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.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Required Reading: A Year of Visiting Churches

Go check out this blog, by a man who's visiting all the religious communities in his neighborhood over the coming year. He recently went to an MCC church and found that the people there were less like Will and Grace and more like those seeking to know God's will and live in God's grace.

He's also been to a number of other churches, as well as a mosque. He is gracious, honest, and saves his harshest critiques for those whom I suspect he feels the closest theological affinity. But there's a lot of charity and grace in every post. I'm totally sucked in!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Appreciating My Colleagues

I realized that my last few posts may be interpreted as "bashing" my clergy colleagues here. I knew I'd be the odd one out when I moved here, but I didn't realize by how much. It is truly challenging, and sometimes a little draining, to be the only clergy voice for progressive Christianity (or heck, even "middle-of-the-road" Christianity, for the most part), but I've accepted my role as a missionary for theological liberalism here. And, for the most part, it's well-received - at least to my face.

And while it's true that there is a lot of theological disagreement among us, it's also true that when we are face-to-face, at least, "Iowa nice" prevails. While I don't love all that "Iowa nice" is and means, I do find that I appreciate how it allows us to work together on what we can agree upon, and not waste all our time bickering over points of doctrine about which we'll never agree.

So, today I want to share some things I really cherish about my clergy colleagues in this community. All of these are snark-free:

1. We spend our time together focusing on what we can agree upon, not the many things that divide us.
2. We work to feed the hungry and provide spiritual nourishment to one another's members in a variety of ecumenical services throughout the year.
3. My colleagues "play nice" when they speak at our church for the Lenten Luncheon series (and they know I will, too, when I speak at their churches).
4. My fellow women ministers and I have some special bonds that have allowed us to peel back "Iowa nice" to discuss some of our differences rather frankly and respectfully, and to grow in genuine friendship and collegiality. There's a couple of services that our three churches do that "the guys" don't seem interested in. (More's the pity.)
5. My colleagues keep me honest, and help ground me in the text. We don't come to the same conclusions, but we draw from that common well.
6. We are genuinely interested in each other's personal lives - we rejoice when there is cause to rejoice, and we lift each other up in prayer in times of difficulty. (I wish we shared more, but I'm grateful for what we do share.)
7. We support some of each other's ministries, such as food pantries and soup kitchens. (I hope they'll also support a new mission venture we'll be starting soon.)
8. I am grateful that there are other churches besides ours in the community, because I know our church is not a perfect fit for all Christians. I'm grateful that I can say some true and wonderful things about my colleagues to those Christians who are looking for something we can't provide.
9. My colleagues welcomed our sabbatical pastor with open arms and truly made her feel welcome this summer.
10. I'll soon have a clergy colleague who is also pretty theologically progressive, and I look forward to our growing in faith, service, and perhaps joint ventures with our congregations!! I hope we can be a balm and boon for each other.

For my clergy friends, what do you appreciate about your colleagues and partners in ministry? And for my lay friends, what do you appreciate about collegial relationships among clergy leaders in your communities?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Stories Told and Untold

Several days ago, a friend sidled up to me and said she wanted to show me something. It was the bulletin from her church’s Sunday worship the previous week. She had circled a responsive reading, which was all about “life” and abortion. I know this woman is pro-choice, and she was visibly upset. She proceeded to tell me that the whole service was on this theme, that her community’s crisis pregnancy center has moved into the church, and that the minister had said during the service that she’d hoped the church would step up and volunteer with this organization.

I listened to this woman share her anger and frustration. I listened as she shared sorrowful family history – a few generations back – that helped to form her pro-choice convictions to this day. In the midst of my anger and frustration, I began to think.

I thought, of course, of the many people who affirmed the message at this church service. They probably felt pleased that their pastor was taking a stand. They probably were challenged by her words that "all life is precious." I hope they heard in that the idea that it is not just the lives of the unborn that are precious, but that drug addicts and rapists and racists and other ne'er-do-wells are precious in God's eyes (though I'm a little skeptical that that happened, though there could be perfectly innocent reasons for that.)

But I also thought about the other women in this church who’d been present. I thought about how many of them had had abortions. I especially thought about a couple I know, who are largely pro-life but who had made the heart-wrenching decision to end a much-hoped-for pregnancy when they learned their son would never develop more than a brain stem before living for a few months in constant, excruciating pain. What would this service have been like for them?

And I began to think of some of the women I counsel. Those who have gotten pregnant after marital rape; those who have cheated on partners only to find themselves pregnant from that one-night stand; those who feel as though abortion is the only choice for them in their circumstance, but who also believe they should be sterilized at the same time because they will never be “worthy” to be parents again; those who have never heard a person of the cloth say that not all Christians oppose abortion, and who, upon hearing my voice, are just grateful that a minister is not judging them or telling them what to do, but simply affirming their journey with God and their heartfelt decision.

I wondered, Was there room in this worship service for these women? Was there a place for their experiences? Were these stories also told in the midst of all this “choosing life” and “abortion is murder”? And if not, why not?

It is not my place to tell my colleagues what to preach, when or how. For many, including me, this is an issue of justice (though my colleagues in this community do not agree with me on the nature of this justice), and I respect their right and duty to speak out as they feel called to do, just as I do.

But I still wonder. How many of the women in the pews, and their partners or children or friends, will be unable to share these burdens with their pastor for fear that they will be condemned? How many people will erect barriers between themselves and their communities of faith because they now believe it is unsafe to bring this part of their lives in the doors of the church? How many people will, like my friend and her husband, simply stew in their anger at the injustice of their church opposing abortion while also failing to support efforts that PREVENT the need for abortion? How many women will be shamed into silence, lest they be judged by the one person who is supposed to represent the love and grace of Christ to them?

I don’t always know the outcome of the stories these women tell me, and I have made my peace with that lack of knowledge. But their stories have become a part of me. Their grappling with competing needs, fears, and desires mirrors my own faith-wrestling. I do not want any of these stories to become “tokens” or two-dimensional images upon which we can project our own morality or judgment. So I cannot bear to see this issue reduced to an oversimplified choice between “good” (that is, continuing a pregnancy) and “evil” (that is, ending a pregnancy). These women and their families are very real to me, and I carry their stories inside of me. Their burdens have, in some small way, become my own, and I stand with them in the muck and the mess of our lives and together we wonder where and how God is at work, and to what ends. These lives matter, too. They are precious in God's sight.

Why, then, when there is so much talk of "life being precious," are these stories left untold?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Friend of the Blog

I keep forgetting to add my dear friend to my blogroll. She's a fellow UCC solo pastor, a wise woman, wife and mother, and just all around awesome. Go check out her blog here.

Unexpected Gifts of Pregnancy

When I announced to the church my pregnancy, I expected a variety of reactions. Almost everyone was excited and enthusiastic. I knew that for some, however, this joy was tempered. Some in this church have faced infertility. Some have chosen not to have children. Some have lost children, both in infancy and beyond.

I know the families who’ve lost children in this church. Some have lost them to suicide, to accidents, or to medical issues. Those stories have been shared with me tenderly and sorrowfully by the mothers and fathers. They have been shared with my by others in the church, who need for me to know why we can’t chop down that tree (it is a memorial tree).

I also know the stories of the couples who had tried for years to have children, only to make peace with their childlessness. Some of those wounds are decades old, but they still sting a little whenever a pregnancy is announced or a new baby brought to church. Their joy for others is often tempered with their own private sorrows.

And I know the stories of parents estranged from their children – and of children who’ve chosen estrangement from their parents. Sometimes I know the reasons behind these decisions, but sometimes the whole situation just seems like a sorrowful mystery to me, as it often is to the people involved. I am grateful for all these stories, even as my heart breaks for them.
But it wasn’t until I announced my pregnancy and began to talk freely about my fears of miscarriage that I began to hear those stories. Women told me about miscarriages they’d had, of the “successful” pregnancies they went on to have, and of how the latter did not cancel out the former, but did help provide a larger framework for their parenting. They spoke with a tinge of sadness for what they had lost, as well as thanksgiving for what they had. I quickly noticed that they only told these stories around other women who’d had children.

It has been a strange initiation into motherhood. These stories are seldom told outside of the church kitchen – if indeed, they make it into the doors of the church at all. Even though I’m an advocate for reproductive justice, and even though I’ve spoken of miscarriage, the loss of children, and childlessness in the past, and even though I’ve sat in these people’s homes for more than seven years, listening to their lives and praying with them, it has only been in the past few months that many people have chosen to share these stories with me.

It isn’t because they don’t feel the stories are important. And it isn’t because they are finally releasing a torrent of information now that I can relate. Somehow, in some mysterious way, my pregnancy has opened up a door to these conversations. Was it something I’ve said?

I don’t think so. If I could have planned it, it would not have turned out this way. If I had wanted to be strategic about all this, I can tell you absolutely that I would have failed miserably. This is a great mystery to me. But the stories are here, now, for us and for God to see, and my call is to touch those stories lovingly and with great grace, as if I were handling a small, delicate child who needs my love, my softness, and my attention.

It is the deepest privilege I know to have access to the hearts of others. May God grant us grace to hold those hearts and their contents tenderly, weeping and laughing and finding redemption and hope in every unfolding.