Thursday, December 30, 2010

Aspergers and the DSM

National Public Radio had a story yesterday about the upcoming changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or DSM, which will come out with a new edition in a few years.  The DSM is basically the bible of psychiatry, so whatever gets into the DSM makes a big impact in the wider society.

Back in 1994, when the DSM was last updated, Aspergers was added.  I think for people like myself who stumbled around for years wondering what was wrong with them, adding Aspergers to the DSM was a godsend.  However, some don't think it was a good idea. 

In a small condo on the beach in San Diego lives Allen Frances, who blames himself for what he calls the "Epidemic of Asperger's." Frances edited the last edition of the DSM, and he's also the new DSM's most prominent critic.

Frances is the one who put the word Asperger's in the DSM in the first place, thereby making it an official mental disorder.

In the editions before Frances was editor, there was an entry for autism, but it was defined by severe symptoms. Frances says doctors felt the diagnosis for autism didn't cover a more mild disorder they were actually encountering.

"Pediatricians and child psychiatrists would see kids who could talk but who had social discomfort — severe social discomfort — and awkwardness and a very restricted and impairing level of interests and activities, and they wanted a diagnosis for this," Frances says.

A study was done to figure out how common Asperger's was, and the results were clear: It was vanishingly rare. Then Frances put it in the DSM, and the number of kids diagnosed with the disorder exploded. Frances remembers sitting in his condo reading articles about this new epidemic of Asperger's that was sweeping the nation.
Frances then talks about how schools have created an incentive to allow kids that might be a bit eccentric the chance to have one-on-one learning instead of being mainstreamed.

A few thoughts:

My mother told me shortly after I got my diagnosis that she had asked doctors on more than one occasion if something was going on behaviorally.  The doctors all assured her things were okay, and to some extent, they were.  But this was also the 1970s and early 80s and if anyone knew about autism, it was about the more severe Kanner's Autism.  I was a kid who could talk pretty early and the only issue was that I was a bit odd.  That didn't fit what was the definition of autism back then.

Moving to the present, I can say that it has been incredibly helpful to know what I'm dealing with.  For years, I bounced from job to job doing things that would enrage my associates and not knowing why.  I would try certain jobs that just were a disaster.  After ordination, I would do things that would upset people and not even know I was doing something to piss people off until it was too late.

The thing is, having a diagnosis has allowed me to see what I can do, what I can't do, and what things I need to learn and overcome.  I don't have to stumble around in the dark anymore thinking that I'm a terrible person.

Has the diagnosis been overused?  I don't know.  But we've also seen a spike in people getting diabetes and we aren't suggesting those diagnoses are overused.

Maybe there are problems when a new illness enters the DSM, but I think I'd rather err on the side of doing too much instead of too little.  The costs of diagnosing someone with Aspergers might be high, but the cost of not doing anything results in loss productivity, stress, depression and other problems. 

My life has been changed for the better because I got a diagnosis of Aspergers.  It would be nice if Dr. Frances saw that.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Come and Visit My Church

A few years ago, I got a call from someone who wanted to visit Community of Grace, the church start that I did a few years ago.  The person wanted to know about the church and it seemed they were interested in benig part of a church with a big choir and all that.  Well, we didn't have all that.  At best, we were a bunch of folks who came together to worship God.  The person didn't sound pleased, and hung up right away.

Part of being a pastor is trying to create relationships that hopefully will bring people into the doors of a church or gathered community.  I've been fascinated to see how Steve and Rebecca Haney who are leading a new Disciples church plant in Rochester, Minnesota are growing their community.  Steve has told me about how he has gone to various community meetings to strike up conversations that then lead at some point to faith. 

I look on all that with envy, because it's not something I can do.  I've said this time and time again, but being autistic makes the kind of social engagement that Steve does very hard for me.  I don't want to give the impression that I'm blaming Asperger's for everything, I'm just stating what I know.  But I don't think it's impossible for someone with Aspergers to be able to talk about their faith: it's just harder.

But this all means trying to learn the artform of talking and sharing that seems so foreign to me.  What I'm good at is sharing information, which is what I do for a living.  But sharing information and sharing your life with someone are two different things.  I think I'm learning to share my life with others, but it's still an uphill climb.

This all leads to inviting someone to come to First Christian in Minneapolis.  Again, I'm not good at the art of persuasion, just sharing information.  But I think I can use my information, my observations to paint a story on why this church is special, so here goes.

First Christian is not a big church.  We are a small church of about 100-120 members.  We were a big church a long time ago, but people left and the church has grown smaller.  So, we aren't the big, downtown church.  We are the small, urban church.

If you come to our present building on a Sunday morning you will see about 80 people gathered in a sanctuary that seats about 800.  That might seem rather pathetic and I know it saddens a lot of the long time members.

But I think that this church still rocks and I think you should come to this church.  And it's not because it has two, slammin' pastors. ;)

First are the kids.  We don't have a lot of kids, but these kids are special to us.  They are the "little theologians" who teach us how to be followers of Jesus.  They aren't just trotted out during a service to show off how cute they are, but they are becoming a part of our worship and formational life.  In their simple words of faith, they can run circles around those of us with advanced degrees in church stuff.

Second, is the mission.  This church likes to think it is not engaged in mission- not like the big churches down the street.  No, we don't do mission that way.  But I've never seen a more engaged bunch of folks willing to "get dirty for Jesus."  When I ask people to pack food for hungry kids around the world, people show up.  When I ask them to spend a day at food pantry or donate items for former homeless persons, they are present and accounted for.  When asked to help a ministry half-way around the world, they do so.  This church has people involved in refugee resettlement, prayer shawl ministry and other works of compassion.  They tend to "punch above their weight" in how many people in the church participate in acts of mercy and justice.

Third, is the committment to inclusivity.  A lot of churches talk about being inclusive, especially to gay and lesbian folk, but this church really practices it.  There aren't a lot of churches that would accept having an openly gay person as one of their pastors and yet this church has.  But it's not just me- this is the kind of church where a kid who grew up in the congregation can feel safe enough come out at the Christmas Eve service.  True story.  This is the kind of church where a straight woman who loves kids decides to start a ministry for gay youth and the church allows her to follow where she feels God is leading.  And they even throw some money at her to help. 

This isn't a "program" church.  First was a program kind of congregation years ago, but it at its present size, it's far more pastoral than program.  So if you come to visit, don't expect a youth program or outreach program.  Instead, you will find a woman who is excitied to teach one or two teens or the young adults coming together to make cookies for persons with HIV/AIDS and the like.

First Christian isn't going to be a church for everyone.  If you want a church with  programs and lot of people your age, then we aren't going to be your church.  If you want a church that's packed with people, then we aren't your church.  There are lots of other churches in the Twin Cities to fulfill those purposes.

But, if you want a church where people will welcome you not just to be nice, but because they really want to know you, this can be a church for you.  If you want to get active in ministies of justice and have ideas, this might be your church.  If you want a community that cares for each other and welcomes those outside its small circle, then this is your place.  If you are a gay person that hasn't felt loved by a church before, this can be your church.  If you are autistic and wonder if a church could accept your "oddities," then this is the place for you.  You get the point?

As a pastor, I'm probably not supposed to brag about the church I serve, but I do think it is pretty awesome how God has used this little church in Minneapolis.  I may not be the best "salesperson" but I hope you will come and visit sometime.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Quiet Spirit

If there is anything that I've learned over the last two years as the Associate Pastor is how to be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit moving.  I've learned to try to not be so invested in plans and theories and just watch how God works through the people in this congregation.

It's been cool to see how the Spirit has been moving in a church that so many think is out of energy and spent.  I've seen the Spirit in little kids, young parents and elderly grandmothers.  I've seen the Spirit in a Sunday School class with three little kids, a Wednesday night bible study where two 60-something women learn the Bible anew, a  from an 80-something woman who decided to start a new ministry.

I was reminded of how the Holy Spirit works in a recent blog post I found at the Christian Century.  Written by Steve Wooley, a retired Episcopal priest who goes by the name Country Parson, he writes about the endurance of small, rural congregations.  The last paragraph of this post could also apply to small, urban congregations as well:

It requires an openness to a subtle indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By subtle presence I mean an atmosphere of the Spirit’s presence, unseen and unheard, yet there. I don’t think you can make that happen whether by loud proclamation or through sophisticated consulting. A small rural congregation without that subtle presence may indeed be declining and dying, and we have all seen that happen. One with that subtle presence will probably continue from generation to generation as long as there are generations to be had.
Wooley is saying that what sustains a congregation, what makes it grow (not simply in numbers, but in faith) is that indwelling of the Spirit.  But the thing is, it doesn't happen in a loud way.  It doesn't happen in a way that anyone can see.  It also doesn't happen because of a special method that some transformation consultant is selling.  It happens in quiet and unbecoming ways that are not easy to see, but if someone has a heart that is willing, will see the Spirit and a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

I know that Wooley was talking about rural congregations, but I can see how this could apply to congregations like First Christian.  I've had to learn to put aside expectations for big numbers and just let the Spirit work and I have seen it work.

I think sometimes we can get so wrapped up in numbers, so wanting to find some program or path to change that will make the church what it once was, that we forget God.  In doing that, we miss out on the wonderful journey of God and we miss seeing how God's Spirit is still powering the church after all these years.

The gathered community called church is alive with the Spirit, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Too Much Information

One of the things I've discovered since my Aspergers diagnosis a few years ago is that I have sensory overload.  I know that shouldn't be a shock to anyone that has an autistic disorder  or for someone who knows someone on the spectrum, but there it is.  I see it most often on Sundays after church, but it makes itself known at other times as well.

On Sundays, I will come home and have to take a nap, even on Sundays when I don't preach, which is most Sundays since the Senior Pastor does most of the preaching.  I know other pastors that will chime in and say "me too!" when it comes to preaching.  But while it might be the same, it's a bit different for me. Maybe the best way to describe this is that I feel at times like a laptop that runs on it battery far too long.  After a while, the battery starts to cause the laptop to get hot and soon thereafter, the battery is out of juice.  My brain is sorta like that.  I run low and I need to "plug-in" after worship.

Being pastor, even part-time is a very people-intensive job.  You are constantly dealing with people who want to talk to you about anything and everything.  Then there is the constant worrying that you'll say the right thing during worship or properly greet someone after worship.  Pastors also have to engage in a bit of small talk with their flock and always greet the new folks.

This is draining for neurotypical folks, but it is just deadly for those of us with Aspergers.  The battery is run down to nothing. I come home on Sunday afternoon not as much needing a nap, as needing time with no people to interact with- at least for an hour or so.

Seeing all of this might make one wonder why I'm even a pastor.  I've wondered that myself at times.  But I think that as much as this position can tax my senses, I've learned better people skills and at the very lear, I've learned how to "act human."  Plus, I've learned so much about the people I worship with that it can make some of this all worthwhile.

But this all means that I have to learn my limits.  I have to learn to get away when my brain gets overloaded (or overheated, if I use the laptop analogy).  It means, I can't always give 100 percent when it comes to something people-intensive, but I try to give at least 90 percent. 

Life is a balance: learning to appreciate you limitations and allowing yourself to be stretched as well.  This all reminds me just how complex my life truly is.

Monday, November 29, 2010


I wanted to share this blog post by Kara Root, a Presbyterian pastor in Minneapolis about how a certain Presbytery I happen to work for had a debate on one word. It's worth a read about ministry in our current context where fear seems to abound.

Sunday Sermon: November 28, 2010

“Unsafe at Any Speed”
Matthew 24:36-44; Isaiah 2:1-5
November 28, 2010
Advent 1
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

In the Spring of 1990, I was a junior at Michigan State University.  For Spring Break that year, I went on a trip to retreat center outside of Norman, Oklahoma.  We drove caravan-style from East Lansing, Michigan all the way to Norman.  Now, one of the people responsible for driving was a fellow student, a sophomore named Ray.  Ray’s Dad worked at Ford and was able to get company cars to drive around.  Somehow, Ray was able to get his dad to let him use a company car on this trip.  Said company car happened to be a Ford Taurus. 
So, I ended up in Ray’s car as we drove from Michigan.  We stopped at some point for lunch in Missiouri.  I remember being in the parking lot of a fast-food joint and a group decided they wanted to go to Arby’s across the street.  Ray thought this was a good time for me to drive the car.

Now, this was a bad decision for three reasons.  First, the car was a stick shift, and I had never driven a car with a manual transmission.  Second to get to the Arby’s you had to go uphill…in a stickshift.  The third reason is that this Taurus wasn’t any ordinary car, but what is called among car geeks, the Taurus SHO.  SHO stands for super high output and it is a souped up version of this plain family sedan.  The original SHO, which this car was, had an engine made by Yahmaha, the motocycle company.  Maybe if I had know I was driving a demon maskquerading as family sedan, I would have declined driving Ray’s car, but ignorance is bliss, so I went ahead and tried to drive the car.

I repeat, I tried to drive the car.  Trying to remember to deal with the clutch was bad enough.  The car would rev up (another bad sign) and then I would stall it.  Start it again, the engine would rev, car would stall. 
After many fits and starts, I got it up the hill and now was attempting the most challenging maneuver: trying to make a left turn, up a hill, and into the parking lot.  I can still remember Ray saying something like “hit the gas” and I did just that.

Seconds later I had made the left turn into the parking lot and I’m pretty sure that everyone knew it.  Why?  Because when I hit the gas, I literally peeled rubber. The care sprung to life, and for a split second I felt like I was part of NASCAR.  The tires squealed, and I roared into the parking lot of Arby’s complete with the smell of burning rubber.

It was safe to say that I never did drive that car again. 

If there was any lesson to be learned, other than never try to learn to drive stick in a race car, it was learning to appreciate the power I was dealing with.  After my experience, I learned to apprciate the sheer power underneath the hood of this car and most importantly, that this was no ordinary car.  It was not safe.

The passage today found in book of Matthew is an odd one for this time of year.  This the first Sunday of Advent, a time when we prepare the coming of the Christ child, and it is during this time that we tend to get sentimental.  We like to sing Christmas hymns (even though it isn’t Christmas yet) about a little child born in Bethlehem.  We have images of a manger with the baby Jesus and animals milling about.  It all looks so peaceful and oh so very…safe.

And yet, here is this passage from the Bible where a grownup Jesus is talking about  the coming of the Son of Man and not knowing the hour and about being ready.  And if we read further on, there would be stories of ten bridesmaids that were locked out of wedding party and a tale about sheep and goats, reward and punishment.  None of this looks peaceful or bucolic. 

Growing up, many people thought this was about the second coming of Jesus and the lesson here is that we need to get saved and get right with God so that we won’t be “left behind.” 

But what if Jesus wasn’t just talking about future time, but was talking about the present time?  What if Jesus wasn’t talking about just about the judgement that is to come, but the judgement of Jesus now?

When Jesus spoke to his followers, he might just have been talking about his own time.  There were many who wanted things to be as they were and missed seeing the Messiah, God’s anointed right in front of them.  Many of the religious leaders of that time missed out on Jesus, because they refused to see him.  They were not ready to for the coming of the Son of Man.

If you read the gospels, you always find that the people one would expect to be ready for Christ’s coming would be most unprepared.  The religious leaders like the Pharisees tended to think that they knew all about God and about the coming of the Messiah and Jesus wasn’t it.  A man that ate with sinners and broke the religious laws, someone who was disruptive to their way of life, how could this man be the Messiah?

And yet, Jesus was the Messiah, the one who came to those who hearts were prepared for his coming, the outcasts, the forgotten, even the villians.  They were ready to hear the message of the Son of Man.

For us modern folk, the message here is to be ready for when Jesus returns.  We can hear in this text of that future day when Jesus will come and we must give an accounting of how we cared for our sisters and our brothers.  But the message is also that Jesus comes today and everyday.  God comes in our daily lives and we must have the eyes to see when Jesus breaksthrough.

All of this talk about the coming of God and God’s judgement is not what we expect in Advent.  We want that sweet baby Jesus.  But Advent reminds us that Jesus is not safe.   Jesus keeps on barging into our lives and messing up our plans.  Jesus points out that we don’t have it all together and that we need to get right with him.  Jesus  power to heal, to love the unlovable reminds us that we are dealing with something more power than anything we ever imagined.

What if we lived waiting for the coming of Chirst, not knowing the time when Jesus might arrive?  What would this church look like if we spent time doing works of justice towards those in need in preparation of Christ’s return?  What if we thought that in the face of the poor or the outcast we might encounter the Living Christ.

Advent is a time for preparing and waiting for the Christ, but it is also a time we are reminded that God is not safe.  We can get ready for wild ride with Jesus, but we can’t domesticate or tame Jesus.

In C.S. Lewis’ novel The Lion , The Witch and The Wardrobe, there is a conversation about the nature of Aslan.  The children in the story find out that Aslan is not a man but a lion and knowing about the power of lions, the kids are scared.  One of the children, named Susan asks,”Is he quite safe?  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  Mrs. Beaver replies, "That you will, dearie, and no mistake, if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else silly."

Then Susan’s sister Lucy asks, "Then he isn't safe?" That prompts Mr. Beaver to tells the young girl, "Safe? Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."
The problem today with the church is that we want to worship a safe God, one that is controllable and predictable.  But God isn’t safe.  We should live out our faith with fear and trembling.  But know that God is good as well. 

Twenty years ago, I didn’t know the power of that Ford Taurus.  Don’t be the same way of God.  We worship a power God of love and judgement.  Be prepared to meet Jesus now. Today.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Listening to the Young (Adults)

It's interesting being in a congregation undergoing massive change.

Since First Christian sold its building in 2008, we've been deciding what to do next.  In September a vote was taken on deciding on four options: 1) a move to a new building; 2) a house church; 3) move into a shared space with two other churches; 4) close.  Options 2 and 4 got the lowest votes and now it's down 1 and 3.

Every so often, the taskforce charged with looking into these options get together and talk.  Sometimes we report about what is the talk within the congregation.  More often than not, the talk is always coming from one group: those in their 70s, 80s and even 90s.

For whatever reason, the views of this group is made known.  But what's interesting is that another group's views are seldom if ever mentioned: those under 40.  There isn't a large group of them at church, but they exist.  What's interesting is that no one has every really asked this group what they think about what's going on which is kind of odd: this is the group of folks that this church wants to attract and in some ways, their views seem to be ignored.

I know it's not intentional.  And no, I'm not saying the views of the older people don't matter.  But why aren't we taking the time to prod this group for insight to what the church is to be and do in this age, and moreso why aren't we asking them how they are doing?

Carol Howard Merritt's latest post is basically asking the same question.  This portion of her post is a keeper: often we want people to enter our churches and begin caring about all of the traditions and cultural norms that concern us, but we don’t always take the time to meet them at the level of the ashtray. We neglect to find out what concerns them, what is important to them, and how we can work together.

Maybe the best way to attract younger folks is not with cool music or good coffee (though the latter is important in my book), but maybe it's by actually being concerned with their lives; wondering how they are doing, how the congregation can best help them and, well, how to be church to them.

The young adults at our church are fascinating people and have ideas and thoughts that are of value to this community called First Christian.  And the young adults at congregations all across the nation are people with questions and ideas that we need to pay attention to.

Let's not ignore the old, but let's listen the young in our midst- even if they are few in number.  What they have to say might surprise us.

Sex and the Aspie

This blog post is really not work safe or for little ones or for those uncomfortable chatting up sexual issues in public.  That said, it is a good account about how someone with Aspergers deals with sex and all the miscues she deals with.

Let's just say it reminds me of my own odd journey.  That's all I'm gonna say.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Do You Go To Church?

Christian Century book review editor Richard Kaufmann wonders why people bother to go to church:

When I sit in church on Sunday mornings, I sometimes look around at the other congregants and ask myself, "Why are these people here? Why did they choose to come to church?" Some people prefer staying at home to leisurely read the Sunday paper, or go out for a relaxed Sunday brunch. Why have these people given up their precious spare time to be here?

Not only is church attendance going down, but those who do go to church do so less frequently. As Lovett Weems points out in a recent Century article, the definition of a regular attendee has changed from someone who is there almost every Sunday to one who attends perhaps only two Sundays out of a month. And yet 38 percent of Americans report being an active member of a church or other religious organization. Many keep coming back to church for some reason.
Kauffman then answers his own question:

I can't speak for others, but here is why I go to church. I go first of all to meet God, to be in God's presence. I go also to make connection with other people who share many of my foundational convictions and commitments. I go to find meaning in life, to make sense of my life and to search for guidance on how I should live out my life.

In other words, I go to church to be part of something bigger than myself, to join my storyline with one that started long before I made my appearance in this life and will continue beyond my earthly existence.

This has led me to wonder why I go to church.  Of course, I can answer, "I'm one of the pastors," but that doesn't really work.  The reason I go to church is because this is the place that I am reminded of God's Spirit which moves throughout all of creation.  As much as people say they can worship in a forest or bowling alley, it is at a church surrounded by that odd group of people who come and gather that I am reminded of God's wider action in the world.  It is through these fellow folks on a journey that I know that God is afoot in creation.

Every Sunday I head down to the Sunday School room where the little kids come to learn about the Bible.  It is through the kids that I am reminded of what it means to be a servant of God.  The elderly gentleman in his 90s reminds me that we are never done learning about God and finding ways to love God.  The musicians are able to connect me with the Holy One in ways that words sometimes fail to do.

That's why I go to church.  How about you?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Acting, Aspergers and Sundays

Gavin Bollard has a good blog post on how persons with Aspergers tend to be actors:

I think that aspies tend to be good at acting because they spend so much of their daily lives acting - and from a very early age.

For example, it's true that aspies often don't get jokes (although you rarely hear us complaining when neurotypicals don't get ours). Young aspies quickly learn that it's easier to "act like you got the joke" than it is to take the brunt and embarrassment of being the only one who didn't. We are quite often called upon to "act amused".

Then there are those sad and solemn occasions where sometimes we feel intense waves of emotion - and sometimes we don't. Again, honesty in these situations leads to ostracisation. Sometimes it's simply better to "act sad" or "act shocked".

For years, when there was a time of sadness, like a death, I would try to force emotions and even at times "act sad."

These days, the time that I tend to act the most tends to be on Sundays when I'm at church.  Being a pastor is probably not the best vocation for someone with Aspergers.  What I've learned over the years is that pastoring is an incredibly people-intensive duty that can wear even neurotypicals out.  But I believe God called me to this, so I learn to "fake it."  I've learned (the hard way) to be more outgoing, more willing to engage in small talk and listen to folk.  It's wearing and there are times I want to run and hide, but it's important, and I do get to learn more about the people at church.

Acting is something people with Aspergers have to do if they want to get anywhere in life, especially if we want to remain employed.

Gavin concludes by saying that there is a price to paid for all this acting:

Acting can be very tiring work. You can't expect the aspie to "act normal" all of the time. Aspies who are doing a lot of acting will often find that they need more sensory breaks and alone time than when they're not acting.

Indeed. Which is usually why after church, I have to take a nap just to "recharge."

I don't want to give people the impression that being an Aspie pastor is one big chore. A few Sundays ago, I was at church for six hours during the Trunk or Treat event. I left tired and "peopled out" but I was also jazzed about the ministry that was going on at church.

Acting can be draining, but it's also damn rewarding.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Dealing With Suicide

There's a church in the eastern metro of the Twin Cities that is hosting an event on suicide prevention.  This Presbyterian congregation has made mental illness and health a primary ministry, so it's not that shocking that they would do something on suicide and helping know the warning signs.

What's interesting is that there is no mention of the whole rash of suicide because of sexual orientation.  This is a just an event on teens an suicide.

I know this sounds bad, coming from a gay man, but I'm kind of glad this at least from the announcement, about helping people be more aware of teen suicides and how we can best prevent them from happening.

In light of the most recent suicide attributed to bullying of a gay teen, I've been wondering about how the wider community has been responding to all of this.  Most of the time it's been with anger and cries that "something must be done."  I don't want to ignore the problem of homophobia, but there I am concerned in all the hue and cry, what is being left out is the mental illness aspect of suicide.  We aren't talking about the depression that kids can face, and we aren't talking about how we need to have professionals teach kids how to help their friends who are facing emotional issues. My fear is that this has become yet another issue in the culture wars; ignoring the issues of depression that might be a part of this.

I think suicide is one of those things that are sometimes mysteries.  What one person can withstand, another just crumbles. 

The first (and so far only) funeral I've done as a pastor was for man only a year younger than me who committed suicide.  His death caused a lot of pain among his friends. I knew him, but not that well.  Nevertheless, his death also affected me. 

What I'm trying to get at is that instead of getting angry, we need to try to do a better job of paying attention to kids when they are in pain.  We need to find ways to hook them up with mental health professionals if they need that.

There are times for angry fists, but sometimes the response needs to be a hug.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Faith in Low Tide

This past Sunday, our church held a Trunk or Treat event at church. A number of members got together and decorated their cars and welcomed people to come by. We had a few people who actually did come with their kids. One gaggle of kids included a little girl in a cheerleader costume who went around giving everyone hugs. It was priceless.

Since we didn't have a ton of kids, one could see this as a failure. The thing is, very few of did see it that way. There was talking of doing this event next year, maybe on Saturday evening to attract more folks. People were generally excited to be doing something that opened the church up to the neighborhood and well, allowed them to have fun.

First Christian is a church trying to accept the fact that it's not a big church anymore. In fact, it's more of a small church these days. There are two ways to respond to that, and I see both at times. Sometimes in the same person.

One way to respond is with anxiety. Pastors feel anxious because they want to do something, anything, to make the church "successful" again. We might not want to admit it, but I think deep down, we pastor-types want to see the church grow numerically and tend to think it numbers. We get mad that the congregation isn't "doing anything" to allow themselves to grow. We get mad at ourselves for not being able to make the congregation grow. Lay folk also get anxious that the church isn't growing and get mad at each other and frustrated at the pastor for...well, you know what I'm getting at.

The other response is to just get out there just do stuff. You go on mission projects or decorate your car and fellowship with others on a nice, sunny day. You basically walk in faith and just keep being faithful, feeding the poor, learning more about God and having fun.

Episcopal author and pastor, Loren Mead wrote recently in a two part essay about the current state of the Mainline Church. In part two, he talks about trying to do ministry in an "outgoing tide," when churches are losing members, money and dealing large, aging physical plants. Mead suggests that pastors need to learn to do ministry in this context. The long and short of it, according to Mead, is that we all better to get used this, because it's going to be a while. He has some advice for pastors during this time, but I think it could apply to the laity as well:

Clergy have, now, the hard job of learning to lead in a world where the tide is going out. It is my hunch that the outgoing tide has many years to go. How do we lead the church during the time of an outgoing tide?

No one knows for sure. But as one who has enjoyed a time when the tide came in, and as one who has struggled to understand how to cope with the change of tides, and as one who has worked alongside the present generation of courageous pastors to hold steady during the outgoing tide, I have some thoughts about leadership in such times.
First. It’s not your fault. Something big is going on. It’s not you who made the tide come in and it’s not because of you that it’s going our.

Second. Work on your own faith. We KNOW how to keep spirits up when things go well. We DON’T know how to thrive when things blow up on us. Find the things that feed your spirit – what are they? Study? Periods of quiet? Hard exercise or strenuous games? Deep conversation with colleagues or friends? Special spiritual exercises or worship? Carpentry or Gardening? Going on retreat or to conferences? Music – listening to it or making it –whichever is right for you. Remember the Psalms? — they are obviously what Jesus turned to when things went badly for him. Try them. Whatever it is, be sure to make time for it. And do it. Find. If you haven’t already, what feeds your soul and do it. Don’t let ANYTHING get in the way of your own renewal.

Third. Pay attention to the institutional infrastructure – the things like the building, the training of leaders including yourself, the nurture of the organization, learning how to raise and manage funds. Those are the things that tend to get overlooked when things tighten up – but they are the very things you’ll need when the tide turns. The blessing for you is that this is something you can DO. DO, while you have to wait, wait, wait, for the tide to change. Get busy with some stuff you can do. It will make a difference for the next generation.

Fourth. Stand steady, no matter what happens. Everybody is scared of the changes going on. Nobody knows what to do or how it’s coming out. (Remember Jackson at Manassas? “There stands Jackson like a stone wall” it was said of him. He didn’t know for sure any more than anybody else, and I’m sure he was as tempted to anxiety and fear as everybody else – but he stood, and the men around him found they could stand, too. So, pastors, you must stand. If you can stand, others will be able to also.

Fifth. Remember our story. It’s not your denomination or your congregation. It’s a story that begins with Abraham and Moses. It’s a story of a God who promises and keeps his promises, even though his answers often carry surprises. It’s a story that’s seen a lot of tides come in and go out. Hold onto that story. Preach that story. Live that story. So the tide’s going out? So what?

Sixth. You are not alone. Remember Elijah, cowering in fear, sure everyone had deserted him. A voice told him that 8,000 had not bowed to Baal. You have far more than 8,000. Some of them you know. Many you don’t know. But they are out there, working their tails off, often not sure exactly what to do. You are not alone. When you DO feel alone, it’s your depression that’s getting you.

Seventh. You may not win. We did not sign papers when we came on board, papers that said “You will never face losses or failure!” As a matter of fact, the name on your ordination (not necessarily the papers) is the name of somebody who ended up on a cross.

Eighth. Prepare for the long run. Tides change when tides change. We are likely to have to lead for a long time in hard times. Don’t expect anything to be quick or easy. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve been called into a marathon, not a sprint. You may have to pass the baton to another before the race is over.

At the end of all this, Mead says something that is the hard truth:

Advice. That’s the best I have to offer. But let me say one thing straight and clear: over the past 50 years, we and many church leaders have gradually begun dodging reality.

In someways, congregations have denied the reality that things were changing. We also tried to find some magic trick that would change things and get us "back to normal." But the fact is, the world changed, and in some cases there was nothing to be done about it.

So what do we do? Living in faith. As Mead notes, we have faith in a God that loves us. Peter left his boat and Abraham gave up a nice retirement because they heard the call to follow God. They relied on faith. I think in the midst of it, we are called to be faithful and put our trust in God. We have no idea where God will lead us, but it will be a wonderful ride.

In someway, that little girl who gave out hugs reminds me that this is what the church is called to be, a faithful community that embraces God's world, welcoming all who come by.

Live in faith. Give out hugs. Have fun.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Silence

Lately, I've found it hard to write.

It's not that I don't have anything to say- it's just that I have over time learned to not share my true feelings in public- which has in the long run, made it hard to write since writing (at least for me) means share what I feel.

I think I've just learned over the years the futility of sharing one's views. When you tell them what you really feel, I've noticed how offended they become. So, I learned to just keep my trap shut. Better to keep the peace.

I've learned to keep quiet not just online, but in day to day life. I don't share my views or questions. I don't want to upset people and "get in trouble" with friends who may not agree.

But doing this comes at a price. When you don't say anything to keep the peace, you end up shutting yourself down.

I think that's gotta change. I have views and I have opinions and I'm tired of trying to be "nice." I want be able to debate and to actually have conversations with people on issues where we might not see eye-to-eye and yet respect one another.

So, I am going to learn to be more open and honest and damn the torpedoes.

It's time to break the silence.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Sunday Sermon- "In the Hood for Good"

One part of this sermon was not included in the written version.  Daniel and I are in the midst of adding on to our house. During the summer, we had an old and sick maple tree chopped down.  Daniel had found a business called "Wood in the Hood," which takes urban felled trees and make them into something.  In our case, we made them into a hardwood floor found in our bedroom- a reminder that God can take what seems old and useless and by the Spirit, make it into something of use for God.

“In the Hood for Good”

Joel 2:23-32, Luke 18:9-14
October 24, 2010
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

This phrase has been rattling around my head for the last few months. It comes from the book of Joel. Shortly after Jesus ascending into heaven, his apostle Peter uses this passage on the day of Pentecost to explain the outpouring of the Spirit on what was to become the Church.

For whatever reason, this passage comes to mind whenever I think about this congregation. The passage talks about old men, or maybe old people and the young. When I look at this congregation, I happen to see a lot of old(er) people . I think about what the prophet Joel has to say about the old folks and how they will dream dreams. The prophet doesn’t have a picture of senior citizens living out their golden years in ease. No, the Holy Spirit will be poured out, causing these elders to dream what they had not dreamed before.

It’s funny that the prophet sees old people in the way he does. It’s funny because we don’t see the grey hairs in the same way: we see them as a problem.

One of the issues facing our church and countless others within our denomination and throughout Mainline Protestantism is the graying of our churches. Fewer younger folks are coming to church and our churches are getting older and greyer. We wonder what will happen to the church as we get near to retirement, or we enter or later stages of life. Church leaders want to find someway to reach out to younger folks and we try to find ways to be relevant and hip.

In doing so, we start to see older folks as a problem. You guys aren’t hip. Some of you don’t know how to use Facebook, let alone Twitter. You don’t like the new hymns.

So, we kind of write you off and wait for you all to die off so that we can on to the business of ministry.

But Joel also talks about young men having visions. That gets me thinking about our children and youth. They might be few in number, but they make a large impact in the life of our church. But the thing is, as much as we want to have younger folks, we- meaning the larger church- don’t want them too young. We don’t know how to deal with kids especially in worship. We think they say cute things, but why in the world should we take them seriously? They don’t have a degree or anything. Maybe once the church gets back on its feet, we will concentrate on kids, but until then, they are best seen and definitely not heard.

It is so easy to look at ourselves and see the grey hair coupled with the little ones and wonder how in God’s name can we have a future? How can this little church be transformed with nothing but old people and a few kids?

The background of this passage is that the Israelites had just faced a catastrophe. A plague of locusts had basically denuded the land leave devastation in its wake. There was very little left and the people were starving. It’s in the midst of this that the prophet comes out with this crazy notion that somehow there will be restoration. He believes hope will have the last word.

It wasn’t too long ago, that Bob preached about all the major events that have happened to this community over the last decade or so. But he also talked about the movement of the Spirit taking place in this church.

The passage says that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh. Everyone would bathe in the refreshing waters of the Spirit. And just for emphasis, the prophet wanted to let us know that it might be poured out on people we don’t expect, on people we tend to discount. Old people. Young people.

That’s kind of the way it is with ministry when it is led by the Spirit. You will never know where you end up or who will lead you there.

I’m not going to give examples of the people I’ve seen both young and old who are leading this church, empowered by the Spirit- I don’t want to embarrass them. But I do want you to allow yourselves to start seeing things through the eyes of the Spirit in the way Joel did. He was able to see hope where there was none.

In the last year or so, I’ve seen people of all ages, but especially the very young and very old who are showing this church that there is still life left in us, that God is not through with us. The Spirit is being poured out here at 22nd and First, my friends.

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

God give us the eyes to see it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Another View on Bullying

I encountered this article a few weeks back.  I agree with most of it, though I think the "It Gets Better" phenom isn't as pointless as he think it is.  Here's a highlight:

Maybe we shouldn't have too much sympathy for bullies. But at the same time, there are some problems with the current rhetorical climate. For one thing, Heathers, the comic masterpiece about adolescence and suicide that makes a good case for the dangers of a John Hughes morality. Adults like to think that teenagers are innocent creatures, free of sin, and that if we could just remove all pressures on our precious youth, they could frolic in peace. That's one theory! But there are others, too.

As much as we feel like we're doing good by painting a Hitler mustache on bullies, it's not like it's a problem that no one was aware of before. And one that wasn't, at least mildly, improving. There's no evidence that going to these rhetorical extremes will force improvements any more quickly than what people are already doing to fight the problem-whereas there's ample evidence that allowing ourselves to think about social ills with a crisis mentality degrades our ability to embrace the difficult, gradual solutions that most long-standing problems actually require. We paint social conflicts in these terms only because we can't stand the thought that we might not be doing everything we can to make things better for everyone.

Meanwhile, we're telling kids that it gets better. Which means we're pretending that adults are far less terrifying creatures. I've known enough friends who've gotten gay-bashed as adults that I know bullying doesn't stop at graduation, and that seems like a far bigger issue. (Technically speaking, I once got my nose broken for being gay, but that's a story for another time.) It's hard to escape the feeling that things like Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, National Coming Out Day, and this nightmare have only been successful because they make straight people such as myself feel better about ourselves, like we are doing something to help the cause of equality, even though we're not really doing anything substantial.
What do you think?

As a side note: I did actually push back against one bully in my life who was also named Jason.  We were in eighth grade and he was messing with me as usual.  I got fed up and pushed him into the lockers.  He looked at me with a stunned look.  We fought a bit and it didn't amount to much, but he never did mess with me again.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Retreads: Donkeys, Elephants and the Body of Christ

The following is a post I wrote back in April of 2009. I recently had an encounter that made me think back to this blog post. I still feel the same way today.

As many of you know, I work full time for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area as their communications person. It's from here that I can observe another denomination as it makes it way trying to follow God. What has been so interesting is seeing how people in the denomination sort themselves into affinity groups; conservatives joining groups like the Presbyterian Coalition and liberals joining groups like the Covenant Network. In some way, there is very little talking between the two groups. Even the churches are sorted into liberal and convervative churches with very few in the middle.

I could be all smug and say that we Disciples aren't like that, but then I'd be lying which is a bad thing. In fact in many cases, Christians are starting to mirror the wider culture in that we have sorted ourselves into places where we are with other like minded people. That's something that bothers me for several reasons.

One reason is that as mainline Protestant churches become more politically liberal, I find myself more and more of an outlier because my politics tend to skew right of center. In the olden days, I would have been called a Rockefeller Republican, and for the most part I tend to vote Republican with exceptions. But the churches where I have worshipped and worked at tend to skew left of center and tend to be vocal about it, which can make me feel uncomfortable.

But if you think I'm going to flee into the arms of a more conservative church, you would be wrong. Since I am openly gay, and most conservative churches don't like that, I don't think I'm going to be darkening their doors anytime soon. And to be honest the mainline churches do have some good points, if they would just stop making me feel I've just attended an Obama rally.

No, I want to remain in the mainline church because I want to be a witness for true diversity, to really reflect the body of Christ. I hear a lot of talk in the churches about community and diversity, but if everyone around you thinks the same and has a similar lifestyle, I don't know how diverse we really can be. Maybe I'm being an idealist, but I really believe we are called to be an example to the world, and in such a world as ours that is so divided, we need an example of people who might not always get along- well, getting along as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Presbyterian blogger Michael Kruse
has been doing a series based on the book the Big Sort, by Bill Bishop. In this book (which I have yet to read) Bishop notes that over the last 40 years or so, America has been sorting itself ideologically, with liberals congregating in one place and conservatives in another and really never communicating with each other. In a post today, Kruse focuses on the church and how we tend to segregate. Kruse is focusing on the religious left, but one could say the same of religious conservatives. This is his note on mainline congregations:

Many (mainline churches)now gather around a collection of social justice causes (with politically left solutions), gay inclusion, or being green. I find that many of these congregations and their denominations hold themselves out to be ecumenical and to be seeking diversity, yet the only partners they seek out are those who also share these values and share a similar politically left orientation toward societal transformation. Ironically, embrace of “ecumenism” and “diversity” has become one more social segment around which to create a politically left homogenous community. And not being politically left means (in their eyes) you are opposed to God’s mission of societal transformation.

“Churches were once built around a geographic community, [Martin] Marty said. Now they are constructed around similar lifestyles.” (173) Bishop points to Martin Luther King’s observation that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour of the week and declares that now it is also the most politically segregated as well. He isn’t suggesting that most people look for a political position held by the congregation but rather they are looking for a church that comports will with their lifestyle; and political views correlate highly with lifestyle factors.

I think Kruse is correct here. I remember back in the 80s when some evangelical churches started bill themselves as "conservative." Now we see mainline congregations using words like "progressive" or "liberal." In short the church has followed politics: with "red" and "blue" churches.

But if churches are no more than extensions of the current red-blue split, then what is our witness in the world? Does the church become nothing more than a cheerleader or chaplain for their respective teams? Are we just enabeling the echo chamber that has been created in American life, where liberals and conservatives can read blogs, watch TV channels and go to church without ever seeing someone with a different outlook on life?

I don't have an answer for this. All I know is that I want to remain in my own creative tension with my liberal parishoners and fellow pastors. Because in the end, I need to hear them and they need to hear me. They are my sisters and brothers and I am theirs.

Maybe in the end the church isn't supposed to be a comfortable club, but a community of creative tension.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Another Way to Grow or This Little Light of Mine

One of the things you hear about when a church is in decline is how to grow the church.

Of course, when people talk about growing the church they mean, to put in crudely, butts in the pews.  Church members and clergy all want to find some magic formula to make people enter the doors of the church and fill the pews again (not to mention, the church coffers).

But over the course of my time at First Christian, I've noticed that another growth is taking place.  It's not as visually impressive as getting more butts in the pews, but I tend to think it's more important: the growth among church members.

I've seen more interest in Christian Education and Mission.  I've seen a willingness to try new things.  I've heard new music that has filled the congregation with energy.

As Bob the Senior Pastor has said, "it's starting to feel like church."

I think that the inward growth of a congregation, it's willingness to listen to God's Spirit is essential in allowing a church to grow numerically.  I mean, who wants to go to a church where nothing's happening?

Maybe the coolest sign of growth is seeing acolytes being used again in worship.  From what I've gathered, the church hasn't had kids coming up and bringing in the light of Christ in a long time.

Deb, the Spiritual Formation Director tells this story best.  This is what she wrote for our church newsletter:
Those of you who have been able to be at worship this fall have surely noticed an addition to our service - acolytes!  Now if these acolytes seem a little younger and a little smaller than you remember them being previously, it is because, well, they are. It has been quite a while since we have had acolytes, but the Art of the Covenant kids have very enthusiastically agreed to help us re-ignite this part of our worship service. This is something that holds meaning for them and that they look forward to.

Since none of the Covenant kids had ever seen what acolytes do (yes, it has been that long since we have had acolytes), I have been walking with them to make sure that all goes well. For example, we found out on the first Sunday that the candles that are normally on the communion table are too tall, so we have been using a Trinity Candle on a lower stand while the Worship Committee looks for other options to use as well. We want this to be an empowering experience for them.

Having the Covenant kids participate in the liturgy of the worship service has given me the opportunity to talk about worship, the Light of Christ, and the Trinity in class. Ask Fletcher some time what the three wicks in the current candle stand for - he can tell you. And I’m willing to bet that Mason can get two out of three.

Assisting these children to carry Christ’s light has been a truly awesome privilege. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the congregation at the start of worship as we return to the narthex has also been a privilege. Starting worship with the Light of Christ and joy on our faces is truly remarkable. May we all carry Christ’s Light as enthusiastically as the Covenant kids do.

It truly is a wonder to see these little ones carrying the Light in and taking it out into the world.

Don't tell me this church ain't growing.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Spiritual Discipline of Giving

A few weeks ago, I stopped by the children's Sunday School class before Sunday worship.  After a few minutes, Mason and his brother Fletcher showed up.  Little Mason was clutching a dollar bill.  Being a little kid, he was running around the room doing various things, but he never let go of that dollar.

In chatting with Mason's teacher, Spiritual Formation Director Deb Murphy, I knew where that dollar was going to go.  In the classroom sits a shoebox wrapped in blue construction paper.  It's the blessing box, and all of the children who attend place money in that box.  After a certain amount of time, Deb gathers the children and they talk about what to do with the money.  In the past they have given money to the Heifer Project to buy animals for people around the world.

Later this year, these kids will work to donate sunglasses to kids at Plaster House, a children's rehabilitation hospital in Tanzania.

As I reviewed all of this, I realized that Deb was teaching these kids a spiritual discipline, the discipline of  giving.

Being a Christian is not simply about what we believe, but it is also about how we live in light of what we believe.  In a recent article in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, writer Keri Wyatt Kent notes that Jesus gave everything on the cross.  To say we love, but then do nothing to show that loves, really puts our love in question.  Kent quotes another evangelical, writer and social justice activist Shane Claireborne who had this to say about our beliefs and out actions:
"If you ask most people what Christians believe, they can tell you, 'Christians believe that Jesus is God's Son and that Jesus rose from the dead.' But if you ask the average person how Christians live, they are struck silent. We have not shown the world another way of doing life. Christians pretty much live like everybody else, they just sprinkle in a little Jesus along the way."

Giving is a way of showing people how much we love God.  Those kids in Sunday School are learning that being a follower of Jesus is not just about believing certain thing, but it is also about how we live our lives, how we help our fellow sisters and brothers.  Giving also reminds us of the love that God showed us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  When we give, we are reminded of God's love for us.

I think about what First Chirstian has done over the last few months.  We made 10 welcome baskets for the Currie Avenue Partnership.  We made 19 backpacks for Central Lutheran's Restoration Center.  We have gone on a regular basis to Feed My Starving Children to help hungry children around the world.  I've see the Handcrafters make prayer shawls. What I hope you all realize is that this is a way to express our love for God.  This isn't simply about doing good deeds or being a good person, but about realizing what God has done in our lives and expressing our thanks in our holy work helping our sisters and brothers.

I usually end this column with the words, "Go and be church."  Being church means living our lives as followers of Jesus.  Little Mason is learning what it means to follow Jesus and I hope all of us more "mature kids" are learning as well.

Go and be church.

Dennis Sanders

Associate Pastor for Mission and Diversity

First Christian Church, Minneapolis

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Retreads: I Think I Can, I Think I Can...

From my prior blog, originally written in October of 2009.

I've recently noticed something about myself in relation to my having Aspergers. I tend to be someone that can be doggedly persistent about something. Where as others can be focused on something for a while and then give up, I tend to persist...and persist.

For example, whenever I've been without work, I've been dillegent in looking for work. I'm basically running like clockwork.

At church, I've noticed that others don't tend to have much hope the church will continue. Even though there are those that I think want change, because others tend to not be that interested in changing there is a sense that there is no hope and that we should just learn to die well.

Now, they could just be realistic. However, in my view, I tend to think that if there are some people that want change, then you just keep at it and ignore those who don't want to change.

In the whole conversation, I've been the one that seems to be the one that wants to damn all the naysayers and keep trying. I want to believe that God is not done with First Christian and that if we are just open to what God is saying, a miracle will happen. Even the Senior Pastor based on the evidence is not hopeful the church will survive.

Maybe they are all correct and I'm all wet.

When I was leading Community of Grace, I held on to that project with all my stregnth. I did finally give up and closed the ministry, but I still look back and think I didn't try hard enough.

I'm hardly an Pollyana. But I think because my Aspie brain is so focused, I can't really see other options. Of course that can be a bad thing. Sometimes you have to see other options and understand that what we want and hope for might not come true.

But I also think it has a good side. As I journey within mainline Protestantism, I tend to see a lot of what I would call defeatism. We look backward at the past and long for the "good 'ol days" when the pews were full. We look at our small flock and think there is no hope.

But what if the church saw things like someone with Aspergers? What if we were single-focused on doing God's will in our particular setting? What if we believed all those stories told to us about how God took all those "uncool" people like Gideon and performed a mighty deed?

My brain is wired in a way that I'm a doer. I might not be the best person socially, but I can do the work required. I really do believe with faith in God and hard work, there are still good days ahead for First Christian.

Maybe I'm an idiot, but I don't think God is done with First Christian in Minneapolis. I have to believe that God is just waiting for us to know that we still have much to give to the service of God's kingdom.

I think we can, I think we can...

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Being Jewish, Being Autistic

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, who blogs at Journeys with Autism, has a very good post linking the misperceptions people have with being Jewish and being autistic. The whole thing is worth a read, but this part struck me:

In the larger, mainly Christian culture in which I’ve lived my life, the view seems to be that the Jews of the “Old Testament” were all about strict justice, and that the Christians of the “New Testament” were all about love. (I put the names of the books in quotation marks because I don’t see one as being old and outmoded and the other as having superseded it; I see them both as valid traditions in their own right.)

The Jewish God, the critique goes, is only a God of judgment, a God of punishment, a God who lacks forgiveness, and we are just like our God: cold, judgmental, merciless. The Christian God, on the other hand, is a God of love and forgiveness. When I was growing up, without much of a Jewish education, I actually believed all of this. I believed it until I was in my late thirties, and I asked a rabbi whether there was anything in Judaism to help me heal my broken heart. His reply? “Yes. Our people brought the truth to the world that there is a God who loves us and cares about our lives.” I nearly fainted. When I began to study and practice Judaism in adulthood, I was startled to find that we are instructed to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, to love mercy, and to make right the wrongs of the world.

And what did I believe about autistic people until I found out that I actually am one? I believed that autistic people don’t have empathy, the very basis of loving relationships. The lack-of- empathy trope has been at the core of autism theory for a number of years, and it’s appalling how many people still believe it. Of course, they don’t appear to have met any of the autistic people I know, nor do they seem to have much empathy for the pain and suffering this canard causes autistic people on a daily basis.

Christians and Jews interpret what we Christians might call the "Old Testament" a bit differently than our Jewish friends. That's why we are different faiths.

That said, Christianity began as a sect within Judaism and all of the Old Testament stories we learn as kids are the stories our Jewish sisters and brothers also learned. If we look a little more deeply, we see that the God in those old stories is the same loving God that we Christians know.

But of course, I was trained in a seminary that honored this history of the Bible and our own Jewish roots. I've also met a few Jews that has helped me understand their faith. As Rachel notes, a lot of Christians have never met a Jew and that's where the mispreceptions come in.

The same thing with being autistic. I don't think many folks have met someone that is autistic and...well, a lot of wrong ideas come from that.

I wish at times folks would be more curious about differences and willing to learn instead of making up their minds about a person before they know them.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Random Musings on Anti-Gay Bullying and Suicide

I might get in trouble for some of these words, but here goes:

  • I'm a little bit confused about how we look at today's youth.  On the one hand, we are told that young kids are far more tolerant of gays than older groups.  On the other hand, we see a lot of young gay teens committing suicide.  So what does that mean?

  • I am reminded that being a teenager sucks.  As adults, our memories start to get cloudy and we start to remove all the bad parts of being a teen.  But the fact is, it still sucks.  It sucked back in the 1980s and it still does.

  • Where are the gay adults?  Yes, I know there is a lot being done by Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, but besides expressing our anger on blogs, why aren't we volunteering at some center for gay youth?  They do exist in many big cities.  Yes, schools should do more, but what are gay men and lesbians doing?

  • Why aren't we teaching kids how they can stand up to the bullies and remind themselves that they are beautiful and worth it?

  • While I'm not opposed to anti-bullying laws, I don't think they will stop kids from being teased or from being bullied.  It's not simply because schools are doing bad job, but because kids can be cruel and they will find ways to hurt each other.

  • I think churches need to do a better job of teaching their youth not to make fun of each other and to do what Jesus did: love the outcasts.

  • Suicide was an issue as a teen growing up in the 1980s.  It wasn't specifically about being gay, though that was probably one of many reasons.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

For Gay Youth...

Since there has been a lot of talk about a lot of gay teens committing suicide, I wanted to share something that the church I am at is doing starting October 8.

We are starting a program geared towards gay teens where they can come together in a safe space and maybe learn that God loves them just as they are.

You can find out more by reading this post at the church website.

Friday, September 24, 2010

It Gets Better

It's never easy being a teen, and it's harder if you are gay or dealing with autism.  In junior high and in high school, I was dealing with both.  At the time, I didn't know I had Aspergers and was working hard to deny being gay.

I remember being picked on and told I was gay and the teasing was bad in my junior high years.  I can remeber especially when I was maybe 14 or 15 being picked on in church. There was one particular guy that would always call me gay or insinuate in various ways that I was different.

Long story short, I didn't fit in and while there was a lot of good things that happened to me back then, I also felt very lonely and very afraid at times. 

Back in the summer, our Christian Educator, Deb told us about what was happening in the Anoka-Hennepin district, a suburban school district north of Minneapolis.  A number of teens have committed suicide after being bullied and most if not all of those kids were gay.  After hearing some of the issues from a friend and teacher in the district, Deb was spurred to action and our church helped put together a fundraiser for the teacher, Jefferson who is walking in the American Foundations for Suicide Prevention's annual walk this Saturday.  Deb even went farther to create a program for gay youth where they can come and talk and have  safe space at a choatic time in their lives.

Columnist Dan Savage was spurred to action because of teen suicides in his area and put together a project called, "It Gets Better."  In the video below, he and his partner help young gay teens know that life does get better after high school.  I was touched by Dan's story of seeing Paris at dawn with his five-year-old sun.  My partner Daniel and I went to Paris in 2008 for our honeymoon.  I had been to Paris 10 year earlier, by myself, but I will forever remember this trip because I was with my love.  I remember eating pastries with Daniel from bakery right near Notre Dame.  What a wonderful memories.

The fact is, it does get better.  Hey, I got to be a pastor!  And I got to travel to Buenos Aires!  My parents have come to accept me as being gay and they love Daniel as the white-Norwegian son-in-law they never had.

I should add that kids with autism should also know that it will get better.  You will find people who accept you for who you are and will love you.  People will come to love and accept you, even with your quirks.

I guess the thing I want to say is that things can get better.  If you are a young gay teen or a kid with autism that is having a hard time at school and church...know that it does get better.  The bullies will only last a time.  And know that there are caring communities out there.  Seek them out.  You will find out that life really is worth it if you just stick around.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Church, Autism and a place of Welcome

I wrote this post originally back in July of this year.  I've added a few things and expanded upon it.

When I was a kid , I spent several years on the junior usher board at church. Of course, back in the 70s, neither I nor my parents knew I was autistic, but they knew things were a bit off with me.

Anyway, being an usher in the African American church is an artform. You wear certain uniforms and there were certain hand signals that you would use to indicate a certain need. When the time came for prayer, you were supposed to cross your arms over your chest and bow your head. I can remember the feeling of cocooning myself into this little ball and it felt good. Once I was in that position, I would start twisting or rocking my torso, to the left and then to right. Back and forth, back and forth. It felt good to me, but it must have looked damn weird to the people in the pews. I can distinctly remember one day being in my happy place and rocking back and forth until a pair of hands touched my shoulders indicating that it was time to stop.

Looking back 30 years later, that was a vivid example of kid with autism in the church. I don't know if what the person did was correct or not, but I do wonder if people were disturbed at what I was doing.

Now that I am a pastor and someone with autism, I have started to wonder how those with autism are treated in the church. In talking with a good friend who has two children on the spectrum, I have found out that churches have a long way to go in welcoming people and families where one or more persons are on the spectrum.

I stumbled upon this blog post by a special-ed teacher in Georgia, who shares the struggles he and his wife have faced when it comes to the church accomodating his son who is autistic:
One would think that the safest place in the world for children with disabilities would be in houses of worship, among people dedicated to God, love, mercy, grace, compassion, faith, and forgiveness. But this is not true at all. The worship service itself, with constant demands for compliance and conformity, is hostile for those who are inherently different from everyone else. Anyone who is unable to conform to the structures of the service is not welcome and asked to leave. The larger the church, the more true this will be.

I may editorialize more on my feelings toward church and those with disabilities later, but I want to talk a bit about how churches attempt to deal with this unique and growing population. In this particular church spoken about above, they attempted to recruit helpers in order to help Thomas participate in the same activities as his peers. I think the intent of the program was excellent, and it started out well enough. But without diligence by a committed coordinator, it becomes just another chore to dread like ushering, parking lot duty, being a greeter or assorted other mundane tasks and ministries in the church. Yes, we are the boy’s parents and he is our responsibility which we take seriously. But no one was caring much about our own spiritual growth or struggles. Staying home is a more Holy, peaceful and rejuvenating experience for many families that have children with disabilities. Church is often a hostile, hellish experience where families are segregated or ostracized. I don’t think Jesus would approve.


The thing is, a lot of this rings true. There are many churches where the worship service is meant to be a time of silence and decorum. God help you if a kid gets cranky. But it's one thing if grown people are talking out of turn; it's another if a kid with autism is having a meltdown.

Churches have to be more aware and willing to find ways to welcome special needs persons. Of course, being a pastor I also know that isn't so easy to do, especially when it comes autism.  Sometimes a person with autism could be very disruptive in a worship service and dealing with a person with autism can be difficult. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. That said, no one ever said being church was easy.

When it comes to this family, I wonder what would have happened had the pastor worked with family and other leaders to make church a more welcome place, not only for the kid, but for the parents. It is interesting that in all of this, it seems that the Senior Pastor was absent.

Raising a kid with autism can be challenging for parents. They love their kids and will do what it takes to make sure they are well-cared for. But it can also be draining for them as well and it seems like in this case, no one seemed to care about the spiritual and emotional health of Thomas' parents.
Maybe the problem here is that church is so formal. We treat it like we are watching the symphony. We want to hear the music and the choir, but we don't want to hear babies crying; that just ruins everything.

I'm not saying that church needs to be a rock concert, but what it we allowed a bit more informality?

Lesile Phillips, a blogger from Houston is more pointed in how churches treat persons with autism and other behavior disorders:
What I find fascinating (and by that I mean infuriating) is that often the people who claim to be most understanding, most inclusive and most loving are often actually the most judgmental, UN-welcoming people out there. Sure, many faith communities have taken the trouble to build ramps or make accommodations for people with physical disabilities. Sorry to say folks, but that's the easy stuff. When are we going to get to the hard stuff?

The hard stuff is making successful inclusion happen for people whose disabilities have behavioral manifestations, like autism, bipolar disorder, Tourette Syndrome. Many people can understand that children with autism may have behavior challenges, but they seem to think that because a place of worship should be quiet and reverent that a child can somehow leave their disability "at the door". If walking into a place of worship cured my son's autism, I'd live in one. It doesn't work that way. His disability follows him right inside the door, past ornate statues, alongside people in fancy-colored robes, among people praying and singing - you name it, it's there.

I was raised as a Christian. Christians are fond of asking "What would Jesus do?" (In fact, they are so fond of asking it, they sometimes sport bracelets that simply say "WWJD?") Would he turn my son away? What about your faith, whatever it may be? Is it consistent with your beliefs that people with challenges and their families, who likely need supportive fellowship more than anyone on the planet, should be excluded from worship?


I don't know what I can do to make church more welcoming to my fellow aspies, but I will try. I want church to be a place where freaks are welcomed.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Retreads: The Aspie Pastor and Evangelism

The following is a post I wrote back in February about evangelism and autism on my old blog.  I thought I'd re-post it here.

[caption id="attachment_34" align="alignleft" width="210" caption="One of my cats, Morris, circa 2002."][/caption]

One of the things I have learned since my diagnosis is that I really have a hard time connecting with people.  I don't mean to say that I'm friendless, but it's a lot harder for me to meet people than it is for others.

Our congregation is trying to encourage people to start sharing their faith in non-coercive ways.  I think it's a great idea and I've seen how the Senior Pastor has been able to talk and share his life with others.

But I sit somewhat amazed at how he does it.  I mean, I've tried to invite people to church events, but I feel at times like Data from Star Trek: I might understand the mechanics of something, but not it's essence.

My aspie way of evangelism is sending someone a Facebook event invite.  Something tells me that while that's one way of inviting people to church, it is not the most effective way.

The fact of the matter is, I don't know how to invite someone to church because I am lost in inviting people, period.  I think that's why the church start that I was a part of failed so badly: I had no idea how to build those relationships that one needs.  Oh, I would ask people, but I don't think it had that same "magic" that it has when it comes from someone that isn't autistic.

It's funny- I feel God has called me to be at this place, to help this church grow spiritually and be able to share their faith lives with friends and neighbors and yet I have a big issue in how to actually share my life, something that I have a hard time doing. God really does work in mysterious ways.

I feel at times like a cat trying to make my way in a dog world.  Dogs are social animals and love to be with other dogs ( I guess that's what the butt-sniffing is all about).  But cats tend to be solitary and don't understand what's up with those crazy dogs.

I wish there was a cat way to be social, a feline way of evangelism.

Let's see what God has to say.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Write the Future"

How much impact can an struggling church in the urban core of Minneapolis have on the world?

Well, a lot if it knows that church is verb as much as it is a noun.

A recent post on the blog Church Marketing Sucks referenced a marketing campaign by Nike that was shown during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  Called "Write the Future," the ad features several well-known soccer players making moves that could either win or lose the game and the ripples those actions make around the world.

The writer of the blog likens this to the church.  A gathering of believers can have a major impact in our world today, but too often we call people to "come and stay" instead of "go and do."

First Christian Church is a group of people who come together to worship God and care for each other.  First Christian is a noun.  But First Christian is also a verb, it is a gathering of followers of Jesus Christ, who go into the world to care for the poor and the outcast.

Examples abound of those writing the future and "doing church."  I am reminded of  the Handcrafters as they make prayer shawls.  I think of those who donated to the Backpack Sunday drive First Christian did with Central Lutheran, helping countless children get school supplies.  I think of the Young Adults who took a Saturday evening to make sandwhiches for the Dignity Center, a ministry of Hennepin Avenue Methodist to help homeless folks have something in the bellies for the day.

A church like First Christian might not be many in number, but it can "write the future."  We can live out faith as followers of Jesus Christ and make a difference in the lives of untold numbers of people, both here in Minneapolis and around the world.

Let's continue writing the future, First Christian.  Go and do church.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The End of the Full-Time Pastor?

When I started my current position at First Christian two years ago, I came on part-time....very part time.  The church couldn't afford a full-time Associate Pastor and frankly, I didn't want to give up my day job.  So, since that time I've worked part-time at First and full time at my job with the Presbytery.

I have to say when people find out that I'm a part time pastor, they look at me funny.  Some wonder how I do it (I sometimes wonder myself).  I've learned to try to not overdo it and try to manage time.  I'm not always good at that, but I do try.

Some people tend think that my ministry is not very real, since I'm not full time.  That always bugs me since I tend to do almost everything that a full-time pastor does- just not full time.

The funny thing is, full-time ministry is changing.  I've been around mainline churches enough to see that many of them don't have the finances to fund a full time pastor like they used to.  Congregations aren't as big as they used to be and the people in the pews don't give like they used to.

Lutheran pastor Amy Thompson Simvili is watching how things are changing and sending a warning to young clergy to not expect that they will serving as a full-time pastor.
Young clergy like myself entered the ministry expecting to spend our working lives in some church capacity, never intending to amass a fortune, but planning to earn enough to pay the rent, put children through college, and save a little. That is, we hoped eventually to earn more than our denominations’ minimum-salary – which is enough to get started but little more. Given the messages I heard as a young adult discerning a call, never did I think this model was untenable.  “The church needs pastors,” I was told.  “Soon there will be a shortage.”

It looks as if that was only partly true.  It is true that pastors are needed in the mainline’s many small congregations, and that won’t change. But the number of full-time pastors (i.e. pastors earning enough to pay the rent and support a family) is dwindling.  Many judicatories around the mainline churches are looking for more part-time than full-time clergy. In my own financially-healthy synod, the number of part-time positions is growing faster than we would like. A lot faster. Some say that this will change when the economy rebounds. Maybe it will for a few.  But in most congregations, the issue is not money. It’s numbers.  Many congregations have become so small that any future economic growth will have no effect on their ability to pay a full-time pastor.

So what's the answer? Pure honesty:
I think the simple answer is this: tell the truth. The model for ministry which we have long assumed is no longer the model of the future. In the same way that older clergy are facing the reality of decimated pensions and the prospect of working more years than they expected, so too are younger clergy facing a different future. In 10-20 years, some will still have full-time calls; many will not. So, for those of us already in the ministry, we will need to acquire a second set of skills and discern whether we can fulfill our calling through bi-vocational ministry. For those who are entering the ministry, they need to be told at the outset about the reality into which they enter. They, too, will probably have to acquire a second set of skills and to add to their discernment the question of whether or not God is calling them to bi-vocational ministry.

Most of all, the church and its mostly older leadership has to talk about this economic reality right now. They must do this without sounding unnecessary alarm bells but with realism about the future. They must also address the future of clergy education. They could even ask some younger people to help. I think we would be willing.

The future is not necessarily dire, but it will look different.

For me, I was lucky to find a job where I could use my the journalism skills I learned in college. The thing is, in the future, pastors might have to go back to what the apostle Paul did: having a ready skill to help pay the bills.

Of course, none of this is news to church musicians or those from the African American church tradition. As my partner Daniel, who is a church musician, can tell you, there are few full-time positions out there. Many musicians who have a passion for music have to work another job to make ends meet. It might not be perfect, but it allows them to fulfill their calling. I remember as a kid, that many a Black Baptist church was headed by a pastor who was a pastor on Sundays and worked in the auto plants during the week.

So, to those who are thinking about ministry I offer two pieces of advice. First, don't be a religion major in college. Find another skill that will be useful. Or maybe even learn a trade and become a plumber or carpenter (I think there was a nice, young Jewish boy that tried that once). Second, really think about why you want to go into ministry. If you can be open to working two jobs, then you might be called to be a pastor. If not, you might want to do some more discernment.

At the end of the day, the church of the 1950s is dissapearing. But while we don't know what's coming down the pike, at least we know that God is with us.

Thanks be to God.

h/t: Michael Kruse

If you are wondering what's up with the deerhead, read this post from 2006 where I talk about bivocational ministry while I was leading a new church start.