For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘clergy

Susan Howatch, A Question of Integrity, London: Warner Books, 1997, 680 pp.

Susan Howatch, Glittering Images, London: Harper, 1987, 504 pp.

41FEVHBSZKL._SX288_BO1,204,203,200_These novels were a gift from a church member, who shared that they were her favorite books. She prayed for me diligently during my treatment, and often at St. Marylebone Parish Church, whose healing ministry provided the inspiration for one of the churches in the stories. I didn’t get a chance to read them during treatment, so I am catching up.

Glittering Images is the first in the five-volume Starbridge series, and A Question of Integrity is the first in the St. Benet’s Trilogy. I read them back-to-back, and they were similar enough for me to decide to write one review instead of two. Both novels feature lead characters who are male clergy in the Church of England with have strong intuitive, if not psychic, powers that they deploy in their ministry. The stories explore how these powers work for good in their healing work and even exorcisms, but the bulk of the plot in both books comes from the clergy’s more sinister desires, especially around sex. Glittering Images uses the metaphor of a public “glittering image” that masks a true self mired in desire, unfulfilled longing, and wounds of old relationships with family and lovers. A large part of the content of both books consists of conversations and monologues with the main characters (clergy and non-clergy) baring their souls to one another or a spiritual director, narrating therapy sessions where they construct a catalogue of their desires, sins and secrets.

11245Glittering Images is set around the fictional Starbridge Cathedral and surrounding area, in the late 1930s. Scholar-priest Charles Ashworth is sent as a spy by the Archbishop of Canterbury to discover any improprieties in the living arrangements of the Starbridge bishop, Jardine, who shared his home with both his wife and her female companion. Ashworth and Jardine become entangled with one another’s secrets, lovers and desires as they both must confront their twisted interior lives against the respectable public personae.

A Question of Integrity takes place in the late 1980s in London, in a fictional parish whose healing centre is modeled on St. Marylebone Parish. Descendants of the characters from Starbridge appear as well. There are five main characters: Alice, a young woman in crisis attended by the healing ministry, who joins the staff and becomes a healing presence to all; Lewis, a cantakerous older priest with a dodgy past trying to live a pure and celibate life and use his psychic powers for good; Nicholas Darrow, a dashing superstar healer with enormous powers and a dangerously inflated sense of his own moral compass; Rosalind Darrow, his wife who seeks her own way apart from him; and Stacy, a young curate trying to sort out his own identity and missing his family. The narrative is told it five sections, with each character narrating one in first person (except Stacy, Alice gets two), each battling with their own sexual desires.

I was intrigued enough by the first book to immediately read the other one, but I am doubtful if I will continue with either series anytime soon. I think the stories attempt to portray the lives of the clergy in a way that humanizes them, but in the end made them seem extreme in both their gifts and their sins, which makes them even larger than life. Also absent are the lives of women in ministry, who always draw my interest far more strongly. The clergy in the stories are all redeemed in the end by their efforts at honesty, self-disclosure and truth-telling.

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Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer, Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015, 158 pp.

Beyond ResistanceDon’t judge this book by its cover. It looks about as dry as can be. It’s not.

Don’t judge this book by its font. It’s annoying, yes, but you’ll get over it and the content is worth it.

Don’t judge this book by its subtitle. “Postmodern” is an overused, dated term these days, but the much of the content of this book on the state of the church is as contemporary as any I’ve read.

John Dorhauer is the newly-elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and this book lays out his perspective on the current state of decline in the American church. I read it as a clergyperson in the UCC eager to hear his vision.

What struck me first and foremost was that Beyond Resistance refuses to paint a rosy picture or offer a programmatic solution to the problem of church decline. This is an odd thing for a book, and it was initially a bit depressing. The author’s opening line is, “Let’s be honest… churches are dying.” (7) He then lists lower birthrates, aging property and “postmodernity” as the three key factors impacting church decline. While he does not try to define what postmodernity means (thank goodness!), he describes it as a cultural change “in expectations around what it means to be a person of faith,” (14) making note of three key factors of being “a postmodern.”

Disbelief in universal truth

Learning differently (i.e., not through written and spoken word alone)

Distrust of institutional authority

Let me pause here a moment to say: I find the term “postmodern” loaded with baggage from other disciplines and very dated. My philosopher spouse saw the book on the table and said, “How old is that book? Why are you reading a book on church change from the 1990s?” I wish Dorhauer had used another term–perhaps “post-Christendom” or “21st century” or even a neologism he invented. He later uses the term “Church 3.0,” which I also didn’t much like, but it’s at least better. However, the problems with vocabulary aside, the content of what he says is right on. It seemed obvious to me, because I clearly belong to the group he describes. However,  active, engaged, but older, clergy colleagues in a book group on this text were shocked and upended by this information about the worldview of so-called postmoderns. I was shocked by their shock, but it revealed to me just how vast is the divide between “moderns” and “postmoderns.”

Given that the church has historically been driven by its claims to universal truth and institutional authority, and Protestantism’s reliance on written and spoken word, you can see why the current crisis has occurred. However, Dorhauer insists that it is not a “rejection of Church as Church.”

This is not a denial of the value of a life well lived, enhanced by meaningful encounters with the sacred and shaped by like-minded people living in a committed community of faith with one another. It is simply the experience of coming to church, wanting to have a meaningful encounter, and walking out under-stimulated, bored, or having learned little to nothing. (20)

The second chapter argues that the church exists for mission, and much of our current malaise is founded upon our loss of our core sense of mission. However, Dorhauer never defines what he means by mission, and in my experience people hear that word to mean very different things. Does he mean acts of charity, caring for the poor and needy? Does he mean evangelism, converting people to the way of Christ? Does he mean discipleship, forming new followers who will walk in Christ’s way? The way he uses the term throughout the chapter seems to imply that he has only the first definition in mind–acts of charity and justice. If so, I find that deeply disappointing. While I agree that the church should always be about that kind of service and advocacy, our core mission is to build disciples AND build the Kin-dom of God. People don’t come to the church looking to help the poor–they come looking for holy presence and Jesus Christ, and we should be about making that presence known. Service and advocacy are one of the most important ways we do that–but only one. Dorhauer would probably agree with me here, but I was frustrated with the lack of clarity in the chapter, and the way service and advocacy seem to be privileged as *the* mission of the church. It is a frequent critique I have for leaders across our United Church of Christ.

However, lest you think I am only critical, the second chapter also contained one of my favorite sections. In his role as Conference Minister, Dorhauer talked with churches about these changes. When older, stable congregations talked about “becoming Church 3.0,” he told them frankly that they couldn’t. Instead, established congregations should seek mission partners who are about this new way of being church. That’s where the wisdom lies–with the establishment in doing tradition well, and with outsiders who are doing church 3.0 well. (40-43)

The third chapter is titled “Grieving, Believing, Perceiving,” which reminds me immediately of Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book Reality, Grief, Hope, which I have revisited in sermons, conversations and even our Indiana-Kentucky Annual Meeting theme in the last two years. The difference here is that Dorhauer takes on the truth-telling (reality) and grieving with a greater openness, depth and brutal honesty than I have seen anywhere else. It is painful, but also affirming to hear that we are not alone in our struggles. He shares openly about the shrinking opportunities for clergy and the feelings of failure. I felt heard and seen for the first time. Though the truth is depressing, it is liberating to hear it told, especially from the new GMP of the UCC. He gets it.

As he moves toward the hopeful–believing and perceiving in his rubric–Dorhauer names the current task in this time of tumultuous change as identifying the core values and practices that cannot change if we are to remain faithful to the Gospel.

The Church as we know it is going to have to live through open debate about what changes can and will be accepted, and what changes simply cannot be made. … Knowing, through the time of change, what is so important that, if it is altered, we cease to be is an essential task of the Church. Knowing what must be passed on through the sea of change that is coming is important. (56)

In his role as GMP, I hope he leads our entire denomination through this kind of rigorous open debate. It is sure to be painful at times, but it is the best ministry we can offer right now, I believe.

Chapter four focuses on the difference between Church 2.0 and Church 3.0. As he recognizes, others have written with greater depth on this topic. Dorhauer takes special care to note that this change is not an upgrade or adjustment–it is an entirely new way of being and doing. Chapter five tackles the difficult questions arising around church authority and clergy authorization. He addresses the crumbling model of a seminary-educated clergy, who are trained for a dying church 2.0 at great expense, while recognizing the ongoing need for accountability, oversight and development of new religious leaders for church 3.0.

Chapter six repeated the same fundamental problem of this book–using outdated examples or terminology for a concept or content that is actually quite leading edge. The chapter is about metrics and measurement in churches, looking beyond membership and money to the lives we change, the impact we make in our communities, and the ways our mission is accomplished. However, he begins by saying the church should be more like McDonalds (“Over 6 billion served!”), without seeming to recognize that McDonalds is losing money like mad these days, a franchise on a faster downward spiral of unpopularity than the church is. The ideas in the chapter are good–the illustration risks making them look old and irrelevant.

Chapters 7-10 turn toward the new expressions of Christianity sprouting up in our midst. He is deeply appreciative of these new Christian communities, but draws a clear boundary around calling them churches–because they would not self-identify that way, nor would a traditional church necessarily recognize them. They are generally small, with flat hierarchies, non-ordained leaders, non-traditional gatherings that don’t resemble formal Christian worship, and exhibit a commitment to openness with regard to Christianity and other faiths, a mingling of diverse ideas. Yet what Dorhauer concludes after his exploration of many of these communities is that they are authentic expressions of Christian community.

The gospel as we know it is in good hands. It is my hope that your own explorations of these postmodern communities of faith are no threat to the current expression of the Church and, in fact, are going to preserve the good news and make it relevant in people’s lives in ways that my church can’t. (118)

He offers validation that those newly sprouting Christian expressions are real and true versions of following Jesus, even if they are unlike any church we have yet seen. The final chapter offers helpful guideposts to churches navigating this time of transition.

As you can tell if you’ve bothered reading this far, this book provoked a lot of reaction in me. There were things that bothered me and that I would argue against, but those are surface matters like vocabulary and illustrations that made cutting-edge ideas seem unnecessarily dated. The heart of the book, its insights and truth-telling, is a great gift as we wrestle with the rapid changes afoot in the life of the church. This book makes an important contribution to the conversation. If you care about this conversation, I highly recommend it, especially if you are a part of the United Church of Christ.

 

Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman, by Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith, Chalice Press, 2011, 123 pp.

I wish this book had been around 10-15 years ago, when I was just starting seminary and entering ministry. I’m so glad it’s around now for new young clergy women making their way into pastoral life.

Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith have captured the private conversations and storytelling that happen whenever young clergy women find themselves together, which is too often a rare and isolated opportunity. I remember the first time I was in a group of other young clergy women, thanks to the birth of the UCC’s 2030 Clergy Network. We all had our fair share of stories, good and bad, charming and challenging, hilarious and horrifying: being refused as a pastor because of youth and gender, having your wardrobe up for scrutiny, hearing people talk about “the pastor” without realizing its you, struggling with what to wear, handling discrimination or sexual comments or inappropriate behavior, discovering how to be ourselves while also fulfilling this demanding role as pastor.

Masters and Smith tell stories from young clergy women (themselves and others) and capture the power of those storytelling conversations—the laughter, the horrified looks, the empathy and understanding. The storytelling itself has healing and encouraging power, but the authors take it even further. In each chapter, between the stories, they offer scriptural and theological reflection on the questions at hand. The classic conversation about what to wear for what occasion is deepened with a reminder of the finery of the woman from Proverbs 31, or Paul’s instruction to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Stories about feeling at home (or not) in a new community take on new meaning when coupled with the story of the exiles whose captors demand they sing in a foreign land (Psalm 137), or Lydia, from the Book of Acts, who as a foreigner welcomes Paul to Macedonia.

This power of connecting biblical stories to contemporary stories of young clergy women was especially powerful in the chapter on pregnancy, when the authors reach back to biblical women as sisters on the journey, no matter what your journey looks like:

There are the “Sarahs” of the world, who may be too old to have a child; there are the “Hannahs” who wait many years to get pregnant; and there are the “Rebekahs,” who struggle with the relationships between their children. There are even the “Michals,” who, like David’s wife, are unable to sustain a pregnancy and end up parenting other people’s children. And yet as pastors, our pregnancies can be a step beyond. We can easily feel like “Tamars,” whose families are judged, or “Ruths,” who are foreign outsiders to the mainstream. Remembering we are daughters of these women can help us fulfill the roles of mother and pastor. In our life and ministry, we too are listed within the genealogy of Jesus and are called to be God’s messengers. (65)

This book is a real gift to young clergy women everywhere. It gives voice and validation to our stories, and offers the perspective and encouragement of sisterhood across thousands of years.

Nearly two years ago, one of the members of my church brought me an old book she found while cleaning out the church library in preparation for a major construction project. She gave it to me with a wry smile. “I thought you’d be amused by this,” she said, and handed me a copy of A Preacher’s Temptations, by James H. Blackmore, copyright 1966. At first I chuckled too, expecting an antiquated list from another era, like a ladies’ book of etiquette. Instead, I was surprised and convicted by the accuracy of the preacher’s temptations Blackmore described, and struck by the timelessness of his list.

Each chapter identifies a particular temptation, and Blackmore explains what he means and what that temptation looks like. Then, the chapter ends with a prayer for deliverance from that particular temptation. As much as I wanted to enjoy a good laugh at old-fashioned ideas of ministry, I couldn’t even muster much of a smirk once I started reading Blackmore’s list.

This is the Table of Contents, taken verbatim, plus my commentary:

  1. To identify God with our thoughts about Him. Aside from the irony of the gendered language in this context, this is certainly one of the biggest temptations of all religious leaders. The prayer at the end asks God to save us “from mistaking theology for religion.” (3)
  2. To paste labels on people. The labels may have changed, but their power to shut down relationship has not.
  3. To be jealous of the other fellow. Who, us clergy? Jealous of another’s success in ministry? Surely not! Except that all of us are, and rarely admit it.
  4. To love “the uppermost seats.” I had to read the chapter to figure this one out, but it’s about ambition—about always looking for a bigger church, more important title, or higher status. Yeah, that’s always a big challenge to clergy egos.
  5. To assume a superior air. Lord, spare us from arrogance!
  6. To run from truth. Nearly every week, it takes courage to preach the truth of the gospel. It is always tempting to avoid afflicting the comfortable, and we all succumb to an easy message from time to time.
  7. To bargain with God. This is a temptation for all disciples, but sometimes we clergy think God owes us a thing or two, for all our long hours and faithful service. Reality check: God doesn’t.
  8. To act presumptuously. Blackmore describes this as expecting God to work things out according to our wishes: “this temptation expresses itself in resentment; we are tempted to feel that somehow God has let us down.” (19)
  9. To be partial. We all know that there are some people we find it easier to love than others. Blackmore goes beyond that, warning that pastors must not spend all their time with “the sick, the troubled, the old and the lonely… To keep a balanced outlook the pastor needs to associate with the healthy, the happy, the young and the active as well.” (21) This includes children.
  10. To neglect our body. Apparently, even in 1966 clergy suffered from high blood pressure, obesity, overeating, lack of exercise, and lack of rest. While we talk about this more today, we still fall prey to the same problems.
  11. To run “in all directions at the same time.” Guilty as charged.
  12. To substitute talk for life. “O God, help us practice what we preach.” (28)
  13. To become impatient. With ourselves, with others, with God.
  14. To neglect our own family. Apparently, this is not new to women in ministry or to our generation.
  15. To mistake the parts for the whole. “We may know all the sources of the gospels, but if we do not see the Lord move within them, we do not know the Gospel.”(34)
  16. To think it all depends on us. This is a disaster to us, and to the church.
  17. To neglect spiritual exercises. Guilty again.
  18. To fumble the gospel. “The urgency of our task is that God has something to say to the people of our day, and we are called to say it.” (43) This is a weighty one.
  19. To fail to get the good news for ourselves. God’s grace is for us, too. Forgive us when we forget it.
  20. To speak in an unknown tongue. Our sermons and God’s message are meaningless if they cannot be understood.
  21. To keep up with the Joneses. Deliver me from envy, O Giver of All.
  22. To act as if we own the church. Lord, forgive me when I talk about “my” church instead of yours.
  23. To forget our calling. “Our calling is not something we can turn on and off; our calling and ordination make us ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ—not just for certain hours or places, but for ever and for all places.” (54-55) This is a tough one, but it’s true. We cannot be one person at church and another person outside it—we are always living in faith.
  24. To be nettled by taunts. “Nettled” is just the right word, isn’t it? Critics’ words prick at us and stick under our skin, leaving us irritated and unsettled.
  25. To give forth uncertain sounds. While I might have phrased it differently (this sounds vaguely like bodily noises), the temptation to equivocate in our messages is real.
  26. To undertake too much. Oh dear.
  27. To neglect the work of an evangelist. Ever get too busy managing the church to pay attention to those outside it? Yeah, me too.
  28. To go too far ahead of our people. A pastor is a shepherd—we are supposed to be leading the sheep, not leaving them behind.
  29. To be lazy. I’m glad Facebook doesn’t report how much time I spend there.
  30. To be too severe. The reverse of #6 is equally tempting.
  31. To be proud. No explanation necessary.
  32. To cease to pray for the people. Humbling, and accurate.
  33. To despise ourselves. It’s not about self-esteem, it’s about knowing that God works through us as we are, not as we think we ought to be.
  34. To ride on the authority of others. It’s about plagiarism, y’all.
  35. To hold our peace. Some of us struggle to hold our tongue, others to speak up for the right if it might cause conflict.
  36. To assume we are exempted from evil. Unfortunately, our ordination doesn’t free us from “petty meannesses and small jealousies” (91) or from the big ones.
  37. “To whine.” Apparently, Blackmore has attended some of the same clergy gatherings I have.
  38. To “grow weary in well-doing.” Guilty again.
  39.  To feel that we are no longer needed. Like #6 and #31, the temptation exists at both extremes: to think it all depends on us (#16) and to think that what we do doesn’t matter at all.
  40. To despair. Pastors too face times of darkness and distance from God

James H. Blackmore, thank you for this open, honest work that stands the test of time and crosses generations of pastoral experience.

The woman who gave me the book told me to pass it on to the Goodwill pile, but I’m holding on to it. Much in ministry has changed in the last 50 years, but these temptations remain.  Deliver me, O Lord, from temptation.


My friend Rachel Small at Occupy Wall Street.

If Jesus were here today, it seems obvious he would be sympathetic to the Occupy movement. The Gospels detail his life’s work speaking out against the unjust economic systems and unfair distribution of wealth; railing against the burden of oppressive debt, taxation and extortion from the lower classes to line the pockets of the rich; attending to healing and building a new model of community; trying to change the same old conversation with subversive tactics of protest; revealing the collusion between wealth, power and violence; and taking sides with the poor, outcast and rejected. Among my progressive clergy friends, there have been multiple postings of a graphic saying, “Jesus is with the 100%.” While Jesus loved both rich and poor, he refused to comfort or coddle those who made exorbitant profits by oppressing the poor.  As my friend Rachel’s sign points out, Jesus’ own prayer aligns itself clearly with the stated hopes of the Occupy movement.

Jesus’ life and ministry was most fundamentally about inaugurating a new way of life. It was about building the kingdom of God here, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Early Jesus followers were simply known as “The Way,” because they lived a way of life caring for the poor, forming new community and trying to do things differently. Beyond the notion that Jesus would have supported the Occupy protesters, this idea of “The Way” is the stronger connection between the Occupy movement and the heart of Christianity.  Occupy is not a Christian movement, but it is a movement about a way of life. The daily General Assemblies, shared leadership and direct democracy, sharing of goods and managing of community needs are all about incarnating in practice the ideas and visions of the community of protesters. They do not just carry signs and march down streets to encourage people to their cause—they are embodying the community they want to build by practicing a new way of doing things and being together. That’s an awful lot like our Savior and his followers.

I spent some time at our local Occupy movement, downtown in our city bordering on the south and midwest. I discovered that the experience shared even more parallels to the church—including some of its struggles. Ours was a small group, about 20 in all. When I arrived, they were in a meeting. The small, handwritten sign at the center of the circle indicated that this was an education session, which lasted every day from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., with the General Assembly at 7:00 p.m. I stood at the edge of the circle for nearly 30 minutes, and felt completely lost. No one spoke to me, no one invited me to sit with them on a blanket (the ground was muddy), no one even acknowledged I was there. There were words I didn’t understand and strange hand gestures that left me puzzled. Everyone else clearly knew one another very well. The entire time I was there, I imagined that this is exactly the experience that many of these people would have if they walked into our churches for Sunday worship. It was humbling.

When at last someone stepped away from the circle (I couldn’t interrupt, didn’t know the proper hand gesture to be recognized to speak, and couldn’t wait five hours for a break in the action), I followed him and introduced myself. I chose not to start with my clergy title (after all, I did not come representing my congregation), but just my name and my interest in offering support—food, blankets, supplies, whatever was needed. He seemed displeased that I had bothered him, and said they had everything they needed. He did at least take my card when it was offered. I had planned to stay longer, but I felt so uncomfortable that my nerves took over and I left. I’ve been trying to renew my courage to return. Again, a humbling experience.

So, as Jesus-followers today, where do we fit in with the Occupy movement? When I first started writing this post two weeks ago (it’s taken me a long time to sort through my thoughts), there was little or no church presence at the Occupy movement, here or anywhere else. Many of the Occupy participants were (are) openly hostile to religion, especially Christianity, because they associate it with the harm of the radical, prosperity gospel, anti-sex, anti-body, anti-intellectual right wing version of our faith. In this short time, some of that has begun to change. In other cities, the progressive Christian community has rallied to organize itself in support of the Occupy movement, offering spiritual support, communion services, even processing a giant golden calf as a religious symbol of condemnation. (In the interest of full disclosure, many of these folks are my friends, and the links are from their own Facebook posts.) This clergy support work has been welcomed by Occupiers in Boston, New York, San Francisco and many other places.

The question still remains: what is our role as faith communities and Christians in the Occupy movement? I think part of our confusion stems from the fact that we are not at the center of this movement. For the last 200 years in the United States, churches have been the nurseries of movements for social change—abolition, women’s rights, civil rights, fair labor practices, temperance, education reform, on and on. Clergy have been on the front lines of shaping, inspiring and leading movements for social justice. I am a veteran of many protests, and as a clergy person I am used to being on display up front to add moral authority to the cause. Yet the Occupy Wall Street movement happened without us. This is new territory, and, like me hovering outside the Occupy meeting’s circle, we aren’t sure what to do with ourselves. We might even be dealing with a bit of a bruised ego over the whole thing—I showed up to offer my help, but no one wanted it. In order to connect, we must be willing to be outsiders instead of insiders, to be uncomfortable and take time to learn how things go.

There is an old joke about the radical French intellectual that hears the people marching in the streets and responds: “There go my people! I must find out where they are going so that I can lead them.” I am concerned that this will be the approach of the progressive church to the Occupy movement.  Many of us have years of experience in social movements, and it will be tempting to show up and offer ourselves as experts and leaders. I admit that one of my desires after my visit to the local Occupy site was to offer advice to them—about how to welcome newcomers, about how to respond to offers of assistance, about how to incorporate outsiders. I’m still not sure what to do with that impulse. I believe that wisdom might be helpful to the cause, but I also believe it is arrogant of me to step in as a newcomer and offer unsolicited advice about how to do things.

One of the great dangers facing the Occupy movement is whether or not it will be co-opted and assimilated by big money players like unions, the Democratic party, Move On, and others—or whether it can hold its own and do things a new way. One of the great successes of the movement so far has been its ability to change the conversation, to break open the dialogue in a way that those well-established players have not been able (or willing) to do.

While we aren’t as big a player as we’d like to be, I think that Christians may try to co-opt the movement in the same way. We should avoid the temptation to say to the Occupy folks, “Yes, you’re saying just what we’ve been saying all along, what Jesus has been saying for 2,000 years.” What usually swiftly follows this is an invitation to worship, or to join in something we’ve already planned that might interest them. We might even be tempted to think that this movement might be a way to connect with progressive young people and engage them in church. I’m not sure that is a bad thing—I do believe in evangelism!—but I also see an arrogance in it. It is definitely a good thing to show up and demonstrate that Jesus and his followers are not necessarily who you think they are, that Christians stand with the poor and the protesters, and that our faith motivates us to action against oppressive empire. It would definitely be a bad thing to believe that our churches are keepers of the vision protesters have been seeking all along, that going to church is a way of engaging the movement, or that we might hope to sign people up for our next progressive Christian rally.

In other words, I believe we should show up to listen far more than speak, to learn far more than teach, to support far more than guide. We can, and should, simply be one of the 99%.  What it means to be followers of Jesus is to do what’s right, without caring about whether or not we’re recognized for doing it. “The Way” we follow is about incarnating love, justice and peace—not promoting the church’s voice or even promoting  Jesus.   Brian McLaren wrote a similar thought this week in a piece entitled “Why I’m Joining the Occupation.”

I’d especially encourage Christian leaders to do so . . . not as a representative of your church or denomination, but as a human being . . . not to co-opt or control, but to contribute and to learn. As someone who’s had a lot of control (more than I realized) for a lot of years, I’m finding it a wonderful gift to simply be a participant, one voice among many, learning and listening and learning some more.

For this reason, I’ll be going back to Occupy again. Because it’s where Jesus would probably be hanging out today. Because it’s the right thing to do, not just as a Christian but as a human being. Because it’s good for me to know life as an outsider, and because I know that all human movements and institutions have their flaws. Most of all, though, I will go back because I am one of the 99%. I am also afflicted by and implicated in the unjust system the Occupiers call out, and I want this body of mine to be a part of incarnating a new way of being. My prayer remains Jesus’ prayer: “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Yesterday was my first day back from a wonderful vacation. I met a friend at a mountain cabin for a week of reading, resting, writing, praying, singing, eating and enjoying God’s beautiful fall foliage. Although I returned to town on Saturday and even preached on Sunday, I did not yet feel ready to be back at work in the office facing so many competing demands. I was dreading Monday.

I almost never dread a work day, but I knew that my week off was about to send me careening into a pile of unreturned phone calls and e-mail, unopened mail, last-minute preparations for the night’s Council meeting and writing a stewardship letter and newsletter announcements. There was nothing in the day that I was looking forward to. I also knew that the day in the office would be full of interruptions and distractions, which I expected to leave me feeling frustrated and behind schedule.

But God is good, and sometimes sends us just what we need to remember why it is we do what we do. Yesterday was one of those amazing days in ministry, full of random happenings that reveal the workings of the Spirit and bless a pastor’s heart. A wise pastor once told me that ministry happens in the interruptions, that God lives in the interruptions. I give thanks to God for all of yesterday’s interruptions.

  • A man called on the telephone seeking prayer. He didn’t want anything else, but he said he needed us to pray for him, and that he would pray for us as well. He declined to provide details, but said it was serious, it was nothing new, and it was no big deal for God to handle. I was touched by his quiet confidence and witness of faith in the power of prayer.
  • A man rang the doorbell. He announced he was a concert pianist seeking practice space. I said that we were open to the possibility, but he would need to make arrangements with our musician. As his story unfolded, I realized he was visiting from out of town. He was looking for a place to play, just for today. His wife was a retired UCC pastor, so he sought and found our church. For the next two hours, I sat in my office and enjoyed a beautiful impromptu recital of Handel, Chopin and Mendelssohn on the grand piano outside my door.
  • One of the unreturned phone calls was from a woman whose father-in-law had been a long inactive member of the church. When he died two years ago, I officiated at his funeral. She called because she and her husband had decided to make a gift of $500 to charity in lieu of an extravagant Christmas this year. She sought my advice on local charities (including our church’s soup kitchen) and how to contribute in the most meaningful way. We talked deeply and passionately about generosity, compassion and hope.
  • A woman from across the country, who had become my friend on Facebook because she was trying to learn about the use of social media in ministry in the UCC, wrote to me to let me know that she and her husband had decided to become members of their local UCC congregation this coming Sunday. She shared her appreciation for my online friendship and openness, and for my willingness to connect with a stranger in the name of Christ’s church.
  • A young woman wandered into our building and found her way directly to my office. Her face was swollen and bruised, her eye blackened. She confessed that she had just been married and moved to town, and her new husband had done this to her. A copy of the completed police report was in her hand. Her family was ready to welcome her home, but they were out of state and she had no money for transportation. They advised her to find the closest church and ask them for help. I connected her to the local domestic violence shelter, who offered her safe haven and assistance in traveling back home. I was so grateful that our door was open when she needed us.
  • After the long evening meeting, I had the chance to check in with a church leader in the parking lot. Normally a private person, this leader is not one to seek counseling or make public family concerns. In the dark of the parking lot, a private person found space to open up about a family crisis, and we talked for nearly 30 minutes. I was able to listen, offer prayer and support, and will be able to better attend to this family’s needs as a result. I felt honored to be invited into this painful situation and vulnerable heart.

Somehow, amid all that beautiful interruption, I also managed to get the Council preparation done, stewardship letter written, phone calls returned, mail opened and a bit more. God’s work is such a gift.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be in ministry, to participate in God’s work of hospitality, healing, hope-building. I give thanks for the church that pays me just to be there and attend to these moments and afforded me the privilege of saying “yes” to all these voices of need. I marvel that in our secular world full of negative images of Christianity, people still turn to the closest church for compassion, whether as giver or receiver of aid. I praise God for beautiful music, for faith in the power of prayer, and for the healing of wounded hearts. I ask forgiveness for ever dreading a day in God’s service, and ask God for many more days to do this work, and many, many more interruptions.

Most of the time, I ride in the hearse or the lead car with the funeral director for the journey from the funeral to the gravesite. This is always fun, because contrary to their dour image, funeral directors can be quite funny. They are usually willing to regale you with outrageous stories from the death business, if only you are willing to inquire. But the far more important and advantageous reason for riding with the funeral director is that I do not have to drive my car in the funeral procession.

I do not drive a nice car. I have grown up enough to no longer drive a car that is a complete and total embarrassment, better suited to a high-schooler than an educated professional, but I still drive a car that is small, cheap, used and usually unwashed. I drive this car partly by choice and partly by economic necessity. Contrary to popular belief, pastors are not usually wealthy people. I do not choose to use my limited resources on purchasing and maintaining a sweet ride. I am fine with that. I like my car, its reliability, excellent gas mileage and low price tag. I do not have car envy. I do not secretly wish for something bigger and fancier. I feel no shame or embarrassment over my car or its condition.

Except on those rare occasions when I don’t get to ride with the funeral director, and I have to insert my small, cheap, unwashed, well-worn automobile into the funeral procession.

And not just anywhere in the funeral procession. They always want the pastor up front. Usually either directly behind the hearse or between the lead car and the hearse, where my battered little ride sticks out like a pimple on the prom queen.

That means that the whole funeral procession is behind me, fixing its eyes on me and my automobile. Even the grieving family rides behind the pastor. Today, there were three stretch limos involved. So the procession went:  Cadillac, Hearse, me, Limo, Limo, Limo. One small, dirty, four-year-old Kia in a sea of beautiful, shiny, black luxury. I climbed out of my car at the cemetery feeling like I’d just shown up to New York’s Fashion Week wearing something from the clearance rack at Old Navy.

Oil Stain Optional

Would anyone be interested in a clergy car co-op, where we purchase one shiny, new black sedan to take turns driving in funeral processions?


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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