Thursday, October 28, 2010

Community vs. Competition

It's a theme that keeps surfacing in ministry for me. It started out as an affront to my idealistic just-out-of-seminary, if-they-only-knew-what-I-knew self that came in to my first appointment and preached all about community and reconciliation and the good news and the kingdom/kin-dom of God.

And then we had a contentious election (remember 2000?) and the World Trade Center/Pentagon bombing took place and we went into military action and we were angry. Angry at the French (freedom fries? really?), angry at those who had perpetrated such actions. We, of course, also got to be angry at the dot coms for having a bubble to burst. And then we got to be angry at the other political party. Now we're just angry. Angry angry angry. At undocumented workers. At the health care industry. At Congress. At our neighbors.

Through it all, I kept having this vision of community in front of me. Kept bringing it up. And I think what happened over time is that it got less and less believable. I couldn't think of why except that it's hard to be in community with people with whom we are angry.

But anger isn't the root, I don't think. I've seen anger dissipate *because* of community.

No--today as I was assessing relationships within the community I serve, it occurred to me that there is intense competition here. Competition for scarce resources. Competition for power. Competition for position. Competition for members. Competition for status.

And it's not healthy competition--not the kind of competition that helps each person get more faithfully...see the kingdom more clearly.

Then again, I wonder if any competition can be truly healthy. Because any competition I think eventually breaks down community. Think about how rival towns get in the World Series. I admit that in the last week, I've thought a few not-so-nice things about the New York Yankees.

It's not healthy for me. It's not healthy for me to want to win so badly that I think someone else has to lose. It's not healthy for me to sit and compare compare compare myself to other human beings--to their salaries, to their work ethic, to their body types or their church sizes.

It breaks down community at every level if I can't wish the best, most faithful and healthy situation for every church around me. It breaks down community at every level if I can't wish the best, most faithful and healthy situation for every member of my congregation or staff...or every person living in the neighborhood around me or for the state I live in or the neighboring states (hello--every governor is so proud of the "jobs created" when they are really most likely taken from somewhere else...) or even the neighboring countries.

It has to be more than me "winning". It has to be me opting out of games in order to follow Jesus.

So tonight, when I go into Administrative Board, I wonder if I will recognize the game in time...and instead of agreeing to referee...I wonder if I will be able to say, "Let's be among our community as those who serve. Not as those who wield power and authority. But those who serve." Let the games...end.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


One of my best friends from seminary got engaged last week. My joy for her is overflowing and inescapable, as I find myself thinking about her even more than I had been recently. Congrats Becky and Jeff from yet another venue!!

Part of it is that I kinda knew it was coming, as I had gotten to see her in person a couple of weeks ago, and she said that her relationship had moved to this point. I bounced and then tried to contain contain contain because I ended up seeing a bunch of our mutual friends the next week in various parts of the country. I didn't want *her* secret to overflow or even come close to being hinted at since it was her joy and her love and her wonderful news to tell.

But now that it's out, I find myself thinking about the joy of the upcoming months and the joy and change and work of the upcoming years.

Now don't get me wrong--Becky would have had joy in her life whether or not their was a husband. But when I was dating and getting married, it was Becky who asked all the right questions of me and my boyfriend, then fiancee, then husband. She asked how he helped me to live better...more fully...more faithfully. And then she turned around and asked the same question of him.

When I asked her those same questions a couple of weeks ago, she gave me wise answers, as if these questions had always been on her mind as well. That's Becky--always wanting to live more fully and help others to do the same. We've both gotten off track from that in our lives at times, but somehow...either through our relationship or our relationships with others...we've gotten back to it.

So this song has been going through my mind...both because I think of Becky whenever I have heard it, and now...more so.

the city wears a veil of grey
but the children they still play in a major key
we all have the same day
they just go about theirs a little more deliciously

the honeymooners play a part
of roll and tumble and don’t-forget-to-breathe
we all have the same heart
they just love with theirs a little more deliciously

deliciously the sun sets in the sky
and licoricely it splashes in my eyes
silly old me i watch the days go by
and i never know why but they keep the beat

the poet’s throat is full of birds
he tosses thoughts up in the air effortlessly
we all know the same words
he just uses his a little more deliciously

the dancers move in subtle tones
they sweep across the floor so gracefully
we all have the same bones
they just move in theirs a little more deliciously

Becky and Jeff...may you always keep the heartbeat of God's Grace in you...deliciously.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Church by Design

I have been searching the internet this past week for pictures to go along with the sermon for World Communion Sunday--pictures of all kinds of tables, from basic to elegant and comfortable to awkward. The design of the table matters...but also those who are gathered around it.

But in my wanderings, I came across the following blog entry about students in an industrial design class at Lund University in Sweden. Sweden, if you didn't know, is international home of the place that has given us the functional, if not high end, designs of IKEA, which grace the apartments and homes of many of my friends and family. So I thought to myself--this would be interesting to see the inner thought processes of the people who one day may be designing furniture for my dreamt-of kids and grandkids.

The challenge to the students was, however, to design components for a chair without knowing what the other components might look like. Each chair leg, the seat and the backrest were all designed independently of each other. The kicker is that each of the 6 designers in a group was given the same word to use as inspiration for their component.

See the results here:

What Can You Bring to the Table?

Sometimes church (and more specifically, the United Methodist Church) feels to me like one of these chairs. We each are given a Word...and then told to come up with a component without necessarily talking to each other about how those components can and should function together. Some of the chair components in these pictures are just silly. But some of them would be perfectly functional and perhaps even lovely if they could be worked into an intentional design with component parts that looked and functioned in similar ways.

The problem is--who gets to decide which word gets used? The words that the students were given were highly diverse: vain, voluptuous, awkward, vicious, androgynous. It would be difficult to take component parts designed around voluptuous and vicious and place them into the same chair.

And so it is with the church--especially when we get into global levels. My local congregation can choose to construct a Chair with a more limited scope--but even then there will be competing understandings of the Word that we're reading. When we multiply that by the various local concerns and the breadth of the Word that we're given (as well as its interpretation!), I wonder if we'll ever come up with a structure that resembles something that the wounded and weary, sin-sick and sore can come upon and find the salvation and healing of God.

We're going to continue arguing over which words are important. Very few of them are unimportant. But which are good focus words for the structure that need to be built?

This is the question for my local congregation. It's also the question I have for the wider general church. What chairs might be brought to the Table of Grace from the four focus areas that we have as a church? Do they work together and allow for us to have the kind of Open Table that we proclaim in spirit (if not always in practice)?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Singing Together

I have attended a lot of meetings over the past couple of weeks. Since my life revolves around the church so much, these meetings have all involved:

1. church folk
2. eating
3. sung grace

Now, I am a singing person. I love the fact that I belong to a denomination with a sung theology. So you would think that when we sing thanksgiving to God for the food we are about to eat, I would be perfectly happy with that.

But lately I have found that I am not only dissatisfied, I'm downright worried.

Typically, when Methodists get together, when we sing the grace before meals it's a version of "The Wesleyan Grace".

Be present at our table, Lord
Be here and everywhere adored
These favors bless, and grant that we
May feast in fellowship with Thee. Amen.

Ignoring the controversy that has come up over whether "favors" in the third line should really be "mercies", this text and tune (OLD 100TH) have been linked together and to my entire history growing up in the United Methodist Church. I love gathering in a circle and singing together because the voices that are not as strong blend in and gain courage from the others. It always sounds like beautiful harmony as well, which is where, in the end, we get into trouble.

What I have noticed lately is that we start off strong with a good tempo. The words mean something and then we're proclaiming them with notes to go along.

But then we get enthralled with the sound of the harmony, self-involved with the sound of our own voices and we begin not proclaiming, but performing. I think it's indicative that by the end of the song, we've slowed down and are singing more for the sound of our voices in harmony than for the God who created the sound and our voices to begin with!

I was made aware of this the first summer I attended what is now the Church Music Summer Seminar at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. Jane Marshall, whose sung theology is some of the best I know, told us to never let the tempo drag because it would drag us down into the idolatry of ourselves.

Even if it doesn't get into idolatry, I do wonder if it isn't an indication that we pay more attention to what's going on in the inside of the church...rather than what God is doing with the whole of God's Creation. Next time you sing thanks to God, it's something to think about.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Getting There

I do a lot of traveling in my car. 315,000+ miles on it--all in the last 10 years. It's showing the kind of wear and tear you get from that many years and that many miles, but it still gets me where I need to go, and I'm either frugal or stubborn enough not to get a new (or new-to-me) car!

But there are many people around me who worry on a pretty regular basis about the "getting me there" part. They worry that I'll break down in a remote location. They worry that something will go out unexpectedly and cause a horrible accident, hurting either me or someone else. They worry that "getting there" might not happen.

I worry about that a lot in the church. I think and dream about where we can go and see so many steps inbetween there and here--steps that are financial, steps that are spiritual, steps that are emotional and steps that are procedural. I wonder if all the steps can take place and in what order they need to come. I tend to think a lot about these dreams, and I sometimes forget that I haven't laid out the maps and the hopes and the possibilities for everyone.

Sometimes that's because my dreaming seems scary to me--I'm willing to entertain ideas that if they were put out on the table I feel might cut of discussion or the ability to dream in other people. Sometimes it's just because I "go with the flow"--and the best ideas occur to me on the spur of the moment. Sometimes I share those thoughts and ideas with only a few people and forget that they need to be more widely shared.

And sometimes it's because I fear rejection. I fear what will happen if I know that an idea is good and it would work, but the back to the past crew invades and insists that it will never work and that I'm just a bad leader, not worthy of the task that I've been given. Intellectually, I know that these crews are sometimes wise in keeping things in check--sometimes allowing the dreamers like me to see something better. As Joseph, the dreamer, tells his brothers--"What you meant for evil, God meant for good." I'm not implying that the back to the past crew means evil, but sometimes the route that we take to God's good need to be a circuitous route that involves the back to the past crew.

And, of course, sometimes the back to the past crews are just that--those who don't want to move forward because they fear where they will be and what kind of place they will have. They fear they will not be powerful enough or that their voice won't be heard. It's those motives that make me less inclined to wait until the back to the past crew is satisfied.

But today I was reminded that I cannot continue to allow myself to only entertain thoughts of having to "get there" despite the ways in which I feel I (and other dreamers in the church!)are being held back. A person from my church who has a lot of wisdom reminded me that sometimes when I feel like the church isn't wanting to go anyplace that the church is simply trying to remind me that they want to go someplace, but they want to get there *together*.

Eventually, we may have to leave a few behind--not all of the Israelites who crossed over the Red Sea got to cross the Jordan into the promised land. Not even Moses (another, though less literal, dreamer-leader)! But they all traveled together, wandered together, listened for a word from God together, argued together and ate together. I want to remember that sometimes I need to make sure others are invited to the ride, fully strapped in, and let in on the panic, thrill and joy of Getting There...

which is when the real magic begins.

Friday, January 22, 2010

U2charist playlist

Our U2charist service was a celebration--even in the midst of our sorrow at the tragedy in Haiti. Our offering was taken for both Haiti and Imagine No Malaria, our campaign to end malaria in 10 African countries by 2015. Join us for our next U2charist in April 2010! Watch this blog and for more news! You can also find us on facebook...

Here is the playlist and something about the worship!

Welcome to St. Mark United Methodist Church! We are so please that you could join us for this service tonight. We want to worship God by singing a new song--or maybe even older songs in a new way--and to learn about malaria and other opportunities that you might have to make a difference in the world.

(All U2 songs are in bold and are used by permission.)

PEACE ON EARTH (prelude)

Greeting and Announcements

PRIDE (IN THE NAME OF LOVE) (processional)
Opening Prayer
MAGNIFICENT (this was where I brought the incense into the congregation and set us apart as holy for the purposes of the beat!)
Collect of the Day (a "collect" is a formal name for a type of prayer)

Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 58:9-14
40 (psalm)
New Testament Lesson: Romans 12:6-13
ELEVATION (carrying the Gospel book into the midst of the congregation)
Gospel lesson: Luke 10:25-37
WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME (response to the sermon)
Prayers of the People
Prayer of Confession and Absolution
WHEN LOVE COMES TO TOWN (celebration of forgiveness)
Passing of the Peace (before we come to the Table)

YAHWEH (offertory)
Great Thanksgiving for Holy Communion
Lord's Prayer
Sharing the Meal (Communion)
Prayer after Receiving

WALK ON (postlude)
GET ON YOUR BOOTS (postlude)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bringing on the Joy

"Ask not, doubt not. You have, my heart, already chosen the joy of Advent. As a force against your own uncertainty, bravely tell yourself, 'It is the Advent of the great God.' Say this with faith and love, and then both the past of your life, which has become holy, and your life's eternal, boundless future will draw together in the now of this world. For then into the heart comes the one who is Advent, the boundless future who is already in the process of coming, the Lord, who has already come into the time of the flesh to redeem it." (Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year)

This past week, full of its own ups and downs, has been less about the chronological time that my calendar and my schedule keep, and more about sending me headlong into the kairos that is all around me. kairos is the Greek word for "God time"--the "appointed time". It has always seemed to me that it is time outside of time...time in which all things good exist. I have wanted to live in this time, not to escape the mundane and sometimes even painful parts of the chronological, but to know and remember what Rahner admonishes me to do: to fight my own uncertainty with the joy of Advent. The one who is coming has already come and my celebration is a both/and.

Balancing the tension between the need to keep to schedules and plans and maps and the need to exist in the time appointed has usually kept me from fully letting go. This week, my preparations for the Christ-Mass will be filled with joy, and I will say into the void of clocks ticking my days away (and ticking the days of those I love away)--no more! For time is met headlong with the joy of knowing what has come to pass...and is now coming to pass...and will come to pass--all at once.

Bring on the joy.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Advent with Auden

I can't quite put my finger on it, but W.H. Auden really has Advent and Christmastide down for me. Those seasons are never quite as bright and shiny as nostalgia demands, but the joy for me when I truly catch hold of them is deeper than our secular holiday might proclaim. I think Auden's connection has something to do with the deep sadness and distress and longing of his own life...something that requires more than just bright, shiny, and happy to deal with. It requires actual deep joy, deep peace, deeper than the surface--penetrating to the dark places.

He "gets" why we need the Light so much because he has seen the darkness.

I came across this stanza from a poem of his, "Alone, alone" today:

"We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle."

Our very lives (and what we, as human beings have done with them) demand something deeper. There is some amazing thing that must happen to shake us from our complacency. Yet we have even managed to turn this Christ-Mass into a time of auto-pilot because there seems so much to to get out, services to plan, staff evaluations to do, house to clean AND decorate before the youth arrive for their party, "child" care to plan for when we go on vacation over the holidays.

I'm pondering this in the context of Auden because my "to do" list actually needs to be done--especially as it pertains to planning and carrying out worship and end of year things, but I think there is a holier way to do it, a way which tempers the manic joy of making sure that everything is done in order to fulfill my Victorian and administrative fantasies and simply asks, "What needs to be done in order that we all may experience the wonder of Incarnation again? What needs to be done in order to help my work and home function in such a way as is faithful to God's call in our lives?"

I hope that this year we are not required to save a parking space for the donkey and upgrade the accommodations so as not to offend ourselves (though the Occupant has never been offended thus). For the part of my life and the lives around me which don't want the smell of sheep dung mingled with our cinnamon and evergreen, I pray that God might know the depth of miracle we need.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Blood in the Water...and Plasma too!

Oh yeah. My first tendency is to be conflict averse. I'm getting over that. I've got good medicine.

It's called the Gospel.

I've been watching information and misinformation about the current health care reform debate. And I've watched the pithy status lines and polls on facebook, sound bites that sometimes wound. It would pain me less to see actual honest debate without spin. My first tendency is to not wade into these waters.

But I'm reminded that at the Pool, the way to be healed was to wade least until Jesus showed up! But it's not just a superstition that we deal with by the water's edge. Jesus asks, "Do you want to be healed?"

Do we want to be healed?

I think we'd rather fear. Because fear is easier. It isolates us. It means we maintain control, or at least the illusion of control. It means we don't have to untidy our lives or entangle them with the lives of others. It means we can continue to feel more worthy.

It also means that we can go on fearing death in secret, though we proclaim that we are living even now our eternal life.

This caveat--I deeply desire to read information from each side of the debate. I also deeply desire to NOT read anything that can be said in 30 seconds or less. This reform is far too complex for 30 seconds or less. It's far too complex for single anecdotal evidence. I don't feel I yet know enough about this to comment specifically on what plan would be best for us to adopt. I am predisposed to have a desire that all people might have access to health care because I believe that the Gospel mandates that we care for each other, including the sojourner and the stranger. I don't know the optimal way to do it.

But I do know that this debate is currently more about our fear than it is our faith. And when we spend more time wounding each other than praying and discussing what it means to be people of faith in the midst of a time when we could influence the care of millions of people, it makes me wonder what is at the root of our fear. The wounds have left blood in the water and those who feed on our fears have sensed that we are much easier to manipulate.

I want to be healed. I desire healing for all. The vision of Isaiah 65 stands in my mind: "No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed." We cannot abandon the wealthy. We cannot abandon the poor. We cannot abandon children. We cannot abandon the elderly.

I know this may mean I have to sacrifice more. I may end up with less so that others might have enough.

I also believe that is the kingdom. I am ashamed that I might have to be "forced" into that. Maybe the time to start is now.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Watching our Youth

I have been acting as our youth director for the past 7 months, and I confess that sometimes it's the most stressful thing I've got going. But I've discovered lately that one of the reasons I've been stressed is that I've been underestimating our youth.

The youth at St. Mark don't just want to be entertained. They want a way to connect all their lives with the life of the Holy. They want to look in the Bible and see themselves, including their passions and failings.

On Sunday, I took what I thought was an "easy way out". I decided to have them work on retelling a Bible story--their choice. They had loved the dramatic retelling of David and Goliath that we had used in worship early this summer, and so I thought they might get a little creative with another story. Plus, they love it when we bring out the video camera with the thought of getting to be "on film".

The first thing out of one of their mouths was "how about the story where the guy raises an army of the dead?" I explained about Ezekiel and about the prophets and some of the context and we read the scripture and talked some more about it.

And then their brains and the Holy Spirit started to kick in. They started wondering what it might be like for the "Master of the Universe" to drop "Z-Man" onto the St. Mark playground. What bones, literal and figurative might be there? How would God bring them to life? And what's more, how could we film it and present it to the congregation?

I loved watching them pouring over the Bible to get ideas for the script...and cutting out bones and picturing what the bones of the church might look like. They didn't need me to entertain them with a game. They just needed to be let loose into the places where God has working...and will work always. And then know that those places were here. Now. With them.

Love it.