Sunday school

Recently, I was talking to a Scottish friend who was perplexed by American religious education. She explained that in her country, they got well-rounded, interfaith religious education in schools. She was not a church-goer, but she was sad that her children were missing something.

I smiled and said, “Right. People go to church to get religious education here.” It made me happy to realize another reason why people go to church.

Her comments did make me stop for a moment though. Of course, I’m a huge proponent of the separation of church and state. The separation is good for vital faith communities, as well as our country. Yet, I realized the benefits of religious education in school. Right now, in certain parts of the country, some intense prejudice against Muslims is brewing. What if people actually learned what Islam was all about, instead of relying on caricatures or news reports? What if children had a balanced perspective, understanding, and respect for all sorts of religions?

It also made me realize how important Christian education is in our churches.

It’s hard to remember that sometimes. Honestly, the recruitment in our church is like pulling teeth. I would say it’s working moms, church in the 21st century, D.C. culture, etc., but it’s not that completely. I remember an annual, painful extraction when I was growing up in the Baptist Church too.

When I look at the large picture, I wonder, Why do we do it? I mean, why do we have to have Sunday school? Is there another way? There seems to be a lack of educational resources. People don’t seem to want to teach it. If people don’t want it, why do we go through the painful annual ritual? It’s not like the state’s mandating it.

So, I’m torn. Of course, in a perfect world, I would hope that everyone would want to be a part of Christian education, that we would have eager-beaver teachers waiting in line to impart their Christian love on children and other adults. But we don’t. So, now what?

Photo by Similarity

Prayer

My daughter prayed for snow last night. 

I wanted to tell her not to do it. You know, on the grounds that praying for the weather is typically a selfish endeavor. If God granted the wish of every person who wanted sunshine for her picnic day, we would not ever get any precipitation. Plus, God is not our personal, private genie, granting us snow on one day and a pony on the next. 

But, honestly, I wanted to tell her not to pray for snow because I was nervous. My daughter is not much of a pray-er and I didn’t want one of her first requests to be shot down. I wanted her to pray for something… well… that was going to have a high likelihood of actually occurring.

I started to talk her through a theology lesson on what she should pray for and what she shouldn’t. But I stopped myself. I mean, if she wants to pray, who am I to stop her?

After all, I have always been told what to pray for and what not to pray for. Don’t pray for selfish things. Do pray for others. Don’t pray for small things. Do pray for the big stuff… on and on it went.

It got to be rather stifling actually. I was a pray-er when I was my daughter’s age, and even as a teenager. But when I went to seminary, I felt like I had to figure every request out theologically before uttering it. Every time I would begin to pray, my brain would stop it. My internal, snobbish, master of everything divine would kick in and say, Now, really, Carol. Do you really think that God has time for that?

I’ll tell you a moment when I knew it changed. It had to do when I prayed the most selfish prayer of all. We were in Rhode Island, and I was the pastor of a tiny church. We had enough money so that my husband could spend a couple of months looking for a job. But, after a couple of years, he still didn’t have one (not a lot of Presbyterian Churches in RI…).

It was great, in one sense, because he was able to take care of our daughter during her formative years. Although, financially we couldn’t make it. We began to cut corners. Then, we looked for every bit of change that we could possibly carve out of our budget.  Then we began to sell our stuff at pawnshops, consignment shops, and yard sales. Then we started running out of stuff to sell….

I was totally stressed, running numbers in my head all the time, trying to figure out how the ends would meet. When another mom working in the church nursery pointed out that my daughter’s dress was too small and that I needed to buy her some new clothes, I almost burst out in tears. We were relying on hand-me-downs. I knew we couldn’t afford new clothes for her.

Finally, when I was completely at my wit’s end, I prayed a completely selfish prayer that went something like, “God, I know I’m a pastor, and I’m not supposed to care about money. I know I’m supposed to be above it. I know I’m not supposed to pray these selfish prayers. But we can’t pay our mortgage. We don’t have another penny to spare. We can’t do it any longer. I just can’t handle this. I am powerless over money, and my life has become unmanageable. You have got to restore us to sanity. You’ve got to figure out a way out of this for us.” 

And somehow… the prayer was answered. We didn’t win the lottery or anything, but I suddenly saw a clear shining path in front of me. Very quickly. 

I don’t tell people what they cannot pray. It’s just not my business…. Instead I encourage people to talk to God about anything and everything.

So, how did seminary change your spiritual life? What do you tell children about prayer? What do you believe about it?

The photo is by *Piney*

A matter of heart?

Kathleen Parker says that the GOP needs to give up on G-O-D. She says that “shifting demographics suggest that the Republican Party — and conservatism with it — eventually will die out unless religion is returned to the privacy of one’s heart where it belongs.”

Her point seems to be that the Religious Right may be able deliver, but they can only deliver old white men, or white families with children. They have alienated diverse, younger voters. So her solution is that the Republican Party needs to lose their religion.

The problem with Parker’s viewpoint is that Democrats were kicking themselves a few short years ago because we couldn’t seem to come up with a candidate who could say “God” without looking like his spine had just been suddenly replaced by a Popsicle stick. The icy cold fear that seemed to grip him was out of place in a country that was… well… pretty religious.

No one expected the candidate to have a walk on the beach with Billy Graham, or to have “born-again” tattooed on his sleeve, but it would have been nice if they could relate to people of faith, a little bit, and, you know, just give them a bit of respect. The Democrats have done well–not when we have lost our religion–but with the Clintons’ church-going and Obama’s “awesome God in the blue states.”

The problem was not with God. But there was a problem. I’ll point out a couple of reasons why I grew up in a Religious Right Republican household, and now I have nothing to do with either affiliation.

First, they lost me because they were fighting for the wrong things. They were warring against abortion in the public sphere, while their daughters were making early-morning appointments at the nearest clinics. (Of course, I have no statistical proof of this. Just lots of anecdotal evidence, which I would never, ever write about. This is a fascinating article though.)

We can say statistically, that conservative Christian teenagers are more promiscuous. They become pregnant more often. Pregnant teenage girls end up trapped in a lifetime of poverty. And I will tell you that it gets very difficult to keep crying out “murder” when you’re sitting next to the formerly-pregnant protester’s daughter, watching the anguish that she is going through.

It made no sense that they were fighting for the sanctity of human life when it came to abortion, but denied it when it came to the death penalty or war. And then there was the torture….

There were things that the Bible was very clear about—relieving poverty, feeding people, taking care of creation, and loving your neighbor—that the RR seemed to be fighting against. I mean, when you’re part of a movement that claims to be faith-based and then opposes health care for poor children… then something is wrong. Clearly the “compassionate” has been far, far removed from the “conservative.” My problem with the RR and GOP was not God, it was that they appeared to be rather godless in so many of their policies.

Second, they lost me because the GOP and the RR quit listening to a new generation. The extreme technological ineptness on the GOP’s part was just the beginning. They had a hard time hearing young Christians as well. The demographics are shifting, and young evangelicals are much like the rest of their generation. They are more progressive… but there is also an influx of diverse Catholics, so that could have been very good news for the RR.

But is the RR listening to them? Are they opening up to their concerns of a new generation?

No. They are giving them a spanking. They’re using that “tough love” parenting that’s “not for cowards.” They are “daring to discipline.” James Dobson, the RR patriarch has rolled up his sleeves and taken off his belt. Just check out the Focus on the Family’s apocalyptic scare letter that was circulated right before the election:

The 2008 election was closer than anybody expected, but Barack Obama still won. Many Christians voted for Obama – younger evangelicals actually provided him with the needed margin to defeat John McCain.

What Dobson needs to realize is… we may be your sons and daughters, but we are no longer children. We think for ourselves now. We vote for ourselves too. And, frankly, we would rather not turn out like this.

This is a religious country, and we know that faith does not end in the heart, nor will it be contained by one political party. Christians have always been men and women of action, even action in the public sphere.  People of all faiths allow their beliefs to inform policy.

Our conscience, our faith, our religion should not be relegated to one party–Democrats or Republicans. The Religious Right (though still a powerful force) brushed God aside too many times to get more influence within the Republican Party. I left both the RR and the GOP, because my faith meant too much to me.

 So, what do you think? Have you switched party affiliations? Why?

photo is by madolina

What’s left unsaid

A Pastor Friend was moving to Arizona for a job. He had multiple interviews with the church nominating committee, he preached for the congregation, he went through the excruciating congregational vote. Finally, he met with a clearance committee from his denomination.

A Pastor from the Committee said, “You have a blog.”

“Yes,” Pastor Friend answered.

“Well, that could be a problem,” Committee Pastor continued, “Some of your opinions are ‘out there.’ And you need to gain trust with your congregation. In order to do that, you really shouldn’t tell a congregation your opinion on anything for at least the first three years of your ministry.”

Please discuss.

SBNR

Presbyterian News Services issued a report about Spiritual But Not Religious (shortened to SBNR) people, based on the research of Linda Mercandante, a minister who teaches at a Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

There are three points that I would like to discuss. First, the article states:

One of the common assumptions — that many spiritual but not religious people had bad experiences in the church — is simply not true, Mercandante said. “I was surprised, but there was very minimal reporting by people that they had been hurt in or by the church.”

I’m a person who has written about the pain that church has caused, and I do hope that this point is not completely disregarded. As a pastor, I have heard story after story of mistreatment in congregations. It is there and I hope that we don’t ignore it.

Second, Mercandante points out that people react against stereotypes of the church like:

• churches claim to “exclusive truthfulness — that they have a corner on the truth market”;
• churches demand that personal beliefs be abdicated;
• churches demand conformity to a “corporate mentality”;
• joining a church means a loss of personal integrity;
• churches demand commitment “to things that have no meaning”’
• churches demand commitment to disagreeable codes of conduct; and
• churches profess arbitrary or implausible beliefs.

“I heard the same arguments over and over again,” Mercadante said of her research. “I don’t know where this script comes from — no one knows any real churches that fit this profile or stereotype.”

Let me explain where the script comes from. They are describing many Evangelical/ conservative congregations in our country. Since the WASPs left power forty years ago, our political power and media coverage has highlighted Evangelical congregations as the norm in our society. And many of them (not all, of course) live up to the stereotype perfectly.

It does not describe many mainline congregations, but that has not been the predominate religious voice in our country for a couple of decades now.

Third, Mercandante highlights Wuthnow’s important research, highlighting our assumption that people will join the church after they get married and have children. But then showing the realities of many Americans:

• delayed marriage (Americans are marrying at a later age, on average) and increased divorce rates;
• fewer children born later in their parents life;
• less job security, therefore greater financial insecurity, making commitment less likely;
• higher levels of education, which decreases “unquestioned belief”;
• “loosening relationships,” resulting in less community involvement;
• Globalization, producing less homogeneity and greater diversity; and
• the “information explosion,” which creates “broader spiritual horizons and therefore looser religious identification.”

“I think it’s clear that much of the problem organized religion faces today is not really the church’s fault,” Mercadente said.

This is the most important piece I think that we need to look at.

Of course it is our fault. We have expected people to become married, with children, secure, financially stable, and (sometimes even) white before they can be welcome in our churches. We have not reached out to the world around us, we have expected people to become something that they are not before they enter our doors.

That’s like saying it’s not GM’s fault that they are going under, even though they kept pushing SUVs when our planet was clearly in trouble. It’s like saying it’s not the McCain campaign’s fault that they lost the election, even though they were talking about the “real America” when most Americans are urban and diverse. That’s like saying it’s not the mortgage companies fault, even though they were lending huge amounts of money, with ballooning payments to people they knew could not pay it back.

When we cannot face the realities around us, it is our fault.

I have great hope for our congregations. But…let’s not let ourselves off the hook too easily. We have much to confess before we can change our ways.

What do you think? Do you agree with Mercandante’s research? Would you want her to know about people who are SBNR?

My exorcise program

I never know how much of the struggles of writing I should put on my blog, but of all the categories, people look at “writing” the most. So, I guess there’s some interest.

I’m writing my second book, and I think that I’m about done with the first draft. I like to think that especially since the deadline’s at the end of this month. Of course, it’s taking a long time to get each chapter into my editor.

In fact… the whole thing is taking a longer than last time. Let me tell you what’s different this time.

While writing the first book, I could not show any of it to anyone. Except my writing group. I had to keep it all under wraps, because I was afraid that people would tear it up before it would even get a chance to develop. Some people have a blustery confidence that whatever comes out of their mouth is right, true, and worth proclaiming. I admire those people, but I am not one of them.

I’ve never read any birth-order studies, but I do know that as the third-born and youngest, I never won a game while growing up. Never. Ever. I certainly never won an argument. In fact, just about everything that came out of my mouth was greeted with eye rolling. Or a disgusted “That’s not true,” followed by an eye rolling.

And then, in college, when women really begin to shine, when they begin to realize that being the smart girl will pay off in the world, when their intellectual curiosity meets grateful professors, I was at a small Bible school where women were regarded as “helpmates.” Our sole purpose at the institute was to become educated in the cultural norms of pastor wifery and to receive our M.R.S. Instead of encouraging intellectual development, I think that some of us would have probably excelled more if we had been labotomized.

By the time I started writing the book, I had seminary and seven years of the pastorate under my belt, but it was still excruciating. I fought demons every morning. Every single seminary professor who told me I was a poor writer (there were three of them, and I can quote their acerbic comments verbatim) and every single rejection letter flashed into my head.

Then there was my family. Not only did I have my eye-rolling sister in my head (a sister from many years ago, I might add. She’s now grown up, and hardly ever rolls them at me). I thought for sure that I would totally embarrass my mom and dad in front of their Religious Right friends, and I figured that they would completely disown me.

I thought about all of the people who did not like me in my former churches, and how they would read the book, shake their heads, and say, “Yep. She’s an ego-maniac. Just like we said when she was here.” A new, shadowy dementor greeted me each morning, just to tell me how foolish I was for thinking I had something worthwhile to say.

Two things got me through it. The first and main thing was a lot of prayer. I walked a lot, and had the growing sense that I was being called to write. Each time some piece of nasty history would rear its ugly head, I would put on my tennis shoes, and take a brisk stroll to pray and clear my thoughts. Then I would realize this passion for reaching out to my generation, and I realized that I had to do whatever was within my power to draw attention to the need. I don’t know… all that energy just had to have a place to be released.

The second thing was I knew just how difficult it is to get a first book contract. Somehow, I got lucky. Richard Bass and the editorial board at Alban took a very big chance on a young, unknown, and scantly-published writer. I know a lot of very talented people who are not so lucky. I didn’t want to blow what could have been my only chance.

This time around, I am secure in the fact that my parents did not disown me. My sister (who’s adamantly pro-amendment B) read the chapter on inclusion in a Sunday school class that she’s teaching (although I don’t think she ever got around to telling the class that it was written by her sister…).

And (I do hate to admit that I’m such a small and petty person, but) I do take a tiny bit of comfort in realizing that a couple of those critical professors have never written a book of their own. They have contracts that have never been fulfilled. I wonder if they got stuck in their own trap of criticism.

So, they can still sit back and pick apart my writing all they want. My writing may not be perfect, or even up to their standards, but I got a book done. And now I’m working on my second one. I guess I just realized that the academy is not the final word.

Now, it’s more my schedule than my demons that I’m fighting. Trying to find time in the midst of mothering, traveling, pastoring, and leading conferences, workshops and retreats is difficult. Now I’m fighting exhaustion more than shadowy figures. I dream of a two-month sabbatical, where I can go with my family to some exotic place, preferably on the beach, a place where someone else does the dishes and the laundry, and I can just write.

That place does not exist. However, the passion and the calling still do exist. So, I’m still scribbling notes down at each stoplight, editing chapters as my husband runs into the grocery store, and constructing arguments as I wait at the bus stop. And I still get up at 4:30 each morning, with a burning need to write.

The photo is by Kantor

Godisnowhere

There are so many important things to write about since Barack Obama won the election. So much crowding the horizon.

Like, how about all of those young volunteers who are fired-up and organized? What will they be up to next? What will our churches look like when we begin to engage them in meaningful ways? Surely, we will watch them change the world… and I can’t wait to see it happen.

What will happen in Iraq? What is the exit strategy? I’m not completely naïve in thinking that we will pull out in January. We started this, and now we have to figure out the best way to end it.

And what about the environment? And the bailouts? Should we be giving bailout money to GM, when they have been spending the last decade manufacturing and pushing bigger and bigger cars? They were making so much profit off of them, that the money made them blind. They couldn’t see the future that was clearly at the end of their noses. Our petroleum dependence is going to have to come to an end. The rising price of oil has made us dump our SUV monstrosities and fall in love with cute Hybrids. How could they not see it happening?

Of course, I’m not with those who are outraged that autoworkers make $50,000 a year. Our workers should be protected.

And what about Sarah Palin? I was fundamentally opposed to almost every word that came out of her mouth.

Okay… maybe I’m exaggerating. It was every word that came out of her mouth. And the “Drill, Baby, Drill” chants that she loved to incite still haunt me in my worst nightmares.

But, I have to say, to listen to the ogling for the last couple of months–to hear how beautiful she was, how passionate she was, and what a wonderful cheerleader she was, and then to listen to the same people do an about-face, and call her a diva who throws temper-tantrums…. Well… I’m not sure that’s quite fair.

Sarah Palin was not chosen for her lofty intelligence or her thick resume. She wasn’t even chosen because she could tell the difference between Africa the continent and South Africa the country. She was chosen because McCain knew that she could shake up and excite the Religious Right. She could get people out to vote. She could inspire the “real America” while pointing out “those people are not like us.” She could throw all kinds of nastiness and lies at Obama while McCain’s people could shrug in innocence and say that she was “going rogue.”

Palin, in fact, did her job. A job that I find detestable. A job that backfired. A job that was ill-conceived. But she did it.

Should she have ever been chosen for the job? No. Was she ready for it? No. Were the American people right in not voting for her? Yes. But she did it. And now she’s being skewered, on grounds that sound awfully sexist.

McCain is known for his hot temper. Are people calling him a Diva? No. Are people talking about his “tantrums”? No. Is anyone talking about a wet McCain in a towel? Um… no. Thank God.

I could worry about all of these questions. I could look at the mess that’s been created, and wonder if Obama—or anyone, frankly—could possibly be up to the task at hand. I could worry about whether an impassioned, progressive, young generation will become quickly disillusioned. But I’m not. I’m still reveling from last Tuesday. The racial barriers that have been broken, the inspiration this has brought to so many. I’m still smiling from it all.

Yesterday, we went down to the mall, walked along the Vietnam Memorial, read the sad letters that sons and daughters left for their dead fathers. We visited Abe Lincoln, sitting on his grand chair, and we took our one-thousandth photo of us standing on the step, in the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his dream speech. I tried again to soak up some of his preacherly courage.

Then, we stopped and wrote down blessings for Obama on an impromptu wall that had been constructed. It was full of good wishes from all over the world to our President-elect. Beautiful words of hope.

My daughter crouched in front of the crowd, and scrawled something on the bottom of the wall. In small letters, between the good thoughts of so many, she wrote, “God is here.”

In the midst of the scribble and the mess, I think she’s right. God is here, indeed.