Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I'm Back?

It's a little hard to believe that's been nearly two years since I've last blogged.

TL;DR Had a kid, moved for a new job.

Longer version: I think I mentioned the kid already. She's now a bright, engaging toddler and has taken well to our new life in Cleveland. Most of you (all three of you) are probably friends with me on Facebook so you've seen the pictures and heard the stories. We're having a blast with the parenting thing, most of the time. As of this writing, I've also run for 31 days straight and am laying the foundation to run the Cleveland 1/2 Marathon with some other UCC 2030 clergy.

The new job is more interesting. I'm now working for our denominational headquarters, which is incredibly fulfilling, and really, really different from working in a local congregation. Some of the plusses to this include: a pretty "regular" schedule with minimal evening meetings; coworkers!; reliable, awesome public transportation; getting to do really interesting work engaging with all different kinds of ministers in the UCC; travel; getting to revise the Manual on Ministry (!!!!); developing programs that can be used throughout the life of the church.

Some of the minuses include: travel; not getting to work with cool funeral directors; no funerals in general; I miss the people in Red Oak; and BackBencher still has to commute 25 miles to work each day.

But, you know, it's important work, and while I'm not serving in a parish now, we are actively engaged in the life of a local church, and that's proving to be a positive experience for our family.

I hope to write here more regularly in 2014. It's not a resolution, but a hope. I'm also blogging semi-regularly over at Practicing Families, so you can find me there (as well as a ton of other great folk!).

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Religious Institute Needs Your Help

So, I don't do this very often, but I feel strongly enough about the work of the organization I'm going to write about to make a financial appeal to you, dear readers.

The Religious Institute is an organization that advocates and educates for sexual health and justice in the religious and political spheres. The Rev. Debra Haffner is their executive director, a wise woman, and one of those women I hope I become when I'm all grown up. I've been deeply formed by her writings, her speakings, and our (limited but powerful) personal correspondence. The work of the Religious Institute shapes what I do as a minister teaching sexuality education, and as a sexuality educator open to the spiritual dimensions of sex.

No one does quite what Debra and the staff of the Religious Institute do, and their work is vital. Rev. Haffner has taken on Bill O'Reilly and others over the years, reminding him and his audience that there is a broader view to human sexuality than the narrowness promoted by, say, some of the current presidential candidates. You can see why she's influenced me!

If you don't already know, they are in a crazy financial bind because their fiscal agent has, basically, taken them to the cleaners. Obviously, "Christian Community, Inc." is no longer their fiscal agent - but they do need money to keep the doors open. They have a new fiscal agent and are working on securing their 501(c)3 status so this sort of thing doesn't happen again.

Would you be willing to donate $5, $25, $50, $100 or even $500 to them? I gave $20, which is what I can right now. If 4 more of you do the same, that will bring them $100 closer to their goal. Read this post and then give as you are moved to give. The work they do is urgent. The need they face is critical. We can make a difference.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Thing About Iowa

So, some professor at the University of Iowa wrote an article for The Atlantic about Iowa. Well, I think it was supposed to be about Iowa's unsuitability at holding the first-in-the-nation caucus status, but it was hard to tell that his point wasn't just bashing Iowa until the very end of the article. As one of my dear parishioners wrote on his Facebook wall, "'Exaggerated Stereotypes, I'd like to introduce you to Assorted Facts. I think you'll get along well in this article,' said Dr. Bloom. 'Perhaps I will also include Inflammatory Remarks.'" What valid points he may have made (and there are a few valid points to be made) were lost in the sea of astonishingly inaccurate generalities and too-highly-weighted random facts and experiences.

Also, he really needed an editor. I can't get over how, on the one hand, we have all these cracked-out meth-heads and college students getting arrested for public intoxication, and on the the other hand, live in communities where the worst crime is tee-peeing a neighbors house. Which is it? Because, brother, it can't be both.

And he writes as if Iowa provincialism is some sort of unique trait to this heartland state. I lived in New York City for six years and I knew people who lived in fear of leaving the five boroughs for any reason (to be fair, some of them lived in fear of leaving just FOUR of the bureaus, if I may say so with apologies to my friends who live on Staten Island). True, NYC has more to commend it than does rural Iowa in terms of "stuff to do," but provincialism is provincialism, and it is everywhere in these United States. At least, it's everywhere I've been to (30+ states and counting).

If I may make one more point: as a Christian, I can almost promise you that when a college student tells you she's going to have to face a "come-to-Jesus talk" from her parents after being arrested for public intoxication, it probably doesn't mean her parents are going to tell her she needs to recommit herself to a life worthy of her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It probably means they are going to remind her that they don't pay good money to send their student to the University of Iowa so she can get drunk and pass out in public. And possibly do so while yelling at her. The term "come-to-Jesus talk" is a colloquial expression and you should probably know that.

Actually, he probably DOES know that and was just trying to be inflammatory. Which is all the more stupid, I think, because it utterly weakened his case. I'm surprised the dude is actually a journalism professor. He should know better. He should WRITE better.

He's been threatened and supposedly is a little afraid for his life now. I have mock a little bit - surely he can't think these rural farmers too afraid to use the interstate or even leave their little counties are REALLY out to get him, can he? All kidding aside, this article isn't worthy of threats to his life. I think it represents a threat to his CAREER as a journalist, but he shouldn't be facing death threats or anything like that for this article. So knock it off, angry Iowans.

Dr. Bloom has done a disservice to his career and to the state that he has lived in for 20 years. (See a lovely response here.) But even still, permit me to point out that if his house is burned down or his family faces an unexpected medical crisis, those same people he has mocked and belittled by his caricatures in this article will show up with casseroles, paper plates, napkins, love and money to help him out. Even if they think he's an ass. He knows that.

Why shouldn't THOSE people be the ones to get first crack at choosing the next president?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The War on Christmas/Christianity

So, a local member of the clergy is running for city council. I don't criticize, because I am myself an elected official, having been elected to the school board for some years now. However, I had to laugh out loud when I read the reasons WHY he said he was running for council. They included a comment about how, in the founding days of this country, people who weren't professing Christians and active in their congregations didn't get elected. As if the good ole days of witch-burnings and Puritan overbearing in public life is something to be CELEBRATED. (I won't point out what those early Christians would have thought of his religious tradition, which wouldn't be much. We've come a long way, congregationalists.)

And since it's Advent, it's also time for the annual "War on Christmas" ridiculousness that gets peddled about by some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, including this fellow. Permit me to point out that in the "good ole days" when only professing Christians got to hold public office, CHRISTMAS WAS OUTLAWED. One is tempted to say, "Dude, learn some history," but it seems indelicate. UnChristian, even. So I shall not say it.

His statement of intent to file also included his belief that there is a war against Christianity in this country, with "no prayer in schools," the Ten Commandments being removed from public buildings, and the supposed mocking of Christians. (Backbencher dryly noted that if there's a war on Christianity, it certainly isn't happening in this little corner of SW Iowa.)

Well, I happen to agree with my colleague that there's a war on Christianity, but the forces assailing us aren't the "secularists" (a vague term used by some that includes anyone from the ACLU to those who profess other faiths to, of course, atheists). The forces assailing Christianity are far closer than that. They are the forces within Christianity that convince us that prayer in schools and the public posting of Ten Commandments are the battles Christians should be fighting.

Jesus was pretty clear that at the final judgment, he's not going to ask if we insisted on praying in his name at public events, or if we made a many-tonned block with the Ten Commandments on it. He's going to separate us by those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, gave clothes to the naked, and visited those who were sick and in prison, and those who failed to see Jesus in their fellow brothers and sisters.

So long as we permit people to be hungry, homeless, naked and lonely, the war on Christianity continues. Perhaps this Advent season, we could work a little harder to fight those battles, and let store employees off the hook for wishing us "Happy Holidays."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ah, Vestments

Serving a small congregation, it isn't often that I have a wedding or a funeral, much less one of each in a span of 20 hours. But such was last week. A man whom I had married to his beloved several years ago died unexpectedly on Monday, which was the start of an interesting week. For months now, I've been working with a couple in our congregation who have been planning their wedding. Both of them love Jesus, but one of them claims a Christian identity, while the other does not any longer.

It's not often I get asked to do stuff like write prayers to the four directions or to incorporate smudging in our congregational life. (More's the pity, I think.) Asperging - sure. Smudging? Not so much among these white former Congregationalists. So the planning of the wedding was a great deal of fun. The rehearsal was not as much fun, as we navigated the challenges of all the various rituals involved. This was on my day off, and I had already spent two hours visiting with the widow of the man who had died earlier in the week.

The nature of our work is that we both practice self-care and model appropriate boundaries, but we also are always on-call. I'd already planned to do the rehearsal that day, so I was prepared to make up some Sabbath time later in the week. That didn't really happen, and I hadn't thought enough ahead to take some self-care time earlier, so I was relying on lots of my prayer reserves.

The wedding was fabulous. The brides were radiant, and the liturgy we'd crafted together happened beautifully. The Spirit was alive and celebrating with us! I slipped out of the reception to nip over to the funeral home in time to catch the family before they left the visitation, and then returned to the church to celebrate some more. Spiritual/emotional whiplash, anyone? Fortunately, everyone knew what was going on, and everyone was as gracious as could be - both the widow and the brides.

The next morning, the funeral. It was a "full house" at the funeral home, and we celebrated life of, and mourned the untimely death of, this dear man. It hit me with great force on Saturday that we wear the same vestments to weddings and funerals (and baptisms, too). Of course, I can articulate the theological reasons why this is so, but the yoke of Christ I wear for such occasions - a white stole with gold crosses on either side (the long bar of the cross is one band that runs the length of the stole, with two crosses at my chest) made for me by a member of the church where I did my field education - felt heavier than usual. The magnitude of this calling weighed on me more deeply, reminding me of the burden that comes with this office.

It is a joyous burden, most of the time. But this weekend, it was a heavy load.

What a privilege this congregation has bestowed on me, to permit me to minister at these joyous and tragic events. I pray that I am worthy .... and then turn my prayers to those who need them more than I do. To the widow who has lost her husband too soon, may she know consolation and peace. To the brides who have committed themselves to each other, may they always know joy together, and may our culture come to value their marriage as it does my own.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Expanding the Welcome

I daresay that those of you who read this blog agree with the statement that the church should be a place of extravagant welcome, where all people are invited to participate and share in the life of the community. Congregations struggle to varying degrees about how to live out that welcome when it comes to GLBT persons, people of different races or social classes, and sexual offenders - to name just a few.

But the other day I had an interesting conversation with a colleague who's struggling with welcoming another kind of family. The congregation this colleague serves takes extremely seriously the baptismal covenant it offers, and they consider themselves a congregation that doesn't do a lot of baptisms for people who are there just for the "insurance policy" but don't seem to have an honest intention of living out the baptismal promises.

In the UCC's Book of Worship, our baptismal covenant includes these questions of the candidates' parents (I've edited them to read in the singular):


  • Do you desire to have your child baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?

  • Will you encourage this child to renounce the powers of evil and to receive the freedom of new life in Christ?

  • Will you teach this child that s/he may be led to profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (we say "center of his/her faith")?

  • Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ's disciple(s), to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?

  • Do you promise, according to the grace given you, to grow with this child in the Christian faith, to help this child to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, by celebrating Christ's presence, by furthering Christ's mission in all the world, and by offering the nurture of the Christian church so that s/he may affirm his/her baptism?

Lately, my colleague's congregation has had a few families who have gone through the motions of the pre-baptism class, had their child baptized, and have disappeared. Another family, whom my colleague suspects will be doing the same thing, is due to have their child baptized this week. This colleague is struggling. How do we offer this sacrament when it seems clear that the family has no intention of following through? My colleague will, of course, do te baptism, but there's some frustration there.

This is not a unique struggle. All of us clergy who take the sacraments seriously face this question, for we've all been there. And if it's not for a baptism, then we've experienced this for a wedding. I had a mentor once who said he almost always did weddings and baptisms even if he knew he'd never see the family again because he didn't think it was right to deprive anyone of an expression of God's grace. At the time I didn't really get it, but I think I'm starting to.

Furthermore, of all the families in the church, this family probably needs the grace found in the sacrament more than most. And, without minimizing the seriousness of the covenant or our anger and frustration at those who seem to take these promises far less seriously than we do, our job is to share the grace of God and to teach people that this grace is free, but it isn't cheap. We do that in the full liturgical and educational and missional expressions of the life of the church, but we have to do both. We have to OFFER the grace freely even as we teach the costly nature of that gift.

What if we took the opinion that these "splash and dash" families (ugh - I really don't like that expression) really are taking those promises seriously, but that for a whole host of reasons they are only able, even relying on God's help and grace, to do a crap job of living up to those promises? Then the question becomes, are such people welcome in our churches?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Obligatory "I'm Back" Post

This morning, one of my seminarian friends emailed me to tell me that she was planning to use the "Ritual of Welcome" I posted a couple of years ago in her contextual education placement. She said she was so grateful I had written it, I should send it to the UCC, etc. Well, naturally I was flattered.

I ended up reading through most of the posts I wrote in 2009, looking for that ritual. I noticed a few things:
1. I really did model my blog-writing after PeaceBang, she of Beauty Tips for Ministers. A little affected, but she's definitely the one to follow.
2. I wrote some pretty great stuff in 2009.
3. It's been a long time since I've written anything here.

I think I'm going to try to get a post a week up here, going forward. Naturally, there's been a lot going on since I last wrote. I had a baby girl, MC, who is now five months old and the apple of our eyes. I went to Synod, kicked butt and took names. Lots and lots of names. I decided that 2011 is going to be the year of boldness, and it's been working pretty well. I have continued to dream about running, but fitting exercise into an already-busy schedule with a baby who likes to be held non-stop has been a little tough. I finished teaching one class on vital small-church ministry, and am preparing for a few more teaching/speaking gigs on the topic. (Message me if you'd like me to come talk to you, your church, your conference/association/synod/presbytery/group.) I'm loving life.

But I miss blogging. I miss my interactions, real and imagined, with all of you. And I miss the discipline of writing something that I release into the universe pretty much immediately. It's scary and wonderful.