Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On the "Family Business"

I just read James Howell's musings on the "Family Business" over at Faith and Leadership at Duke Divinity. Though he married into the business, he now finds himself as the father of a daughter who will be a fourth generation minister. It all made me think about my own foray into the family business.

My dad is a pastor, and his dad is a pastor. My dad's mother went to Bible school and has functionally been a co-pastor for her whole life, and I believe was even ordained at some point - though I've not heard that from her mouth. My dad's only brother is a pastor, and all three of his kids have spent time in the International House of Prayer ministry in Kansas City. My mom and dad met at Bible college, and of my mom's five siblings, two are career missionaries and another spent a number of years in missions. In fact, on my mom's side, we've traced our lineage all the way back to one of the very first Lutheran priests, who came over from Catholicism during the Reformation in Norway. (or was it Sweden?) So yes, I'm in the family business.

So is my husband. He is the son and grandson of pastors, and his dad's only brother nearly became a pastor, too. So here we are, two third-generation ministers married to each other, having to negotiate problems in marriage that I think few people have, such as who would marry us (our dads co-officiated) and, if we have children, who will baptize them.

I can't speak for Andy's experience, but I believe that he had a lot of encouragement towards the ministry growing up. After all, he was a tall, good-looking young man, the first-born, well-behaved, a good listener...

I, on the other hand, don't ever remember anyone encouraging me to consider ministry when I was growing up. I was also very active in church from a young age, at least until high school, and while I exhibited strong leadership abilities of my own, I was often encouraged into teaching. A few particularly discerning folks said that they could see me as a "teacher of teachers." But a minister? I don't know that it ever crossed their minds. I don't think it ever crossed mine, either! I had never experienced a female pastor, though no one had ever told me it was forbidden (not until later, at least). My sister even went through a small stage of wanting to be a minister. I said to her, "Are you CRAZY?" It turns out that she is quite sane, and really enjoys her work as a clinical laboratory scientist.

On the other hand, once I discerned my call to ministry, it was quite difficult to emerge from my dad's shadow. And he casts a very big shadow. First of all, he's 6'4'', and more importantly, through the twists and turns of his vocation, he has worked in local churches, for the national denomination, with all of the Presbyterian seminaries, and with so many ministers in the Presbyterian Church and beyond that it was difficult to introduce myself in most church circles without being asked, "Are you by any chance related to Sheldon?"

I love my dad dearly, and I think that as apples and trees go, well, we wind up sharing a lot of ground. In terms of my vocation and ministerial identity, I've caught a lot from him, and for that and so much more I am incredibly grateful. Still, I've encountered quite a few assumptions and expectations all because I am Sheldon's daughter. Some Seminary classmates would chalk up my achievements to him - "Well, of course when you grow up with Sheldon as a father...," and on occasions when I didn't have some specific kind of knowledge: "How could YOU not know that?" I was pursued for my Seminary internship by a minister who was good friends with my dad. As soon as he discovered that I was in Seminary in Louisville, he badgered my dad for my email address and proceeded to recruit me to work in his church. It was a great experience, and I'm thankful for the doors that have opened through mutual relationships. But there are still expectations that I carry along with the stick straight hair that I can thank him for, too. I even find myself succumbing to the expectations. Like the time I was asked if I considered myself to be a "pre-Barthian, Barthian, or post-Barthian" preacher. I was embarrassed to say I didn't know enough to answer the question, and silently kicked myself. I should have known that - my dad's PhD was on Barth! It's a wonder that when he successfully defended his dissertation when I was 7 years old that the knowledge didn't transfer directly to me.

One of the best things about being in the family business is that it has introduced me to an even bigger family. Many PKs (and generations thereof) find themselves called into ministry, and PKs can find community with other PKs and other ministers that is quite unique. I call it PK-dar - we somehow gravitate towards each other. I don't know the statistics, but I think there are plenty of PKs who marry each other, or PKs who marry other ministers. In fact, I'm surprised at the number of other female clergy I've met - PK or not - who married sons of pastors. There is something about being in the family business that really unites the family. Perhaps the call into a ministerial family isn't accidental.

It's also not inevitable. Neither of Andy's two brothers are ministers, nor is my sister, so there is hope. Andy and I don't have children, but hope to some day, and then they'll be - wait for it - DOUBLE Fourth-Generation PKs (if I've got my math right, and it's entirely possible that I don't - I'm a minister, not a mathematician!). I pity those children already for the lines that they will have to hear growing up about following in our footsteps, the inappropriate questions about what kind of PKs they are (goody two-shoes or wild child), the boundary-stomping parishioners with all of the good intentions in the world, and the expectations that will be placed on them by others, by themselves, and hopefully to as little a degree as possible, by us.

To our unborn (and to clear up ANY confusion, not-yet-conceived) children, I write the following. I'm sorry. You didn't choose to be born into this crazy family business, but here you are. Your father and I have had lots of experience growing up in the church, and we will do our best to nurture you with the same love and support, cradling you in our arms and in our boundaries until you are able to establish your own. You will not have to go to every single church activity, sing in the choir, volunteer in the nursery, or sit in the front pew unless you want to. Though we will be criticized for it, we will not prioritize church work over you, even if sometimes we have to juggle things around. We will always be your parents first. We will do our best to teach you about God, to pass on to you this mantle of faith which we have received. We will fill our home with prayer and worship together, teach you the stories of the faith, not because people will expect you to know Bible trivia (though they will), but because we want you to know from the very beginning who you are and whose you are. We will strive our best to be great pastors, but we will not be pastor to you. To you we will just be mom or dad, but we'll help you find other pastors that can nurture you in your walk of faith. We will love you and support you, and we will never expect or pressure you to go into ministry just because we did. We will try to shield you from the things about church that no one wants to see, but we will be honest about the fact that the church is just a big group of flawed people, all in need of God's help - us included. It's not always easy growing up as a PK, but it's not all bad, either. You'll see. And just wait until you meet the rest of the family.
Love, Pastors Stephanie and Andy   Mom and Dad

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

I just returned from a Good Friday service at a local Episcopalian church followed by a walk through the stations of the cross. This particular meditation had fourteen stations, and as I made the journey around the stations, my perspective began to shift. No longer was I standing with Christ at the cross; I became more aware of Christ standing with us in the fleshiness of our own lives, in the dark places.

One: Jesus is condemned to death
Though there are surely times when we feel our lives as we know it are coming to an end, there are some who actually receive sentences of death - some in the halls of "justice," others in the sterile rooms of hospitals and doctors' offices. For others, the death sentence is a sentence of death to life as they know it - a sentence that can come in many shapes and forms. There Jesus stands.

Two: Jesus takes up his cross
Jesus willingly accepted his torture and abuse. Some who are tortured and abused today cannot choose otherwise; others who are caught in cycles of abusive systems or relationships feel just as unable to escape. Bearing the abuse and shame, with those who are tortured and abused, there Jesus stands.

Three: Jesus falls for the first time
Jesus fell. If the Son of God himself fell in his earthly walk, how do we expect to get through life without taking a fall every now and then? In our falls and in our failures, there Jesus stands.

Four: Jesus meets his afflicted mother
It was not just his own pain and suffering that Jesus had to bear. As he suffered, others suffered with him, and he looked out on their faces of pain, loss, anguish, and grief. We are created to be in bonds of love and compassion with each other. When we see those whom we love in the throes of pain and suffering, often we would gladly take it upon ourselves, or do whatever we could, to relieve their pain. It is a suffering of a different kind, and there, Jesus stands.

Five: The cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene
Even Jesus had to ask for help. In the giving and receiving of help along the journey, there Jesus stands.

Six: A woman wipes the face of Jesus
There are times when we would like to be invisible, hiding our scars and wounds from the world. In fact, society in general is quite adept at shielding itself from what it doesn't want to see. We consider the "homeless problem" to be solved not when all are housed, fed, and cared for, but when we no longer see the homeless on the streets, with cardboard signs and cries for help. When we no longer smell the stench of urine, body odor, and feces in streets and alleys or at bus stop shelters. Battered, bruised, and bloodied, Jesus is before us, there to be served by a woman with nothing more to offer than a shroud, and the touch of humanity. There Jesus stands.

Seven: Jesus falls a second time
As we fall repeatedly, there Jesus stands.

Eight: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
To the sisterhood of women, a group with no power or status, Jesus speaks. With the powerless and voiceless in our society today, there Jesus stands.

Nine: Jesus falls a third time
With those who fall, and fail, and fall and fail, and can't seem to get back on their feet again, there Jesus stands.

Ten: Jesus is stripped of his garments
Naked. Bared and humbled for all to see. Spat upon. Despised. Ridiculed. Stripped not just of his garments, but of all dignity. With all whose bodies and souls are violated, with all who bear public shame and humiliation, there Jesus stands.

Eleven: Jesus is nailed to the cross
Jesus bore the punishment for guilt that was not his. We still live in a world where injustice often reigns, and with the victims of every injustice, great and small, there Jesus stands.

Twelve: Jesus dies on the cross
With the dying and with the dead, there Jesus stands.

Thirteen: The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother
With the grieving parents of the world, there Jesus stands.

Fourteen: Jesus is laid in the tomb
When it seems as though all hope is lost, the final sentence given, the fate sealed, there Jesus stands.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Contemplating the cross, we are reminded  of the depth and breadth of the pain, suffering, shame, humiliation, and injustice that Jesus experienced. The cross does not make any of that ok. It does not take away the sting of death, it does not justify abuse, torture, and injustice. It does not relieve the pain and suffering that we continue to experience. But it does redeem it. In the depths of whatever we may experience in the world, we know that Jesus stood there, and that God continues to stand with us today. We know that none of those things have ultimate power over us; they are not the last word. Even as we find ourselves in the darkness and despair of Good Friday, we recognize that Easter morning is just around the corner. Our hope lies in the risen Christ, but here, and now, in the depths of all human suffering and despair, we can find comfort, because there Jesus stands.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Inveterate Critic

This morning, Palm Sunday, was the first Sunday since I left my position at UPC that I haven't been preaching somewhere (or doing an official COM visit). My initial thought was to go check out an Episcopalian church in Lexington that I have wanted to visit, but the late night, high cost of gas, bad brakes on the car, and rain got the better of me, and I decided to stay closer to home and swing in the total opposite direction: from high church and sung liturgy to no liturgy at a local campus of a Lexington megachurch. 

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I find it difficult to simply visit a church, without critiquing what is going on, what is and isn't being said, sung, etc... Part of that is an occupational hazard, I'm sure, but I think it is mostly my J coming out in full force. 

It's not the first time I've been to a church like this, and I don't automatically dismiss these shopping center churches as I've heard others do. Still, I left feeling like I still hadn't been to church, and I really miss that on this particular Sunday as the prelude to Holy Week. 

This church is literally in a shopping center, sharing the same physical plant space as the movie theater, a restaurant, and a now-defunct Food Lion. The entrance to the worship space is bright, clean, and minimal, with computer terminals and information stations to help people connect with what is going on in the church. Upon entering the worship space, there are no visible signs of this being a church. It looks like the inside of a big box store or warehouse converted into a concert venue. Upbeat music is playing - the kind of music that you might hear at beginning of a sporting event. Lighting is pretty low, and so it is easy to be inconspicuous. Churchgoers have two seating choices - at round tables far off to the side, or at any number of chairs set up in rows in the main space. There are coffee urns and muffins available at the back, and two giant screens display announcements of an upcoming "Baptisms at the Pond" next Sunday and other information. 

My visit came at the end of a four week sermon series: The Fatal Four (of course referencing the NCAA tournament). Today's sermon: "March Madness: When the Call Doesn't Go Your Way." The service opened with two songs which most people didn't seem to know, or at least didn't sing along with, led by a full band and singers on stage. The lighting gets even lower for the worship, with stage lights of various colors illuminating the band up front. One can truly be a spectator here. If you don't know anyone, aren't sure what to think about the whole church thing, it is easy to come, sit, and not feel all eyes on you. 

After two songs, one of the pastors from Lexington comes out and welcomes us, gives some information, and makes a few digs at Louisville fans, cheers for UK's win and the fact that they are one of only two teams to make it to April Madness. I'm not surprised by this - we are in the heart of UK country - and he gets a few rounds of applause. He introduces the sermon and invites us to greet each other for a minute, and then it's showtime. I mean sermon time. 

Except that the video starts with a commercial of sorts - a play on the DirecTV commercials following the moves from getting angry at the cable company to ending up in a ditch, reenacting Platoon with Charlie Sheen, etc... This one starts out, "When you bet on Duke to take it all in your office pool, you end up with a busted bracket and at the bottom of the pool. When you... and so on, until the moral of the commercial: "Ditch Duke and go for another team in Blue." This video gets the biggest cheers of all. Setting aside the fact that I am a lifelong Duke fan, and that I did put Duke winning it all in my horribly busted bracket, the video has nothing to do with anything - not the sermon, nothing happening at the church, etc... So how is this the prelude to the sermon? 

Then the sermon video starts, and the piped-in preacher makes more comments about March Madness, the Final Four, pokes at other teams, and finally says, "Go cats!" More cheers. Clearly he knows his audience, and obviously this is just further proof of what is really religion around here. I can only judge this so far, having been a Duke fan growing up in Durham, a Red Sox fan living in Boston... I can understand the ethos of sport as religion. 

Diving into the heart of the sermon, which is at least half of the service length overall, he talks about anger. There is no central Scripture reading, rather a smattering of verses thrown up on the screen throughout the sermon, interspersed in roughly equal proportions with quotations from other sources, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Dallas Willard, Aristotle (in a paraphrase unlike any I've ever heard), and his own Twitter account. The scripture references come with just one or two verses at a time, and I counted at least 6 different translations (or paraphrases) used over the course of the message, including the New International, Today's New International, Good News, Living Bible, Message, and New Living Translation. 

Anger is a tough topic to tackle, and I was pleased that he recognized that not everyone deals with anger in the same way. He brought in some pop psychology, looking at anger as a 2nd emotion masking whatever is really going on. He also validated righteous anger, like the kind that Jesus had when he entered the Temple and turned over the tables. At this point, he said, "By the way, that was 2000 years ago this weekend," which was the only allusion to Palm Sunday through the whole service. "Palm Sunday" wasn't mentioned at all, and I doubt that most of the congregation would have made that connection, particularly since that particular episode in Jesus' ministry comes either at the beginning or near the end of his ministry, depending on which gospel you read. 

At one point, the preacher said, "You know, this is one of my favorite weeks of the whole year... in sports." For a split second I had hoped for a mention of Holy Week. That was simply his lead in to talk about Bobby Jones, the golfer (and refer to a Happy Gilmore scene shown earlier in the sermon).

I appreciated his validation of righteous anger - the kind of anger we should feel when we witness violence, injustice, etc... But most of his talk of anger and description of how we experience or express it leaned towards the angry outbursts and stereotypically explosive expressions of anger. The "Game Plan" he offered at the end was a neatly packaged, 3 bullet-point alliterated guide aimed, I think, mostly at the expression of anger: "Reflect before you react," "Remember the results," and "Restrain your remarks."

All of this perpetuates the idea that good Christians shouldn't get angry. We don't react in anger even if we feel it. We think about the results of our angry actions, and we don't say anything in wrath. The exhibition of anger is seen as something that Christians should avoid at all costs, and I think women in particular have been deeply harmed by messages like these. Undoubtedly many people in the congregation do need to hear a message on anger management, but where is the balance? And where is the gospel message in a sermon on anger management? Where is the good news? 

I thought of the kind of crowds these churches draw and wonder about the spiritual and Christian formation. The Bible was used simply as a kind of instruction book, or even a collection of quotations for positive thinking, without any sense of coherency or history. How is that developed and nurtured? How do members come to understand themselves as children of God, and as part of a much larger story that is revealed to us by God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit? 

After the sermon, without any kind of preface, introduction, words of institution, or anything, communion was distributed through the rows - tiny cracker like wafers and shot cups of juice all at once. No instruction was given, no articulation of the mystery of faith, no sense of community at all. For those sitting at the round tables, I noticed that they actually had to get up and go to a table where the communion was laying out for self-service, along with an offering basket. Following communion, the band came out and led two more songs, and then the pastor returned to make a few more announcements, including the first verbal mention of next week being Easter Sunday, which means baptisms at the Pond. Yes, that's what Easter Sunday means to me, too. While he was making announcements, I was aware that those of us in the rows were being passed offering pouches - again, no invitation to offering, no mention of our response of Thanksgiving for what God has given, etc...  And that was it. Church dismissed. 

Perhaps I should take a cue from the sermon and tone down my criticisms, ask what is really going on here for me, in my critique. I'm sure part of that is a sense of loss of having traveled through the Lenten season. Since I have been in different churches from week to week, I haven't had that sense of continuity. It is a loss. Pastors already face a challenge of being a leader in a worship community and also being part of it; of leading worship and participating at the same time. Guest pastors face that to an even greater degree, I think, because there is a further separation between the preacher and the community of faith. 

Part of me would like to find a regular community of worship. Part of me would really enjoy having a year to just go and visit many different places, to be a fly on the wall, a visitor in the pews, a participant and observer. And then there is the part of me that continues to feel called to preach, to lead worship, and to struggle with what that means for me here, now, and beyond. And so I continue in the Lenten fast of a rather amorphous vocational identity, neither here nor there, but somewhere in between. 

And in my heart, I can still shout my hosannas and wave my palms as we enter into this Holy Week.