Rummaging all around

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I’m not sure I can explain how surreal this week was in some ways. I had two gatherings: one was exploring Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century with Paul Raushenbush and a group of pastors under forty. The other was to sit with emerging church leaders and plan a conference, which is actually turning out to be a carnival of sorts.

In the Raushenbush group, we looked at the words from a hundred years ago. The beauty, poetry and richness of the text were amazing and fresh. We all came from varying traditions: Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Reformed, and Presbyterian. We talked about where we came from and where we’re going. Most of us were in the midst of day-to-day work in intergenerational churches. We named the social crises of our day: the environment, the war, poverty, homelessness, health care, and more. We explored how to speak truth and be prophetic in our particular contexts.

We did a lot of sacred re-traditioning (to borrow a term from Diana Butler Bass). We struggled with being young in a church that was predominately of a different generation, but most of the time we enjoyed being with each other. That was the main reflection as we wrapped up–it was really nice to be with one another.

The emerging church group was brought together by church historians, but it was largely about the future of the church. Where it’s going. And it was interesting to be there, with the electricity and the excitement. We are planning a conference, but we’re also having an ongoing conversation about what is happening in the church. Phyllis Tickle (who is one of the funniest women…) says that God is having rummage sale. The people around the table were all entrepreneurs, writers, and artists–extremely gifted people.

I do have to say, with some of the side conversations, there were moments of discomfort. To outsiders, the emerging church leadership is often seen as a boys’ club, and when I tried to get the answer to why that is, I got unsatisfying answers…to say the least. At first, there may have been the uncomfortable assumption in my asking that I wanted to be a part of the emerging church leadership. I don’t.

I was assured that the leadership has been very intentional about making that a priority, but it seems that even with a new thing emerging, there may be (for some) an underlying, unintentional cultural context particular to conservative evangelical Christianity that excludes women. Or that makes the women themselves gravitate toward particular roles within the church. In fact, around our table, the younger women in leadership mostly came from a mainline context and the younger men didn’t.

The emerging church was described as a place for recovering fundamentalists. I understand that. As a woman who grew up in that particular evangelical context, I often tried to describe how the mainline structure gave me a place to grow, to be empowered, to become fully human, to become who God calls me to be. And the answer was, “If you’re someone who’s looking for power, it must be very scary for you to see that structure collapsing.”

I am not committed to the structure itself, nor am I committed to power. I am committed to an environment that allows men and women, gay and straight, of every ethnicity and social standing to flourish. To live into the fullness of their calling.

That was when I wished that I could have brought the two gatherings together (and perhaps that may have been the reason why I was invited around the table). Because the yard sale’s not just happening in one corner of the church–it’s happening all over.

photo’s by derbaron

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This and that…

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Since we have something on the schedule for 7:30 in the a.m., this will be a quick report from the National Cathedral.

This is my first experience with the College of Preachers as a participant. It’s been very fun, and I’m learning a lot. Paul Raushenbush has been profoundly influenced by his grandfather’s work, and he presents it with depth, pride, and passion. My only regret is that I should have re-read the original text and read the contemporary responses before I came.

The conference is set up so that you preach a sermon that you had, and then you write a sermon while you’re here. People are very kind, and give valuable feedback. There was no humiliating nastiness.

The feedback for me? I’m comfortable in the pulpit, but maybe too comfortable. I need to write an angry sermon… or at least something with an edge to it. So, I’m getting my game-face on. I’m looking at the Advent passages. John the Baptist is on the menu. The ax is at the root of the tree. Perfect. I’m thinking social gospel for the 21st century. I’m thinking, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” I’m getting mad. Grrrrr.

I’ll post it when I get done.

Although I’m not sure when I’m going to get it done. I think we’re supposed to write them this afternoon, but I’m getting together with some really interesting people to work on The Church for the 21st Century gathering for this year. I’ll be meeting a lot of people whom I’ve admired for a long time (are you ready for some rapid-fire name-dropping?): Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle, Anne Howard, Doug Pagitt, and others.

Did anyone go to the last one? Do you have any feedback?

What about those who didn’t go? What would get you to the next one? Who would you love to hear talking about the church for the 21st century? Theologians? Writers? Pastors? Other leaders? Who’s the best preacher under forty that you’ve heard?

A wonderful artist who works at the Cathedral defined my work and writing this week: “There are a couple of influential streams in Christianity right now: mainline spirituality is one stream and the emerging church is the other. You’re a hybrid.”

That sounds good. I like hybrids.

On earth as it is in heaven

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I’m at the National Cathedral right now. I’ll be here until Friday. It should be an interesting week. I’m looking forward to it.

Right now, I’m at a “Preaching the Social Gospel in a New Generation” conference that Paul Raushenbush is teaching. It’s the 100th anniversary of the publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis by Walter Rauschenbusch (I wonder what happened to the c’s), so his great grandson is teaching this class.

The class has interesting people in it. My buddy Tara Spuhler McCabe’s here. We’re all under forty, with varying degrees of experience.

I love reading these texts. Rauschenbusch speaks of the Kingdom of God and the ethics of Jesus.

The fundamental virtue in the ethics of Jesus was love, because love is the society-making quality. Human life originates in love. It is the love that holds together the basal human organization, the family. The physical expression of all love and friendship is the desire to get together and be together. Love creates fellowship, in the measure in which love increases any social organism, it will hold together without coercion. If physical coercion is constantly necessary it is proof that the social organization has not evoked the power of human affection….

It’s rousing to read about the radical and revolutionary nature of love. We watched Martin Luther King’s final speech, and I remembered King talking about the strength to love over and over again. There is so much about this very basic emotion that inspires enormous hope, overturns political strongholds, and creates lasting community.

It all sounds extraordinary. To imagine the reign of God, here. It’s often difficult to do in the bureaucracy of D.C., but we can do it. We can take a step back and dream of every person going to bed with enough to eat. We can envision every person having shelter. These voices echo from the past, Rauschenbusch and King, and they inspire us to live on earth as it is in heaven.

Someone did raise his hand last night, after this stirring speech, saying, in effect, “But many of King’s dreams did come true, and things are still horrible.”

And suddenly the modernist record that was playing such beautiful music came to a screeching halt. Postmodernism enters, and we remember the genocides, the bombs. We know that our social network that supports the unemployed is incredibly weak. We look around, and the flicker of progress that we see is overcome with the shadow of destruction.

But it’s not out completely. It’s been a hundred years and hundreds of dreadful wars since Rauschenbusch wrote these words. But that’s not very long. It’s only been forty years since King. And we have to remember, they were not imagining these things, writing these words in the midst of a Utopia. It was in Hell’s Kitchen, it was in the segregated South, where these dreams emerged. It was through preaching, through writing, through faith communities that we began to get a hope for the Reign of God.

The hope is still alive. It just needs to be reframed. Looking around at the faces in this conference, I can’t wait to see who might build the frame.

photo’s by Christian et Cie

The best advice, the worst advice

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I love being a pastor. Yet, we know it’s not always easy. There have been times when I’ve been burnt-out or I’ve let the church grow too dependent on me. Or (more likely) I’ve had some false notion that the church was dependent on me. It can be a difficult relationship, especially for pastors who are in the midst of revitalizing small churches. There are often times when we have to roll up our sleeves, and do a lot of hard work in order to empower people for ministry.

My friend, Jim Rosenberg, a Rabbi in Barrington used to tell me, “Being at my congregation for 25 years has been like being married to my wife. You fall in and out of love with a congregation. That’s just the way it is.”

That was good advice.

I’ve also gotten some really horrible advice over the years as well. Counsel that made me question if I ought to be a pastor at all. Here was the worst:

“You’ve got to grow thicker skin. You can’t let stuff hurt you. You’ll never be a good pastor, unless you grow thicker skin.”

I feel things. I always have. I’m sensitive and aware of what’s happening in groups and one-on-one. And that comes in handy most of the time, especially when I preach or I’m in the midst of pastoral care. It helps when I’m moderating a meeting and there are a thousand things that are left unsaid, I know how to draw that stuff out, and get things on the table. But I also feel criticism when people are angry with me. I feel grief when members die. I empathize deeply with people too.

My response to this advice was to try not to feel things. I tried to pack them down, ignore them, and pray they’d go away. But then I ended up with a stomach full of knots and a facial tic. It didn’t help. Finally, I learned that I had to feel things. I had to journal and go for walks. Sometimes, I just had to sit with the anger and grief and sadness, and whatever emotion that came over me. That was my only way to let it go.

Here’s another piece of terrible advice that I was given when I was in the midst of a difficult church situation: “Pastors have the same level of mental health as their churches. Unhealthy pastors are attracted to unhealthy churches. Healthy pastors are attracted to healthy churches.”

This was neither true nor productive for me to hear. It made me want to leave the situation instead of work through it. It made me think that I wasn’t good enough to lead a church through difficult periods. I have been in great congregational situations, and I have been in tough ones. Neither situation had to do with my personal mental health at that moment.

Of course, pastors ought to be aware and attentive to their mental health. And our health is certainly part of the family system. But our churches are not exact mirrors of our emotional health. There are times when we find ourselves in congregations that are trying to heal from the wounds of sexual misconduct, financial mismanagement, or chemical dependencies, which has nothing to do with the current church leadership. There are times when the best thing to do is look in the mirror and say, “It’s not all about me.”

I’ve seen things work the other way as well–sometimes dysfunctional churches get their act together when their pastor’s falling apart. I’ve seen really wonderful pastors in the midst of very unhealthy congregations. It is an interesting dynamic, but we don’t have to assume that a church’s dysfunction is a perfect reflection of who the pastor is.

So, let’s hear yours. What’s the best advice you’ve heard as a church leader? What was the worst?

photo’s by whitneybee

Reflections after Thanksgiving

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I read The Corrections when it first came out, about six years ago. There are different stories going on throughout the book, but the main plot is about a son who sees his father diminishing.

Jonathan Franzen’s one of my favorites authors, because he captured the relationship so well. He detailed that point when dependence shifted from son to father. There is just something that happens then, it’s a deep and painful relocation. A child, who spends his life longing for his father’s approval, is suddenly left with long stares and sentences that are made up randomly from his father’s confused vocabulary soup.

I thought of the book this Thanksgiving. My father’s barely able to get around now. He is less communicative, and remembers less and less. It’s been a long process. His neurological disorder has been decreasing his mobility for decades, but he always fought it off.

I was very angry about his fighting. I thought it was misplaced. He was fighting to stay out of a wheelchair, but he wouldn’t exercise. And there just seemed to be a huge dose of denial in the process. He used a wheelchair about fifteen years after I thought he should be in one. I kept thinking about how much more freedom he would have if he didn’t try to walk everywhere. How many more places he could go. It has always frustrated me to see him bound in his own legs. A close friend of mine had MS, and she had an extremely productive life, wheeling around in her motorized chair.

I think it’s exasperated all of his children, we’re all athletic (although I’m much less in shape than my older siblings). My brother surfs, my sister runs, and I hike and kayak. The disease is hereditary, so it’s as if we are simultaneously relieved and fighting off the possibility. Either way, I see my mobility as an extremely valuable gift.

Everyone told me that my father’s struggle to walk was good for him; that it was keeping him stronger and giving him something to live for. And, of course, it was none of my business. I moved away from my parents fifteen years ago, and distance automatically lessens the amount of power that a child has in these things. But it doesn’t diminish the worry. Especially when my parents visit and I see how the neuropathy is grasping on tighter to his movement. He can no longer dress himself.

The worry’s not the only emotion, there’s a vast array of other things as well. It is no wonder that Franzen’s book is 576 pages long. There are just so many levels to it. This is a man that I feared as much as I loved. So, what replaces the fear now? I think there’s just a strange numbness living there now.

The wheelchair struggle is over, but he’s going to need to move into a nursing home soon. Dad’s at zero miles and hour, and mom can’t drive sixty-five. Now that his dependence has increased dramatically and their lives are just moving in two different directions, and there needs to be someone who will sit with him. Someone who can bathe him and dress him. But he doesn’t see it. Like all of us, he wants to be home–in his home.

I’m not sure what the next move will be. Is it my business now? Where is the point when a child can or should step in? I know I may be the one who needs to do the insisting. I may be the one who needs to bear the blame and the hatred for the decision. But I’m not quite sure. All I know is that this shift…it’s an extremely painful thing.

Innovation

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When I began as a pastor, my father gave me an important piece of advice. He said, “Remember, Carol, you don’t have to know everything. You just gotta know who to call.”

I smiled, because a number of people flashed in my mind. There are so many people who have taken great time, interest, and energy in forming me as a pastor and a person. I’m lucky to have former ministers, past professors, and present clergy friends who always take the time to answer email and receive phone calls. Their strengths are in different things–some are wonderful at working with staffs, others at understanding family systems, others at raising money, and others at thinking through things theologically.

One of the greatest joys of this profession is that we can be challenged and stretched in so many areas (administrative, theological, community activism). And the tremendous asset of this profession is that even when we don’t have all the expertise we need ourselves, there’s usually someone we can call. Even when we’re isolated, or when we feel like we’re in a vulnerable political situation in which we cannot be honest about things, we have books we can turn to.

There’s something new and wonderful taking place in the 21st Century church. New technologies allow us to connect in exciting ways. We understand ourselves globally. There’s deep spiritual longing, concern for the poor, and care for creation. There’s more and more interest in planting churches.

Yet, I become concerned and uncomfortable sometimes. I don’t want to be part of a generation who feels like it has to completely re-invent everything to be relevant. I don’t want to be a person who thinks that I have to know everything. I don’t want to be someone who disregards the generations before me. And I don’t want to be someone with so much hubris that I think I’m first one to be saying something important, when I’m actually echoing many wise people who have come before me.

I have relied deeply on past wisdom, gained through great experience. My hope for the leadership of our churches is that we will be innovative people who change and adapt rapidly, as well as seek the enduring richness of the past.

My creative father worked for NASA for decades, concentrating on research and development. And before he retired, he wrote an article about all of the mistakes that he had made and seen, and what he learned from them. He told me writing that article was one of the most valuable things he accomplished in his career, because it was widely read, and saved the next generation of rocket scientists from falling into the same pitfalls.

So, as church leaders, why should we go through all the pain of making all of the mistakes ourselves, when we can learn from the mistakes that were made by others? Why not learn from the experience that so many others have compiled? After all, innovative construction lasts the longest when it’s built on a decent foundation.

Food for thought

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Happy Thanksgiving to all of you! Thanksgiving is becoming my favorite holiday. There’s just something about the leaves, the food, the gathering–it’s amazing.

I’m at home right now, warm and toasty, with the day off. But Miriam’s is open, for all the men and women who spent the night last night huddled under the bridges of Foggy Bottom. In the multi-purpose room of our church, they will receive a warm meal, a place to wash up, shave, and generally relieve themselves. And when they leave, the clients will be carrying fresh fruit that was collected at last Sunday’s Thanksgiving service.

When Western began the kitchen, they often heard, “Why would you start a feeding program in Foggy Bottom? There are no homeless in Foggy Bottom.” It’s the zip code that includes the Kennedy Center, the Watergate and the Saudi Arabian Embassy (anyone see Fahrenheit 911?). But, of course, it also includes homeless people.

There has been a lot of talk around our fair city about this article. In effect, Mark Winne writes that our annual push to feed the hungry is simply putting a band-aid on a much larger wound. We need to address the issues of poverty, rather than feeding a few people. As a person who used to run a food bank, he sees the futility in it. He recounts stories of rotten donations, attempts to feed people moose and horse meat. He comments on all of the donations and volunteer hours, and notes that food banks are often used as places for waste management for the food industry. Sadly, he tells us that feeding programs have proliferated in the last 20 years, and still, so many people are hungry in our country.

Theologically, most of us understand the point that he’s making. It’s an issue of systemic distortion. And I agree with so much of what he’s saying. I recall my husband’s work in Louisiana, where he was always fighting well-meaning people to make sure that the hungry were not fed rotten, out-of-date, and unsanitary food. I agree that poverty is the deep-rooted issue that needs to be addressed in our country. But I still maintain that feeding efforts are an extremely important component, as much for the giver as for the receiver. Here are just three reasons why.

(1) Feeding programs give us face-to-face contact with people in need. Remember how the people in Foggy Bottom said that there were no homeless people there? That was because we just didn’t see them. We are socially conditioned to walk by the panhandlers, to avert our eyes, and to visually gloss over the needy. But there is simply no way that we can do that when we’re serving 200 homeless people breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. The clients do not have to hide from us, and we can no longer hide from homelessness. We have to see the need.

(2) Feeding programs give us a sense of personal empowerment. Most of us are not equipped to take up the larger issues of poverty–living wage, health care for all, adequate employment, and child-care programs (this is Winne’s list, I would add addiction recovery, mental health, housing, and domestic violence as contributors)–on Capitol Hill at this moment. If we concentrate on these immense problems exclusively, we may end up with an aching despair. Feeding programs often acts as a door to tackle larger problems. It gives us hope that we can make a difference.

(3) People need band-aids. If someone asks for bread, we are to give them bread. As Christians, that is at the core of our spiritual practice. We are to live simply and share what we have.

For many people, pulling feeding programs would take the personal commitment out of a major problem. It is not a matter of either/or, it’s both/and. Like environmental issues, we need to always be thinking on three levels. We need to ask ourselves, what can I do personally? What can we do as a faith community? And, what can we do nationally?