Never would I have thought that a weekly chunk of my ministry would be writing notes and letters by hand… but, as it turns out, the church that was founded by letters is still sustained by letters… and the next generation is as moved by our connection one to the other as the ones before. An artifact that says, “I cared enough to create this small testimony of our relationship” bears witness when we are unable to be the church in the same room with one another. Who knew? Who’s going to get stamps?
The writer of Psalm 119, the longest of all 150, is my kind of religious person: faithful, but really wanting some faith. In various ways, the writer spirals around the basic premise that meditating on the law of God keeps us close to God, and will keep us close to safety and security.
Maybe it doesn’t?
Over and over again, the psalmist insists that God’s “statutes” are true, and that keeping close to them is the way of life. And the psalmist insists on just how close to death they may be.
Meditating on God’s law, if you take the Psalm to mean some form of studying scripture, feels good for me in so many ways. It connects me to my ancestors who have wrestled with the questions of what it means to be alive for a lot longer than I have. It takes me out of the time of my world, and places me in a timeless conversation the source of my being. It connects me with others looking to these same scriptures around the world this day.
None of it makes me better or safer or smarter.
In a time of complete loss, I remember holding my grandfather’s bible in my hand, and kneeling, and opening it, and reading it… wanting so much for it to give me life when I felt so dead. Mainly I still felt hollow when I closed it.
But later I started to read with others, and to talk about what we were reading, and wonder what on earth it could all mean, and what the heck the context was for all these writings so outside our world, and how we might live in echo and response, and wonder how so many people wanted to claim laws for God that made people less alive, more oppressed, less fully themselves… and… and… and
Reading the Bible never made me more likely to live longer1, or live better. It invited me to focus more on what I was living for: at first my friends reading with me, then a church, then a whole bunch more. It made me more likely to call out with the psalmist: “How long, O God?” Because things fall apart. It still happens. But I have friends with me, and ancestors, and Jesus—oh, God, do I have Jesus with me—in that cry and complaint, and wonder. And so, in the end I read… not because it will fix me, but because it will help me not to be alone in the unfixable, and that companionship of spirit may heal all our hearts.
Though, prayer, meditation, or just going on walks and being bored all seem to have pretty good health benefits, so maybe let’s all give it a shot more? ↩
There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Acts 4:32-37
Today is known in some parts of the church as the feast day of St. Barnabas, who pretty much shows up in the story of the apostles to emphasize that real people sold away their stuff and gave it to the early church.
Money, it turns out, is a thing. Even in the very beginning the work of the early church needed support to care for its own members and care for others in the community who had been left out or shut out from opportunity, employment, and plenty. And rather than having a general sense that the gospel message inspired people to give of themselves to its work, we get a real flesh and blood Cypriot to show us.
A part of the Episcopal Café series, Fearless Fundraising, gets pretty intense about some of the challenges that church communities are looking towards, including a reduction in giving close to beyond 70% for their regular giving, faithful but short-sighted insistence on ministry expenses, and no plan to bridge the gap between the two.
J and I have to think about this a lot: one of us is in a professional degree., and the other is, well, a pastor. Things will get better in time, but money is probably a bit more of our weekly conversation than we would both prefer right now. At the same time, we’ve had a commitment to not reduce, but actually steadily increase our giving to church, school, social services, monastic community, etc. I know, hooray us. But hey, it feels like an accomplishment in the midst of hard work.
The reason why, at least for me, is imagination. I’m thankful for the funds that support me in my ministry, and allow me to both work and thrive, and for our family to have the things we need. At the end of a long day, I have done what I can to do the Church’s work in the world, and I am happy. I am also tired. I know that I can not imagine all the needs in the world, all the possibilities for service, all the gifts and skills waiting to be supported and shared. I do have faith that in the space between us there is that wisdom and imagination in God’s Spirit: living in this body of Christ (or community, or school, or service). So I take what I can and lay it at the feet of the saints and wait, and watch, and wonder at what will come to be.
I’m in Baltimore, MD this week for the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, the gathering of the national “setting” of our church which happens every two years. Hundreds of delegates and over a thousand others come to be together, worship, and do some of the work of church: making decisions, learning from one another, listening for where this wider expression of our church is going, and hopefully carrying some of that back to our home churches and settings.
I’m here with the delegation from the Maine Conference, our regional body that I serve in as a leader, and I’m going to try and keep this space updated with some thoughts.
I just cannot recommend enough the most recent episode of John Dickerson’s presidential history podcast, Whistlestop: “Recording from the Oval.”
Of course, this is nominally about the reality of what has been said, revealed, and decided inside the oval office and the parallels from today’s scandals to yesterday’s in the time of Nixon.
What the episode is really about—because it’s always grand to decide that for other people—is how presidents and their staff create a system or culture that nurtures the most important resource a president must jealously guard: decision making…or how, sometimes… they don’t.
Some central points that arise:
- Decision fatigue is real. President Obama famously kept it to gray or blue suits to try and focus his decision making energies entirely within his office and the issues that arise there. I tell you what, every Sunday morning I am thankful for a uniform. I’m trying to be present to 300 people and say something meaningful to them that won’t be entirely complete until it has been said… I am glad for traditions that get me off the hook in terms of what I’m going to wear or eat.
- Systems and structures are important because they can reduce this fatigue and focus decision-making. If an issue doesn’t rise to the level of the oval, it should be handled before it gets there. If it does, there should be structures in place that frame the decision and vet the possible implications so that those making the decision have the full picture present before them. (For churches this is often the big challenge: we are not well practiced in asking who should decide particular items, or what they need to know to make the decision well.)
- Finally, this one I’m going to add: connection to a central narrative or, in corporate-speak “culture.”
Grounding yourself in a narrative is a massive boon to leadership because it connects us with a whole host of decisions that may have already been made (or need a revisit!), but also it frames even novel challenges in a character and direction. For church folk, we may encounter all sorts of new situations the early church couldn’t imagine, yet we work hard to find in our practice of discernment the central character of Jesus to guide us: i.e. if you find Jesus cared very little about the purity culture of his time and more about full inclusion and justice for the poor… based on that, how shall we live?
For clergy, (and I hope lay-leaders, too!) this is somewhat built into the gig: ideally, we’re spending a pretty large chunk of our time with our hands wedged in the pages of our communal stories (scripture, tradition, congregation, or otherwise) as church and a people. This sometimes bears reminding so we don’t forget that our leadership falls in that great “generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus.”
For presidents, Dickerson clearly shows, a challenge is in thinking that you are *the fix*, the one person who can solve the unsolvable complexity of the office and the nation that others have not… to complete this thought, you have to cast out much of the narrative that has come before you. Some of what we are living with in our current time is a political class that has rejected any narrative of what their offices, roles, and even our nation have been… In the absence of that narrative, we sometimes see novel approaches, but not often well thought out—well decided—ones.
The thing that keeps sticking with me as I think about my work is the bizarre tension of my job around activity and reflection, motion and rest.
At one level, I’m a leader of an institution. The church is (both/and) an organization of its own / a collection of individuals that claim an identity partly around specific tasks, goals, actions. As a leader within the church… part of my job is to help try, do, accomplish various strategies and tasks of our life together. Doing isn’t bad, in and of itself.
At another level altogether, I am a leader called to invite individuals and groups into reflection, rest, and renewal. This seems like the harder part of the work now for most of the world and the church. We’re like all those other community organizations: strapped for cash, struggling to justify our existence to the largely apathetic culture around us. And so we do. Lots.
I find most people in my life, both church and not, ordained and not… are exhausted. I’m getting troubled by watching the vast majority of clergy model behavior for the people they work with that mirrors this. We look run ragged. We are (no joke) one of–if not the–sickest professions running. We connect our self-worth with the success of programs, we run insane schedules. We do, often frantically, while so often failing to be still… just as we throw up our hands at our people’s rejection yet again of our invitation to stillness, reflection, prayer, quietness of mind and spirit. We insist at constant growth and inspiration in our own programs, while wondering why our communities have become terrified of experimentation and failure. Are we really surprised?
I try a lot more these days to think about how I will model a life that invites people into more balance. Because we’re all tired. And I want to work for the one who promises to give us rest.
So, sometimes I might just talk about good things in life that help me do that. Sometimes I might talk about tech that helps me do that. Mainly, I’ll just take time and write some. Because I need some balance, too.
Great conversation starter about how we have changed our practices around death, and what that might mean for us. My theology is very directly opposed to death (as opposed to the sentiment that is often expressed that “death is just another beautiful part of life”), but that doesn’t mean I advocate hiding it from our sight. Rather, acknowledging, seeing, and naming death is important… so that we know why we seek an end to the suffering and pain of loss in that way.
So. I drive around a lot. I use GPS to get there. I’m an active pastor involved at all the levels of church in a state that is way bigger than it looks on Ye Olde Mercator Projection. I drive to random new locations often. I’ve been listening to my phone tell me where to go for years now. (My friends know her soothing voice as “Natasha.”)
And then new maps appeared on my phone of choice, and everyone lost their minds. I don’t need to link you; you’ve seen the New York Times before. You can get there.
Let’s just say this: I’m unmoved by the furious uproar of people who have access to technology that let’s them talk into a tiny box and magically get directions read to them as they drive who have suddenly discovered that said technology occasionally places their favorite pizza place across the street. (Yes, I know, there are more glaring errors than that in Apple’s map data. There are more glaring errors than that in Google’s data as well. As people who have been getting electronic help getting to places all over the country for years can tell you, its a process to develop a trusted system. There’s no silver bullet, you double check to make sure you’re headed in the right directions… and then occasionally… gasp! You get lost. Remember getting lost? Remember how weird, and yet reassuring, it was when a stranger helped you get where you needed to go?)
But today I just appreciate the simple beauty of some of these things: Normally, when I get directions from my phone, it displays a route and gives me information about it, and it’s up to me to press a button to begin turn by turn navigation. Today I noticed that when I used my handy, safe, hands-free device to ask for directions, my phone sensed that it was in motion and just immediately started rolling along with me. It’s a tiny touch. Tiny. But it’s one second multiplied by thousands of users that drivers won’t be distracted. Won’t be hunting for a small button in a moving vehicle. And that’s a lot of seconds that drivers will be focused on doing what they should.
We’ll figure out where to drop the pin for your pizza place soon. But technology is getting better, and smarter, and safer. And that’s what I enjoyed today.
Back 2 Work. So. Two Merlin posts in a row. But, for serious, it was all I could do to shut my brain off long enough to speak on a Sunday morning after reading and listening to all this stuff on grit. It has me fired up. Thinking hard about the powerful forces for good that come from failure and challenge. Anyway. Good times.
It is NEVER “just a 20-minute talk,” and you’re high to even consider that it might be.
– Merlin Mann, speaking truth about what goes into “a speaking engagement.” Also, making me wonder at how preachers value their time, energy, and resources… even if we were *just* preaching in a week…