Sunday, July 23, 2017

Resisting my default settings

I’ve never been one to lie about my age. I know it’s just a number and doesn’t have anything to do with my ability. What I may lack in stamina these days, I more than make up for in experience. I’m cool with being a woman who just began serving in a challenging new call at a time when most of my peers are retiring. The way I see it, I’m in my prime, so it’s full steam ahead.

That means I need to be a part of the 21st century. I do my best to keep up on the latest books they’re reading in seminary. I participate in social media and am technologically aware. I’m always pushing myself to think about what’s next and don’t wring my hands over the loss of the good old days, which, for me, where never really all that good anyway.

Despite all of that, on a regular basis, I’m reminded that I grew up in a different time. No matter how hard I try to remember that these days we record things, we don’t tape them, I still refer to taping my favorite shows on T.V. When I’m working at the keyboard on my computer, I often still find myself leaving two spaces after a period. When I ask someone to roll down their car window, I make a cranking motion in the air. None of these are things that a 30-year-old would think of doing, but I take consolation in the fact that at least I’m aware of it.

I’m always resisting the urge to return to my default settings. As I age, this is becoming more and more challenging. I can’t deny the fact that physically I’m not at all the person I once was. Mentally, I’m not as quick. It happens to all of us as we age and it can’t be avoided. But refusing to revert back to the world I grew up in during the 1960s is a choice. I’m convinced that for as long as I’m able to resist my default settings, I’ve still got it.

Viva la resistance!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Should we stop inviting people to join our Jesus Club?


I'm a big Richard Rohr fan. This meme is one I've seen before, but this morning I posted it on Facebook because I need to take it to heart. I forget this truth over and over again and I need the reminder. 
As you may know, I'm in the first year of a new call. That means I'm navigating a sea of expectations--some my congregation is expecting of me, and some I'm expecting of myself.
Since coming to Ascension, a number of people are returning who have been away for a while. This brings me great joy, but it leads to stories about why they disappeared in the first place, and those stories are often about how the congregation or the previous pastors didn't meet their expectations. With a new pastor comes a fresh start, but I'm aware of the fact that the same expectations may still be in place, and I wonder how long it will be before I don't meet them.
One of the expectation traps I fall into is the one that says, "We need to grow." It's shorthand for, "We need to grow numerically so that we're around for a long, long time." It's what every congregation and every pastor wants. And it's killing us.
Since I've come to Ascension, we've only received a handful of new members, and lately I've been obsessing over it. We aren't keeping pace with the deaths and the people who have moved away, so we're loosing ground. Ascension is the first congregation I've served where this has happened and it has me rattled.
We're doing all we can to stop the bleeding. We're following all the expert advice on how to get people in the door and hang onto them once they arrive. I keep telling myself it's early, it will turn around, but then I succumb to the fear that is lurking in the recesses of every mainline pastor's mind these days--the fear that the congregation they're serving is going to be one of the many to bite the dust over the next few decades. It's happening all around us, and I'm afraid it's making a lot of us a little crazy.
That's why I'm always thankful when someone like Richard Rohr comes along to give me a whack upside the head, reminding me that the whole point of being a Christian is not serving an institution, it's following Jesus and allowing him to transform our lives.
Why is it so easy for me to forget that? I get sucked into a culture of scarcity and fear and devote myself to maintaining the institution; I've become a slave to expectations that have nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus never tells us to build enormous edifices, design great websites, offer services of worship that are major productions, have dynamic youth programs, or sermons that make our listeners want to stand up and cheer. He says, "Follow me."
That's not to say that we should be satisfied with mediocre ministry. We offer our very best to a God who has given us all we have. But we need to be clear about our purpose, and our purpose is not proving we're a church worthy of a future. Our purpose is following Jesus.
Maybe we need to stop inviting people to come to church. Maybe we need to stop taking attendance on Sunday mornings. Maybe we need to stop working so hard to get people to join our Jesus Club. Can you imagine what it would be like if we expended that same energy inviting people to follow Jesus and supporting one another as we walk the Jesus Way in the world, as individuals and as a community? I wonder if we can do that as long as the Church as an institution exists.
Here's the irony. If the Church continues to engage in this struggle for the survival of the fittest, we're as good as dead. But if we can be about inviting people to follow Jesus and supporting them on the Jesus Way in the world, I suspect we will grow and thrive. (Maybe it's a variation on "Whoever wants to save their life must lose it.")
Yes, every once in a while I need to be reminded of that, and I need to adjust my expectations accordingly. I'm not a pastor called to save an institution. I'm a pastor called to invite, encourage and support others who are, along with me, followers of Jesus. I trust as long as I'm doing what I'm called to do, God will do the rest.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why I can't keep my mouth shut

I’m one of those people who has trouble thinking inside my brain. It’s like my thoughts need to breathe, and they can’t when they’re trapped within the confines of my skull. So, if I’m ruminating about something, I need to talk about it, or write it down, or do something to get it outside myself, where I can examine it and turn it over and tweak it until it looks like what I’m thinking (at the moment, at least).

As an external processor, I recognize that many people in the world around me are internal processors. For a long time, I tried to emulate them, assuming that was the normal way people share their ideas. But I’ve grown suspect of words like normal, and I’ve decided that I can only be who I am. Who I am is an external processor.

Internal processors formulate their ideas into thoughts before they reveal them to the world. I suspect most of them believe that’s the way everyone else thinks. When they spend time with someone like me, they may wonder why I feel compelled to say everything that pops into my head, why I don’t think things out before I speak. I want them to know that I AM thinking things out, but I need to do that WHILE I speak.

Back when I worked with Bishop Bob Kelley, he conducted all his correspondence with a Dictaphone. He’d record what he wanted to say, word-for-word, and then a secretary would later listen and type his words. I couldn’t imagine ever doing that. I would be going back and changing what I said so many times that it would be exhausting for both of us. I love word processing on a computer screen because I can read and re-write what I have written again and again before I'm satisfied with what I’ve said. If I tried to think like Bob Kelley, my head would explode!

For much of my life, I’ve envied internal processors. It’s a lot safer to share your thoughts when you can clearly own them than it is to share thoughts in process, thoughts that aren’t fully formed. We external processors open ourselves up to the possibility of being misunderstood. When we speak, we’re vulnerable.

Early in my ministry, I was figuring this out. Sometimes in meetings, I kicked myself for saying too much. Then the next time I would try hard to keep my mouth shut, and I kicked myself for not saying enough. I finally arrived at the conclusion that I’d rather kick myself for saying too much than for saying too little. And really, for someone like me, that makes sense. If I’m engaged, if I’m a part of the process, I can’t keep my thoughts to myself.

Being an external processor presents challenges for me as a pastor. I am not good off-the-cuff. If I don’t write down what I intend to say, I can go someplace I didn’t plan to go in a split second. On Sunday mornings, this happens regularly during announcements, or the children’s sermon, which are unscripted. I routinely jump down rabbit holes or say things I ought not to have said. Oy! It can be difficult for folks who expect their pastor to be diplomatic and in control of every word she speaks. With me, that just ain’t gonna happen, so unless they’re open to adjusting their expectations of a pastor, I’ll probably leave them bewildered and scratching their heads, asking, “What was THAT?” (This is just one reason why I really need to serve a congregation that's forgiving and has a sense of humor.)

It may not always be easy for people who work with me. As their pastor, they may expect me to give definitive declarations that they can accept or reject, and then we move on from there. Instead, what they often get are random thoughts that I’m still processing. I expect them to add their own thoughts to the mix, and then together we can figure out how we'll move forward. It’s called collaboration, and for me, it’s the only way to do ministry. It’s creative, and it involves everyone in the process. The results are always more fruitful than they would be if I sat in my study and came up with a final product all on my own and prescribed it to others.

I’m blessed to be serving in a setting where, for the most part, collaboration is expected. My external processing is truly a gift. I work with a staff team that listens to my ruminations on a daily basis. They help me sort through my thoughts and there is synergy when we put our minds together. The same is true for congregational leaders, although they aren’t as readily available to me when I’m thinking through a new idea. My way of external processing works well in a congregation where decisions are made collaboratively and all God’s people contribute to the ministry we share. I know the Spirit can work within the confines of our individual skulls, but she seems to thrive in an environment where she is free!

So, I’ll keep doing what I do. I won’t keep my thoughts to myself and I’ll invite others to join me. God will work with that. I’m counting on it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

13 Reasons Why: 13 topics to consider

I’m reading blogs from a number of people who are upset about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The criticism is harsh. Some are saying that it glorifies suicide, encouraging teens to consider it a viable option, or that it advocates suicide as an effective means of exacting revenge on those who have wronged you. They are advising parents not to let their teenagers view it.  

I had to find out what all the fuss is about. Last weekend, I was finishing up my post-Easter vacation week and I binge-watched 13 Reasons Why for two days. To be honest, I don’t know if I would have been able to watch it any other way because it was written in a way that always pulled me forward into next episode, and I couldn’t turn it off.

I do not agree that it glorifies suicide. The suicide scene was so terrifying that I had to look away. In the book, Hannah kills herself with pills. In the film, she slits her wrists. I don’t know how anyone could have watched this scene thinking it’s a cool thing to kill yourself. It was horrific!

I found it to be an engaging show that I really wished I could have watched with teenagers. If you’re the parent of a teen, I won’t say that you should let them watch it. But I will say that, depending upon the maturity of the teenager and your relationship, this film offers an opportunity to explore some important topics, and I can imagine that you might have many hours of good discussion while viewing it together.  

If you have teenagers in your home, and if you would like to take your relationship to a deeper level by watching and discussing 13 Reasons Why together, let me offer some possible fodder for discussion. It seems only right that I should offer 13 topics to consider.

1.       High school is depicted as a cruel, heartless place in this series. It’s a wonder anyone survives it. Is it really this bad? Is the social status of students (jocks, nerds, etc) a reflection of larger society or is high school a unique environment? Is the pressure to get into the right college an ever-present threat? Are friendships more important than doing the right thing? How are girls treated differently than boys? Are teachers as clueless as they appear in this series? From your experience, what seemed like a true depiction of high school and what was false?

2.       The bullying in this film seems over the top. Is this the way high school really is? Hannah isn’t the kind of person you would imagine being bullied; she is bright, smart, pretty. What does this say about people who are the targets of bullies?

3.       There are so many kinds of fear in the film: fear of being exposed for who you really are, fear of being rejected, fear of being perceived weak… As you think about each of the main characters, what they are afraid of and how does that fear drive their actions? (As a person of faith, I can’t help but think about how faith, which is the opposite of fear, might have made a difference. I noticed the absence of faith in the film.)

4.       I wonder if Hannah might represent more than one young woman in one high school. Is she like a composite character who experiences what so many other young women experience: harassment, objectification, slut-shaming, unwanted groping, rape? Are these common experiences among young women? Hannah seems hyper-sensitive to all of it. Nothing goes unnoticed. Is she more aware than most? Or is this just what it looks like when a young woman is paying attention?

5.       Consider the credibility of the narrator. Hannah doesn’t always tell the truth. For example, when Zach receives a note from her, she describes how he crumpled it up and threw it on the ground. In fact, he kept it. Does she see the world through a distorted lens where everyone is against her? Is her thinking twisted because she’s depressed?

6.       In her mind, Hannah knows how her narrative will end from the beginning of the first tape. Does she make the tapes, which she leaves as an extended suicide note, to get revenge, or to justify her choice? What is her motivation for making the tapes? (That may be at least as interesting to consider as her motivation for ending her life.)

7.       Does anyone in a healthy state of mind decide that it makes sense to solve a temporary problem with a permanent solution like suicide? Or is it the choice of someone who is depressed, someone who experiences so much pain in life that they would do anything to make it stop? How much do you know about depression? If a person is struggling with depression, how can we give them permission to talk about it?

8.       It’s important to talk about suicide. You don’t plant the idea in someone’s head by talking about it. The best thing you can do with someone who is contemplating suicide is talk with them about it. Often, simply hearing oneself say the words out loud is enough to make sense of the thoughts. Do you know what the warning signs are for someone who is contemplating suicide? (You can find this by doing an easy internet search. Every person, especially every teenager, should be aware of these signs to watch for in their friends.)

9.       Some people fear that teenagers will watch 13 Reasons Why and be persuaded to commit suicide. Is that giving teens enough credit? They see actions in movies all the time they know are wrong and they know better than to copy them. In fact, if people are worried about young people copying the actions they see in movies, aren’t there are much worse movies that you should ban from their viewing—movies that glorify violence, racism, misogyny, illegal drugs, casual sex…? And don’t the destructive behaviors in this film clearly come with consequences? (which is more than one can say for a lot of movies, TV shows, video games, posts on social media)

10.   The main character in the series, Clay, considers suicide himself, but he decides against it. How was he different from Hannah in the way he reaches a different conclusion than she does?

11.    Clay makes the statement that any one of the people Hannah exposes on her tapes could have changed the outcome—if any one of them had helped her, she would still be alive. Is that fair? Is it true? When someone takes their own life, who is responsible?  

12.   Tony has a sense of loyalty to Hannah throughout the series that may be hard to understand. He's bound and determined to honor the wishes of a dead person, even when they don’t make sense. How important is it to keep a confidence when someone is in danger, or to protect someone you love at great cost to others? As a loyal friend, was Tony complicit in Hannah’s craziness?

13.    In 13 Reasons Why, the high school students live in their own world, which is completely closed off from the adults in their lives. The adults are not perfect; they make mistakes. But most of them care deeply about their children. Despite this, the teens do everything they can to hide information from their parents and teachers. The adults are expected to have superpowers and pick up on subtle clues, and the teens expect to navigate their struggles on their own. Does this ring true for you? How might 13 Reasons Why have played out differently if the adults and high school students had talked to each other about what mattered?  


Saturday, April 22, 2017

In the Big Cathedral

My understanding of God the Creator has been greatly enriched by studying about the spirituality of the Celts. In Celtic spirituality there is a love and amazement at creation. They refer to the world, the out-of-doors, as the Big Cathedral. An enclosed building like a church, they would call a Little Cathedral. If you travel to Celtic lands today, you will see high-standing outdoor crosses, which are a reminder of the worship they held outside where they could experience the beauty of nature. This earth that God has created is our Big Cathedral.

When you look at it like that, our lives aren’t about getting up in the morning and doing what we gotta do so we can come home and go to sleep and get up in the morning and do the whole thing all over again. We’re in the Big Cathedral here. In that context, living in the Big Cathedral, our lives are worship. But, what if you’re living in the Big Cathedral, yet fail to notice?

A reporter several years ago carried out an interesting survey on the street. People walking by were stopped and asked, without looking up, to describe the sky as it was on that day. Do you know that only a very small percentage of the people could do it with reasonable accuracy? God’s presence is all around us, but most people don’t take the time to notice or appreciate it.

I confess that I’m often among the unappreciative. Still, there are times when I can’t help myself. I have to take note of the wonder of creation in my presence. Like when I’m bowled over by:

 A gorgeous sunset.
 A big fat yellow moon.
 The misty ridges of the blue ridge mountains.
 The branches of a naked, gnarly tree against a clear blue sky.
 The first bright green buds of spring.
 The sound of seagulls and waves rolling onto the beach.
 The wagging tail of my dog when she greets me at the door.
 Rainbows that always seem to surprise me.

Perhaps the most amazing part of God’s creation is what I see looking back at me in the mirror every morning. This is a creature that has been set apart from all the others. In the Genesis creation poem we read, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” I’m never quite sure what that means. It’s puzzling. The second part of the verse is clearer to me, “…and let them have dominion over…” all creation. God created humans to be in loving partnership with him for the ongoing care of creation. (Maybe that’s what it means to be created in God’s image.)

I wonder if we’re so often oblivious to the marvels of creation all around us because, if we really saw them, we wouldn’t be able to ignore our responsibility as partners with God in the care of creation. But what if we did? What if we saw our lives as worship in the Big Cathedral?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The resurrected Body of Christ


 Preached at Ascension Towson, Easter, 2017.

“He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” That’s the message the angel told the women to proclaim to the other disciples. And they hightailed it outa there. 

They were full of fear and wanted to make some distance between them and that empty tomb. But they also were about to explode with joy. This was amazing news and they couldn’t wait to share it. They had a mission.

Suddenly, they were stopped dead in their tracks. It was Jesus himself!

They threw themselves at his feet and grabbed hold of him. And then, Jesus gave them the same instructions they had heard from the angel, “Don’t be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 

And they did see him. The resurrected Jesus. A lot of people saw him. Like the women at the tomb, they spoke with him, and they touched him. It wasn’t just a resurrection of the soul. It was a resurrection of the body. 

We take comfort in that because at Easter Jesus defeated the power of death, not just for himself, but for us, too. And we trust that, when we die, there is a resurrection in our future as well. But what if there’s more than one way to look at this resurrection of the body stuff. What if it’s not just about something that will happen to us one day, after we die?

There’s another way Jesus’ resurrected body is revealed to us. And to get at that, let me share with you a bit of Lutheran theology, that is really just something that you can read about in the Bible. 

In Lutheran theology, being a Christian is never just about Jesus-and-me. We don’t have a personal Lord and Savior whom we carry around in our pocket. We Lutherans are really big on what we call the Priesthood of All Believers. We don’t stand before God alone, but we stand with others who receive God’s Word of grace with us. In fact, that grace comes to us through our brothers and sisters. Like the women in the Easter story, other believers bring the gospel to us and we bring it to them. 

We stand together as a community. We support one another on our faith journeys. Together, we discern what God is calling us to do in the world. And together we do it. It’s not just about Jesus and me. It’s about Jesus and us. 

And here’s the really big thing about the Priesthood of All Believers. The Bible describes this unity we share with the metaphor of a body. We are the Body of Christ. As Teresa of Avila wrote so eloquently back in the 16th century:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
No hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are the resurrected Body of Christ. 

Of course, the Body of Christ doesn’t just gather in this place as an end in itself. We gather to be strengthened through the love we share with one another, through the hearing of the Word, the Meal we receive, through the music that sends our spirits soaring, through the gratitude we express to God with our words and our hearts. During this time when we meet in this place, we are nourished as Christ’s Body so that we can be Christ for the world around us. 
  • When we’re welcoming the stranger at worship, or advocating for the stranger in our community, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re providing lunches for the homeless, or tutoring students in an underserved school, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re welcoming neighborhood children into our nursery school or supporting Lutheran Campus Ministry, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re sending quilts to provide a loving embrace for those who feel abandoned, or praying for brothers and sisters in Nicaragua, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re caring for aging parents, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re exercising justice and compassion in our place of business, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re speaking out on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re offering a word of compassion to the forgotten, the brokenhearted and the lonely, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re acting in love for the least among us, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
Whenever we’re doing the work of Christ in the world, we are his hands and his feet, and his eyes, and his mouth. We are the resurrected Body of Christ.

“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said. “Go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson. There they will see me.”

Friday, April 14, 2017

Honoring the one who hung on a cross

Can there be any doubt that Jesus was all about love? We know that he took the humble form of a servant when he walked this earth. He got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples, including the one who would betray him. He taught us to pray, not just for our friends, but for our enemies as well. But the most telling act of love he gave us was his death on the cross. It was love that put him there, and even while he was dying, he remained true to who he was, offering a prayer of forgiveness for the very people who were crucifying him.

How different the story of salvation would be if Jesus had cursed those who nailed him to a cross where he would slowly bleed and die. But, of course, that’s not what he did. Knowing that those who had crucified him were, in a sense, damning themselves by their actions, he spoke on their behalf. He asked God not to hold their sin against them. He responded to their hatred with love.

One of the amazing things about Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness is that he offered it without anyone requesting it. So often we think that forgiveness is offered only after the person who has wronged us comes to us and asks to be forgiven. But no one asks Jesus for forgiveness in this scenario. Instead, he offers it with no self-acknowledgement of their guilt whatsoever. He forgives them when they might not even realize they have anything to be forgiven for.

Is there someone in your life you have had trouble forgiving? Have they done something that has hurt you so deeply you can’t find it in your heart to forgive them? Have you been waiting for them to come to you and apologize first?

Forgiveness isn’t only for the one who is forgiven; it also benefits the one who does the forgiving. Why not honor the one who hung on a cross and offered forgiveness in an act of pure love by praying the same prayer for those who have wronged you? Carrying a grudge is a terrible burden to bear. It’s time to set yourself free.

Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.