Monthly Archives: February 2014

Pastoral Transitions… really any transition through “death”

Two things are happening in the midst of my life at this moment that have collided.  The first is that my wife Caroline works for an awesome company that is flying us (all 6 of us!) for free from Idaho to Florida so that we can participate in a company-wide celebration day at Disney World (she still works for her Jacksonville, FL based company from when we moved here and she is a remote worker now).  This has afforded us the opportunity to see old friends and family.  It also means we will visit the church that was our family for 8 years while we lived there – and the church where I served my first ordained call as the Associate Pastor for Discipleship.  We have been gone for a year and half.  Going back is a natural time to reflect on what it’s like to leave behind a congregation who was your family, friends, colleagues, partners, and co-workers.  Such “leavings” are difficult and the healthy systems approach as a pastor to congregation is that this severing of ties is done cleanly and, to an extent, completely – making clear that you are no longer their pastor and confidant so that they make ties to those who are now called into that roll.  (It’s a bit different as an Associate I would imagine, as it is different in a larger church than a smaller – but I’m not going to be bogged down today in those nuances… maybe another day… don’t hold your breath though.)

I buy into this theory from an institutional standpoint.  It’s a little bit different from a relationship stand point.  It asks me questions like: can I shed a title and an aspect of a relationship without having to cut the whole tie?  If God binds us together as church what does it mean that we think it is necessary to sever those ties?  Isn’t that more about us than it is about God?  Clearly it’s a boundary conversation and in my head the idea that the relationship must be completely severed seems to a way of dealing with it when the individual isn’t capable of making and holding themselves to boundaries – so much easier (and more dysfunctional?) to just cut it completely.  It is, I think, even more complex when you consider it was my family’s church as well.  My wife wasn’t the pastor; my kids certainly weren’t (though they did a good job of it at times).  Does it make sense that my calling overrides their relationship?  If this is much about power dynamics isn’t that itself an abuse of power – that it becomes all about me?  Not for the first time I wonder about poor Sarah who simply followed Abraham around without so much as a word to her from God (that we know about) except for those she “overhears.”  Her faith was great.  But is it fair?  Like it or not clergy spouses are part and parcel to their calling – and it has to be their calling too.  A fact the church struggles to understand as it tries to both acknowledge that and not turn it into something more (they aren’t getting a 2 for 1 special on pastors).

Anyway… these are questions that are in my head – and mostly for me it’s easy.  I moved 2,000 miles away.  That’s a pretty easy boundary making reality.  I left behind great pastoral colleagues so my congregation had plenty of relationships left to them.  My parting was truly celebration and I didn’t really even have a baton to pass because it was already running down the road without me! J (Thanks be to God!)

The second thing (I did mention two things colliding, didn’t I?) is another similar situation.  I won’t say more about it, but suffice it to say it was one that made me reflect on this, but it isn’t my story to share.  Just know that while this transition has been somewhat easy on me thanks to great distance, it is often far harder and more complicated. I also think it’s not necessarily unique to pastors.  Yes there is an added level of complication.  Pastors are invited into the lives of our congregants in ways very few other people are.  This requires trust, it requires shame and overcoming (or hopefully letting go of) that shame.  It requires confidentiality.  All of that requires time and personal investment.  And then it just goes away – poof.  We have to walk away, and someone else walks in.  But all of us have to do these kinds of things.  We lose a job with valued friends, or we find a new one that yet requires us to leave a place we love.  Kids grow up and leave our homes.  Friends die.  All of these are major transitions that are a kind of death (or actually death) occur.  A kind of severing.  A challenge to figure out what do we sever… and what yet remains.  All such transitions are hard – regardless of your roll, your training, and your emotional fortitude.

As I thought about this last night these words came to mind:

“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land… The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”

Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.”  (Deuteronomy 34:1-8)

Moses went up from the plain… to the top.  What a journey.  What was Moses feeling? Thinking? Saying?  How weighted down did he feel?  This is journey not unlike Jesus lamenting for Jerusalem as he walks up the road on Palm Sunday… to the cross.  A journey not unlike Abraham to the binding of Isaac.

Moses never wanted the roll of prophet and leader of Israel.  But his vote wasn’t counted.  Moses went from something of a cowardly (fleeing his own torn identity), inarticulate (he said he couldn’t speak well so he didn’t want the job) shepherd (he bummed a job off of his father-in-law) to standing up to the Pharaoh in (sorry Washington DC) what had to be among the greatest home court advantages ever! And then he traveled (dragged?) this group of Israelites around for forty years through thick and thin (and it seems to have been mostly all thin).  And on the cusp of a major transition and celebration.  He has to bow out.  He has to say good-bye, bless his successor… and make “the walk.”

I don’t know how he did.  He was bright eyed and bushy tailed still (so says the text).  He had the goods to keep going.  And I don’t care what the text says.  I’m not sure about this whole “dying” thing.  It’s a rather lame plot device.  And the punishment from God?  Maybe.  The text says it, and afterwards my tradition would be to say: “This is the word of the Lord.”  But I wonder…

Maybe Moses had just done his part.  Walked his part of the journey.  Knew that the next phase needed a different kind of leader, a different set of skills, or that Israel just need the shakeup (maybe Moses needed one too).  Maybe what died wasn’t Moses, but his roll, whether he actually died or not.  After all – they can’t find a body, and I’ve watched enough detective shows (clearly the WORD of the LORD) to know “no body; no death.”

The truth of Moses end isn’t important – though it is often what we trigger on.  The deep truth of the text is that life has transitions, and sometimes we don’t get to make those together.  And it isn’t easy.  And there is no magic answer (sorry if you thought I was going to offer any answers here… you’ll learn I rarely do).  What I know the text does seem to say is.  Leaving isn’t easy.  Sometimes it’s what we need to do (even Jesus does it… check out John 16:7, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away…”).  Sometimes it’s the best for both of us, thought it’s hard to see that.  The text also says such transitions should be mourned.  Truly mourned.  We need to stop.  Stop life – and honor the “death” that has happened.  (How many congregations struggled with this in their desire to move on?  How many pastors don’t do this because they don’t want to open up the flood gates?  For that matter how many literal deaths do we fail to actually mourn because it isn’t convenient?  Can you imagine looking at the Jordan river – your goal for 40 years, and not charging forward?  Such resolute and disciplined lament. They waited there 30 days.)  And then… after the appropriate time.  We need to move forward.

“The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.”  And the Bible moves on.  Book over, section over, major time in the life of Israel over… and the story continues to unfold in a new way.

I don’t have answers to what is the best way to make transitions.  How do you honor relationships when the functional reason for their being has passed away?  How do you navigate these messy waters of family rolls?  How do we deal with death… of a job, of a loved one, of a relationship?  My sense is that making them clean is easier, but not necessarily better – but what mitigating halfway severing looks like?  You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.

What I do know?  We ought not to fly through such transitions – any such transitions – without pause.  And we ought to lament even in celebration… for what has been and what is no longer.  And then we need to move on.  It isn’t uncaring – though I think it feels that way.  Does Jesus not care for his disciples when he tells them he is leaving?  Does Moses not care as he hands the torch to Joshua?  I think the exact opposite.  Their care is almost too much to bear.  But they still leave.  Their care for themselves, for their friends, but also for the larger community moves them to do that which seems uncaring… step aside and journey in a different direction.  And in their stepping aside, and their heavy hearts, they see that their void will not stay a void – even if it’s not entirely filled either (because God loves putting square pegs in round holes just so we don’t forget that life is meant to be more than a little bit messy).  They aren’t replaced.  An-other comes.  A new thing, new growth, new opportunity.  Not better – just different.  Because God is in the business of keeping us more than a little unsettled even as God provides us green pastures besides still waters.

Thanks be to God.

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A Journey of Discovering Myself

If you have been around me for very long at all this won’t come as a surprise to you because you’ve probably heard me say it.

I’m a strong introvert and something of an academic.  I grew up happily playing in the sand by myself during recess.  I read books by the light of my closet until 2 am every night.  (Unless my parents caught me and made me go to sleep.)  I started out college as a secondary education / math major.  I then changed to Philosophy with the intention of going to seminary and on from there to do PhD work… still teaching but at a different level.  I was on the road to stay true to who I think of myself as being: an introvert who prefers to only know and hang out with a small very close group of friends and have esoteric debates just for the sake of it.

Then very early on in seminary my plan went all amuck.  I felt called to have the kind of conversations I love in school rooms… in the church.  I felt called to walk with an entire community – rather than a small group or classroom through conversations of faith that were hardly esoteric but real and on the ground rubber meets the road theology.  Stints as a missionary in the Philippines and hospital chaplain exacerbated that – they forced me more out of my introverted and academic shell.

I preached about that in my former church and people said, “No way you are an introvert… you talk so much!” (I do, guilty as charged.)  But I’m an expressive introvert.  I need alone time but in a small group of people I’m quite capable of thinking out loud and ad nauseam, and then needing to take a nap to “recover.”  So yes, I’m an introvert.  But how, they asked, did you feel comfortable preaching in front of 450 people?  Well it’s a journey.  You do not step out of a closet where you were reading and immediately jump in front of a crowd with all eyes on you.  One step at a time.  God found me and God challenged me.  God challenged me to do what I was meant to do for a living, not what I was good at.  God challenged me to go far outside of my comfort zones, to walk in cultures I hadn’t experience, and to people I didn’t know.  And I’m still not good at it – but I’m better.  I have been stretched and once stretched I did not return to where I started.

So why am I saying this?  I’m saying this because earlier today I put on my clergy robe and stole and accompanied a friend (I would likely have not gone if it wasn’t for her, thanks Marci – friends do that for you) to the House chambers of the Idaho State legislature where we sat silent in the gallery with many others.  Sat a silent vigil to let them know that we would not forget that they would not let us speak to why we believe it is essential that Idaho seek to protect the basic human rights of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors.  Now I don’t even like to call myself Reverend or Pastor (let alone Rev. Dr., I’m just plain Andrew in my congregation) because this shy introverted academic starts feeling all pretentious when I do so.  So what was I doing in full religious professional get up at the capital being a strong (?) advocate for social justice?  This isn’t me… is it?  Truthfully I’m not a good one.  But I’ve stopped being willing to be silent in the face of injustice for the sake of keeping the peace.  That kind of peace isn’t worth keeping.  So I’m out from my own closet.  I’m out to add my voice to others who are out of their closet, and many others who aren’t yet.  I don’t do it because I’m comfortable doing so… I do it because my discomfort in being a social advocate is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in comparison to the fear with which my brothers and sisters are forced to live their lives because their very humanity is put in question.  I do it because God says to me, “Yes you are your brothers – and your sisters – keeper.”

Does it come natural?  No.  Am I good at it?  No.  Am I trying?  Yes.  Because the world can’t afford not have us all try our best to put our voices forward for those who have had their voices stripped from them.  Have I offended some of my friends and companions along the way?  I’m sure of it.  And no I am not proud of that.  I wish there was another way.  On top of being an introverted academic (and not doing a good job of either of those these days– thanks be to God) I’m also a people pleaser.  But my frustrating and challenging journey with God keeps taking all the things I say that I am… and challenging them.  It’s why I call this blog Wrestling with Discipleship.  Like Jacob wrestling with God… I have come out limping.  And I think I am the better for it.  God took my names for myself and gave me a new one.  I didn’t get here overnight, and I’m not anywhere near where I might one day be.  Who knows where God may take me, what God may do through me, and what I might help to make come about in this world.  I hope… I hope its light.  Not light for me – but for those around me.  That I may not limp alone… but that we might limp together – no longer quite who we imagined ourselves to be at the beginning.

I know I will not always be right (thus the limping), nor will I always correctly interpret why God has chosen to make me limp (thus the need for others to journey with me, and make me go where I wouldn’t otherwise go).  But this much I think I do know.  The world is a better place when we are willing to open ourselves to encounters that change us and move us and challenge us than it is when invest in armor to protect ourselves from whatever (or whomever) may come our way.

Thank be to God.

The Challenge of We

When I did my Doctor of Ministry work my focus was discipleship.  Mainly how our focus on membership in churches was detrimental to our more primary task of discipleship.  The two do not need to be mutually exclusive, but it often works out that way.  The focus by the end of my research was on our welcome of new members to our church community and how that process relates to discipleship.  If I were to sum up my whole paper in a couple sentences it would be something like this:

  • The task of the church is to follow in the way of Jesus with our whole lives serving as a source of shared challenge and mutual affirmation to the way in which we are called to live.
  • We do that by walking together as we follow; discerning together God’s calling, inviting others to follow with us.  That is we create a culture of discipleship with the intention of getting others to join us on the journey (not very different to Jesus’ own group of twelve disciples – sadly we often use the crowds that follow the disciples as our church model rather than the circle of disciples themselves).
  • The invitation to new members (followers) is not an invitation to a set of beliefs but this corporate journey; we aren’t seeking right thought but shared action.  And the commitment to an individual community (membership) is to say that in my larger discipleship journey I am declaring my intention to live that out for this time and place with this particular group of people.
  • The task of the church then in that moment of initiation is not about informing new people but nurturing their sense of belonging – it is about cultivating a sense of “we” in service to our shared journey in the way of Jesus.

The concept of “we” is an interesting one, mostly because we are very tempted to towards a way of them and a way of me.  Early on in the process I became very attuned to such language.  When you talk to someone and they say something about you or they – this person generally doesn’t feel like they belong.  I went through that myself last year as I became a part of a new community of faith.  I watched myself slowly stop saying “you all do this,” or “your history has been,” etc.  And begin to say “our” and “we.” In moments of conflict our temptation to do this is even greater.  We distance ourselves (intentionally) when we say “they are doing this” or the “the session decided” or “you all thought.”

We do this when we do not belong.  Now to be fair sometimes we don’t belong because the leadership doesn’t care to have us belong.  We do not get a voice, and so we don’t really belong.  We aren’t following together in the way of Jesus – we are following the voice of those with power as they follow their discernment of Jesus’ way.  Other times we do not belong because we do not seek to belong.  We seek to protect ourselves or keep our independence; we aren’t willing to compromise “my” way to “our” way.

Being we is hard work.  Being me is much easier, and seeing it as them versus us is a constant challenge. The way of we is harder yet because I do not mean that when we are “we” there is uniform agreement (see the last post on being assimilated).  Rather the joy of we is that we bring our different perspectives to bear on a common journey, and we stick with that journey even when me doesn’t agree with the decision of we. 

I will give perhaps my two favorite examples.  John 6 and Matthew 19.  In both cases Jesus taught hard lessons about the kind of journey he invites us on (you might check out the end of Luke 9 as well for examples of people not ready to make the commitment of “we”… but I’m trying to resist make this list really long but do note that there “we” doesn’t tell someone else they don’t belong, it is the me that decides it is not ready or able to be “we”).  In John 6 many disciples left offended – they stopped following. I do not think Peter and the twelve are any less offended. But their sense of belonging – commitment to Jesus’ way – means that unlike the others they stayed in for the journey.  “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69).

Similarly Peter (I think, but it’s a loose interpretation) has regrets about leaving everything behind (personal possessions at least) to follow Jesus when the rich man (Matthew 19) is told to sell all and give it to the poor.  What is the different between this man and Peter?  The next day Peter still follows, and the other has slunk back into anonymity.  Maybe he does it in the end, maybe he follows in Jesus’ way eventually.  But he wasn’t yet ready to commit to the way of we. 

As “we” we seek common good.  Humility calls us to think our voice and opinions hold no more weight than anyone else’s.  We belong regardless of whether we are entirely happy with where we are going or not. We give our best effort even when it’s not the effort we would have chosen.  We take responsibility not for ourselves but for the whole and we recognize that all parts or inter-dependent.   We is a challenging way to live.  It challenges me.  And yes, I’m to challenge it.  That is part of we: there is no passive role in the journey.  No-one is just along for the ride, we are all given an active part.  There is no “they” in a community of we.  We are they.  This is what it means to belong – it is a combination of commitment and ownership.

So are you taking on the challenge of we?  Are you empowering others to live into that roll?  Are you listening, and speaking, and then listening (and hearing) again? Do you belong and make spaces for others to belong as well? 

These are questions we need to ask ourselves every day and they are the question I find at the center of my quest to wrestle with discipleship and my calling to follow in the way of Jesus.  Thanks be to God. 

We Will Not Be Assimilated

A collision of three occurrences over the last three days:

  • On Saturday in a conversation of Presbyterian colleagues some offered a need to have a clear and coherent theological identity.  The most extreme version that got offered was a call to have a core belief that made it easy to say who belonged among us and who did not based on their agreement with that common core belief statement.
  • A coke commercial that I originally found a bit banal (and then realized was still prophetic) offering America the Beautiful in many of the diverse languages (and images) you will find spoken in our country – and then a reaction of some strongly against that notion because “people should speak English here.”
  • Two blocks from my church office this morning a group of advocates gathered (and I am sad that I was not with them this morning) in silent protest on the steps (and inside, many of whom were arrested, updating my post already here is an article on this mornings protest) of the State Capital building to “Add the Words, Idaho” asking the legislature to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act thereby protecting our LGBT neighbors from discrimination and the insecurity of knowing that who they are at the core of their being could be held against them in livelihood and liberty.

add words

(This picture is from a few weeks ago when I joined friend and collegue Marci Glass as part of the “Add the Words, Idaho” Rally also on the steps of the Capital.  Here is a sermon I preached the next day that reflected on this experience among others.)

All three of these cause the same reaction to me.  Whether we are talking about the church or the country I love, we are not the Borg (sorry folks – Star Trek reference, a race of aliens that forced all civilizations to become a part of their collective consciousness).   We do not – or should not – seek to assimilate the world.  We are at our best when we celebrate diversity.  We have admirable ambition when we seek to protect the minority and their right to be a part of us without having to become “like us.”

There is a particular insidious narcissism that we can name as either Exceptionalism or Zionism that seems to think who we are is the best, and the best we can offer is to convert – assimilate – the other into the exceptional reality we already have.  (This narcisissim is made worse because we also add fear – we fear those not like us, the twin emotions of fear and superiority create a very dangerous blend)   Whether it be our brand of Spiritual Truth or the particular expression of our national identity, we are sure the best one can be is what we have to offer.

What I love about my understandings of both the United States and the Presbyterian Church is that I believe it is central to who we are that we DO NOT have a cookie cutter look of what is central to who we are.  We do not seek to melt away differences to become uniform, but we seek to bring connection to very diverse perspectives, cultures, and expressions of liberty, truth, goodness… whatever.  We are in the business of building bridges across divides and not in removing those divides.

Is this harder than assimilation?  Absolutely.   It is easier to sell a clear product.  It is easier to offer an existence in a group of people who think, look, and act similarly along similar goals.  It is easier to have a common language, currency, and worldview.  Life without the need for translation is easy…

But I also think that is a sad reality – and ultimately rather boring.  I am reminded again that in the first creation story of Genesis God did not say let “me” make “Adam”.  God said, “Let us make humankind in our imagine.”  Singularly we do not reflect God.  Together we do.  Even God wasn’t singular in the story.  Creation was meant to reflect a rich diversity of goodness.  I am similarly reminded that our nation is not a democracy where the tyranny of the majority rules, but a Republic whose role is as much to protect the minority from the majority as anything else.

We are not Borg.  We do not assimilate otherness – we celebrate it.  And this does take work.  Work at overcoming fear, and expanding our boundaries, and finding common bridges across differences that are their own blessings.

I do not want to think I can only gather in God’s name around a single sentence of clear Truth – what a small God that world is.  I love that my kids go to school with kids whose first language isn’t English because the realize the world they live in every day is VERY VERY SMALL compared to the rich diversity of all creation.  And forcing other people to live in fear of their safety because we don’t like who they are or because we think who they are somehow threatens our way of life?  That is terrorism.

We are not Borg – we do not assimilate – we celebrate.  Thanks be to God, and thanks be that we live in a country that aspires (in its better moments) to let us.