I will disappoint you

I just finished reading Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber.  It’s an incredible spiritual memoir that highlights some of the most important and intriguing parts of the author’s story.  What really resonated with me is her compulsion to let people know that God loves them, just as they are.  That yes, there may be things about them that are broken and unsavory – but God still embraces them and can work with that.  

As part of her journey she talks about wanting to find a home in Unitarian Universalism and how it didn’t work for her because there was no reliance on the grace of God.  That really resonated with me.  Like Nadia Bolz-Weber, I have always believed in God because I have always believed in the mystery.  Despite coming from the WASPy Congregational tradition where the word was central – I have always believe in God because it seems like there must be something beyond all of the convenient coincidences of life.

And I really need to know that God will be there for me – even if it doesn’t make sense – in the mystery.  It’s too overwhelming to me to think that I have to understand everything that happens to be a logical progression.  In fact, for me, it’s a bit crazy making.  I have a fair amount of anxiety and I love to feel responsible.  OK, I don’t love to feel responsible, but I feel responsible all.the.time.  So it is helpful to me to continually come back to the mystery in which God can ground me.

Which brings me to my favorite section of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book – the part where she reminds people who are newly enamored with her eclectic congregation – we will disappoint you, I will disappoint you.  It’s not a question of if, but when.  And the beauty of it all, is that if you can hang in there and go through the disappointment, you will have a unique opportunity to experience God’s grace.

I worry so much about disappointing people even though I know it is inevitable.  None of us is perfect.  And as a pastor working for a local church, I worry about how that disappointment might impact my employment.  Will I still have a job?  What I love about Nadia’s comments is that they transform disappointment into a gift from God.  She urges us to remember that God is with us in all of it – not just the good feelings and the success, but in the yucky stuff and the disappointment as well.  And when we allow ourselves to be in it too, we can live through the mystery of God rather than just observing it from afar.

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What are we doing?

Last night I was talking to a friend who is helping run a denominational campus ministry program at a large state University.  She mentioned that one of the members of the board of the campus ministry wanted to expand the ministry to include the nearby community college.  Why, I queried?  Well, they want more people involved.  Well – how many people go to the community college I asked – 40,000 she replied.  Wow, I thought.  How many people go to the university, I asked.  40,000 she replied.  How many students are involved with your ministry, I asked.  7, she replied.  So basically, they want you to go from serving 40,000 people to serving 80,000 people so 14 people will show up I said.  She was not happy with my reply.

I wonder why, in a situation like this, there’s not more focus on getting to know the 39, 993 students at the first location.  Is there a way to serve them?  Is there something the University is unable to provide?  Is there a way to collaborate with other groups?  Is there a way to build networks and expand the possibilities.

My friend mentioned that it’s sometimes hard because the 7 people who show up have a very definite vibe that is not for everyone.  Can you maybe combine with other groups, I ask?  You mean like these people over here she replies.  Yes, those people.  Why can’t you join forces with those people?  Hmmm…

And therein lies the rub – protestant Christianity has become these weird silos of belief that don’t really want to cooperate.  We gather with others who are like us.  That’s important, to maintain our identity.  But to what end?  Why are we so concerned.  Surely if your identity is that compelling it will remain if you gather with others who are different.  I’m sad that denominationalism has gotten us to this point and I’m even more sad that we are all so desperate to survive the downturn that we are missing out on a critical opportunity to engage diversity and to help one another more fully understand God and the Gospel.  Because really, if the denominational campus ministries only goal is to get people to participate in the denomination, haven’t we missed the point?

What Matters Most and Why

Recently this post by Brian McLaren from 3 1/2 years ago came across one of my feeds.  It’s a synopsis of the questions he poses in his book, A New Kind of Christianity.  This year’s theme at First Parish Church is “What Matters Most and Why” and I think that McLaren’s questions are a good jumping off point.  So, for the next 10 weeks – I’ll offer my thoughts on each of the questions he poses and I hope that you will consider adding your voice to the mix as well.  Check back next week for the first reflection.

September 11

On Facebook this morning, a friend posted this question, “What does it mean when Americans say, ‘Let us never forget 9/11?'”.  He went on to muse how this might be a mantra intended to help keep our rage alive and subsequently, is raging about Americans deaths when we don’t rage about the death of others, really something we want to encourage.

After speaking with people leading up to today though – I wonder if we might reframe the mantra “Let us never forget 9/11” into something else.  What if remembering really means honoring our grief.  What if remembering really means validating people’s traumatic experiences and the post traumatic stress that lingers.  What if remembering really means just pausing and allowing ourselves to remember our vulnerability, to honor our sorrow, to bring to light all that we usually carry with us in silence.

I wonder if September 11 will ever become a National holiday.  I have to admit, I find it hard to come to work and carry on with the normal things of life today and I wasn’t even directly affected by the tragedy.  It feels weird to see normal life continue on a day when our lives changed forever and so I too hold on to the mantra, “Let us never forget 9/11.”

What’s your one thing?

A book I am reading was talking about the trap of being well-rounded. The author asserts that well rounded people do not get noticed because they never go deep. She suggests honing in on what you are passionate about and focusing on that instead of diversifying.

I sometimes feel like local churches suffer from trying to be well rounded. We have taken the golden rule to mean that unapologetically claiming an identity that is not everything to everyone is wrong. But I wonder, if we were forced to pick one thing to focus on, one thing for our communities to deepen what would it be?

What is our forest?

I am a bit of a church geek and I went to an Episcopal seminary so I was reading this article about the structure of the Anglican church and was particularly struck by the following:

“What leaders in the church need to face is the fact that while they are rearranging the deck chairs, the Titanic is sinking in the traditional regions of the church’s sphere of influence. The Episcopal church’s own internal research unit recently surmised, … that the body’s membership in the U.S. now stands below where it was at the beginning of the 1950’s!

With diminishing church membership – gay, straight, white, black, or even blue avatars – and falling revenue, the churches that remain cannot support the organizational hierarchy that was built during the church’s boom times – which was now decades – or even a century – ago. Why are the mega-churches and stand-alone churches doing so well? In part yes, it is because of their individual appeals. However, they also do not have to support a bureaucratized superstructure of bishops, canons, and their supporting staff. Without these albatrosses, they can serve their local communities and local peoples without siphoning-off revenue to the regional, national and even international bureaucracies.”

The crisis described is, of course, not unique to the Episcopal church.  The United Church of Christ is also trying to figure out what to do with in the present reality.  The UCC differs from the Episcopal church because it is not hierarchical in terms of authority.  Our structure, however, is not actually flat either.  Local churches are asked to send money to local associations which in turn send money to local conferences which in turn send money to the national denomination in support of “work” that we need done.  To me, it seems like the problem is that our flat structure (even though it technically doesn’t have authority over us), is overestimating what local churches need from regional and national support systems.
Now many people argue that pooling resources (especially in the UCC) makes funds and services available to communities that wouldn’t otherwise be able to stay open.  I realize it is important for churches with financial resources to share with others who have less, but shouldn’t we also be asking questions about the purpose of the church and how we fulfill our mission to spread the good news of Jesus.  Personally, I don’t think that keeping struggling churches open is necessarily fulfilling our mission (or good stewardship for that matter) and I am concerned that I don’t hear more conversations about creative ways to respond to God’s call.
I appreciate the thoughts presented by David Wyld, but I’m not sure that a flat structure is the answer.

Be the Change

On Saturday night we had dinner with friends who were visiting from out-of-town.  When all of us had been served our food, I felt a small hand grabbing mine.  My son was holding my hand and the hand of our friend sitting next to him.  My partner looked at me as if to say, “What is he doing?”.  I replied, “He wants to pray before we eat like we do at home.”  We both took a deep breath and all joined hands.  At home, we hold hands and pray before we eat dinner.  Our prayer is usually a song which this son likes to belt out in various styles including opera.  We weren’t quite sure what to expect.

I looked at him and said, “Really?”  He bowed his head, I took another deep breath, and he began speaking:

“Thank you, dear God, for this precious day.  Please guide me in love as I learn, grow, and play.  Amen.”

Phew.  My dismay turned to a smile and my heart was full of pride, we kissed each others hands (again, like we do at home) and began to eat.

I had an immediate appreciation for the importance of modeling for our kids.  If I had wanted our son to do what he did, he probably would have kicked and screamed and refused.  Instead, he had seen this act modeled for him in the past and wanted to continue the routine, plus it was extra special to him that he got to lead our friends through our ritual.

Now there are many things that I model for my children which they subsequently imitate that do not give me pride and that are not flattering at all.  I suppose this is true for any parent.  But this experience reminded me of the importance of trying to live a life that we want our children to live.  Lately, I have been involved with conversations concerning underage drug and alcohol use and abuse and bullying.  While it may be that our children need more education and more awareness, I believe that the most important factor in affecting our children’s lives is for adults to reflect on their own actions in the world and to model the change they want to see.