Tuesday, April 29, 2014

GROWTH

The weeks following Easter may be seen as a letdown, much as the time following any anticipated event. It is not quite spring here in New Mexico. The leaves are beginning to bud, though many will not for some time. It is time to water that brown foliage, though one wonders why.

Leading to Easter, church preaching was anticipatory - bringing us out of winter darkness to a dawning light reminding us of church history, when early Christians were emerging from Roman domination. All seemed possible up to that Good Friday afternoon.

After Easter morning, mere days later, we are told, the followers of Jesus were fearful of their lives and hid out together. Some went to the streets to tell the story of Jesus, but not all did.

For me, preparing sermons now focuses on the Spirit that is to come on Pentecost, the official birthday of the church. Truth be told, I want the Spirit now, right now. I want my sermons to be uplifting, encouraging and challenging for those who get up early to attend worship. I want them to leave church feeling that something has touched their lives that is so meaningful they must tell all of their friends.

I recently read a blog by a young preacher (published in the Christian Century) who had a message to give, but seemed to her that her method was not effective. A preaching class opened a way for her to have sermons make a difference. As she read scripture appointed for the coming Sunday, she looked for the unease, the challenge and focused on that - and her sermons were not only meaningful for her, but her congregation engaged in her passion. Her preaching blossomed with this approach.

In my own preaching, I try to tell the story of the scripture and then relate it to our 21st Century lives. Seems as though with the coming of the new growing season, a change is in order. This season, I plan to search for my own passion in the gospel and follow this young preacher’s method of conveying the message that makes me passionate. Perhaps the new of way of tending the preaching garden (watering and nurturing) will offer my congregation a new source of inspiration.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Preching Lent

I rather like the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) approach to preaching. Each week, the preacher in quite a few denominations preaches from the same texts so that our folk all leave church having heard a common message. Well that is, until I decided to peach on Mark the whole of Lent, basing sermons on the book by Borg and Crossan, The Last Week.

I had read the book before so knew what to expect. I wanted to preach Holy Week to my protestant congregation and look closely at Jesus’s life. My congregation has graciously gone along with this odd sequence, celebrating Palm Sunday when we should have been thinking about Jesus going into the desert to be tempted (Matthew 4:1-11).

We talked about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday weeks before they were actually on the calendar. Now, however, we come to Easter. the same Easter that the world shares, though I will preach Mark 16:1-8, rather than Matthew 28:1-10. It may seem odd to be in sync with the world of Christian thought after so many weeks to being different. Mark like Matthew provides insights into the Easter story: The resurrection of Jesus.

Looking at my preaching style reveals more about what is said during my sermons than the scripture or the RCL offerings. I am a progressive preacher so preaching and teaching from this was a delight. Until I got to Good Friday, when the Roman Catholic girl in me rebelled. I could not preach about Jesus’s death from the Borg and Crossan point of view.

This year, I preached my sixth Lenten sermon, Good Friday, the Sunday before Easter. I preached about what I think the cross means and how it affects my life (all in 12 minutes). I am glad that I did. Glad that my childhood religion would not allow me to preach Mark as though the story is only about how low to the ground the cross uprights were so no remains were left for burial. I am thankful to have the knowledge; happy to be an “enlightened” person who knows the story of what happened that day is mostly not reliable. In the long run, though I was thrilled to show that to me, the cross does mean something.

A friend of mine tried (unsuccessfully) for several years to come up with a symbol for Christianity that is not about the cross but about the empty tomb. The tomb may be more appropriate though the symbol of the cross stands as a testament to millions of believers who could only know what they learned from their priests. The cross works. And the sermon that I gave on Sunday worked. And I felt good. And progressive. At the same time.

This Sunday, Easter, we ponder the meaning of the empty tomb for our own lives. Fairly traditional, and yet maybe not.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Keeping Updated

This morning I installed a new printer in our church office. Well, almost. It is on the printer table, plugged in, the CD is in the computer slot and the program automatically whirled and twirled through software, keeping me informed of progress each time I saw a new icon on the computer. 

The program whirled and twirled for several minutes. Until it got to “do I have a cable connection or am I planning to use wireless.” Wireless, say I. Bad choice because through most of the remainder of the words were written in English, I had no way to decipher meanings. So, the printer can be used to print, but not to talk with a computer to print remotely. Since I have limited time, I will have to call an expert.

At the same time that I was installing the printer, the PC software requested permission to update. Permission granted, and I sat through that automatic whirling and twirling  process. Thankfully, nothing was required of me except to check “I agree” one or two times.

These systems rely on passwords for changes. I hate passwords. Every company and every site has a minimum/maximum number of characters. Some sites want a PIN that has only 8 letters, starting with a capital. Others want PINS that have symbols, capitals, lower case and at least one upper case letter. Everyone wants my PIN to be unique and not easily detectable.

To remain current in the password world, I decided to have a random number generated for each of the financial sites I have. I started with my PayPal account. I had the computer generate a random number to act as my new PIN. The new one was to have sixteen characters and make no earthly sense. If done correctly, the new pin would have characters, including letters that are uppercase and lower case plus some digits and a *, &, ^, or @. I copied and pasted the number from the random number generator to the PayPal account and then put it in my secret place where passwords reside but don't mingle. 

Then I decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, I could not access the site even when I copied and pasted. I was worried. Cannot access the PayPal site? A problem that can be solved by not using PayPal. On the other hand, suppose I had changed each of my secure account numbers and could not access any of my accounts. I would be both furious and worried about the changes that could be made to my accounts when I was unable to log on. Luckily I saw the “forget your password” prompt and was able to log in through that system. IF, however, I could not ever access my accounts online, the threat would be minimized. So would my purchasing power.

Though I was not feeling confident I decided to update my status on FaceBook, where I wanted to add “in a relationship.” I rarely change my Facebook page: I add friends when asked to do so and write my daily status when I have time. But I am not changing careers or homes or degrees or much else, so I went boldly forward, looking to go from "single" to “in a relationship.” In the long run, it was not difficult. I just did not quite know that I had to type and not use the convenient drop down menu to show change in status. I am not naming my relationship online, so I don’t need his permission through piracy settings. I just wanted my friends to know that I stopped working long enough to meet the most wonderful man. I finally found what to do, and they now know. There was no whirling and twirling. Just a click and done. Easy enough.

Oh, and that PayPal PIN? I went back to my tried and true nine upper and lower case letter and number combination that I had before. I love it!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

SOME DAYS ARE DIAMONDS, SOME DAYS ARE STONE

When I woke yesterday morning, it seemed like a pretty normal day ahead. Do a bit of reading, get ready for a 10:30 brunch, meet with a woman for spiritual direction, then run across town for a blood test. All normal. All predictable.

Until, that is, at the stoplight. When the young man behind me took his foot off the brake of his car, started going forward and crashed into my Mini Cooper. He crashed hard enough to push me forward into the truck in front of me. Two trucks, one Mini Cooper, disaster for my car. The interesting thing is that when I was deciding whether to go straight through the intersection or turn left, I opted for straight. Had I chosen to go left, someone else would have been crushed between the two trucks.

After the crash and my subsequent push forward, the driver of the truck behind me only wanted me to move out of the way - get out of traffic. I only wanted to take pictures with my iPhone. So, I did take my pictures, then we did move out of the way. Interesting that the driver was so insistent that we move that I never learned his name. Just his company’s name, the truck number and insurer. Got that for both drivers. Everyone wants to know the names of the drivers but as long as the police know, I am not worried.

Beginning of a day - an inconvenience that seems to take the ordinary out of my day and place it in the “problem” category. This is such a small matter that I wonder why I give it more than passing thought, especially as I reflect on others and the way some of their ordinary days turn out. For instance:

One member of my congregation, for instance, lost her grown daughter through a careless act on the daughter’s part. In one minute, my congregation member went from mother to mother-of-a-dead-child. In just a couple of minutes, she also became a member of a group known as “grandparents parenting grandchildren.” Nothing will ever be the same for this family, nor will they have the option of saying “if only I had turned left instead of going straight.” Life has been a challenge for this family since that day last fall when their beloved daughter died, leaving two beautiful girls, her parents and a doting aunt behind.

Another member of my congregation went to a routine mammogram appointment. Even as she arrived home after the photos were taken, the phone was ringing. “Please come back tomorrow for another mammogram, while you are here, make an appointment with a surgeon who is also an oncologist.” Imagine what it would be like - going to bed that night with so many unanswered questions that sleep eludes.

I could go on and on. One story after the other when a bright day turned out to be a black day. When all feelings of sanity turned to confusion, upside-downness and despair.

I wish I could say that all I thought when my day turned was “Thanks, God, that the accident was not worse.” I cannot even say that I thought much about God. I wish I could say that my faith gets me through all the days that get crazy. Actually, it is mostly when good things happen to me that I am reminded to thank God. In my moment of honesty, I realize that I try to get along without much connection with God. I rely mostly on myself for strength and healing and hope. Of course, it is God giving strength and healing and hope all the time.

Those two congregation members? I cannot say whether or not they thought of God right away, I do know that they did remember to think of and thank God. Thank God for the two beautiful granddaughters. Thank God that the cancer was caught in time. Thank God for good days and strength on the hard days. Perhaps that is the best we can do.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Relevancy

Yesterday a friend from seminary posted a Facebook photo of her in Rome - in the presence of the Pope wearing her clerical collar. I don’t own a clerical collar, though I am no less clergy than she. Her photo reminded me recent experiences and connections with Roman Catholics.

Over these past weeks, I have been reflecting on my relationship - more non-relationship - with the church of Rome. I started out in a mixed family - mother Lutheran, father Roman Catholic. My brothers and I went to mass each Sunday, though rarely with my parents since my father did not attend mass and my mother would go to Protestant service in one of the chapels on the army posts where we lived. Still, I went to mass. Even as I aged, though I often had questions about my theology and that of the church, I attended each week. I was not sophisticated enough to realize I was thinking theologically about these issues, though my brain continued to seek answers.

At seven, several things happened. I saw that priests were able to serve communion and much as I wanted to do that, was told that only men could be priests. I wondered how it could be that girls were not permitted this awesome thing. That same year I learned that the church thought my mother would go to hell because she was not Roman Catholic and I knew that was wrong - my mother was my mother and I loved her and, in my view, just because some pope said she was damned to hell did not mean she was. Still in my seventh year, we learned about the Trinity in school or Catechism. I asked a nun to explain it to me more than was what said in class and she told me that I could never understand the Trinity. I thought about this God in three persons and came up with a vision in my head of what they were talking about and proceeded to discount what the nun had said. I did understand the Trinity. Years later, when I had stopped believing in a Trinity, I learned that others had questioned the exact nature of the Trinity and, after trials, had been found guilty of heresy.

All this is to say that I think that the church of Rome has missed the boat too many times. Good for Pope Francis to recognize the alienation many of the church feel. At my age and stage of life, I could be the little girl grown into a woman still believing what the Pope and the sages said. I found that by leaving a stagnant church, I could find answers that satisfied me and gave me a belief system upon which to base my faith.

As a church pastor (who is filled with reverence and awe when I offer communion as I officiate at any worship service), I strive to remember the lessons that little girl learned so many years ago: churches need Radical Welcome and faith must keep step with the times. The faith does not necessarily need watering down it just needs to reflect our evolving thoughts. As church membership declines, I lament that churches are not keeping up with the times despite the lessons we should have learned from Rome.

Some say my cohort may be the last of the pastors, that church may no longer exist or pastors may not be needed to lead the seekers, the Spiritual But Not Religious or the NONES. Imagine:
      a world where we had lost the next generation of church; or
      a world were we had lost pastors who carry the underpinnings of theological thought and only those generalists in universities would teach the "dead subject" of religion;  or
      a world where we no longer had faith.

Some say the church is extraneous. Others say it is boring. Still others say not current. I say: Church, we have a long way to go. We need our own Pope Francis to take us forward into relevancy. With God's help, we will take the necessary steps toward revitalization.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tuesday Thoughts, revisited

When I started this blog in 2008 I was convinced that blogging every Tuesday morning would be so easy. Just sit down, write a bit, then (at that time) figure out how to get it to the blogger site.. Since then I have learned how to get the blog published and have found out that writing something of substance each week is more difficult that I had imagined. Over these years, I have committed and recommitted to writing. So I am today. Tuesday mornings first thing on my “to do” list: blog.

Looking back over the past week my life has been full - trying to see how to prepare for a sabbatical that begins in mid-July; leading a course on Wednesday evenings, preparing a sermon that I hope engages as well as inspires my congregation and any visitors who join us. I could write about those though they are not upper most in my mind today, Today, I want to write about current theology.

Bi-weekly, I receive the hard copy of my subscription to Christian Century and, depending on my unscheduled time, I read it with varying degrees of thoroughness. Several issues ago, there was an article “Theologians in Place.” I was intrigued and interested in an effort by some congregations to keep pace with the changing scene in theology. I have been aware that the rapid advancement in knowledge should also include our theological knowledge. I do try to keep up. I would love to have a Theologian in Place, but in our small congregation that is not possible right now. As we grow I will see who might have an abiding interest in our changing theological world and taking this on.

The impractical side of having our own Theologian in Place could stop us in our tracks or it could challenge us to find other ways to make this happen. Here is one idea I am implementing: One Sunday each month those of us interested in exploring these changes meet with my stack of recent Christian Century issues. We skim through and pick out articles that pique our interest.

Our first meeting was last Sunday after worship and coffee time. Five of us gathered in an empty church room with our coffee still in hand (I also had a bagel since I am usually talking to congregation members during social time) and leafed through one of five issues I had with me. Any topic was fair game. Here is what emerged: a cartoon of a football team in a huddle. Team members say to the one gay player - “Since you came out no one wants to touch you. We are giving you the ball.” Topic brought up by a gay man; we all laughed. We also looked at how to do worship in different ways and Is organized religion on the way out as more and more people say they do not attend any church?

We talked for 45 minutes then agreed to meet the third Sunday of April to again see what items might interest us. Time went by fast. The Holy Spirit was in the room. We left enriched and more knowledgeable. In the United Church of Christ, questioning is part of our core. I may not have one Theologian in Place. I hope I four or more others.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Writing and reading

Social media becomes all consuming if given its head. I noticed that yesterday morning when I decided to look at Facebook. Before I really realized it two hours had flown by and I had read posts of many friends, posted a few comments myself, shared one or two sayings that were worthwhile (did you see Stephen Colbert on the Coke ad from Sunday's Superbowl?) and made a movie. Later I had to return to see movies of friends.

I want to be good at social media. I really want to. Mostly because I have been told that good social media habits lead to church growth. And we are all about growth. Growth in numbers. The Spirit is already in our church. I am told that when people attend they have a different feeling than they do at other churches they visit. They feel God. They take feeling with them for the rest of the week. WOW. Wish I could bottle these feelings or at least get the message into social media.

That is why when I post a blog, I let my FB friends know. Pass the word along: "God is active at St, Paul's UCC in Rio Rancho."

For several weeks it has not only been about writing, but about reading. As a church we just finished reading and discussing Zealot the best seller by Raza Alslam that receives such diverse comments as: "don't bother with this" to "this is an important work." We had to read it just to see which camp we fall into (not that much new for me). Then, our Women's Book Group is are reading The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong's reflection about her loss of God and faith. I am about three-quarters of the way through so I don't know what her "found" image of God is though the book group does not meet until Sunday so I have time to finish. Since I have read other of her works, I know that God is not wholly banished from her life. Next week, we begin When Jesus Became God Rubenstein's historical account of the battle to establish Jesus' divinity. Cannot begin this book until Sunday after Armstrong. Then, just in case readers want a break, we offer the concluding half of Crossan's The Challenge of Jesus throughout Lent.

There are amazing opportunities at this unabashedly progressive church in Rio Rancho. If you get to the area, be sure to visit. The Spirit will enrich your lives the whole week after! :)