How to Pray Before Giving Birth

This afternoon, after church was over, I finished Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s international bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It might seem like an odd book to pick off the shelf for a woman who is expecting to deliver a healthy baby girl any day now. I should perhaps be exuding more of the joy we heard in the epistle we heard this morning. Again, along with Paul, I should rejoice.

Maybe, but I’ll leave the rejoicing for you to do. Rejoice for me that there is new life when the world feels so broken. Rejoice for me that our bodies can do amazing things because at this very moment, I have some doubts. I have lots of doubts.

In fact, this book found its way into my hands because I found a journal of my mother’s from when she was hospitalized at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. A friend brought it to her, though I don’t know which one. It was these words she read when her body was failing and as I’ve been trying to commit my heart and mind to this project of writing about my own experience of grief and loss, I wondered what she found in these words. So I cracked the spine to be close to her.

It was meant to inspire my writing, but it has again touched upon my grief.

As I get closer and closer to the arrival of my baby girl, there are so many things I want to ask my mom. So many things that only she would know.

Just a few nights ago, my husband and I met with our doula for the last time before labor begins. Anticipating the pain ahead, she asked what comforts me. Would massage help? Do I prefer the lights dim? Do I light candles and ease into a warm bath? I couldn’t answer her questions.

I still don’t have real answers to her questions. It’s not that I don’t know what I usually do to relax and unwind, but that the kind of comfort I’m really wanting and needing is prayer. And I’m not sure how to pray right now.

Rabbi Kushner reminds me,

“Prayer, when it is offered in the right way, redeems people from isolation. It assures them that they need not feel alone and abandoned. It lets them know that they are part of a greater reality, with more depth, more hope, more courage, and more of a future than any individual could have by himself.”

It is not a matter of praying for outcomes even if I have a lot of those petitions heavy upon my heart, but prayer is a movement toward others so that we can be “in touch with other people, people who share the same concerns, values, dreams and pains we do.” I’m trying to wrap my head around how many people that is.

I’m trying to let go of that very human impulse to ask God for particular comforts and assurances that made Rabbi Kushner write this book after the death of his young son, but it’s not that easy. Even if the good rabbi assures me that God doesn’t need to be all-powerful to be all-loving, it’d really be nice. I would find comfort in that, lots and lots of comfort. But, there is no such promise that God can alter the laws of nature. What prayer does, instead, is bring God’s people into closer together so that no one feels alone or abandoned.

Perhaps that is the comfort I need in my grief, but it reaches beyond me to include every parent that grieves the loss of their unborn child. Those women who have felt a fluttering in their gut and felt their body change, but then all of the signs of life disappeared as quickly as they had come. Before this pregnancy, I was one of those women. I may be again. There is no way to know how this chaos befalls us and the good rabbi knows better than to provide an answer for tragedy.

Instead, Rabbi Kushner claims that what religion can do is call it a tragedy. It’s something only the voices of the faithful can do. Without offering any justification or defense, the faithful come close. They dare to say that no one is alone.

So, then, how do I pray in these hours or days before giving birth? Do I pray for the best possible birth experience? Do I pray for the doctors and the nurses that will care for me? Do I pray for my husband and doula that they can withstand whatever curve ball I might throw at them in the middle of a contraction? Do I pray that my little girl be healthy and strong or do I reject all of those possible outcomes knowing that God cannot alter the laws of nature? Do I instead, then, put my faith and trust in the hope that I am not alone? Could it be as simple as that?

It’s what I can’t wrap my head around because there are so many people that know my grief. We are quiet about it. We don’t talk about it much but there are a lot of us. We don’t want to burden you with our pain, because we know that you don’t really understand. You haven’t felt this thing that we’ve felt whether it was a child or a parent or some other dear departed soul that we lost. We’re still trying to figure out how we will live after tragedy struck, and there are times that we aren’t sure that we will make it.

This isn’t one of those times for me. It may have been for my mom. She died within a year of reading this book and so I’m not sure what it may have meant to her to receive the invitation to consider what would she do next. It implies that there was something after the cancer and maybe there was. Maybe it made her feel less alone. Maybe it encouraged her to pray to be redeemed from the isolation of her diagnosis. Maybe.

I know she grieved that she would miss out on so much. She wouldn’t be there to see her children marry or to watch us become parents. She wouldn’t even get us walk across the stage moving that silly tassel from one side to the other to mark the occasion that we had just become high school graduates. She’d miss everything. She cried about it to my grandmother, I was told. And now, I miss her in everything. I missed her in the days leading up to my wedding and the early days of my pregnancy as much as I miss her now when I’m about to become a mother. There is nothing that stops me wanting her to be by my side telling me to breathe and reminding me what I was like when I was a little baby.

I can only pray that somehow that comfort will come. Somehow, she’ll be there when I need her most.

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When Twitter Inspires a Story that You Haven’t Told in a Long While

It was only two days ago that #imnotgoingtochurchbecause was trending on Twitter. I read through the whole feed. Or, at least, I read through some of it. It was hard not to noticed the number of hurts that the church has caused and paid attention to the opposing 140 characters that beseeched the powers that be at Twitter do something about this trending topic.

I understand that discomfort all too well. It would be hard for it not to resonate. I am, after all, a pastor. This is what I do for a living. I make church happen and I want it to be great. I want it to be so great. I want it to be amazing because that’s what church was for me.

It got me thinking about that story. I got to thinking about how often I actually tell that story from what feels like long ago. And I don’t. I don’t talk about it. I really don’t which means those other stories, the really terrible stories of abuse and bad theology, loom that much larger. Those other stories are so big that I have somehow convinced myself that my story doesn’t matter.

It’s just a silly little story. It’s just something that happened. It’s not universal story. It’s not true for everyone but it is true for me. Even so, I’ve convinced myself that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter as much as all of those other hurts and pains. In her new book Healing Spiritual Wounds, my friend Carol Howard Merritt freely admits that

Yes, Christianity is part of the problem, the cause of my suffering, anxiety and pain in life; but Christianity is also my cure, my solace, my center.

Carol grew up in one of those churches that said all of the wrong things. It was a theology that she challenged and ultimately one that she could not accept so she sidestepped into a more progressive faith where she could find solace and even centering. That story feels important because it’s so damn common. There are so many people hurt by the very human part of the church that doesn’t fully know who or what God is but insists upon God’s ways anyhow. There are lots of people with that story — including my friend Carol — but it’s not my story.

My story begins with some writing I was doing on that very same afternoon. I had plopped myself down and attempted to write about how my mom first ended up in church. She was raised a Christian. Her family walked to the neighborhood Episcopal church. I was astonished when I learned this because I had always thought my family — on both sides — was Presbyterian. Lo and behold, my mom’s family was not. They were these other kinds of Christians who mostly went to church because that’s what good people did. There were no deep roots to their faith; they went because it was the right thing to do. It didn’t change anything but their routine and so when my mom grew up, she had little interest in the church. It had never challenged her. It wasn’t inspiring and so she went looking for other inspirations.

What she found instead was cancer and it was that that plopped her back in a church pew. (That particular pew was a Presbyterian church, by the way.) I will never know the full extent of that transformation. I have no idea other than the fact that I’ve been told that she was an atheist. Before she was diagnosed with that disease, she was an atheist. Then, she believed.

She believed and she took us along with us. My dad stayed home but my brother and I were dragged along and plopped in that pew beside her. That was when I first started going to church but if that was my only story, I liekly wouldn’t still be attending. I still go to church because of what happened after I was first plopped in that pew.

What happened was she died. The cancer beat her but not without teaching me something about how to live. While she was sick, she kept going back to church. She kept sitting in that pew until it was impossible for her to get out of bed. When the cancer had almost destroyed her body, but not her spirit, the pastor came to her bedside. The members showed up with casseroles and somehow in all of that I learned that the church — the very people that gather together in God’s name — can listen to anything. They can put up with everything. They will listen, even when it hurts.

This is the story that scrolling through Twitter reminded me to tell. There are thousands upon thousands of stories of pain and hurt. There are stories of rejection and judgment and abuse. There are scars and wounds that are still trying to heal but those people that caused that pain did not sit in the pews of my childhood.

Seated beside me on those hard oak benches were other broken people. I was eight years old when I started to go to church by myself. Mom had died and I held on to this hope that there really was a group of people that could listen to my sorrow. They’d say more than she was in a better place. They’d do more than tell me to smile because they couldn’t quite stand my pain. They’d actually listen and that’s exactly what I found. In the church my childhood, which was not the same church that had been Mom’s sanctuary, there were people that “knew how to face death.”

That’s my favorite line from Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief. It’s a book about the Gospel of Thomas but it begins with a narrative of her own grief. She stands on the threshold of a church and observes, “this is a family that knows how to face death.” Indeed, that’s what I found in my home church. There were old people with greying hair and papery, leathery skin that peered down at me over their coffee cups and saucers. They would have knelt right down next to me if it were not for their bad knees, but it didn’t matter. They listened. They didn’t tell me what to think or how to feel. They listened and it saved me.

There are plenty of terrible stories about the church. I’ve heard more than a few as a pastor. I’ve fumbled over my words in apology, but I still go to church because there is a family that knows how to face death and they will listen. Or, at least, they listened to me.

If your read my previous post There’s No Place Like Home or if you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year inspired by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. I’m mostly blogging over my Medium so be sure to follow along with the adventure over there.

There’s No Place Like Home

Since I moved to Kansas, I find myself clicking my heels more and more.  I have no ruby red slippers but the mantra is the same, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.”

The problem is that I have no idea where home is.

This was made clear to me again when I flew back east for a dear friend’s wedding. She and I have been friends since the first grade and so i found myself surrounded by people who have met me or at least heard about me. Some of these good people even knew that I’d already moved several times in my adult life, but most of them had lost track of me after I moved cross the country from Maine to Washington. They hadn’t heard that I’d moved again and seemed to find it a bit shocking. Every time the topic came up, with each new person, it seemed incomprehensible that I’d moved twice since the last time they last knew my whereabouts. Thus, the same confused exclamation came I shared our new location. Every single time, their pitch raised, “Kansas?!? What brings you to Kansas?”

My response was equally repetitive. “My husband is in the military and it is in Kansas that he is required to be right now.”

I am embarrassingly ignorant of military things. This isn’t a new problem, but one that continues to fester in our relationship. So much so that if my husband has heard this response, which he did several time last night, or another like it, he grimaces and elaborates that he is in the midst of his schooling in the Command and General Staff College. After he finishes that, he continues to explain, we will move again. That is when I grimace.

Before I met my husband, I had looked forward to multiple moves across the country. I liked the idea of learning about how people do church in different parts of the globe. I really liked that idea and subscribed to the concept of a shorter pastorate. I couldn’t imagine being a pastor of a congregation for fifteen, twenty or thirty years. It made sense to me if there were kids in the equation, but at that point I wasn’t considering motherhood. I had no interest in being a single parent and was far more interested in what I might do for God. I didn’t want to be bored for God, but wanted to create beautiful things in amazing places with people just as hope-filled.

That hope had already taken me to two places. I’d gone to Maine where I’d stayed longer than I ever thought I would and we did some good things together, but I got bored. I got really bored and so I looked for what was next and found the good people in Washington. When I moved there, I told the search committee I was looking for two things: love and a place to call home. I found one, but not the other.

On our wedding day, my friend Melanie talked about the five mile stretch of road that leads to the farm that was once and is now her home. Just before she led us in saying our vows, she talked about this stretch of road that makes it heart beat faster and always brings a smile to her face before she advised us to

“be home for one another. Be that place, of unconditional acceptance and love for each other.  Be that place that makes your heart beats quicken.  Be that place where you always see something new and beautiful. No matter what season.  Be that place that in the midst of difficulties you can be at rest. Home.  Be each other’s homes.”

I don’t know if other people think as much about the homily offered on their wedding day as I do, but I think about these words all of the time. I think about them every time I step into the crappy housing the military gave us. I click my heels and remind myself that this shelter is not my home, but the place I find in my husband’s arms is home.

We are each other’s homes, I guess. I like that idea. I like it a lot but I have a few questions for I cannot imagine this without a picture in my head. I am a visual learner, after all. So I need to see it but the only image that I can craft is like bad clip art from a church newsletter in the early 90s. I can see the open arms but I do not want to run toward them. I want to run away for the image is so repulsive. Repulsive is a strong word. I apparently have strong feelings about clip art, and so it must be something else.

Is this the same problem that the wandering Israelites felt in all of those many years of exile? They were told their was a new home for them. It was to be a Promised Land, but they could not imagine it. They did not know what to expect or who to expect. It was just too overwhelming to comprehend. Is that what home is supposed to be? Is the sheer idea of it meant to overwhelm and confound?

In her recent book Roots and Sky, Christie Purifoy wonders “if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed.” She admits that we wander. It’s what  humans do but she doesn’t find much confusion in that fact. Simply put, to her, “home is the ground we measure with our own two feet. And home is the place that measures us. Home is the place that names us and the place we, in turn, name. It feeds us, body and soul, and if we are living well, we feed it too. Home is the place we cultivate with our love.”

Christie seems like someone who can confidently say, along with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.” Both Christie and my friend Melanie have ended up on farms. They’ve both awoken from the nightmare of aimless wandering from place to place only to find that their place was always supposed to be on this patch of land they get to cultivate with love. I, on other hand, am still clicking my heels and wondering about home. One thing I know for sure: there is no place like it.

If you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year. You just read it. I had some internet issues so it’s late but I did finish it before the second week began. I really am trying to set by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. These essays are supposed to dig deep and so you might not find my weekly essays here but you will find them on Medium. It’s a double experiment for me.

Sweet Baby Jesus

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” — Matthew 24:36, 40-44

When I heard these words intoned in worship on Sunday, it was in the hope that something is coming, something good. It was not just a nod to the opening scene in West Side Story in which Tony sings this song. We actually heard him sing this hope in a video clip upon the screen. I do not doubt that something is coming. I am just not quite certain that it will be good. Like those that first heard this wisdom spoken by Jesus, I am suspicious of those that promise goodness or greatness for that matter.

And yet, in church this past Sunday, we were encouraged to consider the good that God has done. There were hints toward the past, some distant memory of which no one quite remembers the details. Some promise of what was but doesn’t feel quite relevant to the present moment. Apocalypse is more than a promise. It’s more than a memory or even a possibility but that despite the fact that everything seems to be going to hell, we can dare to believe that it won’t always be like this. Somehow, by God and by our own stubborn might, we will transform this mess. Change will come.

Tony can sing with all of his heart about something coming, but this year it feels no better than singing about the long expected birth of sweet baby Jesus. I know. I know. That is the tune of Advent. We sing about that birth. We hope for it. We need it.

Tbirth_final_cover_rehis year, I need a different tune. I need a different song and Elizabeth Hagan is the pastor that I need most. I have been honored to know Elizabeth through The Young Clergy Women Project. We’ve read each other’s blogs. We’ve cheered on each other’s ministries and now I want to offer her new book from Chalice Press to every pastor that ever dares to speak of hope in Advent.

How many times do I have to hear about the innocence of a sweet little baby as the answer to all that breaks our hearts? How many sermons must we hear before it hits us that this one metaphor cannot and will not speak to all that needs to be changed?

I need more than that sweet baby. Don’t get me wrong. I need me some Jesus, but it can’t be the only metaphor for this Advent. There has to be another way to illustrate that possibility than that itty bitty baby. There has to be something else.

I confess to you that I haven’t actually read Elizabeth’s book. If I had, I may have already found that metaphor. I have instead read an excerpt from her book and I’ve followed the ministry Elizabeth has continued to provide on her blog and on Patheos. What I have heard in these words is testimony. Elizabeth is telling the truth. She’s pointing toward the real hope of Advent. It is more than an attitude or an aspiration. It’s not enough to tell each other to try harder in prayer or sheer will, but true hope is more than the promise of something good. It isn’t always a song that we sing but might be more clearly understood by our protests.

Advent is not just a time to light candles and deck the halls. It’s a time to imagine what could be. It is a time to admit that things haven’t worked out as we might have hoped. Things are far worse and yet something is being revealed. Somehow, we are being changed. Transformation will come but it might not come with all of our tender ideas of a sweet little baby. It might not capture all of our ideals of parenthood. It may not even come with the pangs of birth but if we keep awake, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew, we might find what Elizabeth proclaims to be Advent’s hope:

Allow God to meet you wherever you are.

Open your heart to the coming of something unexpected.

And most of all, say yes to those urges that could only come from the Spirit.

It’s what the season is all about. Really.

Better things are coming. Just wait for it.

It’s a testimony I need to hear this year and so I’m adding Birthed to my Christmas List. Maybe you will too.

Recipe for Learning to Pray

Last week, I finally finished Carol Howard Merritt’s Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. It really shouldn’t have taken me that long and it is certainly no reflection on the book. It’s me. I had three chapters back in April and then felt this overwhelming need to never read a book about church again. Of course, that didn’t last that long and I returned to these pages again. What I love about this book is that it’s really about the kind of community we can be in the church. It’s about technology, yes, but more about how we are creating community right now which inevitably involves social media for that so-called “new generation” (of which, I guess, I am a part). It’s about the kind of community we are looking for which Carol explains in this way:

When we are surrounded by a supportive community who is helping us discern and who feels free to agree and disagree with what we are hearing from God, then our listening for God can become a humbling experience rather than an exercise that puts a divine rubber stamp on our own decisions.

It is an act of prayer. It’s something we like to believe we’ll just find ourselves in. All of the sudden just surrounded by a group of supportive people who can help with such discernment.

We need someone that will walk with us and help us see what we can not see for ourselves.  We need a partner, a friend, someone who gets it. Someone who can listen and isn’t afraid to ask questions. Someone who won’t just say it’ll all work out in the end but someone who will dare to ask the hard questions. Do you know someone like that?

This is what prayer is all about. It is a practice in staying in the conversation. It is an intention to listen. It is the hope that I might be open enough to hear what God might be saying. It’s a practice that quite honestly I have to remind myself to which I need to pay better attention — and it seems to me that it’s really better to do together.

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Learn more about Prayer Partners here

There are tons of ways to pay attention to the ways of God on your own. Some of my favorite practices include Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina and the Daily Examen but I want to offer you a little something from my kitchen because I really do believe that practicing with another person makes all of the difference in the world. It’s something I wish for my own prayer life and something I hope will bless yours.

It’s an invitation to partner in prayer. I recommend it for congregations and friends. It’s something that I hope can be used in more ways that I can even imagine because, really, no one of us can know the will of God. It’s only something we can pray to understand together. You can order your very own guide here.

Like so many recipes for ministry, the directions sound incredibly simple but it takes a little flair to make these ingredients come together. It takes the right people and extra dab of trust and a big heaping of love that the recipe might not call for. For that reason, the recipe is incredibly hard to write but here goes nothing.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY

 

 

How We Write Clergy

I am a character in a book.

I learned of this news from a Facebook message. A member of the community had written a book and he wanted to know if it was alright to name the church in the book. That wasn’t my call anymore. I was no longer the pastor there, except that I was in the book.

While I was still in ministry in that place, I had had coffee with Ned Hayes many times. He was someone who came to worship on occasion. It was always clear to me that he was seeking something. He was incredibly well read. He’d read all kinds of theology and had even gone to seminary but there was still something he was looking for. I did not know in the middle of writing another book and that I would end up being a character. Of course, I said yes. By all means, print it. Publish it! I can’t wait to read how those cups of coffee and mornings in church translate into a character like Pastor Ilsa.

See what he did there? He changed the name by one letter. No doubt he was trying to avoid the connection to Disney’s Frozen that I cannot quite escape. Smart move. I borrowed a copy from my goddaughter and started to read at the pool.

14045951_1068662506550170_8991399356609680619_n.jpgEagle Tree is the story of a boy growing up in Olympia. He is a boy that is somewhere on the spectrum of autism and it is his voice that leads the reader through the journey of saving this tree in the LBA Woods. When I lived in Olympia, there were signs all over town to save this particular park. This is the fictional story of how that park is saved from the hands of developers by this boy named March who sometimes goes to church at the United Churches of Olympia. Church is a confusing place for March. It is a place where the pastor tells strange stories that are true, but not factually true.

This is how Pastor Ilsa is introduced. His mother drags him to church and March offers this narration:

Ilsa says she likes to talk about God because she cannot entirely understand God, but that is not how I feel at all. I need to understand things all the way down to the root.

Though Ned denies it, this could have been a note he jotted down while we were having coffee. This is totally something I would say. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I did say something exactly like this. There are, however, other things that don’t line up about me. It is fiction, after all. Pastor Ilsa is married to a professor at the local college by the name of Pierre. His name sounds equally exotic to my husband’s name but their careers are totally different. Ilsa was also a botanist before she came into ministry. There was some kind of accident that shifted her focus. Again, this is not me but makes for a good character. Most surprising to me: Ilsa is old. He husband has grey in his beard. This is not a young pastor. For this, I am admittedly sad. Clergy are so often imagined to be sage and wise because of their many years. It somehow makes them approachable.

I’m not complaining. Not exactly. I’m just interested in how we write clergy. I’m interested in how clergy are portrayed in the media. Consider AMC’s Preacher for example. This is nothing like the pastor that Ned Hayes writes.

Ned portrays someone far less of a bad ass, though she is a police chaplain which I thought was pretty cool. Maybe because Ned isn’t worried about ratings or sensationalism that television seems to require or maybe because he sees that there is something that good that does happen in church. And he thinks that clergy are a part of that. The pastor he writes is approachable and caring. She has an incredible bond with March. She is able to get on his level and welcome him as a full child of God. I can only pray that I do this every day in my ministry, then and now. It is really what I hope not just for clergy but for all Christians.

Ultimately, this is not a book about Christians or even clergy. It’s a book about connections. It’s a book about how we relate to each other and how we relate to the world around us. No matter what separates and divides, we can come together to do good. We can change the world around us. We can make a difference. I am not in the least bit surprised that this is Ned’s heart or that he still sometimes worships with this brave group of people in Olympia that shares the same hope.

Recipe for the Future Church

Every time we dare to talk about what the future of the church will be it feels like cooking. It feels like we are trying to divine a recipe — wondering if a dash of this or a pinch of that might just do the trick. In fact, most of ministry feels like that.

Together, as disciples, we are trying to figure out how to create this awesome possibility of the realm of God. Jesus never told us exactly how to do it. He didn’t leave us any kind of cookbook or even a clear set of ingredients. We know that there will be love and there will be justice, but how much? How much will create what God has dreamed could be? Of course, there are other questions that we ask when we are imagining the future of the church. It’s not just the realm of God we’re imagining. It’s whether the institution will survive. It’s the question of whether or not anyone will ever come and if the message we offer is still relevant.

These are tough questions. They are questions that can’t be answered even though we try very hard. The fact is: we just don’t have all of the information. We are not sure what compels people. We are still learning. We may have been set in our ways for a long, long time. Most churches have and many are ready to answer this question. They want to know what the future holds. They want to be given the answers. We all want the answers. But, I gotta say, I don’t have the answers. I’m a professional leader in the institutional church but I am not sure. I can say everything that I think. I can lead a whole bunch of exercises that make the churched among us feel like we’re back in youth group. And I do. I do those things. But, the questions are so persistent and the answers are so illusive that the questions start to overwhelm. It’s then that we need to read.

There is nothing like a book to challenge our hopes and dreams about the future. Ask any librarian. Books challenge us to expand our horizons and allow us to hear ourselves. That’s why I love book studies within congregations. They shift the conversation so the questions are not quite so loud as our answers. We hear what really matters.

That’s when things really get cooking. So that’s what we did at St. Peter’s United ChurBeyond_Resistance_cover_largech of Christ in Knauertown, Pennsylvania. We just finished reading John Dorhauer’s Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World. There are many books that could challenge us to imagine the future but I chose this one because of its author. John Dorhauer is the newly elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and he wrote this book about what he has learned about how the world is changing. It is very much written from his perspective. It’s a book that unpacks postmodernism which it may or not do very well. (Some in our group did not think Dorhauer went far enough.)

What I find most compelling about the book is the challenge not just to think about how one individual congregation might choose to define their future and their mission but how we might think about all of our missional resources. The future of one church cannot be separated from the future of the churches that surround it. It can’t be removed from the future of the denomination it claims. This book is a challenge to think about how we might partner. It’s not as simple as whisk or stir. It requires more of us just as reading a book like this one challenge congregations to think beyond their own resistances.

If your church is trying to imagine the future, but find yourselves tripping over the question, try this book. Here’s a simple recipe to follow.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY

It is indeed a recipe for future.

A Failure of Imagination

On the same day when my article appeared on New Sacred about how a progressive faith isn’t defined by issues, Susan Jacoby was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air.

It was in fact just yesterday. Just yesterday, on my way home from the gym, I caught the end of Terry Gross’s interview with Jacoby. She’s the author of the new book Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion which I’d only heard of because I read an article she’d recently written for the New York Times but it wasn’t the article or even her book publicity that grabbed my attention. It was when she said this on the radio:

I can’t imagine falling in love with a devoutly religious person. Now, that I will fully acknowledge, many could call that a failure of imagination on my part. But, it is important to me. To me, it would be like falling in love with someone who thinks a woman’s place is in the home. <She laughs.> And I know that women have fallen in love with men like that but it’s something fundamental to me. Human rights. That people are equal under law simply because they are human beings.

Jacoby had been asked if she could ever possibly fall in love with someone who just so happened to be a person of faith. This was her response. She couldn’t imagine it.

It’s something that Jacoby had repeated earlier in the conversation. She could never imagine raising children or sharing a life together with someone who didn’t agree with her on the issues. It seems that human rights is at the heart of those issues that concern Jacoby most and that obviously a person of faith wouldn’t share this perspective.

I have feared the same thing. I have wondered if it could or would ever be possible to share a life with a man who didn’t share my progressive Christian faith, but then I fell in love.

I fell in love with an atheist.

I’m a progressive Christian and I fell in love with an atheist.

It was a failure of my own imagination, to borrow Jacoby’s words, to believe that we had to agree on every single issue. We agree on human rights. We agree that my place isn’t in the kitchen but we don’t agree on everything. I would love to meet the couple that does. I don’t believe it’s possible. And it is makes it more interesting.

How boring to love someone who agrees with everything you believe to be important! Where’s the challenge? Where’s the learning? Where’s the opportunity to grow and change within that loving relationship?

No thank you.

I would prefer the struggle. I’ll complain about it. I’ll bemoan that it’s hard especially when it comes to raising children together but love is more powerful than when or how that child gets baptized. It’s bigger than how we choose to tell our children that Mommy and Daddy believe different things, but you’re still going to church. (That was a deal breaker for me.) He doesn’t have to agree. He certainly doesn’t have to convert but he does have to be supportive of me and what’s important to me just as much as I have to listen to what’s important to him.

We both need to support each other. That’s what’s important, not the tenets of faith. Not the issues which we bring to the ballot box. It is the support that we give each other that changes things. It changes everything. That’s what I could never really imagine. I never really believed it was possible.

I was too strong willed, too hotheaded, too opinionated. I wasn’t going to balk and I sure as hell wasn’t going to change, but I met my match.

It was my own failure of imagination to assume that wasn’t possible.

 

Blinking Cursor

“Keep your butt in the chair. You do it at the same time every day. You never wait for inspiration — it’s ridiculous, it will never come. No one in your family is going to hope for you to be a writer… it’s not convenient for anybody for you to write, and you have to do it badly.”

So says Anne Lamott in her beloved book Bird by Bird.

I must admit that I didn’t like her book. I didn’t find much encouragement from this beloved writer in these pages. I preferred the words of Stephen King that I read last year when I couldn’t write. Even when I couldn’t write and believed I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say, King convinced me of his love for the craft. It’s something I missed in the pages of Bird by Bird. There were genuine pearls of which I remind myself every time I put my butt in the chair. I need to write some shitty first drafts and eat my broccoli.

But, most of the time, I just stare at my blinking cursor.

Yesterday I actually managed to do it. I put my butt in the chair and I wrote. I didn’t heed another of Lamott’s bits of wisdom. I didn’t write something completely new. I rewrote something I’d written way back when when I began this project. As you might already know, I’m writing a book. I’ve talked about it a whole lot but now I’m actually doing it. I’m writing about the thing I know best. I’m trying as hard as I can to tell the truth. But really, more often than not, I’m just trying to put my butt in the chair.

I don’t succeed most days. Earlier this week, for two consecutive days, I convinced myself that it was more important to write other things. I wrote something for New Sacred only to get an email from my editor after submitting it. It was incoherent, she told me. I attempted to edit it but I just stared at the blinking cursor.

Then, I gave up and clicked over to the other tab containing my sermon for Sunday which I was convinced was also incoherent and let’s be honest. Most of what I’ve written for this book is incoherent. It is gobbledygook. It is not intelligible and I shudder at the mere idea of sharing it with anyone acquainted with the English language, but I’m writing. I’m making slow and steady progress toward realizing this dream because I’ve always dreamed of writing a book. I’ve always wished I had the discipline. I always wished I had something brilliant and true to say. I’m still not sure that I have any of those things but I’m writing.

Or, at least, I am staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen.

Each and every day, I think about the blinking cursor even when I’m not sitting at my laptop. I think about it at the gym and in the grocery store or while I’m reading something brilliant that someone else wrote. And lemme just say: there are lots of people who have written amazing things and sometimes I read their words and think I should never, ever put my butt in the chair. What could I possibly add? But, then, I remember that I love writing. I love writing for reasons I can’t even express so I sit down again just as I did today. I put my butt in the chair and try to make that stupid blinking cursor dance.

Last Minute Plans for Lent

Lent is just one week away. Most plans have already been laid out. It’s been printed in the newsletter and in the bulletin. Resources have been ordered. Palms have been burned. (I know because the traffic on this old post on how to make ashes skyrocketed two week ago.)  Some have already done their food shopping for gallons of maple syrup and pancake mix for the Shrove Tuesday celebration. To those people, I just want to say: don’t forget the pancake games. No. Seriously. So much fun.

In truth, I am one of those pastors that usually plans far in advance. I don’t tend to procrastinate because it makes me nervous. I need a plan even if things change in the midst. I need to have some sense of what’s to come. It’s not just in church that I do this, by the way. But, this year is different. This year, I’m not a settled pastor. I’m an interim which I’m learning involves a different kind of leadership. I can’t plan as I might otherwise. Interim ministry isn’t just church as usual. It’s marked by transition and everything feels tentative. So, I can’t plan because what I need to do is listen.

This is a bit terrifying to the über planner. It was especially horrifying when I recently realized that Lent was so soon very and I had nothing planned. I freaked out and then I started planning. I’m sharing those plans in full awareness that we are in this together and sometimes we need a little help from our colleagues to make it all happen.

The church that I serve as an interim is a small, country church. They don’t tend to do anything programmatic on any other day but Sunday so planning Lent was really a matter of planning worship. There won’t be any adult education or special events to add to this congregation’s life. All that we experience together during this holy season will happen in worship.

After worship, on most Sundays, I lead a sermon talkback conversation which is where the idea for this preaching series began. It was in one of those conversations a few weeks ago that I heard some really solid theological claims without much heart. Good theology has its place but this is a church that really wants to grow. It believes it can grow but not without heart. It’s not enough to spout good theology. There has to be some passion to it. There has to be some sense of why it matters.

2016The theology I was hearing that day from these good people all centered around who Jesus Christ is.  So, after listening a little more to God in prayer, I opted to entitle this sermon series Who Do you Say That I Am? This is, of course, something that Jesus says in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20). I decided to break slightly from the Revised Common Lectionary and explore some theological claims that we make about who Jesus is as we try to answer his own question. Here’s the plan so far:

  • February 14: Jesus is… the Son of God (Luke 4:1-13)
  • February 21: Jesus is… the Messiah (Luke 9:18-27)
  • February 28: Jesus is…the Word (John 1:1-18)
  • March 6: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd (Luke 13:31-35)
  • March 13: Jesus is…the Light of the World (John 8:12-29)
  • March 20: Jesus is…the King of the Jews (Luke 23:1-49)

Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know how this will lead into Holy Week. This congregation shares their observance of Lent with the local ministerium that hosts weekly worship on Wednesdays, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I am not sure if this theme will play into how we journey into Jerusalem. That is something that I will need to listen for as we move through this season.

I chose some of my favorite theological claims and dodged a few others. For example, I really didn’t want to do suffering servant because I know that’s not who my Jesus is and I’m not convinced I could preach good news on that particular claim. I do know that I need to push myself though so there are two books I’m hoping to read this Lent to push my own theological imagination. In the spirit of this preaching series, I’ll be reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage which just came out in paperback yesterday. I’m also going to attempt to read Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. That said, there is so much that could be added to this preaching series. I mean, really, it’s what we are preaching no matter what the season, right? So, there are certainly others  that might be added and I would hope that this series would inspire some exploration on theological claims beyond these six. That’s something I’ll have to think about. What’s the best way to encourage such exploration within this particular congregation?

CoverThough this church is a small church that won’t have any specisl educational experience to build upon our shared experience in worship, I do have something to offer if you’re a last minute planner. Several years ago, I wrote a curricula called Toward Transformation with the good people of the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine. It is a six-week study that navigates the Psalms in a desire to experience resurrection individually and communally. As worship tackles the question of who Jesus is and why that particular confession matters, this six-week experience might bring those questions to life in a slightly different manner. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect fit but I have to say it’s pretty awesome. Both times I’ve used it, it has led to some really awesome changes. You can download the resource from my Ideas + Resources.

Maybe you’re not interested in that so much as you want to know about the graphic. Want to make your own cool graphic for your church newsletter or social media campaign? I used Canva. Once you’re logged in, choose the Facebook Post option. You can choose any one of the free designs. (Why pay?) The one I chose seems to have disappeared. Sorry! Once you choose a template, you’ll need to replace the image with an image of Christ. Maybe you take a picture of one in your Sunday School classroom or in the stained glass in the chapel. I admit that this particular image makes it a little hard to read the text. Alas! Add your church information including address and worship time and hit download. Look how fancy you are!

How are your plans for Lent going?