Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why relationships are worth the effort

I’m a solo act. That hasn’t always been the case. I was married for a good long while, and it worked for me right up until the time when it didn’t. But since my marriage ended and my nest became empty right about the same time, I’ve been going it alone. There are times when I relish the freedom of not having to check in with anybody, or make compromises, or feel a need to explain my actions to someone who might be impacted by them. And there are other times when I find myself in a dark hole where I wonder how many days I could be dead before another living soul would notice. I don’t know if I’m better off single. But I do know that I need positive relationships in my life. And because I don’t have an automatic relationship to come home to every night, I have to work at my relationships with friends and relatives. I’m not always successful; sometimes a relationship has been the source of great pain in my life, but it's worth the effort.

Scientists have discovered that healthy relationships lead to healthy lives. Of course, that’s something that many of us may have suspected anyway, but now there is research to back it up. Dr. Dean Ornish writes about this in his book, Love and Survival: the Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy. He says: “Love and intimacy are the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well, what causes sadness and what brings happiness, what makes us suffer and what leads to healing.” He presents overwhelming evidence for the correlation between relationships and health, including the fact that people who feel lonely and isolated have a 300-500 percent greater risk of premature death and physical illness. His overall conclusion is that “anything that promotes a sense of isolation often leads to illness and suffering. Anything that promotes a sense of love and intimacy, connection and community, is healing.”

We really don’t need a scientist to tell us that we need one another. Positive relationships in our lives aren’t just good for our physical health; they are good for our mental, emotional and spiritual health as well. Our relationships with other people are a gift God has given us so that we can have the abundant life he wants for us.

In the movie Shall We Dance? there’s a speech made by the character Susan Sarandon plays that moved me to tears. She had been married for a long time to the same man and she was questioned about it. What’s the point? Why be married? Here’s how she responded:
“We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.’”

This struck me to the core because it was another way of saying something that is essentially true for us as human beings. If we live out our years devoid of close relationships with other human beings, without someone to share our lives, it’s almost as if they haven’t really been lived at all. It’s like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it.

I’m sounding a little like the old Dean Martin song, aren’t I? “You’re nobody till somebody loves you.” Of course, we don’t have to worry about that because, as children of God, we know beyond a doubt that somebody does love us. But God puts flesh and blood people into our lives to be vehicles of his grace. That’s the blessing that any close loving relationship can bring us. And that’s why our relationships deserve the best that we have to offer.

“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). At their best, our relationships connect us with the love of God. A line from the musical, Les Miserables, expresses this deep truth quite simply: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Yes, relationships are worth the effort.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I've never learned how to act like a lady

We were playing tag and I found myself backed up against a flower bed. I had to make a quick decision. Either I got caught, which would result in me becoming it, or I could jump through the garden. Unfortunately I did get caught – by an adult who saw me cutting through the flowers. As a result, I had to spend the rest of the afternoon on the porch watching the other kids play so I could "learn how to act like a lady."

To this day, I associate acting like a lady with being put in my place. While some women might consider it a compliment to be referred to as a lady, it always gets me riled up. In fact, limitations that are placed on me because of cultural gender expectations, as a rule, leave me feeling like a bird trapped in a paper sack, desperately trying to peck itself free.

I suppose I’ve struggled with gender expectations my whole life. Certainly, this became an issue for me when I felt called to ministry as the result of some mystical experiences in my young adult life. I wasn’t really a church person and had no idea when I arrived at seminary in the mid 70s that ordaining women was a recent novelty in my denomination. With no female role models, my sister seminarians and I fumbled around to find our way. In the beginning, while we were all trying to prove that we could do it like a man, it dawned on me that this approach was denying the distinctive gifts women brought to ministry. I needed to figure out how to become a woman pastor. It took a while, but I did.

Now, my struggle is more with being a person who happens to be female. The older I get, the more I see my life as a journey toward wholeness. And while my gender is a significant part of who I am, first and foremost, I am a person. Culturally bound gender expectations hinder my quest for wholeness. Whether I’m giving in to them or rebelling against them, they mess with me in a way that makes me less than the person God created me to be.

The culture around us is so mired in its expectations of women and men that it has become acceptable for us to settle for partial people. Every time a man who cries over a movie is ridiculed as a wimp, or a woman who stands up for herself is called a bitch, we are all diminished. We can never allow ourselves to fully explore who we really are as long as we allow cultural expectations to render us gender-bound. And we can never become whole people.

I serve in a congregation where there are lots of people who are in same gender relationships, and being with them has led me to think more about the limitations of opposite gender relationships. Sometimes I wonder if the need folks have for a relationship with a person of the opposite gender is a way of seeking the completion they can’t find within themselves because gender expectations have stifled their quest to explore all that is within them. The classic case of the man who needs to have a woman in his life who can emote for him, or the woman who needs a man in her life who can protect her is all too common. Wouldn’t relationships be healthier if they weren’t driven by a need for completion, but by a need for companionship? That way we wouldn’t overwhelm one another with unmeetable expectations, but be present to one another in our life journeys, to love, support and encourage one another along the way. Of course, the gender of the person we are in a loving relationship with becomes irrelevant then. We don’t love the gender, we love the person.

Since serving at Holy Trinity, I’ve also been blessed with transgender friends who have had the experience of living in both worlds: male and female. My life has been enriched tremendously because they are a part of it. Transgender folks have helped me to see that I am a complex person who cannot be defined by the world’s labels and expectations. I’ve experienced a growing freedom to explore who I really am, the person God created me to be, in a new way. When I’m with them, I feel like it may be possible for this bird to free herself from the paper sack and fly.

So much has happened in my life since the day I was sentenced to an afternoon on the porch pondering what it means to act like a lady. And the journey continues. The further I travel, the more I realize I don’t have to walk the path that anyone else has traveled before me. My path is my own. It’s the path God has planned for me, and I discover it, one step at a time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What happens to pastors when they die?

Unless you’re also a pastor, or a funeral director, you probably don’t spend as much time at funerals as I do. And you may not know that there is a tradition about the placement of coffins for church services. If the deceased was a lay person, the head is toward the congregation, so they are looking up to the front. But if the deceased was clergy, the head is toward the chancel, so they are looking out into the congregation. This way they’re facing the same direction that they faced for worship during their time on this earth. It’s a peculiar tradition that speaks volumes to me. Certainly, it shows a respect for those who preach. But, as one of them, it makes me more than a little uncomfortable. Is the separation between pastors and the people they serve so definitive that it must continue even beyond death?

Among my peers I’m something of an oddity these days because I actually went from college to seminary and was ordained at the not-quite-ripe-enough age of 26. This is the only life I’ve ever known as an adult, so sometimes I’m not sure who I am apart from the role that I fill. I’ve struggled with this throughout my life. While I feel blessed to be in ordained ministry, and am thankful for the rich life I’ve enjoyed because of it, I also am keenly aware of the fact that this is what I do and it’s not who I am. There is so much more to me than the role I fill for other people as their pastor.

I have relished those moments in my life when I have been with people who either: (a) didn’t know that I had a “Rev” in front of my name, or (b) couldn’t give a rat’s ass about it. While serving my second parish, for a time I played with an orchestra in the next city over and enjoyed being known as “Nancy who plays the piccolo.” After seminary, when I returned to school, it was in a public university setting where I was simply another grad student. And one of the reasons why I love contra dancing these days is that for the people I dance with I’m just another middle-aged woman who tries to twirl around in a thrift-store skirt. Without these treasured people in my life, who don’t know me as “Pastor Nancy”, I’m afraid I might lose myself completely.

So, do I really want to be marked as a pastor even after I die, as if that’s the essence of who I am? The very idea of having my coffin turned in a different direction than the other dear saints in my church disturbs me and it gives me one more reason why I’ve chosen to be cremated. After my vital signs have ceased, they can harvest any body parts that might be of use to anybody and then freeze-dry the rest of me. Please know that when they do, I will not become pastor dust, thank you very much. I will just be dust!

Of course, in whatever life that follows this one, the fact that I served as a pastor won’t amount to a hill of beans. In fact, I suspect that in the next life the most useless job of all will be that of the professional holy person. I mean, why will anyone need to have someone pointing them toward God when they’re in the actual presence of God?

So whatever will I do with myself? Who will I be? I suppose it’s possible that many of the things I’ve been preaching about will turn out to be true and I could strut around telling everybody, “I told you so” but who would really care at that point? I’d rather bask in God’s glory with everyone else as we experience the breadth and width and depth of God’s love for all creation in a way our narrow minds could never comprehend in this lifetime. That’s when I’ll know that I’ve finally become the person God created me to be.

Yes, this gives me something to look forward to -- the day when my body will be dust and Pastor Nancy will become absolutely useless. Oh, yeah!

But I’m not in any hurry. I’ll wait my turn.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

God save us from our need to be right

When I was in college, my roommate was dating a grad student who was way smart. I always thought I was well endowed in the brains department, but he had it all over me. His mind sucked up facts like a vacuum cleaner. Every night during supper, when Jeopardy came on TV, he enjoyed sharing his vast knowledge with us. I listened and silently gnashed my teeth, never daring to challenge him because he was just about always right. But when I was handed an unexpected opportunity to stick it to him, I couldn’t resist.

I happened to watch Jeopardy while I was home for Christmas break. Then, when I returned to school, lo and behold, an exact same episode that I’d already seen the week before was being aired on TV. It was like a dream come true! I pretended that I had never seen it before, as I called out all the right questions, including a few that he missed. Although I acted as nonchalant as possible about it, inside I was whoopin’ and hollerin’ and jumping up and down. Yes! It felt so good that I never told him the truth. To this day he thinks that I mopped the Jeopardy board with his face that night. Actually, he’s probably forgotten all about it. But not me! I will never forget it. At the time, I thought of it as an impressive victory. Now I look back and I realize it was NOT one of my finer moments. How could I have been so deceptive?

I wonder how many people in a similar situation would be able to resist such an opportunity? I mean, isn’t being right a rush for all of us? There’s something about it that satisfies us on a basic level. Why is that?

I suspect it’s a competitive thing. If you’re right, that means you’re superior to the person who is wrong. And who doesn’t love feeling superior? If we can point to someone else and say, “I’m better than she is!” it’s proof positive that we’re worthwhile.

Maybe this is one reason why some of us are so offended by the notion that God unconditionally loves ALL people. In the church we call it grace. It’s love freely given, with no strings attached. It’s loving someone just because. That’s exactly the way God loves us -- just because.

For those of us who have a need to feel we’re special, and I suspect that’s pretty much all of us, the undiscriminating grace of God can leave us feeling slighted. Of course, to God, we’re special, and that’s fine with us. But the problem is that, to God, EVERYONE is special. How can anyone be special if everyone is special? And how can we feel superior to other people if God loves everyone the same, whether they’re perfectly right or terribly wrong? Now, I realize that’s a very human perspective and I think it’s safe to say that a God of grace doesn’t see things that way.

Certainly, our need to be right takes on epic proportions when we align our rightness with God’s. It’s not so much a problem when we try to think like God; it’s when we convince ourselves that God thinks like us. And when we’re so hell-fire sure that God thinks like we do, well, we have to be right, by God! We’ll fight to the death to prove that we’re right because so much is at stake. It’s a scary place to be. And, ironically, it is exactly what a life in relationship with God is NOT.

To be in an authentic relationship with God, we have to be able to utter three words that so many of us find it pert near impossible to say: I was wrong. Until we can acknowledge that we’re not always right and quite often we might actually be wrong, we’ll have so much invested in proving we’re right that we can never let God be God.

Do you have an aversion to the words, I was wrong? It’s a true spiritual handicap that isolates you from God, as well as other people. And it keeps you from growing into the person God created you to be. That’s why, as painful as it is, every once in a while it helps us to be reminded that we can be wrong. You might say that an occasional serving of crow is good for our spiritual health.

As we head into Holy Week, I’ve been thinking about how Jesus ended up on a cross because he didn’t need to be right. As the hymn from Philippians tells us: “He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that – a crucifixion.” (The Message)

On the other hand, it was the need those in authority had to be right that nailed Jesus to a cross. And it may be the way we still nail him to a cross today. Whenever we refuse to admit we could be wrong, or when we link our rightness with God’s, or when we put being right above being loving… when our need to be right becomes that overpowering for us, we are pounding nails into the cross.

God save us from our need to be right.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Coffee & Some Serious Brain-pickin'

“So, what makes you think there really is a God and he isn’t just a social construct created to fill a need?”

It was the logical question for her to ask. Raised in a conservative church and steeped in Biblical literalism, now that her critical mind had been awakened, the house of cards she had constructed to contain her faith was crumbling. If she could no longer believe what she had been taught about the Bible, how could she believe in God, who, for her, had always been somewhat synonymous with the Bible?

She had asked me to meet her for coffee. For someone who doesn’t drink coffee, I’ve been meeting quite a few people for coffee lately. It’s a comfortable venue for younger adults, so I'm glad to meet them on their own turf. I realize that coming to the pastor’s office for a conversation may be a little too churchy. And I’ve come to expect that meeting a young adult for coffee means I’m in for some serious brain pickin’. They’ll sit across from me, gently stroking their paper coffee cups with their fingers, asking me the questions that are keeping them awake at night. Basically, these are the same questions that keep me awake at night. And they consistently challenge me because I can’t hide behind a pulpit, or offer pat answers, or toss theological jargon around when I speak with them.

As I sat with her, I was thinking about another young woman I met for coffee/brain pickin’ just a few days before. Like this woman, she wasn’t a member of my congregation and she was smart as a whip. But the woman I met with a few days prior had no faith background at all and she came to me mystified by a church culture that was so far removed from her experience. Now today, my brain picker was the exact opposite. She had been thoroughly indoctrinated with all the “right” answers. It occurred to me that both women were blank slates so far as faith was concerned, but in different ways. One was a blank slate that had never been written upon, and the other’s slate had been completely covered in writing that she had erased. Both were sincere in their search. And both made me squirm a little, like a bug under a magnifying glass catching the sun’s laser sharp heat.

“What makes me think there really is a God? Well, that’s a good question. It depends on the day you ask me. I don’t always believe in God. But, I guess here’s where faith comes in for me… I know that God doesn’t need me to believe in him. God is. And I trust that even when I don’t know if there is a God, God is never going to stop loving me. That’s what I trust in. My feelings come and go. I can’t trust them. What I believe comes and goes. But I trust that God’s love is bigger than all that.”

“How do you know that God loves you?” she asks me.

Now, the stock answer would be some verse from the Bible like John 3:16. But that’s not how I know God loves me. I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe anything just because the Bible says so; it has to ring true by my own experience. And I couldn’t lie to her. So I said, “I know God loves me by the God glimpses I experience in my life. Again and again, something will happen in my life that reminds me that I’m not in charge, that God is. And my experience shows me that God is loving and good and I can trust that. Often it’s something little, but if I’m paying attention, I experience God’s love. And it always seems to come to me through other people.”

It may be heresy. I may not have been approved for ordination if I had answered in this way, but it’s what I have experienced in my life. It’s the God glimpses that get my attention. That’s where I start. I don’t find truth in the Bible just because “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” I find truth in the Bible because it resonates with my own experience of God.

So, we’re sitting there in a Panera in the suburbs at lunchtime. The table next to us is about two inches away, which means that your neighbors can’t help but hear your conversation. And, wouldn’t you know that a man sits down at the next table right about the time we’re talking about salvation, which, of course, I explain in a way that my brain pickin’ friend seated across from me has never heard it explained before. Apparently, my neighbor is disturbed by our conversation because he gets up in a huff and moves to another table.

Then the conversation comes around to hell. Do I believe in hell? she wants to know. In the course of my explanation, I mention Rob Bell’s new book that has raised the ire of so many evangelicals. I ask if she has read it and she hasn’t. Well, neither have I and, for that reason, I’m a little sorry I brought it up. But I tell her that he seems to have something to say about the existence of hell that has a lot of people all riled up and she might want to check it out.

Right about then, two men sit down to eat at the vacant table next to us and I hear one of them say, “Pastor Nancy…” I look over and see a young man, also not a member of my church, with whom I had a similar coffee/brain pickin’ meeting a couple of years earlier. I recall that he is a Rob Bell junky and think --- this is too good to be true! So I explain to him that we were just talking about Bell’s new book, Love Wins, and I ask if he could tell us a little about it. He looks toward the man sitting across from him and explains to me that he is having a business meeting and really needs to take care of that, but if his lunch companion doesn’t mind, he could give us a brief synopsis. The guy sitting across the table looks a little surprised, but nods his consent.

Now, this is pretty amazing! Here I am sitting with this woman, for some reason talking about a book I’ve never read, and all of a sudden this guy appears who may be one of the only people I know who has actually read the book. Just a little weird.

So, after the book report is finished, the man turns to his business associate and apologizes. Of course, they were sitting close enough that I could hear their exchange. “I hope you don’t mind,” he tells his business associate, “… church stuff.” He pauses and takes a sip of his coffee. Mixing church and business can be a little touchy, I know. But then I hear him ask the man sitting across the table, “Do you have a church you go to?”

“I go to Christ Lutheran,” the man replies. And I about fall off my chair. The young man he is speaking with, his business associate across the table, also is a member of Christ Lutheran. They work together and they had no clue they went to the same church.

And all the “what ifs” start clicking through my brain. What if I hadn’t come here to meet this brain pickin’ young woman on this day? What if she hadn’t asked me if I believe in hell? What if the first neighbor hadn’t moved to another table? What if the second neighbor hadn’t sat in that chair? What if it had been someone else? What if I had never met him for coffee two years earlier and learned about his faith journey and his interest in Rob Bell’s writing? What if I hadn’t remembered that and hadn’t asked him to tell us about the book? What if he hadn’t asked his associate if he has a church? If none of that had ever happened, the two men never would have come to Panera for lunch that day and they never would have learned they were a part of the same faith community. Too darn weird.

I smile at the young woman seated across from me. “How do I know there’s a God? This is exactly what I was talking about.”

Did God make all that happen? I don’t know. Does it prove to me that there is a God? I don’t know that either. But it was one of those God glimpses that bring me to the conclusion that the question isn’t something I need to spend a lot of time worrying about. It used to keep me awake at night. It doesn't any more.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Tickling God

Has anyone played an April Fool’s prank on you today? If you’re reading this early in the morning, maybe you can beat them to the punch and catch them off-guard. I always appreciate a day that’s dedicated to silliness. But then, I’m one of those people who enjoys laughing; finding the humor in most circumstances has gotten me through tough times in my life. It’s also gotten me into trouble at times. Especially when I’m in a situation where laughter is completely inappropriate, and if I get to giggling, I just can’t stop. The fact that I shouldn’t be laughing just makes it funnier to me.

I wonder if Sarah felt that way when she heard that, as a dried up old woman, she would be giving birth. It was so ridiculous that she burst out laughing. Even though God was promising that her deepest longing would come to pass, she thought it sounded silly and she couldn’t control herself. The thing that bothers me about this story is that when she laughed and the Lord heard her, she denied it. She was ashamed of her laughter. Why couldn’t she have said, “Yes, Lord, I laughed because it’s so darn funny?”

The theologian Karl Barth wrote, “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” I believe that when we laugh, God is there. And I know beyond a doubt, from looking at some of the things and people God has created, that God has a sense of humor. I wonder why we don’t include more humor in our prayer lives. We’re not afraid to come before God with our tears, so why would we be afraid to come before God with our laughter?

Do you think God is ticklish? I like to believe that I tickle her on a regular basis.