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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?

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