Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Time for an image shift

I just finished reading Rob Bell's book Love Wins.  At first glance I thought it would be a post-modern, evangelically emergent take on Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland's superb book If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person.  And to a certain degree it is.  It's written in brief paragraphs, the kind used by pastors when preaching a Sunday sermon, with the appearance of an epic poem.  On some days the story of faith is rather like an epic poem.  He uses stories from his own life and from folks who worship at the church he pastors.  He puts interesting spins on Bible stories and passages we think we know up and down.  As USA Today puts it: "One of the nation's rock-star-popular young pastors, Rob Bell, has stuck a pitchfork in how Christians talk about damnation.” Which is a relief, as most evangelicals have been using that pitchfork when speaking of salvation and what's required for it.

But when Rob Bell speaks about hell, when he takes away the abuse but leaves the sting of it and puts it in its place, he says nothing of the hell inflicted on others, the hell that we do not choose but has been chosen for us by those in power.  He says nothing about oppression, injustice, and the hell prisons that the powerless have been locked in and struggle to break loose from.  Hell on earth may be the consequences we suffer as a result of our own actions, but what of the hell on earth that is suffered as a result of the actions of others?  How does an abused woman take responsibility for her own hell?  How does she learn to trust the love a father God?

I posted this on Rob Bell's Facebook wall, which I think he doesn't even read, judging by the comments:
"I have deep concerns about the chapter "The Good News is Better Than That": the story you begin with about an abused woman and then you go on to tell the 'stories' of the father and his two sons. Why should a woman who's been hit by every man she's been with now trust the retelling of her story by a God who is male? We still continue to shape God as male and that definitely shapes some of us women in a way that is not only helpful but hurts."
I then received 7 comments declaring that God does not have a penis or reproductive organs and therefore I should not be offended, that God is Father in the Bible or that God isn't male but identifies himself that way or that we in our small minds can't know who God is, so God reveals God's self as Father but God isn't male.
Huh?  Last time I checked, my daughters' father is a male.
Jesus did a radical thing by calling God 'Father'.  Jesus brought close the Creator of the Universe, the One who fashioned the earth and the heavens--YHWH, I Am Who I Am, the ineffable.  The Church brought God even closer by declaring that Jesus was God in human form, the Word incarnate.  What has happened in the two millennia since then is that we have personalized God.  We have brought God so close that we think we know who God is.  We've rendered God powerless by thinking we have a handle on who God is.  Thus, we can also reject this God and walk away without a second thought.
We need another image shift in our relationship with God.  Not male, not female.  Jesus brought God close; now it's time to back up a bit and see the bigger picture.
Panentheism:  from the Greek pan (all), en (in), theos (God)--All in God.  "Everything is in God and God is in everything, but God is more than everything" (Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, 1828).  Or as it says in the Book of Acts: "In [God] we live and move and have our being."  Native Americans called it the Great Spirit.  Ancient hunter-gatherer societies worshiped the great Mother Goddess.  George Lucas called it the Force.  Australian Aborigines speak to Divine Oneness.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to God as "the Beyond that is in our midst".  Immanence and transcendence.  No names, no gender.  All names, all genders.  More and more.
Interestingly enough, Rob Bell made a short film entitled "She", about the feminine characteristics of God, about how we cannot understand God until we recognize the feminine qualities that God possesses.  I just wish he had used the Isaiah passage he mentions, regarding God having compassion like a mother, when he introduced his chapter with the story of the abused woman.  It would have been so much better.  Then he could have given his different take on the father and the two sons.
Here's the film:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Human need over corporate greed

I was hungry and you blamed it on the Communists.
I was hungry and you circled the moon.
I was hungry and you told me to wait.
I was hungry and you set up a commission.
I was hungry and you said, "so were my ancestors."
I was hungry and you said, "we don't hire over 35."
I was hungry and you said, "God helps those..."
I was hungry and you told me I shouldn't be.
I was hungry and you told me machines do that work now.
I was hungry and you had napalm bills to pay.
I was hungry and you said the poor are always with us.
Lord, when did we see you hungry?  (Matthew 25: 37)

Thank you, Sojourners.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ten good reasons not to call me as your next pastor

(Another section in my profile requires me not only to give references but to give myself one as well.  I borrowed this idea from another pastor who had posted their own good reasons on a consulting website.  The way I look at it, this list will tell a search committee if they want to invest time and resources to interview me or not.  I know what I want and I don't want to settle for less.)

1.     If you believe that worship is the most important thing you do as a church and that it only occurs on Sunday morning, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

2.     If you value new people as workers and pledge units rather than as welcomed agents of change and companions along the Way, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

3.    If you’re looking for someone who does not share some of the same common weaknesses and foibles as you do, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

4.    If you think that being Open and Affirming is the final frontier of Christian witness, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

5.    If mission is something that occurs only on a trip or once a month, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

6.    If ministry is something that can be measured, quantified, strategized, programmed and categorized, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

7.     If the idea of creating art, poetry, and music alongside the poor and outcast shrinks your spirit rather than enlarging it, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

8.    If you’re searching for an expert to teach you how rather than a fellow student to learn with, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

9.    If the phrase “Life is messy—love it” fills you with more fear than trust, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

10.     If laughter and humor aren't regular and highly-prized expressions of your life together, then I’m probably not the right pastor for you.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

This is the church I want to serve

The following is from my Statement on Ministry, one part of my ministerial profile:

When Jesus revealed the Way of ministry, he was very direct and brief:  “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6: 37); “Let the children come to me” (Luke 18: 16); “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26: 26); “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34); “Let anyone with ears to hear listen” (Luke 8: 8); “Go, make disciples…” (Matt. 28: 19); “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44); “…love one another” (John 13: 34); “Feed my sheep” (John 21: 17).  These could be the purpose statement of any local church.  But more than that these verses are spiritual practices:  the bedrock of ministry and faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

I believe that it is our spiritual practices, our faithfulness that saves us each and every day.  And what I mean by “saves” is that we are pried off our tendency to focus solely on ourselves in any given moment.  Ministry is about learning those spiritual practices and sharing them with others, not only for ourselves but that lives may be changed and transformed, that we might do justice and make peace with one another, that the unconditional love of God would be made visible and tangible.

The next frontier of the church will be those who consider the church to be irrelevant but who still want to make a difference and are working for change in the world.  What can unite believers and non-believers are the spiritual practices common to many traditions such as meditation, serving others, feeding the hungry, extending hospitality, forgiveness, compassion, and moving others to do likewise and more.

In our Christian tradition the pendulum of salvation swings between its two foci of faith and the practices of faith.  There are phases we go through where faith alone, belief that a power greater than ourselves, can save us.  Other times we are caught up in the practices of faith—worship, service, prayer, study, giving, hospitality—and we are saved, released from self-absorption, by the doing of them. 

The apostle Paul tells us that we are saved by grace alone, that works/practices alone will not save us, nor will faith without works.  We need both but even then it is only grace that saves.  Paul is not talking about the present moment but salvation on a grander scale, of that time when all will be welcomed to the heavenly banquet.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think about the heavenly banquet on a daily basis.  Rather, every day it is myself I need to be saved from, from my pettiness, my ego, my wants and wishes, my propensity for procrastination, my snarky attitude while driving.

Ultimately, the spiritual practice that saves us is love:  love of God, love of neighbor, love of self.  Ours is a ministry of love.  Author Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, says it well, about following Jesus and his ministry of love:

“Jesus offered a single incentive to follow him…to summarize his selling point:  ‘Follow me, and you might be happy—or you might not.  Follow me, and you might be empowered—or you might not.  Follow me, and you might have more friends—or you might not.  Follow me, and you might have the answers—or you might not.  Follow me, and you might be better off—or you might not.  If you follow me, you may be worse off in every way you use to measure life.  Follow me nevertheless.  Because I have an offer that is worth giving up everything you have: you will learn to love well.’”

This is the Jesus I follow, the ministry that gives me joy, the grace that sustains me, the Church I serve.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Maybe. May be.

It's difficult to write about many things when there's one thing struggling to be heard.  As poet Ellen Bass once instructed a bunch of us burgeoning poets, "You have to write the poems you don't want to write before you can write the ones you do want to write.  Otherwise, they'll all have to crawl over the ones sitting like a lump in the back of your throat."  Or words to that effect.

So...I haven't been writing much of anything because of one true thing (thank you, Anna Quindlen) that needs to be said.

I am grieving.  I thought it would nice to have a rest from parish ministry for a few months (no telling when they will end), but all I feel is sad and angry...what most folks call depressed.  I didn't just go from 90 mph to nothing; I parked the car in the garage, put an old parachute over it, and tucked the keys in a drawer.  Yes, I've done some things this summer I would not have done had I been working:  I went to South Dakota on a mission trip with my Monroe peeps to an Indian reservation with Simply Smiles; I co-deaned a conference for twenty 5th and 6th graders at Silver Lake Conference Center with my friend and pastor Jennifer Gingras entitled "Clowns for God"; I traveled to Costa Rica for a week-long adventure with my family.  I'm teaching myself how to play the Native American wood flute.  I'm working on a clay sculpture at the high school that will serve as a Communion set in some future ministry setting.

But it's not enough.  This November I will be celebrating 20 years of ordination; 15 of those years have been in temporary ministry positions.  I want to settle down with a congregation and see what that feels like.  Ever since I left full-time ministry to be home with my girls (which I have never regretted for an instant, for which I am immensely grateful) I have also been grieving the loss of that ministry.  And please do not attempt in the comments to mollify that emotion or to help me realize the blessing of being able to stay home with my children.  I know that.  I've heard all of that for the past 15 years.  What seems to be beyond understanding is how something so wonderful can also be a source of pain; how a life with God can be life-giving and be a struggle, that God can be the one thing that saves you and the biggest question mark of your life.  A life with God, like any other relationship, is complex and sometimes there are no answers--not even a 'yes' or 'no' as whether or not to stick with it.  Most days it's a 'maybe', which might turn out to be the most faithful answer we can give.

I've written my profile.  I've received all my written references and I've submitted my profile as 'complete' to the UCC Profile Office in Cleveland.  I've decided that despite everything, perhaps because of everything, that I need to do this:  I need to love and to serve and to make it my life's work.  And I think I'm good at it, at least, as far as I've gotten to this point, and I still have a long way to go.  But it is a calling I can't let go of and that won't let go of me, even if I wanted it to; a heartstring that does not break when stretched but only keeps pulling.

Tricky part is...my husband feels called to work in the solar field, research and design specifically.  This is the other reason I have kept myself temporary and loose; so that when he finds that dream job we can pick up and go.  But for one reason or another he has not been able to find that job.  And he's paid just enough at  his current job to make it difficult to consider leaving, even though he's miserable there.  It would be easier having him lead the way since he has the higher earning potential.  But I can't wait any longer.  Four years ago he earned another Master's degree, in computer and electrical engineering, that took three years to finish.  Another temporary ministry gig for me and I just might go the way of John the Baptist.

Prayers, people, I need prayers.  Big ones, small ones, one word of hope.  Strike a match, hold a vigil of candles, a campfire in the backyard, a bonfire on the beach.  Bring them all together to make this light big, that a faith community in need of a pastor like me might see it, that I might go to where they are.