Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tidbit about Bipartinanship in US Congress

As we all know, the US Congress is more ideologically now than in living memory. There has simply been far less cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. But there is one shining exception, the Food Safety Bill. In response to all the recent food safety problems (recalls, deaths, etc.) both sides of the aisle decided it was time to strengthen the FDA and put some more regulation in place to ensure safety. The article about this in the NYTimes includes this amusing paragraph:
Despite Mr. Coburn’s opposition, the bill is one of the only major pieces of bipartisan legislation to emerge from this Congress. Some Republican and Democratic Senate staff members — who in previous terms would have seen each other routinely — met for the first time during the food negotiations. The group bonded over snacks: specifically, Starburst candies from a staff member of Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, and jelly beans from a staff member of Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. And in the midst of negotiations, the negotiators — nearly all women — took a field trip to a nearby food market so that a Republican staff member could teach the Democrats how to buy high-quality steaks. (source)

At least we all agree that steak is yum.


Friday, November 19, 2010

The Problem of Openness

I've been fretting about this post for several days. It's about the problem of openness.

You see, many (perhaps most?) of us in parish ministry would say that "openness" or "transparency" is an important value in Christian leadership. We might encourage people to come to us and say we have an "open door" policy. That's all good and great, until people ask us inconvenient questions.

You see, in parish ministry leaders are exposed to all kinds of classified information. You might imagine the sort of dirty secrets that come up in pastoral relationships: affairs and past crimes and current vices. But actually that's not nearly as much a problem as the petty conflicts and foibles that drive a lot of decision making in parish life. People ask me about decisions that staff members or the corporation (the lay leadership of the parish) and I or even the bishop have made, and I simply can't give them the reasons. And I don't want to lie, and so I end up saying something really lame. "That person went on other opportunities" is a terrible, terrible line, but usually it's pretty much the only thing I can say when we have staff turnover. Even if the reasons for the change are quite positive, I usually can't share them.

Then, things get very complicated because people often have heard rumours or have fantasies about the decision in question. Typically they've heard or figured out enough truth to be wet their curiosity even further, but then there is usually enough falsehood mixed in there too to tempt you to correct them.

Sometimes, I really wish I could say more. I see how some people are hurt by things that have happened, and I want to sit them down and explain what happened. I'm sure they would feel better knowing the truth. But, of course, this would be bad, very bad. In fact, I knew a priest once that got sued for talking publicly about a parishioner-to-parishioner conflict happening in parish. Even if what he said was factually correct, in was also embarrassing to at least one of the people involved. I totally understand why he did it, but, yikes!

So "openness" turns out to be a great principle, but it has nothing to do with disclosing the "truth" about "what happened." What else could it mean? Is it something about the emotional honesty of the leader? Maybe. Is it about sharing as much as you can about the non-classified stuff? Of course. But this explanation doesn't help the way I feel when people ask me about important things that I can't talk about....


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The St. Paul's Water Project

Here is a good example of a church turning a fairly prosaic repair problem--redoing a parking lot--and making into a fantastic ministry. Note how embedded into the city this project is. Note also how slow and deliberative was the discernment work that went into creating this project.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Provoking the Liturgy

A rainy, cool day here in Toronto. Low attendance at church. I take encouragement, however, in the fact that more and more people feel like they need to tell me when they aren't going to be in church. It shows the level of commitment as well as their sensitivity to the fact that I care whether they are there or not.

It was an unusual Sunday. For one thing, we were recognizing Remembrance Day. We have a tradition at Church of The Messiah of reading the names of the parish war dead and ringing the church bell once for each name. We also sang "O Canada" and "God Save the Queen." A more emotional inclusion was a short, one verse hymn written by a parishioner's brother-in-law shortly before his death over the skies of Europe.

We changed service music, too. We are doing a new Gloria and very cool and funky paperless setting of the Nicene Creed written by Marilyn Haskel. It has a wicked syncopated rhythm in the melody that makes it very catchy--especially for a Creed. For the past few weeks we have been saying "Affirmations of Faith" instead of the historic creeds. There is nothing wrong with the Apostle's or Nicene Creed, but we think they can become pretty repetitive and rote when they are repeated Sunday after Sunday. What's the alternative? The alternates provided by Common Worship 2000 (the Modern-language liturgy collection authorized for use in the Church of England) is a place to start. Bishop Yu is okay with this, though he has warned people not to be making up their own Creeds of questionably theology. The Affirmations of Faith we use are paraphrases of scripture, so they are pretty orthodox, and help ground the faith in scripture.

Anyway, we've noticed that the spoken Creeds sometimes bring down the energy. Everything just kind of grinds to a halt for some reason at Messiah when we say the Nicene/Apostles Creed. So... having a nice music setting is a way to deal with this challenge. Today was encouraging.

The sermon was challenging. Luke 21:5-19 is about Jesus forewarning about the destruction of the Temple. As Richard Swanson points out in his Provoking the Gospel commentary, you really can't understand this passage from Luke without realizing that it was written only about 30 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Temple in the Great Jewish Revolt. The Romans were trying to put down the Jews by striking as the spiritual and cultural heart of the Jews. It was a horrendous massacre. Josephus, who is generally apologetic for the Roman Empire, describes the fall of the Temple this way:
Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done), [Titus] Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as they were of the greatest eminence; that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and Mariamne; and so much of the wall enclosed the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison [in the Upper City], as were the towers [the three forts] also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind. ....

And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it. (source)

The carnage was massive. Indeed, the commander of the Roman army (Titus) refused to accept a victory wreath because, he said, there was no honor in defeating a people abandoned by their own God. Yikes.

Swanson says that he you need play this scene as though the backdrop was the funeral of a child. Yeah, it's that bad. When I preached, I told the story of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the Bar Kokhba revolt. The Bar Kokhba revolt had a pretty nasty ending. The Romans killed the last of the rebels at a fortress called Betar, and then, according to the Talmud tradition, used the blood to fertilize their vineyards for the next seven years. It would seventeen years before they would allow the dead of the fortress to be buried. What can we compare this to? I mentioned the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo, and the Holocaust, and 9/11. "Not one stone will remain on another..."

So how to get this back to a place of hope? I re-read the Isaiah passage appointed for the day: Isaiah 65:17-25. It's a wonderful vision of the promise of the restoration of Jerusalem. Then I talked about resurrection and the meaning of resurrection. How Jesus didn't come to give us less death--He came to give us more life. That means that the wounds are still there. The stones will still fall. But the wounds will be transformed--made glorious.

A complicated sermon, to be sure. Difficult to pull off this kind of emotional turn, but worth it if you can do it. As I explained to Nancy (my student), on Remembrance Sunday... the week after we did Holocaust Education Week... with these texts.... you just can't ignore the bad stuff, all you can do is redeem it.

For the Eucharist we are using Common Worship 2000 Prayer F. Nothing wrong with the BAS prayers, but Prayer F is excellent. Beautiful and vibrant imagery. I'm singing the Preface (really nice music, too), and then speaking the prayers. The congregational responses after each paragraph are sung with a simple echo (I sing it, the congregation sings it back).

Anyway, those are a few of my reflections post-Sunday!


Friday, November 12, 2010

Go Fish

I bought a fish tank today for my office. It's just a little book-shelf sized guy. I have to let it sit and circulate the pump for about a week before I can actually buy the fish for it. I'm thinking I'll start with some cheap, but pretty goldfish. Eventually I'd like to graduate to Koi, but we'll see how I do with these little guys, first.

Why now? I dunno. Probably for the same reason that last week I put up a ledge for icons along a formerly bare brick wall. It's the same reason I finally got around to making some other minor improvements and clean-ups in my office. It's a pastoral version of fung shui. The icons invite the presence of the figures they speak. The books connect me with discipline of my studies. The fish.... the fish are about surrounding myself with life. On Sundays this place is teeming with kids and activity of all kinds, but sometimes mid-week it can feel a little dry when I'm alone. The fish will keep me company.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Days Off

One of the critical skills in pastoral ministry is figuring out how to deal with unlimited expectations, unmeasurable outcomes, and finite resources. The demands of ministry are simply bottomless, and the job will take as many hours and as much energy as you are willing to give it. Indeed, I have met plenty of martyrs to parish ministry that burned themselves out doing what they thought they were expected to do.

This is as big a problem for paid, ordained ministry as it is for unpaid volunteers. One of my parishioners is fond of saying that the nicely lettered wall listing past Wardens is a record of burnout. I would say that the list is is a stark rebuke to the whole parish--a sign of our failure as a community to nourish leadership. Harsh, I know, but I don't how else to interpret the pattern of leaders leaving. Of course, none of my former wardens have left the parish, but it is telling that the NCD survey revealed a low score on the question labeled "Our leaders are a spiritual example to me." We have work to do.

Mondays are my day off. Saturdays are a half-day, and every other day is basically a full-day. But lately (the past several days) I have spent a significant amount of time on Mondays doing church work. Usually it's doing the kind of projects and errands on behalf of the church that might be considered extra credit. The problem, though, is that it's on the margins of "extra-credit" where excellence lies. In other words, the difference between putting in four hours of bonus hours on a Monday and not putting into those four hours could very well be a tipping point for the parish. It means having a well-organized maintenance closet or sending people birthday and anniversary cards or reviewing a grant application written by one of my staff.

I find the work I do incredibly rewarding and invigorating. The other day I was meeting with someone who knows little of church culture. He asked me what I enjoy about my work and I told him about the sheer diversity of it. One minute I'm doing one-on-one pastoral care with someone in serious emotional distress. The next I'm rewiring a light switch or cleaning out a closet that hasn't been emptied in ten years. Sometimes I'm writing my column for "The Anglican" and other times I'm teaching a student how to walk in liturgy. Yeah, I spent fifteen or twenty minutes the other day teaching someone how to walk. I write sermons. I pick up trash. I pray the Office and practice chanting psalms. I make coffee (always adding a pinch of salt) and talk to the restaurant owner across the street about vandalism in the neighbourhood. I coach my staff on how to work with volunteers and I plan complex liturgies. It's a fascinating job that requires constantly mastering new skills.

Therein lies the problem--a seductive vocation promises personal fulfillment. It promises increased self-worth and the satisfaction of building something with superior craft. But like all idols, the "uber-pastor" idol demands sacrifice. Time spent in the evenings and mornings checking email or (yes) blogging often means leaving Betsy to feed or take care of Henry.

Work is important, sure, but how important is it? Hard to gauge. It's always a judgment call. For example, imagine it's 7 pm and I'm feeding Henry and my phone rings. It's a parishioner. Do I answer, or do I let it go to voice mail? Honestly, often when I answer it turns out to be less than an emergency, other times, it is! But I can't tell the difference by the caller-ID. So, in truth my willingness to answer the phone at night is an intuitive, snap-decision based mostly on my own sense of exhaustion. Honestly, if I'm tired and I've had a drink or two and it's late I'm far less likely to answer that late-night call. Can that be okay? I know people that think that you should be ready to be a priest at all times. You should be ready to take that call and "be there" for your people no matter what. But as I mature in ministry I have come to question that uber-pastor myth.

When I was young in ministry I fantasized about having a "go-bag" with prayer book, stole, and anointing oil by the door and another in my car. Nine months of being a hospital chaplain cured me of that particular fantasy right-quick! Sure, you can be prepared for your first emergency, and maybe your second. But when your beeper goes off the third or fifth or seventh time in an on-call period, you quickly realize that God's grace isn't about you and your pitiful attempts to "be ready." If you are going to be an effective conduit of God's grace, it ain't gonna be because you had a pretty kit. Either you are the sort of person that can help someone cry at 3 a.m. with their dead mother, or you can learn to be, or you can't: those are your three choices. However, nothing you can imagine will prepare you for the challenges of pastoral ministry. Trust me. You cannot anticipate the stuff that is going to come at you.

Consider this scenario... a priest I knew was called at 8.20 P.M. because one of his parishioners died. It was one of his Wardens that called him and asked him to visit the widow. The man that died (and his wife) were pillars of the church. The priest said he couldn't go. Why? Because, he said, he had been drinking. Harsh. Imagine having to tell someone that. "I can't take care of this person because I've been drinking." Yet many professions have exactly that danger. I'm sure most doctors and lawyers, for example, could tell a story like that. When I heard this story, before I knew what the ministry was really about, I had a hard time not being judgmental. I think I said something like, "Well, put on a pot of coffee and tell them you'll be there in an hour!" Now I'm wiser. I see that sometimes "no" is a good answer. Harsh. But if you don't bend you are gonna break.

Self-giving in ministry (and I do mean "ministry" broadly) is more complex than the extremes of enthusiasm would suggest. Give everything of yourself away and the demons will eat you for breakfast. Give nothing and you are like the walking dead, floating along and changing nothing. And most of us Christians answer in the ambiguous middle.

I know, this all seems pretty obvious. But this razor thin margin--between working a couple of hours on Monday or not--is where transformation happens. Something about that decision is a fractal that describes your relationship with God, the world, and yourself. It's a microcosm. And it's not an obvious choice. Sometimes, it's Godly to put in those extra hours. Sometimes it's not!

And that's what I'm thinking about as I think about what I'm going to do tomorrow.

Footnote--I've noticed that my parishioners are stepping up their commitment to the church to match mine. The head of my chancel guild snatched my alb away with a zeal for washing it that made me realize that something quite important had happened. Sweet!