Friday, October 26, 2007

Living Emotions

I was talking with a friend about how disappointed I am in some people in my life. I am grieving over (what I can only call) a lapse in integrity. He pointed out that I should get used to the fact that people are disappointing. This was said in honest concern for me. While I appreciate that this is reality- people sin, people fall short, people disappoint people- I was reminded of one of my pledges to myself and God. I would rather be in relationship with people, with all of the associated risks, and then go through grief and pain when I am disappointed, as opposed to shut down and "protect my heart" from such pain.

My pledge is rooted in having spent time hearing stories (mostly from other clergy) who have shut down emotionally because they are tired of being hurt and disappointed. One of the choices that a person can make after loving, trusting, or otherwise being in relationship and then experiencing something that hurts is to stop taking some of the risks of relationship. This happens greater or lesser degrees, depending upon the person.

One of my personal convictions is that God did not give us emotions so we could pretend that we do not have the difficult ones (i.e. anger, pain, grief, disappointment, fear). So often humans respond to pain and hurt as if it should not be a part of life. I have not discovered any evidence or orthodox Christian teaching that supports this notion.

So I have determined that I would prefer to be fully alive, which includes all of the pain, rather than shut down. Appropriate boundaries are vital. Healthy relationships, with good, realistic expectations are important.

But here's the thing, and there is no getting around this: relationships are risky and people sin. Given a choice between opening my heart, and being optimistic, followed by later experiencing pain or not opening my heart at all, I believe in relationship.

I think part of my effectiveness as a pastor is rooted in my ability to be in healthy relationship. I also think that the "negative" emotions (like anger, disappointment, pain) are the ones that have the power to motivate change.

So I'm hurt, disappointed, grieving... and that's life.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


On Saturday, I had the opportunity to do a dry run of a talk I am giving on a Walk to Emmaus weekend. These are 3 day retreats that use 15 talks and small group discussion, among other things, to offer folks a chance to grow in faith and discipleship. I am giving the talk on prevenient grace.

I used an image I read in a book by Steve Manskar. The image of grace- prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying- can be analogous to the front porch, doorway, and main rooms of a house. The front porch is prevenient grace- the grace into which we are born, before we even know there is grace. This is the grace that comes before, the grace that leads us to faith, the grace that is at work before we even recognize it is there. It is by God's prevenient grace that we discover the doorway to the household of faith- this is justifying grace. Justifying grace is when we walk through the door, and are set right with God. This is how we enter into relationship with Christ. It may a moment of walking through a door, or it may be like a long hallway (like me). Then sanctifying grace is the grace that makes us more holy, more like Christ, and allows us to grow into the person God intends for us to be.

As I was sharing this talk, I wove in some of my personal experiences of Grace. I talked about how I had questions that kept me from faith while I was in college. These included some of the biggies, like "if Christianity is the 'right' religion, then why does every human community in history and in the present have its own religious system, all claiming authority?" and "if God is so good and so powerful, why does God allow such things as the Holocaust to happen?"

For me, a big part of grace was realizing that I could experience being loved by God's people, and glimpse God's love for me, even with my questions intact. I shared that I still have questions about faith, and that this is OK. I am not God.

During the feedback time, every group commented that my honesty about still having questions was a really good thing, something they appreciated hearing, and expect that the folks on the weekend will resonate with. One woman even commented that the three-fold grace finally clicked for her (thanks Steve Manskar)

I left there reminded of how important it is to be honest about the walk of faith. This was the sole advice of a teacher I once had. "Amy, just be honest with people." I think this is why I struggle so much with fundamentalist expressions of faith. There seems little room for questions.

I was talking about this with a friend of mine. She commented about someone she is acquainted with who rubs her the wrong way because she finds him arrogant. (He is very theologically conservative.) I had this flash of thought: it requires a certain amount of arrogance to claim so much certainty about God.

I think this is why, every week, I have a certain amount of trepidation about preaching. God help me if I seem to have all of the answers- only God does. And it is my experience thus far that there are all kinds of questions for which we have not been given clear answers. I have become comfortable with that; I think mystery is preferable to any alternative. In mystery, there is plenty of love, which is all I really need (most days).

I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes by theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who writes about unsatisfying answers to the "theodicy" question...this is the fancy term for "why do bad things happen to good people?" also known as "if God is good and powerful, why do things like the Holocaust happen?"

He writes this:“It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation

Thursday, October 18, 2007


When I was in Seminary, one of my professors used an expression I still find amusing to think about. He was the convener of our Student Pastor Track weekly conversations and the express purpose of our conversations was to share experiences and ideas, and offer support as we felt our way through Seminary and serving our first church.

Whenever it became clear that one of us would need to have a difficult and potentially painful conversation with a member of the church, our professor would call it "a prayer meeting." Others in our group would refer to this as a "come to Jesus meeting." Our convener also gave us a great barometer for whether to actually have such a conversation or let it go. He advised us that if were looking forward to having this conversation, we probably should not be having it. But if we were dreading the conversation, it probably needed to happen. I have to say, I have had very few of these types of conversations with church folks, and probably need to have had more... but confrontation is not something I seek out.

I have found, though, that God seems to have these conversations with me on occasion. And the terms "prayer meeting" and "come to Jesus meeting" feel entirely appropriate. I remember the first time I felt scolded by God. It was during my first serving Town Point and Trinity. I have always had a nagging question as to whether I should more fully live out my passion for mission and social justice by committing to full time ministry in these areas, rather than be a generalist as a pastor. I was driving to Town Point one morning, asking God if I should be leaving the pulpit and seeking other expressions of ministry. What I heard spoken to my heart was "you'll be a pastor until I tell you stop, and not before." I have not had quite a sense before or since.

More often, I have a moment of insight or clarity from God. This came this morning. I found myself feeling overwhelmed by the stewardship campaign. I was disheartened and overwhelmed that I/we are so behind in preparations for mailings, sermons, presentations, etc. Then I became discouraged by feeling overwhelmed...AGAIN. I am tired of feeling perpetually overwhelmed. "I just got finished feeling overwhelmed by Blended Ministry Parish preparations and voting" was my lament. When overwhelmed, my thoughts always turn to "there must be an easier way for me to earn a living." These were the same thoughts I was having on Sunday morning as I struggled to preach; it is always more difficult after being away for a week.

Thankfully, Lori Goldsmith, who has been serving in the office for the month of October with grace and distinction, came in prayed with me. I felt a lightening of my spirit. As I drove to covenant group, I came to what I hope is a turning point. I realized that being a pastor is it- this is the life I am called to, this is the life I have been equipped for, and this is the life I expect I will be living for the next 30 years. And I just cannot bear the thought of being perpetually overwhelmed for the next 30 years. So either I trust that God is in the midst of all of this, and that giving my best is all that God asks, or I don't. And if I really trust it, than feeling overwhelmed doesn't do any good or make any sense.

So I am giving it up- no more overwhelm. Just steady effort, giving God my best, and trusting the results in God's time. Hopefully, plenty more "come to Jesus" moments will keep me on track. It's a hard thing, this staying on track stuff....thank God for grace...otherwise it would simply be impossible!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Caffiene, Fair Trade, and Grace

I went to Starbucks this morning to meet a friend for coffee. I am not a regular customer of their admittedly delicious coffee Starbucks for two reasons: I am frugal, and I try to drink only Fair Trade coffee. I was looking forward to this meeting, both because of my friend and because I had read that Starbucks has begun serving some Fair Trade coffee.

When I asked for Fair Trade coffee, I got a quite unexpected answer from the barista: we only brew Fair Trade on the 20th of the month. I found this quite amusing, in a cynical kind of way. Some Starbucks executive must have figured out that the business return on being able to say "we buy Fair Trade coffee" and then serving it once per month was a good business model!

I am reminded of why liberal talk radio failed when broadcast between Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus. I am thinking of why "blended worship" music, encompassing both traditional music and praise music, so often fails. The reasons are the same: nobody is happy. In the case of radio, it's like having an opera station with one hour of rock and roll per day. That one hour is going to anger the opera lovers, and not enough rock and roll listeners will know which hour to tune in. In blended worship music, no body gets the kind of worship experience they crave. So it is, I think, with serving Fair Trade coffee. For people who care about this issue, one day per month is laughable. For people who don't care about this issue, it makes no difference in their loyalty. I don't know- perhaps Starbucks has discovered people who sort of care of Fair Trade and are glad to hear that on some level, Starbucks buys some Fair Trade Coffee.

I suppose the barista did not hear me say "decaf" when I asked for it. I actually thought of going back and verifying that it was decaf, but for whatever reason, I did not. Well, I should have listened to that voice. I have been all jitters ever since. Talk about a high! I haven't had caffeine like that in more than five years. I cannot believe I did not get sick to my stomach (one of the many reasons I stopped). I have been flying all morning...and well into this afternoon, I am still going. No wonder folks love this stuff. I have to confess, I am half tempted to begin drinking it again!

As I was sitting there, drinking my coffee, and waiting for my friend, the barista came by and asked where we knew each other. We worked out that members of her family are a part of our community of faith. She then came back and gave me a free bag of Fair Trade coffee...a gift of grace. (Sadly, it is caffeinated, but it will make a great gift.)

So thanks be to God for caffeine, Fair Trade, and baristas who know me. What a way to start the day!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bearing False Witness

If you have been reading my blog for a long time, you remember that I wrote about the homeless several times, beginning with this post about the town of Elkton bulldozing a makeshift camp of homeless people's belongings. (And if you have been reading my blog for a long time, I am impressed, because lately it has been lousy! I am trying to make amends. Many thanks for your patience!)

A quick update on how things have developed since that fateful day. The churches have pulled together to create a Rotating Homeless Shelter, which is heading into its second year. The town has been sued for its treatment of these folks. They have also had struck down an attempted ordinance to ban "loitering" aka homeless people walking down the street. Clearly, the Holy Spirit is working. Finally, the Meeting Ground, which has been spearheading all of this, has purchased a commercially zoned home that is perfect for a day center in Elkton. It is the Mary Randall Center.

I read an article yesterday that gave me pause. It was about the growing opposition to the Mary Randall Center. I am not linking the article here because I don't want to single out anyone. Instead, I want to reflect upon one of the ten commandments and its general disregard (as I see it).

The article opened by quoting someone who is opposed to this center opening in his/her neighborhood. The opposition was framed by using the context of saying that s/he has volunteered at another local shelter, but they just don't want it HERE. The implication, of course, is "I have been in relationship with homeless folks, so I know what I am talking about, and I can say this with authority."

I was reminded of another time I heard someone oppose having a shelter near them, and the person used as justification their volunteer work experience in the past to claim authority to speak and opine.

This does not sit well with me. It just feels wrong, but I couldn't quite clarify my thinking as to why. I was venting to a clergy friend, and he put it in words that rang true. He said simply "it's bearing false witness."

It is breaking the 9th commandment.

I know it is false witness, because I too have spent time with folks who need the Mary Randall Center, who need the services it will provide. I have shared meals with them, spent nights in a church building with them, celebrated as some of them have gotten their lives more together, and grieved over one of their untimely deaths. And I am not an authority on this subject by any stretch of the imagination. There are many, many more faithful servants around our county who are in much deeper relationship with the folks who will be helped by the Mary Randall Center.

I don't know a single person who has spent any real time with these folks who isn't touched and changed by the experience. I find that every person has a story, a life, is cherished by God, and every person is deserving of a chance to make things better. And there is no perfect place to do such ministry because there is no place where fear of the unknown and of the outcast does not have a foothold.

I have preached repeatedly that I think the fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath, is the most often disregarded of the 10 commandments. The 9th Commandment-"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16)- would seem a close second.

I am planning to be at the zoning hearing on Thursday October 18 at 7 p.m. at 100 Railroad Avenue in Elkton. I invite you to come and bear faithful witness, and stand in solidarity with God's most precious ones.