New Pastor Bingo

When you first become a pastor, you can’t help but keep track of all the firsts you’ve had, and the firsts you’ve yet to have. There are, of course, many things that are missing from this card, but we can jump off those bridges when we come to them. For now, I present to you, New Pastor Bingo!

(Without revealing too much about myself… suffice it to say that, on this card, I have Bingo multiple ways.)

bingo card 2What about you? Do you have bingo? What would you include on my next card?

 

Doubting Thomas/Honest Thomas

This past Sunday my friends and I launched a new worship service here in Charlotte.  It was amazing– and God showed up major. Lots. (points for getting that subtle 30 Rock reference).

We had just over 40 people, mostly young adults, rocking out by lamp- and exposed bulb-light, in wingbacks and on pews, around tables and on couches. We had a candle-lighting area for private prayer, Eucharist, and a healing prayer station with anointing oil and a place to kneel. There was a spoken word/rapped prayer that riffed on the Our Father, and it was good.

There were tears, there was joy, there was laughter.  I was overwhelmed with the spirit/Spirit in that place. That, and stomach pain. I was nearly overwhelmed by a lot of intense, sharp stomach pain. But I whispered weakly to myself, like Mel Gibson’s character fighting through pain to do something heroic in every Mel Gibson movie ever made, “You can burst if you want, appendix; I’m having too much fun to care!” (It didn’t burst, my appendix is totally fine. My heroics, it turns out, are even less impressive than Mr. Gibson’s. Which is saying something.)

We sang songs about love, about hopelessness, about God’s grace. We sang about shaking the devil off your back.  I read from John 20 and preached on Thomas. Would you like to read my sermon?

The Hub- Gathering 1

The Hub- Gathering 1

A couple of thousand years ago, there was a man named Thomas. Very little is known about him, except that one day he met a man named Jesus and he followed Him. He appears by all accounts to have been a very brave man. He left his family, his home, his livelihood, and followed a total stranger. At one point in the stories, all his friends become afraid, because they realize this Jesus is going to get them all killed. Thomas is the one who says, “Let us go and die with Him.” The faith of Thomas is a witness to us. Oh, to have the faith of Thomas.

Now let me read to you the story Thomas is best known for. His friend, his Teacher, is dead; He’s been killed by the government days ago, and now all Thomas’s friends claim to have seen Jesus alive. This is the story of Thomas’s doubt. The story of his courage. The story of his brutal, heartbreaking honesty. The story of a man who would not sing of love unless he was sure it existed:

This comes from the gospel of John, in the new testament, chapter 20, verses 24 to 29.
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (NRSV)

Reprise of Paramore’s “The Only Exception.”

Our man Thomas has got a bad rap. Doubting Thomas, that’s what he’s called. Never mind that that’s not what the disciples ever called him, or what Jesus ever called him. Actually, they called him “the twin”; that’s what Thomas meant in their language. Yet we’re never told that he had a brother or a sister… Some people believe that they may have called him “the twin” because he looked a lot like Jesus… Maybe they were teasing him for looking like their teacher. Maybe they were teasing him for acting so much like their teacher.

In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the disciples allowed Thomas’s doubt to define him.

You know, this service is aimed at “young adults,” that’s what we’ve put on the signs, although all are welcome. The thing about us young adults is that we’ve got a bad rap. I’ve read a lot of books on how to reach “milennials” and the things they say about us are sort of insulting: they say we’re fickle. We’re noncommittal. We’re flighty. We come and go and never settle and can’t be counted on.
Up to 1/3 of Americans consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious, and when you look just at young adults, that percentage skyrockets.

So I guess it’s sort of true that we’re flighty and noncommittal, isn’t it? We’re the generation that invented the “maybe” RSVP on facebook. A third of us transfer colleges at some point during undergrad. I did! 1 in 5 of us identify as having switched religions from that in which we were raised.

So that’s our bad rap.

But back to Thomas. Thomas gets 4 total speaking parts, all in the gospel of John. The first is the one I already told you about, when he says with great courage and conviction to his friends, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” No sign of doubt there!

The second comes after Jesus’s statement that He is going before us to prepare a place for us, and that we will follow. Thomas pipes up and says what probably everyone else was thinking, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Let me pause to ask you something: is this doubt? Or is this a question? If you ask me, it’s not doubt. Thomas doesn’t ask if that’s possible, or if Jesus can be trusted. Like Mary before him, he simply asks how. How can this be for I have no husband? How can we follow you? We want to we believe that we can, and we believe that we will, I’m just wondering how.

The last two times Thomas speaks are in the section I read to you. ”Unless I see the nail marks… I will not believe.” And what does Jesus do in response to this doubt? He extends His hands and invites Thomas to place his hand in the wound in His side, and Thomas exclaims, in the powerful last line we get from him, “My Lord and my God!”

It’s very important, this statement of Thomas’s: at first he calls Jesus his Lord, which isn’t very descriptive. Lord could be simply the title of a man of higher social status. Lord could be just another way of showing respect to a teacher. Lord could mean master, nothing more. But then Thomas calls Jesus, “God.”

Thomas was a Jew, and for a Jew the belief in one and only one God is as essential as breathing. You don’t just go around calling anyone a god. That’s pretty much the gist of commandments 1 through 3. To say these words could easily have gotten Thomas killed. To say these words could have gotten him considered damned by everyone he knew, his father and mother, his old friends, his old rabbi and everyone in his town.

But he says it anyway, because Thomas, I want to suggest, was not a doubter– or at least not for long. Thomas, ultimately, was very brave, and very faithful.

Let me tell you the story of one of Thomas’s friends, another of Jesus’ friends, named Judas. Funny enough, some historians say that Judas might have been Thomas’s middle name, so they had something in common… Judas, you might say, lost faith, he began to doubt. He doubted that Jesus was really God in a human body. He doubted that Jesus could actually save him from his own miserable, narcissistic, self-centered life. He doubted that his life could really change. So he sold Jesus out. He took a list of all the rules Jesus had ever broken, all the things Jesus had said that made him uncomfortable, those things he couldn’t believe, and sold the body of God to the highest bidder.

And he regretted it deeply. He was not smited. No fiery lightning bolt came down from heaven, no angel showed up to make him pay. His own heart betrayed him and showed him his guilt. The gospel of Matthew says that he was seized by regret.

I wonder if you have ever felt the spindly, cold fingers of regret slice through your soul? After all, every day we sell the body of Christ for nickels. When we choose gossip, or hate, or lust, over love. When we numb ourselves with movies or alcohol or flirting with strangers instead of filling that deep chasm in our hearts with the only thing that will truly satisfy.

Judas could not handle it. Matthew tells us that he committed suicide, that he went out on Good Friday, “early in the morning,” and that he hanged himself. It is of poetic importance that I tell you this would have been about the same time that Jesus was crucified. On a cross between two thieves, God was hung on nails and wood by sinners. In a field, alone, the doubter hung himself.

I tell you this story because I believe that it, like Thomas’s is a story of doubt. Here’s a question I heard recently about Judas that I want to put to you: What if Judas could have waited two more days before he hung himself?

What if Judas could have held on for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, what if he could have made it to Easter morning? What if he stood there with Thomas and expressed his doubts, his fears, his unbelief?

You see, the miracle of Thomas’s story is that Jesus does not have an unkind word to say to him. Jesus comes to him and says, “Look, feel, see- I am alive.” He does not mock him for his doubts, or make him say any hail Mary’s or do any pushups. He answers him. Exactly what Thomas said he needed– to see the nail marks and put his hand in Jesus’s side– is what Jesus offers him.

Judas didn’t stick around to ask for what he needed. For whatever reason– fear, or embarrassment, or bitterness that he couldn’t believe what all the other disciples seemed to believe so easily– he couldn’t be that honest with his friends, and he looked for the easy way out– just to get Jesus out of the picture.

Thomas, though, he was not afraid to speak his truth: “I am having trouble believing this stuff. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, and I don’t think I’ll be able to believe until I do.”

Honest Thomas. Oh, to have the authenticity of Thomas!

Here’s what it seems to me we can learn from Thomas: When his faith began to crumble, when he could no longer feel God walking beside him, or hear God speaking to him, he did not run. He did not leave. He did not take the easy way out and just go back home where it was comfortable and safe. The story finds him in the room with the disciples. He says, “I don’t believe right now,” and yet he stays.

And not only does he stay, he asks his brothers for exactly what he needs: “I need to see the wounds, to put my hands in them.” And I think it’s because of the faith it took to stay and the courage it took to be that honest that he was given what he asked for– Jesus’s wounded hands and feet and side.

Friends, if you have come here tonight with doubts, you are in good company. Thomas stands with you, because he has been there.

Brené brown says that faith without vulnerability and mystery is not faith at all. Faith is a risk, a risk that takes honesty and courage, like Thomas had. A risk that takes fear and trembling, like Thomas had. A risk that takes everything you have, like Thomas gave. We have created this space here tonight for you to get honest with God. What will you offer Him? What if your worst doubts are worth more than your most beautiful pretenses?

If you have come here in doubt and fear, know that we, too, stand with you and pray for you, because everyone here has been there. If you are looking at our prayer stations and especially at this meal prepared with trepidation, just know this: Jesus invites to the table everyone who earnestly seeks Him. Just as he invited the doubter Thomas to put his hand in His side, Jesus invites the doubters in this room, including you, including me, to put our hands on this broken body and, by it, believe.

Amen.

A Day in the Life of a Pastor

Source: memebase

Source: memebase

Wake up at 4am, vaguely worried about something I can’t remember. Attribute it to the fact that the Board of Ordained Ministry is coming up…….. in two and a half years BUT STILL.

Call my father, ask him to talk me off my anxiety ledge.  He jokes with me about how all my problems will be solved when they elect me the new pope. We laugh. I feel better, am able to get out of bed, even take a shower! Plus 10 points!

Head to work! Pull out in front of another car and duck my head hoping my extra chins will hide my clerical collar, while holding up a hand in apology.

Stop in Panera, where a man waits respectfully for me to fully vacate the coffee bar area before he approaches it, as though I am one of those nuns who are so cloistered that if a man touches them, they get defrocked, or melt, or something.

Hear a snippet of a story on NPR about “home funerals” in which the speaker bemoans funeral homes as being clinical, sterile, and unwelcoming; thus, she says, the best option is to have a funeral at home.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Think for a while about the fact that church is no longer an option for many people, or even a category in their brains.
Consider crying.
Consider quitting ministry before the Church doesn’t even exist anymore.
Laugh at my silliness and lack of trust.
Get out of the car.

Joke with coworkers and realize I work with the best people in the world.

Read a long comment on a progressive blog which begins with a quote from a Casting Crowns song. Laugh, then nearly cry.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Begin a response to a friend on facebook RE: the “messianic secret” motif in Mark. Delete everything. Begin it again. Delete everything again. Give up. (Sorry, Brad!)

Source: reactiongifs

Have lunch with parishioners; struggle against revealing too much.  I just want to be best friends with everyone, but it turns out people don’t exactly want to know that their pastors break and bleed and suffer and sometimes lie on the sofa in sweatpants and wail. Or, conversely but still in the TMI realm, that we sometimes sing silly songs to our puppies about how they are a little bear dressed up in a puppy costume. Come on, that’s adorable.

Put on an additional cardigan because the world is freezing. Come and get me, boys; I look so irresistible in this clerical collar and multiple cardigans.  Ow ow, am I right?

Source: reactiongifs

Accidentally click a link to a terrible, terrible blog while googling translations of Ezekiel 16. (Seriously, don’t try this at home, kids. And especially not at work, like I was). Flush with embarrassment, and consider curling up and dying. Have to email our IT guy to apologize and explain. NEVER LIVE THIS DOWN INSIDE MY OWN HEAD.

Run into parishioners in the hallways and realize I love them more than I ever thought possible.

Source: reactiongifs

Call a friend. Spend a long time talking about the theological merit of a Christological view that really only takes into consideration the Passion.  Do we have to suffer to be like Christ? we ask. We (as liberal feminists who dislike pain) want to say no, but deep down we both think “maybe-probably-I dunno.”

Do my Disciple work. Realize I’ve forgotten everything I learned in seminary about the synoptic Gospels. Briefly consider just throwing the idea of “Q” at my Disciple ladies (that’s right, I have an all-girl group. YOU JEALOUS? You should be.) so they’ll spend all our time talking about that and think I’m smart. Realize this is the opposite of good Disciple-teaching.  And good person-being.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Walk the dog and call my mother. She says, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” We nearly cry together. I tell her she is one of the great lights of my life. We do cry together. So, you know, the usual.

Go to Disciple. Feel pastoral, pastorly, pastorish, and LIKE A PASTOR. Laugh to the point of crying.  Don’t even worry about being off topic, because if Jesus was present anywhere in my day, it’s here. Pray.

Watch some trashy reality television on the couch with the dog and cat. Consider reading my Bible. Fall asleep.

Source: reactiongifs

Source: reactiongifs

Lather, rinse, repeat.
Thank God.

Identity: Why That Voice in Your Head Is an Idiot

I am a fidgeter.

Well, let’s use a verb, not a noun: I fidget.
(When I die, I don’t think they’ll write “Here lies Erin, a Fidgeter” on my tombstone, so let’s stick with verbs, not identifiers.)

I like to be doing something with my hands at all times. I think this is why I like knitting. It’s mindless, if you want it to be, so you can do it while talking on the phone, while watching TV. Once I actually knitted in a movie theater. Yeah, I’m that cool. Don’t be intimidated.

When I had long hair, I twirled it. Now that I have short hair, I still twirl it, and end up with little unicorn horns sticking out all over the place. It’s attractive. In the sense of not being attractive at all.

I also like to doodle. This is the most socially acceptable form of fidgeting, I suppose, although sometimes people think you’re being rude. I once had a professor who put, “No doodling during lectures,” on the syllabus right behind, “No surfing the internet” and “No gum-chewing.” This, I thought, was a bit extreme. And I doodled a lot during her lectures in protest.

 

I always tell myself, and the people who give me dirty or inquisitive looks, that I fidget during lectures and concerts and things so that my brain can concentrate better.
If I can’t fidget, my mind will wander. If I allow myself to fidget, though, all my brain’s wandering power is concentrated on the doodle, or the knitting, so the rest of it can enjoy the concert or lecture or whatever.

I don’t know if this is true, but it seems to be.  Or at least it makes a nice excuse.

 

Why am I telling you this?

Oh, right.

 

Once I brought some knitting to a hymn-sing at the church where I’m working. I pulled it out of my purse casually… and then I panicked: Oh dear. Is this appropriate? YOU’RE BEING SO INAPPROPRIATE. How can I put this away now without being awkward? Are people staring? Do I look pretentious, like, “Ohhhh look at me! I’m knitting! Everyone pay attention to me!” Oh no oh no oh no.

It was a dramatic moment inside my head.

My fellow pastor Barbara sat down next to me to enjoy the concert.  I leaned over and whispered, somewhat frantically, “Does it make me a bad pastor that I’m knitting during this?”

Barbara’s response was BEAUTIFUL.

She looked at me– in the kindest way possible– like I was an idiot and said matter-of-factly, “No, it just makes you a pastor who’s knitting during this.”

 

….RIGHT?!

 

“Does this make me a bad pastor?”

I am constantly asking myself that question.

Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I don’t feel like I’m worshiping when I’m leading worship?
Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I don’t prepare totally for Disciple and then have to scramble on the day-of?
Does it make me a bad pastor that sometimes I’d rather go play with the kiddos on the preschool playground than answer my emails?

No.

None of this has any bearing on whether or not I’m a good pastor, or a good person. It makes me a pastor… who sometimes doesn’t feel like she’s worshiping, and who gets behind on Disciple, and who like kids better than a computer screen. JUST LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE.

This is one of the hardest lessons of life, and if I learn it by the time I die, I’ll have achieved Nirvana. Or the Christian version of Nirvana. Which is probably the ability to make the perfect sweet potato casserole. (You do know I’m joking, right? Okay, good.)

What you do affects you. But it doesn’t define you. Just because I accidentally stepped on my dog’s foot at the park yesterday doesn’t make me an abusive dog owner. It makes me someone who makes mistakes. Just because I deliver one stinker of a sermon doesn’t make me a bad preacher, it makes me someone who had an off day.
They will not write on my tombstone: “Here Lies Erin, a Dog-Foot-Stepper-Onner,” or, “Here Lies Erin, the Worst Preacher in North Carolina.”
It’s a hate crime against yourself when you let your mistakes become your identity. It’s an act of violence. It’s identity theft (you knew I had to make that joke, there, it’s over with).

 

Friends, hear the Good News of the Gospel:
That mistake you made yesterday, it doesn’t define you.

 

Just because you sin, it doesn’t make you damned, or evil, or forever “a sinner.” It just makes you someone who made a mistake. It doesn’t negate your identity as Christ’s beloved.

 

Never let someone’s words– not your friends’, not your boss’s, not your parents’, and especially not the ones coming from your own mind– convince you that you are anything other than the beloved of God. A beautiful being. One who was created for such a time as this. One who makes God laugh and smile and weep and die to save you from yourself.

You are nothing else. Thanks be to God!

So You Think You Want to Go to Seminary

Oh! Hello! I didn’t see you there.

Occasionally on this blog I’ve offered advice to current seminarians, advice to new pastors, and the odd Open Letter to a Seminarian, which may or may not have opened with the words, “I hate your stinking guts.”

But you… you are a bird I’d not tweeted at in the past.  You, the Prospective Minister. The Prospective Seminarian. The Thinking About It But Not 100% Sure But Feels Called gal/fella.  You, my dear, are about to get an earful.

So you think you want to go to seminary?

Let me guess, my little Popsicle:
You knew more Bible verses than your Sunday School teachers growing up.
You taught your mom things about theology at lunch after a particularly bad sermon from your senior pastor.  
You grew up in one denomination (Baptist? Methodist? Presbyterian?) but are now pretty convinced you want to be Anglican.

(It’s cool.  No judgment here.  We’ve all been there.  The Anglican urge is a part of most of our calls to ministry.)

You wanted to be a doctor but you failed college biology.
Your favorite book is Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, well, the first chapter because that’s all you read.
You really like Rob Bell but are willing to burn a copy of Love Wins in front of the admissions committee at your seminary of choice if that’s what it takes to get in.

 

Well, let me just say:

I am so proud of you! Discerning a call to ministry or at least seminary is the bomb! Do a little dance. Call your grandmother (she’ll be thrilled).  Now, buckle up.

 

Some things seminary is not:

1. Filled with perfect people.
I’d say that I knew more party animals, was invited to more ragers, and heard more swearing in seminary than in high school and college combined.  Sometimes I think people take seminary as their last opportunity to party hearty, before they get out in the world and have to be Perfect Pastors.  Also, there were people who ditched class, put Bailey’s in their morning coffee, and gave themselves (ourselves) a “B” on the self-graded assignments that they (we) knew deserved Fs. (Confession is good for the soul.)

2. Easy.
Just because your teachers mostly love Jesus doesn’t mean they’re going to give you an A for ending every paper, “So, that’s why Jesus is pretty sweet.”  Also, don’t ever write that in a paper. Take my word for it.

3. Horrible.
Just because it’s grad school and it’s harder than undergrad and there’s a lot of pressure and people freak out a little bit, doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.  I can’t tell you how many night I laughed uncontrollably and was almost kicked out of the library while studying. “Studying,” I should say. And I can’t tell you how many biscuits and gravy I consumed with great girlfriends and bottomless cups of coffee.  And I can’t tell you how much I miss it.  I miss it like a death in the family.  I miss it like my heart got cut in half when I graduated.  I miss it like missing that thing you forgot that you were going to say for your third example on a list of things you miss seminary like.  Gah.

 

Some things seminary is:

1. Breeding grounds for like-minded conservatives. And liberals.  Everyone, really, except probably you.
By the end of your first year, roughly 5 weddings will have occurred between people you know. Roughly 46 more couples will be engaged. 2 couples will be preggers.  You will want to defriend them on facebook in protest, but, you know… that loving Jesus stuff.

2. Interesting!
Did you know that Karl Barth cheated on his wife for the majority of their marriage? I didn’t, until I took a class on him.  Did you know that John Wesley was never an ordained Methodist minister? SEMANTICS ARE FUN! Did you know that if you drink 8 cups of coffee before noon, your heart will flutter for a full two days? These are the things you learn in seminary. GOOD STUFF!

3. Filled with the Spirit of the Living God.
Sometimes you’ve got to search for Her. Sometimes She’s disguised as professors who are adamant religious pluralists, or preceptors who give you a B for not having a “clear thesis” when your first paragraph clearly ends with the words “IN THIS PAPER I WILL ARGUE.”  [Breathe, Erin… Breathe…]  Sometimes She’s front and center, at chapel and in the library and in the book you’re reading for your spirituality class. Sometimes She’s in the tears of a friend who has discerned the call to leave seminary.  Sometimes She’s in the criticism that will make you a better pastor.  Sometimes She’s in the bed, snuggling up with you and keeping your heart strangely warmed when all that Church History reading just makes you want to go cold.  The Spirit of the Living God is there, present and active.

 

So, with that being said, here is some random advice for you, Prospective Seminarian:

1. Always assume a noontime guest speaker, panel, or lecture will include lunch.
2. Do not ever eat pizza three days in a row at these free lunches. Trust me.
3. Study in bars, restaurants, museums, and parks, not just in the library.
4. Think about prayer and devotion as a tithe of your time: Spend at least 10% of your day with God.
5. Go to chapel.
6. Don’t dress like an undergrad.
7. Hydrate– just always do this.
8. Don’t develop a competition among your friends to see who can wait the longest to start a paper and then make the best grade. This will backfire on both your friendships and your GPA.
9. You know what? Just don’t talk about grades ever.  Don’t compare.  Seminary is not a competition.  It’s a collaboration.  Cheerlead, don’t compete.
10. Seek out mentors. I know this is easier said than done, but find a professor who seems relatively approachable or compatible with your personality and pop into their office. You’d be surprised how much most of them LOVE this.  And if they don’t have time for you, they’ll reschedule.  The worst that can happen is they ask you to leave.
11. Journal.  Talk about how your views are changing, or not changing; what you’re struggling with and what you’re learning a lot from; what you love and what you hate; what makes you weep and what makes you laugh.
12. Write down all the ministry advice your professors give out. They are endless wells of valuable information.  These notes, four years down the road, will save your little life in a ministerial crisis.
13. Keep in touch with your old pastor.  But, well, don’t tell him what a liberal you’re becoming and how you’re starting to think he’s crazypants and how Barth would disagree with everything about his theology and how he should switch roles with his female associate to make a point.  Just keep that to yourself and tell him you enjoyed the sermon he posted online Sunday.
14. Do as much reading as you can.
15. Do not berate yourself for not doing all the reading. Unless you’re a wunderkind, you’re not going to be able to do it all. But you have the rest of your life to catch up on that reading. Do not feel bad about it.
16. Take advantage of the counseling and psychiatric services available through your institution.  Go cry on their couches about how overwhelmed you feel and how you’re doubting your call and how you’re afraid you’re never going to pass your Board of Ordained Ministry because they’re going to find your dog-eared copy of The Purpose-Driven Life that you read with your parents in high school and then you’ll be shunned forever.  They are the voices who can reasonably say, “You are being ridiculous.”
17. Don’t play the Most Likely to Be a Future Bishop/Get the Best Appointment game with your friends about people in your class. Leave it up to Jesus. And the Cabinet.
18. Go to all the optional seminars about weddings, funerals, and other practical stuff. You will thank yourself later.
19. Over all the vacations, read as many personal, non-religious, funny, soul-soothing books you can. Also, watch all the reality television you can.
20. Make time to go swimming in lakes, road-trip to the beach, have a movie marathon, sleep over on a friend’s floor, and go dancing.  

21. Don’t take it too seriously. If you felt called, you were probably called.  God will bring you through the tough times and will put plenty of wonderful things along the way to keep you going.  Believe me.

 

Godspeed, and buy decaf.

Pray, Cry, or Drink: A Sermon-Preparation Post!

Dear readers,

I’m preaching this Sunday!!!!

If you recall, I once wrote a post entitled “The 12 Steps to Preaching a Sermon (A VERY Informative Guide).” Maybe you should read that post before you read this one, because this post will be something like a follow-up to, or an elaboration of, that one.
Maybe. I always write thesis statements and introductions before the actual paper/blog post so there’s really no telling if that’s going to be true or not. But if you go read that other post then my statistics go up because you’re clicking my links and viewing other pages, and then I’ll feel really good about myself. So, it’s your choice. Make my day, or be selfish.  (I really hope you all get it when I’m joking.  Love you….)

***

I solicited some advice from friends on how they prepare to preach in the day(s) and/or week(s) leading up to Sunday. Here are some of the answers I received:

“Pray. A lot.”
“Cry?”
“Go on a bender.  I’ll come over and help; I’ve got liquor.”

**Author’s note: The above were intentionally listed from best advice to worst.

I solicited advice from these same beautiful, hilarious, broken, Godly people on what to preach when you’re afraid of/distressed by/unsure about your Scripture.  Here are some of the answers, from the same respective people, and again listed from best to worst:

“Consult God, and then Barth.”
“Just go up there and preach universalism, who cares?”
“Just read Anne Lamott’s twitter feed from the pulpit. #that’llpreach”

***

As you can tell, all my non-preaching readers, preaching is hard. Writing a sermon is hard.

But it is also wonderful. You know all those things you think about saying to people– good things, smart things, funny things, helpful things, sweet things? Most people don’t ever in their lives get a public place to say them. The preacher gets that, most every week! The possibilities are endless; you can help people and bring joy to people and celebrate life and improve the world with your words.  That is the joy of preaching.

The terror of preaching is that your mind doesn’t only operate on the plane of good, smart, funny, helpful, and sweet things. You also think mean things, snarky things, ugly things, things that tear people down while masquerading as helpfulness.
One of my favorite lines on the new Taylor Swift album (stop judging me. That’s an ugly thought you’re having right now.) accuses an ex of being “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”

***

Preachers have great power to be incredibly cruel under the guise of honesty and helpfulness.

So I get why my friends suggested I pray, cry, and drink copious amounts of, erm, unpastorly liquids.  But no matter what you do, Sunday will still come, and you will still have to open your mouth and give your people something.  It’s up to you to make sure that you’re not cruel, or dippy, or insincere, or flippant.  But the good news, I reckon, is that God can make living water flow even from a rock.  And can turn bitter water potable.

….Well. I guess this post is over on that note. Do I really have to go write my sermon now? #pastorproblems

EPILOGUE:

I’m going to take my first person’s advice: gonna go talk to Jesus and Barth, in that order.

You Know You’re a Pastor When…

Welcome to the first installment of “You Know You’re a Pastor When…”

Please comment and leave me your hilarious additions and maybe you’ll see yours included in the next installment!

You know you’re a pastor when… you’ve eaten your body weight in leftover Hawaiian bread.

…your phone’s autocorrect knows words like “salvific” and “Hauerwas.”

…you treat Saturday as a “school night.”

…you’ve refrained from cutting someone off in traffic because you know your hospital clergy tag is in your back window.

…you caught yourself singing “The Summons” when you woke up this morning.

…you get excited to the point of making weird high-pitched noises when you find a volume of Barth’s Dogmatics you don’t already have in a used bookstore.

…you have felt genuine remorse for throwing away a tissue with consecrated grape juice on it.

…you open your Hymnal to page 881 when reciting the Apostles’ Creed before the congregation JUST IN CASE.

…(similarly) you write out the whole Lord’s prayer in your prayers of the people JUST IN CASE.

…you know what I’m talking about when I say this: BWGRKL.

…light, fun reading means cracking open Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

…you have to close your blinds to watch any movie over a PG rating for fear a church member will see.

…you put on sunglasses and a hat to buy beer.

…you write “Non-profit” when your online dating site of choice asks where you work.

…you have surreptitiously put a ring on your left ring finger when entering a room full of young, cute conservatives/fundamentalists/evangelicals. JUST IN CASE.

What about YOU? When do YOU know YOU’RE a pastor?

Reply and let me know!

On We Go: In Which I Compare Myself to a Hobbit and Ministry to a Dangerous Adventure

Well friends, here I am on the other side of yet another ministry milestone.  I’ve conducted my first solo funeral.  

I felt inadequate, and totally covered in the Spirit, and utterly ungraceful, and totally covered by grace, and desperately unprepared, and totally covered by the years of training and the springs and springs of Christian love that God somehow digs up out of my dusty, barren patch of a soul.

Source: imdb.com

Source: imdb.com

If you’re a facebook friend of mine, you may have seen that I recently noted that I’ve begun reading (for the first time) the Lord of the Rings series, starting, as per friends’ advice (demands?), with The Hobbit.  I guess I should clarify that I’m not reading them exactly; I’m listening to them on audiobook.  But it’s unabridged and it’s so I can work on my knitted Christmas presents while “reading.”  So I tell myself it counts.

I noted also on facebook that this book, though I’m only just about halfway through the first one, is already chock full of sermon illustrations.  I keep having to pause the audio (read by an old Englishman who is so English that he rrrrolls his R’s when he’s rrrreally into a good scene) to write down quotes.  Here’s just about the best one I’ve gotten so far:

Our little hobbit friend is fretting about having forgotten his hat and his pocket-handkerchief– whatever that is– when setting off on the epic adventure chronicled in the book.  In response, a dwarf (I think? Correct me if I’m wrong) says to him,

You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.

This is how I feel, very often, about starting out this journey in ministry.  Totally inadequate, as though I’ve forgotten something very essential, like wearing pants or brushing my teeth, before coming to this part of my life.

Obviously I was chosen for a reason, just as Gandalf chose Bilbo– although also like Bilbo I feel like much more trouble than I’m worth.  All this morning I keep popping into other clergy’s offices to ask, “Should I have the bagpiper play before or after I give the benediction?” and “When should I put my hand on the casket? Do I have to say the ashes to ashes part?”

I sometimes imagine that God is embarrassed of me when I just totally fumble around like a fool… like She’s up there groaning and moaning, “Get it together, girlfriend!”  I don’t think that’s accurate, though.  I think more likely She’s amused; “You goofball,” She says, clucking her tongue appreciatively.

Like Bilbo I keep stumbling around and getting lost and needing much help… and very occasionally thinking of something helpful to say or do but then getting self-conscious or flubbing it or just generally saying and doing the wrong thing.

But like Bilbo I carry on.  Because, like Bilbo, I often have this conversation with myself:

‘Go back?’ he thought. ‘No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!

It’s the only thing to do.  And the further I go, the more I learn, and the more I’ve experienced and practiced, and the more I will have to offer God’s people.

But here’s hoping I don’t find a ring-like object anywhere along the way that so OBVIOUSLY brings with it mischief and possibly doom (….I really have very little idea what these books are about, but based on the snippets of the films I’ve seen it looks pretty mischievous and doom-y, and since every time Elijah Wood looks at the ring with his little hobbit eyes, he looks terrified, I imagine it’s mostly the ring’s fault).

 

 

… That being said, though, here’s a note for all you current seminarians out there:

Keep your notes from your worship/preaching classes about funerals in a well-labeled and accessible document.  Nothing like scrambling around and being ultimately unable to find them 24 hours before the service begins.

 

The Great Divide: How to Snare the Elusive “Young Adult”

There’s a lot of talk these days about the generational divides in America, particularly in the church.  As someone who is firmly a member of the Millennial/Gen Y/Hipster generation and who is also attempting to market a worship service to my comrades, I think it’s worth a gander at just what makes the generations have such different values.

To say that we have different values is, of course, not to say that any one generation is any better than any other (so stuff it with your “Greatest Generation” stuff, Tom Brokaw… just kidding, you’re a legend and a genius).  It’s just to say that we value things differently.  Our priorities are different.  The way we want to be treated is different.  The way to market to us, worship with us, and work with us is different.

So… Let’s start wildly generalizing and offending everyone!
(Please note: these are very, very broad generalizations. I fully acknowledge that they do not apply to every member of each age bracket.  These are simply broad strokes I’ve compiled to get some vague grasp on the differences between the generations.)

Baby Boomers (b. 46-64) believe that progress is the key to life.  

  • If you dream big enough, work hard enough, and do all the right things, there is nothing you can’t achieve, in their eyes.
    • This leads them to be very suspicious of things that defy the norm.
    • Tattoos, alternative music, dropping out of college to pursue an art career…. these are things that freak a Baby Boomer out, because they’re not the traditional progression of maturation and growth a typical middle-class American makes in life.
  • They have spent their life warding off disaster the best way they know how: by doing this life right, following the rules.
  • They want order, they want things the way they’ve been, and they want things they can conceptually manage.

Gen Xers (b. 65-75), on the other hand, want non-tradition.

  • Despite the prior generation’s cries for “the way it ought to be,” Gen Xers went out and got tattoos, listened to and made alternative music, and dropped out of college to pursue art careers.
  • But… this was in the 80s and 90s.  Now, 15-30 years later, many are disillusioned.
    • The tattoos are fading and sagging, the music they created as “alternative” is now largely mainstream, and their art careers crashed and burned just as badly as their first marriages.
  • So they’re wanderers at this point, feeling neglected and sold-out and disillusioned by the rejection and hopelessness the world has offered them
    • (Remember, it’s within their lifetime that things like AIDS and pollution became global, seemingly insurmountable issues).
  • This age group is very interested in alternative spiritualities and counter-cultural forms of leadership and living.
  • They want purpose and identity, and they’ll take it wherever they can get it.

Finally there’s me, us, Millennials (b. 76-94), about whom not much has been decided.

Please try to stifle your gasps as I let you know that there is little in the worship planning, church-planting, and evangelism books I’ve read that’s aimed at us, is about us, or even acknowledges our existence.
Most books talk about Seniors, Boomers, and Gen Xers, and then essentially say, “Of course, your ideal target audience should be Young Adults, but good luck finding them, much less getting them in your doors, much much less getting them to stick around, much much much less getting them involved.”

So… I’m going to talk a lot about them, in case anyone out there would like to know something or other about us.

Millennials are in a way an amalgam of those who’ve gone before them.

  • We are closer in goals and desires to the Gen Xers but are closer in worldview/perspective to the Boomers.
    • We see that the world sucks, but we don’t feel existential angst or despair; we believe in progress, to some extent, but not the kind of progress our parents and grandparents believed in and were let down by.
    • The difference is that we don’t trust the government or the “way” of the universe or even God to accomplish this progress. Rather…
  • We believe in ourselves and our power to make change.
    • We don’t feel helpless, we feel capable of helping.
    • We don’t feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world, we feel energized and mobilizedby them.
      • Think about the recent phenomena of micro-lending—did you know that a lot of these were started by people under the age of 30?
      • Young Adults see a problem and they fix it.

The young adult generation sees disaster– not just disaster on the horizon as previous generations saw, but disaster here, present, putting us in a recession, at war, in political turmoil in poverty, in danger of deadly diseases– and says, “What can I do?”

Our unique tastes— for example, the hipster fashion trend, our penchant for tattoos and big glasses, and our desire to push the boundaries when it comes to music and art and.. well, everything– are a reflection of our openness.

  • This is the generation that is campaigning most ardently for gay rights.
  • This is the generation that has traveled the most (for pleasure, not military service, anyway) by the time we’re 30.
  • This is the generation is the closest yet to being truly colorblind.

Look at me, I’m getting all gushy.  I think my generation is the bomb.  However, we also have our problems.

  • Sometimes we are so inclusive, or strive so hard to be unique, or affix ourselves so strongly to a political party or spiritual system, that we lose our individual identity.
  • We can be cliquish with those who are our particular brand of individual, unique, or–ironically– inclusive (need help understanding that last one? I’ve seen bands of hipsters ostracize someone for affirming the creative rights of Daughtry and Nickleback, while themselves affirming the creative rights of a certain persecuted Russian punk band whose name I can’t type here because I’m on my work computer :)  Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
  • Probably our biggest problem in my eyes, however, is that we are very, very, very, very, very, very finicky.  We’re like cats in that way.  We take a while to warm up to you, and even then, one wrong move and we bolt.
    • I’m thinking here particularly of institutions that want Millennials involved… say, the Church, for example (go figure!).  You can pitch something PERFECTLY for Millennials, and we still might not come, because of any number of things.
      • Use comic sans or papyrus on your flyer? We’re not coming.
      • Reference an old sitcom or movie that was before our time (and isn’t a cult classic) in your sermon?  We out.
      • Sing a song our Baby Boomer parents love to sing in their “Contemporary” worship service? We will run from the place screaming and never come back.

Obviously, I’m being facetious.

The biggest reason a young adult will leave, or never come to, an organization is if they don’t feel involved.  If they don’t feel like active, welcome participants in what is going on.  If they don’t feel like they have some ownership, some stake, in the success or failure of this endeavor.

So how do you get us on board?

How do you build something that we will come to? (Yes, most of us will get a Field of Dreams reference, so feel free to keep using that one if you’d like.)

I’ll tell you how: You show us a problem.  And you say, “How can we help you fix this problem?”  And then you build a ministry around it.

And if it’s alternative (which, let’s be honest, it’s the hipster generation, so you know it’ll be alternative), then the Gen Xers are likely to come.  And if it seems actually to be doing some good in this world and offering at the very least hope of doing good, then it will minister to the broken hearts of those Gen Xers.

And if it’s taking off and growing the church, then the Boomers might come… but they might not.  But they will offer their support, because they want to see the church progressing and growing and creating a space for itself among the new generation.

Friends, those among you who are considering starting an alternative worship service (or emerging, or millennial, or ancient/future, or apostolic, or taize, or ionic, or whatever you’re thinking of), please don’t leave the Young Adults out.  And note:

We won’t be snared by some pitch-perfect combination of marketing and stage design.  Rather, we will choose to become involved if it is a cause, a mission, a way of being that is unique, captivating, exciting, innovative, and most of all does some good for the community, for our hearts, and for the hearts that this world has broken.

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