Friday, May 29, 2009

Telling the Truth

I made these notes several weeks ago, but am feeling prompted to reflect further on how and when we tell the truth in a church. Rather than just hit and run preaching, how do we tell or live the truth, or open the door for the truth? When Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, the life," what does that truth look like lived out in a community of believers? When I was an adolescent, one of the philosophical questions I wrestled with was whether it was better to tell the truth or to be kind—the assumption being that one precludes the other.

In Back Talk! Women Leaders Changing the Church, Susan Willhauck reports on five areas for change in churches that she uncovered in a qualitative study, really a long series of conversations along with some surveys, with people involved in churches. Those five areas are:
• Honest ways of talking to ourselves and to the world: truth telling
• Affirm women's leadership, especially of women of color
• New organization/open structure: alternative ways of being and doing church
• New lay leadership
• Biblical and theological reflection
So this is what she says about Truth Telling:
"The lack of honesty sometimes takes the form of backstabbing or competition or out-and-out lying."
"Dishonesty can be a means of protecting the hierarchy." (p. 36)
"Sometimes the dishonesty takes the form of not telling someone the truth they need to hear simply because it is easer and more politically advantageous to keep quiet."
"The church often postures itself as being unconditionally accepting, but it is not."
"Being honest means that sometimes we express anger. Yet anger has been forbidden to women, who are supposed to be nice and suppress it." (p. 37)
"Many of those I have talked with say we must uphold honesty and in so doing find more ways to heal conflict."
"We have to call people to be Christ-like. We have a moral obligation as Christians to tell the truth, to love one another and to tell the truth." (p. 38)

I had a conversation yesterday with the denominational representative for placement and when he asked what I'm looking for, one of the things I mentioned was a healthy church. Now, exactly how I will define or know that is a question for further discussion, but the capacity and propensity for truth telling is certainly a part of being a healthy church. Willhauck has noted some of the things that get in the way of telling the truth. What else would you add?

In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Buechner writes this about Truth:
When Jesus says that he has come to bear witness to the truth, Pilate asks, "What is truth?" (John 18: 38) Contrary to the traditional view that his question is cynical, it is possible that he asks it with a lump in his throat. Instead of Truth, Pilate has only expedience. His decision to throw Jesus to the wolves is expedient. Pilate views man as alone in the universe with nothing but his own courage and ingenuity to see him through. It is enough to choke up anybody.
Pilate asks What is truth? And for years there have been politicians, scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, and so on to tell him. The sound they make is like the sound of empty pails falling down the cellar stairs.
Jesus doesn't answer Pilate's question. He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.

How do we stand for truth? This past weekend we decided to play a board game on Sunday evening and I rummaged in the bin and pulled out Scruples—which surely must date from the eighties, if not seventies. The questions are various ethical dilemmas: someone gives you the wrong change, do you tell them or return the change; you hit a car in the parking lot, do you leave your name. You read the question and try to direct it toward the person whose answer will match the Yes, No or Depends card that you hold.

One of the difficulties in playing this game with a group of people with good ethical values was matching the question with the answer—I knew which way they would answer, but that wasn't the answer card in my hand. I remember playing this game with a group of people when I first got the game, and it was not as clear that people would answer truthfully or ethically. Frankly, as a parent, I was delighted at my daughter's answers, and at the resulting conversation we had about some of the gray areas in making decisions and the pressures that people might feel.

Having worked in situations where not telling the truth might be "easier," I think that I have finally come to realize that most often the truth told with compassion is also kinder than not telling the truth, certainly in the long run. Not confronting the issues only comes back to bite me later. What is truth? I think that Buechner's example is apt. It is not so much in what we say, but as where and perhaps how we stand. It is walking the talk, and walking the walk too.

May we each be open to the truths of the day, with compassionate hearts. May we be able to hear and tell the truths that we see and know with kindness and courage.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Hit and Run Preaching?

The morning after doing supply preaching I often wonder whether I've been like a hit and run driver leaving the scene of the accident. Would I preach a different sermon if I thought I would be seeing those people next week? Of course I would. Or would I? The irony is those times I have been invited back and then, there I am, at the scene, and it's a different collision than the last time.

Yesterday in my boldness I suggested that Peter's excerpts in Acts 1: 20 from the vengeance Psalms 69 and 109 weren't really the witness that Jesus had just commanded them to have. While blotting someone out after betrayal is an all too human reaction, perhaps it's not the abundance of the heart that we are called to have. I quoted from Luke 6 about fruits of good and evil. I used Psalm 1 as my first reading about trees bearing fruit in their season. I closed with Galatians 5, fruit of the Spirit. Today I'm going to work in my garden after all of those fruit and tree references.

The best comment after the sermon was "I liked your sermon and you're right about the betrayal and the way people talk—too bad that the people who needed to hear that weren't here." Hm...

Then the deacon who had invited me said that she would call me again. Well, we have to trust the Spirit's leading on what happens then.

The next best comment, which I heard from at least two people, was that I was the first guest minister they've had who can really sing. While I am a singer and often a vocal soloist at my home church, I have to wonder at what that statement says about my colleagues in the pulpit. I am a worship leader, even as a guest preacher, so I put together the entire service when I am preparing, not just a sermon. Although the deacon said I could just give the scripture and sermon title to the secretary and let someone else pick the hymns, I can imagine that might not be the best way to have hymns that I know and can lead, and I wonder if that's what my colleagues did. I picked the hymns for the service, but I did consult with the secretary about whether the congregation would know those hymns.

So, those of you in the greater Boston area, or even in eastern Massachusetts, RI, or southern NH who need summer supply, feel free to contact me. Unless you tell me that your congregation needs it, I won't preach on betrayal, but I will lead worship and preach as the Spirit leads.

For those folks with interest in such things, I can provide a password-protected link to the final paper that resulted from my directed study, excerpts of which have appeared in postings on this blog in the past five months:
The state of welcome, inclusion, affirmation and placement
of women and LGBT people as clergy,
focusing on the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts
Just let me know your name and email via a comment (which I won't post here). It's 66 pages, with a fair number of charts, so rather too large a file for emailing, so I've put it on a website and then I'll send you the link. At this moment I want to manage the distribution of this paper (I'm still in the ordination process, you know), so I would appreciate some description of your interest and who you are. :-)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Considering Blessings and Betrayal

This past weekend was my graduation weekend from seminary and I am winding down from the joyful Friday evening baccalaureate worship service and exhortation to live the vita mixta—a life that contains both action for justice and time for spiritual reflection, both mystery and play, both rest and Sabbath; a life where you pay attention.

I am savoring the moments of intimate prayer together with classmates before we processed—on Friday in a random order with friends, dancing our way into the sanctuary with drums, and on Saturday in the alphabetical order required for proper matching of diplomas with the person, but in both cases prayer that wrapped us round for these last steps of this part of the journey.

Certainly I am recovering from the commencement ceremony, its length, the beautiful articulation of the story and struggle to understand God's call from our classmate, the surprise award/honor that I received, the blessing given as I was draped with my hood, the line of handshakes from trustees and the handshakes and hugs from faculty.

Following the weekend's party, I am delighting in the re-connections with friends who've supported me and their thoughtful gifts, some bought more than a year ago to honor this time, others with the idea of some gardening respite for me.

What I have not yet done is taken the time to grieve for the endings that this commencement marks. In every beginning is an ending that entails some losses, and I will miss many things about being a seminarian.

But in fact, I seem to have been thrown right into the next thing as I got a call to do pulpit supply for this Sunday. I'm preaching on Acts 1: 15-26, titling my sermon: "Replacing Judas."

Here are my ponderings:
This story is slotted between the story of the Ascension and of Pentecost and that makes me think that it was in some way quite important to the life of the early church. Certainly there's the symbolism of the twelve, but I can't think that's all.

I think this story raises a question of how we choose leaders, what are the qualifications that we seek, and what do we really need? For example, why pick between these two unknown men, rather than pick someone who really had been there through it all, like Mary of Magdala, or Joanna, or one of the other women who stayed through the crucifixion and who were the first at the tomb?

Or what does this story tell us about call, comparing Judas' call/role as a disciple vs. Matthias' call to replace him by winning the lottery.

And what does it mean that we never hear about Matthias again after this?

For the congregation where I'm preaching the question may be: how do people move on after betrayal? They have recently lost a pastor and a few comments that I heard make me think that some of this small congregation of people may be glad about that departure. Nonetheless, any time a pastoral relationship doesn't work out there is a betrayal of trust or of relationship. So, what can this story bring to a congregation who has been a part of a betrayal? I make no judgment about who betrayed whom, because I have no information, but think I can be sure that betrayal is part of the mix.

Is it a coincidence that I'm considering blessings and betrayal in the same week? Betrayal doesn't happen unless you care and are connected, yes?

I welcome your thoughts, preferably before Sunday morning.

And from poet Lisa Colt, this Prayer (from Claiming the Spirit Within, edited by Marilyn Sewell):
May we reveal our abundance without shame.
May we peel back our sleeping wintery layers
like snakeskins, like the silk chrysalis,
like clothing cast off during love.
May we unravel with abandon like lover's knots
before knitting ourselves back to the heart.
May we settle into our own rhythms as tides do--
within the borders of the moon's calling.
May the music of our souls
be accompanied by grand gestures
and the persistent clapping of hummingbird's wings.
May the milky fingers of the moon
reach down nightly to cherish and unveil us.
May we turn our bodies generously in its light
like tranquil fish glinting underwater,
like precious stones.
When we open our mouths to sing
may the seasons pause in their long journey
to listen and applaud.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Herding Cats and Doing the Right Things

Herding Cats: Life Lessons in Preparation for Ordination
We had between nine to fifteen cats most of the time I was growing up. I hasten to add that I grew up on a farm in Colorado, so we had a lot of space. They mostly lived in the garage with a few special cats allowed in the house. But all of them kept me company when the two dogs and I went on walks to the orchard or the garden.

Our orchard was a quarter of a mile away from the house, and I taught/encouraged the cats to come with me to the orchard and home again. Picture a ten year old walking in the midst of a swarm of cats, probably carrying one or two kittens who were too tired to make it back on their own, with the dogs ranging out and back, with a couple of the older cats pacing alongside, while the rest did their cat-style investigations: pouncing, sniffing, stopping to consider, rolling in the dust, climbing a tree, … Sometimes I had to backtrack to pick up a wailing kitten, sometimes we stopped to wait for some laggards, and often I had to encourage one or more through calling, getting down on my knees, or patting the ground. So early on in life I learned how to herd cats.

Those early life lessons, I realized this week, have really been very important in my preparation for ordination, that is, in gathering the materials and going through the hoops before ordination. I found out that I have successfully gotten all of the materials gathered and in for meeting with the Committee on Ministerial Preparation, and have been scheduled to meet with them in June. I think that I had to get no fewer than seven ministers, one layperson, and one school official to send in or arrange for materials on my behalf. Herding cats may have been easier, but it certainly prepared me for what it has taken to get this far along the process. What is true about herding cats and about getting these various ministers to send in materials is that the reason that each of them did so was out of love and affection, for me or for each other in the case of the cats, or for me or for the church and in ministry to God's people in the case of the ministers. I give thanks for the love that has accompanied me so far on this journey.

Doing the Right Things
This weekend I attended my denominational region's annual gathering. While there were a number of difficult issues, particularly around the consequences of difficult financial situations, I was impressed that people were/are doing the right things: budgets that require fiscal responsibility and living within the region's means after years of not doing that; one departing (laid off) area minister who wanted to make sure that she was reconciled to the region before she left and asked that if she had harmed any, to grant her forgiveness; and the region responding affirmatively to the member associations' request for review of their actions and authorizing bylaws that seem more top down than our congregational polity allows. In doing and accepting the doing of the right things there are moments of grace and healing.

This poem by Ellen Bass (found in Claiming the Spirit Within, edited by Marilyn Sewell) paints a picture of doing the right thing, and seems especially appropriate this Mother's Day:
There are times in life when one does the right thing
the thing one will not regret,
when the child wakes crying "mama," late
as you are about to close your book and sleep
and she will not be comforted back to her crib,
she points you out of her room, into yours,
you tell her, "I was just reading here in bed,"
she says, "read a book," you explain it's not a children's book
but you sit with her anyway, she lays her head on your breast,
one-handed, you hold your small book, silently read,
resting it on the bed to turn pages
and she, thumb in mouth, closes her eyes, drifts,
not asleep—when you look down at her, her lids open,
and once you try to carry her back
but she cries, so you return to your bed again and book,
and the way a warmer air will replace a cooler with a slight
shift of wind, or swimming, entering a mild current, you
enter this pleasure, the quiet book, your daughter in your lap,
an articulate person now, able to converse, yet still
her cry is for you, her comfort in you,
it is your breast she lays her head upon,
you are lovers, asking nothing but this bodily presence.
She hovers between sleep, you read your book,
you give yourself this hour, sweet and quiet beyond flowers
beyond lilies of the valley and lilacs even, the smell of her breath,
the warm damp between her head and your breast. Past midnight
she blinks her eyes, wiggles toward a familiar position,
utters one word, "sleeping." You carry her swiftly into her crib,
cover her, close the door halfway, and it is this sense of rightness,
that something has been healed, something
you will never know, will never have to know.
May the scent of lilacs (mine are blooming now) and a sense of rightness and the love of those who journey with us be with each of us today.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Finding God at the Hardware Store and the Holy at the Kitchen Sink

So, celebrate with me!! This past Wednesday, I turned in the final paper of my M.Div. degree, an epic that I have been sharing in bits and pieces here on this blog. I now understand that I could write a book, as I had a start on one with this paper—it was perhaps longer than anticipated, but when the professor said, "Don't leave any of the good stuff out," it just kept coming. Graduation is two weeks away—I have my cap and gown.

In the past several days, I've tried to remember what it's like not to have school work to do. On Wednesday night I stopped at a bookstore and bought three fat science fiction and fantasy books, and got burritos to go. On Thursday evening I raked the winter's debris from part of my yard, and on Friday morning remembered that I had not been doing that sort of exercise in a while.

Today, I think I may go to the hardware store. Last weekend my letter carrier chided me for not replacing the broken handle on the screen door: "you can buy a new one for nine dollars at the hardware store, and if you don't, your screen door is going to get all messed up banging in the wind." You see, I had removed the inside portion of the handle because it was stuck in the locked position and was locking me out of the house. When I'm inside, my jury-rigged solution is a rubber band around the outside handle over to catch on the door frame, and perhaps he's tired of being shot by the rubber band every Saturday for the past ten or twelve weeks. The UPS guy has figured out how to pull open the door and slip packages in, but the letter carrier doesn't try.

The screen door is not the only thing that needs attention around the house. I have been making a list waiting for this day, this week, this summer. But the last five years have had an impact, and I came across this poem as a witness to continued theological reflection.

A Hardware Store As Proof of the Existence of God
Nancy Willard
from Claiming the Spirit Within: A Sourcebook of Women's Poetry, Marilyn Sewell, ed., Boston: Beacon Press, 1996

I praise the brightness of hammers pointing east
like the steel woodpeckers of the future,
and dozens of hinges opening brass wings,
and six new rakes shyly fanning their toes,
and bins of hooks glittering into bees,

and a rack of wrenches like the long bones of horses,
and mailboxes sowing rows of silver chapels,
and a company of plungers waiting for God
to claim their thin legs in their big shoes
and put them on and walk away laughing.

In a world not perfect but not bad either
let there be glue, glaze, gum, and grabs,
caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, and slips,
and signs so spare a child may read them,
Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands, they can work wonders.

This poem in turn reminded me of a song from this iTunes playlist,
"Holy As A Day Is Spent" (Carrie Newcomer, The Gathering of Spirits).
I quote only the first stanza, and I commend the rest to your listening:

Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Showerheads and good dry towels

And frying eggs sound like psalms
With a bit of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent
~Carrie Newcomer 2001

So, I am planning for a holy day, because there are also dishes in the sink waiting, and then hope to find God, or at least a screen door handle, at the hardware store. But these are wonderful reminders that God is present with us in all that we do and all that we encounter.

My prayer for today is that we each are able to savor our meetings with God and the holy in the everyday things: the dishes in the sink, the good dry towels, the plunger, the brass winged hinges, the screen door handle, and maybe even in the new doorbell. The sacred is always present and I invite us today just to notice its presence, and let it work wonders in our hands, and always in your life and in mine.