Flint is a Litmus Test

Flint, Michigan. Let’s be really clear up front. I cannot imagine a more scandalous situation. If someone or a party contaminated an entire city’s water supply, we would consider it an act of terrorism.  If a nation carried this out, we’d probably declare war against it.

We did it all by ourselves.  Government officials perpetrated this.  I doubt any of them will go to jail, even though some should.  If they are found guilty and sued, the financial penalties wouldn’t come close to covering the financial costs, both short-term and long-term.

How do we compensate for a child’s life’s lost future due to lead poisoning?  What do you say to parents whose dreams for their child have been burst?

At some point the state with some federal money will take corrective action and will find some compensation formula.  It will be very expensive.  However, that money will come from taxpayers, and I doubt the taxes would exempt residents of Flint.  Chutzpah is having to pay out of your pocket to compensate for damages you suffered.

Should we be surprised?  I don’t think so.

This tragedy has been years in the making.  First, we have an aging infrastructure.  The American Society of Civil Engineers rates our nation’s overall infrastructure D+.  A sample of the infrastructure its report card includes:  roads, bridges, transit, airports, schools, wastewater, dams, levees, and drinking water.  Drinking water gets a D.

The drinking water report notes that the life expectancy for the system’s components is 15 to 95 years.  Many of our older cities have an old infrastructure; some pipes date to the civil war.  More than one million miles of pipe deliver water to people in this country.  Currently 4,000 to 5,000 miles of pipe get replaced annually.

Given the way we fund water’s infrastructure, the costs fall heavily upon states and local governments.  This makes funding water infrastructure challenging in municipalities with high levels of poverty, such as Flint, because property taxes are kept low, balancing municipal needs with residents’ incomes.  As such they are not high enough.  Federal money is available, but not enough.  EPA estimates that $334.8 billion will be needed over 20 years for capital investments.  However, Congress allocates an average of $1.38 billion annually or $27.6 billion over 20 years, about 8% of the need.

This gets to the second point.  We’ve been suffering under two mindless perspectives on government, primarily promulgated by the Republicans for three decades.  One, our government is too big.  Two, we shouldn’t raise taxes and furthermore, should seek to cut them.

Smaller government means less oversight of its operations.  Reduced taxes reduce available funds.  The priority to fund stuff underground is not flashy.  A politician can cut a ribbon to open a new bridge.  Somehow turning on the tap and getting clean water doesn’t have the same pizzazz.

We’ve been fortunate that almost everywhere in this country we have a reliable supply of clean, drinkable water.  We don’t give water a second thought.

Flint, though, is a wake up call.

There is plenty of blame and incompetence and callous disregard for the well-being of Flint’s residents.  Some officials should go to jail.

However, Flint is one of many cities in America with a high rate of poverty with inadequate investments in its drinking water infrastructure.  We have a political climate that downplays the important role government has in maintaining the common good.  We also have many municipalities and states run by political leaders who actively disdain government.

As we move closer to the elections this year, we might want to think about each candidate’s perspective on the role government plays in our lives and how that candidate understands all the needs and obligations government must fund.

 

 

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I Hope We’re Not Too Late

OK, I didn’t watch the president’s speech on terrorism.  Then again, I rarely watch presidential speeches, except for, maybe, the State of the Union.  I used to be diligent about them, but stopped early in the Reagan administration as I kept wanting to throw my shoe at the television screen because I was so frustrated by what he said.

Based upon my reading of Monday’s newspapers, I’m glad I didn’t spend 13 minutes listening to him not announce anything terribly new, that we should not condemn Islam as a religion, and that we should not respond in fear.  The last is what I’ve been preaching on and off for months from 1 John 4:18 “perfect love casts out fear.”

I couldn’t avoid preaching on San Bernadino.  I was really in despair on Thursday, the day after the shooting.  I didn’t know what I could say having addressed the shooting in Paris and the shooting in Colorado Springs from the pulpit.  Three of my four last sermons on shootings.  That’s terrible.  It’s really a bummer for Sunday mornings – kind of makes brunch instead of church more appealing.

Rather than post the sermon, I’ll just cut to the chase.

The issue the president could not address, but should have, is why we have people becoming radicalized who will then perpetrate a mass shooting.  It really doesn’t matter to me whether they are captivated by Islamic fundamentalism or right-wing extremism (still noting that other than 9/11 the most destructive domestic terrorist incident in the United States was Oklahoma City) or someone with mental illness.  The president didn’t ask the right question.  But, then, to ask the right question questions our values as a society.

Let’s be clear, though, that I support tighter gun laws.  I know that overwhelmingly gun owners are responsible people.  So, I’m not among those who want to ban them.  I’ll also say that most people who want tighter gun laws are reasonable and don’t want a total ban either.  But, my question is not about gun laws, either.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 entitled “A Time to Break Silence.”  He connected civil rights, the Vietnam War, and social justice together.  Towards the end of the speech he said, “…we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”  He went on to say, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

My question is existential, “Have we died spiritually?”

Almost three years ago children were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.  It was horrible.  I posted my sermon about it on December 16, 2012 entitled “Rachel’s Tears.”  At one point I wrote, “If this shooting doesn’t make us stop what we are doing, then we should seriously consider how torn and shredded our community fabric has become, and perhaps that should make us weep, too.”

We did nothing.  Isn’t that a sign of our spiritual death?

I’ve been wracking my brains for the past several months for answers to what plagues us today.  On one hand things seem OK.  Consumer spending is up.  Unemployment is down. Despite all the mass shootings, we have relative peace.

Yet, we see signs that things are wrong.  We have a huge disparity between rich and poor and public policies which openly transfer wealth from poor to rich.  Corporations seem to put more emphasis on profits than its employees.  Until today racism is openly expressed by the leading GOP candidate for president and he gets no serious rebuke by party leadership. (Finally, other candidates are calling out Trump for his total ban on Muslim immigration.)  The president has had to endure too many racial slights by members of the opposition.  We can’t ignore overlook how the criminal justice system affects black communities more negatively than white communities from police shootings to incarceration rates.  Furthermore, we have the highest incarceration rate of all the major nations.   The GOP presidential candidates are openly xenophobic and are not being called out for it.

Finally, fear.  Why do people feel they need to carry guns in public?  Is it fear?  What is the source of that fear?  Is it also a sign that trust in our public institutions is gone?

I believe we are dying spiritually.  The ties that bind us together as community are frayed or have become too thin to hold us together.  We’ve lost sight of the common good – it doesn’t seem to be a factor in public decisions these days.  Corporations will do whatever it takes to make a profit as long as its legal; and just to be sure to be legal they buy influence with legislators.  (Maybe that’s why I stopped watching presidential speeches – I believe an unspoken legacy of Ronald Reagan’s was effectively severing the role and responsibility of government to ensure the common good.)

King’s words were prophetic.  We spend more than half of our discretionary budget on the military; certainly way more than programs for social uplift.  We’ve reached the point where many legislators want to cut social programs.  Somewhere we stopped thinking about people and became more enamored with computers and machines and profitable bottom lines.

We celebrate wealth, power, and prestige, but have no interest in people like you and me.  Actually, we don’t really count because we don’t have enough money for someone to take an interest in us.  We’ve become one budget number on a vast spreadsheet that can be cut or eliminated.

So, is today’s free-floating anger a symptom of dying?  We may have moved passed the denial stage and are now in anger.  In anger we lash out at anyone.

As I read the newspapers and listen to the rhetoric we’ve gone adrift.  We seem to have lost our compassion, our generosity, our gratitude, our patience, our forgiveness.  We fail to have faith in love’s transforming power.  We have become fearful and intolerant.  We demand short-term gratification.  We’ve organized ourselves around scarcity and not abundance.  In short, our spiritual values, life-affirming values, are in short supply.

In 1967 Dr. King warned that we needed to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.  I hope we are not too late.

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Works in Progress

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 29, the First Sunday of Advent.  I used Luke 21:25-36 as my text.

Luke’s words sound ominous. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (21:25-26)

Jesus spoke those words during that week in Jerusalem which began with his triumphant entry into the city and ended with his gruesome death on a Roman cross. By those words Jesus said that everything will change. The world they knew will pass away.

Those words are meant to awaken us, too. We’re called to prepare to meet the Son of Man and repent of our ways.

Welcome to Advent. Striking isn’t it? We hear these ominous words to set us up for Christmas. Dark forebodings leading to joy and happiness and angels and shepherds and glitter and tinsel and presents and Santa Claus. Does it seem jarring?

Let’s rewind and think about Christmas, which then might help us to understand these dark forebodings. We really shortchange ourselves and the world if we only look at Christmas as the birth of Jesus. Seen that way, the birth of Jesus is a one-time event. Then, all the hoopla which we typically associate with Christmas makes sense. If, however, we understand Christmas as nothing less than the in-breaking of God into our world, now we’ve got something else. Christina Rossetti’s poem expressed it succinctly:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign.

It captured the profound theological point that on Christmas night God came into our world in the form of a baby boy named Jesus. In Jesus, who loved us more than we could ever know, God grew in stature to teach and to serve the world and by his life shared our common lot, struggling and suffering in order to free us from our own frailties and sinfulness so we will live together in true peace and justice rooted in steadfast love to create nothing short of heaven on earth. Christmas, then, is not a day but a state of the world.

The world that must pass away is the world in which we live now. Our world is a world where God’s abundance is not shared by all as evidenced by too many people, especially in the richest nation in the history of the world, not having their daily bread. Our world is a world where fear overwhelms hope such that our leaders choose to transform the world using weapons of destruction rather than the bread and the cup.

In less lofty terms expressed from recent headlines. Our world is a world where serious candidates for President of the United States openly declare religious intolerance without serious repercussions by advocating that we only allow Christian refugees into our country or that we close mosques to thwart Islamic fundamentalism. Our world is a world where terrorists shoot innocent people whether they are in a Beirut market, a Paris café, a Mali hotel, or a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic.

I want this world to go away. I want a world filled with hope. I want a world where no one has to know deprivation or scarcity. I want a world where people don’t feel they must carry guns in public for their own protection. I want a world not organized by fear, but organized by love. I want a world not predicated upon scarcity, but a world that lives out God’s abundant creation. I want the world that Jesus promised. I want a world where all are loved into freedom.

Symbolically, Christmas is a mini-second coming. We celebrate Christmas with joy, not because we got the right gift under the tree, but because there are signs that some aspects of the world in which we live do pass away and in turn reveal a new beginning. Consider that Tuesday, December 1, is the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ defiance. By not giving up her seat, she sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, which ultimately led to integrated seating on the city’s public buses and catapulted a young pastor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into prominence. If we really think about civil rights, most of us lived when separate public restrooms and water fountains for whites and blacks were the norm throughout the South. And I would say that for most of us, we never thought we’d live long enough to see a black person as President of the United States. We’ve made tremendous progress. Listen to the refrain of the great spiritual “We’ve Come This Far by Faith”:

We’ve come this far by faith,
leaning on the Lord;
trusting in his holy word.
He’s never failed us yet.
Oh! We can’t turn back,
we’ve come this far by faith.

Yet, we still have a long journey before us as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The other day I was speaking with a person about the state of the world. We both agreed that things are looking pretty bad right now. However, we acknowledged that when we regularly attend church and devote ourselves to God, we can more readily see kernels of grace which remind us of God’s presence in the world. And then, even when things seem bleak and God is nowhere to be found, we realize God was really here and never left us.

Here’s an example of a kernel of grace, which is probably better to rephrase as a flicker of hope. Last month a hummus restaurant in Tel Aviv made the news. Its owner offered a 50% discount on a meal if Jews and Arabs ate together. He posted on his restaurant’s Facebook page, “Are you afraid of Arabs? Are you afraid of Jews? By us there are no Arabs, but also no Jews. We have human beings! And real excellent Arab hummus! And great Jewish falafel!” His offer might not end the violence between Israel and its neighbors today, but then Rosa Parks’ defiance didn’t end America’s problem with race either, but it was definitely a catalyst to much better racial relationships in this country.

This was Luke’s version of the mini-apocalypse. Just as the early Jesus followers were challenged to stand before the Son of Man, so are we today. We won’t have true Christmas if we narrowly define that day as the birth of Jesus. Luke’s challenge makes us responsible to continue the work Jesus began. We are to defy oppression, to speak truth to power, to proclaim love’s transforming power, and to live courageously in hope. Each of us can hasten the day when Christmas truly arrives by taking seriously our responsibility to be flickers of hope even when so much that we see around us disturbingly strangles life’s affirmations. When we are flickers of hope, we become lights shining through the darkness and when enough light comes together, darkness is gone.

Christmas will come, but not all at once. We will see progress on some fronts. On others it will stall. But we must have faith in love’s transforming power and let the Holy Spirit lead us and guide us. We must lean on God because only in God will we get the strength and courage to persevere for true peace and true justice. Let’s remember the words to the second verse of that same spiritual:

Just remember with good things he has done;
things that seemed impossible,
oh, praise him for the vict’ries he has won.

Christmas will come, even if today it seems so far away. Christmas will come because the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. Christmas will come, but we can hasten that day by meeting the challenge Luke left for us to continue the work Jesus began to love our world into freedom.

Note:  I wish I could say that God loves us into freedom was my expression, but I give that credit to one of my systematic theology professors Dr. Christopher Morse.  The story on the hummus restaurant was from NPR broadcast on Oct. 23, 2015.

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Responding to Paris

I originally planned a very different sermon than this one.  I preached it yesterday in response to the Paris attack.  Several people found it helpful.  The end refers to a parishioner whose funeral I did on Thursday the day before the attack in Paris.  Her Bible was stuffed with papers on which she wrote references to scripture passages, pamphlets, and other artifacts, including the bookmark I referenced at the end.  I used 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Mark 13:1-8 as the readings.

I was writing my sermon on Friday as news trickled in about the terrorist attack in Paris. Coordinated attacks throughout the city. Scores dead. Hundreds wounded. A city, a nation, and indeed a world is in shock.

There is no question that what was done was a heinous act and has been roundly condemned by political leaders as well as religious leaders across a spectrum of faiths, including Muslims.

Let’s be clear that violence perpetrated in the name of God is a perversion.

A terrorist attack by its very nature is designed to invoke fear in the general population. It seeks to force changes in a community contrary to its cherished values and to set people against each other. In their wake, the Massachusetts State Police issued a statement within hours of the attacks to reassure the public that they have taken steps towards heightened security.

Let’s also not forget that in the other day there was an attack in Beirut, Lebanon where 40 people were killed in a bomb attack and earlier this month the Russian airliner was blown out of the sky with a bomb on board. Fear is palpable. The pope said that this is evidence of a piecemeal World War III.

When we make decisions in fear, they are rash. Think about what happened in the wake of 9/11. Remember the colored lights that would tell us the likelihood of a terrorist threat that day? Or the desire to monitor the books we borrowed from the library? Or that we waged a war for which we are still paying its price.

Biblically, people might take these attacks as a sign that the end times are near, especially those on the conservative side of the theological spectrum. We could very well hear words which will condemn homosexuality and that this attack is a sign of God’s anger. But even for those who are not theologically conservative, this attack could spur people to condemn all Islam. Over the coming months we’ll probably see people seeking publicity by burning Qurans or protesting in front of mosques or uniting to keep mosques from being built. People will seek to bar Syrian refugees from our shores, even though they overwhelmingly want nothing to do with ISIS. Consider this, though, from our Christian perspective. People who shoot doctors who perform abortions and claim they do it because their understanding of Christianity compels them or the truly awful Westboro Baptist Church members who protest at soldiers’ funerals are not Christians we would recognize. We would disassociate ourselves from those who perpetuate this destructive practice as many Muslims are doing today in the wake of these attacks. As I said, it is perversion in the name of God.

Reading the papers yesterday and listening to a bit of radio, it seems that the Paris attack changed the political understanding of ISIS. Whereas it was seen as limited to the Middle East, specifically the region around Syria and Iraq, international political leadership is recalibrating its assessment. We may see more aggressive military action in that region. It is even possible that given the nature of Friday’s attacks, some sort of terrorist attack could happen here. The thought is frightening.

However, we should not let fear dictate our lives. Hannah placed her full trust in God. Though she could not conceive a child, she prayed mightily. Giving birth to a child was central to her womanhood, even more than raising a child. She promised God that should she give birth to a son, she would give her son to God. And that happened. She gave birth to Samuel and once he was weaned she left him with Eli in the temple. Each year, she and Elkanah would make a pilgrimage to the temple to offer their sacrifices. She would also bring a robe she made to give to her son, thus she saw him grow.

Granted Hannah did not fear a terrorist threat, but Hannah was oppressed by her status as a woman. Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife, tormented her. Even though Elkanah loved Hannah, he didn’t understand the depth of her despair over her barrenness. Her only outlet was to turn to God. God was her only hope.

We are never alone as we always have God. Even in the midst of fear, there is God as long as we trust God. And we can easily lose sight of God in the midst of fear, and that takes us off track. We get pulled into behaviors we would normally eschew. Our responses should be consistent with Jesus’ teachings about peace and justice rooted in steadfast love.

Hannah prayed a prayer for hope. Hope in God’s grace and power to upend injustice and a reminder that the world in which we live now is not the world that God seeks for any of us. Furthermore, though this prayer resembles the Magnificat in its tenor, it should remind us that the ministry of Jesus Christ has deep roots in Judaism. Jesus would have known this prayer, not the one sung by Mary. While the prayer applied to Hannah, it also applied to Israel. Indeed, the prayer applies to all people who struggle in the Middle East today: the people who have lost hope and have become refugees, people who can’t escape and are in fear for their lives, people who are oppressed because their autocratic governments are corrupt. Even the people who have become enamored with a warped view of Islam are embraced in this prayer. For them hope is letting go of a truly sick understanding of Islam to embrace it as love, peace, and justice. The prayer applies to all people who need hope, even to us.

Fundamentally, what will right the world in the midst of this turmoil is love beginning with our care for those who are closest to us and then radiating out from that to embrace strangers, and even enemies. We must be bearers of hope in order to combat the nihilism that feeds terrorism. Furthermore, as a nation we must be willing to be truthful and honest about our allies: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emerites whose political and business leadership provide the funds for these radical Islamic groups. Seeking their survival in an unstable situation, they bankroll terrorist groups to ensure their security. Saudi Arabia funds the religious schools, madrassas, in places like Pakistan and other predominately poor Muslim countries to teach Wahabbism, a particularly conservative, fundamentalist version of Islam. Furthermore, our government knows this because it was confirmed in a 2009 US State Department document revealed in the Wikileaks scandal.

But the national political stuff may be too much for us to handle among ourselves right now. What we can do, however, is not get pulled into the vortex of fear-mongering, which we will certainly hear during the next several months. We have to acknowledge that though we wish to be safe at all times, that isn’t possible. Even God can’t make that promise. What really secures us is living with hope and infusing our lives with gratitude and generosity. Living in this manner, eschewing fear, offers us hope for a world that brings us closer to the realm of God here on earth.

Let us continue to pray for the people in Paris, the people in Beirut, the victims of the Russian plane crash. Let us pray for people whose lives are defined by violence. Let us pray for refugees regardless from where they began their journeys. Let us pray especially for those who perpetuate violence in the name of God that they might see how truly they have perverted God’s desires. Let us pray for ourselves that we will not lose sight of Jesus’ teachings in our fears. Let us pray that all will have hope and all shall know true peace and justice rooted in love.

The other day I presided over Elsie Chilson’s funeral. Duane lent me her Bible in which I found these words embroidered on a bookmark.

God hath not promised
Skies always blue
Flower-strewn pathways
All our lives through.

God hath not promised
Sun without rain
Joy without sorrow
Peace without pain

But God hath promised
Strength for the day,
Rest for the labour
Light for the way
Grace for the trials
Help from above
Unfailing sympathy
Undying love

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Advent Wreath Liturgy 2015

You can use this Advent wreath lighting liturgy provided you note the following copyright: “Permission to use this liturgy granted by the author, the Rev. Quentin Chin.”

This liturgy uses the Revised Common Lectionary for Year C and is designed for 2015.  Rather than designating the candles in the traditional manner: hope, peace, joy, and love (I can’t remember the order any more as I moved away from those designations several years ago), the candles mark events.

November 29

Jeremiah 33:14-16 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

One: We look east to catch a glimpse of dawn’s light, a hopeful sign that the end of injustice and oppression is coming. We remember Rosa Parks did not give up her seat on December 1, 1955. Her protest was the glimmer of new light offering hope and promising liberation to those who were oppressed. (light one candle)

Many: Open our eyes, O God, to see light piercing the darkness in our community, both here and afar. May this light be a sign for us that love’s transforming power will bring hope where there is none. May it liberate those who are burdened by oppression imposed by political dictates or economic deprivation. Let it be a sign to all who struggle against the odds because of race, gender, sexual identity, physical ability that the gospel’s promise, God’s peace and justice rooted in love, is theirs as well. Amen.

Hymn

December 6

Malachi 3:1-4 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

One: A prophet long ago called to us to prepare for the coming of God. On December 10, 1964 Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize. Though his prophetic voice is still, his writings remind us that “human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of people willing to be co-workers with God.” (light two candles)

Many: God of justice and mercy, open our eyes that we might see prophets among us. Unstop our ears that we might hear their voices. Help us to remember and live brother Martin’s admonishment to strive unceasingly and courageously so all will have their daily bread and can achieve their fullest potential so we might live together in the beloved community. Amen.

Hymn

December 13

Zephaniah 3:14-20 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

One: The time is approaching when all will be renewed in God’s love. On December 15, 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was not a mental illness. By their decision, they affirmed the gospel’s foundation that love is the root from which peace and justice grow. (light three candles)

Many: Loving and compassionate God, thank you for loving us as we are. Encourage us to love each other as fully as you. May we not fear love’s power. Rather may we remember that love’s power chases out fear. Grant that we will let love transform us as we will use love to transform this world. Amen.

Hymn

December 20

Luke 1:46b-55 “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

One: Our wait is almost over. Mary tells us that all shall be lifted up, even those with physical challenges. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It meant that no one should be barred or denied access because of their physical abilities. (light four candles)

Many: All people, O God, should have access to the richness and fullness of life. The prophet said that the “hills will be made low and the rough places a plain and the crooked path will be made straight.” Let us resolve to strive for that day when all can come into your presence unimpeded. May we work to lower the hills and smooth out the rough places and make the path straight so all may dwell in shalom. Amen.

Hymn

December 24

Psalm 96:1-13 O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

One: From Apollo 8, the world saw the earth as a blue orb floating in space. That photo told us that we are one people living together on one planet in the vastness of space. May our voices blend in harmony with creation to sing a new song to God’s glory..(Light all the candles and the Christ candle)

Many: God of the heavens, our waiting is over and our eyes have opened unto a new day. The light of hope chases the dark. The voices of prophets prod us to action. May we continue the work of justice and peace you began when you came to live among us in Jesus. Let us not falter to pursue shalom and in so doing make hope’s light burn brightly for all the world. You are our righteousness. Amen.

Hymn

Note:  The quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.  comes from Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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Dancing with the Unexpected

I’ve been mulling over whether I should post this sermon or not. I preached it on October 18. It’s based on the morning’s gospel reading Mark 10:35-45. At the end I’m going to add a coda, which I didn’t preach because I felt this one was enough and didn’t want to hand the congregation even more to consider. However, from a written perspective, I think it may work better.

Our political process the last few months has fascinated me. Donald Trump’s entry into the Republican presidential candidate pool shifted the dynamics of the entire field. Two candidates already dropped out. The Democratic presidential candidates had their debate on Tuesday, which by all accounts seemed to set an order around qualified leadership with Secretary Clinton leading Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley. Senator Webb and Governor Chafee should say good-bye. We’ll leave the House of Representatives alone.

Political leadership seems unsettled, which, I believe, has to do with a vision for America’s future. Perhaps more so than any time in recent history we don’t have a clear sense of our national direction. Furthermore, the world is very different than it was even a generation ago. We don’t have single nation towards which we can channel our aggression as we did with the Soviet Union a few decades ago. Capital respects no national borders. News and information move so fast today that we don’t have time to digest it.

Our political leaders posture and propose. Whether Republican or Democrat, regardless of policy plans, I believe that deep down they all are variations on the same theme, American Exceptionalism or more accurately, “Reclaiming American Exceptionalism.”

Briefly, American Exceptionalism is the belief that our nation is inherently different than any other nation. We’ve lived with this throughout our entire history. We are exceptional because we were founded as a land of freedom. We are exceptional because we were born out of revolution. We are exceptional because we are “the light of the world. A city built on a hill.” (Mat. 5:14) We are exceptional because each individual matters. Everyone has an opportunity to achieve his or her greatest potential. We are a land of infinite possibilities. We are a great nation second to none.

Our understanding of American Exceptionalism, though, has shifted over the centuries. De Toqueville in the early 1800s saw us as practical, grounded people. Our capitalism’s strength and dynamism became a hallmark in the early part of the 20th Century. Post-World War II we are a global power striding across the globe unchallenged economically, politically, and militarily. This is America triumphant.

However, events today challenge this belief. We see rising economic power in China and India. Our military has not won a war decisively since World War II. We can no longer dictate our terms to the world and expect its compliance.

We hear from each of the candidates his or her vision for reclaiming the American Exceptionalism which followed World War II. Consider some of these slogans:

• Make America Great Again (Trump)
• A New American Century (Rubio)
• Rebuild the American Dream (O’Malley)
• Right to Rise (Bush)
• Fresh Ideas for America (Chafee)

Though not expressly said, each of these implies regaining our status as America triumphant.

But I have another story of America. This one I heard from a man who lived in Pittsfield all his life. I met him a few years ago. His wife was one of my hospice patients. She had advanced dementia, so I really visited with him, not her. As I sat with him and his wife, he told me about life in Pittsfield during the Depression. Like everywhere else, things were tough. People had gardens not because growing vegetables was a hobby, but it was a necessity. He told me about people taking care of each other. People shared food with those who had none. They looked after each other. A stranger might knock on a door at night looking for something to eat or maybe some shelter to get out of the rain and some provision would be made.

The Great Depression was a grim time. A lot of people struggled. Banks failed. Millions were out of work and millions worked in jobs that barely paid anything. No one would ever want to return to it and it’s hardly an example of American Exceptionalism.

But the Great Depression was the crucible which forged the greatness that became post-World War II American Exceptionalism. Although the lessons from the Depression were difficult, they taught the power of love, especially expressed through compassion and empathy. Generosity, even while struggling with scarcity, kept many families together. The American people were exposed and vulnerable. We know FDR’s memorable phrase from his first inaugural speech, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Later in the speech he said, “we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good.”

Whether FDR intended it or not, he expressed what Jesus meant when he spoke to the twelve just before they entered Jerusalem for the Passover. The gross division between haves and have nots in first century Palestine exposed the latter to daily poverty and political oppression, thus making their lives vulnerable. This was a vulnerable time for Jesus and the twelve as well. Three years of ministry, though, brought attention from the authorities who felt threatened. Advocating and agitating for the have nots threatened Pax Romana’s balance. “Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?” Jesus asked James and John. His words foreshadowed his death. He went on to say, “Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.”

Greatness comes when we serve each other. It’s not something we seek rather it’s something that comes to us because of what we do. We’ll be great when we take care of each other. We’ll be great when we pursue the common good. We’ll be great when we live out a Eucharistic theology in which everyone has a place at the table and everyone has enough so no one will know scarcity or deprivation. We’ll be great when we stop living in fear and truly embrace the words in 1 John 4:18 “perfect love casts out fear.” We don’t claim greatness ourselves; rather, it is granted to us by no authority other than history itself.

I’m in no way advocating or claiming that the Great Depression was a good thing and that we have to suffer another one. I am saying, though, that our nation’s vulnerability which came out of the Depression led us to an ethos in which we sought to care for each other by serving one another. It was that ethos that made us a great nation following World War II. It was that ethos that led to rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan and sending GIs to college with the GI Bill.

We must recognize that our greatness as a nation rests upon not a few, not most, but all people having a sense of real hopefulness born out of the way we live in community together. We must live our lives with compassion. We must live empathetically, feeling that the stranger’s needs could very well be ours too. We must live so that we place priority on relational community over individual existence. We must live with hope because it enables us to triumph over fear. We must live the lessons of the gospel because they foster what we say every week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

We won’t achieve greatness if we seek it out. We can’t be great if we claim it for ourselves. We will be great when we live in faith and by faith. We will be great when we serve one another in order to promote the common good. We will be great when we bind our lives and well-being to each other so all may be free.

Here’s the coda:

I wonder if the church, as the body of Christ, needs to embrace this ethos, too?  There is no question overwhelmingly our churches are compassionate.  But are they empathetic?

After I put this sermon to bed on Saturday night, I was reading Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay.  (The book deserves its own blog post.  I just finished it yesterday.)  An aspect necessary to healing from PTSD is relationship.  Shay discusses the multiple dimensions of relationships necessary to stymie the effects of PTSD.

I realized that churches need to have a relationship with the community just outside of its doors.  Though the churches may do ministry out of compassion, how many are empathetic to the people they serve?

Public suppers are a good example.  Compassion compels a church to serve dinner to people who are lonely or who can’t get a meal.  But how many people actually sit with the guests to eat with them and to share their stories?  Through those stories we gain empathy.

Being servant to all is not just service, but is relationship as well.

Before preaching this I added some text around empathy.

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Getting in the Way

I preached this sermon in Dalton this morning based upon Mark 9:38-50.

At this point the gospel story moved inexorably towards Jesus’ crucifixion. Though he saw the foreshadowing of his death, the disciples did not. When Jesus defined discipleship to them, he was clear, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8:34b) The disciples wanting to know who would be first among them were told, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (9:35b) And then, Jesus lifted a little child into his arms saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (9:37)

Jesus, however, was not specifically referring to children in this instance. Though he had a child in his arms, he made a metaphorical point. Paraphrased it might have been this, “Welcome the most vulnerable people in our midst. Whoever welcomes them welcomes not me, but the One who sent me.” Then, Jesus admonished the disciples not to hinder anyone who desired to follow.

When the disciples reported they saw someone casting out demons in his name, Jesus told them not to stop him. That’s an important point in this story.

How many people who want to follow Jesus get stopped? And what stops them?

Most of the people who come to Cathedral in the Night, the Sunday afternoon worshiping community on the front lawn of St. Joseph’s Church in Pittsfield, don’t attend regular church services. Some of the people I met at Common Ground, the dinner church in Northampton, won’t come to regular church, either. I also talk to people who regularly attend church, but their adult children who are in their 20s and 30s don’t attend even though they went to church as children. I don’t know how many people I meet in my chaplain ministry, whether they are hospice patients and families or veterans, who once went to church but have lapsed.

The answers for each of the groups will probably be different, but we should pause and reflect why. The answers will probably not fall neatly into particular categories. Admittedly, our answers will be speculative. Just as an aside, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America bishop for this synod, Jim Hazelwood, a year or so ago formed a panel of non-church goers to tell their annual meeting attendees why they don’t go to church.
Many people will tell me that they feel disconnected from traditional church. “Worship is boring” is one of the milder reasons. Some reasons are more pointed, “People in church are a bunch of hypocrites. They call themselves Christians, but they don’t act that way.” Other people find that traditional churches fall far short on discipleship. They’re not content to come and worship for an hour a week and then not take action in the community.

Some people have been seriously hurt by the church. While we might immediately think of clergy abuse, it is more often for something less dramatic. Pastors can say some pretty hurtful things when we are too dogmatic, which is why the current pope has become so popular. While he has made practically no changes to church doctrine, he has given the church a more compassionate voice, which has softened its harshness. One example was his response to homosexuality, “Who am I to judge?” He also softened the church around its divorced members by encouraging the church to embrace their spouses and children and that divorced members are not to be excommunicated.

I’m pretty certain that many of the people who come to Cathedral in the Night won’t come into our churches because they would feel embarrassed. Though we would say, “We don’t discriminate. We welcome everyone,” they know differently. Not all of them have dirty and torn clothes. Not all of them smell. Not all of them show clear signs of mental illness. Not all of them are unwashed. Not all of them talk like we do. Not all of them became or are addicted to drugs or alcohol or both. Not all of them have broken with their families. Not all of them have spent time in jail or prison. But almost all of them know that they are not really like us inside the church and that makes them uncomfortable. They have little in common with us. Let’s also admit, their presence will be challenging for us as well.

I remember the first time I went to Cathedral in the Night in Northampton. I went with the senior warden from St. Stephen’s Church and their associate pastor. On the way back the pastor and I asked him, “What did you think about the service?” He replied, “I’ve never worshiped with people on the other side of the wall.”

A few people I spoke with at Common Ground said that they prefer worship where they can talk and ask questions rather than traditional worship. They also like the greater sense of community they have sitting at tables and breaking bread with other people rather than sitting in seeming isolation.

Stumbling blocks. They’re ours. We wonder why people aren’t in church without realizing that many of them who are outside our door or just down the street really want to have a relationship with Jesus. They can’t because they’ve encountered stumbling blocks.
When we step back and look at ourselves critically, we can probably find other stumbling blocks. We might question why we worship on Sunday mornings, especially when the ideal church household of two parents and a couple of children typically has two wage earners working Mondays through Fridays leaving them only Saturday to do errands. Sunday mornings would be their only morning family time. Seriously, I have a colleague who once said to me, “If I weren’t a pastor, I wouldn’t come Sunday mornings either.”

Another stumbling block is not providing an open and safe space for people to ask their deep spiritual questions. I’ve heard from more than a few people as they approached death, “How can God love me when I’ve used drugs?” Or trying to help people sort out the injustice when a young child dies of a disease, especially after people tell the parents “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “This was all part of God’s plan.” Or even questions about church doctrine, “Can I be a Christian if I don’t believe in the virgin birth?”

Though we think about handicap accessibility for people in wheelchairs and walkers, how many of our services accommodate people with hearing as well as vision deficits?
Not long ago I questioned how anyone could be an SBNR, Spiritual but Not Religious. What I’ve come to see, especially through my other ministries, is that there are many people who are deeply spiritual, but who confront stumbling blocks when it comes to religion.

Like the man casting out demons, there are many people who want to do the Jesus work and know that we should be servants to all. There are many people who will willingly commit their lives to a cause. And yet many of these people can’t find an easy path into our fellowship.

What I’m asking is for us to take a step back and pause. As we move into a new future, we might want to begin asking ourselves questions and stop taking so much for granted. What has changed in our secular lives that we have yet to translate into our church practices? How can we hear what SBNRs have to say? Where do we go to understand why too many people on the underside of our communities can’t find a home in our churches? What are those deep spiritual questions we’re reluctant to answer ourselves? How are we getting in the way?

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Servant Leadership for Healthier Communities

This is today’s sermon based upon Mark 9:30-37.  I gave it a new title as the original had nothing to do with what I said today.  I begin this sermon with career satisfaction.  I also note that today’s New York Times had an essay on our toxic work world, which was a bit of coincidental timing.

One of my colleagues posted something the other day about clergy being the most satisfying career. I searched the internet to find its source. One published by the National Opinion Research Center also known as NORC found the five most satisfying jobs in descending order were: clergy, physical therapist, firefighter, school principal, and artist. The survey did not count financial compensation. Though I found references to a couple of other surveys, clergy remained the most satisfying occupation while other careers filled in positions two through five.

I’ve had five different careers, not jobs, careers. I can firmly attest that this one is the most satisfying. Here’s my career list in chronological order: urban and regional planner (specializing in labor market analysis), cartographer, systems analyst, IT something or rather, and clergy. I can measure satisfaction in a couple of ways. First, my overall satisfaction measured by how much I loved my work. This career is unsurpassed. Urban planning was a close second, though. Second, the length of time for this career, which is no contest. This is the longest I’ve spent in a career. IT is second, but ranks lowest among my five in overall satisfaction. On the other hand, I have to concede that if it weren’t for my dissatisfaction with IT, I would not have made the career switch to become clergy.
Satisfaction has a direct correlation to the nature of the work performed by clergy, which we call ministry.

The verb minister comes from the medieval French word menistrer meaning to serve, be of service, administer, attend, wait on. The French derives from the Latin word ministrare meaning to serve, attend, wait upon. The noun minister comes from the Old French world menistre meaning servant, valet, member of a household staff, administrator, musician, minstrel. The French word came from the Latin ministri meaning inferior, servant, priest’s assistant. Ministry, the work of the clergy, is a work of service. But it implicitly establishes a social hierarchy in that the work is the work of a servant to someone higher, particularly seen through its Latin origins.

When we ordain someone in the United Church of Christ, the ritual begins by inviting the ordinand to come forward with these words “_______________ servant of God.” And the end is most extraordinary. When I knelt down all the clergy who were my pastors up to that point laid hands upon me. Next, my remaining colleagues. Those who could not directly lay hands on me, lightly touched the shoulders of those who had their hand upon me. Then, everyone was invited to touch the shoulders of those in front of them so that everyone was connected to me either directly or through someone else. A prayer was spoken and though the touch was light, I felt a heaviness, a weight I had never felt before or since settle upon me. It was an ontological moment, meaning a change in the state of being, from ordinand to ordained.

The NORC survey noted that serving others was the distinctive characteristic which made the top five careers most satisfying. I can’t speak for the other careers, but from my perspective that’s what makes ministry so satisfying. But it’s not just that we serve others. Other people in other careers do many of the things clergy do: working with people who are sick, running institutions, and assisting people. Other people teach. Other people write. And almost everyone goes to meetings.

Satisfaction comes because we are servants of God. That ontological moment at ordination shifts our understanding of our purpose. In that moment we come to understand that our purpose is not to serve ourselves, but to serve others. We become servant leaders. Furthermore, we don’t just labor in ministry in service to others. We don’t just serve our community. We are called by God. We serve God.

What we do is ministry, even though it is work. That’s an intentional distinction. The word reflects its ancient roots. That ontological moment changed my entire sense and understanding of myself. It made clear that the weight I felt was the obligation Jesus gave to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and now rested upon me.

Bear in mind, though, Jesus did not aim his remarks at clergy. He spoke to all of us.

We are all called, not just clergy, to be servant leaders. It’s also not a rank in the pecking order of society, but it is a way we should approach life. God calls upon everyone to be servant leaders because a community cannot be healthy without this framework. Martin Luther made clear that the church is the priesthood of all believers, meaning that the work of ministry is not the exclusive domain of the clergy, but for all people. I would extend Luther’s advice to embrace all people, Christian or not. Furthermore, Luther declared that every legitimate type of work is a calling from God. We cannot have a healthy community if everyone seeks to stand above his or her neighbor or to “win” at the expense of our neighbor.

I’m not saying, though, that we all have to work harder as members of this church or that everyone has to be part of a faith community in order to do ministry. Ministry is the way we understand our lives. It is how we work. It is how we play. It is how we live. Ministry is a way of life. Ministry is an orientation towards life.

How would your life change if you embraced your life as a ministry? Some careers would be easy to see as a ministry. Teaching is one of the ancient practices of the church. Seeing that as ministry is not a huge leap. It might shift, however, from just teaching children to recognizing it as preparing students to work towards making a brighter collective future. Certainly a doctor or someone in a medical field could see that career as a ministry – the career directly correlates to bringing healing and wholeness to a person’s body.

But what about a financial planner? This is a ministry when we understand it not by just helping people maximize their assets, but by helping people reach their financial goals in order for them to have the life they seek. A car mechanic works on a machine which is absolutely essential for many people to use so they can get to work, shop for food, or seek out destinations for pleasure. An artist not only creates and presents beauty to us, but an artist also can help us touch our deepest emotions and truths so we might be better able to comprehend the world in which we live and to open our eyes and ears and hearts to the glory of God’s creation.

I can’t go into every career. But seeing a career as a ministry requires reframing its tasks and responsibilities towards uplifting the greater good. Still, ministry is not just how we frame our careers. We cannot overlook that ministry is a way of life. It’s total. When we understand that living as Jesus asks of every disciple is service to one another, it changes everything about community. We move away from trying to grab everything for ourselves to ensuring that no one is suffering from deprivation and scarcity. We become less self-centered and more generous in spirit and in practice. We can let go of fear, especially fear of the foreigner and stranger, to embrace love. We no longer see people as beneath us, but we come to support them to live in a manner so they can reach their fullest potential. We live not for ourselves, but for everyone around us. We live to create the reign of God on earth which we understand through Jesus’ teachings and ministries.

I don’t know if you read the article in yesterday’s Berkshire Eagle on CHP’s, Community Health Program’s, 40th anniversary. Its director of Family Services, Michelle Derr, came to them as a “pregnant, single, uninsured soon-to-be mom.” Based upon the article CHP, whether intentional or not lived out its program as a ministry. The agency helped her obtain health insurance. Derr describing her experience, “were compassionate, and kind, and supportive. They did not judge me…. And they were with me every step of the way.” That was ministry. Meeting people where they are. Providing compassion without judgment. Being generous in spirit. Letting love dictate how we respond to each other. Ministry is as much about the actions to serve someone as in the manner and spirit with which we serve.

Embracing servant leadership and living our lives as ministry will strengthen community. We want a community where compassion is paramount. We need a community where scarcity and deprivation are no more. We cannot have true community without embracing all people without regard to gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, culture, physical ability, mental ability – in short we can’t be a true community if it does not resemble the celestial feast God sets for us at the end of our days.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were a tall order. They haven’t changed for us. They remain necessary for the true peace and true justice for which we all yearn and all deserve.

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Being Present for the Dying

Death is a part of a pastor’s ministry because it is part of life. OK, true, I do some hospice work, which makes death a regularity. This summer, though, was particularly trying. I had two funerals within a week in July. I had three funerals in the last eight days.

As I work very part time as a hospice chaplain I don’t have many patients, although this summer I had one, a ten-year old girl.  Even when a patient dies, we don’t always preside over the funeral.  Many patients have their own clergy.

Two funerals were related to the church.  One died as a current member and another as a former member.  Those I did within a week of each other in July.

Two funerals were for veterans at the shelter.  Both had cancer and were on hospice.  They died within a couple of days of each other.  Both men had a history of drug abuse.  They had family, but due to their addictions their family connections were strained even in love.  I did them a week apart, September 5 and 12.

The fifth funeral was for my ten-year old patient.  I did that one September 5.

I don’t recall having to preside over this many funerals in this short a period.  I also happened to support a couple of other people who died this summer, but did not have to preside over their funerals.

Although dying and death are a part of life, they are not activities people relish.  I remember years ago when I first began in ministry, one of my wife’s colleagues at the time asked me how it was going.  I said, “Today, I spent a couple of hours with an elderly couple eating fresh gingerbread and drinking coffee.”  He said, “That sounds pretty good.  I could do that.”  I then said, “But keep in mind that I also have to tend to people who are dying.”  “Oh, yeah, not for me,” he said.

I can’t speak for all my colleagues, just me.  But have you wondered what it’s like for a pastor to deal with dying and death?

Without a doubt, this is a sad task.  It really doesn’t matter how many people I’ve supported as they died, each death makes me pause in my day.  Of course, how well I knew the deceased makes a difference.  Honestly, I feel the loss more acutely when I know the person than when I don’t.  The better I know the deceased and the family, the more compassion I have.

When I can be with the person as he is dying, I seek to give him peace.  I patiently answer deep spiritual questions, such as “what is dying like?”  I sometimes need to quell the anxiety around his life.  I might help the patient review his life to give him some affirmation that his life mattered to his family, friends, and community.

Given the veterans I serve, many of them had troubled lives.  They had addictions. Many were in and out of jail.  Often their connections to family are gone or at best thin.  Many will reflect upon their lives and have a deep fear that they will not find salvation.  I work with them diligently to help them find peace by validating their life and by speaking passionately about God’s love.

I can’t ignore the family or close friends who care for the dying person.  Often I have to help them.  Sometimes they wonder if they did enough (they did).  Sometimes they are angry and I have to figure out the source of the anger.  Particularly when the disease is especially difficult, like ALS, I’m apt to say, “People are telling you God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.  And you’re thinking, ‘That’s a bunch of crap because if God’s giving me this, I don’t want anything to do with God.”  They usually nod in agreement.  (Hint: Because dying is uncomfortable anyway, don’t say stuff that makes you comfortable.  If you’re uncomfortable, imagine them.  Try saying, “I’m sorry,” which is true or “If I can be of help, let me know” and mean it.)  Sometimes family members are at a loss for what to do as death approaches.  I remind them that hearing is the last sense to go, so tell the person you love her and thank her for what she did for you.  I also remind them that it is not always possible to be at bedside when the person dies.  Some people don’t want loved ones to see them take their last breath.

This is difficult work.  It’s tiring, though rewarding.  Some sessions drain me, especially when the dying person had a very troubled life.

When the person dies, I try to meet with family members to help them process the death.  We might talk about funeral plans, but mostly we talk about the person’s life and what would give them comfort.  I ask a lot of questions to prompt them.  I don’t try to fill silences, either.  I try to use our time to put the deceased in past tense for the survivors can move on.  We talk a bit about the grieving process, especially noting that it could take a full 18 months to two years.

Then the funeral or memorial service.  I spend at least a couple of hours preparing the service.  Preparation has gotten easier for me over the years as I have a sizable collection of services from which to draw upon, especially prayers.  But I always write the homily without drawing upon past services.  The deceased was unique.  Her life was special, even if it was hardly a stellar life.  This is deeply reflective work.  I feel the weight of responsibility to put a spiritual and theological framework around the person’s life in order for those present at the service to find comfort and hope for something better for the deceased.  Though those who come to the service will have their own memories of the deceased, I try to help them find meaning about the deceased’s life so they can carry it with them as they begin their extended grief.

When I look at the congregation, I feel the heavy weight of responsibility to carry everyone’s grief for the time we’re together.  I have to do it and hold my composure because the congregation needs to feel that the preacher is strong enough to lead them, even if I’m not sure if I can make it.  When I did the funeral for the 10-year old girl, I worried that I would falter when we sang the one hymn “Hymn of Promise“towards the end of the service.

I’m spent when the service over.  I’m not able to do much afterwards.  I want to seek out a quiet space because I’m reflecting too.  But, usually right after the service I’m with other people, such as mourners or just church staff.  I usually get through the social stuff.  When I’m alone I need a couple of hours.

Sometimes, though, such as the summer I had, the deaths take their toll.  I was tired at the end of July and through August.  I took a couple of weeks off at the end of August for vacation, which was restorative, but upon returning, the 10-year old died and brought everything back.

I cope using deep prayer.  It’s been my saving grace.  I also will use humor.  I’m not alone in using humor to relieve death’s weight.  If you stumbled upon us making jokes, especially about death and dying, you’d think we were unfeeling, but in reality, we need to make jokes (in moderation, of course) to relieve the stress.

Though death is a part of pastoral ministry, it doesn’t mean that it is a clinical task of ministry.  I grieve, too.  Maybe not quite like the family or close friends, but I grieve like a lot of the community.  Each funeral takes a bit of something out of me.  Some funerals, such as for drug addicted veterans or young children, can be exceptionally difficult and draining.

After a funeral, give your pastor some space.  Don’t talk about the latest brouhaha at the church because it rarely comes close to the profundity of death.  If possible, give the pastor some extra time off, especially if the pastor had a few funerals within weeks of each other.  Ask how the pastor is feeling.  Pray for your pastor.

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Busyness is Not Always Good Business

The New York Times recently published a long article on the work practices at Amazon.  It described a work culture which could best be described as horrible.  It reported that people will receive work e-mails at midnight with a text message follow up a little while later demanding why the e-mail was not answered.  It described an internal evaluation system which allows employees to make anonymous comments to supervisors about other employees and a culture which promotes critical comments which too often are destructive rather than constructive.  It also told of a compassion deficit for people who had to care for ailing parents or for employees who suffered a personal loss, such as a miscarriage.

Other media outlets picked up this story.  The Times published Jeff Bezos’ response in which he basically said he doesn’t recognize the company described in the original article and that “anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

The paper published comments from current and former Amazon employees as well as people who have had connections with Amazon employees, including family members and at least one tech recruiter.  While some comments contradicted the article’s descriptions, most of them supported it.

Since the article,  the Times published related articles to the workplace independent of Amazon, including software to monitor employees’s work time and today’s competitive work environment.

Maybe because I’m on vacation this week and taking a real break from all my ministries or maybe because I’ve been working in the church too long, these articles have been churning in my mind.

The article on today’s work environment touched on its history.  Our corporate model began at the turn of the 20th Century in the New York law firm Cravath.  They hired a slew of highly competent law school graduates and over time through their work they would prove themselves worthy to receive a partnership. The article noted that the difference in compensation between partnership and the next tier below was dramatic, which created a highly competitive environment.  This environment worked to cull most of the new hires  over time.

People wanted to prove themselves worthy to move into the tier above them, so they worked very hard, which gets me to the software.  The article described apps which can monitor an employee’s whereabouts 24 hours a day.  General Electric uses a smartphone app which the supervisor can give an employee immediate feedback after a presentation.  Other software can monitor what an employee is working on or if the employee is working at all.

All of this has left me thinking that corporations view their employees as cogs in a vast machine.  OK, this is not exactly new.  Working for large corporations has been like working as a cog in a vast machine seemingly forever.  Heck, it’s the same for government or any large organization for that matter.

But the infusion of technology into the workplace bothers me, especially technology that can track us and rate us on all of our activities.  It re-enforces the machine culture in which too many employees are cogs, and which Charlie Chaplin captured brilliantly in Modern Times.

Without the technology infusion there was still a human element in the workplace, even in the biggest corporations.  Water cooler conversations were hardly productive from a corporate perspective, but it built a sense of shared community in the workforce.  Software, however, can identify those down times.  Certainly management can allow for some water cooler time, but how much and when?  Those conversations were spontaneous and could last for an imprecise number of minutes.

More nebulous are face to face informal meetings to talk about a problem.  But even those meetings will sometimes drift into non-work topics.  I can see a dialogue something like this:

A:  We’re onto something, but I think we need to tweak this some more.  I have another meeting in ten minutes.  Can we touch base this evening to wrap this up for our morning presentation?

B:  We should, but Tim’s got a basketball game tonight and …

A:  Hey, how’s he doing?  He’s in what grade now?

B:  He’s a junior.  That’s the thing after the game we were going to map out the next college road trip.

A:  Where does he want to go? ….

You can see where this is going.

What about silence?  Silence is more important than we realize.  In today’s world when everything seems to work and move at hyperspeed, silence doesn’t seem to have a place anymore.  People may think of silence as a doing nothing.  But like sleep, silence allows us space and time to process and reflect.

Too often people go from meeting to meeting or leave a meeting and then proceed to answer a slew of voice mails which stacked up during the meeting.  Where is there time to think about what transpired during the meeting?  And that thinking extends beyond the project at hand and even the corporation.  What impact does the meeting’s decision have upon the world itself?  Or expressed differently, what does it really matter that you can order something from Amazon and have it at your door in an hour?

There’s nothing wrong with hard work.  But is it really necessary to use technology to squeeze humanity out of the workplace?  When the organization’s success, generally measured in profits, takes precedent over human life, we’ve reduced every employee to a cog in the corporate machinery.

We’ve placed a premium on efficiency in order to increase productivity.  Efficiency’s tentacles have spread beyond the corporation and have touched many aspects of our lives.  Our time is too precious to go to the store to purchase food and prepare it, so we order it on-line to have a dinner kit shipped to our door with everything pre-cut and pre-mixed to leave us with the feeling that we’ve cooked our dinner.  We order from Amazon because we don’t have time to go to the store and look for whatever we must have.

But what’s so bad if we stop to purchase groceries on our way home from work?  We might stumble across a food item which we never ate before or we might have a brief conversation with the produce manager to learn a new way to prepare a vegetable or we might enjoy a pleasant greeting from the person at the checkout.  If we go to the store, we might run into a friend or neighbor we haven’t seen in awhile.  But living our lives efficiently means we don’t get these moments of serendipity.

Less busyness gives us space to for a mental pause.  We get a chance to reflect upon what just happened or how our day has been going.  We get a chance to think more expansively about what we discussed in the meeting and to wonder about its impact beyond the bottom line.  We also come to value what really matters, our life and the lives of the people we see: family, neighbors, friends, and strangers.

Less busyness means we don’t reduce life to some vast machine without a soul.

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