That damned Pew report

red crossWell, the news is out and it isn’t good, unless you read it in a way that it is good.  Human beings are funny about things like that.

The news I’m referring to is a recent study by the Pew Research Center.  In a nutshell, it tells us what we’ve suspected for a while: Christianity in the United States is on the decline.  Some evangelicals say the news is not as bad for them as it is for Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, but whatever.  Fewer people choose to self-identify as Christians.

Those who say this isn’t such bad news see it differently.  Phyllis Tickle reminds us that we are in a tectonic shift, societally speaking. Another article I read said that while the numbers reflect a decline, we were already living with the reality that the numbers describe.  It’s a bit like removing someone from the membership roll at church – our number of members goes down, but if we have not seen this person in a decade and he or she has not participated in any way in the life of the church, it’s a number loss but not a presence loss.  (And yes, we will still do that person’s funeral at the church.)

The Pew report came out this week.  Last weekend, a few folks from our congregation observed a focus group about spirituality and religion of millenials in our particular social and physical context.  That was eye-opening, and depressing.   Of those twenty-three who participated in that particular panel, one identified as Christian.  A few claimed “spiritual but not religious”.  Some were indifferent about Christianity and religion in general.  A few were outright hostile.  Once we have the report from the focus group, I hope to do a blog series responding to some of things said by participants.  Stay tuned for that.

But the Pew report and the focus group have gotten me into a good theological/existential funk.  All the great thinking in the world, and all the hard thinking I’ve done this week, have not made a dent in the funk.  Here’s why: I love my faith and it is central to my life, and I am deeply saddened that for so many this thing that is beautiful and life-giving to me is met with apathy or hostility by others.  It’s just hard when someone trashes that which is beloved to you. I don’t pretend the Christianity has all the answers or that the church always does the right thing.  The news has not undermined my faith. God certainly does not need me to defend Him/Her.  But the feelings of loss and grief are real.

I met with my spiritual director and we talked about this.  She asked me, “Do you think you have any control over the findings in the Pew study or the comments of millenials?”  “No.”  I cannot stop this Great Emergence, this tidal societal shift; I can’t convince a millenial who would not leave his child in a room with a Christian (yes, that was said) that he’s wrong or ignorant.  I’m not certain it’s my job to do  that.  So my spiritual director asked me what I thought I could do.

There’s a wonderful story in Gail Godwin’s Father Melancholy’s Daughter about a woman who is visiting a monastery for a week who is assigned to help one of the monks with the laundry every morning.  As the morning draws to an end, she sees all the piles of laundry left to do and begins to panic that it won’t all get done.  The monk watches her, and finally asks her what’s wrong.  “We’ll never get the laundry done in time!”  He assures her that that is not what is required.  What is required is that they do their assigned task in the assigned time every day, whether or not it gets finished.

That’s my take on dealing with my angst.  I cannot “save” Christianity.  Not my job.  (Not your job, either.)  What I can do is be faithful to the God I love, to the Christ who has called me, to the Spirit who moves me to people I am to help and learn from.  That’s about it.

Hang in there, everyone.  God isn’t done yet.


Many waters cannot quench love

A few days ago I asked my Facebook world what they were hankering to read a blog about; the answers were few.  But two friends both said they wanted to read something about love.  One of them, a former college professor of mine and a drama queen in the absolute best sense of the term, said this:  “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”  I don’t think my former professor is a religious sort of person, but her suggestion immediately took me to the Song of Songs.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

Death has been around more than usual of late, and I find little mysterious about the deaths nearest me.  A member of my extended family died after a long illness, and there may have been some small mercy that he died before the disease took a more humiliating and painful toll.  A young child in our congregation’s circle had a brain tumor removed and the family faces a very different future than the one they imagined for her; their original dreams have died.  Little disappointments add up to small deaths.  And all this in the midst of Eastertide.

Death has not felt mysterious lately, but I know that it does feel that way sometimes.  To be with someone in his last hours; to sit with a family as tears pour out when their 102-year-old aunt steps through the veil, tears of gratitude and relief; to walk a cemetery like a tourist, an unintentional voyeur of another’s grief: there is mystery in death.  It’s not the mystery of why lungs stop inflating and deflating or why a heart stops beating.  It’s the mystery of the silence after, the vacancy of a life.  It’s the void that some of us fill with hope that there is more.  It’s the moment after the conductor picks up the baton, before the music begins.

Love usually feels mysterious.  On any given day I would be hard-pressed to say why I love my spouse and child.  I could tell you what I love about them, but if you asked my why I love them, I’d likely stammer out, “Because I do.”  It’s a privilege to love others in the cloud of mystery – some bosom friends, a parent or two.  Some loves defy explanation.  I will not name their names in order to protect the innocent, but I have two relatives, married to each other, and for the life of me and everyone else in the family, we cannot figure out what ever got them together, but fifty years later, there they are, tending to each other and bickering and getting creaky together.

Maybe love is more of a mystery because unlike death, we cannot always point to its work.  We see the still, yellowing body and we know that death has come; mystery solved.  But we see a garden, or a child, or we stand in a field in the middle of nowhere and look up at the shimmery night sky, and wonder if love made those things come to be.  We watch the protests, and volunteers going through the rubble, and watch the watchers of the Supreme Court, and wonder if love is the force that weaves them together.

Would I say love is stronger than death? I would. I believe I have evidence to support the claim.  But I would rather join Oscar Wilde in saying that the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.  It is in the mystery where we find ourselves without answers or solutions or our usual bag of tricks. It is in the mystery where we have only ourselves, and those few friends who will stay with us in the uncertainty, and for some of us, the Divine.

It is the mystery of love where I find my greatest hope, because if I cannot explain it, then it must be true.

For Jim and Zinnia, with love

Handing over what is not mine, or, Learning to let go

I was up worrying the other night.  It happens.  Worry is a spiritual gift I received from my mother, and I have worked hard to perfect that which was passed on to me.  I also work not to pass it on to my daughter, but I worry that I am failing in that.

Anyway, I was worrying the other night when what I really wanted to be doing was falling asleep.  It was the end of a long day, the house was quiet, all other living creatures under our roof were asleep, and there I was, worrying.  Someone once defined worry as “misuse of the imagination.”  Yes, it is.  Finally my desire to sleep won over my need to worry, and I decided to hand it all over to Jesus.

Now I really don’t consider myself that kind of Jesus person.  I usually don’t hand it over to the Lord, nor do I think that he walks with me or talks with me in the “In the Garden” sort of way.  My prayers tend to be to God, not to Jesus.  I mean, I’m good with him, but I do like to keep my distance.  But that night I decided I really needed to hand it all over to him.  So I pictured what I was handing over, and it was a spherical-shaped thing, a tangle of worries that might best be represented by barbed wire, lima beans, the insoles of my daughter’s summer Keens, and all those random electronic cables you stick in a drawer because you have no idea what they’re for.  Roll all that up into a ball, and those were the worries I wanted to hand over to Jesus.  Lucky him.

So I did.  In my mind’s eye I pictured handing him this messy, sharp bundle, and I pictured him taking it.  And then a funny thing happened.  As soon as he took it, it turned into a beach ball- one of those big plastic, colors-in-pennant-shapes beach balls.  It was like he was taking all my worries so very lightly, like he was saying, “Hey, I know there’s stuff that’s getting you down but I think we should go play on the beach.”

What the hell, Jesus?

Okay, not really.

But somehow, it worked.  He took my ball of lima beans and barbed wire and turned it into a beach ball and I fell asleep.  Not only that, but that night I dreamed I was about to marry George Clooney.  (I did confess that to my husband the next day and assured him that George Clooney was no match for him.)

The next day I had coffee with a friend who is a 12-stepper.  I am remarkably proud of her, and often inspired by the rigorous and truthful way she looks at her own living.  We talked about whatever step it is where you let go and let God, and she talked about the deep meaning the serenity prayer has for her.  While I listened, I was having my own internal conversation about letting go and the whole Jesus-turned-my-worry-into-a-beach-ball thing.  Here’s where I ended up.

Sometimes, in order to sleep, in order to get the rest our bodies, minds, and souls need, we have to let it go.  (Apologies for cueing that particular song.)  It’s not always ours to keep, the things we worry about.  But sometimes, after that rest, we take some of it back.  Some of it is mine to carry, or to deal with, or to wrestle with.  But maybe when I take it back, there are fewer lima beans and more grains of sand.


Confession of faith, sung

“O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be
Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal if for Thy courts above.”

The Sunday after Easter is such a relief.  I do love all the pageantry and crowds and flowers of Easter, but somehow the Sunday after Easter feels more real and more to the point.  There are no processions to organize, no flowers to maneuver around, fewer handshakes and smiles after the service, and no eggs to clean up.  It’s normal worship again – or as normal as worship ever gets – and the folks who are there are there because it’s their church and they come rain or shine, flowery holiday or regular holy day.

Which is not to say that things cannot be wonderful and gut-wrenching and good.

It was the offertory that got me.  Our choir (who did not take off the Sunday after Easter because they love singing in worship) sang a beautiful arrangement of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”  Now I love that hymn.  I love the poetry of the words and I am a complete sucker for any tune out of the Southern Harmony tradition.  So the choir starts in, the women first, and a little organ interlude, the men coming in on a new verse in a new key, a cappella.  And then it gets going with the culmination of that line “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be” and it hit me:

That is why I do all of this.

That was my first sense of call, my push toward ordination, the thing that motivates me week after week and year after year to be a part of the gorgeous flawed thing called church and to be a member of this hilarious and weird and flawed thing called the clergy.  It’s because I am indebted to the grace of God every single moment of my life, and in gratitude and penance and hope I do this Christianity thing and I do this ministry thing because grace has overpowered my will, my guilt, my ego, my sense of worthlessness, my sense of awesomeness, and all the misery the world can throw at me.  That is why I do all of this.

We have an ongoing conversation, the congregation and I, about the Apostles’ Creed.  Some aren’t happy we ever say it, some wish we said it more, and I insist on saying it when we have baptisms.  As I said, it’s an ongoing conversations and nobody’s really budging. But that’s okay.  Last year our choir sang Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass as the sermon one week, and the Credo in that is pretty much spectacular.  One of our folks, one of the ones who wishes we would never say the Apostles’ Creed again, did admit that if we could sing that Credo instead of saying the words, she’d be good.  But we don’t – not yet, anyway.

But what if our creed were those words Robert Roberston wrote in 1758?  What if our creed were the admittance of our utter reliance on the grace of God, and the hope that God would fetter us, and that all of this life is just part of sealing our hearts for something more?  What if those words were our confession of sin, and our profession of faith, and our proclamation of the good word, and our marching cry every week?  Would that my heart were tuned to sing that grace.


The grace of the saints, and they didn’t even know it

easter.lily_Well, Easter is over; at least, Easter Day services are done and it’s “get a latte and put on comfly clothes and maybe take a nap” time.  For all of you who are church people, who in some way did something to help make this morning beautiful, thank you.  Thank you, flower arrangers and communion setters.  Thank you, sound system gal/guy, ushers, van drivers.  Thank you, coffee hour servers who had double duty today.  Thank you, bulletin stuffers and tenors, altos, basses, and sopranos, and organists, and choir directors, and custodians.  Oh, God bless all the custodians.  Thank you egg dyers, and banner makers, and families processing with azaleas and eggs.  Thank you, all you who showed up.  And thank you, all you who celebrated LIFE today.

I was a bit under the weather on Holy Saturday, and tentative about how I would be on Easter.  Admittedly, it was a slow start, but by the time the second service began, it was all good.  The sermon was early in the service, which meant that I got to worship without worrying for the last half.  My colleagues offered a beautiful invitation and beautiful communion prayer.  Our elders helped serve the bread and cup.  And then the saints showed up.

The woman I’ve never seen before carrying up her sleeping toddler.  The woman now using a cane, but by God she was here on Easter despite the recent stroke.  The man who’s mother is dying more quickly than any of us would like.  The person who is still a bit put out with me over a recent unpopular decision, who did not avoid my station but received the bread from me.  The teenager who was just confirmed a few minutes earlier.  The grandpa with his whole family in tow, even though they go to other churches they came with Dad today, because it’s Easter and because they miss their mom who died a few years ago.  Our administrative assistant who makes so much run so smoothly, bringing her mom.  The woman who prays without ceasing for all of us.  My daughter.  Her friend.  The strangers, the leaders, the wondering, the wandering, and the lost.  The saints showed up.

I had one critique after the service, from someone who doesn’t come that often.  She regretted that in my sermon I didn’t mention that Jesus had risen.  I thought I had, but perhaps too obliquely for her.  All the same, whether or not anyone there thought Jesus showed up this morning, spanking-fresh and resurrected, I will tell you this:  the saints showed up this morning.  Thank you all.

And for good measure:  He is risen!  He is risen indeed.

Gingham Shirts and Chunky Necklaces: Conference Fashion

So I went to a really great conference last week (Next Church, a Presbyterian-originated thing) in one of my most favorite cities on the planet (Chicago) and saw some of my favorite people ever.  So it was good.  I learned a lot, I was discomfited a little, I left with much to think about.

But I will admit I was completely distracted by two fashion trends.

gingham_shirts_bloomingdales_spring_2009Trend Number One: Men in Gingham Shirts
It’s high time someone other than Dorothy Gale claimed gingham!  And let me tell you, dozens of men were rocking this trend.  Big check, little checks, two-colored and multi-colored.  Spring sprung in Chicago!  A secondary fashion trend: cool pastors in untucked t-shirts – the bigger the church served, the more awesome the funky old t-shirt.  Some played it safe with the classic (but always appreciated) button down shirt, jeans, sportscoat.  Well done, men!

Trend Number Two: Women in Chunky Necklaceschunky necklace
The ladies were rockin’ it, too – big ol’ necklaces that said, “I don’t feel one bit bad about my neck, and I will wear this costume jewelry to prove it. (Because I’m a pastor and wearing real jade or turquoise is beyond my pay grade.”) I was noticing who was wearing these gorgeous things – gorgeous women, of course!  I did wonder if there was a secret club of The Chunky Necklace Clergywomen.  If there is, I think I would have to pass because I’ve got enough chunk going on without any extra jewelry and I might be getting a little concerned about my neck.

But I will say that the Chunky Necklace Trend is so preferable to the jumper/Dankso/cardigan with birdhouses trend.  I know we want to be comfortable.  I know there is nothing worse than ill-fitting, ill-constructed shoes.  I know that cardigan cost a pretty penny once upon a time.  But all at once?  Too much.  If you must wear the jumper, hip it up with some cowboy boots (and a chunky necklace!)  If you just can’t let go of that cardigan investment, wear it with a white t-shirt, skinny jeans, and some Converse All Stars.  And if those Danskos are the only thing that keep your feet happy, try the Pacific Northwest Look: Dansko clogs, black tights, black pencil skirt, and a badass sweater.  Top it all off with a jaunty cap, and you’d fit right in in Portland.

Me?  I played it safe, though the unseasonably warm weather on Monday threw me off.  Sunday was a travel day with jeans, slip on shoes, and my black damask Cut Loose top.  Monday that jean jacket came in handy, with the white T and black skirt (and my sadly unfashionable but really good for my bad hip shoes.)  I could’ve used a chunky necklace with that one.  Tuesday I can’t even remember.  It was St. Patrick’s Day and I might have worn green.  Wednesday was another travel day, so those jeans again and my favorite, black non-damask  Cut Loose top. The earrings might have saved me.

I did tell my friend, who won the Best Dressed Contest, that her sartorial choices were much appreciated, despite the lack of Chunky Necklaces.

And now if only someone would start making gingham stoles.  For now, we’ll have to settle for this:

gingham clerical

The Wound in His Shoulder

The Wound in His Shoulder

“It is related in the annals of Clairvaux that St. Bernard asked our Lord which was His greatest
unrecorded suffering, and Our Lord answered, ‘I had on My Shoulder, which I bore My Cross
on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound, which was more painful than the others,
and which is not recorded by men.  Honor this wound with thy devotion….'”

I have been thinking about the wounds people carry, those unbearable weights that take their toll on our bodies and hearts.  I think of the old but not elderly woman who complained for months to her doctor about a cough, and when he finally got around to taking her seriously, discovered that cancer had taken over.  She was told she has only weeks to live. It is a wound of not having been taken seriously, as if facing death were not wound enough.

I think of the acquaintance whose young nephew has leukemia, his wearing those large, dark-ringed eyes and bald head of children living with chemo and cancer, her bearing worry and hope at the same time, the soul-vertigo that causes.

I think of that parent in Nigeria, those last shards of hope disintegrating, living in fear of Boko Haram and knowing that rage will only cause more trouble.

I think about the invisible responsibilities people choose to bear – the responsibility of caring for a brother who is mentally ill and a hoarder, who could at any moment be thrown out into the streets.  The young mom, a professional in a high-profile position, diagnosed with breast cancer and having to be the gracious face of positivism and faith when maybe, inside, there is terror and an absence of God.  The many who have put their hope and trust in the church only to have that trust broken in ways they believe can never, ever be mended.

People carry so much.  It takes a toll.

There’s the other weight, too – the weight of not being able to do one damn thing about the suffering.  It’s a secondary weight that is as heavy as the primary one, maybe: the weight of being left behind, alone; the weight of being powerless, the weight of not having stopped some part of the tear in the fabric of the world.

Our Roman Catholic friends have a novena about the shoulder wound of Christ – the wound caused by the weight of the cross he was forced to carry.  My shoulders ache at the thought of that.

It’s where our tension finds a home – the shoulders, the neck, the hardening of the occipital ridge.  It’s the pinch between the shoulder blades where those invisible weights claw dully at us, reminding us of our responsibility, of our need to carry some of this, of our need to own some of this.

Where is the relief?  Surely letting go of the burden lessens it some, but there is perpetual tension in those muscles.  Massage, heat, stretching, meditation: a relief, yes.  But a cure?

Perhaps we are never truly unburdened, at least not on this side of the grave.

jesus carry cross