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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Ed.'s Note: Pastor Dan is off making some home visits this Thursday. His dog Patch is filling in for him for the week. Here he gives a dog's-eye view of the past week, including Dan and Jen’s recent trip to Wisconsin.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like to play.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like to go on long car rides. Especially when I can sit on Mommy or Daddy’s lap.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like to give Mommy kisses when she's driving. Daddy thinks this is "unsafe." Do you think it’s unsafe? Do you know what unsafe means? I don't.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like to sniff at the pet exercise areas on the turnpike. I like to sniff and sniff, and sometimes I like to run and run and run. Then I sniff some more. Sometimes I do other things, but the bad old editor says this is a "family column," and he won’t let me talk about them. Do you like "family columns?" Do you? Do you like doing other things? I knew you would.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like how Gary, Indiana, smells. I like rendered meats and petrochemicals.

Hi. My name is Patch. I think rush hour in Chicago stinks.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like new places. I liked Grandpa Phil's house. I liked the lady who gave me pets, and I liked the blond-haired girl who let me sleep in her bed and I even liked that one boy who I followed around. I did not like the other dog at Grandpa Phil's. He tried to give me humpies.

Hi. My name is Patch. I don't like humpies. Do you like humpies?

Hi. My name is Patch. I like my Mommy and Daddy. I was very sad when they went away. Why did they go away? I waited by the door for them for hours and hours, until my Grandpa Phil came home. But they never came back. I missed them so much.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like my Grandpa Phil. He gives me food to eat, and lets me sleep in his lap. He’s a good alpha dog. I don’t quite remember who my alpha dog was before Grandpa Phil, but I don't think they gave me nearly enough food or love. Grandpa Phil gives me lots of food and love.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like running around in the grass. I like running. It isn't nearly so much fun when you run into the garage door, though. Bad garage door, bad!

Hi. My name is Patch. I like being with people. I don't like it when they lock me up in my crate. Grandpa Phil and the lady who gave me pets said they had to go to a "wedding," just like Mommy and Daddy. What’s a wedding? That Joey said he had to go to a Homecoming. What's a Homecoming? And the blond-haired girl said she had to go work. I know what work is. That's what Mommy and Daddy go to in the morning. When they come home at night, they complain about it all night long. Bitch, bitch, bitch, Daddy says. I look and I look, and I can't find any female dogs around, so I'’m not really sure what he means. Sometimes I go to work with him, and I think it's all right. There's a place under the desk to sleep, and little bowls of water to drink. And sometimes we go out in the back yard where Daddy works and make...[Ed.'s note: I told you, this is a family column!] I like work.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like it when people come home. First Grandpa Phil and the lady who gave me pets came home, and then that Joey came home, and he let me sleep in his bed. Then the next day my Mommy and Daddy came home! I like Mommy and Daddy! Well, I like Mommy, anyway. I’m not sure if Daddy or Grandpa Phil come after Mommy in the pack order, so I'll stay away from Daddy for a while. Mommy and Daddy said they had fun at the "wedding," but they looked really tired. They must have been thirsty, too, because they drank a lot of water. Then they left again, to have dinner without me. But I didn't mind, because I got to stay and sit on Grandpa Phil's lap some more. Grandpa Phil said he was sick, but I didn't seem him throw up once. He even smiled when a "football game" came on. Do you like "football games"?

Hi. My name is Patch. I like car rides. I get to sleep in the back seat, and the car goes rrrrrrrrrrrr-rrr-rrr-rrrrrrrrrrr.. It makes me very sleepy.

Hi. My name is Patch. I think traffic in Chicago sucks, even when you take the long way around.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like how Hammond, Indiana smells.

Hi. My name is Patch. I like having picnics in Ohio. There's always so much to sniff in Ohio. I like the treats that Mommy drops when she thinks Daddy's not looking. I like having nice, soft grass to make...[Ed.'s note: Look, I’m not going to tell you again...]

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The boys: Watson on the left, Rusty on the right.
Posted by Hello

Our House-Summer 2004
Posted by Hello

Relief Kits-Christmas 2004 (We made these for the Mennonite Central Committee in lieu of Christmas presents this year)

Posted by Hello

Golden Gate Bridge-October 2004
Posted by Hello

Alcatraz-October 2004
Posted by Hello

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Below, you'll find the Statement on Ministry that I have to write every time I update my Pastoral Profile, say, when I'm getting ready to look for a new job. Helpful suggestions welcome. Feedback, anyone?


P.S.: Draw your own conclusions about what it means that I'm setting this out there now.

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus"
(Phil. 2:5)

The life of the mind has been quite important in my personal journey. I started out wanting to be a poet and a novelist, and after college became intent on earning a Ph.D. in cultural studies or theology. I've studied everything from Chinese to English literature to American history, ethics and the history of thought, without ever finding a single academic discipline that I could call home. My wife laughs at my ability to trace the intellectual roots of Christian fundamentalism to the reaction to 19th century post-Kantian thought--and still forget to bring home a gallon of milk. My professors tell me that there is no such thing as "too much education," but I have my doubts.

More accurately, I have learned two things from congregational ministry: first, that education is about more than achieving academic excellence. It's about growing and opening oneself to the transformative grace of God. This realization has made me less prone to wander, and has led me to focus on writing more as a form of spiritual discipline than academic achievement.

Second and perhaps more important, I've realized that teaching and learning happen in all kinds of places, not just behind classroom walls. For most people, learning about our faith comes through practice, not necessarily through instruction. Much to the chagrin of many pastors--including this one--Christian education takes place at least as much at potluck suppers and hymn sings as it does in the most well-crafted sermon.

So just because I've been blessed with academic talent doesn't necessarily mean that the academy is where I'm called to put those blessings to use, or that that talent isn't useful in the church. I teach in virtually every aspect of my ministry: in preaching, leading Bible study or confirmation class, in working with church leaders or the congregation as a whole as it works through the developmental tasks of the interim period, and in the writing I do in or outside the church. Less obviously, I teach as I provide pastoral care, lead worship, or even just as I talk to a parishioner or one of the church children. All Christians do this. Simply being who we are in the world shows something of the God we claim to know.

I learn as I teach as well, at least I do when I'm open to the teaching offered to me. I'll think I've got a scripture passage down cold, only to have a parishioner provide some insight I'd overlooked, or to ask a question I can't answer. I've learned about living and dying well from the people in my churches, about raising children, forgiveness, mercy and grace, how to make a darn good apple pie, faith in the teeth of setbacks, and through it all, the love of Jesus Christ as found in his body, the church.

I'm glad to have learned these things, particularly the last, because the life of the mind has been important to me in another way as well. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II, a milder form of what used to be called "manic-depression." Looking back, I can see evidence that this illness first emerged in my teens, though it went undiagnosed until I was in my 30's.

Since then, my condition has been--and will continue to be--controlled with mood-stabilizing medications. Were it not for them I would suffer erratic mood swings: from depression to racing thoughts and spells of irritability and restlessness. As you might imagine, the disorder created some real difficulty in my life. It's tremendously difficult to get to know yourself when your interests, emotions, and sense of purpose and self-worth come and go like the breeze. But as I say, I'm doing better these days. I continue to learn about the disease and how to compensate for its affects.

It would be tidy to say that the symptoms eased once I found my faith, or that faith led me to understand a need for help. Nothing of the sort is true. My wife diagnosed me, and the medication my psychiatrist prescribed addressed the symptoms. That's not to say faith played no role: it provided me with stubborn hope and persistence until I could get to the point of diagnosis and treatment.

Faith now deepens my understanding of the ways in which God chooses weakness, not strength, as the means of grace. My brain doesn't always fire on all cylinders, and I thank God for that. It makes me who I am, and it keeps me in touch with the God who took "the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Phil. 2:7). To put it another way, my best shot at having "the same mind that was in Christ Jesus" is to claim my own brokenness, and try to work humbly from my imperfections. It is for this reason that I can claim my bipolar disorder as a true grace.

For example, I have to admit my memory has more holes than Swiss cheese. It's not impaired per se; it's just that my brain doesn't always register the importance of remembering this thing or that, or make the necessary connections for what needs to happen with a particular piece of information. So I've learned to write down as much as I possibly can, particularly items on the "to-do" list. The lay leaders in my present congregation are good about making sure I've got everything written down before I leave a meeting. Because I've been up-front with them about my condition, we can find together ways to work around what would otherwise be real drawbacks to my ministry with them. Likewise, I am forever telling people in and out of the congregation that I know from experience that depression and other mental illnesses cannot be treated with prayer alone. See your doctor, I tell them, and take your medication. It doesn't mean you don't have faith: it just allows you to hear God more clearly. Grace comes in many forms, some of them the medications your doctor prescribes.

My weakness has even become something of a strength. By claiming my own brokenness, I've allowed myself to be more fully who I am, and my congregation has been freed to care for me, which brings out some of the mutuality of ministry. They talk more openly about their struggles, which makes the church more welcoming. We've already begun to attract people with mental illnesses in the four months since I told the congregation about my disorder. These new people feel accepted by the laypeople and understood by me. Overall, the discussion has served as a reminder that Christianity is not a religion for the perfect. It is a way of life for the broken, particularly for the broken who are willing to exercise compassion in aiding the other broken people of the world. Or as one wag put it: "the church is the Land of the Misfit Toys."

As these examples suggest, to have the same mind as Christ is not in the end to think like Christ or have the same brain that Christ had. It has as much to do with the heart as it is does the head. Paul explains this to the Philippians by quoting to them a section of an ancient hymn on Christ's nature:

[Christ], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

The humility and obedience spoken of here are not forms of self-abasement or death-seeking, but the pouring out of oneself for the sake of others. This is the pattern of all Christian ministry. We are called to give of ourselves freely and unstintingly as Christ gave of himself.

For me, that means, in part, to seek peace, justice and healing in the world. I've been involved in a number of causes over the years--I started out demonstrating in favor of a nuclear freeze with my parents in the early 1980s--but more recently, I've come to see that my particular gift in this area comes through my writing. I have a bimonthly column in the Lancaster Sunday News, in which I frequently advocate on such matters, and I keep up quite an online correspondence with other concerned folks.

My goal is to help people--Christian or otherwise--understand that reconciliation is the natural work of the church. We are called to participate in God's mending of the world's wounds, not to judge or seek shallow spiritual satisfaction. This calls us to difficult and often unsatisfying work: to stay connected--and in service--to the poor, the powerless, the suffering, our enemies. God has no hands but ours, as the saying goes.

I have participated in this same work within the world of the church by seeking the healing of broken systems in the interim work I've done. There are many churches divided by conflict, stifled by unproductive emotional processes and lack of communication, and occasionally just plain oppressed by damaged people. My gift is to help these churches sort through their difficulties; to keep what helps them to live faithfully, and to step around that which does not. That involves teaching them alternatives to the way Things Have Always Been, seeking to heal old wounds and lay to rest old conflicts, and sometimes holding them accountable when they can do better.

Of course, this works better some times than it does others. I have to remind myself that the calling is not to be on the right side of church conflicts, nor to "fix" anything. It is instead to serve the needs of the congregation, and stay faithful to the will of God. I constantly have to refer back to the humility of the Christ who poured himself out for us.

I also have to refer back to the resurrection, the context in which all Christian ministry takes place.

The resurrection is about more than life after death. It is a proclamation of hope for this life rooted in the transformative character of something that will come to completion only in the next. Christ changed everything by rising from the dead, but this change will not be complete until the last day. He has gone ahead of us to begin the process of redemption and fulfillment: to reclaim what was broken, to complete what was partial, to make whole that which was wounded. The hope of Christians is therefore an anticipation of receiving the resurrection as a grace-filled gift, and the affirmation of a calling to live as if we had already received that gift. We await the coming of Christ, and in the meantime, we participate in the work of transformation that prepares the world for Christ's return. We live into the resurrection as a form of active hope, and without that hope, we are truly to be pitied (I Cor. 15:19).

This ties together the pieces of my ministry. In the mutual practice of teaching and learning, I seek to move with the community into transformed hearts and minds. In the ministry and discipline of reconciliation, I ask that we participate in the healing of the world--and seek its transformation--so that the structure of our lives together can be freed to produce a world where God's reign of peace, justice and acceptance knows no bounds. And in looking to the resurrection, I do my best to center my work, and the work of the community, on following and worshipping the humble servant who is at work in us, embodied in love and mutuality, so that

at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.


I've been doing more work out in the yard today: raking up two big garbage bags of leaves and dead grass, spreading corn germ to feed the good stuff and starve the bad. Took about two hours all told, plus time to go across town and do the yard of the Jen's co-worker Emma, who was kind enough to lend us her broadcast seeder.

One of the things I'm getting used to as I work in the yard is having people stop to ask for directions. It's what comes of living on a corner on a busy street, the first real place anyone has to stop and talk to someone as they come off the highway. I try to be pleasant and helpful; it's a form of hospitality, after all. I'm even thinking about making own little mini-map to hand out to people.

Today was no exception. Had two sets of folks pull over while I was working. The first were a couple from New York--stereotypically so. Broad accents, the guy doesn't even say hello or anything--just "How do you get to Route 30 East?" I actually went them one better and directed them out to the heart of Amish country. You won't find it except by accident or asking a local. There was also a middle-aged woman, looking for Dutch Wonderland (why are they always looking for Dutch Wonderland? Could it be that the Amish Monorail attracts that many tourists?) I got her turned around and on her way as well.

Ah well. In the end it's not a big deal. Just something to feel good about at the end of the day.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

We're-getting-a-new-furnace! We're-getting-a-new-furnace!

All right, I'll stop dancing around like an idiot. I've got to do something with the energy, though.

In case my friends are wondering why Jen & I won't be joining them at the ski chalet in Saas Fee, Switzerland: it's the damn furnace. The blower motor seized up a couple of weeks back, and just plain died. So we've been without heat or a/c for the past two weeks.

Since it's been relatively moderate here, that hasn't been a problem. But winter will come sooner or later, so I finally got around to calling guys from two different companies to come look at it. They came to versions of the same conclusion: we can get the thing running again, but it's getting to the end of its lifespan. So it probably will make it through the winter--though no one's willing to make a guarantee--but the question is, how much longer will it last after that? Both guys wanted us to think about the money we would be investing in repairs vs. simply replacing the damn thing. One guy came up with an estimate of between $700 and $900 just to fix the current system. Before you jump all over his estimate as inflated, consider this: the blower motor itself will cost $450 before labor, and that's not the only problem.

Given those kinds of costs, it does seem more worthwhile to just go ahead and buy a new one.

And yes, we're going to get a couple of different estimates. Still, you shouldn't be looking for us in Switzerland any time soon...

Sorry to be away for so long. September was just nuts: a wedding, back-to-back visits by both sets of parents, practically back-to-back continuing ed seminars. Oh, and I managed to slip in a few days in the office.

I'd promise to be good, but I can't even do that. Jen and I are headed for California next week. We're flying into LA on Monday the 11th, and will stay in Solvang, the "Danish Capital of America." That's odd. What's even more odd is that we're staying in the Storybook Inn, a bed-and-breakfast designed around Hans Christian Anderson fairytales. We're either in the Little Mermaid room, or the Swan's Nest. Depends on which one has a working jacuzzi.

And that's still 298 miles from San Francisco! We'll be up in the Bay Area for a couple of days, visiting assorted cousins and perhaps an aunt or uncle too, if they have time. Friday, we're driving all the way back down to San Diego, where we'll watch the Valparaiso Crusaders take on some other anonymous football team. (Jen's brother Joe is the Valpo quarterback.)

After that, it's up to LA for a quick look around, and we'll be back in Lancaster 10 days after we left. The dogs and cats will be left in the capable hands of a highly-recommended seminarian. No, really: she almost went to vet school.

But I promise, I'll try to be more regular here, and we'll bring back lots of pictures from California.

Friday, August 27, 2004

I've been sick for a couple of days (allergies), and at a three day long seminar, so my writing time has been rather minimal.

Which is not to say that good stuff hasn't been happening. The seminar was good, but I won't bore you with the details.

Yesterday, I got a phone call at home from a guy down in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. He runs an Evangelism Institute for the Southeastern District of the United Methodist Church, if I recall correctly, and he saw my Evangelism Primer online. He wanted to know if his team might reprint it for distribution to churches in his area?

Well, sure. It's an honor.

This is the first time this has happened, honestly. I've heard that some of my writings on the DailyKos website get passed around, but I've never experienced anything like this.

Maybe someday, some far-off day, I'll get paid for doing this?


Thursday, August 19, 2004

As promised, here's the further reflection on last week's situation. I actually wrote it up as a sermon and delivered it to the congregation:

August 22, 2004

Most of you were here last week when I talked about a situation that had come up, and asked that we pass the hat for donations to the Samaritan Fund.  If you weren't:  a woman showed up just before worship about three or four Sundays ago, saying that she had been abused by her husband, and asking for help in getting home to her parents in Toledo.  She wanted a tank of gas and some lunch money, specifically.  I have to admit, the request caught me off-guard.  So I asked around very quickly, and heard that we did not have any money set aside for such situations, which turns out to be not quite the case.

But I didn't want to humiliate this woman by making her sit in the back pew while we passed the hat, and she didn't want to stay for church anyway.  So I punted:  I told her I was very sorry, but there just wasn't anything we could do for her right then, and suggested some other places she might try.  Now, I know that didn't sit well with some folks, and I assure you, it didn't sit very well with me, either.  As one of the Consistory members said when we talked about it the other night, "as you have done it to one of the least of these, so you have done it to me..."

And:  you haven't heard the entire story.  Seems a woman with a very similar story has been making the rounds. Apparently, she hit up a Methodist church in Spring Grove one week, then another in New Oxford the next, not realizing that these places share a pastor.

That proves nothing, of course.  We don't know that this was the same person, and we don't know whether her need was legitimate or not.  So let's not judge her. But at the same time, let's ask the obvious what-if question.  What if we were able to discover beyond the shadow of a doubt that this woman was a fake?  What lesson could we say we'd learned from the experience?

Would the lesson have been:  trust your pastor?  No.  I could have been wrong in this situation just as easily as right.  One thing that you learn pretty quickly in dealing with such people is that there's always somebody who's going to pull the wool over your eyes--and there's always somebody whose predicament will turn out to be true, despite all your doubts. There's really not much way to tell the difference.  That's one of the reasons I stopped giving out cash at my church in Lancaster:  I couldn't verify anyone's story, but I could make sure where the money was going.

So, is the lesson that people who come to us looking for help are scam artists?  No.  As I say, people's need can be surprising.  Honestly, I've gotten burned a few times over the years, enough so that when somebody asks for money in a time or situation where I feel pressured to make a decision--such as ten minutes before the start of worship--I get a little suspicious.  But as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, we should not neglect to extend hospitality to strangers, for "thereby many have entertained angels unawares."  Once again, we don't know the legitimacy of someone's need, and on a certain level, it doesn't matter.  We're called to help.  End of story.  Besides, we need to let ourselves get scammed every once in a while.  It beats the alternative, which is to become so cynical that we miss those in real need.

Well, does that mean we should just hand out money to anyone who comes walking through the door?  No.  Even Paul has to encourage his deputy Timothy to make a distinction between various classes of women that his church supports, "so that it can assist real widows," meaning those who have no other way to make ends meet.  We're called to be generous, not to have rocks in our heads.  We need to be wise about how we use our resources, not so that we can deny those resources to those who don't deserve them, but so that we can extend their reach to those who do deserve them.  

So how do we tell the difference?  What is the lesson we're supposed to take away from this situation?  Well, this:  faith walks a real tightrope sometimes.  We need to be generous, but not too generous.  We need to be wise, but not hard-hearted.

How do you walk that line?  That's a good question, and I'm glad you asked me.  I don't know.  When it really gets down to it, I don't know.

But I do know this:  that if you put all your eggs in one basket, if you put all your trust in one person to make these kinds of discernments, chances are they're going to blow it.  I'm not wise enough to make the right call always, and neither is anybody else.  That's why we need to talk about such things as a community.  We need to have such conversations with one another, even if they don't lead to any kind of decision.  As boring and as unglamorous and as unproductive as it sounds, talking about these things is part of the work of the kingdom.

So:  should we have given this woman some money?  I don't know; that's for us to decide.  All I know is that this whole experience has been unsettling, unsatisfying--and wholly and completely necessary.  The gift in this situation is that God calls us to keep growing, to keep maturing, in the faith we have been given in Christ Jesus.  'Taint pretty, 'taint sexy, 'taint very much fun.  But there it is, and thanks be to the God who gives us the problem to solve, and one another to talk to as we seek the solution as best we can.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

A couple of weeks ago, a woman and her two kids showed up in church just before worship began. She told me that she'd gotten beat up by her boyfriend, that she and the kids had stayed in a motel in York Saturday night, and now they were trying to get back to her parents' place in Toledo. Could she get some help for a tank of gas and lunch? I talked to one of her boys, who sullenly confirmed that they'd been in a hotel the night before.

I thought something was fishy, but I went to find the Consistory president anyway. I asked him if we had a fund to help with such a situation. He responded that one used to exist, but no longer. Between my doubts and not wanting to make this family wait while we passed the hat in front of her, I made a decision. I went back to the mother and told her I was very sorry, but we couldn't help. If she wanted to wait until after church, I might be able to cook something up, but at the moment (five minutes before church started), there wasn't a heckuvalot I could do. She said they couldn't afford to wait that long, and off they went.

A member of the Consistory saw them leave, and once I explained the situation, she chased out after them to see if she could help, but they were already gone. It stuck in her craw (and in mine), and at the Consistory meeting last Thursday, she brought the matter up. We agreed that aid to those in need was a basic function of the church; she was even able to quote "as you do it to the least of these..." So we decided to put some money back into the Samaritan Fund, so that some would be available should another situation like this arise.

On Sunday morning, I asked the congregation to go one better, and make an extra donation to the newly reconstituted fund. Well, we collected over $200, which is not bad from a group of 58 people. But some members were upset that the situation had come up in the first place, and told me that I'd made the wrong decision. I ended up having to defend myself from unspoken charges of hardheartedness.

But yesterday afternoon, I got a call from the President of the Consistory. He'd heard through the grapevine that this same woman in weeks past had visited on two separate Sundays two Methodist congregations, one in Spring Grove and one in New Oxford. The only problem? They shared the same pastor, who of course recognized her from her first visit. That doesn't prove much, but it tells me that perhaps my pastor-sense was on the money here.

Or maybe not. More later.

Okay, so I did one sorta evil thing yesterday. There was a woman parked in a van outside our office, right next to a busy intersection. I went out and tapped on her window, just to make sure she was okay. She about had a heart attack.

Written after reading one too many hostile comments on the dKos site:

Every once in a while, I read a comment around here that implies (or just comes right out and states) that most Christian ministers are essentially hoodwinking their congregations in order to swindle them out of their money.

This is a mistake.

In 2002, the average Protestant minister was paid $40,007 a year, though those numbers are a bit skewed. Mainline denominations pay better than independent churches, bigger pay better than small, and urban churches better than rural ones. The average compensation for a pastor in a church with less than 100 members in worship on a Sunday was paid about $31,000. Those churches make up about 75% of all Protestant congregations. The average Protestant pastor works about 55 hours a week. The median pay for Catholic priests ranges from $20-27,00 a year, depending on the size of their congregation. And if you've spent much time in a congregation, you'll know how unruly they can be.

I'm not getting after anyone in particular, especially because I've seen this line of thinking coming from many different sources.

So, I'll make an invitation. If anyone would like to take my place and see how much swindling or hoodwinking they can get away with, they're welcome to try. They can expect the following as part of their job:

  • Each week, write and give a speech on the core tenets of your beliefs. Said speech must be fresh, insightful, relevant, intelligent, thought-provoking, uplifting, inspire the audience to further action, and based on primary texts. It must do all of these while satisfying well-educated listeners and being comprehensible to those with a high school or lesser education. In many cases, it must also accomplish all these tasks within twenty minutes. Prepare the program for the weekly meeting, selecting appropriate readings and music. Lead intelligent studies of the primary texts of your belief system. Be equally effective in these classes with children and adults.

  • As often as necessary, go to visit people who are suffering from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, joint replacements, back problems, pneumonia, or age-related health problems. Often, you will be called upon to visit people with AIDS, Alzheimer's Disease and/or mental illnesses. Provide comfort and support to these people, and to their family members and friends. Help them to make major decisions regarding medical care and help them to interpret the meaning of their suffering. Also, counsel couples preparing for marriage, couples who are experiencing difficulties in their marriage, people with financial difficulties, people who are in prison or who have a relative in prison, people who are in the military or have a relative in the military, people who are dying or have relative who is dying or has died. When someone does die, lead a respectful and comforting service of remembrance for someone you may have never met. Also, lead weddings or commitment ceremonies for people you may not know or even like. Don't do anything illegal, or tick off the bride's mother! Above all, be careful not to impose your beliefs on any of these people, but enable them to come to their own decisions and insights.

  • Supervise at least the secretary, the janitor and the group musician. Deal with performance issues, job descriptions, and compensation. Do this in a caring and compassionate manner. Meet with the Board of Directors and any committees. Develop knowledge of education, counseling, charity work, advertising, building construction and maintenance, history, philosophy, organizational psychology and development, care-giving, legal issues, change management, sound financial practices, recruitment, and leadership development. All this work must be done within the history and ethics of your belief system, while developing your members' participation and understanding of that system.

  • Become the mascot and cheerleader for your group. Whenever there is an event, no matter how minor, you will be expected to participate. Get up at 4:00 in the morning to help out at the breakfast fundraiser. Set up tables and chairs. Wash dishes. Stay behind to sweep the floor. Serve at the soup kitchen. Help repair the building nights and weekends. Shovel snow so that weekly meeting can take place. Help weed the flowerbeds around the building, and plant perennials with crabby and perfectionist members of your group. Mop the leaky basement floor of said building. Represent your group at civic functions, 100th birthday celebrations, anniversary parties, and community events. Serve on the board of non-profit organizations as needed. If you march in any protests or demonstrations, you're liable to be criticized once you return to your group by someone who doesn't agree with your politics.

  • Keep up with colleagues, serving on professional boards or committees as needed. Stay familiar with the literature in your field(s), and leave time for professional development. At some point, you may want to return to school for another Master's degree, or even a Doctorate.

  • If you have any time left, attend to your family. Apologize profusely for the amount of time you've spent away from home, your unfinished chores at home, and the fact that your organization has ruined another Saturday for your family. Remember, if the pressures of life get to you and you feel a need to end your relationship, you may be criticized, or even asked to leave your position. If you have any time left after that, try to do something that satisfies and relaxes yourself.

  • Do all of these things for $31-45,000 a year. Do them without smoking, drinking or cursing. Do them while having your character, integrity, ability, commitment and compassion called into question, often by people who are projecting their own problems onto you. Try not to think about how much easier and better-compensated your job could have been if you'd gone to law school instead. Don't forget the people who will call your beliefs stupid, and imply that you're only in it for the money. Respond to both groups of people politely and sympathetically.

Any takers?

Look, not all ministers have to do all these things. (And I'm certainly not complaining about my lot in life. I do okay.) It is true that there are people like Jim and Tammy Faye out there; there are even a few of us who are not televangelists, but who make a pretty darn good living nonetheless.

But here's the point: most ministers are in situations more like what I've described than not. We work hard, and we don't get paid a lot of money for doing it. But we do it anyway, because we believe we're doing the right thing, and we believe in and love the people we work with. We do not have the time or the energy to run around oppressing people, trying to forcibly convert them, defrauding them, or otherwise plotting evil.

To say that we do is an insult to the majority of pastors. Let me explain it like this: as long as there have been cops, there have been crooked cops. Yet who here would seriously entertain the notion that because there have been some bad cops, all of them are necessarily crooked?

To say that ministers are all charlatans is also an insult to the people we serve. In fact, it's an insult to the people who level such charges, by implying that they are powerless to protect themselves against religious mind control and malevolence. I'm honestly very sorry if you or someone you know has had a lousy experience with organized religion; I've heard some stories around here that make my hair stand on end. All I can say is, my experience is that most folks in the church/synagogue/temple are basically decent--if imperfect--people, just like anyone else. They deserve to be treated with respect and tolerance, just like anyone else.

Shorter pastor: I don't force my faith on you, don't call me (or most of the people like me) idiots, thieves and fascists.


[Update]: A reader shared a few things I forgot in the original post:

  • conflict-management and factionalism. Church member A isn't happy with church member B because member A leads youth group a certain way, and church member B doesn't like it. Or Clique #1 (consisting of the modern worship style people, often white-collar professionals) get into clashes with Clique #2 (consisting of older members or blue-collar ones who are anti-keyboard, anti-guitar, and viciously anti-drums) over the format of the worship service. They trade accusations over elitism and a refusal to change. If you don't handle it well, you get lots of people leaving or even a split.

  • micromanagement. There's only one person willing to volunteer for a particular duty, but they keep messing it up, and you have to help them or even replace them, without hurting their feelings.

  • people who hate you for no reason and/or want a different pastor. In my father's first week at a church, a group of little old ladies came to his office and told him they'd run him off within a few months, because they wanted the elders to hire someone else. They succeeded in giving the previous pastor's wife a nervous breakdown, so they weren't playing around.

  • hypocritical criticism. People who say they want the church to do something, and then don't support it, themselves. They get mad at the pastor or pastor's kids for not supporting a particular activity, while they or their children didn't bother showing up.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

We've had two days of unseasonably--unjustifiably--good weather here. It's cool, dry, and breezy, with clouds scampering across the sky like spaniels. We slept with the windows open for the first time in months, with a cool breeze blowing right in and down our spines, if we rolled over just so.

The weekend got off to an inauspicious start. I went to pick Lisa up at the bus station at 4:30, but she wasn't on her bus. We'd arranged for her to come down Thursday night so we could go to Jen's company picnic on Friday, and I assumed that perhaps Bethany had gotten their dates mixed up. So I went home and called them, only to find out that indeed, she'd gotten on the bus. However, her bus had been delayed, so she might have been running behind. After half an hour of worrying and trying to figure out where she could be, I left Jen at the house and went back to the bus station, just to make sure Lisa wasn't there.

And whaddya know? She was there.

Turns out that her bus had come in sometime after I'd left. It was supposed to be the 4:30 bus, and the one I'd seen was supposed to come in earlier in the afternoon.

I still maintain that it was a natural mistake.

Lisa may forgive me by the time she leaves tomorrow. Or maybe not.

Jen's picnic went well. Lisa had been apprehensive about getting on the paddle boat the company had rented to take people on a tour of the Susquehanna. She needn't have worried. Jen was running late from a meeting, and we turned up just before the boat left. We were all famished, so we decided to skip the ride and chow down on cold hot dogs, fruit salad, at least four varieties of pasta salad, and too many desserts to count or enumerate right now.

It was actually a little chilly down by the river: a stiff breeze kept things cooled off. We were glad that we'd brought extra shirts or sweats to keep ourselves warm. But the food was good, and eventually some folks we knew from the office came back from the boat, and we stood around talking for about an hour. Eventually, we had to help clean up and truck things back to Jen's office, then settle in for the hour-long ride from Harrisburg back to Lancaster. Looking at it objectively, it was probably a bust for our family, but I didn't mind. An excuse to pig out and talk to people is always popular with this pastor.

I spent about four hours outside working on the lawn today. Feels like I'm starting to turn the corner on this thing. Ha!

It wasn't anything out of the ordinary: mowed the lawn, pulled up weeds, trimmed some bushes, swept the sidewalk. What took so long were the weeds. They're starting to spill out across the cement in a few places, so I had to take stern measures. Much of it is vines, which means tracking down the root centers and pulling them up. But now you can see the edge where the lawn and the sidewalk meet. That's an accomplishment.

I still have plenty to do this week: edging more areas, cutting out some overgrowth on the alley, pulling yet more weeds. If I'm lucky, I'll get around to trying to save some black-eyed susans I planted last week. If the guests at the barbecue we're hosting next week are lucky, I'll have all the dog bombs pulled out of the grass.

Between pulling bushes, planting a butterfly garden, and ridding the lawn of purslane, it's going to be at least two years before I have the yard looking the way I want it to. In renovation terms, this is a total tear down. Or as I like to think of it, a reclamation project. More on that subject later. Right now, I have to go walk the dogs.

Monday, August 02, 2004

As a general rule, I don't put other people's writing up here. This is supposed to be my place to bloviate, after all. (Well, here and in the pulpit, and at DailyKos, and in my other blog...)

But every once in a while something catches my eye. For example, this post from a friend from DailyKos who goes by the handle "TomtheAeronaut," from his love of building model airplanes:

Don't know what's happening in your town, but our PBS station (KCET) is having its summer fund raiser starting this weekend. Yours may be doing the same soon.

I just wanted to recommend a show they've had on the past three fund-raisers, that I have resisted watching (more fool I).

The Peter, Paul and Mary documentary. There was this segment of he 60s left who had their heads up their ass and said that any "political group" that sold out (i.e., did something commercial) had forfeited their right to be considered "real" and should be further ignored. This was particularly prevalent among the upper class "socialite socialists" of SDS, and somehow this middle class boy bought into their bullshit, and managed to drop Peter, Paul and Mary from his list of "relevant musicians" for the "crime" of doing commercial hits like "Leaving on a Jet Plane," etc. Never mind how many times this "artist" (me) has "sold out" for such mundane things as paying the mortgage, the rent, the cat food bill, etc., etc. - any creative person who doesn't grab onto something they did that can make Real Money is an idiot who should be thrown off a bridge for being a Fool.

There's always part of me that knows when I have done something "wrong" and then I go out of my way to avoid seeing it, so I don't have to admit it, and this show is one of them.

Well, I was an idiot. (A status that I am not unfamiliar with.)

Watch the show. Buy the new CD.

I think perhaps my willingness to stop being stupid on this had something to do with my most recent birthday - the one I didn't celebrate, didn't look forward to, didn't like, don't think I have anything in common with, etc., etc. My 60th birthday. There. I said it for all to see.

Funny thing about this birthday. When I turned 40, over the course of the next year I discovered that suddenly I could write better, more deeply. It was in retrospect that I could see what was what: I had survived long enough to have enough experience to finally be able to figure people out - I understood "character motivation." Life was far less a mystery, and became less such the further I went.

A month ago I would have had nothing to say about the most recent milestone. Unfortunately, becoming a better writer in your 40s and 50s means you become more self-aware and other-aware. So all of a sudden I have seen the change in point of view that has happened. It's true! Old people get "wise." I wouldn't call it that, I'd call it "enough experience to finally be able to comprehend perspective." Anyway, I suddenly do see things more clearly.

So, back to Peter, Paul and Mary: all my life I have enjoyed being in the presence of "real people," i.e., people willing to act on their beliefs and suffer the consequences, people willing to live in harmony with their integrity and accept the consequences of so doing. Didn't realize that was going to happen, just decided to watch the show because nothing else was on. Well, watching these guys teach "If I Had A Hammer" and "We Shall Overcome" to 5 year olds, and watching them relate to those kids because they are only old chronologically and physically, was an eye-opener. I suddenly started to get some self-awareness of why I feel "young."

And hearing them tell of what happened to them in the 1980s, when they went to El Salvador and came back singing songs in favor of the FMLN, and how they were picketed by wingnuts with "If I Had A Hammer (And A Sickle)" posters, and lost their passports and all the rest that happened to them, when all I was doing was going to HollyweirdLiberal parties and giving money...

The thing about people who live their lives in integrity with a willingness to suffer the consequences is - for the rest of us - their existence challenges us with the question "What the hell are you doing?" They're the kind of people that in the Catholic Church are what are meant by "saints." I'm sure P,P&M would laugh me out of the room to call them "saints," but when you see their whole work in that show, it has that effect.

Listening to their new songs, "Jesus On The Wire" (about Matthew Sheppard) and "Invisible People" (about what my "heroic" ancestors and yours did to the people who were here before we arrived), really did me in. Made the pledge. Bought the CD. And I am sure playing it in the coming 90 days will have value to kicking me in the butt to do what we gotta do to take the country back.

Watch the show. It "fires up the base." It'll inspire you. They're good.

I'm even going to watch it again on Saturday, followed by "A Black And White Night" - if your station plays that, it's the BEST rock'n'roll show PBS has ever shown - Roy Orbison doing his greatest stuff, backed up by some Serious Talent. Filmed back in 1986, when Yours Truly made major contributions to PBS and through my friend (and fellow writer) Tom Petty's lighting and staging director, I was one of those sitting in the shadows in the audience of the best rock 'n' roll show I ever saw. If you can catch it, record it.

Saints indeed.

Another $12.71, this time spent on Black-Eyed Susans for the back yard. That's a grand total of $413.60, if you haven't been keeping track. That doesn't include a second bush I think I'm going to make Jen buy tonight, or the table we're getting for the kitchen. Where's it all going to stop?

Friday, July 30, 2004

My sermon for August 1st: No, I'm not going to endorse John Kerry. I've got a tax exemption to worry about, for one thing. For another, I'd rather avoid having my head handed back to me on a platter. Jen hates politics in church, and she's not the only one.

Well, in any case. Warning: even a short sermon is rather long on the Web. Just saying.

The text is Luke 12:13-21:

Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?'

Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

I want to throw a couple of economic concepts at you this morning. That is to say, a couple of ideas from the study of economics. They may sound complicated at first, but really, they're not as difficult to get a hold of as they might seem at first.

The first of these concepts is what's known as the "crisis of rising expectations." You may not have heard of the idea, but I'm pretty sure most of you have lived the reality. It works like this: today's luxury is tomorrow's necessity, and eventually, you reach a point where rising expectations exceed our ability to pay for that "necessity."

Believe it or not, air conditioning--of all things--is the best example. Some of you are old enough to remember when air conditioning was something you found only in movie theaters, perhaps office buildings or a hospital. Well, next came wall units for home use, and in cars, then there was central air, and by today, we're all sweltering in church and crabbing because we don't have this "necessity." There aren't many people my age who would go without air conditioning at home if we could possibly afford it, and we certainly wouldn't think of buying a car without it.

There are any number of consumer goods this works with. Owning a car used to be a luxury, then it was owning two cars. By now, there are more cars than people in the United States. Same thing with television, radio, microwave ovens, cell phones. Do we need all this stuff? Strictly speaking, no. But we think we do, and the result is that Americans are working harder than ever to get the things they think they need. We are prisoners of a rat race we have made for ourselves.

Which is perfectly natural. One of the reasons we're attracted to fatty foods in our diet, after all, is a biological urge to store up some reserves for leaner times. So it is with other material surpluses, I think. We want to enjoy them while we can, because who knows what may come tomorrow?

When the nameless man in the crowd calls out to Jesus: "Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me," he's not making an unreasonable request. As a teacher, Jesus could be expected to interpret the laws concerning inheritance, for one thing. For another, we're probably not talking about a great deal of money here. More than likely, what this person wants is a plot of land with which to support himself and his family.

But Jesus, sharp-eyed as ever, quickly spots the underlying issues. First of all, his mission is to bring people closer to God, not to divide from one another. He has no interest in intervening in a financial dispute.

Second--and more important--he doesn't want to encourage greed. Now, when you and I think of greed, we tend to think of avarice or cupidity: the desire to have more than our fair share in life, or the desire for wealth at the expense of others. This is a problem in our world, no doubt about it.

But the kind of greed Jesus is talking about here is a more subtle kind, one that nearly all of us are guilty of. It's not the desire to have "more," but the desire to have "enough." Look at the story Jesus tells the crowd. Do you see any indication that the rich fool has hurt anyone to get his wealth? Any indication that he wants more than what is rightfully his? Well, no. He has been blessed with enough and more than enough, through no fault of his own.

It's here that our second economic concept comes in. Some economists have made a distinction between "material wealth" and "social wealth." Basically, it's the difference between measuring how rich you are by what you have in the bank versus how many people you can help. You may have heard the story about the king with an empty treasury? A visiting prince questions him about it, and the king in response declares himself the richest man in the world. He has loaned or given away everything he had, he says, but if he called in all his favors, he'd get back five times what he'd given, so eager would his friends be to repay his generosity.

This is almost--but not quite--the standard Jesus proposes to the crowd. The fool's mistake is not to be rich, but to be rich without regard for God and neighbor. He ought to be thanking God for his success, not congratulating himself on his self-sufficiency. And he ought to be spreading his wealth around, not squirreling it away in his barns. "Where your treasure is, there also your heart will be."

Now, doesn't that sound like you or me? It's so easy to get caught up in material rewards that we sometimes forget how fortunate we are to have what we do. That's what tithing is all about: a way to say "Thank you, God."

I said that Jesus' idea is "almost" the same as social wealth, but not quite. Here's why. Wealth, in most of worldviews, is a finite resource. But Jesus calls us into a world where God's resources are without end. We are free to live without "enough," because God provides plenty for all. In turn, we are free to use our souls to love God and one another as much as we can, which is to say as much as Christ gave of himself to us. We need not worry.

Or, as Robert F. Morneau writes:

Jesus give his [disciples] a simple, clear example of what discipleship is all about: service. Washing one another's feet, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked--here is the core of the Eucharist, our great miracle of love. God's table is large, as large as creation. All are invited, all are to have access to the necessity of food and the miracle of love. Both are essential to the fullness of life. Without food, the body languishes and dies; without love, our souls wither and are filled with despair. The leftovers in our lives? What are they and who will get them? So many people can live off our leavings, if we would only share. This is hardly sufficient. Disciples of Christ give abundantly in imitation of the Master who gave his very self.

As we come to the table this morning, then, let us give God our thanks and praise for what Jesus has given us and what he continues to give us. And let us pray for the strength to move beyond the desire to have "more," the desire to have even "enough," to the recognition of the "plenty" God has given us to share among all our brothers and sisters. And let us pray to God for the strength he bestows upon us to be wise and generous givers of our very souls. To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

I've just come in from a little over an hour spent weeding the yard. I've been pulling up a mixture of clover, thistle, and wild strawberries mostly, with a bit of crabgrass and miscellaneous weeds thrown in. I even came across two maple trees taking surprisingly deep root under our bushes. I wasn't able to pull either one out; I may have to resort to more drastic measures.

The lawn is in atrocious shape. It's been neglected for so long that the dandelions own most of it. No kidding: I pulled up a test patch to see what a thorough weeding would do. There's only a few blades of grass, and dirt. My long term plan had been to put down some corn germ and grass seed this fall, but I may have to rethink that. Sodding the entire yard would be too expensive; perhaps I'll rent a tiller and just grind the thing up, start all over from scratch. I don't know if Jen will go for a yard covered with hay for the winter, though.

So I'm hot and sweaty and stinky, I'm sure. Jen will be home in half an hour, wondering where her dinner is.

I regret nothing.

You see, while I was out there the shape of this week's sermon came to me. I'd waited on it all day, but it never came around until I gave up on it and went outside. It's peaceful out in the yard, meditative. I leave the phone inside, and if it's not too hot, bring the dogs out on their leashes. Then we attack the weeds with gusto. It's a way of coming closer to God, and the exercise doesn't hurt either. I wouldn't exactly call it prayer, but it does clear the mind and the heart for a different kind of work.

So what can you do? Say "amen," and bring a trash bag for the weeds you've ripped up.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

About time we had an update on the household expenses. Since July 5th, we've dropped $30.70 at K-Mart, $90.90 at Lowe's, another $38.18 at Lowe's, $92.30 at Ikea, $64.48 at Target, and another $11.28 at Lowe's. We should own stock in that last one.

Offsetting these expenses were returns to Lowe's of $4.50 and $69.31.

So, the grand total was: 30.70+90.90+38.18+92.30+64.48+11.28-4.50-69.31=$314.03, minus whatever we get back from Ikea when we return the kickass Roman shades that were the wrong size for the windows.

For this, I get a house with a purple bedroom, pictures on the wall, and some semblance of functionality. Also rugs on the kitchen floor and a shaving mirror in the bathroom. Damn practical Swedes and their irresistable merchandise!

We have yet to contract with a landscaper to rip out our overgrown trees and bushes. Nor have we contacted a plumber or electrician about the work they need to do around the house.

However, I have successfully installed a new ceiling light fixture without burning down the house. On the other hand, that was only this afternoon. Give me some time.

But lest you think this has all been Jen's fault, or that I've gotten nothing out of the deal, allow me to say this. I am the proud owner of five hammers, including the mallet I bought Jen while we were engaged; three saws (one electric), a lawn mower, weed whacker, and hedgetrimmer, and my personal favorite, the branch lopper. Let Armageddon come: I have enough tools to see my lawn through to the kingdom!

Monday, July 26, 2004

Back in May, I wrote about a queer friend who was going before an "ecclesiastical council" to be approved for ordination in the United Church of Christ. Several folks asked for updates as the process went along.

Well, I'm happy to say that David Stiffler was approved for ordination, which took place yesterday afternoon.

It was, by David's own admission, the "gayest ordination ever." I countered that I would appear in my flame-red chasuble so he wouldn't have to be the gayest man in the room. He threatened to up the ante by wearing a tiara, but it never materialized.

I counted 40 people involved in the worship service, including the ordinand, myself, and Mrs. Pastor. And that's not even counting the bell choir!

We had ten musical offerings; we had three congregational hymns. We had two liturgical dances; we had one presentation by a sign language interpreter and one message recorded beforehand by David because he couldn't trust himself not to cry while presenting it. We had prayers, we had scripture and a sermon, we had a laying on of hands, we had communion and a ritual presentation of gifts. Finally, we had a dinner with fried chicken, two kinds of cold salad, fruit and ice cream. Everyone kept commenting on how this was like a wedding, and it really was.

The service took about two hours, which is somewhere between thirty and sixty minutes longer than average.

If you've never been to one of these affairs, allow me a long description. First all the pastors put on their robes and process into the sanctuary. In our case, that was about thirty people, only about half of whom were counted in the participants' list above. For a while, the worship service more or less follows the basic Sunday morning pattern: there's a greeting and a call to worship, prayer of confession, scripture and a sermon. We read together the UCC Statement of Faith.

It's at this point that the service begins to differ. There are some boring prayers and liturgy, then the ordinand (unlike Catholics and Methodists, we typically ordain people one at a time) is given a ritual examination, in which he or she promises to uphold the duties of being a pastor. Then the congregation, the assembled people of God, are asked what their will is: do we ordain this person or not.

The response is typically joyful: "By the grace of God, he is worthy! Let us ordain him. Come, Holy Spirit!" The congregation did not disappoint.

Following this comes the "laying on of hands." There are many ways of doing this, but typically in the UCC, the ordinand kneels and is surrounded by members of the clergy and/or the entire congregation, who...ah...lay hands on him or her, and pray that the Holy Spirit might come upon him. This is an emotionally powerful moment, both for those participating, and especially for the ordinand. I've been through this myself; it feels as though the prayers and love of the whole people of God have been transformed into an immense crushing weight on your head and shoulders. It is both awe-ful and awesome, love come to life in a tangible way.

A few more prayers, and the ordinand is presented with the symbols of office: a Bible, a traveling communion set, a certificate of ordination. When I was ordained, the Association (the ordaining body) gave me a framed copy of the Rights and Responsibilities of an Ordained Minister. I guess they don't do that anymore.

Ah, but the best was yet to come. The new minister is presented with a stole, representing Christ's yoke. In this case, David's partner Tom hung the stole on David's shoulders, and they exchanged a very chaste hug. David tried to stifle a sob or two, and I don't think there was a dry eye or throat unchoked in the house as he did so.

In this case, David was "installed" into his office, which means formally received into his job. Following the installation, he celebrated communion with one of his seminary professors. Mrs. Pastor held a glass of wine next to David as they distributed the elements. She told me later she had a hard time not crying as she stood there, she was so proud of him. She wasn't at my ordination.

Well, the whole thing was wonderful. There were something like 125-150 people there, above average for such an affair. There were black folks and white, Asians (dunno about Hispanics), gay, straight, babies and grandmothers, at least three or four denominations (including the MCC), just about everything under the sun.

What there weren't: protestors. If anybody knew where this was taking place, they shouldn't didn't seem to care. Nobody said "boo" the entire time. David, as I said when I wrote back in May, will make a wonderful pastor for the right congregation, and everybody in the room that day agreed. To paraphrase our Area Conference Minister (the "boss," such as it is, of us pastors), David was trailblazing history by his ordination, and there was no better time or place for him to do that than right now and with us.

To which I can only add: Amen.

Friday, July 23, 2004

As promised, here's my latest column for the Lancaster Sunday News. Bush supporters may want to skip over this one.

President as Prophet? July 25, 2004

It may not be true that Pres. Bush said to a group of Amish farmers "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job", as was reported by the Lancaster New Era. It's an unconfirmed report, and the White House denies that the President said it.

But assume for a moment that it is true.

Should we doubt the president’s sanity? I don't believe so. He probably didn't mean that he was given the spiritual gift of prophecy, whereby God takes over a believer's voice to communicate a message.

More likely, he meant that he receives guidance from the Lord, that his actions reflect what he interprets as God's will. This is a mainstream belief; my own denomination claims to listen for the "still speaking" God.

So, he's on fairly firm theological ground. Reasonable people can—and do—dispute his interpretation of what God calls us to do. But what faithful person would admit that we do not seek God’s guidance in some way?

Should we doubt the sincerity of Bush's faith when he says such a thing? Probably not. It's true that he doesn’t attend church much—apparently only when he's at Camp David—but there are plenty people of faith who seldom, if ever, darken the door of a house of worship. No reason to criticize him there.

And while it's true that a picture of a president with a group of Amish farmers is worth its weight in gold, especially for one so concerned to portray himself as the representative of American values, if the White House had wanted to play up this angle, we would have seen it by now. In fact, largely because of the quote attributed to Pres. Bush, they’re doing everything they can to downplay the meeting.

Should we be concerned that the president speaks in such overtly religious tones? Well perhaps, and here's why. Max Weber, the German organizational theorist, talked about three kinds of authority: traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic. Traditional authority was invested in the president during his inauguration. For the "sanctity of the order," we respect the office of the president, if not the person occupying that office.

Rational-legal authority comes about as a result of laws. Because Pres. Bush was declared the winner of the 2000 election, he now serves as Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief of our nation.

Charismatic authority is given to leaders who are able to inspire their followers. Pres. Bush’s frequent use of religious language is meant to—does—inspire voters to back his policies and vote for him. It is also why values-talk is so important in this election: the president and John Kerry are duking it out to lay claim to the mantle of "most inspiring leader."

But it's charismatic authority that gives me pause about Pres. Bush's quote, if indeed it is true.

As a pastor, I want my religious leaders to be charismatic; they should be able to inspire their followers with their firm commitment to the gospel. But as a voter, I want my political leaders to derive their authority from the rule of law. We are after all a nation of laws, not men, no matter how fervent those men's beliefs may be.

What has made me queasy all along about Pres. Bush's administration is the sense that he uses his great reservoir of charismatic authority to undermine the authority of the rational-legal systems of checks and balances that protect our government—indeed, our way of life—from disaster.

And I get the idea that he does this in the name of a faith that has more to do with conservative ideology than with a God who could proclaim through his prophet: let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

This supposed quote from the president just adds fuel to the fires of my suspicion. I hope to God I'm wrong about it.

Update: In May, I wrote about a friend and soon-to-be colleague who was going before an ecclesiastical council. I am pleased to say that the council approved David Stiffler, and he will be ordained this afternoon. Best of luck and God's grace be with him.

I've started a new blog. This is (a little) to the dismay of my long-suffering wife Jen, but I decided it was time to split off the commentary on politics and religion into its own little box. I will continue to post personal reflections here, with the occasional cross-post (for example, my latest column, above). In the meantime, if you're really hungry to read Dan as he plays pundit, you can check here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A couple of notes on mental illness: I met today with a representative of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.  This grandfatherly gentleman runs a support group down in Hanover, the biggest town in my church's neck of the woods.  We got together for lunch at a local diner so I could pick his brains about starting a group.  I'd toyed with the idea of starting one at Emmanuel; they've been looking to do some support groups or small group ministry, and I've been looking for ways to be an advocate for the mentally ill.  In the end I decided that I wouldn't be here long enough to get such a project off the ground, but I was interested in learning more about it, so I kept the date.
We spent most of our time talking off-thread, as they say on the internet:  his service as a bomber pilot in World War II; his furniture factory down in Hanover; his daughter, who has schizophrenia.  Turns out that one of the people on my Transition Team was supposed to be the flower girl at his wedding sixty years ago.  But then he got stuck in Nebraska, and the wedding had to be shifted.
But that we wandered didn't mean that I didn't get anything out of the conversation.  He had very practical knowledge of how to get a group started, and how to keep it afloat.  Find two or three people who will be core members, he said, and let them invite other folks who need the help.  Parents and other relatives of the mentally ill will form the backbone of the group, while the "consumers" (the preferred term for those with mental illness) will float in and out of the group.  Even schizophrenics can benefit from such a group, however--though their presence can be a bit dicey at times.
He invited me to the Hanover meeting in September, and I think I'm going to go.  If nothing else, I'll learn something about how these groups work, and who knows?  Perhaps it'll lead to something else, some new form of ministry.
My other note:  when you are a "consumer," structure is your friend.  Those who have not experienced mental illness have a hard time, I think, understanding how it can scramble the circuits that keep most of us awake and organized from day to day.  Obviously, if you're schizophrenic, your major preoccupation is going to be your voices and what they tell you to do.  But even someone such as me, with a relatively minor case of bipolar, can get pretty far out on a limb, if you know what I mean. 
This comes about for a couple of reasons.  First of all, let's face it, my brain doesn't fire on all cylinders.  Who knew my brothers and sisters were right, after all this time?  As I've noted before, the bipolar affects the part of my brain that sifts through the normal, humdrum details of life and decides what's important and what's not.  It's the mental equivalent of tossing everything in the circular filing cabinet.  On the better days, my wife can tell me to take care of something over breakfast, and if I'm lucky, I'll remember it at dinnertime.  Most days, it's "gone."  Not that I don't remember the conversation; I don't remember (or notice) its relevance to my continued existence.  For this reason, Jen has threatened to beat my brains in on more than one occasion.  The death threats seem to work; perhaps having underlined for me the connection between forgetting & drastic consequences completes a circuit I wouldn't normally close on my own.
In any case, it makes me a pretty poor candidate for the gene pool.  The odds are even at best that my mate will rip me to shreds in frustration before I can reproduce.
But a more serious point is this:  the mentally ill walk around with more pain in their heads than a non-consumer might suspect.  Again, schizophrenics are obvious:  the auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations are terrifying and all-encompassing.  So, too, the pain of depression is obvious.  My own is a bit more subtle.  I walk around wondering what I've screwed up this week, and if I've pissed anybody off recently, or why it is that I can never seem to get any writing done.  Mind you, I'm not complaining:  this is only to say that thoughts such as these take up a lot of energy, and they can distract you pretty easily.
The answer to these problems is structure.  It's incredibly important for a shizophrenic to take their medication at regular intervals.  Depressives often find it beneficial to stick to a schedule to distract them from the emptiness within; bipolars soon find that their mood swings are not so pronounced when they set a rhthym to their life and stick to it.
In my case, I've found that writing things down helps tremendously.  Every entry in my "to do" list is one less thing that I have to carry around in my head.  Not only does that help compensate for my memory problems:  it helps my moods.  I don't have to worry so much about what I'm forgetting, because I have it written down, or I should.  Now I worry about whether or not it's in my book, but that's much less of a concern.  So having the to-do list takes a weight off my shoulders.  Having more of a structured schedule to my day frees me up to get more done.  Here's my ideal day:  wake up at 6:30 or 7:00, get ready for the day, spend some time working in the yard, split the rest of the day writing and crossing off things on my to-do list; perhaps some visits or a meeting late in the day, come home, walk the dogs, spend an hour or so reading before I fall asleep.  So far, I haven't hit a perfect day, but I've come pretty close.  More important, I have been getting more productive.  I've been writing more (even if it's just crappy blog entries), and for the first time in who knows how long, I've begun to read as voraciously as I used to.  I got through I, Claudius in about a week-and-a-half, and I'm currently working on Ha Jin's Waiting and Molly Ivin's Bushwacked.  That's pretty good for a guy who read nothing but magazines and comic books for the better part of two years.
That things are going better starts a better cycle.  For one thing, I don't have to be worried about what I've screwed up, so I don't have to spend as much time either hiding from or anesthetizing my problems.  For another, it opens up some spiritual energy that I've been needing for far too long.  Those of you who have experienced this kind of renewal will understand what I mean when I say it's the difference between reacting and responding.  Having admitted my illness in public gives me the grace to be who I am; having established some structures to compensate for the illness has allowed me to do better in my life, if not exactly "be the best person I can."  I wouldn't want to go that far.  The two combined--identity and structure--allow me to be more fully centered than I have been in a long, long time.
Now, if I could only get to bed at a decent hour, I'd feel more energetic, and wouldn't have to write long, rambling, nonsensical blog entries...

Monday, July 19, 2004

Religious News Update:

Three items taken from the July 27th edition of the Christian Century.

Baptismal Politics: When author Jimmy Breslin went with a friend to the baptism of an infant in a Catholic church on Long Island, the priest said that this young male would one day bring Christ to the world. And then, speaking directly to the baby, the priest said: "You must go out and stand up against abortions in the name of Christ and your church. You must stand up to these politicians who talk crap about abortions, stand up against this John Kerry who talks crap." Later, Breslin's friend challenged the priest on the propriety of making a statement against a politician during the baptism. "Oh, no, it was proper," the priest said. "We have been ordered that at every liturgical ceremony, we must make a statement against abortion." (The Church That Forgot Christ, Free Press).

Let Us Part in Peace: The evangelical magazine Christianity Today has added its voice to those saying it is time for the mainline denominations to amicably split, presumably over homosexuality. In a July editorial, CT said "a proactive separation involving leadership of both the left and right, would keep anger to a minimum, minimize ugly property disputes and, in a perverse way, demonstrate to the world that Christians can act civilly toward each other even in the midst of profound disagreements. Then each church can get on with its own version of the faith, and, to paraphrase Gamaliel (Acts 5), see if one or both will prosper." With an apparent twinkle in the eye, the unsigned editorial concluded that such a proposed split "is, in the tradition of the mainline, at least an idea worth dialogue and study."

Enemy Within: When Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff served with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, his commander warned that they faced two enemies--an external one (the Vietcong) and an internal one (what the war could unleash). War, says Resnicoff, is not only a danger to our lives; it is a danger to our humanity. "The problem isn't that we don't have good people in uniform. The problem is that war can turn even the best into different people." True, there are no atheists in foxholes, "but foxholes can breed atheists, when those who see war's nightmares lose all faith..." (Christian Science Monitor, June 28).

And one last bit, just as a bribe for your tolerance:

Introducing a new feature on the Pastor's Notebook!  It's called "The Religion News Roundup," and I'll try to do it at least weekly, but I make no promises. I won't be including little tidbits like this, which are more like "News of the Weird" than anything else.

Instead, I'll be concentrating on religion and politics, specifically from a Christian perspective since that's obviously what I come out of. Readers are invited to add such information as I may have missed or neglected.

Last part of the intro: the stories come with commentary, free of charge.

W.'s quote to the effect of "I trust that God speaks through me" has gotten a lot of play around the blogosphere. Brief notes on this: it's from Lancaster, PA, which is both my current spider-hole and one of the most "burned over" evangelical districts in the nation. The quote has also not been independently verified, so take it with a grain of salt. (Though it would fit Bush's MO, particularly with a group of good conservative Christians like the Amish.)

And, you may not have seen this commentary on the quote:

From Chuck Currie's Blog.)

More from Lancaster County: a fascinating piece on sexual and domestic abuse in the local Mennonite and Amish communities. Though it's focused on the Anabaptists, it goes a long way to explaining how this can happen in any closed church (or really any) community.

Slactivist has a great post on that bane of legalist believers everywhere, "The Abominable Shellfish"

Worldwide Faith News reports a Church of the Brethren call for peace essays.  Along with the Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers, the CoB are a traditional pacifist denomination. Submissions go to: You can also help choose stories by emailing the same address.

Yeah, it's from the "Chicken Soup" series. But who better to subvert this paradigm than you good people? has an interesting tidbit: apparently, the Bush administration is allowing the "predominantly gay and lesbian" Metropolitan Community Church to be among the groups that advise on adoption policy. While this fits with Tommy Thompson's usually tolerant behavior (IIRC, don't flame me if I'm wrong!), it may also be a fake-out designed to protect the administration from being labeled "haters." You decide.

PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has a typically well-researched and thoughtful story on gay marriage within the black church.

Many folks have already commented on this piece from the NYT describing Jerry Falwell's apparent flameout in endorsing the Bush campaign on church (or at least non-profit) letterhead. I have only these two things to add: #1 Three cheers to the Rev. Barry Lynn, of my own United Church of Christ for once more leading the charge for separation of church and state. #2: Worst. Pastor. Ever.

And last but not least, the promised report from the Madison, Wisconsin Pride Parade, via my Pops, also a UCC minister. I've broken up his message into smaller paragraphs:

Whooeeee! Here it is 4:20 in the afternoon and I am just now sitting down at the computer to whip off a Sunday Greeting. I'm just back from the Gay Pride Parade, and what a parade it was! There were the shamrock girls all in green and the green (as in save the environment) pink party and the Rural Dykes Association and the gays on motorcycles and the gays on horses and, of course the drag queens. But mostly there were lots and lots of people who look and act like plain old run of the mill ordinary people you meet on the street or at the office on down on the farm every day.

And then there were the haters. Actually, I think, fewer this year than last year. It takes a lot of time and energy to hate with the vitriol with which these really pathetic people hate. According to them, my fate is sealed. I would agree. By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, I am liberated from sin to abide in God's love for ever. According to the haters, I am doomed to stand before God's judgment and be condemned to the fires of hell. It is just beyond me how people can be so frightened and filled with such malice. The vituperation just pours out of them like bile.  But, you know what, the people in the parade simply dismiss the haters as irrelevant, a joke.

You know what else, the people lining the parade route cheer loudly, enthusiastically when the church contingent marches past. So, the anti-gays stand there with their condemning scriptural quotations on their placards and are regarded as ridiculous. The church folks march along with banners flying and are cheered.

How's this for irony? Last Sunday there was a letter in the bulletin encouraging the congregation to write their senators in support of the constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriages. Caught me completely by surprise. The congregation, too. Gently, I responded letting the congregation know that I could not in good conscience support the intent of the letter. Surprisingly, six or eight people expressed their support for my response, if for no other reason than their feeling that this kind of political announcement has no place in the bulletin.

And with that, 'nuff said.

Friday, July 16, 2004

See what I mean about this being a rich day? First there's this piece from PBS' Religion and Ethics Weekly:

`Godless Americans' Endorse Kerry-Edwards Ticket
(RNS) The Godless Americans Political Action Committee has endorsed Sen. John Kerry for president and Sen. John Edwards for vice president in the upcoming 2004 election.
-- Adelle M. Banks

And then there's this Op-Ed from USA Today, of all places, explaining the "religion gap" between Democrats and Republicans may not be all that large.

On a less happy note, there's this story from CNN on a serial rapist and child molestor caught in Madison, Wisconsin. This guy may have assaulted up to two dozen adults and five kids. Yeesh. Why is it that my hometown used to be in the news for being a great place to live, but recently only gets mentioned in connection with crime stories?

And now I've got to go and get a life.

Sheesh Lewis. I am just en fuego today. And I haven't even checked my "religious news" sources today. Here's another link, this one to a story from Ekklesia concerning a potential "ad war" between Protestant denominations.

I found the article interesting for two reasons. First of all, it gave quite a bit of play to the UCC's "God Is Still Speaking" campaign:

The UCC's ads are especially edgy. One shows a pair of bouncers manning a rope line outside a church, admitting a white heterosexual couple but barring gays and racial minorities. "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we," the ad says.
So far, the GISS program has been fairly productive for the UCC; I'll say more when the nationwide ad campaign starts in the fall.

The article also points to the competiveness of evangelism these days. Ekklesia contrasts the UCC approach with that of the Southern Baptists:
The 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, which opposes gay marriage and has urged wives to "submit" to their husbands, is laying plans for an ad blitz starting in late 2005. Baptist leaders said it probably would be much larger than any of the campaigns they have run every five years since 1985.

Although the Southern Baptist Convention has not decided on the content for its ads, "we will stand on what we understand the Scripture to teach," said Martin King, spokesman for the Baptists' North American Mission Board. "We're proud of the fact that we're not going to shy away or try to make it an easy message."

One of the dirty little secrets about American Christianity is that it's thoroughly failing to win new converts. That is to say, the church has done a pretty miserable job of taking people from "no belief" or "no affiliation" and turning them into Christians. This leaves the church to essentially recycle the same population through various denominations, hence the ad wars. Given that the Southern Baptists have lately realized that they're not growing, we should be in for an interesting couple of years here.

Geez, it's just an embarrassment of riches this morning.

You get three for the price of one in today's Washington Post: Howard Kurtz reviews Bush's latest negative ad on Kerry's abortion stance here, and E.J. Dionne gets it right as usual here. (Sorry, subscription only.)

Dionne says the Republicans are "Doing an Atwater on Kerry," and he has a point:

Republican pollster David Winston's helpful definition of the two types of "values" arguments is a good guide to which Atwateresque moves might work this year. There are "values you default to that are appealing to your base, which tend to reinforce an existing belief." And "there are values that are oriented to the middle which tend to be fundamentally optimistic and designed to solve a problem."

Bush risks pushing too hard on the first kind of values issues, as he did on the gay marriage amendment. But in trying to paint Kerry as weak, vacillating and unprepared to lead the country in the war on terrorism, Bush is reaching for a much broader audience. Atwater and his excellent nerds would happily put that argument on a 3-by-5 card. That should be enough to make Kerry's campaign take it seriously.

He even manages to get a nice slap in at W.'s "values":
On the central issue of the campaign, Bush is understandably pushing the Iraq debate away from the specific -- the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, poor postwar planning, etc. -- to the general plane of character and toughness. Bush is using a zinger aimed at all soft and elitist believers in psychobabble. "You can't negotiate with terrorists," Bush says. "You can't sit back and hope that somehow therapy will work and they will change their ways."

Bush even suggests subtly that if the voters toss him from office, they will fail the values test by breaking the country's commitments. The reformist leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush says, "need to hear from America that they can count on the American people. You see, when we give our word, we keep our word." Message: Keep your country's promise. Vote for Bush.

I'm of the opinion that Bush can flail around all he wants on values. What's going to determine the election is a referendum on his management of the economy and the war in Iraq/on terror. If he can't come up with better results than what we've seen so far, he's going to be toast come November. Still, as I say, Dionne has a point.

I was a little more irked at this story about how Kerry keeps his faith private. The middle of the piece is a pretty fine description of Kerry's faith, which is apparently pretty strong. But the writers feel a need to turn it into a campaign issue by citing insiders (including Amy Sullivan, who's in danger of turning into a one-note writer) to the effect that Kerry's got to talk more about religion, or risk losing the election.

While I agree that it wouldn't kill Kerry to give a speech or an interview about his faith, or to bring the kind of talk he made at the AME convention last week to white audiences, I have at least a couple of problems with this line of thought. Number 1: that 7% of the population knows Kerry is deeply religious comes from a poll taken back in May. Surely that's stale information by now.

Number 2: as noted above, this election is going to be a referendum on the incumbent. Unless there's much harder evidence that Kerry's reticence is costing him support, I wouldn't worry about it. So far, the polls seem to be running in his favor.

Number 3: come on. What you're saying is that you'd like Kerry to become somebody he's not? The man does not like to talk about his faith in public. That's a personal stance, and a cultural one. As EJ Dionne points out above, he's already susceptible to attacks as being a "flip-flopper." Why risk making him out to be a phony?

Enough. I need another cup of coffee and to cut the grass. One more link, with thanks to Aaron Gillies for passing it on: Bill Moyers giving the keynote at Call To Renewal's 2004 Pentecost Conference. As I told Aaron, it's just one more reason I need to subscribe to Sojourners.

[Update]: Amy Sullivan has her own take on her quote here. The most relevant paragraphs:
When I talked to Jim VandeHei for the Washington Post article linked above, my message was that Kerry has correctly placed the focus on works instead of rhetoric. I will always value the individual who walks the walks over someone who merely talks the talk. If you just listen to rhetoric, I said, you might think that Bush is incredibly religious and Kerry is not. But what's more important is to look at what they do.

And that's where my advice to Democrats comes in. Because sometimes voters are going to need some help connecting the dots between their values and the things that John Kerry stands for -- heck, the things nearly the entire Democratic Party stands for. It would be nice if it was all implicit and people simply made the connections for themselves. But sometimes they need someone to say, hey, your religious principles are reflected in our political priorities and policies.

Which leads us to my comments about why Democrats shouldn't just talk about religion in black churches. In my mind, Republicans far too often use religion as a political tool, wielding religious language and appeals in a way that comes across as blatant pandering. Democrats can -- and should -- do better than that. The instinct to keep faith private is, by and large, a correct one. But Democrats who only talk about religion in black churches look just as guilty of pandering as Republicans who wield faith to ply votes.

No one is saying -- and I certainly have not said -- that John Kerry should start talking like an evangelical, that he needs to give testimonials about how much his experience as an altar boy has shaped his life, or that he should start spouting religious language that he doesn't believe just to make voters happy. Drawing on religious principles to explain to some voters why they should support him and his policies, however, is an entirely different matter and one that he and his campaign are starting to pursue in an extremely effective manner.

If what she says about being misunderstood in this article is true, it means that Jim VandeHei is a surprisingly lazy reporter. I've already not been impressed with his coverage of Howard Dean's faith, and this doesn't help any.

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