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Effective Faithfulness

“Yes, we want to be effective in pursuit of important goals. But when measurable, short-term outcomes become the only or primary standard for assessing our efforts, the upshot is as pathetic as it is predictable: we take on smaller and smaller tasks–the only kind that yield instantly visible results–and abandon the large, impossible but vital jobs we are here to do…We must judge ourselves by a higher standard than effectiveness, the standard called faithfulness…When faithfulness is our standard, we are more likely to sustain our engagement with tasks that will never end: doing justice, loving mercy, and calling the beloved community into being.”–Parker J. Palmer, “Healing the Heart of Democracy”

Three weeks ago I attended a Clergy Renewal Retreat sponsored by my denomination.  I’ll be honest; I wasn’t sure what to expect. Normally the retreats I’ve attended have been so full of activities I’ve returned home more exhausted than when I left. Although most of the information I received was valuable, “retreat” probably wasn’t the most accurate word to describe these events.

This time, however, was different. There was plenty of downtime scheduled. And while I have a complicated relationship with meditation and sitting in silence, I was actually able to appreciate the times our group sat in silence while considering a poem, other reading or the deep personal sharing of a colleague. There was no heavy reading to complete before or during the retreat, either–a huge plus for me! I returned home three days later surprisingly refreshed.

My favorite quotes from the week are the ones  which open this post. I like them because they remind me of my tendency to focus on results. After all, before becoming a clergy person 13 years ago, my career focus was accounting and administration. I’m quite familiar with financial statements, trend analyses, as well as writing and implementing policies and procedures.

These skills have served me well in professional ministry, too. And let’s face it, congregations can be just as “results focused” as any non-religious for-profit entity. Some groups base effectiveness on how many people have been “saved” and/or baptized. Others focus on attendance and finances. People like me and other church leaders look at trends, gauge volunteer energy levels, facilitate meetings to obtain feedback about our congregations as well as suggestions for moving forward. Then if the results we worked so hard for don’t materialize, we often conclude we aren’t effective and the cycle begins again–if we don’t give up altogether, that is.

This cycle isn’t unique to church world or the for-profit business world, either. We tend to judge ourselves pretty harshly at times when we feel we aren’t effective enough in our lives. We don’t complete an educational goal by our original goal date. We don’t make our goal weight by our pre-selected date. The smoking cessation program we started didn’t work as well as we thought. No matter how hard we work on that special relationship, it feels as though its doomed. Whatever the case, we determine we aren’t effective and the wheels of negative self-judgment begin to turn.

On the last day of the retreat I re-read the quotes at the beginning of this post. During a time of silence I came to the conclusion that no matter what issues I face, my primary responsibility is to be faithful. And I don’t mean faithful in the sense of following established religious doctrine and dogma or a pre-ordained Divine path for my life. If that were the case, and given all the twists and turns my life has taken, I must be taking the long and winding road–the really long and winding road.

When I say “faithful,” I mean doing my best. Am I making the best use of my skills and gifts? Am I acting with integrity and honesty? Do I admit when I’m wrong, make amends when possible and then move on in a more positive direction than before? Do I forgive others? Do I forgive myself? If I can answer “yes” to these questions–realizing that “yes” includes the imperfect ways in which I attempt to be faithful–then in my view, I’m faithful.

Of course being faithful doesn’t exempt any of us from working for effectiveness in our lives. It’s all part of being good stewards of the gifts and skills with which we’ve been blessed. As a matter of fact, perhaps in being faithful we are being effective–each in our own imperfect ways.

Just something to consider the next time we start beating ourselves up…

Blessings on your journeys!

Playing God

Miss Cleo was one of our three cats. She started acting strangely on a recent Saturday night. By Monday morning Cleo was so weak we rushed her to the vet for tests. We learned Cleo  had serious kidney disease. So serious, as a matter of fact, the vet told us her numbers were “off the charts.” The vet flushed her system to ease her pain from the phosphorus build up, then sent her home with us with some special food and medication.

Within 24 hours Cleo wasn’t any better, but worse. She wasn’t eating, barely moved and her cries told me she was in pain. I called the vet who asked me to bring her back to the office. A few hours later I received a call from the vet who suggested we discuss “quality of life” issues. Translation: We should consider euthanizing Cleo.

Richard and I had already had the “quality of life” discussion when Cleo was sick three years ago with liver disease. As a matter of fact, we thought this latest episode was another liver issue and we were prepared to let her go if that was the case. So when Richard arrived home later that afternoon we had “the talk,” and drove to the vet’s office to say goodbye to Cleo.

I approached this event with a matter-of-fact attitude. After all, Cleo was a cat, right? She was in pain. The vet explained that Cleo’s readings were so high that bringing her back to the “old Cleo” wasn’t feasible, and what life she would have left would most likely be compromised in quality. She also explained how Cleo would feel no pain, death would be a matter of possibly a minute, she might lose control of any remaining bodily functions, and her eyes would remain open. All that said, I thought was I duly prepared to see Cleo off.

I wasn’t even close.

Cleo was gone in less than 30 seconds; and while her bodily functions remained in tact, her eyes did indeed remain open. I will never forget those eyes looking at me. I couldn’t decide whether she was saying, “Why are you doing this to me?” or “Thanks for stopping the pain.” Yeah, I know; pet owners think weird things like this when our “kids” die.

Richard and I went home, toasted Cleo and cried. Friends and family shared condolences and told us that, while euthanasia is a tough decision to make, in the end it is in the best interest of the animal because no quality of life remains. A week or so later we received a card and note from the two vets who saw Cleo. They shared their condolences and said we made the right decision for Cleo. Good to know we had the support of the professionals, right? As right as that decision was, however, it doesn’t make us feel any better about making that decision.

As strange as it sounds, since Cleo died I’ve been thinking a lot about people who have no quality of life. I’ve wondered why we sometimes treat our pets better than we treat one another. Yes, I know there is  a huge difference in the ability of pets and humans to make end-of-life decisions. Still, why do we allow our fellow human beings who are in vegetative states to waste away in institutions while hooked up to machines? Some of these folks can’t even breathe on their own; and as far as we know they will never have any quality of life; yet we do everything we can to keep them breathing (note I said “breathing” and not “alive”).


I respect that sometimes people make these choices themselves before they enter vegetative states. That is, they want everything possible done to keep them on “this side of the grass,” as I’ve heard it said. Other folks–like me–make sure everyone knows we do NOT want any extraordinary measures  performed to keep us alive and we put those wishes in writing. Of course, I’ve seen people disrespect the wishes of their family members, too. Still, when you’re comatose or otherwise unable to enforce your wishes,  there isn’t much you can do about your loved ones’ desire to play God.

Of course, some people might say folks like me are trying to play God by instructing caregivers and family members to let us go when it is apparent that, while we are breathing, in reality, we are no longer living. Fair enough. Still, as I’ve told people who disagree with my choice to be cremated, “My body, my life, my choice. I respect your choices; please respect mine.”

Something I’ve found interesting about end of life decisions, however, is how often it is people of faith who are the ones who do everything in their power to keep their loved ones on “this side of the grass.” If you believe your loved one is bound for heaven or an otherwise blessed afterlife, why would you prolong their pain on this side of that blessed existence? And if you are afraid they are bound for eternal damnation, again, why prevent the inevitable? Suffer here, suffer there–what’s the difference?

I understand my thoughts sound cold and harsh to some people; and in all honesty, I don’t mean to hurt anyone or make light of their decisions. I’ve had to make those same decisions for people I love, too.  At the same time, I’ve watched so many friends waste away and die (including my second partner), that I just cannot fathom why anyone would prolong that experience waiting for a “miracle” that in all probability isn’t coming. And that last comment isn’t so much a denial of God as it is an affirmation of the circle of life.

Here’s a thought: maybe the miracle occurs when we are able to make the well-informed decision to let our loved ones go to whatever existence may or may not wait for them beyond this life.  Maybe the ultimate healing comes when they are released from the pain of so-called “life” on “this side of the grass.”

When it comes our time to choose–and trust me, that time will come–may we choose life.

And remember “breathing” doesn’t always equate to “living.”

In love and respect,


For Your Age

“For your age…”

I’ve been hearing versions of this comment more often during the last six months or so than in recent years. Or at least it seems that way to me.

The comment isn’t always negative, either. For example, in 2005 after experiencing some pain in my left knee, my doctor in Texas ran an MRI of both knees and told me I had bone on bone osteoarthritis in both knees. He prescribed six weeks of physical therapy and no running–ever. Last month a member at the church I serve asked me to join he and a couple of mutual friends in a sprint triathlon in Chicago in August. Since we already cycle together, I reminded him of the 2005 diagnosis. But after hearing from family members who “tri” that I could walk the 5K portion of the triathlon, I decided to check in with our new doctor here in the Chicago area; who, as it so happens, has a speciality in sports medicine.

The doctor here examined my knees and asked who told me I have bone on bone arthritis. I relayed the 2005 story, and she recommended X-rays as much cheaper and more reliable than an MRI. Three days after the X-rays I received her verdict: “There is no reason you cannot begin training for this sprint triathlon. Your knees are fine…

…for your age.” (I start training in February).

Another positive example of this qualifying comment relates to my YMCA employment (I teach two indoor cycling classes per week). Since I am required to have Continuing Education Credits as a Y employee, last fall I chose to be certified as a Strength and Conditioning Trainer. I enjoyed the training experience so much I am now in the process of becoming an NASM-certified Personal Trainer. For me, this certification training is a healthy use of my time; it is an area which interests me; and it gets my head out of “church world.”

At the Y training event, I asked one of the trainers what she thought of my becoming certified as an NASM Personal Trainer. Her response: “For your age, you are in good shape and have a lot to offer your peers as they retire and look for healthy retirement activities. Plus, as a pastor, you have a natural empathy for people and their needs.”

I didn’t tell her Pastoral Care was #5 on my list of Spiritual Gifts.

I decided to seek counsel from a younger colleague (and one of my strength class instructors) at our local Y. She said, “There’s a whole new market of people your age who need trainers who understand they aren’t trying to win body building contests or win the Tour de France. For your age, you’re reasonably fit and you get it. I think you’re an excellent candidate to be a Personal Trainer.” We’ve worked together long enough that I trust her; so I’m off and running.

Then there are those other examples, too (which apply to all of us of “a certain age”):

“Wow, you look great for your age.”

“We really appreciate hearing the perspectives of people your age as we start our visioning process.”

You get the point…

I will admit that perhaps–OK, probably–I’m a bit more sensitive to the “age issue” because during the last year my sister and I have entered “Elder Parent Care World” (see “Honor Thy Father and Mother” from January 2012). Mom entered a nursing home this month; and even though she is doing much better than we expected, it is a reminder of our possible future. My husband Richard and I now discuss our “final destination”–and we’re not talking eternity here, folks–a lot more often than we did even in the last five years.  Richard has worked hard and earned his retirement. I’m several years away from retirement. How do we negotiate this “in between” time?

Personal examples aside, here’s something to consider. When addressing people of any age, what if we tried saying, “Wow! You look great!” “We appreciate hearing what you have to say as we begin our visioning process.” Again, you get the point.

This suggestion has a two-fold purpose, by the way. One, by not emphasizing age, we are simply appreciating folks for who they are–period. Everyone–young, middle-aged, old–is important. Two, when we overcompensate for age, I believe we allow otherwise healthy people to adopt a “victim” mentality. That is, “I’m too old (or too young); so I can’t do (fill in the blank). Yes, sometimes we can’t do certain things. Other times, however, we can–if we’re allowed to do so and encouraged to do so, that is. So as not only the bible, but other holy scriptures as well teach us, let’s lift one another up. Let’s encourage one another to live into our highest potentials.

After all, age is just a number. Attitude is a state of mind.

Blessings on your journeys!

god with a small “g”

Like millions of people, I’ve been trying to get my head around the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This tragic event defies explanation; and the fact that so many of the shooting victims were small children makes this tragedy even harder for many of us to process. The fact is we will never know what caused Adam Lanza to first kill his mother, then 20 school children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and then finally take his own life–never. And that reality is hard for many of us to handle because, well, we’re human beings, and not knowing why things happen makes us feel insecure, powerless and not in control.

And we do love being in control, don’t we?

Of course not knowing why things happen doesn’t prevent us from speculating and offering our opinions, and doing so in healthy ways can be therapeutic. Talking through inexplicable events like the Sandy Hook shootings can help us process our grief, confusion, and anger. Such processing can help us move toward our eventual healing. Healthy speculation can also lead to needed changes in the laws intended to protect and care for the most vulnerable members of our communities.

There has been religious commentary, however, that is nothing short of hateful, callous and ignorant–like some of the comments recently offered by people like Mike Huckabee, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association and James Dobson. Friday–the day of the shootings–Huckabee said, “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools.  Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?” On the same day, Fischer commented that God could have protected the victims of this massacre, but didn’t because “God is not going to go where he is not wanted” and so if school administrators really want to protect students, they will start every school day with prayer. Dobson added today that God has “allowed judgment to fall upon us” because the nation has turned its back on him by accepting things like abortion and gay marriage.

Then we have the folks from Westboro Baptist Church who, as of this writing, plan to picket the funerals of the murdered children and adults, and–according to Shirley Phelps-Roper–“sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.”

For people who see God as an external being who is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving, events like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary are especially challenging; and comments and actions from people like Huckabee, Fischer, Dobson and Phelps-Roper do nothing to help anyone process their feelings and begin healing. If anything, these comments and actions have the potential to encourage people to walk away from anything that even remotely smells of faith, religion and God. To me, the god described by Huckabee, Fischer, Dobson and Phelps-Roper is a petty, spoiled child god with a small “g” and is not worthy of my attention–much less my worship and devotion.

To me, assigning blame–or giving credit–to any deity for everything that happens in life which we can’t explain not only downplays our inherent beauty and giftedness, it also absolves us from our responsibility to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly in this life. At the same time, events like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary are challenging for people like me who, while not believing in an external Supreme Being who tweaks events at his/her/it’s/their discretion, also deeply feel there is a mystery about creation and the universe which is a cause for reverence and respect (a stance referred to by William Murry as humanistic religious naturalism). What folks like me are left to ponder is the very real possibility that, in the end, life is mysterious, beautiful and yes, sometimes tragic. We can’t explain it–period.  And that possibility really bothers people like me who want to help–people who want to “make it better” for folks who are hurting and who are looking for answers.

Perhaps in the end healing and hope in the face of life’s tragedies eventually comes–not by reinstating prayer in schools or by sacrificing intelligence and reason to appease an angry god–but by relying on the inherent worth, dignity, love  and giftedness of one another. These are the gifts of a mysterious awe-inspiring Universe…

A Universe some choose to call “God”–with a capital “G.”

Hitting the “Pause” Button

I saw a Facebook post this week which is the inspiration for this blog post. In it, a clergy person is standing in front of her congregation on a Sunday in Advent encouraging those in attendance to slow down. The next day she is shown being bombarded on all sides with questions which, of course, need her immediate attention–especially during this busy season of Advent. The peaceful look on her face on Sunday has now turned to a frazzled look within 24 hours. Truth be told, it probably took far less than 24 hours for that transition.

Sound familiar? If you’re a clergy person, I’m sure this story does ring a bell–or a few. At the same time, you don’t have to be a clergy person to struggle with reconciling the idea of the spirit of hope, peace, joy and love (which I consider to be the particular focus of Advent, and for some people that spirit is made manifest in the birth of Jesus) with the reality that this season is extremely stressful on many levels. Let’s admit it; shopping, decorating, parties and church, when condensed into a short period of time have the potential to rob of us of the hope, peace, joy and love of not only this season, but also of life itself. And for some folks, this type of stress is a year-round struggle.

This year, however,  I’ve hit the “pause” button. For example:

We had a “tree malfunction” at church this year. Translation: Our huge, beautiful 25 year-old artificial tree finally broke–literally broke at the base–during decorating. Rather than running out and buying a similar tree and hastily decorating it the day before the first Sunday of Advent, however, we put up a simple, small tree. A slightly larger 4-foot tree will take its place later this week or perhaps early next week–it depends on when we find time to decorate it. We put up some nice banners and wreaths as well; but all the glitz and glamour of previous years is largely gone.

And so is all the stress of decorating the sanctuary, fellowship hall and outdoors “to the nine’s” with a few volunteers.

I’ve hit the pause button personally, too. In November I was approved as an official candidate for full ministerial fellowship in the UUA. My plan was to hold ministerial credentials in both MCC and the UUA. And if you’ve read any of my previous posts, the values of MCC and the UUA are not mutually exclusive. So I could remain true to what I see as my growing UU identity while ministering in MCC, as well as broaden my professional credentials all at the same time.  A win-win situation, right?

Not really. As I continued to “count the cost” of plural standing in terms of time, commitment, finances, family life–not to mention my personal health and well-being–I decided to hit the pause button. Please don’t misunderstand me; nothing the UUA asked of me is unreasonable–not at all. In fact, in many aspects the UUA ministerial fellowship process reflects what MCC requires of incoming clergy candidates seeking licensure and ordination. I completed this process with MCC 12 years ago, so I know the joys and challenges of such an undertaking. Still, I preach and teach self-care to others. So why would I add so much to my “To Do” list when it is already quite full?

I think this is a great question. Not only for me, but also for many of us–both clergy and non-clergy types. I mean, really, what are we trying to prove and to whom? Of course there’s nothing wrong with improving ourselves through additional education; and there’s nothing wrong with working hard and making the sacrifices necessary to secure a reasonable standard of living and (hopefully) retirement one day. Having beautifully decorated sanctuaries, moving holiday services and the like are wonderful, too.

At the same time, I believe there comes a time when enough is enough. That is, there comes a time when the fabulous decorations aren’t worth the frayed nerves and hurt feelings the process generated–whether those decorations are for the church or for our homes. There comes a time when the upgraded car, home and shiny gadgets aren’t worth the extra hours at work–or even the extra job–it requires to first obtain, then continue to maintain those things. There comes a time when that next professional designation or degree–while desirable–isn’t worth the toll it takes on our lives and the lives of those we love.

Again, achievement and seeking success are fine; after all, I love nice things and success as much as the next person, and I am a self-identified education freak. Still, and as Jesus is quoted as saying in Mark 8:36: “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?” The good news for me is I don’t have to lose the “real me” as a UU in order to minister in my current context; still, the time did come for me to ask when enough is enough when it comes to taking on another credentialing process; and I decided now is the time to hit the “pause” button. I think I actually felt my blood pressure go down when I made that decision, too.

In the end, we can’t remove all stressors from our lives; and yes, there will always be a certain amount of extra stress during the holiday season. Still, however and whenever we can, let’s consider hitting the “pause” button. Let’s take time to remember what is really important in our lives. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax.

And live–truly live.

Blessed be.

Agnostic Hell

I recently read Michael Krasny’s “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest.” In this book, Mr. Krasny traces his spiritual journey from believing in a God who watched over him to observing a personal code of ethics that respects all forms of belief and non-belief as long as they are not forced upon him. As far as God, heaven, hell, etc. go, Krasny correctly–in my opinion–holds the view that we simply cannot empirically prove nor disprove their existence. His book is well-written, well-reasoned and accessible. Mr. Krasny also does an excellent job of relating the positive and negative aspects of religion, agnosticism and atheism.

At the same time, I felt a certain sadness in the book. Mr. Krasny admits that he longs for “a God he can believe in,” and that he “simply wanted to have God in his heart.” Those statements make sense to me, too. That is, it seems a lot simpler to believe or not, right? It has to be difficult for people to live in limbo–neither completely buying into belief in God ala (insert the religion of your choice), nor completely writing off belief ala (insert the atheist organization of your choice).

Call it “Agnostic Hell.”

I will admit the feelings I’ve experienced during my spiritual journey have been quite disorienting at times. After all, I’ve gone from being a pre-teen Pentecostal who was most certain I was on the one correct path for all time–and too bad for the rest of you–to being a Unitarian Universalist who feels I am on the correct path for me–today. Don’t ask me about tomorrow; it’s not even 2:00 p.m. yet.

Now, there are things I carry with me from the faith of my youth: a sense of taking responsibility for my actions, saying I’m sorry (and meaning it) when I’m wrong, and standing for those values which I hold close to my heart. And for those things I am thankful to certain members of my family–both biological and church families.

What I don’t miss about the faith of my youth is the image of God looking down on me, watching my every move, and continuously either writing my name in the Book of Life (think “Guest List for Heaven”) or erasing it when I messed up (which was often). So if you think about it, while I was a firm believer in a certain image of God, I was still in a very personal “hell” of not knowing–not knowing whether or not I was good enough to make the final cut for a sweet afterlife.

The not-knowing I experience now is very different from the not-knowing of my youth. Most of the time it brings me a sense of peace and freedom, rather than fear or dread. Sure, I still wonder about things like the existence of God, the nature of Jesus, the existence of an afterlife and so on. At the same time, these issues are no longer my primary focus. I prefer to remember the past, live in the present and look forward to a future filled with light, life, love and peace.

To reach that future means learning from our past, both individually and collectively–taking the values and teachings of all faiths–and of no faiths-which point to a bright and peaceful future and then adjusting–yet not losing–those values completely to today’s realities. That is, we must learn to live in the present in ways that seek to establish a sustainable and peaceful future for this world, rather than try to figure out how fast we can escape this world–our reality–for a world which may–or may not–exist.

So what does God think of my comments? I don’t know. Will these comments prevent me from experiencing a blessed afterlife? I don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that by caring for one another, our planet, and ourselves we are following at least some of the teachings of the world’s great religions. And if at least part of the reason for those teachings is to encourage us to experience the Great Mystery many people call “God,” then I don’t think such a God would be too upset with me for voicing my opinions–as long as I backed them up with appropriate actions.

Can I be sure? Nope. Still, I think it’s worth a shot.

What about you?

Blessings on your journeys!


I am far from a Facebook pro. I post quotes, make the occasional comment and read about what’s going on in the lives of my family and friends. Rarely do I spend more than 10 minutes once or twice a day on Facebook. Like a lot of people, I haven’t met or even spoken with all my Facebook friends. I read the friend suggestions and sometimes send a friend request to certain people. Other times people contact me asking to be my friend. I’m careful about who I “friend,” and normally I look for mutual Facebook friends before approving friend requests. Oh, and I make a point of avoiding theological debates on Facebook.

Until this week…

A Facebook friend I’ll call “John” (not his real name) pastors an independent Pentecostal church whose members are primarily lgbt. Theologically, he is very conservative, and many of his posts remind me of the theology I grew up with in the Pentecostal church of my youth. At the same time, while I strongly disagree with much of his theology, I respect his path and search for truth.

This week he posted an entry calling for the lgbt community to work with churches rather than against them, stating that there are many churches who are open and affirming. He asserted the community’s wholesale dismissal of Christianity can lead people to fall into doctrinal errors like Universalism. His disapproval of belief systems that do not agree with his was made apparent when he placed the word “Christians” in quotes; as in, so-called “Christians.” He closed the post by stating we should be about love and inclusion—period.

Unless you happen to be a Universalist, I guess.

So I respectfully replied that true inclusion should include Unitarian Universalist Christians like myself. My reply was not well-received, to say the least. By the tone of his reply, I sensed “John” felt threatened. He asserted UU-ism is not Christian, Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven, and so on. I replied again, stating that I respect his chosen path, and that UU-ism was actually born of Protestant Christianity. I went on to say I was raised in the Pentecostal church, and my experience was that it is not inclusive. I wished him well and thought that would be that. I thought we would simply agree to disagree.

Boy was I wrong…

One exchange later I received a terse note stating that I did not get to define “inclusion,” how dare I say he isn’t inclusive, and obviously I knew nothing about the Pentecostal church, because it was far more inclusive than many of the mainline churches today. He closed by saying I was “talking a lot of bologna, he was tired of it,” and then in all caps GOOD-BYE.

I honestly wasn’t sure what I said to cause that level of anger; so I clicked on the “See Comment Thread” button on my computer screen to review my comments. Apparently I had unintentionally offended him, and I wanted to apologize. Lo and behold, I no longer had access to his page.

Yep, my “affirming” and “inclusive” Facebook friend had “unfriended” me.

Some people might say I’m fortunate to have lost this “friend.” After all, lgbt people of faith have enough trouble dealing with angry religious fundamentalists without experiencing the same behavior wrapped in a rainbow flag. Besides, we never met or talked other than this one encounter on Facebook. So why should I care?

I care because whenever people of faith cannot at least reach a point of agreeing to disagree on a variety of issues–especially in public forums–we only perpetuate the negative perceptions some folks have of those of us who claim to be open-minded people of faith. And we really don’t need more bad press, now do we?

In the meantime, wherever my former Facebook friend may be–and on the very remote chance he reads this post…

Blessed be, my brother.

Membership Has Its Privileges

“Membership has its privileges” is an advertising slogan made famous by American Express. You may remember some of the commercials full of exotic vacations, multi-course gourmet meals and the like. The commercials would usually end with the slogan “Membership has its privileges.” The implication, of course, was certain things were available only through the use of the American Express credit card. So if you wanted to get in on all the rewards, you had to be a “member.”

Some of you already know where I’m heading, don’t you?

Yes, some religions/churches/denominations/associations/movements–pick your favorite term or add one of your own–tend to treat membership in their communities much like American Express. “If you want to go to heaven–and avoid hell–we’ve got what you need.” “If you want freedom of religion, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want freedom from religion, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want rockin’ music, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want that “old-time religion” complete with the “smells and bells,” we’ve got what you need.” “Heck, we’ve got both rockin’ music and smells and bells in the same service.” “If you want the most intelligent/thoughtful/caring/entertaining pastoral staff around, we’ve got what you need!” Then based on these and other considerations, people make their decisions as to whether or not to join these communities.

And then we wonder why many of these folks act like consumers once they “join the club.”

What I mean by that last comment is that in a desperate attempt to increase our numbers and cash flow, some churches don’t share–as Paul Harvey used to say–“the rest of the story.” For me, the rest of the story is simply the privilege of being a member of any community of faith is the responsibility which comes with learning how to live, love, learn, and “be” together, as well as do our part to transform our communities and world as part of that particular community of faith. For it is through those very processes that we, too, are transformed.

That’s right; the privilege of membership in any community of faith–“official” or not–has nothing to do with reserving our sweet seats in the afterlife by saying the “right” words about God and Jesus, baptismal vows, confessions, having voice and vote in congregational matters, dropping a few–or several thousand–dollars in the offering plate, or even holding elected offices in the church. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with holding beliefs about God, Jesus, an afterlife, baptism, or confessions. And Goddess knows we need spiritually and emotionally mature people to help fund, guide and make decisions in our communities of faith.

At the same time, being part of a community–any community–is not a spectator sport. There are times when we need rest, support and healing, and there are times when we provide opportunities for rest, support and healing for others who need it. There are times when we are fed, and there are times when we do the feeding. There are times when we need to be held in our pain, and there are times when we hold others in theirs’. There are times when we want to share our successes with others, and there are times when we celebrate the successes of others.

To me, this type of giving and receiving is what it means to live authentically in community, and it has the power to transform not only us, but the world as well. And the privileges of membership don’t get much better than that, now do they?

Besides, if there is an afterlife, something tells me God doesn’t take American Express…

Honor Thy Father and Mother

Three years ago our mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Fortunately my sister caught the symptoms early enough that Mom’s doctor was able to place her on medication that has–at least until recently–helped her have more good days than bad days.

Then came the strokes. Not many, but enough to affect her ability to properly care for and express herself. The strokes led to a few falls–no serious injuries, just a few stitches here and there–but naturally a cause of concern for my stepfather, sister and I. Mom’s temperament makes caring for her challenging at times, too–even at her diminutive size. At the same time, given the deterioration of her health and loss of independence, I can understand the frustration and anger she probably feels. After all, I don’t know of anyone who looks forward to spending most of their retirement years not being able to care for and express themselves.

Our stepfather has been absolutely amazing through all of Mom’s health challenges–caring for her every need, listening to her angry outbursts, everything. If anyone deserves sainthood, my sister and I agree its him. At the same time, we could tell caring for Mom 24-7 was wearing him down. Different people offered to help; but he always said they would be fine and not to worry. If they needed anything, he would call.

That call came in December a few days before Christmas.

Our stepfather had a heart attack in the middle of the night. Fortunately he was able to call a relative to come take him to the hospital. My sister came and took Mom into her home. Richard and I traveled from Illinois for our stepfather’s open heart surgery and to help with Mom for a couple of days. Richard returned to my sister’s the following week to help for a few days while she went back to work and I returned to Chicago to work.

The good news is our stepfather is doing great. He is now recovering at my sister’s; he walks daily, cares for himself with almost no assistance and is following doctor’s orders. We’re amazed and thankful for how well his recovery is going.

Mom, on the other hand, continues to deteriorate. As hard as it is to witness, we accept this deterioration as part of her disease process. No one is blaming God for what is happening; and fortunately no one has said they believe this is all somehow part of God’s plan for my parents’ lives–at least not within earshot of me.  I know this part of her journey has to be hardest on Mom; still, our stepfather watches helplessly and does what he can to make sure she is comfortable–which at this point in his recovery is very little.

This past week I made another trip home to help my sister and to sit with her and my stepfather to have what I call “the nursing home discussion.” The harsh reality is our mother is not able to care for herself, and we believe our stepfather risks her safety and his health if he tries to take her home and care for her. While he is now willing to accept help from family members, another harsh reality is none of us can quit our jobs and provide the care Mom needs–especially at night when she decides she wants to get out of bed and watch television–and lifting her when she falls is definitely not something our stepfather will be able to do again.

My sister and I thought we were doing our best to honor our parents’ wishes for us to care for them. My sister had already completed research on local nursing homes; and as a medical professional she has excellent contacts in the area. She had called our parents’ primary physician who agreed it was time–actually past time–for us to make this decision. We had worked together to determine our parents had the finances necessary to fund this option as well as support our stepfather. Mom would receive the 24-7 care she needs, and our stepfather could continue his recovery while visiting her as often and as long as he chose. Family members would also visit and check on both of them on a regular basis.

The conversation went well–or so we thought. Our stepfather agreed our proposal made sense. At the same time, he hated the thought of placing Mom in a nursing home. “I promised to take care of her and not do this unless I absolutely had to,” he said. I told him we knew that and were grateful for all he had done for our mother; still it was time. It was absolutely necessary now. He said, “You don’t have to thank me for taking care of your Mom; I love her.” By the end of the conversation we had all agreed on a plan as to how to proceed once our stepfather was cleared to drive by his doctor.

The following afternoon I left to return home. 20 minutes into my drive my sister called to let me know our stepfather was reconsidering our plan. The next day he had decided to take Mom home once the doctor cleared him to drive. My sister reminded him of our conversation as well as of the risks involved with his decision. He understands everything, and still wants to move forward with his decision and–as frustrating as it is for the family–it is his decision to make.

So next week my sister and I will honor our stepfather and mother by helping them move back into their home in the country. My sister and other family members will visit regularly and check on them. I will visit and help them financially as I am able.

I will be honest and say I don’t like this idea at all. I think my parents are taking some very dangerous risks. Then again, maybe my stepfather is risking everything out of love for our mother. I have to say, too, that I understand my parents’ tenacity for independence and a semblance of control over the direction of their lives. After all, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.  So perhaps–just perhaps–the best way my sister and I can honor our stepfather and mother is to allow them as much independence and control over the direction of their lives as possible.

Who knows? Maybe they will prove us wrong and be able to live out the rest of their lives in their cozy little home in the country.

It’s a nice thought isn’t it? Risking everything for love.

Re-Tooling the Church

Recently Richard and I spent a very pleasant afternoon with two friends. One of the women was sharing how some of the proposed changes local government is making for training in her profession (training educators) could actually make her position obsolete in the not-too-distant future. While she admitted these changes would save money, she also shared her concerns that the quality of training would suffer. The reduction in quality of training would then have negative impacts on future educators as well as the young people they instruct.

The discussion then turned to what we would do if our jobs became obsolete. How would we “re-tool” to adjust to our new realities?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot in the past year or so. On one hand, I’m blessed to be a fairly compensated full-time pastor; on the other hand, I know that reality can change in a very short time. No, I don’t sit around worrying that the next phone call I receive will be from the Vice-Moderator of our board, notifying me the congregation is calling for my resignation for one reason or another.  And although we don’t have an endowment, and our board does have to watch our finances very carefully, I also don’t worry that next week’s paycheck is fully dependent on this coming Sunday’s offering.

No, the re-tooling question comes from what I see as the new realities of organized religion. And if what I am reading on various blogs, in books and magazines, and hearing in my discussions with colleagues across denominational lines are any indication, I am not the only one thinking about the issue of what I call “re-tooling the church.”

Like so many other professions these days, there are multitudes of talented and dedicated clergy who cannot find equally dedicated and caring congregations who are able to pay their clergy a living wage. Younger clergy cannot find positions because older clergy who should be retired are staying put in their churches and denominational leadership positions. And you can’t really blame all the older clergy, because–like everyone else–what little retirement and pension funding many of them had has taken a beating. So, they continue to work and serve as long as their health allows–or their congregations or denominational leaders “encourage” them to retire.

Like some other institutions, many of our administrative structures–especially at the national leadership levels–are sorely outdated and too expensive to maintain. I am not saying these structures are all bad, either. They worked at one time when going to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque was just “what people did.” That is simply no longer the case. People are learning they can be–as the title of Humanist Chaplain Gregory Epstein’s book reminds us–“Good Without God”–at least when it comes to being part of a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue. That is, people who believe in God–however they define that word–are learning that their eternal destinations aren’t tied to the support of any religious institution.

All these realities are just that–realities. The challenges I’ve mentioned are faced by religious groups across the theological/spiritual board. I don’t believe they are signs of an external God’s displeasure with us for being too “this or that” (pick your favorite label and insert it here). We may (and do) tweak our worship words and wardrobes. We add and subtract drums, keyboards, and organs. We add and subtract programs as people come and go. Trust me, I’ve done all these things at one time or another in my pastoral life; and I support mixing, matching, and trying new ideas. Still, regardless of what we try, it doesn’t change my core belief that these realities I’ve mentioned may point to yet another evolution in religion and religious expression.

And once again the church is being left behind redecorating our exteriors without doing the hard work of examining our interiors. When I say “examining our interiors,” I’m not talking about making sure we have all the “right” words and beliefs about our  faith to ensure our sweet seats in the afterlife, either. I mean asking questions like, “Why are we even doing this thing called “church” anyway?”

“Why are we even doing this thing called “church” anyway?” Let that question sink in for a moment. If we can’t answer it, we should be concerned.

For me, church isn’t about worshipping an external Deity, or for feeling better about myself after beating myself up during silent confession. As much as I love good music, church isn’t all about the music or the liturgy. And especially as a pastor, I seriously dislike the whole idea of “church as entertainment.” Yes, I strive to make my reflections relevant and I love to use humor. Still, as that great theologian Pink reminds us in one of her songs, “I’m not here for your entertainment.”

Church isn’t about escaping the reality of life that waits for us outside our pretty little white building, either. For me, church at its best is about learning how to support, love, and appropriately challenge one another as we face life–both as individuals and as a community of faith.

So what is it going to take to re-tool the church to not only face, but also embrace this evolution and revolution? I have a few ideas; one thing for sure, however, is professional religious people like me had best be prepared to adjust to our new realities. For our roles–and those of our denominational leaders–will have to evolve for religious communities to continue being relevant pathways to growth and positive living in our world.

Now I think I understand why there are so many “fear nots” in the bible…