Church, meet State; State, Church

Nice to meet you, shake hands, and go your separate ways. That’s the appropriate relationship between you. Any further fraternizing, and somebody’s in danger of having a nasty and illicit affair.

In the midst of the economic problems and the partisan and non-partisan struggles to fix them, what caught my attention this weekend were the pastors organized by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund who endorsed Sen. John McCain from their pulpits this Sunday. The event, Pulpit Freedom Sunday, drew critique from organizations that defend the separation of church and state, as well it should. The IRS is looking into some of the cases, and may revoke the tax-exempt status of these churches, as well they should. Crossing a line like this should come with consequences.

But, as much as I like the Constitution and think it is a pretty decent living document and should be adhered to, that’s not my primary problem with this action. Yes, its a violation of the Constitution and yes, it is an imposition of church values upon the state. But whatever.

I object because this is bad pastoring.

Really bad pastoring.

I have several bumper stickers on my car, but not one of them endorses a political candidate (and I’ve had to throw out or give away several perfectly good stickers to keep to this, including my favorite, “republicans for voldemort” one!). That’s a personal choice I make out of respect for my congregants who may or may not share my political views and yet need to feel comfortable turning to me in times of struggle and knowing that I will not judge them or think differently of them because they vote Green or Democrat or Republican (although I reserve the right to discriminate against Yankees fans– kidding! kidding, folks; calm your little pinstriped-selves!). Asked in a conversation by a congregant or anyone else, I will engage in a thoughtful discussion of the candidate that I am supporting for a particular office and what I believe his or her strengths are. With friends, I will try to sway them to the “light side” and to my candidate; with congregants, I’ll simply state my opinon, and only when asked.

But my pulpit, that’s sacred ground.

Not that I stand behind it; I preach standing in the open. But it’s still a sacred moment.

The sermon comes at a point of the service where we hear and respond to the Word of God in our lives. What the living Word might say to us is a mysterious and powerful thing. It is a time to open one another to the mystery of God, to all that is Holy, to fragile and infinite Truth. To bring into that moment a person’s name, a poltical party, an advertisement like so many others we see all over the TV and hear on the radio and read in print, to take that sacred moment and make it no different than a thirty second spot between an ad for McDonalds and the beginning of “The Office,” that’s profane. That’s insulting. That’s wounding to one’s congregation and to the cultivation of the awareness of the Spirit.

It breaks the moment of worship, shifting focus away from God and the Good News, to a lesser, temporal, finite thing.

Idolatry. Blasphemy. And I don’t go around screaming blasphemy lightly.

Go ahead and preach about issues– I know I do. I preach about poverty and health care and pacifism. If you want, my dear colleagues, preach about gay marriage and abortion and whatever else. I probably disagree with your positions, but I will defend your right to preach what you see as the truth. But don’t abuse your power in an attempt to sway an electorate. Don’t violate the sacred trust given to you by making absolutist claims that alienate your congregants from one another, from you, or from their neighbors. Certainly don’t–as one pastor stated–make the fear-mongering and in my mind racist claim that no Christian could possibly vote for Barack Hussien Obama. I know quite a few who already have, and more yet who fully intend to do so in the near future.

So yea, the IRS should revoke your tax exempt status for being less than non-partisan. As it should the status of any liberal-leaning clergy person who might feel the need to endorse Senator Obama in a sermon. But your churches should also think very seriously about revoking your licenses to preach or your ordination or whatever the equivalent is, because you have misused and violated the pastorate.

Sermon: Broken Into Love (2)

“Broken Into Love”

( September 28, 2008 ) Drawing on my two years’ experience with the Adopta Una Familia volunteer trip to Guayaquil, Ecuador, I ask, what does it mean to live out a Gospel that teaches blessing for the poor and woe for the rich? (Luke 6:20-31)

[this is my first attempt at recording in my new location-- I made three recordings at two churches and this is the only one that I can even hear-- I think the sermon was better at the second church as well. sorry about the quality-- I'm buying a different mp3 recorder this week if I can find a better one, and then I have to figure out a better way to import and edit the audio files. It's a work in progress.]

My Gray Hair

Lightening the discussion for a moment…

For my new readers in Central Vermont (and afar!), I will repeat what I have said elsewhere, I do consider it part of my ministry to be so transparent in my humanness that people can’t help but think, “well if God can use *that*, then maybe God can use me too!” This means that while some of my posts are about serious problems like poverty, homelessness, or the plight of the poor in developing countries, and some are about the nature of God or the purpose of prayer, or other theological and ministerial issues, some posts are just about parenting and clothing choices and silly moments in my life.

And this one is about my hair.

In fact, it’s about one of them. My gray one. And yes, there’s only one (actually, there are about three of them, but only one is crinkly and sticks out and makes her presence known).

I’m proud of this gray hair, and I refuse to dye her or her friends. I know, I know, you’ll ask me in ten years if I feel the same, and I certainly reserve the right to feel differently. But right now, I’m proud and I feel like between being in ministry for four years and being a mom for three, I’ve earned this little trophy of experience. You see, I’ve spent nearly every day of those four years or so trying to convince people (often myself, too, to be honest!) that I am old enough, wise enough, and experienced enough to at least begin to do the work I do. A pastor is a person who carries a fair amount of authority or at least tries to, and sometimes that respect (again, even the respect I have for myself, on my low-self-esteem days) is undermined by being the ‘young’ or ‘pretty’ pastor, rather than the wise or experienced one.

And sometimes it’s just funny. Take this exchange yesterday at a gathering of probational/provisional elders (that’s the term, currently in flux, for us United Methodist pastors who are in the three year period of evaluation before ordination).

An older pastor whom I love and respect and often have very little in common with (and that can be a good thing for us to learn from each other!) was explaining why he had a hard time relating to those of us who were describing the time of transition from one church to another.

“It’s been a long time since I did that,” he mused. “I’ve been at my church for seventeen years.”

There was a pause. “Twelve,” I said.

“No, seventeen. I’ve been there seventeen years.”

“Oh, I know. But twelve,” I replied. “That’s how old I was when you started at that church. I was twelve.”

When we each recovered from that particular shock, I at least mused that it is a wonderful thing to be colleagues with folks across generations, and, while I try not to go out of my way to point it out, it’s sometimes cool to be the young’un, but it means I often have to be that much more intentional about also being respectable and skillful and in search of wisdom.

So I’ll take it. I’ll take a gray hair or ten or a head full, and I’ll look forward to the day when I hope I, with humility and grace and respect, have wisdom to offer incoming pastors who were entering puberty when I was entering my current ministry.

Its not homelessness, it’s houselessness.*

My husband commented in my previous post that my conversation marked a mere beginning in a chapter of my ministry, and he was right. My education about homelessness in Montpelier continued today, mostly in the form of a conversation over lunch with a wise man and fellow blogger, who has lots of insight into politics, housing problems, and what might be important, relevant ministry in Central Vermont.

Vermont is, as you probably know, my home state.

Homelessness is, as you may or may not know, something for which I’ve had a near-life-long heartache, ever since I saw someone sleeping on a bench in a park in Boston, and my dad explained to me why. My little pre-teen mind couldn’t grasp the concept; you mean this person doesn’t have anywhere to stay? but look at all these people walking by! do they not notice? do they not care? how can they ignore him? why doesn’t anyone help? why don’t *we* help?

But never have the two come together before. I’m in Vermont, but in a new way, having not lived here since I was a high school student, and with (slightly!) older eyes I see it in a different way. Mainly, that we are just like everywhere else. People are hungry here. People are homeless here. And, unfortunately, people try to ignore these problems or find short-term solutions.

Montpelier is a beautiful city, a jewel of a place to live and work. It also doesn’t have much available housing, as I found out first hand when my family and I were looking for an apartment or house to rent about a month and a half ago. It definitely doesn’t have a lot of affordable housing, and on top of rent let’s not forget the heating prices in one of the most frigid states in the country.

Also, Montpelier doesn’t have a homeless shelter. Perhaps it would be unsightly, and people don’t want it in their back yard (*Carlin, again), or perhaps it is a logistical nightmare to get all the political, religious, and private parties lined up behind a project like that. I don’t know. What I know is that it gets really cold here, and there’s not anywhere to seek shelter for the short term.

But in talking with this fellow, M, at lunch, even the shelter–even our little free lunch– is just a short-term solution. What’s needed, what has always been needed, is not shelter, not transitional housing, but real, actual affordable, available housing. How are we ever to break the cycle of poverty, unemployment,  homelessness, and hunger, if people have no place from which to build references, job hunt, or demonstrate residency (you can’t even *go* to a food pantry unless you can prove that you are somehow a resident of the community being served, and how do you prove that with no utility bill, no drivers license, or no pay stub?)?

And suddenly, ministry seems to take on a much larger, more political, more advocacy-based and community-development-focused meaning.

Suddenly I’m thinking that the call of the church is not just to community, but to sustainable community, in all of the senses (environmental, economical, social, spiritual…) we can imagine.

Added with some suggestions (his and others’) about radio shows, local access tv, podcasting, video blogging, and so on, and I begin to feel that old Wesleyan pull that the World, or at least the Central Vermont portion of it, is my parish. Maybe my circuit is bigger than two churches, and maybe being faithful in that circuit means being an organizational and motivational force in the community for sustainability and care (beats defining success by my bulletin-toting for sure).

I don’t think it’s just the hour that makes me feel tired and overwhelmed.

And I don’t think it’s just the coffee that makes me feel excited and inspired.

* Ah, the late, great, George Carlin (WARNING: clip contains *a lot* of swearing, and may not be appropriate for all viewers, because, well, it’s George Carlin. This is not an endorsement of all of what Carlin says, but credit for the title, which is his. There, that should be enough of a disclaimer, should any of my congregants one day run for President and people try to hold them accountable for what their pastor once linked to in a blog).

Wake up Call

“Pastor, can I talk to you just a minute?”

The fellow asking has a laugh-lined face and a voice gravelly from cigarette smoking. I stop mid-stride, and give him my full attention.

He tells me that he’s homeless, and that he sometimes sleeps on our handicap access ramp, because it’s a gentle slope, and wood rather than cold stone, and has a roof to keep off the rain. He wants to make sure I’m okay with this, and that I’d know who he is, should someone call or the police ask me about the man on our back porch. He assures me that he comes late at night and leaves early in the morning, and will not be in anyone’s way.

“But,” I sputter, because I’m a Vermonter and it’s the first thing into my head, “the snow, the cold?”

“My bag is good down to zero,” he says, “and just the shelter from the roof and the side of the building is usually enough.”

I furrow my brow at the ‘usually.’

Now I don’t know that it’s my place to give out sleeping spots on my church’s stoop, and I’m simultaneously torn between sorrow that I really can’t just give him a key to the front door and shame/horror that one even needs to ask if the church, the building that houses the people who represent a wandering, oft-homeless rabbi and his work in the world, is a safe place to sleep. So I say the only thing I can think of, which is to call him by name, and tell him that I’ll recognize him should I see him there or should somebody give his description, and that I am okay with him seeking shelter on our ramp.

He goes downstairs to the food pantry, and I go inside to my office to wonder what in the world it means to be in ministry in a place where three or four people call or stop in a day looking for money, where a night on the street in certain times in January can in fact be fatal, and where the institutional body we call church can sometimes be so anxious about the survival of its ministry that we sometimes forget to do the ministry of survival. I’m not saying that we have the wrong response, but I wish we could have more.

Go ahead. Ask me if I embodied the presence of Christ today. I shudder at the answer, because he was present in that conversation, but I think he had a gravelly voice and some laugh lines.

Circuit Rider: Fail.

Apparently, it takes some practice to get your head around serving two churches at once.

Last week, I had to drive to church B and get an extra robe before I went to church A for the first service and then back to church B. That was nothing. This week, I forgot the bulletins for church A at my house, and had to wing a service for which I had a sermon (much easier for me to do, as I mostly preach from memory anyway) but no bulletins. I’ll get the hang of it.

And then Sunday afternoon I wasn’t much better. In fact, I was horizontal for almost all of it. That’s right; I was so tired I slept for an entire afternoon. Wow. And awoke to sad news about the death of a pastor in our conference who will be greatly missed.

So notsomuch a good day all around. In some ways, this feels like relearning my ministry and the lessons of my first appointment all over again. I guess that’s a good thing; if I had nothing left to learn, I think it would be time for me to find something else to do with my life.

Walk a mile…

My car was in the shop this morning, getting the brakes repaired, and so I walked my daughter to school. That is, I carried her on my shoulders for a mile along the side of the road, and then walked a mile back to my house.

Halfway back to my house, going up what I need to say is a very steep hill, it struck me that there are some parents who carry their children everywhere, and there are some people, children included, who walk a mile or much, much more each day to get to school, or to get access to clean water and other essentials. And here I was feeling sore and sorry for myself over a measly two miles.

Perspective is a good and humbling thing.

(and then of course, the car was ready to be picked up and there appears to be no such thing as a taxi here, so I walked three miles more to the downtown to get my car, to avoid having to carry the same toddler a mile uphill. so now I’m just complaining)

Seven years later

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

May we know the spirit of forgiveness of ourselves and others, in the midst of remembrance and ongoing violence. Please.

(Stained) Glass Ceilings

Sarah Palin, eat your heart out; I’m shattering a glass ceiling or two on my own ’round here.

My little congregation in Plainfield has had several women– young women, even– as pastors before, but at the larger church in Montpelier, I am the first woman and the youngest person to sit behind the pastor’s desk. Leaving aside, at least for a time, observations as to why it might have taken so long, there are some exciting things about breaking a mold or two. Like the double-takes around town when I wear my funny collar, or the sudden interest when someone mentions that their new pastor is a young woman.

I want to stress that this has not been An Issue with the congregation. In fact, none of them have so much as mentioned it. I was told by a retired pastor, although the Office Manager and I had pretty much figured it out.

Now as a young pastor and as a woman, I believe I bring some specific gifts to this ministry. I blog, for instance, something more common amongst young’uns (although not limited to us). I think that I have an ability to do what I call emotional muti-tasking, that is, I can name, give room for, and process an emotional response, say, anxiety (my own or others’), and at the same time say, “great, well, despite feeling anxious about this, we really need to get down to business.” This is something at which I think many women excel, but again, it is by no means limited to us.

But just now, I’m mostly evidencing my skills in the field of interior decorating (again, some of the best decorators I know are men, but apparently, none of them have pastored in Montpelier). You see, the office that I came into was, well. Dark. Stale. Plain. I believe Office Manager extraordinaire Kimberley referred to it as a ‘man cave.’

We took down the heavy drapes (using a butter knife as a screwdriver, since the rod was bolted to the wall, and I’m handy too, so there for gender stereotyping), and put up some sheer fabric. We washed the window panes, which also let in more light. I brought in plants. I lit scented candles. I arranged my books with little pieces of decor in between them. I moved the desk. I asked intentional questions of myself, like, “what’s the most inviting way to arrange this space?”

Everyone who has walked in has commented on the difference. How bright and friendly and welcoming the office suddenly is. A former pastor, over the phone with Kimberley, was moved to defend his own decor: “My office was inviting, too!” To which she replied, “No, you were inviting. Your office was too messy for people to find a chair.” Ah, poor M. But they still love you.

“Why didn’t anyone else think to put the desk there? Or make it so bright?” someone asked me. I bit my tongue and resisted the urge to reply “because they were boys.” Unfair and sexist of me, that is.

But come on, and ‘fess up to your gendered ideas. Ladies, what gifts to you think you bring as a female to your particular work? Gents, fight back! Tell about your mad decorating skillz or what other gifts you think are your particular masculine forte.

Well begun is half (hey I hope not!) done

My first worship services on Sunday went really well, especially considering how bewildered I felt for most of them! I actually think that having two churches will be an interesting challenge– it was already cool to see how the same service elements (hymns, prayers, etc) play differently for different crowds, and how the same sermon seemed to resonate in different ways. By way of just a tiny example, in Plainfield, the smaller congregation, my line about newness smelling like a mixture between grass and mud, signalling that Spring has begun drew outright chuckles, while there was dead silence ten miles down the road in Montpelier. Likewise, the folks in Plainfield were nonplussed by my statements about Obama accepting the Presidential nomination on the 45th anniversary of Rev. Dr. King’s I Have a Dream, but the congregation in Montpelier nodded and smiled in affirmation. Mini-note to self– the state-capital-dwellers like politics and the smaller-town-dwellers like earthiness. Got it.

Across the board, and in both churches, there was great excitement both for the new relationship between the congregations and I and also for the new relationship between the two congregations sharing a pastor for the first time. And folks were very welcoming of my family and me, including some extended family and friends along for the first day show!

Okay, so I know that it’s been a time since I’ve been able to upload a new sermon, and I’m working on it. I did make a (really bad, echo-filled) recording this week that I have to figure out how to upload from where it currently is– on my husband’s phone. When i can get it into an mp3 format and uploaded I’ll post it. Apologies in advance for the quality. We’re working on finding (I know I packed it somewhere!) the mp3 recorder, and a line in cable, and then we should be able to make a file directly off the sound system. I hope to have this all worked out in a couple of weeks.

In the mean time, I can almost get back to blogging. I shudder to think how many readers I’ve lost in my two weeks without any reliable internet, but I should be much better now. So tell your friends! Pastor Becca is back, and she promises to be witty, relevant, and interesting. At least one of those at least once a post.

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