Friday, June 10, 2011

Harried and Horsewhipped

Whose idea was it for me to spend a week at our annual denominational assembly and then immediately take a group of church people to another country the day after I get back?  Whoever it was is completely disturbed.

Seriously, it wasn't me.  A lot of things that have always happened the same week of every year shifted this year.  I planned the church trip thinking I'd have a week between my travels.  Not so!  So, I am trying to read the workbook for our assembly, and prepare the two reports I have to give while I'm there, and also get together my folder of travel documents and make last-minute arrangements for our group in Scotland.  Did I mention I also have two weddings this weekend and am preaching on Sunday morning?  Yes, folks, this week is a fun one.

So why am I wasting time blogging, you ask?  Avoidance and procrastination, plain and simple.  I'm going to go write a sermon now.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

I've been reduced from actual writing to lists

Yesterday I:
- wrote about half of a sermon
- ran three miles in steel-melting heat
- interviewed a candidate for a new position at church
- wrote employment offer letters to approved candidates
- visited two patients in two different hospitals
- had the weekly meeting with my ministerial colleagues
- sorted out a wedding crisis
- made arrangements to cover some of my programs while I'm jaunting around Europe
- helped lead a class on the Bible and homosexuality
- watched game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals
- got irritated at Luongo's tendency to freeze, Vigneault's tendency to keep him in the net too long, and the Canucks' tendency to play a game or two of each playoff series as though they are peewees
- spent some time on the Vortex patio with my peeps
- did laundry
- helped a friend respond to the bat that flew out of her closet at 3am.

Yesterday I did not:
- wash any of the stack of dishes that is taking over the kitchen
- put away the pile of clothes that keeps eating more of my bedroom floor
- go home at a responsible time
- write a wedding sermon
- realize that I have only one wedding this weekend, not two
- get enough sleep.

I am tired.  That is all.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How to Say the Right Thing

A young man from my former congregation is in the hospital with some unidentified but critical condition that is shutting down his organs in rapid progression.  He was the twelve year-old who sat next to me at dinner during my interview and was thrilled that I remembered his name.  He was the eighth-grader in my first confirmation class, laughing so hard around my dining room table that we spit out our popcorn.  He was the teenager who mowed my lawn and adored my dog and moaned about school.  He's the kid who kept in touch after I left, who chats with me on Facebook, who I stop by to see when I notice that he's working when I drive past his job.  Now he's a nineteen year-old in a hospital bed with clammy, blueish skin, tubes running everywhere, his chest still cracked open under the blankets.  They don't know what's causing all of this.  They don't know if they can do anything.  His parents are, understandably, a wreck.  I'm not doing so hot either.

It is in times like this that I realize that I do not say the things that pastors are supposed to say.  I'm not even entirely sure what they are, but I feel like I should be saying comforting things about faith and how God will make it all turn out alright and so on.  But I can't.  I have no idea if God will make it turn out alright.  He might die, and it will not be alright for them if that happens.  He may come out of this but have severe brain damage or other problems, and that won't really be alright either.  Maybe in some greater cosmic sense it will be alright, and one way or another they will get through whatever it turns out to be, but I can't look them in the eye and in good conscience tell them that things will be anything approximating fine.  All I can say with confidence is that God is somewhere in this, deeply loving all of them.  But even that falls pretty flat when you're looking at your kid and the doctors are telling you he might not make it.

I'm probably supposed to be able to say something else about all of this, but I haven't figured out what that is yet.  I might be a bad pastor because I don't know what that is.  I don't know, I seem to do better with kids and non-church people.  Kids don't have expectations about what a pastor should say, so they just respond to people being real with them.  Non-church people often aren't big fans of the typical platitudes anyway, so my lack of answers works for some of them.  But this pastoral care for church people thing, man, I don't know.  Not really my gift.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Never Never Land

It's been a long time since I watched "Peter Pan," but I seem to remember that, in the end, Wendy goes home, grows up, and has children of her own, while Peter remains eternally carefree and youthful.  I've been thinking about this story today, as it occurred to me last night that I've been paying some visits to Never Never Land as of late.

I recently became acquainted with some guys who basically opened a bar because they wanted somewhere they and their friends could hang out and drink whenever they wanted.  This is the dream of any number of men that I know (hell, it's not like I haven't considered it myself), but it's one of those things that you pretty much know is not really going to work.  But that's because most guys with this kind of dream don't actually know how to run a bar.  These guys do, at least for a certain segment of the population.  The important games are always on, but the sound isn't.  The music is always good, and there is no juke box, so you never have to hear annoying pop or hip hop.  If you request a song in one of these genres, they'll happily tell you that one of the other hundred bars in town might be a more fitting place for you to hang out.  If you request a song at all, the answer is no.  The decor is dark and simple.  The food is fantastic.  The beer selection is not fancy but it covers a wide enough range to keep people happy.  They even have good wine, which is pretty rare for a "guy bar."  If you're a regular, there are all kinds of benefits, but we'll get back to that.

Anyway, their plan worked.  Maybe too well, since now the place is usually crowded and the guys actually have to work.  I get the idea that they don't mind too much, though, since they're all making money, and they all seem to show up even when they're not working.  It's impossible most of the time to tell who is working, since the workers are drinking and the drinkers are working.  Which brings us to Never Never Land.  Half the time the ones who aren't working have told their wives/girlfriends that they are, so I guess it's more legit if they carry some dishes to the kitchen from time to time, but mostly they're just meandering around, entertaining themselves and everyone else.  They shoot hoops on the patio and smoke like chimneys and go through untold bottles of Irish whiskey.  They have entirely too much fun, and so do people like me, who have been adopted into the crazy little clan that eerily resembles the Lost Boys.

Regular visitors to Never Never Land - the ones they like, anyway - are treated basically like employees without duties (although I've been known to clear dirty dishes to the kitchen, bring back order slips, and answer the phone).  If they have a closing time, it doesn't apply.  As it has gotten warmer, we've been slipping through the kitchen to congregate on the patio that isn't yet open to the public.  My tab seldom reflects anything resembling what I've consumed.  Last night, long after the kitchen was closed, I was lounging on the patio in the breeze, away from the sweaty crowd inside, eating some kind of amazing chicken and prosciutto sandwich that had appeared unexpectedly, although there's nothing with prosciutto on their menu.  You get the idea.  

I love my Never Never Land, and my Lost Boys.  They look out for me, which is an important quality.  I found them at a time when I needed a new space and a new group, and oddly enough, when I needed to regain hope that men could be decent human beings.  I say oddly because these are in some ways the least responsible (and occasionally least decent) people in my regular acquaintance.  They treat each other and me and other various people in the circle really well; they also routinely lie to and often cheat on their girlfriends and wives.  If I ever dated or married one of them, I think I'd have to kill him.  In hindsight, I often wonder if I should have been appalled by something they've done or said.  But as friends, they are just so very fun.

I feel a little Wendy-ish when I'm with them.  I'm the one with the other job, the other life, the responsibilities.  I have to go away and grow up at the end of every evening I spend there.  But for a little while, it's nice to be in denial.  I suspect that at some point, I may have to grow up so much that, like Wendy, I can't get back to Never Never Land.  I don't think most of them ever will.  There is something mildly disturbing in that that I think is tied to gender expectations; it's okay for men to keep being boys and having fun, but girls need to grow and be settled down women.  I don't really want to settle down right now, and I don't really want to settle down that much, ever, but I'm not going to move into Never Never Land, either.  I kind of like visiting both worlds.  And if the time ever comes when I can't go back, I hope some of my Peter Pans will remember to come visit me.      

To a Friend on Her Ordination

Dear Friend,

Today I received the invitation to your ordination in the mail.  I will be there, of course, celebrating with you at long last.  That will not be a day for the grief to creep in and mix with the joy.  Nonetheless, sadness and anger temper my happiness at seeing that invitation in the mail.  It is a good grief, a necessary grief, an earned grief, and needs to find expression somewhere.  Not on the day of your ordination.  And so it finds its voice here.

When we met, you were only a year behind me in seminary, and it was easy for me to believe that your path to ordination would be no harder than mine.  I am now certain that you knew better, although no one would have known it then.  You were the most unabashedly positive person I knew about ministry, the most energetic, and one of the most gifted.  No one seemed to want you, so you took a tiny church no one wanted, and loved them and let them love you.  It's still a pretty small church, but not nearly as small as it was then.  While I've moved between three positions, you've stuck it out with them.  Occasionally I've visited, and we've pounded the pavement, stapling up posters advertising your next pet blessing or Easter service, and I've been reminded that although I work hard, you work harder.  My youth group has painted your church and fallen in love with you and the community you've created, and returned to ask their elders why we, who have so much more, don't run a soup kitchen and food pantry and 12-step ministry the way you do.  They all want to move to Brooklyn, and I blame that on you.

In the meantime, you also fell in love, and got married.  As a consequence, I found myself standing with you and your family in front of our denominational assembly as they stripped your father, a lifelong servant of the church, of his credentials - almost as though they had never existed at all, as though he had not led their seminary or taught their pastors.  Of course, after that, they weren't going to really acknowledge that you existed either.  So they kept you in the church no one wanted but refused to ordain you, to support you or make you official.  And still you held on and hoped, even when those who opposed you were most cruel and those who claimed to support you were most apathetic.

By the way, if this is what we mean when we promise to love, support, and encourage those we baptize, I'm surprised more people don't opt out.

I can't give you this letter.  Not yet, anyway, not when you are being ordained in a week.  Maybe sometime later, because I want you to know how very happy I am that you are finally able to take this step.  But I also want you to know how angry I am that you can't do it within the church family that you have always loved so well, even while they spit all over you.  We have been blessed to have you ministering in one of our churches, and would have been even more so to count you among our clergy.  Our loss is the UCC's gain.