Monday, September 21, 2009

out of focus

It's amazing sometimes, the way that ministry can be viewed so differently by different people. I meet regularly with a newly formed pastor-parish relations team, a team created to help there be better communications between myself and the people in the pews, so to speak. Supposedly it is to avoid triangulation and to pass on difficulties that people don't feel they can voice in person. So, if you've already figured out that it has become a "pick on the pastor" team, you'd be right. So far, I've been told all the things I'm doing wrong, and not a single word of what I do well (and I'm sure there must be something I'm doing well!)
But what it comes out of is differing views of what a pastor should be doing. This group feels that my ministry should be primarily inward focused--HUGE amounts of pastoral care and visitation. They had a single older gentleman pastor several years ago who focused ALL his attention on the church people. "So we've come to expect that level of care from our pastors. In other words, "because we've always done it that way." Not that I don't provide PC & V. Hospital visits, shut-in and nursing home visits, calls when folks are gone for a few weeks w/out notice, calls when we have new visitors, calls when the deacons share a need, etc. I'm there!
But questions like, "do you keep a log of visits and calls? do you turn it in to anyone?" um, no and no. Am I getting a grade on this? I got the impression that they literally wanted me to go down the directory list (maybe as often as once a month!) and call every person just to say "hi!" 'Course, I assume they also want me to continue to preach, teach, and outreach.
There's the kicker--time. I ain't got that much. I realize that they have never had a young pastor with a young family. Previous pastors who made phone calls at 7 or 8 at night didn't have kids to bathe and get in bed.
So really, what's going to happen is I'm going to have to hold a "come to Jesus meeting" with this committee and hash out where I need to focus my energy. Right now, it's outward--and good things are happening in this church! There is more energy, new members are coming to join us, people are excited about ministry again. So as I type that, I wonder if some of this visitation crap isn't somewhat about fear of change. Make the pastor care for us and maybe the new people will drift off or not come at all. Hmm, something to think about.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sermon: Tongue Lashing

James 3:1-12

Commissioning Service Ideas

I was rather surprised that the verses from James were the ones that the lectionary used for the Sunday that is the kick-off for the Sunday School year for the majority of mainline denominations. What? Are they trying to scare off the few people we have who still want to teach? Here we are celebrating our teachers and James is giving them a stern lecture, warning them how careful they must be about what comes out of their mouths.

But the more I thought about it, the more it does seem appropriate. After all, Jesus has told us that it is not what goes into our mouths that defiles us, but what comes out. There are all kinds of sayings about watching your mouth so it won’t get you in trouble. And because our teachers are leaders to whom we look for example, surely they must be particularly cautious. James had obviously been having some trouble with the leaders in the congregation to whom he is writing. He is well aware that those people in positions of authority must watch what they say, because others are looking to them and trusting them as leaders.

See, words have incredible power. Pastors more than most have a deep and difficult understanding of this, I think. Yet we all face it, any time we open our mouths and let words spill out. And it’s not just the words we say, but how we say them—inflection, timing, and so on. Admittedly, that’s one reason I’m not much of a texter. Not only do you lose inflection, you even lose the vowels! Without the modulation of voice, I would worry that jests might come across as serious or sympathy as sarcastic or any number of other misunderstandings. And yet it is a powerful way of communicating for an entire generation. One teen I asked about it said that they prefer it because you can hold conversations with many people at once and that there are no awkward silences. I argue that it takes away the personal aspect, though for some I suppose that might be a draw. James knew the tongue was a dangerous body part; I wonder what he would say today about the thumbs?

In this information age, words bombard us constantly—texting, voice mail, email, advertising, radio, podcasts... But we’ve come to expect everyone to have an agenda. We expect misinformation and deceit, even from respectable and reputable sources. In fact, we only consider a source reputable and reliable if we agree with it. That is why teachers especially have to be careful in their words. We have to keep our reputation for wisdom in our words, for truth in our speech. As Paul reminds us, we are to “let no evil talk come out of [our] mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” It is the job of teachers then, to teach others how to think for themselves and discern what is evil and what is useful, what is truth and what is deceitful. It’s not simply a relaying of information to be spat back at the appropriate time. This is a foundational belief of Presbyterianism, and one that has not always been popular with the general public. There are many people who do not want to have to think about their faith. They want it in black and white, rote answers that they can indeed spit at people who do not agree with them. Their tongues become weapons, using proof-texting and verse-citing to provide evidence that they are in the right (and of course, in converse, that others are wrong.)

When we speak aloud, as James so adeptly points out, our tongues, so small in size, can create large-scale disasters. It’s a daunting thought. I can feel the sweat on my brow bead up as I go on. The tongue, so small in size, can be like the tiny spark that sets off huge forest fires in the California wilderness. A slip of the tongue, an illustration misunderstood and many of you might walk out of here with the wrong impression. And as all preachers know and fear, it is always the mistakes that are remembered. We could make the most profound revelation, but one small Freudian slip and that’s what your mind will grasp and take home. And those are the things that we cannot recall, cannot slurp back into our mouths, or call a do-over. How much worse do we make things when we try to over-explain, try to re-cast the mold even after the plaster has hardened? It only makes the mistake that much more obvious in the end.

In the recent movie ‘Doubt,’ starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Streep’s character, the principal of a Catholic parochial school, goes on a crusade to expel the popular parish priest played by Hoffman, based only on the rumors of a young idealistic fellow nun that the priest has taken a special interest in a young boy student. She takes that to mean something more than it perhaps should. Rumors are spread, lives are destroyed and words do irreparable damage. There is a scene at the end, where one of the characters is seen taking a pillowcase of feathers to a rooftop and releasing them into the wind. They represent the words that were spoken and can now never be retrieved, no matter how sorry the speaker is for saying them. At the end of the movie is Streep’s character, dour as ever saying, “I have doubts.”

How often does it seem like our tongues have minds of their own, speaking even if our minds have doubts? I remember, as an impulsive child, being reminded often to think before I spoke. We all have times when we wish we could chase down the feathers that have floated off, out of our control. Growing up in the deep south, I learned quickly that words were never to be taken at face value. So often, what might sound like a compliment, was meant to be the opposite, yet said with a syrupy sweetness that belied the gall underneath. How many of you have ever used the duplicitous phrase, “Well, bless her sweet little heart?” Yeah, you know what it means, what it really means.

James knew well that no matter how much praise you offer a person, the one harsh word spoken, even in a heated moment, will be the one remembered. He knows full well that none of us can control our speech at all times, otherwise, he says, we’d be perfect. But that is why he warns us to constantly be careful of letting our tongues wag, lest we wish we could take back the words spoken. It can both bless and curse, he says. But he also says that this is not the way it should be. Should a spring yield both fresh and brackish water? Of course not! Our language says so much about who we are inside that what comes out of us represents what is in our souls. The same is true of the church. What people hear us say, and even the way we say it, represents who we are when we are inside these walls.

Even today, the most frequent reason cited by those who steer clear of churches is the duplicity of Christians. Hypocrites is the word used most often. “If God’s word does not show up in the flesh of a congregation—if those who hear the word do not also incarnate the word—then the tongue has worked a wicked spell on them.” But we also must be careful not to indulge in glib speech in the church, making what is difficult sound easy, or what is mysterious sound plain.

Whether we mean to or not, we construct worlds with our speech. Describing a world we see, we often mistake it for the whole world. Like the three blind men describing an elephant. It is hard and cool and smooth, said the one feeling the tusk. No, it is warm and wrinkled and tough said the one feeling the leg. No, no, it is rough and hairy and keeps moving, said the one feeling the twitchy tail. Yet we still make meaning of what we see and proceed to conflate this with God’s meaning. Then we behave according to this world we have constructed with our speech, even when that causes us to dismiss or harm those who construe the world differently.

For teachers and others in authority, the danger lies in the perilous combination of authority on the one hand and misused, damaging speech or erroneous claims on the other. The reason James aims this cautionary text at teachers is because teachers and other leaders will be held liable not only for their own follies but also for the errors that their students assimilate and pass on. The more authority the person speaking has, the more likely that people will take their words for truth and also pass them on to others as such. If we as teachers and leaders are not careful in what we say, can we expect that those of whom we teach and lead will be any better?

Our words let people know how we feel, what we think, what we believe—well, at least sometimes. Presbyterians do fairly well at living in a Christian way most of the time, but much less frequently do we do as well talking about our faith and beliefs. We love to tell people that we’re different due to our government or our worship style or how welcoming we are, but rarely do we love to tell them what our confessions say and what our doctrine declares. That’s the hard part about being a teacher, for as powerful as words are, sometimes finding the right ones to articulate the mysteries of God and our faith prove immensely difficult.

We say that we’d rather live our faith than speak of it; we say that actions speak louder than words, but truthfully, not much when it comes to our faith. It is James who says several times that faith divorced from works is useless. But works without faith is just philanthropy. And this isn’t just an internal faith, this is a shared faith, a faith that uses words to communicate with others what we believe and how our lives have been affected by our faith in Christ. See, the tongue, for as much trouble as it can get us in, can also be useful for building up. As far back as the garden of Eden, the tongue was meant for praising God. And as people made in the image of God, I’d go so far as to say it was meant for praising each other as well. But as James points out, in the same breath, we can sing praise to God and demean those made in God’s likeness.

It is easy to see why James has such strong words of warning against the tongue. Forget karate chops and judo kicks, the tongue is the body part that can do more damage more quickly than any other. Yet, “if we dedicate our tongues to the language of God, our actions will follow. Our tongues, which bless and curse, can also ask for forgiveness. Teachers are not perfect, but must choose words carefully, because God has given us authority to build up for the body of Christ.”[i] And make no mistake, we are all teachers in the priesthood of all believers. So let us choose words that are useful for building up, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Amen.

[i] Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4, p. 66

Together again and catching up

So glad that P is home! I know he had a great time and the pictures were awesome. But just having an extra pair of hands to help with the girls makes such a difference. Getting back into a routine that is familiar is good. On the other hand, it does make things seem a little more chaotic to have one more person coming and going again and to have to work schedules around.
First week of school went great. L doesn't even say 'bye to me, just goes right to her seat and talks to her friends. Honestly, that's the way it should be. She's not timid about it at all. Or really about anything. She continually amazes me.
A friend/colleague and I are starting up a lunch for the women ministers in our presbytery this week. Can't wait to see who comes and how it goes. Hope it fun! ('course, we're meeting at a beer garden/restaurant, so it can't go too terribly bad!)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

three cheers for courtesy

The Saga:
Starts back in May when I take L's forms and such to her school to register her for Kindergarten. Have to take in a medical form with physical and shot record. Ok, got it from her pediatrician, good to go. They take it. I leave, believing all is in order.
Fast forward to this past Thursday. It's orientation day. We go meet the teacher, find her room, etc. See a note on the door with kids who need to stop by the nurse's office. My kid is on that list. WTF? Ok, we go, we wait, we get our turn. They want a more up-to-date form or supposedly she can't come on Tues. Wait. It's Thursday, you want it by Tuesday and Monday's a holiday. WTF?! Every parent in the school with a kid who has a summer b-day is probably in the same boat. Why the hell didn't you tell me I'd need a more recent one when I was there in May? You looked at the date on it, you could have said, "she'll need an up-to-date form before school starts." I'd have asked for the form when we were there to have her check-up, no problem. That gives them time to fill it out.
Well, I'm a little unhappy, to say the least. especially having only 1.5 business days notice to fix this issue. But, we stop by the doctor's office on the way home to request the form, I explain and the nice lady behind the desk says it's usually a 72 hour turn around for med. forms. I try not to cry, and politely ask if there is a way to hurry this, as I would actually like for my child not to miss her first day of school (ok, so I would have taken her anyway and let them figure it out later) but she says I can check back at the end of the day on Friday.
So I do. I'm polite and kind and I guess that is not something that a lot of parents have been to those ladies that day. What do I get for keeping my head and using some manners? A nurse staying a few minutes late to complete the form for me and I walk out the door with form in hand on Friday. Totally worth it. :)

gonna be a long week and other random musing

Just as I predicted, the week P is gone hiking in UT, M starts working on her upper teeth--well, I'm pretty sure that's the case, anyhow. Fussy for no seeming reason, Tylenol helps, etc.--all the usual signs.
I just don't know how single moms do it. I've only been sans hubby for 2 days and I'm already going nuts. Even just the few minutes here and there of relief he provides from a 5 year old who can't.stop.talking or giving the baby her bottle when my hands are full, well, I'm grateful.
To top it all off, I'm super low energy, having been diagnosed with walking pneumonia the day before he left. I can tell the superdrugs are working since I can breathe a little deeper without it hurting now, but the lung capacity is still lower than usual and it takes more energy to walk up and down the stairs, much less carrying an 18+ lb. baby chubbette in my arms.
Laundry is trying to take over the house. Can't seem to make it go downstairs by itself either. Gathering up L's laundry is like a scavenger hunt. I don't remember what color the carpet in her room is these days. I try to get to pick up a bit every night before bed, but it just explodes again during the day.
I am so anxious about L's first day of school. She's super excited--it's my own childhood anxieties surfacing that make me nervous. You know, the old mess-up-in-school-and-flush-your-life-goodbye sort of worries. We got a Tinkerbell backpack and a Barbie lunch bag, all the other usual school supplies. Then we had fun decorating her pencil box with jewel stickers and glitter letters for her name. We bought her a first-day-of-school outfit, though what she'll decide she wants to wear that morning is anybody's guess. Can't wait to see how she does. I think she'll have a great time and love being with the other kids and learning new things; she's certainly a smart girl.