Sssh…don’t tell anyone…

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I’ve been tagged by the man who already knows all my secrets. It’s the eight random facts meme:

1. When I was a child, I wanted to be Debby Boone. I would croon into my hairbrush, “SOO ma-ny nights, I sit by my windoooow, waiting for someone to sing me HIS SONG.” Admit it, you want to sing along. Everybody now. “YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE. YOU GIVE ME HOPE…”

2. In the religious fervor of my youth, I was part of an evangelistic miming troupe. I think I’ve said enough. And we shall never speak of this fact again.

3. I was offered a full math scholarship to a prestigious college. I turned it down to follow my dream of becoming a missionary pilot. After arriving at Moody Bible Institute, I was rejected from the aviation program because I was a woman (this was in the 90s!). Who knew? Evidently, people with my body parts can’t fly Cessnas…

4. I once took a Jainist to a hunting lodge to eat. The taxidermy was abundant. Everywhere. When she didn’t order anything, I offered her a bite of my burger. As we sat under the giant deer head, I wondered why she looked like she was about to puke.

5. I write down all of my dreams. And then I try to figure out what they mean.

6. I laugh so hard at dumb movies, that I make my husband sneak out with me before the credits start running. Actually, I think he usually initiates the fleeing, after he sees the dirty looks from the other theater goers.

7. I fall asleep when guests come over for dinner. It’s embarrassing, but true. One glass of wine, and I’m history.

8. I watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force. In fact, I even have DVDs of entire seasons. I even saw the movie the day it came out. I laughed all the way through it (although I laughed hardest at the first seven minutes). My favorite ATHF character is MC PeePants, because of his stone cold groove. Although, who couldn’t love the meatwad? The PoD’s favorite is Shake, because he says Shake personifies his shadow side…oh, but these random facts are supposed to be about me….

Since I’m probably the very last blogger on the entire earth to receive this tag, and since I’m such a rebel at heart, I’m breakin’ the rules. I’m no longer spreadin’ the love.

You-are-not-it!

Politics and the pulpit

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It’s five ’til and I’m getting ready for the noon Good Friday Service, meeting with the reader, going over the parts. I have my sermon in hand.

A couple of young women come to my office, and I think, Oh good. College students. I’m glad they showed up. I hope it’s not an emergency, though. I don’t have much time…

“Reverend Merritt?”

“Yes.”

“Um, we’re the Secretary of State’s secret service. We’re here just to check everything out. Dr. Rice is going to attend the service.”

“Okay. Thanks,” I say as I look to see if they’re packing heat in the church.

Our sanctuary’s a stone’s throw from the Watergate Apartments, where Condoleezza lives. Her dad was a Presbyterian pastor. She usually goes to the prestigious National Presbyterian Church, but I guess she was in a crunch, and decided to worship at our place. We’re the scrappy little church on the corner, the one that’s filled with good-humored contrarians.

I stare at my sermon and wonder if I should deviate. I wasn’t planning to say anything in my Good Friday homily about the infuriating war in Iraq, or the abominable use of torture in our country. It was a nice little piece about the family of God.

I wonder if I can fit it in…like…”You know, it’s interesting that we’ve brought up the subject of Jesus being tortured, because THAT REALLY APPLIES TO OUR LIVES. RIGHT NOW.”

The deviation wouldn’t be out of place in our pulpit. We preach about politics all the time. I mean we’re in DC, if we didn’t talk about it, it would be like living in Nebraska and never mentioning the corn.

Plus, look around. Can we sit back and let everything we believe be trampled upon, and not say anything, because we think that politics don’t belong in the pulpit? Really, would God want us to keep those artificial niceties up? Shouldn’t we be preaching about things that mean something to people? Shouldn’t we be preaching about things that mean something to us?

I’m not talking about supporting one particular candidate or a party over another. I’m not talking about keeping the religious left talking points next to our Bibles. I’m talking about standing up for injustice and crying out for peace.

I’ve protested. I’ve joined throngs of people, walking, singing, shouting, calling out, in the hopes that someone in this administration would hear me. Then I would find a tiny little paragraph about the march on page 17 of the Style section, the next morning.

Now I have the chance to speak to the big C, directly.

I still don’t know what I would have done. She didn’t show. But, I think I would have just gone with the script. I mean, I didn’t have a chance to think about it or pray about it. Spouting out a bunch of hearfelt, yet unprepared ramblings would have probably made things worse.

Unless the Holy Spirit moved….

So, what would you have done?

Breaking the cycle

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Look at those students. Doesn’t your heart just soar when you see them?

A portion of my job as a pastor at Western is dedicated to Campus Ministry at the George Washington University campus. When we reach out to them, it feels like we’re reaching out to the world. They’re from so many different backgrounds, and they’re going to so many different places when they graduate.

I love the students. I love getting to know them, working with them, and struggling with them. I love watching them come in as teenagers and leave as young, poised adults. I. Love. These. Students.

I was at a higher education meeting with a group of other people who love students last night. The meeting was like watching a slow train wreck because the funding’s shrinking for campus ministries.

We get our money from the denomination, and the local churches just aren’t giving as much any more. The congregations want to have a more personal connection to their charity. And (although no one really says it), I sense a bit of distrust between the church and the higher governing bodies. So we have to cut.

The solution? Campus ministries need to get money from somewhere else. But, for many of the chaplains, it feels impossible to suddenly find funding from other sources. And so we spend our meetings, being defensive and frustrated, because…well…look at those students…wouldn’t you be crushed?

In the United States, we have what Robert Putnam calls the “life-cycle” of church attendance. Children attend and then they quit. They spend a couple of decades away from the pews. They may wander back when they’re middle aged. The average age of the mainline protestant is 57.

We’ve always depended on denominational loyalty to get people back into our doors, but…um…there’s really no such thing as denominational loyalty any more.

So, we have to keep reaching out to people, at every age. Sometimes we have to give to young adult ministries, even when they’re in no position to give back. We’ve got to support people in these crucial periods in their lives, when their trying to figure out what to major in, where to move, how to love, and what they’re going to do with their lives.

Somehow, we’ve just got to break the life cycle.

Confessions of a predatory lender

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I walk through the shiny car salesroom, down the hall, into my comfortable business manager office, and find a file waiting on my desk. I thumb through the forms that I see regularly, but notice that the numbers that are filled in are quite unusual. The cost of the car is well above the Blue Book recommendation, the interest rate is twenty-two percent, and to top it all off, there’s a high-priced warranty attached.

I enter my boss’ office with the papers in hand and ask, “What is this?”

She continues looking down and shuffling papers as she answers, “The deal’s done, Carol. You just need to have them sign.”

“It’s done?” I say, closing my eyes and letting out a weary breath.

“Yup.”

“What bank would do this? It’s way above Blue Book and the rate’s too high. And what about the warranty? What company covers a seven-year-old Yugo, with so many miles on it? We all know this is going to be repossessed in a couple of months.”

“It’s done,” She emphatically puts down her newly stacked files and finally looks up at my worried face. “Listen, Carol, with their income, they’re lucky to be getting a car at all. Now go do your job.”

I walk back into my office, where I see a young couple sitting, waiting in their t-shirts and blue jeans. They’re clearly excited about their purchase, and I greet them with a meager smile.

At this point, I’ve made up an alternative scenario in my mind, about what I wish I could have done, about what I would do now. I imagine that I close my office door and counsel the couple not to go through with it. Then, I get up from my seat and quit, right then and there.

But I don’t do these things. I do my job. I point out the interest rate, and the amount that they would accrue if they pay the loan on schedule. I tell them exactly how much the warranty will cost them. When their thrill doesn’t fade, I show them all the signature lines and hold my breath while they take turns signing away. I shake their hands, give them my card, and let them leave my office.

Two months and sixty migraine headaches later, I finally do quit my job and apply for seminary.

This happened more than ten years ago and, to my knowledge, it only happened once. But one time was enough to make me complicit. It was also enough to make me very aware of the shadow side of the finance business, and its role in digging a deeper hole of debt for the working poor. As a pastor, while working with people in some of the poorest areas of the country, I realize that things have gotten a whole lot worse.

It’s now commonplace for lenders to sell Adjustable Rate Mortgages, with interest rates that increase rapidly after five years. Loan officers, who are supposed to be counseling college students on behalf of the school, are receiving financial incentives and gifts from particular lenders. Credit card companies set up tables on campuses, offering t-shirts and key chains to teenagers who will not have any income for four years. Now, it is accepted that a middle-class, home-owning family might pay more than twenty percent interest on an auto loan.

All credit is not created equally. If a person shows the slightest measure of irresponsibility by missing a payment or accruing too much debt, he or she will be presented with a higher interest rate. Higher rates are also given to those who have been completely responsible: A person with a low income will be charged more for a debt. In short, those who can afford it the least, will pay the most.

When people have to have a car, a house, or an education, the end becomes more important than the means, and they don’t always make the wisest decisions. Lenders realize this, and they regularly victimize the most vulnerable in our society. So, it’s no wonder that bankruptcies boom, mortgage foreclosures soar, and student loan scandals erupt all around us. “It’s become like the Wild West,” Elizabeth Warren, economist at Harvard University, says as she describes the predatory nature of our lenders.

The countering logic says that people should be financially savvy. They ought to know better. They should know when they’re signing a bad deal and live with the consequences. That young couple in my office should have been personally responsible. The teenager should be smarter when she accepts the plastic at twenty-eight percent interest. The family should understand that their mortgage payment’s going to increase dramatically after five years. Furthermore, when the bank takes a high risk on low-income people, then the institution ought to be paid more for the high probability of foreclosure.

So, who’s to blame for this breakdown in our society? Can we blame the lenders? They’re not doing anything illegal, and it’s their job is to watch out for their bottom line, to make as much money as possible.

Can we blame the borrowers? They write their names on the bottom line of pages and pages of tiny type. A person would need a degree in law and finance to understand the wording around those complex transactions.

As Christians, we cannot blame one party or the other. We’ve all become complicit. Warren’s right, we look like the Wild West when we’ve been called to live as a just society. We have been commanded to make sure that the needy are not crushed and the poor are not oppressed; yet, we look away when the poor and young are financially victimized. In our blindness, we have created a lifetime of bondage and unimaginable consequences for the least of those in our society.

We can no longer rely on institutional benevolence. We can no longer expect that every person signing documents understands the full ramifications of the transactions.

As long as we let the burden rest on one of these parties, we will not be able to solve this social crisis. However, if we can understand that we carry this weight upon each of our shoulders, we can begin to find solutions, as faithful people. We can call for an end to predatory lending practices. We can fight to put caps on interest rates. We can kick the credit card companies off of our college campuses. We can demand that university loan officers work for education and on behalf of the students, rather than for the financial institutions. We can call for fair treatment for the working poor.

When we begin to see that we all share the burden, we can put more effort into educating adults and children on the dangers of institutional borrowing. We can ensure that the working poor do not put their entire paycheck into inflated interest payments. We can encourage each college student to weigh the cost and benefits of his or her education. We can begin to lift up the poor in our midst and we can live just lives.

Caught in the net

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On Saturday, I presided over a wedding in a lovely park in Maryland. It was a perfect day. The sun was shining, the flowers were blooming, and the bride and groom, they were beautiful, practically glowing at the ceremony.

They met over the Internet, during the last presidential election. I’ve only done two weddings this year (the HOS loves doing them, he must have one every weekend–I think he ought to retire in Vegas). Both of them have been couples who met over the net.

What’s that about? Is it the sad state of the social scene for young adults in D.C.? Is it a national trend?

I know it’s not just in D.C. Many people who are finding community, sharing information, and working for social change in cyberspace.

When a blogger-friend told me that her daily on-line diary was a source of connection for her, I was confused. But then my husband began blogging, and surprisingly, within three months, we began talk about the frequent comments of Agnostic Atheism, Hearty Heretic, He is Sailing, My Inner Edge, and many others around the dinner table.

We’ve all seen the net effects on evangelical religious communities: The Emergent Village¬†and Sojourners/Call to Renewal, have become places where Christians can connect with the like-minded. We’ve learned a great deal about the New Monastics, too (and we wish you well with rebuilding).

With a book coming out, I’ve become more aware of the business of publishing. My favorite Hip Mamma says that most books sell 1,000 copies. Alban books do better than that. Their books sell 2,000 to 3,000 copies, and a bestseller can do 10,000. It’s been interesting to open up a blog site and find out how print reader numbers compare to on-line reading. Of course, there are many problems with comparing those very different sorts of stats (Apples and Oranges. Really.). But it does make me wonder how many people read the Theolog versus the Christian Century.

Allison Fine writes about the work of social change. She has a contagiously optimistic outlook about all of this, especially in the work of activists. She contends that the Internet can help us move from serving soup until our elbows ache to actually solving ills like hunger and homelessness.

In addition, Fine points out something else: “Localness matters: relationships can be started online, but they are strengthened and deepened by in-person activities.” We have to be online and on-land.

It’s a great reminder as the church learns to live, and move, and have our being in the connected age, that we can’t become completely caught in the net. As we form relationships, share information, and work for social justice, we can’t forget our incarnational ministries either. We still have to move beyond our flat-screen relationships, and learn to be there for one another, in the flesh.

photo by Joseph Dath

Lean and Green

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I had a conversation with a pastor of a large historic church, who told me that their church could save $100,000 a year if they moved their offices out of the church building during business hours. One hundred K every year, and the savings would come from the electricity bill.

“When’s the move?” I asked.

He halted a bit. It seems that the church and staff haven’t quite gotten their heads around the idea. It is, after all, a very historic church.

Yet, it makes me wonder how much our churches could care for the environment with similar moves. We could make some drastic cuts in the carbon emissions in our country if we weren’t trying to keep these mammoth buildings operational 24/7.

But it is hard to get our heads around the idea. I know. I’ve been there. It’s hard to explain to a congregation why replacing the 50-year-old boiler would save them money. Or why installing double-pane windows would be a wise investment. Shoot, it’s even hard to explain why changing to an $8 CFL bulb will pay off by the end of the summer.

Churches run on month-to-month calculations, because we usually have month-to-month incomes. We avoid large initial investments. We run away from looking into the ductwork, because we have the looming fear of asbestos, and we figure that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. It’s difficult to imagine long-term savings or long-term stewardship. It’s hard to explain to a congregation why we should rent an office space, when we already own a space.

Western recently became green. With the help of GWIPL, now all of our energy comes from renewable sources: wind power and landfill gas. We had an energy audit too, and we’re working on long-term goals like changing the light bulbs (some fixtures have to be replaced).

Through this project, the thing that shocks me the most is how energy inefficient our building is, and it’s only 12 years old. There are some things that we have to do while maintaining a traditional space (like the sanctuary’s thermostat has to be at a constant level to preserve the pipes and oak).

If we were building the church now, there are many, many things that could be done differently. We could have bamboo flooring instead of oak. We could have more skylights and windows, taking advantage of natural lighting. Our landscaping could be filled with plants that originate from our area and need less water.

We’re at a crucial time to discuss these issues, as our older congregations give birth to something new. After all, in the PCUSA, forty percent of our pulpits are empty, due to a lack of pastors or an inability for the church to call an installed minister. Our Presbytery’s been closing one church every year. In the next couple of decades, we’re going to see a tremendous shift, as church buildings close down and we plant new ones. I’m an optimist and a realist who rarely trembles at the death of the church. I imagine that the crisis can provide for great opportunity, especially in the way that we care for God’s creation.

It’s high time for us to become lean and green.

In this day and age, I know we can do better. As we begin to dream and plan for what’s to come, we can think carefully about our sacred spaces. With an appreciation for our great ecclesial architecture, we can begin to get our heads around some of these environmental issues.

We can engage artists, theologians, builders, environmentalists and architects to create spaces that will lift our spirits, while caring for our beautiful creation. It’s time for us to evolve from those hallowed, ineffecient, empty dinosaurs and the rapture-ready metal boxes, to fashion something new.

Have you ever had that feeling?

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It was a beautiful evening, over two years ago, before I became a pastor at Western Church. I was a pastor in Barrington, and my Rhode Island representative, Patrick Kennedy, invited me to join him at the National Prayer Breakfast.

I was riding over Memorial Bridge with his office manager, heading into D.C. from Reagan Airport. The night was crisp, and I could see the Lincoln Memorial in front of me, with its white grand pillars against the backdrop of the dark evening sky.

Many emotions flooded me. The first was the sense of grandeur that overtakes me when I come face to face with great architecture. That building that been on the tip of my finger every time I rubbed a penny in my pocket was suddenly in front of me, and I felt the greatness of the city and an undeniable love for my country pulsing in my veins.

Then there was another feeling: it was like deja vu. Except I didn’t have the eerie impression that I had been there before, I had the sense that I was going to be there in the future. While riding over that bridge, I felt like I was going home. Even though I didn’t know anything about Western Church, even though I didn’t want to leave Rhode Island, I somehow sensed that things were going to change for me and my family.

In the midst of the flood, I blurted out to the driver, “Do you ever get used to this?”

“What?” she asked in return.

“Do you ever get used to seeing the architecture? Do you lose the sense of how amazing it is, after you’ve lived here for a few years?”

She smiled in the rear view mirror. She knew what I was talking about. “Well, sometimes there’s traffic…but, no. You don’t lose the feeling.”

I did lose the sense that I was “home” when I attended the breakfast. Like a fish out of water. It was not what I expected. There was this strange array of people there, from organizations with names like “Wallbuilders.” I shook their hands while wondering, “Aren’t we supposed to be tearing those down?”

I was one of the very few people who wore a clerical collar, and definitely the only woman in one. There were a lot of women there. I’m guessing they were mostly in their late fifties, many of them wore sequined dresses and sprayed their abundant hair with glitter for the occasion (did I mention it was breakfast?).

The politicians got up and told us how many Bible studies they attended and how much they prayed. They played to the audience a lot. They told jokes about how it was a bipartisan event, and they were surprised to find out that there were some Democrats who were Christian. That joke was repeated several times. I sat at a table next to Peggy and Tony Campolo, who looked about as amused as I did (and just for the record, Peggy didn’t have sequins or glitter).

It was weeks later when I got the call from Western, beginning the interview process to become a pastor there. The position looked amazing, perfect really, but I pretty much dismissed the possibility, because I didn’t think there was any way we could afford it. Then I emailed a friend of mine, a pastor in Falls Church, and he said, “It’s a wonderful church. They’re wonderful people. Don’t write this one off too quickly.”

I didn’t, and now I find myself driving over Memorial Bridge, almost every morning to get to work. And she was right. The feeling doesn’t go away.