My circus, my monkeys

circus monkeysAn old Polish proverb is  making a comeback these days: “not my circus, not my monkeys”. In essence, it means that whatever is going on is not my problem.  It also suggests that whatever craziness one is experiencing, whatever whirls of discontent, dysfunction, or badness are flying around, it’s not of my doing and it’s not my responsibility.  The proverb indicates good boundaries: that is crazy but I am not.  But I wonder, too, if the proverb does not also suggest some leave taking of responsibility.

In many ways, the denomination of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is my home.  Since I started attending church in third grade, I have been a part of a Presbyterian church.  It’s what I know and yes, at times, it is my circus.  And lately my circus has had some tent poles crashing down within it.

There’s an ongoing investigation into the misuse of funds in the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative.  Some folks started a 501(c)(3) without the correct approval, and an appointed attorney is looking into it, and four people in the national office have been put on administrative leave.

More recent is a misguided marketing campaign for one of our longtime annual offerings, the One Great Hour of Sharing.  The campaign featured photographs of youngish people, all of whom were people of color, with an attention-grabbing line.  One said, “Needs help with a drinking problem” implying that this young Hispanic girl/woman was an alcoholic.  In smaller font were the words “She can’t find water.”  Many leaders throughout the denomination many people of color raised an appropriate uproar and the campaign has been pulled.  When our materials arrived at the church office last week, we put them in the recycling bin and confirmed that new materials would be sent out shortly.

In other words, the national office has experienced two very big and very public mistakes in the past few months.  Leadership has been applauded by some for their honesty in owning up to the errors, and scourged by others for lack of transparency, top-down decisions, and general ineptitude.  My husband’s take is that ever since so many of the conservatives have left, we have no one to fight with so we fight with ourselves.  Isn’t that sad, if it’s true.

But here’s the thing: this is my circus, and these are my monkeys.  We Presbyterians hold fast to the idea that we are a connectional church, which means we are connected when we get it right and we are connected when we get it wrong.

Many years ago a friend of mine was the moderator of her presbytery.  She served at a time when the pastor of a very big church had been found guilty of sexual misconduct with a member of the congregation.  The church court voted to have him reprimanded on the floor of presbytery.  There is a script for these things, and the time came for the reprimand.  The moderator asked the pastor to stand, and as he did, about fifty members of his congregation, who could not fathom that their pastor was guilty of such a thing, stood with him.  My friend quickly got the lay of the land, and in a stroke of brilliance, said something along the lines of “when one member of the body sins, all sin, so let us all stand with our brother.”  I’m still awed by her quick thinking and deep theology.

She had a point.  When people talk about “them” – the presbytery, the national  office – I always want to jump in and say “there is no ‘they’ – we are the presbytery!”  “We are the PC(USA)!”  And we are the national office, too, in the sense that we’re all Presbyterians and we are all connected and we are all in the same beautiful and broken three-ring circus.

I pray for the national staff because it must be pretty rough right now.  Everyone who works in the center can be lumped together – those who made the awful decisions and those who had no part in their making.  And I pray for the people of color in our denomination who have long felt that their voices have been neither heard nor heeded.  It’s all my circus.

I’m just glad I’m not the person in the middle in the top hat.


Holding fast to the good: Christmas Eve

Haring-Life-of-Christ-Altarpiece-500One of the readers of this blog recently commented that a few of my recent posts have been a bit on the down side, and as I looked over them, I realized she was right.  I have been in a bit of a professional funk, which happens.  I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of person, evidenced by the title of this blog.  The funk needs some personal reflection and you all don’t need to be a part of that.  But I have encouraged myself not only to hold fast to what is good, but to look for what is good, and to share some stories of good news.  So here’s one of those stories.  (And those in it gave me their permission to tell it.)

Our later Christmas Eve service is a beautiful thing.  Our choir sings like the angels.  Our deacons are on it, hospitable with first-timers, alert when all the candles are lit, staying late to clean up afterwards.  The worship committee has worked hard on decorations and details.  But the management of all that falls on me as the pastor for worship.  Do the pastors and ushers have their big candles?  Will the lights go out in the right order at the right time?  Did we print enough bulletins? Did our communion team put the elements in the loft for the choir? Did I remember to remind our congressman that the service starts an hour earlier than it used to, so he won’t show up an hour late?  All of which is to say that sometimes it’s hard to get in the mood for worship when all those details are swirling around in my head.

But I do try to set those details aside; at some point what will happen will happen because of or in spite of all our planning.  And Christmas Eve is so beautiful in the necessary sort of way, even magical for some.  And I love Incarnation maybe more than I love Resurrection.  So here’s a bit of Incarnation reality on Christmas Eve.

Like almost every other church, we light Advent candles for the weeks leading up to Christmas, and on Christmas Eve we light the three purples, the pink, and the big white Christ candle.  We usually ask our new members, folks who have joined in the last year, to light the candles as a way to include them and introduce them.  This Christmas Eve two of our new members were the lighter/readers.  One a soprano from the choir, and one a transgender woman who came to know us because of a tragedy – the murder of a friend of hers who was a member of our church.  They carried out their roles with aplomb and grace and poise.

We pastors processed in during the prelude, and as I settled in and tried to rid my brain of the detaily things and the gnats of minutia, I watched the people come in.  Some I knew; many I didn’t, but there is a joy to watching people come in because it’s Christmas Eve and they want to be in church.  Arriving just a minute or so late were some other new members: a lovely woman and her son who is physically disabled and in a large motorized wheelchair, her best friend, her sister-in-law, and his nurse.  We don’t have a good space for folks in wheelchairs, so they came up and sat in the front row.

As I watched them settle in, I realized that because we were having communion by intinction, everyone who came up would pass by this family as they returned to their pews.  I wondered if it would be hard for some to see this young man in his wheelchair, if for some there is an expectation that everything is pretty and “normal” on Christmas Eve, if the sight of this man would be jarring.  I hoped not, because I know him a little, and because I know that the sight of him in his chair doesn’t begin to capture his personality or his mind, or the love this family has for each other.

Three weeks later, as I think about Christmas Eve and those who were a part of the service, I think we got something right.  Maybe the lights didn’t go out quite right, maybe my meditation was a little more depressing than I had intended, but we got at least one thing right: people who in the past would have been shunned at church were not only welcomed, they were front and center, a part of things.  Because if there is one thing to take away from that stable in Bethlehem, it is that everyone has a place there.  And I will hold fast to that.

“Remembering the stable where for once in our lives

Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

(W.H. Auden, For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio)

John Galt is loose!

romance_novelTrue confession: I love Atlas Shrugged.  I think it is a wonderful romance novel, complete with striking beauty Dagney and the bevy of men who wish to bed her.  I think the next edition of Ayn Rand’s hot masterpiece should include an image of Dagney, corseted under her stern suit, breathless in the arms of John Galt, immortalized by Fabio who has cut his hair short for the occasion.  Really, I think that’s the only way to read this Rand-y romance.  And I have, more than once, though I’ve never made it through the 70 page manifesto/radio address/proclamation of love by John Galt in the latter part of the book.  There’s something romantic about the notion of leaving all those talentless mucks behind and creating one’s own utopia of talent, hidden away in the gorgeous and rugged landscape in Colorado.  A brain drain is afoot, and John Galt is behind it all, whispering to the best and brightest to come away, to leave the world, to create a community where their talent will be tested and validated.

Every so often I feel that way about the church – not that it’s full of talentless mucks; not that at all.  But when I learn of another pastor friend leaving the parish, or of a parishioner who has decided he or she is done  with church, I wonder: what is luring them away?  Is there some spiritual equivalent of John Galt that whispers to them, “There is more… come away… leave it all… you are better than this… enjoy your Sunday mornings….”

The people I know who have answered a new call to non-parish ministry are good folk.  They are faithful.  They are talented.  They have not made this decision lightly.  But every time I hear a friend is leaving her or his congregation to head up a non-profit, or to go into counseling, or just to take a break, a part of me gets so very sad.  The church needs them, I think.  But I also think, is the church so broken they had to leave?

I don’t think the church is that broken, or better put, I don’t think the church is any more broken now than it ever was.  We are an imperfect people called together into community, and that right there means brokenness.  I think my friends who leave parish ministry leave not because of brokenness but because of faithfulness – faithfulness to the call they discern from God, faithfulness to their true selves.

We pastors are broken people who minister to other broken people in a broken world.  We are all in the process of mending.  We are not super-human, uber-faithful, crazy talented folks who deign to share our gifts with the undermasses.  We are not Dagney Taggart; we are not John Galt.  We understand that however flawed or perfect we are, there is One who is more perfect, One who accepts and even uses our flaws.  And if that One calls one of us to go do something new, to minister in a classroom or a counseling office or a non-profit, then okay: it’s not that the one is leaving the church, but taking the church and God to the world.

So Miss Ayn, you can have your John Galt luring the arrogant away.  You may have all those people.  I’ll keep the rest, in the church or in the world or in the home.  But thanks all the same for the trashy romance novel.