Wake up and dream

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I usually don’t post my sermons because I found that they’re so long that people rarely read them on the blog. But, I had some requests, so here we go.

Text: Acts 2:1-21

Hagar was Sarah’s slave. Abraham and Sarah are characters from the Old Testament. Abraham knew that he was to be a father of a great people. Except something was going awry in the plan. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were getting older, and they still didn’t have any children, and so Abraham forced Hagar to have his child, Ishmael. Then when Abraham and his wife finally did have a child of their own, Sarah and Abraham forced Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert. Abraham sent his own son out into the wilderness to die. Hagar was given a small bit of water, and that was it.

So, Hagar was wandering in the desert, with no place to go. The sun was beating down upon her. And I imagine her, walking with that sheer determination that a mother has when her child is in danger. But then the water ran out, Ishmael’s cries were getting louder and as much as she tried, she could no longer soothe him and it became clear that her sweet boy was going to die.

Hagar had no idea what to do. So, she placed her child under a bush, and then she called out to God, and pleaded that God would not allow her to look upon the death of her child, and somehow, there in that desert, she received a glimpse of God’s dream, she got a taste of God’s imagination, and she realized that she would become a mother of a great nation.

How did that happen? How did Hagar, a slave, who was forced to conceive her master’s child, stand in that barren desert, with no water and her small child crying, how did she suddenly imagine that she would become the mother of a great nation? I think it was because she caught a bit of the dream of God.

After she realized this, she looked up, and she saw a well of water on the horizon, and she and Ishmael were saved.

The Scriptures are full of stories like this.

There was Moses, who led the people of Israel out of slavery, and into the desert. They were wandering out there for forty years. And yet, all of that time, during all of that nomadic traveling amongst the dry and dusty sand, when the people were looking longingly back to a period when their children were killed or enslaved, Moses was not willing to go back. And in that desert landscape, Moses kept telling them stories about a land flowing with milk and honey.

How could he imagine it? How did Moses have the vision to see milk in honey, when his mouth and nose were full dry dust? I think it is because he somehow caught a glimpse of the dream of God.

And think about Esther. Esther was Jewish, in a land where she was an oppressed minority. Her parent’s died when she was a child, and so a relative, Mordecai, took care of her. When she was a young woman, she became a member of a harem, for a particularly vile king.

The king had gotten rid of his wife because the queen wouldn’t display her beauty (whatever that means) before his drunk friends. The king was humiliated and decided that if he let his wife get away with not obeying him, then it would be license for women in his whole kingdom not to obey their husbands. So he dismissed her, in order that every man would know that he was the master of his house.

Of course, shortly after he did get rid of her, he missed her and started looking for her replacement, so he gathered all of the most beautiful women in the land, of which Esther was one. After a year of intense beauty treatments, Esther was chosen to be the new queen. Yet, from what I can tell of the story, I’m not sure that it was much of a promotion. Esther was the victim of terrible violent threats. She could not reveal that she was Jewish, and she was not even allowed to enter the same room with her husband without the fear of being killed.

And yet, Esther, in spite of the years of racial discrimination, sexual victimization, and physical peril, somehow Esther realized that she was placed in her position at a particular time for a particular reason. She began to understand that she would be the savior of her people.

I wonder how, with her background, with her history, and with the terrible threats that she was under, how did Esther begin to see herself as the savior of her people? How did she have the courage to overcome the years of being violated and threatened? I believe that Esther, somehow, caught a glimpse of the dream of God.

And what about Mary? Imagine her, this young unmarried teenager, looking down at her bloated tummy, trying to swallow back her morning sickness she realized that if anyone found out that she was pregnant, then an angry mob of people would surround her, they would pick up stones and throw them at her, and they would keep pelting those rocks at her until her body was so bruised and broken that she would finally die.

And yet, somehow, as her ankles began to swell and her skin began to stretch, she reminded herself that she was the most blest among all women.

How did it happen? How did these people, in the most disturbing, violent and oppressive circumstances, how did they begin to see living water in the desert, milk and honey in a dry land? How did they begin to see themselves as mothers of great nations, saviors of a people, and the most blessed among all women? How did they leave their lives of bondage, slavery and abuse behind? How did they have the imagination to begin to see themselves as something different? How did they begin to envision a life without gender discrimination, sexual slavery, and racial oppression?

I think it was because each one of them became open to the dream of God. They began to see visions that were far removed from their actual settings, from their present environments, and they began to imagine the most extraordinary things.

When our family wakes up in the morning, often times we ask each other, “Did you have any interesting dreams last night?” And the most fascinating conversations follow. We can usually remember our dreams, and after we explain the long detailed story, we try to figure out what they mean. I don’t know how to interpret dreams. I don’t know the particular symbolism that people have developed around dream archetypes, but it is interesting to wonder what our subconscious has been working hard on during those dark hours. I often realized certain emotions that I was feeling, that I didn’t know existed. Or I realize that my concern about a particular situation, something that I was trying to blow off, looms large in my mind. Sometimes, I allow myself to dislike a person or a job in my dreams that I would never admit to disliking while I was awake.

Dreams are so common. Experts, who have studied brain activity and eye motion, say that we all dream, whether we recall the images or not, we all dream. We all have that ability. I wonder if we have all have the ability to wake up and dream.

Pentecost is such an extraordinary event, full of wonder and miracles, and yet, it is also filled with such ordinary things. The disciples were together in one room, praying, trying to figure out what to do next. They felt quite abandoned and confused. It had not been long since Jesus, who was killed in a brutal public display, began appearing to different people in very random places: on the beach, on a road, in a locked room.

Then, after getting his followers’ hopes up, Jesus gathers some disciples onto a mountainside, and ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples in physical danger, scared and bewildered. Until Pentecost.

On the Sunday of Pentecost, they were all in a room together, praying, and trying to figure out what to do, when suddenly they heard the sound of rushing wind, and tongues of fire appeared on each person’s head. People began to speak in different languages, when they never had that ability before. The old and the young began to dream dreams, and see visions.

And, as God so often does, the Holy Spirit moved in those common, ordinary things—fire, wind, words, dreams, and visions to make something miraculous happen.

When I was in Sunday school, I was confused by the idea of a vision, and so I asked my teacher what visions were. And she told me something interesting. She said that they were dreams that happened when we were awake. I like this idea. Visions are dreams that we have when we are awake.

And perhaps that is the promise of the Holy Spirit which has been poured out upon all of us. The Spirit allows us to wake up and dream. The Spirit gives birth to us, so that we can begin to see ourselves as new creations. We can begin imagining a world where men and women are no longer enslaved, where peace reigns.

Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God. But the metaphor doesn’t make that much sense in our current context. It was a powerful image in the Jewish context that Jesus moved and taught in, but it is a bit foreign to most of us. Most of us are seeped in democracy. We’re more used to the idea of a president, and we chafe a bit when we think of being subjects of a king.

So theologians try to think of other words to use. Often they talk about the reign of God, to at least get past the Patriarchy of it. Or it’s the reign of God. Recently, I heard a theologian use the term the Dream of God.

The dream of God! What a beautiful concept. The dream of God is that the hungry will be full and there will be peace. And here, at this Pentecost moment we have a group of people get a glimpse of the dream of God.

When this miraculous moment occurred, it became clear to so many that the grace of God was no longer just for the Jews, but it was poured out upon men and women, young and old, of every language, of every ethnicity, of every socioeconomic background. That is the dream of God. And the church was formed, by God sharing the dream with a handful of people.

It is the dream that allowed men and women to imagine an underground railroad, so that slaves in the United States could escape to freedom. It is that vision that wakes women up from years of abuse, and allows them to create a way out of the violence. It is the hope that stirs within men and women who suffered from abuse or discrimination as children, and allows them to look into the mirror and see the image of God staring back at them.

Pentecost marks the fact that the dream of God runs through us. It flows through this sanctuary. It is that imagination that so captures a dying church to become a place of feeding and hospitality for homeless guests. It is the Spirit that stirs so boldly within us, until we can begin to imagine living water in the desert, milk and honey in the wilderness. And it is what encourages us to go out from this place, and to live boldly, into this Pentecost Spirit.

To the glory of God our Creator,

            God our Liberator, 

                      and God our Sustainer. Amen.

 

photo by PhotoSock-Israel

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First person writing

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I was sitting in Starbucks, waiting for an early morning flight, getting ready to go to Austin, Texas. It was pretty quiet in the airport, there was just the Starbucks soundtrack playing, so I thought I’d check up on my email. As I look at my inbox, I realize that I’ve been getting a lot of questions about writing lately.

About a month ago, I taught a workshop with Jason Byassee about writing and the pastoral life. We did the same workshop three times, which was a good thing, because so much of what we had to say was the same. So, by the third time around, we had figured what we were each going talk about, and we had it divvied up pretty well.

Jason talked about how the importance of writing newsletter articles well. He explained that it’s easier than ever to get published, especially if you’re willing to do the work of reviewing books. But, it’s harder than ever to make money from writing.

Most significantly, Jason emphasized the importance of pastors building a relationship with the editor of the local paper. Take them out to lunch. Ask what you can do for them. Because when something important happens and we need to speak out, then it will be crucial to have that relationship in place. He talked about being a pastor during the aftermath of September 11, and not being able to challenge the Anti-Muslim sentiment that arose in his local paper, because he didn’t have a relationship with the editor.

There was one place where we differed in opinion. Jason said that as an editor, he often encouraged people to rewrite everything so that there is no “I.” Kill every cliché and the first person pronoun, and your writing will be much stronger.

Of course, Jason and I write different sort of material. He’s an editor for the Christian Century and he writes theological books. “I” is not appropriate in the sort of material that he edits and writes.

I, on the other hand, write sermons, church newsletters, and blog posts. And even with my books, journal articles, and textbook material, I often use “I.”

There are many reasons for this. One is that people are interested in other people, and “I” has a way of embodying facts, stats, and arguments in a way that makes them a little more compelling, entertaining, and fun to read.

It’s also because I don’t really believe that writers have a fair and balanced view of anything. Good journalists and writers are passionate, and they usually have a point to make. As pastors, we come to a text carrying a heavy load of history and tradition. We open our text and ourselves, allowing the Sprit to completely transform us through the reading. But we’re still there.

Using “I” allows me to fully acknowledge that I am in the room. This is my perspective. I hope that there is something in the particularities of my story that has wide resonance, and perhaps even some truth in it, but nevertheless it is mine. For most of our writing that’s understood, since we are the ones standing in the pulpit or we have our names on the article. But I don’t mind if I go that extra step of including the first person pronoun.

Right now, the Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, acknowledges that her background helps her to form decisions. She even when so far as to say that it allows her to make better decisions, and since her background is not one of white privilege, there is great controversy about this. Limbaugh calls it “reverse racism.”

I call it justice. The fact that she has a particular background that she is willing to bring to the court, her ability to acknowledge how our experience shapes our reality, is a powerful and important claim. It’s true of every justice, including the white males.

We cannot divorce ourselves from our decisions, text, or writing. We bring ourselves to it.

So where do stand on this? Do you use “I” in your writing? Why or why not? Do you think it’s more interesting or less to hear a personal perspective? Or would you rather edit it out?

Presenting issues

One thing about being a minister is that we often have a good, hard look underneath the shiny, happy exterior of the families in our churches. Whether people want us to look at the underside or not, it’s usually pretty clear within a few years of being in community together. As, I’m sure, our shadow side is clear to them.

Families are extremely interesting. And they can be heart-breaking. As powerful as hurricanes are, I have not seen a natural disaster that can cause the devastation that a family can. There is often a person in which all of the dysfunctions of the members surface. It is the teenager who, at some gut level, understands that his mother is an addict, even though no one is willing to admit it. He gets tired of the charade, and so he begins to tell people that all is not right in family. Then, all of a sudden he becomes the problem, instead of his mother’s addiction.

So, there is the issue, and the “presenting issue.”

It happens in a thousand different ways. Often it’s fascinating to watch the dynamic, and sometimes it’s extremely painful to watch how strong emotions emerge in intense relationships.

It happens in our churches too. The presenting issue can be whether we cut the communion bread into squares or circles, or whether someone returned the linens to the church kitchen, and people may be ready to split the church over these petty things. But the real problem lies somewhere else.

In the Presbyterian denomination, right now, the presenting issue is ordination. We have fights over LGBT inclusion, and as real and serious as those are, we also have something going on. I’m not sure what it is, but it is truly dysfunctional. And the people who are victimized are the very men and women we are supposed to be loving and supporting through their calls. For instance, I know people who are kept out of the system, not because they are homosexuals, but because they accept homosexuals.

I’ll tell you a quick story, which has nothing to do with my LGBT advocacy. We were ready to move from one step of the ord process to another (inquiry to candidacy, for all of you Presbyterians out there), and at the same time, the committee chairs were changing. The first chair was ashamed of her files. Her recordkeeping wasn’t as tidy as she had hoped, she was embarrassed, and so she didn’t hand off her paperwork for six months to the next chair.

It sounds like a small thing, and it was. But, by the time the next chair got the papers and got caught up, my husband and I were way off on our ordination process. Here’s the rub. When we graduated, Brian had finished all of his requirements, we both had small, rural churches waiting on us, and yet, we could not move into the manse because of that lapse in the process.

We were homeless for six months, because of one folder.

We got kicked out of seminary housing and had no place to go. We left our stuff in a professor’s garage, and had to give away our cat. We slept in tents in parks, and couch-surfed at friends’ apartments. We painted houses, did post-construction work, and cleaned homes, but when the odd jobs ran out, we literally had no money to eat and no roof over our heads.

Because of one folder.

Everyone knew what was happening to us. No one did anything to help us. No one questioned the process.

It can be a sick and inhumane system. It can literally destroy people. And yet, no one is allowed to complain.

Well… it’s been ten years, and I don’t have to report to a committee any longer and no one questions my ability as a pastor. So it’s safe to look back, and I see absolutely no reason for the abuse that we had to suffer. And, as I watch my friends and colleagues suffer in the same ways, I wonder what we are doing. It is clear that we have a presenting issue on our hands, in which we allow the dysfunctions of our denomination to be played out on our youngest and most vulnerable. The very people that God has entrusted to our care. The very men and women we should be nurturing, loving, and encouraging.

What can we do to make it stop?

Raising money

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Alright, we all know that this is not a good time to be raising money for anything. And… yet… people are still giving to the things that matter to them.

I’m not a fundraiser, per say. Except in the fact that I am a pastor, and ministers are often worrying about the budget, the income, and the expenses. As a pastor of a small church, I quickly realized that whether we were in the red or the black at the end of the year determined whether I was employed or not by the beginning of next year. So, I learned how to raise money. Now, I’m a Campus Minister, so I realize the ins and outs of raising funds through an institutional setting. I’m also involved with a lot of non-profits, so I see how they work, and I watch how some raise money effectively, and others flounder.

Here are the bits and pieces of wisdom that I have learned throughout the years, whether people are raising money for non-profits or churches, there are certain things that work, and certain things that do not work. As I’m writing this, I realize that a lot of words in here (like “success” and “investment”) are going to make church leaders cringe. So be it. If you are cringing, you are free to complain in the comment section.

First, and most importantly, people like to donate to organizations and ministries that are successful. They may call it “charity” but they still want to see a good return on their investments. Which means that we cannot raise fund by telling people how poor we are, or how badly we are doing, or by how much we need the money. No one wants to throw their money down a toilet that is in mid-flush. If you want to raise sympathy, you can communicate how terrible things are; but if you want to raise money, you can communicate your success.

Along with that, we can remember that money always follows vision, and not the other way around. So often, we think, if only I had some money, then I would do…. And yet, very few people, foundations, or organizations are willing to give to an unproven start-up. If you want to start something, you cannot wait until you have a big pot of money before you start planning on how you are going to spend it. The pot of money will never come, until you step out, with a vision, and a plan.

In a context of success, we communicate our needs. Better yet, explain the needs of the community that you are reaching. I learned this at my last church, when we were trying to figure out how to raise money, one of our members said, “Just tell us what you need.” And so we did, in clear and concise terms, we made up a list of everything that needed to be replaced, mended, and repaired. Within a year or two, the church had come up with the money to fix them all.

If your salary needs to be raised, there is a way to communicate this as well. An HR person told me an easy calculation. To hold on to an employee, organizations need to pay at least 10% above the medium salary for a position in the area. It is often pretty easy to get those numbers. Just chart the salaries, see where you fit, and show the personnel committee the chart. Often this is an insightful exercise to do, especially for women. We need to be aware of how our salaries compare with our colleagues. Ignoring our inequities will not get us on the path of justice.

Find ways to communicate. I often work with people who get frustrated with the fact that the larger denominational body does not give them any time during meetings for them to raise money. We often think that standing in front of our churches for a minute is the only (or the most effective) way to raise awareness about what we are doing. But, in reality, most people tune out those three minutes of canned speeches, and we can find more effective ways to tell people what we are up to.

In this day and age, there are a thousand ways to communicate all the good things that we are doing. Literally, a thousand. Websites, Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Email, Vimeo, YouTube, Magazines, Internet Radio, Webinars, MP3 downloads. Just experiment with one, every three months, and keep evaluating what is most effective.

And… when it comes to gaining an audience, we might need to get out of our little niches, to let the world know what we’re up to. For instance, if you’re a campus minister, trying to raise awareness and money among local pastors in order to raise support for the good work that you’re doing at the college, then it probably won’t do much good to hang out with other campus ministers, complaining about how the other pastors don’t give you any respect.

Instead, hang out with some local pastors. Get involved with ministry opportunities that have nothing to do with higher education. Slowly but surely, churches will begin to notice your leadership skills. They will want to support you.

What else have you noticed? What works? What doesn’t?

Deep thoughts or shallow medium?

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It is often difficult to explain to people the shifts that are taking place in today’s culture. And, it is easy for people to completely discard things like blogging as a fad, or a vehicle for imprudent exhibitionists.

And yet, as I’ve been blogging for a while now, I realize that there is more to it than that. For instance, I was preparing for the God Complex show the other day, and I printed out my blog post on how we can’t afford an educated clergy. As the papers spewed out, I studied the posts that responded to it, and all the comments. I was surprised that it came up to well over 25 pages. And I mean, well-thought-out pages. Comments and replies coming from professionals of all sorts of denominations.

Perhaps it was just having the stack of paper in my hand that stunned me, but it felt like a magazine. Except that I knew that I would not have been able to get that kind of brain-power together if I had been an editor. I began to wonder if even I have been underestimating the power of the blog.

We have all heard the criticisms before—blogs are narcissistic ramblings of the self-important amateur. Sometimes it’s true. We’ve all ventured onto blogs where the comments are completely outrageous, vacuous, or tedious.

And yet… as I stood holding the pile of substantial and thoughtful conversation, I knew that it had the weight (physical and mental) of a publication. The comments were constructive, moving into different directions, leading people to different studies and streams of thought. There was a continuity to the discussion, that was more organic than an editor’s vision. It was fascinating, reading it in paper form.

Certainly there is an emotional intensity in blogging that people may (or may not) enjoy. There is a personal narrative that may (or may not) be so fascinating. But, I don’t think that I am going to buy the notion that blogging is a medium without depth any longer.

Without the restraints of an editorial board, we are beginning to learn some important things about our institutions and ourselves. We are beginning to hear from people who may have never gotten through the rigors of formal publication, or who may not have had the right connections for the mass-produced, printed word. A different sort of conversation is taking place, as the tired and cliche magazine subjects are being set aside and replaced by problems that people are dealing with on a regular basis. People are reading, and people are listening, and a different sort of thought is igniting.

Traditional publications are floundering right now. I don’t think that they will all go away, but they would be wise if they begin to use blogs as places to farm for new thought, ideas, and talent. It’s easy to tell how hot a topic is through looking at blogs. The comments start to pile up immediately. For publications that need a fresh, new readership, looking at what generates traffic and conversation is a good place to start.

I could even imagine a magazine that used a blog as it’s primary starting point, and invited the people who comment to write articles around the topic.

What do you think is the future of all of this? How comfortable is your church with blogging? Do you see it as a source of important thought, or just a distraction from your real work?

Alban Webinar

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I’m doing a Webinar for Alban, coming up. Alban’s taking many of the shifts in clergy education, publishing, and culture seriously. And it’s fun to be a part of this organization that’s constantly thinking about how they can serve the church, and use every available means of communication to make us more effective leaders. I’ve been a part of a couple of educational initiatives where they have been quite innovative in their approach.

First, I spent a couple of days at the Sacred Practice of Leadership Series. The design of the events are so that the participants not only learn about the practices, but they have a chance to develop and reflect on the disciplines, as they form an ongoing community with each other. The first series is in Wisconsin and Iowa geared toward all of those people who have to travel to the east or west coasts for educational events.

Depending on how the series goes, they may have more, regional events. Judging from our time together, I think it will be a very effective model for sustained nurture and growth for church leaders.

While Alban is developing this long-term series for community-building and in-depth learning, they are also thinking about creative ways to allow pastors and churches who are on tight budgets and time schedules to continue their educations.

Webinars are a wonderful way to do this. They have a series of Alban authors, consultants, and guests who present their materials in a power point format. I’ve tuned into them, they’re really easy. You use your phone to hear what is being said, and your computer screen to see what’s being said. You can also watch the recorded presentation with your church later.

Of course, you don’t get the depth of interaction that you would get from attending a conference, but when you need the information, and you don’t have the time to travel and you would like an easy way to share the information you learned with your congregation, it is a wonderful way in which we can use technology to get the knowledge, without all of the expense.

So… for those who have told me, “I wish that more of my church leadership could have heard what you said,” this is your chance. I’m doing the Webinar on May 21. You can register here.

The photo is of Sinsinawa, where the SPLS event took place. It’s by my favorite Flickr photographer, Jim Bonewald. He also created most of the photos on the Webinar.