Friday, August 4, 2017

Why does water keep coming from my eyes?

When my son Ben was little I once asked him why he was crying and he explained, "I'm not crying, but why does water keep coming from my eyes?" I'm not sure why he would have thought crying was a bad thing that he needed to deny as we never told him "don't cry" or any of those other emotionally stifling things parents tend to say to their kids, especially boys. His insistence that he wasn't crying had more to do with his constant need to contradict or challenge whatever I said. And I suspect it might also have been a reaction to the inability he had to control his tears. They came, whether he wanted them to or not. And it was pretty hard to deny them to his mother when the evidence was written all over his face. Crying? I'm not crying. That's just water coming from my eyes. 

Back in June I saw the doctor for something that was nothing, as is so often the case. I can't tell you the last time I went to the doctor concerned about something and it turned out to be anything. It makes me not want to go to the doctor at all for fear of being perceived coo-coo for cocoa puffs.  

While I was there, I asked her about an ugly brown spot I had on my chest, and she told me it was just a result of getting older. (Why is every physical problem that concerns me these days just a result of getting older?) Well, that prompted her to get out her magnifying glass and look over my back. (I felt silly as she did this, like she was just humoring the poor old hypochondriac.) She found a brown spot, like a large, misshapen freckle, that also had a little pink on one side. "It's probably just an age spot, but let's get you to a dermatologist to check it out." Okay. We both know it's nothing, I thought, but let's hear it from a dermatologist. 

I took my time making the appointment, but the Monday after I got back from vacation I saw a dermatologist. I actually saw the PA, a delightful woman named Julia. She did a biopsy, just to make sure, but she assured me it was most likely just an age spot. (Of course.) They would notify me in two weeks. So, I waited for a postcard or text message. 

One week later, I received a call from the dermatologist's office. Julia needed to talk to me right away, and no, she couldn't just talk to me on the phone. I had to come to the office that day.

Well, it turns out I have a melanoma, stage 1B. When she told me, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I never would have noticed this. I can't see my back and it wasn't bothering me. I don't see a dermatologist, ever. If my primary care physician had been in the room I would have kissed her. Thank you, thank you, Dr. Wills, for seeing this and telling me to check it out. It's early enough to treat it and the prognosis is good. Whew! Next I will consult with a plastic surgeon, set a date for surgery, and this will soon become an insignificant footnote in the story of my life.

Julia called me late that evening. She wanted me to come in the next day so she could do a full body exam. So, I went back, and this time she found something else. It's a piddly little mole that is exactly half brown and half white, as if someone had drawn a line down the middle. She sent it off for a biopsy. Yikes! I had no idea all this stuff was happening on my back. 

With a jam-packed week at the church, I've hardly thought about any of this. Well, there's that awkward time every morning when our Parish Administrator, Sue, has to change my dressing because, as someone who lives alone, I have no way of seeing or reaching the more recent little hole in my back. But other than that, it's life as usual... Okay, I've also spent a little time researching the word melanoma online, because that's just what I do. But everything I read gives me the reassurance that we caught this in time and all will be well. 

Last night, when I came home from a long day, I watched an old episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to help me unwind and end the day in a happy place. It was the one where Georgette has her baby. I didn't recall ever seeing it before. A very funny episode! When it was over, I turned the T.V. off and bawled my eyes out. Then I happened to realize that throughout the week I've caught myself tearing up over random things that normally wouldn't phase me. 

Hmmm. Why does water keep coming from my eyes?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Truth-seers

I've been on a campaign lately to update and modify the signage at Ascension. As a relative newcomer, I need to pay attention to details my eyes won't be noticing as the years pass. The more times I walk by the directory sign inside the Yarmouth Rd. entrance, the more likely I won't notice that where it once read "DIRECTORY", it now says "DIRECTO." The RY are missing and I don't know how long it's been that way. But I do suspect that it doesn't seem to bother anyone else the way it bothers me. 

Last week, as I was obsessing over all the signage that needs work inside our building, I exited the main doors and noticed a "No Parking" sign I had never seen before. There is was, right in front of me in all its glory! (The streaks you see are rust.)



Argh! I've been at Ascension for a year and was seeing it for the first time. I snapped a picture and shared it with a few people in the office. "Have you ever seen this sign before?" I asked. Not a one of them had ever laid eyes on it, and yet every time we leave the building, it's right there in our church circle-driveway. There's no way you could miss it. But, of course, everyone has. 

Now, I'm not pointing this out to disparage our property manager or property committee. They are amazing and keep the church in top-top shape. My point is how we can become blind to stuff that's right in front of us after it becomes so commonplace that we don't even notice it.

What's true for signage around the church is true for so much more. The longer we're a part of an organization, a system, a culture, the less we question how it works. That's why we need truth-seers.

This is what prophets did for God's people in the Scriptures. When the people fell away from God's ways and were swept up in the ways of the world, the prophets gave them a verbal smack upside the head, calling them to see the truth. God still sends us prophets today. If we're wise enough to listen to them, they will challenge us to become more than we are.

Lately, I've become especially sensitive to the word we use to describe the way we worship in the church as "traditional." I've used it for years to describe liturgical worship that follows the book, with "traditional" hymns, and "traditional" organ music. But truth-seers have challenged me to question the use of that word. How can I say that the way we worship in my white, middle-class, English-speaking, North American Lutheran congregation is "traditional?" That may be my tradition, but it is not the tradition for most of the Lutherans who are worshiping God on any given Sunday morning. Truth-seers have helped me to expand my vision in a way that includes those I hadn't considered when I bought into a certain standard for what is traditional Lutheran worship.

Truth-seers are usually outsiders. They're people who aren't a part of the dominant group. After all, when the system is working for you, you have no need to question it. This may seem relatively harmless when we're talking about local customs and preferences, but it quickly becomes dangerous when we're making assumptions about who's in and who's out. Then, in our blindness, we're failing to see injustice. It becomes so much a part of our lives that we don't even realize it exists. I've only been able to see this with the help of the truth-seers God has placed in my life.

Without the voices of truth-seers, I shudder to think of how much worse things might be than they are. Whenever I want to hide my head in the sand and ignore injustice in the world around me, I thank God for the annoying truth-seers who regularly challenge my false assumptions, expose my blind spots, and confront me with the reality of a faded, rusty sign that's just gotta go.


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?