Wednesday, January 13, 2016

"Weeds are Perennials, Aren't They?"

At one of our team meetings in 2014, a colleague was talking about her beautiful yard, about the perennials she had planted and moved over the weekend, and about the stubbornness of some of the weeds in her yard. I remember that we had two distinctly different reactions to those weeds. I laughed and said, “Ah, a weed is just a plant growing somewhere you don’t want it to.” I’d read that somewhere, and thought it was clever. But then another team member  said something truly clever that’s stuck with me: “Weeds are perennials, aren’t they?” I think we both betrayed our dislike with yardwork, albeit in different ways. But I’ve remembered those lines for a long while.
            Weeds are simply things that grow – and continue to grow – where we don’t want them to. We employ lots of different strategies to deal with weeds. We dose them with poison to kill them off. We pull them out, hoping to get the full roots out (but never actually doing so entirely successfully). We replant or rehome them somewhere else, perhaps where they are meant to flourish. My personal favorite is to ignore them until they’ve completely taken over, then deal with them all at once in a panic, cursing as I do so. All of these take time, energy, and occupy time in our heads, either by unsuccessful avoidance or thinking about which strategy will be best.
            We also might decide to make peace with these stubborn and impractical plants, pruning and otherwise managing them, but accepting that they will always be present. Perhaps we might even find a use for them, such as adding dandelion leaves to our spring salads.
            The secret is, I think, not to see the weeds as a distraction from the yardwork or the goal of a lovely garden, but to see the weeds as part and parcel of both the work and the goal. They may be stubborn and unwelcome, but they are not apart from what we are trying to cultivate. Because the thing is, what’s a weed to someone is great beauty to another. There are these beautiful thistles that grow in some places – they are a deep annoyance to farmers, but they make for a striking photograph or centerpiece.  
             Our team in the national offices of the UCC is trying to cultivate ministerial excellence, support and authorization in the United Church of Christ. That’s our garden. And boy, do we have some weeds in there! I don’t mean ministers who are stubborn or unethical, or at least I don’t mean just that. There are things in our work that seem like distractions or deadly pitfalls or inconveniences or responsibilities that just aren’t ours. This year feels like a year in which we are both taking on a laser focus in our work, and a year in which we are getting new responsibilities, so there’s great potential for weeds of all sorts to crop up in our garden.
            I shared something in our team that might be useful for my half-dozen readers here. Will you take a moment to think about what some of the “weeds” in our work might be in the coming year? Don’t think about how to deal with them, just think about them. Maybe name them out loud. You don’t to plan right now how or which strategies you are going to use to deal with them, of course. But this is a reminder that lots of things are going to try to distract us from our work this year. My prayer for 2016 is that we can pull what we need to, make peace with what is going to have to stay in our garden for another year (or more), and build upon the work that’s already been done in this garden (by others and by us) to make this part of the United Church of Christ even more beautiful and useful, stronger and healthier, better than ever.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Some Recent Places I've Been Writing

At a certain point, it seems as if one should either commit to posting more regularly, or admit she just isn't in it for the blogging. I'm discerning which direction I want to go in. And writing my novel for NaNoWriMo, and preparing for Thanksgiving supper, and all that goodness.

I'm also not altogether clear who, if anyone, is still coming by. It is a bit dusty in here, after all. So for now I'll just post a few links to some stuff I've written elsewhere in the past year:

This is my most recent piece for the UCC's Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD), about fitness reviews in the United Church of Christ. This one was for work.

Here's an earlier piece for the CARD blog from earlier this year, about how ministers spend their time. This one was also for work.

A third post from the CARD blog, about bi-vocational ministry. Many thanks to the colleagues who shared their stories and experiences. Again, this was for work.

This one was something I wrote for Practicing Families, about the death of Jesus.

Thanks for sticking with me; I think I'm leaning toward "committing to posting more regularly." It's been a long, dry season of little creativity, but the well is filling.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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.