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Sep 20, 2016

Don’t go into ministry if you want certainty!

This is not my story. It is a generic, aggregate story that includes aspects of my own and that of many colleagues. I am writing this because over the course of my ministry experience I have trained pastoral interns and helped people pursue their calls to ministry. Currently I am working with a couple of people who are on the edge between step 1 and 2 and another in the middle of 3. Whatever you are looking for in ministry, do not look for certainty. A lot of different folks become pastors for a lot of different reasons. I can only speak for my little corner of the world of mainline Protestantism. Our formation to ministry works something like this:

First, you feel called by God.
That can be because of your upbringing in church. You came up the ranks form Sunday school kid to youth leader. and you just stuck with it because church feels good. A lot of times feeling the call happens in defiance of your church experience. Your church rejected you for you who are and you thought God was as cruel as they were. But then you discovered God to be different.

Second, you feel a good about that call.
You get excited and you start the official discernment process. You learn about educational requirements and church requirements. Eventually you decide to tackle the biggest hurdle and pick a school to obtain your Master of Divinity degree.

Third, your whole world comes tumbling down.
In seminary everything you believed in, everything you thought was right or wrong is turned upside down. You may have been a practical Saint like mother Teresa and in Step 1 and you felt the call to be just that for the rest of your professional life. Or you may have been a righteous thinker who can tell right from wrong and protect the truth and values of the Christian faith against heretics and atheists. Serious graduate level work will show you that your orthodoxy is worthless without a similar passion for orthopraxy. Whatever you came in as, you will come out changed and hopefully more balanced.

Fourth, you get your first call.
Usually you start out as somebody else’s associate pastor. The greatest danger here is a feel-good-experience. You may be sent to do children and youth ministry. That way you feel like you did when you first felt the call. You fall back into old uneducated patterns and have a jolly good time. You love your job and everybody loves you.

Fifth, it is time to grow up.
Eventually you will have to step up and become your own pastoral self. All of a sudden you are “the pastor”. The first year or so feels really good. In this honeymoon period you do everything for the first time. Your congregation feels the excitement of having your new energy among them. You learn to figure out who you are as a pastor. Roughly 10 years into the process you start to learn who you want to be when you grow up.

Sixth, ministry is hard.
On a practical level serving in ministry means working for a non-profit organization. If they are large, they may have a lot of politics going on, staffing issues, policies and procedures. If they are small, they may lack a clear vision of their mission, they may be happy with maintaining the status quo, or they simply do not feel strong enough to do anything meaningful at all.

Seventh, you succeed and fail.
In some ministry settings you may be able to leave a lasting legacy or make a big impact. Some you may have sustained for a few years and then moved on. Others again you may have profoundly hurt.

It is okay and necessary to be excited about the initial call.
It is okay to explore faith practices that have sustained you in different periods of your formation.
It is okay to be constantly evolving.
Just make sure to keep an open mind for the next step of the wild ride that God is sending you on. It never looks like anything you could have ever imagined.

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Sep 13, 2016

The Sin of Ableism

The games in Rio are still in full swing. China dominates the medal count followed by Great Britain and Ukraine. Team USA currently ranks fourth. Just yesterday U.S. swimmers won three gold medals and smashed two world records.

Wait what? Ukraine in the top three of the medal count? Team USA only on four? Maybe we should take a closer look at our three gold medalists from yesterday:
Rebecca Meyers has Usher syndrome and has been deaf since she was born.
Bradley Snyder was blinded after stepping on an improvised explosive device while serving in the U.S. Navy in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Michelle Konkoly woke up paralyzed from the waist down after she fell out of her dorm room window at Georgetown University.

By now you may have gathered that I am talking about the Paralympic Games. The first organized athletic day for disabled athletes that coincided with the Olympic Games took place on the day of the opening of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, United Kingdom. Since 1960 the Paralympic Games have been a world class event in their own right.

Back to Rio: All these athletes perform at levels where regular Joes like me do not even have to think we could compare. What exactly do we mean when we classify them as “disabled”? Obviously they are more able to perform than I would be. So by performance standards I am more disabled. Is it the looks of an amputated leg, mannerisms, or just a random perception of normalcy? In most sports athletes are segregated by gender and / or weight. Why is “disability” a label that totally disqualifies you from the Olympics and puts you in a whole different event? The truth is: There is no normal. Everybody is different and everybody has his or her own level of ability.

You could rudely begin the story about yesterday’s gold medalists by saying, “A cripple, a blind, and a deaf jump into a pool.” Mainstream culture is so used to treating differently-abled people differently. Unfortunately there are stories where Jesus is used to reinforce a sense of “normal” versus “abnormal”. When Jesus heals the blind man in some Gospel stories he does so just because people pointed him in that direction. The blind man was comfortable in his life, had his daily routine down, had everything he needed. He never said we wanted to see. He never said he wanted to “be healed”. Why does Jesus impose his sense of normalcy on this poor man? Now he is totally on his own, will no longer receive the support he needs and has to start over in life. He is push into the position of a teenager even though he is a middle-aged man who had life figured out. Now he is truly disabled.

The Gospel authors want Jesus to heal everybody. But when they tell stories like that in effect they make Jesus commit the Sin of Ableism. Then he pretends there is a normal that everybody has to abide by, a standard of health, ability or aesthetics that you just have to match in order to be acceptable. Bekah Anderson warns to not use our Paralympic heroes for Inspiration Porn. Instead she advises to engage with persons beyond labels, “My challenge to the preachers, writers, and storytellers among us, including myself, is this: Stop telling stories for a moment, and listen. Listen, even though the voice speaking to you is slurred. Listen, even though the voice comes through an ASL interpreter or a computer. Listen, even when the voice has been effectively silenced, and honor that loss. Our voices and our silences are sacred. Pray with me that they may all one day find the sacred space they deserve.”

Sep 6, 2016

Saint Teresa of Calcutta – A Sinner

Mutter Teresa, lachend, Dezember 1985
Mother Teresa has always been a saint, that is in the public opinion. Her selfless service to the least of these has inspired generations. The world officially granted her the status of a “civil saint” when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. It does not get better than that. In the truest, most literal church-sense of the word, as Protestants, we would have to say she received her saint status at Baptism. That was the day after she was born. She had not helped anyone then. Sainthood is not something we can earn but a gift from God. Saints are those called by God to be God’s people.

Imagine the world had no images of her with suffering little children. What remains of Mother Teresa, when you take away the millions of dollars raised over the course of her career? What if her wealthy father had not died when she was only eight years old? She may have stayed in her native Balkan region, never even making a trip to India. But he did, and she did, and that changed the world. Mother Teresa has been celebrated – maybe even venerated – by people of all faiths or no faith at all. She served as a perfect example of faith bearing fruit.

But then she also ran an international organization – Missionaries of Charity – with various clinics, hospitals and hospices. As of 2012 more than 4,500 nuns worked in 133 countries supporting 710 facilities. The moment you get involved in an organization of that size you lose the innocence of just gathering a handful of faithful around you. Every saint is always also a sinner. Mother Teresa is no different. There has been constant criticism of sanitary conditions and religious practices. Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name they are bound to mess up. That is the risk you have to take whenever you do something significant or holy.

So last Sunday it happened that the Bishop of Rome agreed with the world and finally called Teresa a Saint, almost 20 years after her death. There is a lesson to be learned from that process: Do not wait to understand yourself as a saint. You are a saint right now. You can go out and do good right now. You do not need to wait for any authority’s approval or recognition. You may just gather a few people and do a one time project, or you may establish a world-wide network impacting millions. Whatever you do: Do not delay and do not wait for the approval of some perceived authority. You will mess up. You will be criticized. You will be a sinner. That is what being a saint is all about.

Aug 30, 2016

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

I am a white, straight, male pastor in the United Church of Christ. From 2008-2014 I was the only one in the entire state of Utah. All the other UCC pastors were female, minority or LGBTQ. Among UCC ministers it is not unusual that the white, straight, male is the odd one out and I enjoy the ride very much. If you are uncomfortable by now, you know I am writing this for you. The important issue of skin-color and race I will have to address another time. Lately I have had multiple people ask me about “the gay question”. Sometimes it’s worded, “What does the Bible say about homosexuality?”

My initial reaction is usually: “The Bible” doesn’t say anything. Because the Bible is not a book but an entire library with dozens of books in it. They were written over the course of 1,000 years in three different languages on two different continents. The Bible has contributions from nomadic peasants and highly educated scholars. There is no way they all can possible give one and the same answer to a single question.

Overall biblical authors are not very interested in questions of homosexuality. There are a few examples that are told in a matter-of-fact way without raising an eyebrow: King David addresses his lover Jonathan saying, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26) The author of the Gospel of John tells of his affection for Jesus, “One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him.” (John 13:23) Yes, the Bible tells stories of men loving men without question.

Then there are negative voices from times when God’s people were under attack. The Holiness Code commands, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22) And the Apostle Paul mourns, “And in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1:27)
The Holiness Code was written by priests who were deported during the Babylonian Exile. God’s people were afraid they couldn’t keep their cultural identity alive. It is during this period that circumcision and the Sabbath become identifiers of the Jewish people. Deviation from the norm seemed scary because those were anxious times. Similarly, when the earlier church was a minority in the largely hostile Roman Empire, Paul warned to not live like the Romans. Instead he asked the early Christians to remain distinct in their practices.

Today in North America God’s people are not under attack. We are not in a situation where we need to be afraid of the culture that surrounds us. We don’t have to hide our worship services in the Roman catacombs but can be open about our Christian faith. We don’t have to develop a rigid corporate identity because religious freedom is protected. Literally hundreds of times the Bible says: “Do not be afraid”. The Bible says that we need to tell stories of all kinds of love and celebrate them.

Aug 27, 2016

How to add your NFL team’s schedule to Google Calendar

I like both the Houston Texans and the Google Calendar. Here is how I bring them together:

First: Grab the URL of your team’s 2016 schedule. The Houston Texans offer theirs for download here.

Second: Follow these simple instructions to import the whole thing into your Google Calendar:
add calendar

Aug 26, 2016

This election cycle is divisive


As a person who wasn’t raised speaking English I find great pleasure in digging deeply into linguistic details. This election cycle one word comes to mind:
DIVISIVE
Isn’t it amazing how the question of how to pronounce it can actually be a textbook case for its application? As usual, there is no clear-cut answer as Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman show so eloquently.

Aug 23, 2016

Three Ways That College Freshmen Do Faith Differently

At the beginning of a new school year Beloit College publishes a Zeitgeist list. The incoming class will graduate in 2020. They are mostly 18 and were born in 1998. On the 2020 Mindset List that makes them stand out in significant ways. As a pastor the following three points stand out from the original sixty:

8. Cloning has always been a mundane laboratory procedure.
Dolly_face_closeup
I remember back in the 90’s cloning felt like rocket science. When sheep Dolly was cloned the whole world seem to shift. Anything was possible now. As revolutionary as advances may have seemed, the reality is much less grandiose. The Clone Wars that eventually lead to Star Wars remain science fiction. Medical advances based on cloning a real and save lives every day though. Young people entering college this fall have never lived in a world without cloning technologies. The ethical questions surrounding human reproduction remain complicated. But for the most part cloning has been unquestioned mainstream practice their whole lives. There is nothing scary about reviving endangered or extinct species – unless of course our Jurassic Park fears from the 90’s are revived as well.

15. They have never had to watch or listen to programs at a scheduled time.
On-Demand
I am old enough to remember that you had to go the the living room at a set time and sit down and watch a program that was running at that point in time. If you are entering college this fall, this was not necessarily the case. This generation could always stream or DVR whatever they wanted to watch. Everything is on demand. For one reason or another the church still thinks it is wise to make everybody sit down in the pew at the same time and share an experience in the same space. With school being mostly online these days, church and movie theater are about the only places you have to attend on a schedule. That is a very high expectation.

24. Catholics and Lutherans have always been in agreement on how to get to heaven.
justification
Radicals have always used nuances of their believes to fight each other. The great in-fight of Christianity started in 1517 with the beginning of the Reformation and ended in 1999 with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Since then there has been permanent peace between the two major branches of the church universal. New college students have never known a world where Christians had major disagreements on how God’s love reconciles us. They are not old enough to remember that warring fractions wanted to be better than the church next door. In their world it makes no sense that people would kill each other over issues of faith. And they are right about that: Persons of all faiths want to live in a peaceful world. Religion that focuses on being different from or better than another does not make sense.

Aug 9, 2016

Who is in charge of preaching?

UCC_CALENDAR_2016-17_Cover_FINAL_3_grande
Our congregation just had a meeting where the entire membership approved financial reports. That’s the way we conduct ourselves as a church. There is no higher authority than the gathered congregation. Did you know that that is true particularly as it comes to preaching? Here is how that works: The congregation builds its own pulpit. Then they hire a pastor and she or he is then in charge of preparing and delivering sermons on behalf of the congregation.

Who decides what is preached every Sunday?
In too many churches pastors decide what they want to preach about. That way you usually end up with her or his favorite passages and topics. Or they are trying to please their church but telling them what they want to hear. As a liturgical church we follow the Revised Common Lectionary. The lectionary provides the biblical readings for each Sunday and Holiday. In most mainline Protestant churches you will hear a sermon on the same passages of Scripture on the same Sunday. When you are travelling or moving you fit right in and can pick up where you left off.

With the new school year right around the corner I want to bring these two strengths of our tradition together: On the second and fourth Tuesday of every month at 6 pm our Bible Study group will be discussing the lectionary texts for one of the following Sundays. Everyone is welcome! Just because you are reading this invitation here today you are qualified. It means you care about what is going on at the church. That also makes you responsible for its preaching. So please join the conversation. It all starts on August 23 at 6pm.

Aug 4, 2016

The Labyrinth – A Spiritual Rock Drill

Next semester my Doctor of Ministry class will go on a silent retreat. Sometimes a labyrinth is part of the experience. I first learned to appreciate the practice of walking a labyrinth at La Foret. From there I have taken it on the road and set one up for my Soldiers wherever I can.

Here is a photo from last year’s annual training along with the meditation guide I provide:
labyrinth
A labyrinth is not a maze. It has one way in and one way out. You cannot get lost in it. There are no dead ends. It is a symbol for life: It may seem chaotic but it moves forward steadily.
As you enter please imagine how you are descending into darkness. A labyrinth has dungeon qualities to it. Ancient cultures have imagined all kinds of creatures in those caverns. It can be a dangerous and deadly place.
Just like the path of life leads to death so is your way into the labyrinth. As you step in you step from light into darkness. The light fades away more and more the deeper you get into it. As you enter please imagine your journey as the challenges and hardships you face in life: the turns you are forced to make, the dirt you have to walk through.
A labyrinth has a center. Once you are in the center stay there for a while. Rest. Celebrate your arrival. You made it through all of life’s troubles. If you are religious person consider this the end state of your existence whether you call it heaven or Nirvana or however you name it. Maybe for you it’s just the great emptiness.
When you are ready make your way out again. Take with you the strength of having been there before. As you walk out remember how you overcame all those troubles. After all you are walking back towards the light. Find signs of hope along your journey. Remember resources for personal strength that you can tap into. From my Christian perspective I call this part resurrection life. Out of death back to life. From darkness back to the light.
This is a spiritual exercise. If you have an urge to walk really fast get some physical exercise first and come back when you are ready to walk slowly. This exercise works best in total silence. If that does not work for you right now please come back when it does. Find your own pace. Some of the images that may pop up along the journey may make you slow down, some may make you want to speed up and run away. Find your own pace, yet be mindful of others.

Aug 4, 2016

Who Moved My Cheese?


Hem and Haw found their cheese in a prayer that they said every day, in the same fashion, in the same posture. Eventually they did no longer find what they were looking for in that ritual. I don’t think the Lord’s Prayer is like Cheese Station C that ran out of cheese. I think the Lord’s Prayer is like the maze that contains many different Cheese Stations. If it does not nourish you right now it is time for you to change. It is time to get your running shoes on and go deeper into the words and that may bring them back to life.

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