one. And the words of the cemetary guy "this wasn't supposed to happen today" really couldn't have been more appropriate for a time of grief. I think that's how most of us feel when a loved one dies--"this wasn't supposed to happen today".

Scheduled or not death happens. It's hard and it's tragic. But it's also a part of life and when it does, we have to keep moving forward, even if it means an impromptu service at a strictly scheduled military cemetary.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

When a storm hits

For two years now I have gone to the Gulf Coast in Mississippi to help with rebuild efforts. The first year was stark. There was very little open and only a few homes that were in decent shape. There were a lot of vacant lots, felled trees, and damaged roads. To return the second year offered a lot of hope, namely, for what the churches have been doing to restore the Gulf Coast to a state of "normal". Last April, I was very encouraged to be able to drive through a neighborhood and think to myself, "this area looks like nothing even happened." That was a really good sign.

Then this morning I heard word of how Hurricane Gustav slammed the area. When I'd return from mission there were always people who balked at those who would return to the gulf coast, they had no understanding for such a cemented concept of home, one where you simply couldn't leave, it was what you knew and loved, and it was the only place that makes sense to live. I would regularly find myself explaining people's connection to the land and how they thought we Californians are crazy for staying in the land of earthquakes, mudslides, and fires.

I myself rarely questioned the people's desire to stay and rebuild...until today. It's hard to see nature challenge your work all over again, to see pieces of it washed away, as if it were inconsequential to begin with.

Being a theologian and a practicing social advocate I was promptly reminded that the damage of Hurricane Gustav is a metaphor for what happens in the work of the church. We dedicate time and energy and money into helping someone get sober, or get out of an abusive situation, or get away from gangs, or...and often we will begin to see signs of hope and then another storm will strike and it will wash away so much of our labor, making it seem as if it were inconsequential. And it's heart-breaking and hard. And yet the call is not to walk away because it broke our hearts, but to keep working because we believe the seeds of hope are more important and that if we could achieve some semblance of normal once, we could do it again.

When apathy or despair or frustration win, then hope loses and so does the Kingdom of God. But I think a lot of people stay away from these types of ministry because they don't want to be disappointed, they don't want their hearts broken, and yet if we can hold out long enough and remain dedicated in our efforts, we'll find that the rewards are far greater than we might ever have imagined.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Prayer for the sermon

Lord, use this message, use these words to glorify you--to draw people close to you.
If we have anyone present who needs to comit their life to you--
may they hear your voice this morning and make that commitment
so that they might be drawn into new life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, September 1, 2008

an extra dose of grace

So remember how I don't do well at receiving grace? Well, I got a second dose last week. A friend of mine *needed* something to do, so I volunteered a few jobs, and strangely she was game. My office has been a disaster since I moved in. It was the last room to be finished and was left with all the random extra boxes. I haven't had much time or energy and so was not very motivated to finish unpacking and organizing. And yet at the same time I felt extremely guilty every time I walked by it because it was such a mess and I *should* have had it done already.

Well, R came to help on Thursday and she was incredible. We talked for awhile and looked at the work the trustees had done on the parsonage and then she set to work. I left her in the office to work and did a bunch of random things around the house (like making a guest bed, putting drawer pulls on a dresser, cleaning the island in the kitchen and who knows what else). I would pop my head in on occasion to see how things were going. And strangely, for all the things I couldn't think of a place to put, R somehow found a place for everything. She worked and worked and cleaned and cleaned and within a couple hours, the boxes were empty, the shelves were organized and there was floor space. It was incredible! If you're unaccustomed to this kind of mess, then you probably wouldn't understand what a relief it is to have it taken care of.

As a thank you, I took her to lunch and then we swung by the church to drop off rummage and pick up a computer desk one of the trustees had offered me. It's big so I can use it to scrap book or sew or cut fabric, which is fabulous because I've been trying to figure out what table I would get/use in there for those purposes since the other desk is designated for computer work.

Having clutter is a majorly sensitive point in my life. I don't like dealing with it and I had to admit that it's something I struggle with. And to let her not only see it, but to deal with it was huge. Not something I'd let many people do. But R is good at cleaning and organizing, as is evidenced by my nice clean office.

After she finished with the majority of the room, there were still the shelves with all the craft items. She asked if i wanted her to take care of them or let me do it. I already felt bad for *making* her organize the rest and was tempted to say I'd do it, but in the back of my head, I knew it too would loom for months if it were left up to me, so I conceded and she did those too!

So now my office is clean and now each time I walk by my spirit lifts a little when I see an expanse of this: