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.

Always the  minister, never the bride

Always the minister, never the bride

bouquetThat was going to be the opening line of my stand-up routine, but I got married and never actually tried doing stand-up comedy, so now this great line is reduced to a blog title.

When I was in my first year of professional ordained ministry, I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital.  He was an irascible guy, and he was dying of lung cancer. Once when I went to see him, he was on his balcony smoking.  In those days at that hospital, if your room had a balcony you were allowed to go have a smoke.  I was appalled, but because I was still so wet behind the ears ministerially speaking, I pretended like that was normal and I saw it all the time.

Anyway, during one of our visits I mentioned that I was meeting with a couple to do premarital counseling with them.  He asked how I could be qualified to do that since I had never been married.  I replied, with no paucity of pastoral insensitivity and a general lack of human compassion, that I had never died but I was still qualified to do funerals.  He was taken aback, as I should have been.

Truth be told, when I was single, I hated conducting weddings.  Hated it.  Once in a while I would find the groom attractive and I would convince myself that the bride wasn’t nearly good enough for him.  Sometimes I was so jealous that these people had found love; why hadn’t I?  And then there was the huge klieg light that shone on me at rehearsal dinners, where I was usually seated with the grandparents and the weird bachelor uncle, and receptions, when I would excuse myself to the ladies’ room when it was time for all the single ladies to fight over the lousy bridal bouquet.

I imagine conducting weddings is also difficult for pastors who have been widowed or divorced.  Baptisms are painful for pastors who struggle with fertility issues or who have lost a child.  I dread my first funeral after my parents die.   The intention of the happy couple, or the joyful parents, or the bereaved family is not to rub salt in a wound they likely know nothing about.  Because we are professionals, we set our own feelings aside and appreciate the joy that others are having.  Sometimes.

Of course, pastors are not the only ones who are required to do things that rub salt in a wound; I don’t mean to imply that we are.  But for all of us in whatever walk of life we walk: how do we manage to “put on our big girls pants” (as a friend would say), fall into professional mode, get through it – whatever that ‘it’ is –  without bursting into tears, or get through ‘it’ with grace or aplomb?

Some would say their faith gets them through; others would say it’s a strong sense of self.  Still others would shrug and say they didn’t know.  But I do wonder the toll it takes if we’re not careful or aware of what’s going on in our own broken hearts while we engage with the breaking and healing hearts of others.  Did I go home from more than one wedding reception to greet my friends Ben  & Jerry?  Yes I did.  Sugar is my drug of choice, but I know others who cope with their hidden heartbreak with booze or porn or really mean behavior to strangers or beloveds.

I never cried “uncle”.  I always steeled myself through the wedding or the baptism or the Mother’s Day litany, for better or worse.  Most of my pastor friends do.  We do because it’s part of our calling.  Most of my pastor friends join me in detesting that phrase “God never gives you more than you can handle”.  We don’t steel ourselves through it with neat little memes. While I can’t speak for all of my pastor friends, getting through those things almost always gave me a reminder of grace and of hope.  Grace to get through that ceremony or that reception to then go home, put on my jammies, and watch Pride and Prejudice again.  And hope that maybe someday I would be up there facing the pastor and not the congregation; I would be in white and not black; I would be taking a ring instead of handing them out.

There’s a great clip out there right now from an episode of Louis CK when Joan Rivers was on.  (http://youtu.be/BnAIX7fWsdU)   Joan and Louis are talking, and she says something along these lines.  “Listen. I wish I could tell you it gets better, but it doesn’t get better.  You get better.”  Maybe that’s it.  We don’t all get married.  We don’t all have kids.  We don’t all stay married.  The people we love don’t live forever.  That stuff doesn’t get better.  But maybe, by the grace of God or by sheer will, we get better.  Our hearts heal a little, and the scar tissue is a little bit thicker than what was there before.  Maybe that’s the hope – we get better.

Wandering – but lost?

It’s just one of those ministry days.  A meeting here or there, a little pastoral care, some reading to prep for class, checking the calendar to make sure I’m not missing anything.  And two encounters with homelessness that have gotten me to thinking but not drawing any conclusions.

Our congregation participates in a Portland project allowing people experiencing homelessness to sleep in their cars overnight in our parking lot.  It’s not a great solution; it’s a pretty terrible one, but sometimes it’s the best choice some folks have.  We work with a shelter that provides a temporary “home” for families and helps them find more permanent homes, and today I met with a family that will be our parking lot guests until a space at the shelter opens.

If you met these people at McDonalds or Safeway, you wouldn’t think twice about where they lay their heads at night.  A mom, a dad, a rambunctious two-year-old boy, a sweet girl almost one and almost walking.  They were on their way to renting-to-own a house; turns out it was a swindle, and they lost all their money.  They’ve been sleeping in their car for six weeks.  They go camping when they can so they can stretch out in their tent and let the kids run around outside.  Mom and Dad are the biological parents of both kids.  He’s had the same swing-shift job for three years.  She is well-spoken and a very attentive and patient mother, taking classes. And they call their Xterra home, at least for now.  We’ll provide them with a porta-potty, a designated parking space, access to showers and laundry, and prayers.  And probably some diapers and gas cards and cookies, if I know my congregation.

This afternoon I was waiting outside the church entrance with the parents and some of the kids in our children’s choir.  They are on their way to the local university to be real-live subjects for college kids studying to be music teachers.  It’s become an annual outing, and the kids love it.  Riding light rail, going to college, performing for young adults, plus pizza and a movie at the end.  Woo hoo!  Good times.

So we’re outside waiting when a man who is obviously homeless starts coming down the sidewalk.  “Obviously homeless” – that’s telling.  And judgmental of me.  And descriptive.  He had scraggly facial hair, random layered clothes that were stained and too loose.  Shoes that have seen more than I have in my lifetime.  He had that look in his eyes that made me want to usher all the kids inside.  But I’m trying to be a role model here so we stayed and acted non-anxious.

He catches my eye and says something to me that I think is “what time is it?”  I don’t have a watch or phone, and tell him I don’t know.  He asks another mom there “what time is it?”  She tells him 3:30.  He says something else, and she is patient and kind and says, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”  Then he sees my husband, the co-pastor with me.  He goes nose-to-nose with my husband, tricky because there is a cigarette (unlit) dangling out of his mouth.  He gets a bit belligerant, and the kids notice.  My husband very patiently, very calmly starts to move him along the sidewalk while the rest of us do usher the kids inside.  Now my daughter is beside herself, worried that this man will punch her dad.

My husband comes back; he’s fine.  He comforts my daughter.  The kids all want to know about his guy.  What’s wrong with him?  Why did he act that way? I am blessed to have great adults around.  We say things like “his brain works differently”  “we don’t know what he thought he was seeing” “he’s someone who needs help”.

I don’t even know how to draw a lesson out of these encounters, except to say that many people wander, but not all of them are lost.  But some of them are lost, and have been for a while, and it will take a lot more than cookies and kindness to help them find their way home.

Easter Post-Mortem

lemon pledgeWell, it is finished, and by “it is finished” I do mean Holy Week and Easter.  And for all the pastors and preachers and church musicians and church secretaries out there, I say “Phew.”  Of course, Jesus rose from the grave in spite of our best efforts, but there you are, God accomplishing God’s work without the help of us ministry professionals.

Easter is over, and the post-mortem has begun.  Yes, the services ran long.  Yes, the microphones were a little wonky at first.  Yes, we changed some traditions and yes, we did not change some traditions.  Yes, there were flowers and no, not everyone has picked theirs up yet.  Yes, there were dyed eggs and yes, one child did smush his all over the chancel steps.  Yes, the restless little girl waiting to be baptized did eat said smushed-up egg on the chancel steps while her parents promised on her behalf to turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world.  Yes, there were crowds, and  yes, there were enough regular-size bulletins but not enough of the large print.  And yes, God provided us in Portland with a perfect, 72 degree, blue-sky day.

So here it is, bright Monday, and I awoke at a charming 4:30 am today.  I am such a Calvinist.  No rest for the wicked despite all of yesterday’s efforts.  It is bright Monday (as our Orthodox brethren and sistren call it) so that means it is Accomplish the Semi-Annual Dusting of My Office day.  That always feels like an appropriate response to resurrection: to clean, to wipe off the old dust (which, a friend reminded me, is mostly dead skin cells.  Bleh.)  I hung up my robe, I organized my stoles by color, I finally put away the Christmas creche which had been tucked behind the couch since December.  I bagged up old throw pillows for Goodwill, washed the dirty coffee cups, put all the sermon-prep books back on shelf, and pulled out the Lemon Pledge and dust rags.

I’m not sure  that cleaning as a response to the resurrection is what Jesus had in mind.

Anyone who has been to our home will confirm that I am not a clean freak.  I like things picked up, but if I get to cleaning every week or two, that’s good enough for me.  So it’s not like I’m always walking around with my arsenal of Murphy’s Oil Soap, Lemon Pledge, white vinegar, bucket and rags at the ready.  But I love to clean the office on the Monday after Easter; I think of it as a spiritual discipline.

I mean, if Jesus went to all that trouble to rise from death, and folded up those linen cloths neatly (with or without the imprint of his face on them) and gave us shiny, new, eternal life, the least I can do is clean my office, fold up the prayer shawl that was crumpled up on the couch, and give the impression that things are in pretty good shape.

There’s an understatement: after the resurrection, things are in pretty good shape.  Except that not really.  Crap still happens.  People still practice their bad juju on the innocent.  Death still appears victorious and sting-filled.  The dust will come back, and sooner than I want.

But I offer what I can in response to the new life.  I clean, and I will clean again, though not soon enough.  I am grateful for the spring, knowing that the perfect 72 degree, blue-skied yesterday means a rainy, rainy April awaits us.  I am convicted by the gift, and at least for today, try to live generously in response.

After the resurrection, things are on their way to being in pretty good shape.  And my dusting is part of that.  Thanks be to God.

The Easter Sermon

azaleaEaster Sunday is thirteen days away, no small thing for those of us in the profession of ministry.  It’s time to start thinking about the Easter sermon, and it helps that one of my colleagues is preaching this week for Palm Sunday – my brain has a little more space to jump ahead to resurrection, skipping the wine and the bread and the cross bit.

Oh, Easter; Christmas too, but we’ll just face Easter for now.  It’s hard to describe the odd weight of both expectation and indifference about the Easter Sunday service, at least from this pastor’s perspective.  I am always greeted first with a sense of inadequacy – how can I possibly convey anything close to the awe, wonder, amazement, fear, joy, miraculousness of that event?

After inadequacy greets me, I meet doubt; not doubt about the story, which I choose to believe as true (maybe not factual, but true.)  It’s trying to figure out the counter-arguments those in the congregation will be forming in their minds as they hear the gospel story and the sermon that follows.  Can I anticipate their questions and address them in the sermon?

After inadequacy and doubt, indifference saunters in.  I really don’t think that many people come to Easter services for the sermon.  I just don’t.  They come because it’s Easter and their mom is making them go to church.  They come because the music really is spectacular.  They come for lilies, although all of our indoor lilies are fake because of allergies – they will have to make do with azaleas.  They come to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of the service.  But I’m pretty sure that less than 1% come for the sermon, and I’m okay with that.  Sort of.

Sort of, because in one way it takes the pressure off.  If very few really care what I talk about for ten to fifteen minutes, perhaps I don’t have to write The Best Easter Sermon Ever of All Time this year.  But sort of because then I get challenged.  Then I start thinking, but if I only write The Perfect Easter Sermon That Captures the Hearts and Minds of Believers and Doubter Alike, then maybe they will realize that the sermon is one of the many reasons to come to worship.

Oy vey.

I do take comfort in the details of the Easter story itself.  In Luke’s version, the women went to the tomb, saw two angelic figures but no Jesus, then ran to tell those male disciples that indeed he had risen.  The disciples dismissed their story as nothing more than an idle tale.  Good heavens, if the most incredible news for the followers of Jesus was heard as an idle tale, then why on earth should I worry about my Easter sermon?

Here’s the thing: a lot of us pastor types really do take worship seriously.  We love planning  worship, we love leading worship.  We love the poetry of worship, and the prose, and music, and the silence, and the sacraments, and the kids dropping their hymnals and the old people with their walkers and buzzing hearing aids.  We love to be translators between for the human and the holy.  We love to look out at the congregation and see the beloved community gathered, and realize on any given Sunday that there are people we’ve never seen before who have come to be a part of the beloved community, at least for an hour that particular Sunday.  We love God, and we want to share the love.

And for us pastors who love worship, Easter is weird and joyous at the same time.  It is our most high, holy day.  It commemorates the event that makes Christianity Christianity.  It also commemorates the event that people most question, or get turned off by, or laugh at.  And the service(s) is full, which is a nerve-wracking joy, but it ups the ante.  Why are these people I’ve never seen before here?  What are their expectations?  And should I even worry about meeting their expectations?

Here’s my goal for the next thirteen days: to let go of the expectations.  To picture the beloved community that will gather on March 31, to see familiar, dear faces and faces I’ve never seen before and may never see again.  To wrestle in my mind and heart about this idle tale upon which a religion has been constructed, this idle tale that sprinkles dollops of hope upon some in the world still.  To write well, clearly, leaning more toward the poetry than prose.  To not feel responsible for anyone’s faith but my own.  To allow joy and mystery, and to make room for doubters and believers.  And to have fun with it.

That’s my goal for the next thirteen days; that, and maybe a dollop or two of inspiration.