Sunday, September 27, 2009

Move Your Freaking Feet!

I remember when I was in the first grade and we learned that the world was always turning on its axis. That day, as I was walking home from school, it occurred to me that maybe if I just stood still and waited, my house would come to me. I decided to try it and stopped right where I was. My house was straight ahead, just a few blocks away, and I figured that it wouldn’t take long for the earth to turn enough that I would be able step right up on the front porch, open the door, and I would be home. So I stood there, with my feet glued to the sidewalk, and I waited. After a short while, I saw that nothing around me had changed; I was still standing in the same place. It didn’t take me long to figure out that if I wanted to get home that day, I was going to have to put one foot in front of the other and move.

Some people think God works much like I thought about the rotating earth when I was a kid. They think that if they just stand still, eventually God will bring them to the place they need to be in their lives. Let me tell you, that’s a sure-fire way to get nowhere quick! We need to be willing participants and not just passive recipients on our spiritual journey. We can trust that God will lead us to opportunities where we can grow along the way, but there is no spiritual journey unless we move our freaking feet!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Big Time Wrestling

For the first 25 years that I served as a pastor, there was a battle going on between my will and God's. Even though I clearly felt called to ordained ministry, I resented it. It wasn't the life I wanted for myself and I was a very reluctant pastor. My resentment toward God was exacerbated when my long marriage to another pastor ended because of his sexual misconduct in the parish we had served together.

Years later, still wrestling with God over my call to ministry and nearly at my breaking point, I went on an individual retreat to sort through it all. While I was there, my spiritual director said something to me that changed my life. She heard about my lifelong battle with God and said, "Nancy, when are you going to learn that God isn't the enemy? He doesn't want to make your life miserable. God loves you and all he wants is for you to love him back." I know it sounds simple, but it had been anything but simple for me to see this.

Many people will say that the key to following God's will for your life is surrendering your own will to God's. It may work that way for some people, but it certainly didn't work that way for me. Surrender is the language of war. When you surrender, you resign yourself to the fact that you've been beaten, or at least you aren't going to win, so you throw in the towel. In surrender, you come to God defeated. It's difficult not to resent someone you have surrendered yourself to. You may continue to want the same things for yourself that you always wanted, but now you're forced to deny them. How can you love someone to whom you have surrendered yourself like that?

When you seek to follow God's will in your life, the real point is, "Do you love God?" If you love God, then you want what God wants. It's not a matter of doing battle with God and surrendering your will to God's will. It's about making God's will your will, too.

Have you ever watched two people who professed to love one another for the rest of their lives grow to become adversaries? Every issue between them becomes a battle of the wills and there is an ongoing struggle to see who will ultimately win the war. But when you love someone, you want what they want, don't you? If the one you love wants to watch a football game on Sunday afternoon, you don't dig in your heels and refuse to allow it. You want them to have what they want. You want them to be happy and their happiness makes you happy, too. Your will becomes the same.

That's how our relationship with God works as well. God isn't the enemy. God doesn't want to do battle with us. God doesn't force us into submitting to him and seeing things his way. God loves us. And God wants us to love him so much that we want what he wants for us.

This truth has changed my life and it's changed the way I do ministry. Although I've been ordained for 30 years, I feel like I've only really been a pastor for the past 5years. I've barely begun to serve as the pastor God wants me to be because it's taken me so long to want that, too. The resentment I once carried in my heart has been replaced with joy. It's been a tough road for me, but the journey was worth it. Now I wait expectantly to see what other adventures God has in store for me as a pastor.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Scattered Deck of Playing Cards

When I was six years old, my father died and I was terrified. I wasn’t afraid of my father, but I was afraid of the pasty corpse with the ghoulish face and the rubbery fingers that I saw sleeping in a box at the funeral home. I had never seen a dead body before and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was afraid to look out a window at night, because, in the darkness, I saw my dead father’s face staring at me. I was afraid of the basement and the attic, because I sensed the body lurking in the shadows. All of the closets were off limits because I thought that if I opened a door, the corpse would fall out on top of me. In my own bedroom, I imagined the dead body stretched out on the top bunk bed. My home, which should have been the safest place I knew, became a house of horror.

I didn’t know what to do about this fear that filled my life. I was not raised in a family that ever talked about God, nor had I ever been inside a church building. And there I was, with no faith background, deeply troubled about death, thinking about it a lot more than any young child should.

From the culture around me, I was aware of the concept of God and heaven and wanted desperately to believe in both of those things. But when I heard that if I was good, someday I would get to go to heaven and see my father again, it reminded me too much of Santa Claus. I had already figured out that Santa Claus was a make-believe person adults had created to keep children in line. Was God like Santa Claus?

This was the first faith crisis that I can recall in my life, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Within this crisis, I had an awareness of the connection between faith and fear, because I remember thinking that if I could really believe in God and heaven, then I wouldn’t have to be afraid of death any more. What I didn’t quite understand was the nature of faith. I thought it meant knowing something for sure, so that you could prove it beyond a doubt. So I decided to run a little experiment in order to find out once and for all if there really was a God or not.

It was a solid plan. I had an upstairs bedroom that was left undisturbed all through the day while I was at school, and I decided it would be the perfect place for God to leave me a sign. I took a deck of playing cards and laid them out on top of my bedspread, face down, in neat rows. And then I gave my instructions to God: “OK, God. If you’re really there, I want you to show me.”

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Maybe God would spell out “Hi!” with the cards, or he would turn some of them over. I didn’t have a specific sign that I was anticipating, but I was hoping for something that would tell me God was more than a variation on Santa Claus. I needed a sign that God was real. So, I carefully placed the cards on the bed, I gave my instructions to God, and I went to school.

That afternoon, as I was walking home from school, I was anxious to see what was waiting for me on my bed. And I was a little afraid because I was finally going to know for sure if there really was a God and I sensed that what I found on my bed could change my whole life.

As I opened the front door to the house, I was greeted by my black cocker spaniel, Inky. He was so glad to see me that he jumped up to lick my face. But I wasn’t interested in Inky at the moment; I wanted to get to my bedroom. Inky saw me walking in that direction and he bounded up the stairs ahead of me, then jumped up on my bed before I had the chance to get there. The cards flew all over the room and I was furious. “Inky, look what you’ve done!”

I cried that day when I realized that I would never know if God had given me a sign with the cards I left on my bed. I felt this had been my one chance and I wouldn’t try again. If God had answered my prayer, I couldn’t very well go back to him and ask him to do it all over again. And if God had not answered my prayer, I would never have a way of knowing.

This may seem like a silly little childish activity that I should have forgotten by now, but it continues to be one of the most significant events of my life. It took me a long time to realize that God had answered my prayer after all. It wasn’t the answer that I had expected, so I missed it. But it was an answer that has been repeated many times in my life. When I’m seeking God’s guidance, the answer often appears to be no answer at all.

Whenever I struggle so much with important faith issues in my life that the process becomes painful, there is great appeal in relinquishing my struggle to a higher power. If I can’t find a solution to the spiritual conundrum that keeps me awake nights, I can let God do it for me! When I’m groping in the dark, trying to figure out where God wants me to go, I often find myself praying for some kind of a directional sign from God, even though I’ve learned not to expect a detailed roadmap. But when I pray for signs, it seems that those prayers are more about me telling God what to do than they are about God telling me what to do. God doesn’t jump when I say jump. God doesn’t give me an answer just because I tell him to. That’s just not the way God works, and I honestly wouldn’t want a God I could control like that.

At another significant time of my life, as an adult, I found myself praying much the same prayer that I had prayed to God as a child running an experiment with a deck of playing cards. I was deeply troubled by a life-changing decision I was facing, and desperate for a sign from God. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Which way, Lord?
I want you to ease and enslave me
Lead me blindfolded
with ears muffled
by the nose
down a
to a
into a tiny cell
I can only inhabit in
fetal crampedness.
Slam me shut,
deadbolted from the outside
with a keyless lock.

Which way, Lord?
You choose to torture me with freedom.
I dance with limbs outstretched
in an open field
yielding only to the bright sky
with no landmarks in sight.
Your subtle whisper is the soft breeze
in my face
and to my back
and on either side.

Cruel grace! For once limit me
With THE answer…
Which way, Lord?

It can be maddening to pray to God so fervently about something that is critical to your life and hear what only seems to be silence coming back at you. Yet, it’s often in silence that God speaks to us. A God of grace does not take us by the nose and lead us to where he wants us to be. God sets us loose in an open field and gives us the freedom to make our own decisions.

Thankfully, God doesn’t leave us stranded without any resources to help us find our way. God gives us all the gifts we need to live by faith: the scriptures, our faith communities, experience, the brains we were born with and the divine Spirit within us. When we pray for God’s guidance and open ourselves up to use all the resources he’s given us, it is a prayer that never goes unanswered.

The life of faith is not about removing our doubts so that we can know God with certainty. And it is not about removing our fears so that we can effortlessly follow where God leads us without struggle. The life of faith wouldn’t be possible without our doubts and our fears. God began teaching me that truth many years ago through a black cocker spaniel named Inky. Whenever I seek answers from God, I am reminded of the lesson I learned from a scattered deck of playing cards.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I Love Me

Back when I first joined Facebook, we were all posting "25 Random Things About Me" as a way to become better acquainted with one another. I found my list today. I don't recall putting a whole lot of thought into what I was writing when I did it. Really just completing the exercise to get people off my case. But now, as I look back on what I wrote, I can say it pretty accurately describes me. I confess that I haven't always loved who I am. But as I've grown older, I've cut myself some slack and, on my better days, I actually do love myself. I wasted so much of my life longing to be someone else. Now I'm in a place where I can honestly say that I wouldn't want to be anybody but who I am. It's taken me a long time to get there. I'm glad I stuck around long enough to love myself.

1. My favorite thing to do on a cold night is get under the electric blanket with Pooky and Romeo. Mmmmmmmmm.

2. I am very self-conscious around other people and hate being the center of attention. There is a part of me that feels like I'm making a fool of myself every time I open my mouth. Sunday mornings take a lot of courage for me.

3. One thing that makes my blood boil is when I'm behind someone making a left-hand turn and they won't claim the intersection. Grrrr!

4. I'm not real keen on chocolate as a rule, but I adore peanut butter. I can eat a pack of Nutter Butter cookies (the wafer kind) in one sitting. (It's what I do when my life falls apart.)

5. I love movies and have already seen all of this year's Oscar contenders.

6. I have a love/hate relationship with writing. When I'm in the groove, it's exhilarating. When I'm not, it's torture.

7. I am very proud of the way my children have turned out, the adults they have become. Both are bright, creative, compassionate people. And neither is a Republican. Thank you, Jesus!

8. When I was growing up I thought I was going to become a band director. Then I started spending all my time with musicians.

9. I was always the skinniest kid in the class and now I'm always trying to lose weight. Come to think of it, no matter how much I weigh I always want to be 10 pounds lighter than I am. Is that a woman thing or just another reason to lament the dominant culture?

10. My dissertation topic was "Nurturing a Social Consciousness through Church Education." It's a lot easier on paper than in real life, believe me.

11. My favorite game is Scrabble. I don't have anyone to play with these days, so I play against the computer. Sometimes I win.

12. I have watched the soap "Guiding Light" for about 40 years. And some of the same people are still on it!

13. I was married to another pastor for 20 years. We've been divorced for 13 years now and it seems like it happened in a previous life. I guess in a way it did. Overall, I remember it as a good life, right up until it wasn't.

14. I have been ordained for 30 years. I can't believe I've made it that long. When I preached my first Easter sermon I couldn't imagine how I'd ever find something else to say about Easter a second time. Now I don't know if I'll ever have enough time to say everything I want to say about it.

15. Of those 30 years, most of them I've spent battling with God, rebelling, resisting and resenting what I thought God wanted me to do. Only recently have I learned to love God enough to want what he wants for me.

16. I'm a grammatical snob. I hate it when people make grammatical errors, especially ME.

17. I have become content with my single life, but I long to find someone to grow old with.

18. The NC mountains are a very spiritual place for me and whenever I am there and then return to Charlotte I feel a sense of loss.

19. When I get riled up about something, you better get out of my way! I'm especially intolerant of intolerance.

20. I always think that it's better to speak up and maybe later be kicking myself for it, than to remain silent and maybe later be kicking myself for it.

21. Most of my life is lived on the interior and I am often unaware of what's going on around me. Hence, always lose my keys, never know where I've parked the car, can't remember if I ate lunch, etc.

22. I love going to live theatre. (Especially if Gretchen's in the play.)

23. Two places I haven't been that I really want to experience before I die: the Grand Canyon and Italy.

24. I've been an orphan since I was 28. That's when my mom died. My dad died when I was 6. I also had a step-dad and he died when I was in my early 20s. Death sucks.

25. I always thought I would have life figured out by the time I was the age I am now. Instead, I've learned that I'll never have it figured out and that it's okay. In fact, the unknown, the mystery, may be the best part of all. I suspect that may be where God lives.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Misrepresenting Jesus

I used to live in an area where there were lots of Amish people. They haven’t changed their dress for a couple hundred years. They don’t use any of the newfangled technology. And I’m not talking about ipods and computers here. I’m talking about things like cars, and electricity, and zippers. They are people to be admired for their resolve to live in their own way. But they’re also so far removed from the rest of us that they have absolutely no impact on the world. As we watch them riding by in their horse and buggy we see them as a quaint curiosity.

I have a pastor friend, Joan, who recently posed the question: Are Christians going to become the 21st century Amish? Will they become a quaint curiosity to younger generations but totally irrelevant to the lives of real people and the culture they’re living in? Some would say that we’re practically there.

A couple of guys named Kinnaman and Lyons wrote a book called: unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity and why it matters. They conducted research with young adults, people under 30. For the most part, these aren’t people unfamiliar with church. They have been to Christian Sunday schools, and Vacation Bible Schools and camps. And what do they say about us?
+ 91% say the best word to describe Christians is “antihomosexual.” They say that Christians are known more for what they stand against than what they stand for. 91%!
+ 87% choose the word “judgmental” to describe Christians. They don’t see evidence of the love of Christ that Christians claim to have.
+ 85% say Christians are hypocritical.
They also say that Christians are all out to proselytize, to get converts. And that they are sheltered. The church is irrelevant – out of touch with reality.

This research is startling. It’s an indictment against the Christian church. We have clearly been misrepresenting Jesus to the world.

When the ELCA voted this summer to become a church that fully includes gays and lesbians in our life together, we were given an opportunity -- an opportunity to introduce people to the real Jesus. This is no time for us to be shy about it. People need to know who he really is. For too long we have allowed other Christians to speak for us in a way that has grossly misrepresented Jesus. It’s time for our voices to be heard. Let's show them who Jesus is.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hope, a Dream, and a Fantasy

I read President Obama’s speech tonight. The one he’s going to give to school kids tomorrow. What a wonderful role model he is for them! And how great that he cares enough about our kids to speak with them. Of course, he’s not the first president to do this. But, interestingly, he’s the first one to be challenged about it. It is beyond me why parents would refuse to let their children hear the President of the United States speak. In a conversation with a friend today, I noted that I didn’t think this would be happening if Obama were white. She didn’t think that’s the whole story. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying things; maybe this is more complicated than that. But what the hell is going on in our country? How did there come to be so much fear and mistrust that people feel they must protect their children from listening to our nation’s president?

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone. I remember when Obama was elected. There had never been a time in my life when I ever felt so hopeful. I cried for days. It was like my people had been living in a time of darkness that I thought would never end, and finally the sun came out; I was filled with hope. Where did it go? Recently, I had that same feeling for my denomination, the ELCA. After living in a time of exile for a very long time, we were finally returning home. At first it felt to me like a joyful homecoming. But the joy was short-lived. What happened? Is there always a backlash to change? Should I have expected this?

Back in his presidential campaign, Obama said: “Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.” After living so much of my adult life as a died-in-the-wool cynic, I have dared to hope again. Now, I’m trying my best not to lose that.

I know that I need to look at all this in perspective and hang in there for the long haul, but I’m getting so bogged down in the ugly details of each passing day that I’m losing sight of it. I have to remind myself of a dream that keeps me going...

I’m a very old woman. I just stopped driving a few months ago, so I can’t get myself to church anymore. My new young pastor, fresh out of seminary, comes to the house to bring me Holy Communion to-go and we meet for the first time.
“Pastor Martinez, it’s so good to meet you.”
“It’s good to meet you too, Pastor Kraft. But please call me Bill; that’s what my friends all call me.”
“And I hope you’ll call me Nancy. So, tell me how you’re adjusting to life as a pastor.”
“So far, so good. My husband Dan and our daughter Samantha and I have been given such a warm welcome by the congregation. It’s a happy honeymoon.”
“Well, I’m glad. I remember back to a day when that wouldn’t have been the case.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean because you’re a gay couple. There was a time when that would have been a problem for people in the church.”
“Yes, really! It was a great big deal when we changed that. Some people wondered if the church would survive it. It was touch and go for a while. But we did just fine.”
“Wow! I’ve heard about those times. But it sounds so bizarre to me. It’s just hard for me to imagine it was ever like that.”
“Oh, it was. People didn’t used to be as open to diversity as we are today. It scared them. It wasn’t seen as a positive thing like it is now. I remember back when we pretty much had white churches and black churches and we didn’t mix.”
“Seriously? In Christian churches?”
“Well sure. And all our clergy were heterosexual men. When I first started out there was actually a big fuss over women being pastors. And then there was a problem with gay people.”
“I know it must seem really weird to you. Kind of like back in the dark ages when all our presidents were old white men.”
“It’s been a while since we had one of them. But my great-grandparents have told me about those days.”
“Yeah. A lot has changed. All that was way back before you were even born.”
“It’s so hard for me to get my head around what it must have been like to have lived back then.”
“Well, it happened. And, you know, after all this time and with all the changes that have come about, sometimes it’s hard for me to believe it, too”.
“What I really can’t believe is that you’re old enough to have been around back in those days.”
“Believe it. I’m 101 years old, so I’ve seen a lot in my day.”
(This is where the dream turns into a fantasy.)
“101? You gotta be kidding me. You don’t look a day over 75!”
“I’ve always looked much younger than my age.” :-)