Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Meeting Etiquette 101

I don't have a whole lot of patience.  With anything.  This is something I continually hope to improve, but I also accept that it is the way I am, and that there are positive things about it.  For example, I am extremely efficient at running meetings.  I like efficiency.  It means that we get done what needs to be done, do not deal with extraneous crap, and finish in a timely manner.  I run good meetings.  I like running meetings.  I do not, however, like sitting in meetings that most other people run.

Case in point, last night's meeting, in which a bunch of ministers engaged in typical minister meeting behavior, such as: speaking with a pompous affect, using a lot of Christianese so that people feel unholy when they disagree, and talking four times longer than is necessary.  Someone made an announcement about a seminar he is teaching, but none of us need to go, because we got at least 2/3 of the lecture in the announcement.  Also, I'm all about worship and all, but when we have a meeting that begins at 7pm, and the business is likely to take at least two hours, I don't really think we need to kick it off with an hour of worship.  Sing a song to gather us, pray for guidance for the meeting, and get on with it.  No one wants to be in this meeting until 10pm.  Especially when it's out in the boonies an hour from anywhere.  And the NHL Western Conference finals are happening.

End of rant.

In other, less frivolous news, my nine year-old niece is having terrible seizures, worse than she ever has, and no one appears to be able to do anything about them.  She's on a four-month waiting list to get into the Mayo Clinic, but having several seizures a day, I'm not sure she's going to make it four months.  Also, a cousin (second? third? something removed?  I have no idea) has a son with cancer and a bastard husband who has left her in the middle of it all and is trying to vacate his adoption of her son, and she also has some issues with her dog who is being "cared for" by her idiot brother and sister-in-law, who have announced that they are going to shoot the dog if she doesn't pick it up today, although her son is in surgery 4 hours away from them today.  I know all of this because it is ALL over Facebook, which makes me feel even worse for all of them.  If one of my deeply Minnesotan relatives is flashing her problems all over a public forum, you know she is seriously at the end of her rope.  Prayers for all of the above are welcome and appreciated.    

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Someday I Just Need to Write a Book About Weddings

This weekend I officiated the cutest wedding (cute in a good way, which is seldom the case).  I wasn't sure what to expect going into it; they didn't want a rehearsal, which always makes me a little nervous when it's not one of those backyard-and-bluejeans affairs.  I also didn't get to meet the couple in advance.  That is frequently the case these days, as I do a lot of last-minute weddings for people who call from the city clerk's office because the judge has cancelled or the mayor had something more important to do or they just want their wedding to feel a little more sacred than a few formal words and a document signed in an office in city hall.  This wedding was not a spontaneous deal.  The reception was a served dinner at a fairly swanky restaurant.  But I got the call just a couple of weeks before the event.  No rehearsal, no frills.  They sent me a script for the ceremony.  I said, "Your wedding is going to be about five minutes long."  They said that was perfect.  Oooooookay.  In my experience, people say that, but then when it's so short, they end up feeling like it lacked weight.  But I do a lot of weddings, and generally, I just do what the bride and groom want, as long as they don't want me to pray to some alternate god or do a tribal dance of blessing or something.

I met the bride for the first time when she stood before me at the front of the room.  She said, "Nice to meet you," and had to stop herself from shaking my hand.  I got to chat a bit with the groom, who I swear was veritably glowing.  It turns out that they wanted the ceremony short because they were both afraid they would break down and cry if it lasted too long.  He and I stood in the appointed place, waiting for the bride to come downstairs.  The rustle of a wedding dress in the hall, the music began, and just before she rounded the corner, he glanced at me and whispered, "I've been in love with her since I was fifteen."

Dude, you're going to make me cry.

Many of the ministers I know don't like doing weddings.  Both of my colleagues generally decline unless it's a church member or someone they know well.  I can understand that; sometimes weddings are a big pain in the derriere.  But I sort of love them anyway.  I love them for the strange opportunity to stand in this oddly intimate role during a huge moment in people's lives.  I love them for these weird, sudden moments when I get to see the raw hope and the deep capacity for love that people have.  I see raw a lot, but usually it's raw pain, anger, grief, emptiness, etc.  It's nice to see the other side of things from time to time, to see that joy, too, can be stripped naked and shown to the world.

It was a bad week for me personally in the relationship realm of things.  The CNR continues to become more complicated.  I can't quite manage to stay away, and yet the whole thing is eroding my trust in people's ability to be committed, honest, and loving.  It's quite the pickle.  There is an easy solution...which I am currently not taking.  I'm annoying myself.  "I do what I do not want to do, and what I want to do, I do not do..." or something.

But in the midst of my crazy life, in which nothing really seems to go right, and I am constantly encountering people and situations that make me despair of the possibility that anyone could ever really be happily partnered, I also do all these weddings.  Eighteen year-olds making a quick union before he gets deployed.  Hindus whose priest reveals after a three-day celebration that he isn't authorized to legalize marriages.  Couples who have been together well over a decade and already have children together, who have decided that it's time to "make it official."  Catholics whose priests won't marry them because they're already living together.  People who met on Myspace (remember when people actually used that?), eHarmony, and through speed-dating.  People who hooked up at a bar and just stayed together.  Weddings in creeks, parks, back yards, banquet halls, beaches, historic forts, restaurants, and yes, even churches.  Weddings with guest lists numbering in the 400s and weddings where I have to get the receptionist out of the office to be a second witness.

In almost every single one, there is that moment where you can absolutely see why these two people are making this leap together, why they have decided to share a life.  Honestly, I don't have a lot of hope for myself, but at least it's enough to give me hope for other people.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Quest Toward Self Improvement

In the interest of not being so cranky, whiny, irritable, and self-involved, I have decided that this spring/summer, I will actually be the active, outdoorsy person that I imagine myself to be.  I've been trying to do some sort of outside physical activity every day, unless it's pouring down more of the miserable rain.  I've been hiking a couple of times, started playing tennis with a friend once or twice a week, and on other days, I run/walk with my dog.

So far, this quest has forced me to face up to some hard truths.  Such as:
- I am really, really out of shape.  No, seriously.  That whole falling on my head and shoulder thing and not being able to move for a while and then just continuing to not move out of sheer inertia...not good.  I'm not a fan of wanting to die after I run a mile.
- I'm not all that coordinated.  Or rather, I don't trust my body as much as I once did, and caution tends to make me a little jerky and hesitant.  It's annoying.  In high school I was never a great athlete, but I played multiple sports and thought nothing of scaling rock cliff faces.  Not so much, anymore.
- My dog is aging.  Gone are the days when she could run for hours and be fairly unaffected.  Forget about my mile exhaustion, that's also about the point when she just lies down in someone's yard and looks at me like I'm nuts to move another step.  This is not conducive to my running improvement.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that I do indeed feel better about life when I'm active and getting some fresh air and sunshine.  And I'll definitely feel better about life when I can actually walk around Europe this summer without getting exhausted and feeling like a fat, lazy American.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Last night I went to see "Hair," and it was fantastic.  Seriously.  I'm often a little disappointed in the casts of the touring shows that come to my local theater; for "Rent," for example, aside from the two male leads, they had clearly sent out the B team.  Not so for "Hair."  This cast is amazing - so much energy, so much crowd interaction, so much emotion, such great voices.  It's a completely crazy musical, with very little plot, but that's part of the point.

I ran into someone I knew there, who noted that there isn't really a musical for this decade the way this one represented the 60's, or "Rent" the 90s.  I found myself wondering what sort of ethos would be captured in a musical about the last ten years.  We've been at war through this entire decade, but I don't sense that it has touched most of us in anything approaching the same way that the Vietnam war affected that generation.  Personally, I feel distant and uninvolved most of the time, and I don't think I'm alone in that.  Maybe that's why there isn't a musical for the 2000s: it would be fairly difficult to portray apathy in a compelling way.

Hello, cynical.  Maybe I just feel this way because I did relate so strongly to "Rent," because I was so pulled in by "Hair" even though I didn't relate.  There is something in the struggle in both of those musicals that makes me wonder, what is the struggle now?  What is the identity that young people are trying to forge for themselves in this time?  How are teens and 20-somethings differentiating themselves from the norms of society now?

I work with teens and 20-somethings a lot, and am not all that far past that bracket myself, so I could name some broad themes.  But one of the things that I see in society right now is that societal norms themselves have been/are being dismantled.  Transience is expected - not just geographically, but also in terms of social groups, schooling, career, living situation, relationships, even morality.  I generally look at the lack of strict boundaries as a good thing, but I also see the uncertainty it can create, the way it presents so many potential paths that it becomes hard to make any decisions at all.

I remember when I returned from living in Ukraine for a few months in 1997.  I had gotten used to shopping in the tiny markets where, if you wanted peanut butter, there was one kind.  If you wanted bread, you might be able to choose between white and rye.  If you wanted milk, it was there on the counter (yes, counter...I didn't drink a lot of milk there), and there was no such thing as skim or 2%, let alone soy or flavored.  When I came back to the U.S., it took months before I could step into a grocery store without going into complete overstimulation mode.  There were just so many choices!  I no longer felt equipped to decide between 200 breakfast cereals.  It was too much.

In some ways my career - this crazy ministry vocation - has made life easier on me than some.  My path, at least in that area, is relatively stable and directed.  But I wonder sometimes if life for many of the people I encounter feels a little like a grocery store did when I came back from Ukraine, when even one section presents an overwhelming number of options, and the whole store just feels like a maze they have no idea how to get through.  It's not an easy world we live in these days.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mental Health Morning

This morning I was up at o'dark thirty to attend a meeting about community mental health issues.  I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert in this area, but my work with local service agencies and the low-income population tells me that we have a) a high proportion of people with mental health problems, and b) significant gaps in access to mental health services.  So, today we got a variety of providers, government officials, prisoner reentry workers, and assorted other interested parties in the same room and talking about the problems and how we might improve the system.

I didn't really have anything to say, frankly.  But I did learn a lot about how things work (or don't) from different angles.  The prison people say that every prisoner with mental health problems is released with an appointment, scripts for necessary medications, and either Medicaid or a temporary card to pay for the medications.  The free clinic people say they get calls all the time about released prisoners who have no scripts, or they have their scripts but have no money/Medicaid/temporary card.  Somewhere in there, something is going awry.  And then there is children's mental health.  One woman, who works with infants and toddlers (!) says that they checked several four year olds into in-patient mental health facilities this year.  FOUR YEAR OLDS.  What in the world are we doing to our children to traumatize them so much that they need in-patient mental health services at FOUR???  We didn't even mention adolescents today, which is in my mind a huge community issue, as we've had strings of teen suicides and violence.

The fact is that I have no idea how to reform the whole mental health system to serve everyone effectively.  Much like health care as a whole, it's an intricate web of needs and provisions, pathways and obstacles, problems that the system itself has created in an attempt to help, and of course, cracks through which people are constantly falling.  I think single-payer health care would help a lot of these problems, but it would almost certainly create others.

One of the things that struck me about this meeting is that I was the only representative from a faith community.  I only knew about the meeting because one of my parishioners thought I might be interested.  Faith communities are not seen as stakeholders in the mental health situation in our city.  We're not seen as a potential resource, or even as interested parties.  That has held true in nearly every gathering around community problems/improvements that I have heard of or attended in my three plus years here.  My church has gotten a reputation for being more involved than most, and it's part of my job to be present at this sort of thing, but I still get strange looks when I introduce myself, as if people are wondering why a minister would care, or why a church would be interested.  Often the assumption is that we have an ulterior motive; perhaps I'm trying to infiltrate the mental health field so that I can brainwash needy people into coming to my church?

It saddens me to realize that the church is so often seen as either apathetic or self-centered.  It's strange to spend so much of my time explaining to people that we are not trying to proselytize, recruit, convert, or take over (although we are happy to share some good news and will welcome anyone who happens to want to stop by on Sunday).  We just want to help.  We live here too, and we happen to have a lot of people and resources that could be mobilized.  But to do that, we have to overcome a lot of distrust and suspicion - and sometimes the simple assumption that we won't care.  Because too often the church has not even known about the released prisoner trying to reorient to society, or the teenager taking out depression through gang activity, or the four year old so traumatized that hospitalization is necessary.

I really want to make a series of snarky comments right now about being too busy worrying about where the flowers go on Sunday morning and other such crucial things, but it's almost too easy.  It's just a real pity that we've made it so easy for those who deal with some of the deepest and most complicated problems in our society to completely forget about our existence.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Yesterday, which is normally my day off, was spent at church meetings.  For some reason, this made me completely, unreasonably irritable.  Never mind that it was probably the normal day off for half the people in the room, or that others had likely taken vacation time from work to be there.  I was just annoyed.  EVERYTHING was getting to me.  They were praying too long, singing too much, saying stupid things.  One person who I normally like perfectly well was just smiling. So. Doggone. Much.  How dare people smile so much at a meeting.  Anyway, I was irritable, and it made me do things like yell at a friend while he was giving his report, and then realizing that I had been shouting at him made me even crabbier.

Today I am still irritable, but less in a bite-someone's-head-off sort of way and more in a dissatisfied way.  Even Pandora is ticking me off.  It seems to have no idea what I want to listen to today, and that is never the case.  I want to have profound thoughts about the death of Osama bin Laden and the warped idea of justice that makes people celebrate it with veritable glee, but I can't quite get over my own annoyance enough to reflect meaningfully.  If ever there was a day in which I should just go home and start over tomorrow, this is it.  In fact, that is what I'm going to do.  I'm going to take my cranky, self-absorbed, and irksome self home.  I'm going to curl up on my couch and mope and make notes for Sunday's sermon that I can use later this week without importing my current crappy mood.  And I'm going to have a burrito.  How's that for stream of consciousness?