Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"i always feel i have to open my mouth / and every time i do / i offend someone / somewhere"

I read Molly's "Bald" post Monday afternoon, but didn't have the energy to comment.

Excerpt (emphases mine):
People know that I have a cancer diagnosis and am undergoing chemotherapy, so that gives me a lot of permission. I tire easily, am often hoarse or have mouth sores, so they know I have to use words sparingly. But I’ve taken the permission further, extended it not just to quantity, but to quality of words.

I don’t beat around the bush in emails anymore. I keep it short and sweet. And in in-person conversations, I just come out and say what’s on my mind, what I need, what my family needs, what I can’t bear, what my limits are, what I think is really going on. It has been very, very helpful in establishing boundaries.

And it is such a RELIEF. Maybe it’s a relief to other people, too. Maybe they were very patiently waiting for me to get to the point all these years. Maybe it’s not a relief! Maybe it’s been hard on people, this newly bald me, and they’ll tell me so when chemo is over.

Because the new baldness in speaking also extends to telling people some truths (from my perspective) about themselves. One of my seminary professors, Ellen Davis, said when we were studying the book of Proverbs, which has a lot to say about straight talk, that ‘criticism is a gift.’ I never forgot her words.

And even though I myself for decades have delicately wrapped (constructive) criticism in layers and layers of tissue paper before handing over the gift, I find that I prefer mine given to me straight, even if it’s pointy. Because wrapped in so much tissue, you sometimes miss the gift. It is almost embarrassing to find out that you have been hurting someone, or not living out of your best and highest self in a way that others have been noticing for some time, and you only just figured it out.

You would hope that people who really love you, will tell you when you have food in your teeth. And that they will also tell you when your behavior is harmful or irresponsible or selfish, or just infringing on their boundaries.
I myself have had people who love me confront me, baldly, a few times in my life, and even though it hurt like hell, I was so, so grateful for the gift. It’s not an exaggeration to say it quite markedly changed the course of my life.


So much of the time I think we (ministers especially! This is our fatal flaw!) are nice not because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, the holy thing to do, but because we are terrified people won’t like us if we aren’t. And they might not—that’s a risk we take. C.S. Lewis again: he said we are not called to be nice people, but to become new people.

The end result was, she was thoroughly apologetic and penitent (I think she hadn’t know about chemo, but still), and I bet she won’t forget her keys again. I probably embarrassed her very much. It’s partly my fault—I enabled her behavior for a long time, with my niceness, absorbing her irresponsibility at cost to myself and my family.

I’m not sure if I did the bald talk ‘right.’ It would have been better if I hadn’t been stressed, or if I’d sent a warning shot over the bow. I’ve been accused, and rightly so, of having no middle gear. But I don’t regret doing it. I want to practice doing it more!

We are never, never called to be cruel to each other, of course. That is self-indulgence and immaturity. But there must be a third way, between an enabling niceness that doesn’t call other people honestly to be the person (we believe) God wants them to be, and a disabling cruelty that undoes the other’s self-esteem.

There is something wonderfully refreshing about people just telling each other the plain truth. Not bursting forth in long-pent-up anger. Just enforcing boundaries or offering constructive criticism with brevity, and enough affect and kindness to keep it cool, but not so much that your ultimate meaning becomes obscured.
As I was first reading this, I was thinking, "But I've been growing in spiritual maturity learning NOT to be bluntly openly criticizingly honest all the time! How do you get to compellingly argue that I was right to begin with and shouldn't have been doing all this work?"

But of course as I read on, I was reminded that even "bald" honesty still needs to not be cruel.

I thought of how Laura Ruth commented that in the two years she's known me I've been able to be more gentle on myself and others -- not giving up on my own sense of what's right, but being more aware of the other people who are in the room with me and what their needs are.

I thought about my "Someone is WRONG on the Internet" impulse -- and how I want people to be correct "my way," often regardless of what their priorities/values/etc. might be.

My best friend recently related a conversation she had with someone about me:
Person: "All I heard from Elizabeth was complaining."
My best friend: "But that's how Elizabeth communicates."
We both, of course, know that that's not literally true all the time, but I refer you to ani difranco's "what if no one's watching":
we have to be able to criticize
what we love
say what we have to say
'cause if you're not trying to make something better
then as far as i can tell
you are just in the way
As I attempt to wrap up this post... I think of what Molly said about criticism being a "gift," and I think that'll be a helpful framework for me moving forward -- am I making this criticism because it will be a gift to the other person (and this includes clearly and firmly articulating and enforcing my own boundaries, because if people love and care about me then of course they don't want to harm me)?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This IS one of my spiritual gifts ;)

I've been (slowly) reading They Like to Never Quit Praisin' God (which is growing on me), and I hit this on page 82:
    The author was helped to understand the value of writing to quality and effective preaching upon reading A Writers' Time: A Guide to the Creative Process, from Vision through Revision.18  Though the book is written from the perspective of helping people write to publish, the insights about persuasive and effective writing, and the setting forth of methodology that leads to persuasive and effective writing, are an invaluable and immediate help for any preacher who desires to preach well.  In the future, homileticians must give much more attention to the discipline of writing to help increase the effectiveness of sermons.
Yes, the fact that I literally felt excited about the prospect of reading the cited book, even with my tiredness...

And even with my tiredness Sunday afternoon (as I finished writing my sermon for that night), I had a period of hitting that groove where I really loved working with the text (hi, Holy Spirit!), and the preaching went better than I'd expected and CAUMC-Meredith can attest to the fact that I was a little bit radiant afterward.

Monday, July 26, 2010

[22] "Children of the Living God" [Pentecost +9(C), CWM]

This is the text I preached off of. It was a draft, and I was tired, so what I actually preached had a lot more editorializing and extemporizing.

When I copied it from GoogleDocs into Word to print out for preaching, it erased the indenting I had put in to indicate notes I probably wouldn't use, so I ended up including some stuff I hadn't initially meant to. I've put those sections in small font and also edited them a bit to better reflect what I actually said (though for the most part I've left the text as-is, not editing it to be a verbatim of what I said aloud).

The Scripture texts (a mix of The Inclusive Bible and the NRSV) are at the bottom.


Proper 12C / Ordinary 17C / Pentecost +9 - July 25, 2010
Hosea 1:2-10
Psalm 85
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13
Children of the Living God

I did not realize, when I agreed to preach this Sunday, that the lectionary would be in Hosea at this point. I am stubborn in my desire to preach on all 4 lectionary texts, though. And I appreciate the way this passage ends:
"Yet the people of Israel will be as numerous as the sands of the seashore that can neither be measured nor counted. And one day, instead of it being said of them, 'You are not my people,' it will be said, 'You are the children of the living God.'"
Even in the stories of judgment, there is a promise of redemption.

This promise of redemption and provision is the theme of all of today's Scripture lessons.

The Psalm opens with a recollection of God's gracious favor -- and I don't mean "gracious" in the condescending sense of patronizing politeness; I mean full of grace. "The freely given, unmerited favor and love of God." God, you were favorable to your land and to your people, restoring their fortunes, forgiving their iniquity and pardoning their sin, withdrawing your wrath.

So where is that grace now?, the Psalmist begs. "Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?" How long, O God, how long?

God, your love for us is steadfast. Grant us, we beg, salvation.

And Paul reminds us that we HAVE salvation.

The law that bound us, all of our sins and transgressions, these have been crucified. And unlike Christ, they are NOT resurrected. Their power over us is dead.

We share in the hope of the Psalmist. For Jesus promises us, just as you would provide food for your child, or a friend who stopped by unexpectedly, or a neighbor who is banging on your door, so much more will the Mother-Father who loves us beyond comprehension give us good gifts to nurture and sustain us.

The Lukan version of the "Our Father" is strikingly brief, at least to me who has grown up with the version complete with doxology.

I make no secret of the fact that I really don't like The Message version of the Bible, but I do kind of like some of how it articulates this prayer.
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
This simplifies the prayer in a way that I think gets lost in the lengthier version I grew up with.

We call God by name -- a name that puts us in intimate comforting nurturing relationship with God. For some people that is "Father," or "Mother," or "Abba," or one of many other names. Jesus' purpose here isn't to give us the One True Name of God (the Jews who were listening to this already knew that name -- it was the Tetragrammaton) but to remind us of the kind of relationship with have with this God, to name that relationship. This name is just as holy as any of the others. The immanent God who is with us in the sticky, bloody, sweaty, muddy, weepy, mess of being human is just as holy as the transcendent God we contemplate in the ivory tower after a good night's sleep in the air-conditioning, when maybe we are comfortable enough to take our bodies for granted, comfortable enough to slip into that sin of forgetting that God created us as embodied beings and called that incarnation Good.

We call upon the God who birthed us and blessed us -- we call upon that same Spirit which moved over the waters at Creation and which moves in us now, keeping our heart beating even when we are deep asleep and not conscious of anything, even when we are so overwhelmed with all the stressors of life that the last thing we can remember to do is breathe. And we recognize this creative, embodying, power as good.

We ask for sustenance for our bodies -- just for today, just enough to sustain us for today, trusting that tomorrow carries enough of its own worry, asking for all that we need to make it through the day, trusting that God will provide.

And just as we acknowledge the needs of our bodies, so we acknowledge the needs of our souls. Earlier in the prayer we asked that God's kindom come -- that God's New Heaven and New Earth break in to our reality, radically transforming this broken world into a commonwealth of shalom, of peace and wholeness. At this moment in the prayer, we acknowledge our role as co-creators of this shalom. Like all Jews, we are called to tikkun olam -- the repair of the world. If we are to live in a world characterized by radical grace and forgiveness -- and who doesn't? I for one have much I need to be forgiven for -- then we need to forgive others as well. This is usually framed as a conditional -- "forgive us as we forgive others" -- which troubles me, because I need far more expansive forgiveness from God than I am capable of offering others ... and it doesn't square with my understanding of a God of grace for me to languish unforgiven until I've grown in spiritual maturity sufficient to be able to forgive others. The Inclusive Bible says, "forgive us, for we too forgive those who have sinned against us" -- forgive us because we forgive others; forgiving others is something even we flawed human beings can do, so certainly God should be able to do it. There's a long Jewish tradition of reminding God, "Hey, you're really righteous -- this threat you're making doesn't square with that -- wanna rethink the threat?" Here we remind God of Her obligation to forgive us -- and we also remind ourselves of our own obligation to forgive others. We are called to be the Body of Christ in the world, and if the heart of Christianity is radical grace and forgiveness, then we are called to forgive others as God would.

I like the way The Inclusive Bible rewrites the traditional, "Ask, and you shall receive," in the latter portion of Jesus' speech. Traditionally, it feels rather like magic words -- ask for anything and God will give it to you ("Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?"). And if God doesn't give it to you, it's because you don't have enough faith or whatever. But here, Jesus encourages persistence. I was initially somewhat uncomfortable with the story -- your neighbor (God) may not give what you need just because you're friends, but if you pester enough you'll wear her down. Though, okay, the Complementary reading today (we're in the Semi-Continuous) is Abraham bargaining with God -- moving God from, "I'm going to destroy this entire city," to, "Okay, if there are even ten righteous people in the entire city I'll spare the whole city."

But here, Jesus says, "Keep asking and you'll receive; keep looking and you'll find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you." This is less about beating your head against the same door over and over again, and more about a spirit of persistence. The seemingly obvious places we look first may not provide us with what we seek, but God will provide. We may have to look in unexpected places, but we will find what we need.

The Psalmist describes in detail what the kindom promise looks like:
10Love and faithfulness have met;
justice and peace have embraced.
11Fidelity will sprout from the earth
and justice will lean down from heaven.
12HaShem will give us what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
13Justice will march before you, HaShem,
and peace will prepare the way for your steps.
"Justice will march before God, and peace will prepare the way for God's steps."

We are called to prepare the way for God.

The NRSV says, "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet. Righteousness and peace will kiss each other. God will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase." Righteousness will go before God, making a path for God, leading God to us -- and us to God.

But while we are co-creators, we are reminded that we are not solely responsible for this. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead of us -- building God's kindom of Shalom? Possibly above my paygrade.

Here I think Paul is useful.

Paul is responding to a situation in a church where new leaders have come in and set up all sorts of rules about how we are to be "good enough." Paul says, No, you have all you need in Christ.

Paul talks a lot about circumcision -- in his Jewish lawyer way. I'm going to talk about baptism.

In our baptism, we were buried with Christ. The first sermon I preached was on baptism -- on Jesus' baptism specifically -- and I talked about repentance, about turning away from our old life and turning toward God, about starting over. But Paul is much starker here. We die to who we were.

All that separated you from the love of God has been nailed to the Cross -- it is dead and has no power over you.

But we, we have been resurrected with Christ. And NOTHING can separate you from the love of God in Christ.

The fullness of Deity dwells bodily in Christ, and we have come to fullness in Christ.

So we are called to grow in Christ. Do not let anyone say that you are not worthy. All you are called to do is to grow, nourished by the lifeforce of the universe.

The NRSV phrases the end of Hosea as: In the place where it was said to them, "You are not my people," it shall be said to them, "Children of the living God."

"In the place where it was said of them..."

The places that have rejected you, that have said you are not worthy, that have said you do not belong... they will be transformed by the radical lifechanging grace of Jesus Christ.

We are empowered to help in that transformational process, and we are also blessed with communities that meet us right where we are, that love us for who we are and who we are becoming.

The good news is that we have communities that will provide for us.

The challenge is that we are called to BE that community.

My best friend's pastor once said that "church is not the place we pretend to be well."

We bring our whole selves, and together we are the wounded, resurrected Body of Christ. We show each other our wounds, and we remind each other of God's resurrecting power and grace.


Hosea 1:2-10

      2When HaShem first spoke to Hosea, HaShem said, "Go! Marry a prostitute and beget children of prostitution! For the land is guilty of the most hideous kind of prostitution by forsaking her God."
      3So Hosea married Gomer bat-Diblaim, who conceived and bore a son. 4Then God said to Hosea, "Name him Jezreel, for soon I will take my revenge on the house of Jeru for the slaughter at Jezreel, and I will destroy the dominion of Israel. 5On that day, I will smash Israel's bow in the valley of Jezreel."
      6Then Gomer conceived again and bore a daughter. God said to Hosea, "Name her Lo-ruhamah--'No Compassion'--for I will no longer hold dear the house of Israel, nor will I forgive them. 7But I will hold dear the house of Judah and will rescue them--not by the bow or by the sword or by battle or by horses or riders, but by HaShem their God."
      8Once Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived again, and bore another son. 9God said:
      "Name him La-ammi--'Not my People'--for you are not my people and I will not be your God.
      10"Yet the people of Israel will be as numerous as the sands of the seashore that can neither be measured nor counted. And one day, instead of it being said of them, 'You are not my people,' it will be said, 'You are the children of the living God.'"

Psalm 85

1HaShem, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Israel.
2You forgave the iniquity of your people;
You pardoned all their sin.
3You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation toward us.
5Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
6Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
7Show us your steadfast love, HaShem,
and grant us your salvation.

8Let me hear what you have to say, HaShem--
for you will speak peace to your people,
to those who turn to you in their hearts.
9Your salvation is near for those who revere you
and your glory will dwell in our land.
10Love and faithfulness have met;
justice and peace have embraced.
11Fidelity will sprout from the earth
and justice will lean down from heaven.
12HaShem will give us what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
13Justice will march before you, HaShem,
and peace will prepare the way for your steps.

Colossians 2:6-19

      6Since you have received Christ Jesus, live your whole life in our Savior. 7Send your roots deep and grow strong in Christ--firmly established in the faith you've been taught, and full of thanksgiving. 8Make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some secondhand, empty, and deceptive philosophy that is based on principles of the world instead of Christ.
      9In Christ the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, 10and in Christ you find your own fulfillment--in the One who is the head of every Sovereignty and Power. 11In Christ you have been given the Covenant through a transformation performed not by human hands, but by the complete cutting off of your body of flesh. This is what "circumcision" in Christ means. 12In baptism you were not only buried with Christ but also raised to life, because you believed in the power of God who raised Christ from the dead. 13And though you were dead in sin and did not have the Covenant, God gave you new life in company with Christ, pardoning all our sins. 14God has canceled the massive debt that stood against us with all its hostile claims, taking it out of the way and nailing it to the cross. 15In this way, God disarmed the Principalities and the Powers and made a public display of them after having triumphed over them at the Cross.
      16From now on, don't let anyone pass judgment on you because of what you eat or drink, or whether you observe festivals, new moons or Sabbaths. 17These are mere shadows of the reality that is to come; the substance is Christ. 18Don't let those who worship angels and enjoy self-abasement judge you. These people go into great detail about their visions, and their worldly minds keep puffing up their already inflated egos. 19These people are cut off from the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Luke 11:1-13

1After Jesus had finished praying one day, one of the disciples asked, "Rabbi, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples."
      2Jesus said to them, "When you pray, say,
'Mommy-Daddy God,
hallowed be your Name!
May your reign come.
3Give us each day
our daily bread.
4Forgive us our sins
for we too forgive everyone who sins against us;
and don't let us be subjected to the Test.'"
      5Jesus said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, a neighbor, and you go to your neighbor at midnight and say, 'Lend me three loaves of bread, 6because friends of mine on a journey have come to me, and I have nothing to set before them.'
      7"Then your neighbor says, 'Leave me alone. The door is already locked and the children and I are in bed. I can't get up to look after your needs.' 8I tell you, though your neighbor will not get up to give you the bread out of friendship, your persistence will make your neighbor get up and give you as much as you need.
      9"That's why I tell you, keep asking and you'll receive; keep looking and you'll find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you. 10For whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds; whoever knocks, is admitted. 11What parents among you will give a snake to their child when the child asks for a fish, 12or a scorpion when the child asks for an egg? 13If you, with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will our heavenly Parent give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?"

Sunday, July 18, 2010

pastoral care: parishioners with mental illness

I recently read Howard W. Stone's Depression and Hope: New Insights for Pastoral Counseling -- which I was optimistic about based on the table of contents, etc., but which failed to live up to that optimism.

From page 67:
Obviously some depression is so severe that it requires hospitalization. The vast majority of melancholics seen by ministers and other church professionals are only mildly depressed, however, and will benefit from skillful pastoral care. [...] As a rule of thumb, ministers do best to see mildly and some moderately depressed individuals, referring the more serious cases to pastoral counseling specialists or mental-health professionals. Both minister and congregation, however, still offer support and pastoral visitation to seriously depressed members who are on medications, have periodic psychotherapy, or are in and out of psychiatric hospitals throughout their lifetimes.
The author doesn't really elaborate on what this "support" would look like, and I am genuinely curious -- you who are in pastoral ministry or pursuing that vocation -- What do you do if you have a parishioner who struggles with severe depression that includes suicidal ideation and self-harm impulses? This hypothetical parishioner has a qualified psychotherapist they see weekly, is on psychiatric medication that seems to be working fairly well, and is "high-functioning" enough to hold down a steady job and present as "fine." But this person was also suicidal enough to go in-patient at a psychiatric hospital for a few days recently. As their pastor, what do you see as your role in their support system? (They have explicitly stated that one thing they need is more one-on-one time with you. How frequent do you imagine that one-on-one time to be? What do you imagine those pastoral care sessions might entail? What do you do if you have a lot of other time commitments -- e.g., a second job, a family, commitments to other justice organizations -- where do you place these pastoral care sessions in your prioritizing of your time?)

I would be hard-pressed to "define" pastoral care (though I'm developing ideas), and I am really interested in what actual pastors would say in answer to this question. (And also what parishioners might want pastors to say.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

permission to be ordinary

I just read a post by Cat Valente, about how we all want to be Protagonists of a Big Exciting Story, and at the end of the post she says:
But every day it doesn't happen, and the water bill has to be paid, and the rent still goes up, and no one has a flying car, and we can't even see the magic of our handheld, world-networked devices because if we were living in the future it would be a better story, and no one would feel lost the way we do, and no one would be confused as to where they stood, and no one would be unsatisfied, or afflicted with ennui, and everyone would be a hero.

And if we were the final generation, cradled in the hands of an angry God, no one could ever say we were ordinary.
And my immediate reaction (channeling my best friend's sermon) was, "But the good news is that we are ordinary."

As I was reading Cat's post, I often found myself thinking, "I do not want the Apocalypse to come, because I have no useful skills in case of apocalypse, and it would not be a good experience at all." And when I got to the end and channeled the opening line of Ari's sermon, I thought that yeah, it is good news that we are ordinary. We do not have to be Exciting Protagonists. We just have to live our own lives, to live into who God created us to be.

And each of ours is a beautiful story. We are, each one of us is, a bright brilliant beloved child of God who is so so beautiful to behold. God gives us permission to be ordinary. God says that we are beloved just as we are.

(Interestingly, I was thinking about Christine Lavin's "Katy Says Today Is the Best Day of My Whole Entire Life" earlier today.)