Friday, June 25, 2010

From the Vaults: The Old Man and the Queen

This post originally appeared in 2008. Since it's Pride Weekend in Minneapolis, I thought I would bring it out again.

As several denominations struggle with the issue of gay pastors, I am reminded of something that happened to me a few years ago.

I had just graduated from seminary and was doing my CPE at a local nursing home. I was still involved at the church where I was an intern and was asked to serve on the church board. It came to a vote and I was voted in nearly unanimously. I say nearly because one person voted against me. I knew who it was and so did many others. It was an elderly member of the church. He had some idea I was gay and many people assumed that was why he voted against me. After the meeting concluded, he asked me to come with him into another room. He explained that he prayed and studied the scripture on the issue of homosexuality, but his conscience was not swayed in favor. As he said this, he began to cry.

I was and still am touched by this guesture. He did have to speak to me to explain his actions, but he did. He might not approve of who I sleep with, but he did treat me with respect. This wasn't simply about being right for him, but about being loving.

Yeah, I know that his actions were hurtful. Yes, it would have been nice had he voted in favor. But I could respect his decsion even if it was wrong, because he valued me enough to respect me.

Why am I sharing this? I guess because sometimes those of us who fight for justice for GLBT folk tend to paint everyone and anyone who might disagree as evil and backward and not worth listening to. Many pro-gay people think saying anything that is against being gay is hurtful to gays and react strongly to anything that might be hurtful to gays.

But the thing is, there is a difference between words and people that do mean to harm and those that are just not there yet. There are people that truly hate gay people, but not everyone who might have an opinion opposing gay marriage or gay ordination is necessarily a bigot. And the fact is, I'm a big boy-I can handle an old guy.

I truly believe we must work for justice and inclusion in the church. But grace has to be part of the plan. The old man's opposition was tinged with grace and for that reason I could also respond in grace.

I still see the old man-he is now in his early 80s, but still going strong. We are friendly to each other and he still treats me with the utmost respect and even sees me as Biblical scholar (?). And I love his tenor voice-which is still strong after all these years. I have no idea how he feels about me being gay or having a husband. But I do know that he has taken the command of love very seriously and I will truly weep the day this man leaves the scene. He has taught me about grace; and for that I am ever thankful.

Great, now I'm tearing up...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

From the Vaults: Trees and Forests

This post was written in April of 2009. A few things in my life made me look at it again, so I'm sharing it with you all.

One of the things that makes a bit different than most people is the fact that I see the trees instead of the forest. It's a common trait of those with autism: we tend to focus on parts of something rather than the whole.

In the day to day life that plays itself out in many ways. I and someone else might look at a certain situation and I will come away focused on one aspect of the encounter and think everything is okay, while someone else takes in everything and believes the situation is grave.

I sometimes wonder if this happens in my role as a minister. The church where I am the Associate is a church that I was a member of once, a decade ago. I had heard the stories of a church mired in its glorious past, but in the past six months, I've seen small signs of a church wanting to change. None of these are big moves, but baby steps that in some ways are farther than I expected this congregation to go.

But, then I wonder: Am I missing the big picture? Am I not seeing the whole story which might be worse than I can imagine?

I don't know. I think at times there are advantages to being able to only see parts instead of a whole, because some times we are so busy looking at the forest that we fail to see the small plant that is slowly but surely growing. And of course, there are advantages to seeing the whole picture and see that while I'm enjoying that new plant, there is a wolf nearby that sees me as lunch.

I think the congregation faces some challenges down the road, but I think there is some hope in there as well. I will use the odd gift that I have to see the hope springing forth, and I will be thankful for those who can also see the whole forest instead of just one tree. God knows we are both needed.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Can An Aspie Pastor Invite People to Church?

As I work the Senior Pastor in trying to find out how best to help transform a church, I've been thinking about how new people come to church. The answer has long been that new people come to church because they were invited by someone they know.

So, that usually means that pastors get to trying to get their members in declining churches to invite people to church.

Easy as pie, right? Wrong.

I can't remember where I read it, but an article once stated that in congregations that have older members, trying to get them to invite people to come to church isn't going to work. The reason being is that these older folks are already set in their ways and besides, most of their friends are already going to church.

This then means that for a declining a church, a lot of the work of inviting new members is going to fall guessed it, the pastors.

Which then leads me to ask this question: how does a pastor like myself with Aspergers learn to invite people to church?

So much of being a pastor is relational. So much of it involves person-to-person contact. One of the things I try to do after service is try to talk to people after worship. It's one of the hardest and most tiring things that I do, but it is part of being a pastor. Some pastors can thrive on this.

It's interesting talking to new church pastors who basically have to go to places and meet people. If they have the skills, they can succeed.

There are things I would love to do that might be appealing to newer people: starting some kind of small group that meets someplace like a bar or coffeeshop for instance. Or maybe start some kind of ministry at the University of Minnesota campus. I can do the whole event thing. I can plan and do the worship service. I can even do a Bible Study pretty well. But trying to get people to come? It is a mystery I am still trying to unravel.

It's funny: I can do some of the more technical skills. I can perform weddings and funerals. I can preach. I can teach. I can lead mission activities. But that whole meet-n-greet aspect that is so essential to ministry is still a work in progress.

But God seems to have record of using folks that weren't perfect. Maybe, just maybe God can work through me.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Babies, Bathwater and the Modern Church

Being a pastor at a church that is in the midst of transition (and hopefully transformation) has had its challenges. For me, one the big ones is trying to help people see that they are church all the time. Since my focus is on missions, I've tried, in my own limited way, to show that church is more than choirs and organs, it is also about helping the less fortunate in Jesus name.

So I guess there is a part of me that likes Doug Sloan's post over at [D]mergent. And yet, I view it with a bit of hesitation.

His concept is revolutionary: it's to get rid of all the buildings and the trappings of the modern church and just be the people of God taking care of the poor and worshiping whenever and wherever:
What would happen if the church universal – every congregational property, every regional office, every national office, every seminary, every camp – was sold and the net proceeds were used to establish a trust fund endowment to support nutritional, medical, legal, and educational services for the poor, the lost, and the hurt?

When you want a new status quo – a status quo different than the current status quo – you are asking for revolution. When you desire radical transformation – you are asking for revolution. When you are tired of capital campaigns for more structural imagery; nauseated by controversy over who is fit to be a church member, deacon, or elder; repulsed by the aggregation and protection of authority that defines narrow rigid paths to ordination; grievously hurt by the abandonment and refusal to acknowledge congregations who dare to be excited by their proclaiming and living the Good News; or sick of choosing better organization over better outreach – you are asking for revolution.

“Doing” has to be the new definition of faith. A “new definition” will not be statements of purpose/mission/vision or political participation or public stances on issues or styles of worship. It will be specific activities; specific ways of living that are the new definition. Participating in CODA or LifeLine or Habitat for Humanity will not be an outreach activity; it will be what we do and definitive of who we are. Supporting a free clinic or a food pantry or a shelter for the homeless will not be the focus of an annual fund-raising event; it will be part of our continuously active and visible theological and spiritual DNA. Worship will not be every Sunday morning – it will be whenever and wherever 2 or 3 (not 200 or 300, not 2,000 or 3,000, not 20,000 or 30,000) are gathered to live, study, and contemplate the Good News. Indeed, “doing” will be about living and being the Good News, not scheduling it as a repetitive activity on our digital calendar on the same day at the same time that always occurs at the same location and always follows the same sequence. “Doing” our faith does not require capital campaigns; local, regional, or national governing boards; seminaries; or licensing/ordination policies.

“Doing” our faith has to be seen as a radical, counter-cultural, defiant way of living. By its very nature, our faith is not supposed to be institutionalized and not measured by largeness, cultural pervasiveness, or authoritarianism. Our faith is supposed to be personal and divinely humane. Our faithful doing is to be delivered person-to-person, face-to-face, one-to-one – not by an invisible faceless remote committee or collective. “Doing” our faith can be accomplished only with more personal involvement and not with more technology that is better, more pervasive, more invasive, and increasingly remote and detached.

Congregations should be small groups meeting for worship in the homes of different members. Just imagine: Church with no offerings, no church governing boards and no board meetings, no committees and no committee meetings, no rehearsals, no fund raisers, no capital campaigns, no finances, no buildings, no property, no maintenance or repairs or replacements, no employees, no membership drives. Just imagine: Church as only worship, only studying, only witnessing in word and service to each other and the world.

On one level it sounds wonderful, if not utopian. What if the church were not an institution, but just a bunch of people getting together and praising God and helping the poor?

And yet, I tend to think were this to happen on a massive scale, it would end up as one hot mess.

It's not that such communities can take place. In fact, they have. But I worry that this wonderful vision that Sloan creates can in reality end up doing some harm.

As someone who is gay, I can resonate with some of what I have deemed silly rules regarding ordination. But that said, I don't want to just junk ordination either. My guess is, those standards came into being because of some form of abuse that had taken place.

Or take the matter of preaching and teaching. I've heard people say they don't need pastors, but in this new paradigm, who will want to lead and teach? If there is a large movement of the Spirit to call forth people, I will be happy,but I tend to think a lot of people don't want to be bothered with that.

Then comes worship. If Sloan thinks the worship wars will go away just because there is no more institutional church, he has another thing coming.

I guess what I'm getting at is that there are sometimes good reasons why the institution of the church came into being. Some of it no longer serves a good purpose and need to be cast aside. For example, I don't think we need the large physical plants that we once needed. I also think that shrinking church budgets and the rising costs of education mean will we have to reimagine ordination and find ways for more lay-driven ministry.But I think that at times you need the framework of the institution in order to allow the church to thrive. The question is what to keep, what to change and what to throw away.

In politics, I tend to lean towards libertarianism. I want a small government that can do a few good things very well. But libertarianism is not anarchy. I still want a government.

I think in someways, we need a libertarian view of modern ecclesiology. We need to see what of the institutional church is needed and what might be thrown away. We need to think about what matters in a community of faith in 2010. Do we need committees, big buildings and ordained ministers? Or can we have a lighter structure, small or no building and a lay-driven ministry?

This is something the modern church has to discern. Sloan's vision is wonderful, but I fear it leads to anarchy. I'm more in favor of the church having a garage sale than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.