Friday, December 17, 2010

Us and Them

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the "Us and Them" meme seems to weave its way through our world. I don't know if any of this is particularly deep or informative to you, but it just seems pervasive to me, at least lately. How have we divided ourselves, let me count the ways.

It is obvious in church life on so many levels. Where does separation begin there? It might be easier to ask where it doesn't exist, because it seems to be everywhere. There are obvious separations - we have Catholic/Eastern Orthodox/Protestant division in the big-C Church. I am not terribly familiar with anything but Protestantism, so sticking with that, it's obvious that we have a multitude of denominational (even non-denominational!) separations. Within denominations, there's frequently further division between conservative/liberal(hate those words) factions. Then there's racial/ethnic separation, which is a whole other can of worms. And then there's the clique-y separations within a particular congregation, with all the silly power struggles over the minutiae of church life. At this level, I sometimes think about the conflicted groups facing off like the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story. time there's a conflict like that at our church, I'll suggest a dance off. Hope no one breaks a hip.

I guess there are a couple things going on right now that have brought "Us and Them" to mind. One is the kids from out in the country that we've been bringing in to church. It is a joy to have their energy in our building. I expected more backlash from the older folks, but as I mentioned before, they have been almost entirely gracious. Several have been trying to get involved as best they can in welcoming the kids and in helping by teaching Sunday School or driving the van. It is wonderful to have a tangible mission - we can see that these children are being changed and so are we. But still....."us and them"'s there, even if it's not explicitly stated. Our temptation is to think we are saving them when it is God who saves. And I mean no disrespect to our parishioners, but I think that if the families of these kids came in greater numbers, they would be welcome - as long as they know their place as outsiders, as less-than those who have been here all along. I don't say that to pick on the folks in our church - this happens at most churches, I think.

The other, more personal "us and them" lately refers to my family as "Us" and the church/town as "Them," and vice versa. We are not from here, and "here" is a small town. My wife and I have always been suburbanites, though all 4 of our parents grew up in a rural environment. There are people who have been in this church/town for 30 years and are still thought of as "new." The different lifestyle has at times been a difficult transition for us. For example, we have found that most people know who we are, even if we haven't met them. That makes sense to me in a small town. What I was not prepared for, though, was that almost none of them will introduce themselves. They are almost unfailingly polite and will not be explicitly unkind. If I am driving through town and wave to other drivers or pedestrians, they will cheerfully wave back. It seems friendly, and I think it's meant that way, but something is being held back. Now obviously, self-introduction is a two-way street, and I have made efforts to do so. But it's a bit exhausting to be the only one doing it. To most of these folks, we are "them." That's not necessarily thought of negatively, of course.

The differences we see between these folks and us are many - please excuse me for painting with a broad brush, but here are some of them. My wife and I both have more than one graduate degree while many folks here have not been to college. A high percentage of the population here uses Fox News as their source for information about the world. We, um, don't. Most of these people do not read the newspaper (the major papers in the state don't even offer home delivery here) or much of anything, really. There is a strong work ethic here that is admirable - to a point. The problem is that the need for sabbath is hardly acknowledged, at least that's my impression. Now having said all that, I realize that we must seem like over-educated intellectual snobs to these folks. It's probably more true than I care to admit. I know with every fiber of my being that I am no "better" than them, no less guilty of sin, no more loved by God. But we sure are different!

So how do we live together? How do we minister to each other and love each other? I think we'll always be "us" and "them," but we have to make it work. Why do we separate ourselves this way? Why do we objectify and dehumanize each other? Is it all about power and control? And by power and control, I don't necessarily mean power/control over "them." As a white American male, I am not familiar with being an oppressed minority, but I'm sure that oppressed minorities will think(justifiably) in "us" vs. "them" terms too. But thinking this way can be a coping mechanism that gives one power in some sense by defining reality for oneself. (ok, I'm getting in over my head here - I'm just an engineer)

I have not addressed the most personal way "us" vs. "them" has manifested itself in our life - that of pastor and congregation as us/them. I will leave that for another day, I think. I will have to tread carefully there.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Success, success, success (does it matter)?

With apologies to the Rolling Stones (title is from the lyrics of "Shattered," if you're not a fan)....

I wonder how one might best define "success" in the context of pastoral vocation. Certainly numbers are meaningful - I'm an engineer for crying out loud, I can't ignore numbers. One might argue that the number of folks in the pews each week is a good indicator of the "success" of the church or of the pastor. Each one of those numbers is an individual soul that is precious to God and capable of joining God's mission in that place with their own unique gifts. They all matter, and the more that are present, the more potential there is for the Kingdom of God(whatever that means). If attendance/participation declines or increases precipitously, it can be an indication of the health of the congregation or of the pastor's "performance." But this is not an objective science experiment, carefully controlled and easily measured. Attendance is but one indicator, one piece of data. Taken alone, it misses much more information than it provides. Statistics do not lie. Interpreters of statistics do, however, though it's usually unintentional. Hmm...kind of like scripture - the error isn't so much in the data(scripture), but in the interpretation.

How do you measure spiritual growth and formation? If you make a deep difference in the lives of a few people, is that as important as growing in number? We can look to Joel Osteen if we want to find a pastor who is really good at growing the numbers of his church. I have stepped in puddles after a soft rainfall that are deeper than Osteen, but hey, he fills up that arena every week. Ok, I'm done bashing him, but the point remains - if you tell people what they want to hear and make them feel good, you can accumulate a sizable following, even if your message is completely vapid. Are you then a "success?" What really matters? And when I say that, what I mean is, "What really matters to God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?"

Are our churches seeking to please God? Or are we seeking to look good - to ourselves, to our community, to our denomination? Do we sing, "they'll know we are Christians by our love?" Or is it more like, "they'll know we are an imporant church by our numbers?" Why do we show up every week? To build up our empire?

We are a few weeks in to our contemporary Sunday night service. It has been fun, and as a traditional worship lover, I am struck by how much I respond to the more emotionally charged praise music. I find that it moves me and that I need to be moved that way in worship. These children we pick up and bring in add a lot to the experience too. This past Sunday, we had a significantly smaller number in the evening than in previous weeks, but Sunday morning attendance was a little higher than usual. It's interesting that in my mind, I separate attendance in terms of age - the kids we bring in are one component, and the "adults"/others are a second one. Like they aren't equal somehow. I am 100% positive that others think about this in the same way - an us/them mentality, even if there's no conscious animosity toward "them." Anyhow, the low attendance didn't go unnoticed, and was a point of concern for at least one person. It seems that folks are just waiting for something to worry about. This same person told the pastor he was "praying for her success" here. I appreciate the sentiment, but I wonder how this person would define success. I suspect it is a moving target, but mostly related to numbers. The numbers are going to be evaluated on a week-by-week basis.

Whose success should we pray for and work for? I don't think it's the pastor's. Maybe it's the stuff I associate with the word that bugs me so much. The idea that we can all just work really hard and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and bless the whole world by our obviously awesome relationship with God that allows us to be the agents of change and get lots of credit with everyone including God in the process. Humbly, of course. What a steaming load of garbage. IT IS GOD WHO SAVES, NOT US. Who do we think we are, anyway? Of course we have responsibility to work for the kingdom of God, which involves doing things. But we have to acknowledge our own sin, our own need for salvation, even our own need to confess this and share it with others. And we can't get so obsessed with measuring our performance that we ignore what's really important. God will take care of the numbers.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Some things in life have to be experienced to be understood. For example, you kinda know what to expect when you get married based on observation. Most of us have our parents' marriage to reflect on, even if it is no longer intact. We can look to other marriages with which we may be familiar, or we can watch TV and see what that tells us - both sitcoms and reality shows. Even Dateline/20-20 shows can show us how a marriage might go horribly wrong. But until we enter into that adventure, we cannot understand the intricacies of that relationship. Additionally, each marriage is a little different with a different blend of personalities. A similar example is having children. Until you actually have kids, you can't fully appreciate the experience. It never ceases to amaze me how many people who have never had kids are such great self-proclaimed experts on child-rearing. And they can be quick to dispense their sage advice - same goes for marriage.

And of course, the same goes for "parish life." The experience of dealing with all the issues, big and small, of being the pastor's family is something that must be lived to be fully appreciated. Going into this adventure, I was aware that it would be a growing and learning experience for all of us. I thought about those examples I just gave - marriage and child-rearing - and how it was probably a similar deal. And it is. There is no way to prepare for it fully - you have to just do it.

Here are some of the things I expected:
  1. At least a few people will not like us
  2. At least a few people will try to undermine the pastor's efforts
  3. Some people will be unquestionably loyal simply because my wife is the pastor. They will be loyal to any pastor at their church.
  4. There will be at least a small number of salt-of-the-earth types who want the kingdom of God to flourish where they are - and they will do the work to till the soil.
  5. There will be some beautiful moments of grace
  6. We will be discouraged at times
  7. At some point, there will be people who want to see us go, and they may be successful eventually - we won't be there forever.
  8. Most problems will be about power and control, and they will be compounded by poor communication and pettiness.
  9. Some parishioners will think that they own us, that they can tell us how to live our lives and that they need to teach us. (certainly they are teaching us - they have a lot to offer - but they are not to be the pastor's spiritual advisors)
I was right on pretty much all counts. So why is it so hard to take bad behavior and unrealistic expectations from parishioners when we knew they were coming? I suppose we hadn't lived out these experiences yet. We should not take these things personally - most problems here were problems before we ever showed up. The average stay for the pastors here over the last decade or so is about 2 years. We've been here almost a year and a half. So clearly, the honeymoon should be over and it is. But it's hard not to take personal attacks personally - even when they were part of our expectations. We knew there would be people who want us to leave, but I guess the idea of it was not as hurtful as the reality is.

But we are not stuck in despair. For one thing, there are still many good things happening. The Sunday night service has been well received, and these children coming have been a lovely blessing. On Halloween, we had a covered dish supper and then walked over with the kids to the "trunk or treat" celebration at a nearby church. It's an annual community event there, and they do a great job hosting. Anyhow, as my wife took her little group over to the large inflatable slide, a 12 year old Latina girl put her arm around her and said, "Pastor, when I'm at our church, my heart feels warm." OUR church! Warm heart! (John Wesley, anyone?) There is hope here. There is momentum building in spite of us and the petty bickering that has gone on for years.

But how long can we stay in this place? One of the complications of making a mid-life career switch is how it affects your family. What kind of life does this give our children? How much do we weigh that in making decisions? Conflict is not something we can avoid by just finding a new appointment. Is what we are experiencing here consistent with our expectations or not? And what would our expectations be at a new place? Do we have reasonable expectations? What exactly are they?

We certainly can't run around from appointment to appointment, hoping that "this will be the one!" This is much like a church running through pastors, hoping for the same thing - a match made in heaven that will dispel all the bad stuff - the lion will lie down with the lamb (and not eat it). It's a nice thought, but totally unrealistic.

So - what should our expectations be for our lives as a pastor's family? How much do we weigh the various costs in our decisions about staying/going? There is much to consider, and there is much at stake, both for our family and for our church. We will pray about this fervently, asking for wisdom, discernment, and vision. Oh, and also for patience, love, and grace in our relationships. If you read this, any prayers you want to offer on our behalf would be welcome.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Well, that went well

So last night was the first night of the new contemporary service at church. It sure seems like there is a lot riding on the "success" (whatever that means - how do you measure it?) of this new thing. Before going further, some background info is necessary.

There is a core group of members who are just the salt of the earth, and I mean that in the most positive way possible. They show up and do the hard work that needs to be done. When you talk about the 80/20 rule(80% of the work is done by 20% of the people), they are the 20. But I have noticed that this group of folks has felt for some time, even well before we arrived on the scene last summer, that their church is dying and there's not much they can do about it. And it's basically true. The town is dying - young folks grow up and move to where there is more opportunity. For whatever reason, the town has resisted change for decades. I am not sure how the powers that be in town feel now, but in the past, it seems that growth was not something they wanted. The town is right off the interstate, with no exit for 7 miles in one direction, and no exit for 4 miles in the other. At the town's exit, there is one gas station. In the last couple years, an additional and potentially large development has started, but I'm not sure what the timeline is for it, nor what exactly is going to happen there. I've always wondered why there wasn't something else there like fast food or something - it seems like a no-brainer.

In addition to the problem of the town dying, the church itself has been in a state of decline. There have been a lot of pastors in and out of this place in the last decade, and families with children have found that the rock and roll church nearby is a lot more fun for them. I can't really speak to all the different reasons that folks may have left this place, but the end result is that many of the remaining members feel mostly sadness about their beloved church. In fact, I think it's really sadness mixed with anger. Folks have told me that 10 or 15 years ago, this church was the church in town. That the place was crawling with people and activity. I am sure that some of this may be romanticizing the past a bit, but I believe that it was surely a more vibrant place than it's been lately. It makes me think that something significant may have happened, but we don't know what it was. Enough background - now for the good stuff.

I would guess that Sunday morning worship attendance has been averaging in the 60's since we've been here - even before our bus driver started bringing children (see earlier posts about that). Yesterday morning it was in the low 70's, I think, which is pretty good. Last night? Around 105. The place was crazy crowded with children - but they only accounted for about half the number. The music was upbeat and energetic, and while I missed the message - took all those children outside to the playground after all the singing - I heard that it was well received. What else would I expect from this beautiful, magnificent pastor? The one who woke up yesterday with a stomach bug, by the way? It has been so amazing to see my wife become a pastor with authority. Regardless, as proud as I am of her, and as hard as she has worked, and as good as she is, this is not about her or me or our family. God is moving in this place, and I am glad to be around to see it.

We really couldn't have hoped for a better start to the Sunday night adventure. In coming weeks, we will not be providing food (at least not officially - some of these kids come hungry and we'll probably end up doing something about that), and it's hard to tell how attendance will hold up. But we will also have programming for the kids, led by me(yikes). I'm not sure how that's going to go, but I will do my best. I expect that good things are going to happen regardless of my competence or lack thereof. A wise person once told me that "being present is highly underrated." I suppose that's another version of the Woody Allen quote that goes something like, "95% of life is just showing up." And these kids are so very needy of positive attention from grownups, it will be hard for me to screw it up too badly.

And those 20%, salt of the earth types? I'm not sure I've ever seen so much joy on their faces as I did last night. They needed this. Some of them really wanted it to happen and worked hard on it. Some didn't know if they wanted it and worked hard on it. Some may have opposed it, but they either worked hard on it or at least stayed out of the way. It is good to have a clear mission. It helps distract us from the back-biting and silly bickering about the minutiae of church life and calls us to be the church, the body of Christ. Thanks be to God!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

how many sides?

I had to move from Panera bread before usual today. A couple men were sitting at the table next to me talking about politics. It was just too distracting, even though these guys were in agreement, not arguing. In the year or so that I've been working from Panera (and the public library, where it's much quieter), I've heard all kinds of discussions. People meet there for casual work discussions, for Bible study, and just to catch up with friends. Different political views are espoused with different levels of grace and intelligence.

I was raised in a Republican home and I would describe my parents as "Gerald Ford Republicans." They don't go foaming at the mouth about social issues and really are mild-mannered people who like a balanced budget. They are far more comfortable with George Will than Sarah Palin. My dad's family was Republican in rural Kentucky, where they were a distinct minority. I remember that my Granny was a Democrat, but Granddaddy was a Republican. My mom's step-dad was very active in the Democratic party, but she converted upon marrying my dad. After college, I switched parties for reasons that I don't have time or energy to explain, at least not in this post. However, it's interesting that I can get swept up in the emotions of party loyalty. I felt loyalty to the Republican party as a teenager, and feel similar loyalty to the Democratic party today. I don't like that about myself. I want to think for myself and come to opinions about issues on a case-by-case basis. Like many well-intentioned people, I try to do that. But a lot of times, we let our loyalties simplify things and we take simple opinions on complex issues. That seems to be what those in power want us to do, even though on many issues, there isn't much difference between the two parties.

Like the weather, everyone complains about the political climate, but noone does anything about it. I'm not sure what can be done, though. I would like to think that I am becoming increasingly a-political in some ways as I mature and move forward - that being in a pastor's family is helping me see all people, regardless of their political persuasion, as love-worthy children of God. Maybe it is. I have many friends who are fiercely loyal to one of the two major American political parties, and I'm sure some who belong to wacky nut-job minority parties. I don't think less of my Republican friends because of their political leanings, but it can get uncomfortable when politics come up. I just try to avoid those conversations. I would like to be able to disagree with people on political issues without feeling anger brewing between us. So that's at least partially my problem. We just seem to take things too personally.

It's been said that one problem is that we're always dividing every issue into two sides. Maybe we could start with the realization that there are almost always more than two sides to most issues. This does not drive ratings on cable news channels, but if everyone would just take a deep breath and be honest with each other, maybe we could find some common ground.

Monday, October 18, 2010

time for an update

It has been too long since the last post. To my imaginary readers, I apologize. If there are any actual readers, I apologize to you too, if you've been wondering what's going on.

Turns out, there's quite a lot going on. School has been back in session for almost two months. This involves lots of driving for us - mainly me - and thus a different work environment. Really, it's kinda nice to have the routine again. Even though working in public places leads to distractions, it's not any worse than being interrupted to referee fights and to try to come up with new ways to fight summer boredom. The first part of summer was fun, but once the summer boredom showed up (camps and trips done, just counting down the days until school started), life became difficult. So now there's a ridiculously busy school routine to follow, but no one is really bored.

At church, new and different things have begun to happen. Shortly after my last post, way back in June, we had our Senior recognition Sunday for high school and college graduates. At churches everywhere, this is one of those days when people who have been inactive for a while will make a point to come back. One of those families with a graduate fits that description, and the dad drives a school bus. He knows the kids on his route very well. Knows their families and their different struggles. It is not a bus route through gated communities with immaculate yards. He picks up at trailer parks and old country houses with no A/C. Families without steady employment. These are not people who typically have insurance cards in their wallets. The parents may not speak English well.

So our bus driver decided that it might be a good idea to invite the kids to come to church. We are now averaging about 20-25 children per week in Sunday School. Earlier this year, we were probably averaging about 5, with 3 of them being the pastor's kids. It has been quite a blessing. I must admit that I was a bit concerned about how all these kids might be accepted by the parishioners. We live in a time when there's a lot of screaming on cable news channels about immigration, and let's face it, the rural South does not have a great reputation for embracing diversity, especially in churches (ironically enough). How would these older folks react to the influx of Latinos and poor white kids from the trailer parks? Silly pastor's husband, they reacted with overwhelmingly open arms! I overheard more than one person comment about how they needed to get the kids' parents to come too. And this is slowly happening. There have been a couple baptisms and new faces showing up at worship. It seems that God is moving here.

On a related front, this is a hugely important week for our church. Instead of fighting the "worship wars" about style ("traditional" vs. contemporary), we are leaving the sacred cow 11:00am worship service as is - traditional - and starting a new contemporary service on Sunday evenings. The focus of this new service is to try to attract (I hate that word in this context) the unchurched (I hate that word in any context). Should I say "reach the lost" instead? Nah, too paternalistic - sounds too much like we are the ones doing the "saving." How about something like, "inviting and welcoming people to come as they are to experience the love of Jesus?" Ack! Whatever, I am excited about the possibilities even if I can't come up with better syntax for it. We want to create a space for folks (like these kids' parents) who might not be comfortable in the traditional worship environment. The music will be very good - our fabulous pastor has called on a contact from one of her div school field ed appointments who has promised to help us for the first six months. He's basically doing it for gas money. And we have had some anonymous donations to fund different aspects of this service - including a BBQ dinner to kick things off. It does seem that God is moving here.

Of course, it's not like everything is perfect - if it were, we wouldn't be talking about the church. There are always concerns and worries about something, but usually it's money. We do tend to hold onto it tightly. Of course, with our economy sputtering along and unemployment stuck at an uncomfortable level, it makes sense to be prudent with our resources. But most of the worry and angst is not about being a good steward - it seems to me to be about control. About not trusting in the abundance of the kingdom of God. This is just my opinion, but I don't think that the worst thing you can do with money is to spend it. Spending foolishly can get you into trouble, but sometimes holding onto it too tightly is the worst thing you can do. I think there are parables from Jesus that make that point.

It's interesting how people can miss the movement of the Holy Spirit when it is right there in front of them. I include myself in the word "people" here, by the way. God help me not to be petty and cheap with my love, with my money, with my time. Let us be bold, let us be thought fools by the world, let us go all in on this mission. Why else are we here?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

world of hurt

For some reason, I have become more and more aware recently of the tremendous number of people walking around in pain. Not physical pain - though there's certainly plenty of that, but mental/spiritual pain. My wife does not share the details of her counseling sessions, and I don't really want her to. It's not that I don't care about the lives of the parishioners, I just don't want to have to keep any more secrets than necessary. But I do know how she acts or seems to feel after counseling others. There is a need for her to process what she hears, and I can be a sounding board for that. In that process, I do get some information about what's going on, but not enough details for it to feel like gossip. Maybe it's wrong, I don't know. I do know that I try very hard no to let any of these details affect the way I treat or feel about anyone. It has been quite an eye-opener to realize how many folks are really hurting. There are people who seem to be happy and well-adjusted, but inside they are suffering. I know that's not a big revelation in and of itself, but I suppose what's striking to me is the scale of the suffering. It seems to be a part of our human condition in this world - we suffer. All of us at least some of the time suffer. I am really lucky in that my suffering has been quite limited to this point. A broken heart or two on the way to finding my soul mate. A couple miscarriages. The deaths of grandparents and some friends. All sad, but all typical experiences that most folks find along life's path.

Some folks' lives are pretty much a train wreck, and the wreckage is in plain view. It is hard for me to relate to lives ruined by alcoholism, marital infidelity, untimely deaths of spouses and children, economic misfortune, and the list goes on.

Others' lives contain more subtle suffering. A marriage is lifeless, two people surviving in the same house without sharing themselves with each other. Quiet resentment constantly simmering. Distrust and shame between two people that pledged to spend their lives together as one flesh. But to the outside world, they seem like a normal, happy couple.

One of the drawbacks to being the only pastor on staff is that there's no one else to help you navigate the intricate relationships among the parishioners. Especially in the beginning of our time here, it is hard to know whom to trust. Now that we've been here a year, we have a slightly better idea of the different personalities here, but there is still much to learn. As we find out more about the sources of dysfunction in this place (and all churches have some level of dysfunction, of course), I suppose more suffering past and present will come to light. I think it's important not to get overwhelmed by it. As hard as it is to discuss, bringing it out into the light will help us move forward.

I don't like it when folks try to dismiss life's suffering with happy God-talk. What I mean is the idea that we should always be happy because we have Jesus who promises us eternal life with God, so why should we ever be sad? "Smile, Jesus loves you!" Well of course he does. But the acknowledgement of suffering does not indicate a lack of faith. Happy God-talk is not compassion. It is Polyanna foolishness most of the time. I am not going to be happy when I see others suffering (at least I hope I won't - there are some folks who I probably would want to see suffer - but then when the actual suffering comes, I'd probably feel bad). Empathy and compassion are traits of Jesus Christ, who we are supposed to emulate, and displaying these traits doesn't always feel good.

But we are supposed to have joy, and I think this is achievable. I say achievable as if it's something we can get through our own effort, but I think it's a gift. Along with the sad realities that we learn about in the lives of those we are coming to love, there is much to be joyful about, even beyond the joy of our adoption as sons and daughters of the most high God. There are babies born and couples renewing their wedding vows. There are moments of grace in worship and in fellowship together. For me, there is laughter and fellowship in Sunday school and at covered dish dinners. And there is joy in watching my family try hard to live into what God has planned for us. We fall, but God picks us up. One year into my wife's first appointment, I feel like we are in the right place for now.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

zero-sum living

I have been thinking lately about the "economy of lack" that we seem to live in. There's this idea that there's not enough to go around - we have to grab all we can and hoard it just in case. This way of thinking has been described as social Darwinism. You have to want not only to survive and thrive, but you must do it at the expense of others. It's like life is a zero-sum game. If you don't succeed and others do, their success will come at your expense. So get yours before they can get theirs.

I don't see this as living into the kingdom of God. Is there not enough in the kingdom of God? Do we really believe in the KOG?

Obviously, we are responsible for our own success. The most effective way to secure one's own success is through hard work and perseverance. There's no reason to expect that one can or should live comfortably while doing absolutely nothing to take care of themselves. So everyone is expected to pull their own weight. In theory, I suppose that would mean that we would all work hard, so we'd all be able to take care of ourselves. But that's in theory. If we work hard, will we always be rewarded? If we work hard, can we be truly self-reliant? No man is an island, right? Are we supposed to be peninsulas? Or are we our brothers' and sisters' keepers?

Are we supposed to take care of each other or blame others who need our help? Why do they need our help anyway? Shouldn't they have planned better? Shouldn't they have lived better? Maybe they need help because they are just plain lazy, or made bad decisions, or are living an immoral lifestyle. Maybe we can pick and choose whom we help. There are some people I don't want to help. They don't really want to change the way they're living. So why should they get the benefit of the hard work of others?

This way of thinking reminds me of the "deutoronomic thought" of old. By this $50 word, I mean the idea that God punishes the wicked and rewards the good. If you are suffering in any way - physical disabilities, economic troubles, etc - it is because of sin. If you are doing well, it is because God is rewarding your righteousness. Usually, this concept is rejected if you discuss it in a Sunday School class. We claim that this is a silly idea, blaming someone's handicap on the sin of their parents or their own sin. But do we really reject this way of thinking? I think this way of thinking is still prevalent among Christians today.

For the most part, we don't associate physical handicaps with sin. But we do tend to lean heavily on the "it's their own fault" way of thinking for many other problems. Of course, a lot of times it is their own fault, at least some of it. Sometimes it really is the result of bad decisions. We live in a broken world, though. People make decisions that are bad for themselves. People make decisions that are bad for others. There is both personal and systemic sin to blame for many tragic situations.

But there is good news. We serve a God who will pay us a full day's wage, even if we can't find work until late in the day. If we are truly followers - imitators - of this God, then we must have at least some of this sort of generosity of spirit. That doesn't mean we are doormats to those who would take advantage. It is possible to be generous in our treatment of others while still holding each other accountable. But we needn't spend much energy worrying that people will take advantage of us.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Getting started

I am not sure how this experiment is going to work out. I don't like to read about other people's naval-gazing, and I don't know if people will want to read mine. But I do like putting my thoughts in writing, and I can't seem to keep journals around for very long - either my daughter gets a hold of them and fills them with precious pictures and writing, or they get lost in the van. Or I just get out of the habit and don't write for a long time.

So here goes.

I recently became a pastor's husband. I didn't marry a pastor, my wife became one. And I am thrilled about that - it's who she was born to be. Sometime, I should write about how we met, fell in love, got married, had 3 beautiful babies, and jumped into the pastoral ministry adventure. But that seems like too much to tackle in my first post.

I do enjoy the idea of being a pastor's spouse. I have always been a "helper" person, instead of the person in charge - it fits my personality. Being the pastor's husband - as opposed to the pastor's wife - is a somewhat unusual situation. I'm certainly not the only one, and the Methodist church has been ordaining women as pastors for about 50 years, but still, most people don't know quite what to do with me. I don't play the organ or host Bible studies in the parlor for the ladies of the church. I am not impeccably dressed every Sunday, nor do I keep the home spotless just in case parishoners drop by unexpectedly(not living in the parsonage has kept this situation from happening very often). But I do have a role to play, don't I? I make sure the kids are marginally presentable on Sunday morning and that they are safe. We are very cautious about them being alone with anyone at church, even those people we tend to trust the most. This (I think justified) paranoia comes from experience at a previous church, and it is my most important responsibility. I teach a Sunday School class too, but that's the extent of my visible service to the church.

I think my calling is as a helper to my wife, and that's how most of my service takes place. Helping sometimes involves physical activity - helping to set up a room or something for Bible study, etc. But usually it is just giving her moral support and doing a lot of listening. The role of pastor is a difficult one - there are lots of people to please, if you are a "pleaser." Expectations are very high, and no one thinks you're working hard. There are no real days off unless you move mountains to get everything covered, get out of town, and turn off the cell phone. Most folks in the church are well-intentioned, good people. And at every church, there are some who are not. The issues of power and control are present wherever people organize themselves into a group, and the church is certainly no exception - in fact, it is a "poster-child" for this problem.

So in her first appointment, there is a difficult learning curve to ascend. I think she's doing great, but we're both neurotic enough, that it's still an everyday challenge. We're getting there, I think. The trick will be to be patient and take a long-term view, and to remember why we are here.

Oh, and I didn't mention my job yet. I am an engineer who works for a software company. We make software for engineers who design chips. I spent a lot of time in graduate school for this, and I like my job most of the time. My career is impacted by our choice to do this ministry thing, but not severely. My company has an office about 100 miles from where we are serving - until the summer of 2009, I worked there at least 1 day a week. Prior to my wife starting seminary, I was there every day. But the people in my work group are all on the other side of the continent, so as long as I have a reliable internet connection, I can work most anywhere. This is quite a blessing, and has made our move possible (or at least more tolerable).