Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Pooky


December 7, 2001 - September 12, 20017
When the rest of the puppies in her litter opened both their eyes, she only opened one. Her brothers and sisters all found homes, but as it turned out, nobody wanted a pug with a bum eye. When I learned about this sweet, little unwanted pug pup, I emphatically stated that I couldn’t take her. And then, for some reason, I heard my voice saying, “Why don’t you bring her by the church and let me see her?”

She came, and I saw her. When she sat in my lap and nuzzled her nose into my belly, she was mine. Well, actually, I should say I was hers.

After living alone for many years since my divorce, suddenly someone was there to greet me at the door when I came home from work. I had a friend to cuddle with on the couch while I watched T.V., a warm body beside me in bed at night, and a companion on my morning walks.

On day one, I named her Sweet Pea, but that night, in a dream, her name was Pooky, and that’s who she was from that day forward. The name suited her. As a pup she was soft and squishy, wiggly and jiggly. The sounds emitting from her body (snorting, snoring, farting) were always amusing, and her wagging corkscrew tail made me smile even on the worst of days. Of course, the unconditional love in her eyes carried me along.

Pooky brought joy into my life at a time when I needed it the most. I remember her courageously chasing a flock of wild geese at the park, until they suddenly turned around and started chasing her. Pooky did an abrupt about face and came running back to me as fast as she could. Then there was the evening when she stole a pot roast from the dining room table while I was in the kitchen. I couldn’t figure out where the roast went, and then I found Pooky chowing it down in the living room; it was about as big as she was. Pooky was so proud, looking up at me, her tail wagging double-time. One of my favorite moments was the day she befriended a Great Dane at the dog park, popping her wagging butt in the air, running circles around him, nipping his heals, inviting him to chase her, until the poor Great Dane just plopped down in exasperation as he watched her. He knew he could never keep up.

In many ways Pooky was a typical pug. They are sweet, comical, mischievous, and not too terribly bright… except when it comes to food. The most important thing they’re good for is lovin’. And that’s what Pooky brought to me. As she aged, she became a different dog in many ways, but she continued to be good for lovin’.
I’m grateful to have known her. Grateful for almost 16 years together. Grateful for all the love we shared.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Will this be on the final exam?: a plea to educators

Teachers are busy preparing for their school year: putting up bulletin boards, attending meetings on classroom management, reviewing policies, writing lesson plans, etc. These are stressful days, as well as a time pregnant with promise.

As a grandparent, a pastor, and a citizen of the United States, I have one big request of educators. Please teach your students to think critically. Let it be the explicit and implicit curriculum in everything you do. It could solve a lot of problems down the road. I know because I can see the problems that have come about because the people of my generation seem to have missed it, and we’re leaving the next generation with a mess to clean up.

It took me a long time to figure out that I couldn’t believe everything I saw in print. Just because someone wrote it in a book, or a newspaper, or even the Bible, doesn’t mean that it’s factual. Every author has a bias. I can’t remember ever learning this until I got to college. As an English major, I was introduced to a whole new way of thinking. Without critical thinking, literature was no more than a bunch of words bouncing around in my skull. When my eyes were opened, I saw how a lot of stuff that had been fed to me as "fact" had distorted my view of world.

Critical thinking has become even more challenging today, with immediate access to every piece of information that ever has been disseminated in the history of civilization. It’s literally at our fingertips. How do we sort through it all? Unfortunately, many people take the easy way out. They gravitate to whatever reinforces the view they already have. They listen to a cable news station that is clearly biased, but are deaf to that bias because it tells them what they want to hear. Many adults I know these days receive the bulk of their news on Facebook. On Facebook! That’s the place where you can unfriend people who say things you don’t like. Where you can flat out lie about someone you don’t like and before anyone can dispute it, the lie is out there and they’re toast. I know other people do the same thing with other social media sites.

How do our youth negotiate all this? They need help! Parents can challenge them to think critically, if they have become critical thinkers themselves, but I wouldn’t count on it. Teachers, please, can you take this on for the future of our country and world?

There’s a story about Paulo Freire, a Latin American educator who began as a language teacher and then an adult literacy instructor. At that time, literacy was required before a person could vote in presidential elections in Brazil. By design, this prevented the poor from participating. As the story goes, when he taught the sounds of the word for water, he used a picture of water being pumped from a well. Then he taught the word for well. Once the words had been mastered, he asked his students, “Now, who owns the well?” That’s what teaching for critical thinking looks like. How many teachers would teach the words and consider the lesson ended?
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire wrote: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want our youth to simply conform and perpetuate the world as it is now. I want more than that for them and for my grandchildren. I want them to transform the world. I know many teachers share this passion and I thank you. We need more of you!
There are all kinds of tests students take before they can graduate from high school--tests that measure their ability to conform to the academic standards set for them by educators (or in too many cases, politicians, who know nothing about education, but that's a subject for another blog). This can be as stressful for teachers as it is for students. I don't mean to add to their load, but I wish that we could make it a rule that nobody can graduate from high school until they demonstrate critical thinking skills. Is there a way this could be added to graduation requirements, please? Maybe if students and teachers know it will be on the final exam, they'll take it seriously.
Believe me, it will be on the final exam. 


After posting this blog, I heard from my sister Wendy, who is an educator in Massachusetts. She informed me that critical thinking skills are required on some of the questions on their state tests, so that's a step in the right direction. Is this true in all states? So, I stand corrected here. But I wonder if this makes a difference in whether or not a person graduates. And Wendy writes that this raises a bigger question, "... can our students apply this skill to the world beyond the school walls? Or do we as adults beat them down when they question?"

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.