Six Months Down, Or: How Long Until Retirement?

Dear friends, can you believe it? Today marks six full months of ministry for me. While I am tempted to make a humorous list of the more bizarre things that have happened to me or bigger mistakes I’ve made, I thought instead six months deserved a bit more.  So I went back to the drawing board, or the writing journal, as it were, and I hope you will indulge me a reflective post.  I’ll offer you something humorous later in the week, I promise!

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There are a great number of things about ministry for which I was very well-prepared: preaching, liturgy, hospital visitations, nursing homes, funerals, Bible studies, Sunday school, and charge conferences.  Seminary, as well as field and personal experiences, taught me just about everything I’ve needed to know so far about the typical weekly and occasional events of the Church and her life.  I know what Point A and Point B are, and I know how to get from one to the other and back.

What I was not prepared for was everything in between.

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

I was not prepared, for example, for the hum and drum of working life.

I was not prepared for the particular, abiding fear that comes with a job like ministry where you are constantly discerning and articulating your ever-changing “call,” and trying to either build a job description around that or muscle it into fitting the job description your ministry setting provides and/or needs.

I was not prepared for the constant self-evaluation and doubting that comes with a job in which personal relationships are 98% of what you do.  Though I am not the type to have social anxiety, I find myself panicking over every small interaction:

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

“Did I say ‘no’ with too much negative emphasis when they offered me wine at that Sunday School Christmas party?”

“Was I insensitive when that mother was telling me about her daughter’s disease and related bowel issues?”

“Did I laugh out loud when that man in Trader Joe’s looked at my clerical collar and said, ‘So you’re a nun, then?'”

I was not prepared for the elderly woman who told me in a matter-of-fact, almost chipper voice that she was ready to die and prayed every night that she wouldn’t have to wake up and do this all again tomorrow.

I was not prepared for the battering loneliness– the daily barrage of never quite being a part of anything, because I consented, by pursuing ordination, to be set apart.

I find myself envious, many times, of those worker bees whose jobs are quantifiable, tangible, visible.  I envy my friend Claire who creates the bulletins for all our worship services– every week she knows what her tasks are and ever week there is something that she created that she can hold in her hands and be proud of. I was not prepared to feel so positively unmoored by not receiving constant feedback, syllabi, tasks, and results.

I was not prepared to enjoy the spotlight as much as I do. I have struggled mightily to recover any semblance of humility I may have once had– no one told me how hard that would be.

I was not prepared for the disappointment I felt when a baby was too sick to be baptized to be more disappointment that was not getting to do a baptism than disappointment that the baby was ill.  In short, here, I wasn’t prepared to have to fight so strongly against being a total, self-absorbed, emotional, envious, discontented jerk.

I was prepared for what I would be doing, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional,  psychological, relational, and physical effects of the HOW of doing it.

***

I wonder if my unmoored, bewildered, emotional feeling is kin at all to Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane.  His prayers were so earnest, so devastatingly honest and terrible. He said to those whom He called friends, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” He went back and forth, up and down– not this, Father. Your will, Father. Please no, Father.  Yes, Father.

He Qi, "Praying at Gethsemane."Source: http://thejesusquestion.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/jesus_gethsemane-qi.jpg (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings... quite beautiful!)

He Qi, “Praying at Gethsemane”
Source: The Jesus Question (Go to this blog for an assortment of Gethsemane renderings… quite beautiful!)

Answering the call, as I’ve said before, is the easy part.  Then you actually have to go and wander in the desert, or be nailed to a cross, or sit in an office and wonder if you’re doing this “adult” thing, or this “ministry” thing, or this “life” thing right at all.

***

So here’s what’s working for me to survive, even (hopefully) to flourish in all this.  If you’re feeling at all like I am, new clergy out there, or if you seminarians are feeling terrified by my honest account, follow these simple rules and you’ll be alright:

1. Read. Not just Scripture, although read a lot of that. Read memoirs, read blogs, read biographies and books of ancient letters.  These types of texts will allow you to inhabit the mind and soul of another person, which gives you perspective, and companionship, and camaraderie, and empathy.
My suggestions: Follow the hours or the daily office to get your fill of Scripture. Books: Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God and Still, all three of Anne Lamott’s books of musings on life and faith, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church (not her best work at all, but an honest and perspective-giving account of the pitfalls that haunt clergy) and above all else Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.

2. Listen to music. New music. Old music. Listen to it in the office even if you have to put headphones on. Listen to the stuff you listened to in high school. Listen to the stuff the current high schoolers are listening to. Listen to Mumford and Sons, Bob Dylan, Esperanza Spalding, and Sinatra. Music lights the soul in a way nothing else can.

3. Limit your consumption of garbage.

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Source: United Methodist Memes

By this I mean junk: junk food, junk television, junk internet content, junk movies, junk phone calls with junk, gossipy friends.  Toss it out as much as you can.  I think it’s pretty true that you are what you eat, or watch, or say. So try to eat, watch, and say true and good things. (This, I’m still not good at. I just love pizza. And twitter. And the dang Sister Wives.)

***

So, at the end of 6 months, I’m coming around to the realization that being totally and completely uprooted, unmoored, and bewildered is not the worst thing in the world.  It’s not even the end of the world.  It’s an invitation to engage with a deeper kind of reality, the kind where Merton is more soul-soothing than a good Duck Dynasty marathon.

It’s an invitation to live.

***

Source: United Methodist Memes

Source: United Methodist Memes

The Dinosaur vs. The Very Hairy Monkey: Worship Renewal in the Postmodern World

You know that friend you had in college who was studying something positively useless, like ancient Sumerian or Art History or something?  And you thought, what contribution are you ever going to make to the advancement of modern society?  What is the point?

Sometimes I think we have a tendency to think subconsciously about ministry that way.  Sometimes it feels like we are curators in beautiful but crumbling museums, scurrying around and doing our best to preserve the glass-encased treasures, artifacts, and masterpieces.  People come in, they behold the beauty we proudly present, and then they leave, sometimes changed and sometimes unchanged.

Mona Lisa on display at the Lourve.  Image credit: Wikipedia

People still visit the Mona Lisa and David even though they’ve not changed in the slightest in centuries.  I’m going to visit Rome in a few weeks, and I’ve been told to expect hour-long waits to view the Sistine Chapel and the Coliseum, despite the fact that they’re just the same as they were in the pictures in my elementary school textbooks.

So, too, God has not changed in all these years.  So shouldn’t people continue to come to the houses of worship to visit?  …Or is that metaphor imperfect?  Of course it is.

God is unchanged, but that doesn’t mean the Church is unchanged.  God is unchanged, but that doesn’t mean that we are unchanged.  God is unchanged, but that doesn’t mean the way we worship, where we worship, what time we worship, and what worship involves is unchanged.

66% of Americans believe that the traditional Church is irrelevant.
Leith Anderson says, “The Church in America is dying for lack of change.” (1)
12 million people are active, and 30 million people are interested, in alternative spiritual systems. (2)

The use of this term, “alternative,” says they want something entirely unlike what is currently being offered.  They don’t want what we have traditionally served them; they want something new and fresh, sweet on the tongue.  They are looking, searching, seeking for something else.

Obviously we need to be open to change.

(Note: We needn’t throw out the traditional model; after all, if 66% think the traditional Church is irrelevant, then 34% apparently disagree.  But as of now, the proportions are wrong:  I don’t have specific numbers for this part, but I’d venture to say that 80% or more of our worship is aimed at the 34% right now.  We have to flip that on its head.)

If 66% of people think traditional church is irrelevant, let’s give them nontraditional church.

Because we are called to give them Church.
We’re not called to protect the old traditions.  We’re not called to stand in an ostensibly crumbling building and wait to be crushed by falling stones.  We’re not called to stand in a belltower and shout at passersby about the Good News they could find if only they’d come inside. Rather, we are called to offer God to people, wherever they are, whatever they like, whomever they love, whatever they look like, whatever type of music they prefer, however they dress, and whenever they’re awake.

If young adults are sleeping til noon on Sundays and staying up until 3AM, let’s give them a midnight worship service.  If prostitutes are hanging around the bad areas of town, let’s set up shop there.  If the bars and tattoo parlors are where people are hanging out, let’s bring the Church to hang out there, as well.

Because whenever the unchurched are awake, God’s there. And wherever the unchurched are hanging out, God’s there. And whatever the unchurched are doing, God’s there.  God is not just in the church building.  When are we going to get that through our thick skulls?

We have to change because the people God wants us to reach are not going to come to us, 99% of the time.  We’re going to have to go to them.

 

But there is great risk in change.  We could screw it all up.

Consider the recent news story of the Spanish fresco by artist Elias Garcia Martinez, over a century old.

Image credit: today.com via Centro De Estudios Borjanos via EPA

A classic painting was positively ruined by a restoration-gone-wrong.  The article cited above says this: The BBC Europe correspondent described the painting’s current state as resembling “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.”

As I prepare in my current appointment to begin an alternative worship service, I tremble with the fear that I will end up, not with Christ, but with a very hairy monkey in an ugly shirt.

But Exodus 17 gives me faith.

The people of Israel are thirsty, they’re desperate for water.  God tells Moses to go out into the middle of nowhere (the Rephidim, the Nowhere Place, where no one would expect water to be), and God promises to go before him, and that God will be there, standing on a rock.  And water, God promises, will flow out of that rock.

God’s people today are thirsty for God, they’re desperate for Church– even if they don’t know it. Alternative worship, the nontraditional Church, this is the wilderness of the Nowhere Place, this is where living water will flow out of hard places, dry places, broken places.  This is where God has already gone before us, leading the way, clearing the path, setting up roadsigns.  And God will be there, standing on the rock, if only we will lift our eyes and follow.

 

(1) Charles Arn, How to Start a New Service
(2) Mark Galli, Beyond Smells and Bells