21 July, 2010

Coffee, Port and Barefoot Wine

I'm ordained, which is nice.

On June 12th, somewhere around 7:45 in the evening, at Salem's First (But Not Only) United Methodist Church, my Bishop laid his hands upon my head and told me to take authority, etc., etc.

The friends and family (1) who had gathered for the event gathered again the next evening at a lovely restaurant in downtown Portland. Wine was shared, good food was eaten, there was much laughter and even a bottle of 1983 Port. It was a fine celebration.

Once I returned home, the fine folks of my church also celebrated with me and, to commemorate the occasion, gave me a magnum of "Barefoot"(2) wine. While this clearly violated United Methodist discipline, it was a gracious and thoughtful gift, and I suspect that neither Jesus nor John (3) would object.

So, ordination having come and gone, where now?

I'm back in The Big, the holy odor of the ordination service having mostly worn off. And there's plenty to do.

We (the fine folks of the LGUMC and me) have decided to start a new worship service. An "emergent" worship, if you will. Aimed at the folks of La Grande who are spiritually hungry but a bit skeptical on the church thing. Or at least they're skeptical on the church thing as it's presently constituted.

And, since my return to La Grande, another bit of news. The new coffee shop (White House Coffee) located oh-so-conveniently next to the church has opened. In fact, I'm sitting there right now.

Since WHC has opened it's been a raving success. Always lots of folks around, a pleasant vibe and community-wide buzz. They've done an excellent job creating a welcoming space, decorating nicely (4) and serving good coffee and food. I've already made it my extension office. So much so that congregants who stop in for coffee or lunch expect to find me here.

What hath these three threads to do, one with the others? Let me attempt to weave mine answer.

We have a crapton of places in La Grande where one might buy coffee. Good coffee. And yet this place is never empty. Why? I think it's because the folks here at WHC have created a warm and welcoming place that feels both old and new. It feels comfortable. And there's this not-so-easily explained sense that I get when I walk in the doors (and that I suspect others experience, too): It feels communal. People walk in and want to be here with other folks. We may not always be in conversation, we White House Coffee Patrons, but we gladly share the space. That's really nothing earth-shaking - all of our favorite public places feel like that, I suspect. But there were precious few places around the LG like that.

I'm hopeful that this new worship gathering, whatever it turns out to be, captures some of the same feel. I hope people walk in and feel welcomed and comfortable and want to share the sacred space with others, both the folks they know and the folks not yet known.

It's a sad fact that our congregations have somehow NOT created places that feel as welcoming as our local coffee shops. (5) One might suggest it borders upon sin that we've made the Good News so unwelcoming and uptight. (6)

And what hath ordination to do with all of this?

Maybe I just wanted to celebrate in blogprint that I really did, after a couple of decades, get ordained. (Hooray me!)

But maybe there's something about the taking of authority, which the Bishop mentioned in passing at my ordination. Nothing has changed dramatically in how I see the world, the Church or my calling. But maybe it's that now I have an excuse to stop waiting around for someone to fix what I think is broken and get my butt in gear to do something new.

Or maybe that's just the caffeine from three mugs of WHC's finest Stumptown brew talking. Hard to tell.

Much peace, much love, too much coffee, etc.

(1) Actually, the assemblage of folks pleasantly blurred the line between these two categories. Should we call these kinds of people "Friemily?" "Famriends?"

(2) They chose "Barefoot" since I was ordained shoelessly, just as I was wed and will ask to be buried.

(3) Wesley, natch.

(4) One room is decorated with old photos of La Grande. At the table at which I sit, hanging 6 inches to my left is a photo of our church building, circa 1915. To my right, through the window and 60 feet away is the actual church building, circa 2010. It's an interesting place to sit and ponder our congregation's past, present and future.

(5) In a similar vein, my VBFFITWWW Johnny Flemmons once pointed out, amidst the brouhaha surrounding Harry Potter, that it might be a sin that we've taken the Gospel and made it so boring, that we don't tell it as well as Ms. Rowling tells her stories. I've always liked John's way of thinking.

(6) Let me hasten to add that I think that the fine folks of LGUMC are warm and welcoming; this is not a condemnation of us particularly. Rather, this seems a Church-wide issue. Not entirely of our making, perhaps, but our responsibility to confront and rectify.

20 May, 2010

Been a Long While Coming

It's been a long while since I've blogged. So long that: 1) my two avid fans who used to harass me about needing to write another post have given up hope, and 2) I am no longer "amply-goateed," but am now "amply bearded" and look shockingly like a younger version of the patient Greek monk in the picture to the right.

It's also been so long that I'm now only 24 days from being ordained, which, if I read Revelation rightly, means the great and glorious Day of the Lord is well nigh upon us. Try to look busy.

I felt my call to ministry at Sr. Hi Camp at Camp Bridgeport, back in Texas. I was 15. So now, 22 years later - almost to the day - I'm finishing up a journey that began before I could (legally) drive. In the intervening 192,864 or so hours, I've graduated high school and Southwestern University (Go Pirates!); worked as a youth pastor; decided to give up on ministry as a career; waited tables at a TGI Fridays; decided to give up on waiting tables as a career; worked on Native American reservations patching up bullet holes and (and other broken stuff) in people's homes; have been haunted by God and her angels; decided to stay with the ministry thing; gone to Perkins School of Theology where I once hugged a dean (1); fallen in love and gotten married (barefoot and almost in the rain); lived in Yellowstone, the Virgin Islands and a house built by L.L. Bean's best friend; lived in a village in rural England with more sheep per acre than any other place in the world; moved to the Oregon Territory and bought a house.

I've been assigned, licensed and commissioned. I've written loads of papers, been interviewed thrice, psychologically profiled once and physically examined twice (2).

And now, Good Lord willing, I shall be ordained on June 12, 2010, at 7:00 in the evening at Salem's First United Methodist Church. (3)

Lately I've been pondering what this ordination might mean. I was able to answer that question rightly (apparently) for the interview committees, but I've been mulling what it really and truly means for me.

I know it means less paper writing and no more BOOM interviews. (Thank you, Jesus.)

I know it means (at least for now) that I will have the Methodist version of tenure and am guaranteed an appointment.

It definitely means that some of my very favorite people in the world are coming to Oregon in June to celebrate with me and that we are going to party like Vikings on holiday.

But actually, the day-in, day-out practice of ministry won't change that much. That's a good thing. Because ministry, as I understand it anyway, is less about formal education and official certificates than it is about receiving and reflecting God's love.

I'm all for church nerdiness, higher education and the clear roles of ordained clergy folk within the life of the church. But I also hope that I've learned enough to know that whatever the certificate says, I'm but one of Jesus' followers and not that different than any of the other folks he's called.

It's been a great ride so far. As I told the folks at the Baccalaureate service this week, I wouldn't change it if I could.

But it will be nice to be done with papers.

Much peace, much love, etc.

(1) At Perkins graduation, I hugged the dean, who wouldn't have known my name if it weren't on the diploma. Last I heard, there is still a "Do not hug the dean" rule during the pre-graduation reminders at Perkins. It's good to have a legacy.

(2) For some reason, the United Methodist Church needs to know quite a bit about a candidate's physical state before allowing him or her to serve. The official, downloadable medical form even requires the doctor to comment upon whether or not the examinee's genitalia are notable in any way. Mine were not.

(3) The Title for Salem's Best United Methodist Church is still up for grabs.

15 July, 2009

Christmas Sermon - A True Story

I don't remember many sermons from my childhood. I remember snippets and stories, and only a handful of those.

This is one of the stories I remember; unlike most of the stories, I remember this one clearly. (1)

It was coming up on Christmas and our church was sponsoring one of those "share with others" Christmas ministries. Families were encouraged to provide presents and food for less-fortunate families in town.

One of the families participating - the Overtons - had two young daughters. They bought some presents (which the girls helped to pick out), some food and, on Christmas Eve, headed to their assigned family. On the way, the parents went to great lengths to explain what they were doing and why: They would be giving presents, but not getting any in exchange. Mom and Dad Overton were worried about how their girls would respond to this change in the normal Christmas-time ritual of exchange. (I give you a present, you give me a present... or three.)

The families met, the presents and food were given and everyone stood on the porch exchanging small talk and seasonal pleasantries. The recipient family also had a little girl, about the age of the oldest(2) Overton daughter, Paige. She stood on the porch in the cold with no coat.

As the adults chatted on, Paige asked her new friend why she didn't wear her coat.

"I don't have one."

Paige looks at her own coat - a brand new Christmas present, just opened - very pretty and very warm. Perfect for wearing to the Christmas Eve service.

"Ahh," thinks young Paige, "I know how this works! Mom and Dad just explained this!"

Off comes the coat and Paige hands it over. The adults now see what is happening. The parents of the little girl object. Mom and Dad Overton try to object (delicately, of course - this is an awkward(3) situation...). But Paige shall not be moved. This is Christmas: We give presents to people on Christmas, especially if we have a bit more to share. Neither parental logic nor goading can dissuade her. This is what we do.

So the little girl got a new coat for Christmas.

"And," said the preacher, relating this story to the congregation, "to think: Mom and Dad had worried that the girls might not understand why they were doing this. I think Paige understands Christmas very well."

Good story, no? I preach it semi-regularly.

Fast forward a few decades, to 2009. A friend of mine named Mark is dealing with renal failure, thanks to an adverse response to medication. Kidney transplant is the only real option, long-term.

Lots of Mark's friends rally to offer support. One starts a Facebook page and other cyber-ways of getting information out. Maybe, just maybe, she thinks, someone in Mark's circle of friends... who knows? Maybe something semi-miraculous.

This friend, having started the Facebook page, decides to go in "just to see" if she might be a match as a living donor. Well, gee-golly-what-do-you-know? She is a match. (In retrospect, she could have saved herself the trouble of starting the Facebook page had she checked this out first.... but, I digress.)

They're scheduled for surgery July 22. Next week.

Mark, it just so happens, is the son of Fred, the preacher who told the story about the little girl who gave the coat off of her back.

And Mrs. Kidney Donor?


A little girl asks a friend why she isn't wearing her coat. The friend says, "I don't have one." The little girl thinks, "Ahh. I know how this works!"

A few decades later, a grown woman asks her friend, "Why aren't you using your own kidneys?" Mark says, "They're broke." Looking at her own two good kidneys, she thinks, "Ahh. I know how this works!"

God is good.

much peace, much love, etc.

Post Script - I like sharing stories like this, but I was hesitant to share this one, for fear of making Paige out to be some sort of cartoon superhero. She's not. She's a wife and a mom; she has her issues, like everyone else; and, for God's sake, she's an Aggie, which means she may fully be expecting her kidney to re-grow. She's not all that different from anyone else, except for the whole about-to-be-down-to-one-kidney thing.

I think we (the human beings "We") make superheroes out of folks who do extraordinary things to make ourselves safe. "I could never give a kidney to someone, I'm not a superhero like Paige. I'm just a regular person. Leave the extraordinary stuff to the superheroes."

I think we ought to give thanks for Paige's wonderful graciousness. (Personally, I've elevated her to the rarified status of "badass" in my book.) But she's doing something we could all do. Maybe the best way to celebrate Paige's and Mark's story is to also do something extraordinary. God knows, we need more ordinary people doing extraordinary things in this world.

(1) I do remember this story clearly, which is not to say that the people involved in it will recall it in exactly the same way. This could lead to a protracted discussion of Pastoral Hyperbole and Memory, but I'll save that for another time. I'm sure your breath is bated.

(2) Or is it "eldest?" Darn you, English!

(3) I am amused that the word "awkward" has the letter combination W-K-W, which may be amongst the most awkward letter combinations possible.

UPDATE: As of Wednesday afternoon, Paige and Mark are both out of surgery, the doctors were encouraged and said that they couldn't have been a better match if they were siblings. And, they had to remove a rib to get to Paige's kidney, so her little sister is making plans to take it home and give it to the dog...

01 June, 2009

All's Well That Ends

Well, maybe now we can relax.  Maybe now our little burg can go back to its normal Norman Rockwellian ways.  Maybe Steve Martin can sleep peacefully again, knowing his reputation remains relatively unscathed.

The Play That Shall Not Be Named has come and gone.  The students put on a three-day run at the university.  People came, no one died and I don't even think anyone got pregnant.  The Republic lives, our children are safe and God smote us not for the atrocities our community committed by allowing this play to be seen.

I would have let this moment pass unheralded, except that I got myself slightly involved in the play and the public brouhaha.

So, herald I shall: Last Saturday, the Oregonian (our fair state's big-city paper) published an article about the play and the public forum which followed the Sunday matinee.  This wee little blogger/pastor was invited to participate in the forum, semi-representing the religious community. (1)  If you want to see my name in virtual print, here 'tis.

The moderator introduced me by pointing out that, of course, I wasn't really representing the religious community of La Grande.  I pointed out that, of course, the religious community of La Grande was greatly relieved to know this.

None of the fine folks who objected to the play showed up to the forum, apparently.  So we answered an ancient Buddhist semi-koan: What is the sound of a one-sided dialogue?  Perhaps appropriately, it sounded a bit like the sound of one hand patting oneself on the back.

We congratulated ourselves for being open-minded, scourged the "other side" for being so nearly Nazis and went happily on our way.  Hooray, free speech.

This never felt like a ginormous deal to me, so I'm mostly just glad this is all over.  Pretty quickly, this minor dust-up about a play at the high school was invested with any number of agendas and, I suspect, some long-held petty grievances.  Given the chance, petty grievances became petty grievances writ large.

The whole thing just sort of felt sad and tiresome in the end.

But maybe, in the calm after the storm, the folks closest to the brouhaha can heal.  And maybe, once wounds have healed a bit, we will be a stronger community for what we've been through.  Growth is never easy, nor is it easily seen in the moment.

In the meantime, I think I'll put my plans for a summer production of The Last Temptation of Christ on hold.  (I was thinking of a musical version....)

much peace, much love, etc.

(1) I was, however, fully representing the semi-religious community.

12 May, 2009

Drive Friendly

I have a theory. Mind you, it's not a well-considered theory based on observation, reflection and logic. So, maybe not a theory so much as a suddenly espoused idea. Or perhaps a bit of mental flatulence.

The way a person drives tells you a lot about the state of their soul. More precisely: the more graciously a person drives, the holier they probably are. And, I think the inverse is also formationally true. To grow in grace and holiness, one should practice driving with grace and holiness: driving as spiritual discipline. It may not be as time-tested as the lectio divina, but methinks it's more likely to be practiced on a a large scale if I can just get the word out. (1)

I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas - a vehicular Mecca. Traffic was a part of my life from childhood, even though I didn't drive - traffic reports on the news, adults' complaints about it, my Dad's hour of daily commute time. Years later, coming back to Dallas for seminary, I lived downtown (Deep Ellum, specifically, 'cause I'm hip like that) and commuted to the suburbs for my 10 hour-per-week church job. Driving was a significant part of my life. Not as much as the freaky folks who commute 2 hours or more (each way!) in places like New York. But I did drive a lot.

And I sometimes drove angry. Cutting people off, racing ahead when lanes merged, not letting folks in and basically being kind of a jerk. Like most everyone else on Central Expressway. (2)

Then, one day in the midst of mid-afternoon traffic on a hot summer day, as frustration, anger and the radiator were all about to boil over, I had a crystalline moment of insight. "It doesn't have to be like this," says Inner Clay to Outer Clay. "You don't need to be stressed whilst driving. You can relax and maybe even make other people's commutes somewhat more peaceful. How would Jesus drive?"

[Honestly, I didn't mean to think that last part ("HWJD?"), but growing up in Texas, where there are more Baptists than people (3), phrases like that often pop into your head unbidden. It's a geo-spiritual hazard of living in the Bible Belt.]

I don't know what it feels like to achieve Enlightenment, but this was probably as close as my Methodist self was gonna get. It was all so very clear.

In a place of near-constant congestion (traffic, not nasal) and semi-perpetual road rage, I decided then and there to drive counter-culturally. To be nice to folks, go out of my way to let them in. To not worry about traffic delays or the jerk in the 1985 Chevy pickup who cut me off. I would extend the peace of Christ to my vehicularly-bound brothers and sisters. I would be a one man round of automotive Kumbayah as a motored beatifically on the highways and byways of the Metroplex.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes not. But when it worked, I truly felt better physically and spiritually. And I like to think that at least one of the people I let in front of me had a better day thanks to the grace I offered them.

Fast forward a few years. Now I'm living in La Grande. In the first few days of living here, I was walking to work, approached a crosswalk and waited for the only car on the road (in either direction) to pass. He didn't. He stopped, leaving a 20 foot safety buffer between his front bumper and the crosswalk. Just me and him and an empty street. A quiet moment passed. I could hear a squirrel chattering in the trees above. What was this guy doing?

I looked at him, confounded. He smiled pleasantly and waved my across. I crossed. Honestly, I was a little afraid of some kind of human-scale-Frogger trick until I was safely on the other side.

In the next few days, I had similar experiences. Drivers stopped for pedestrians. Gladly. People let others turn in front of them,and otherwise drove graciously. This felt like a sort of spiritual homecoming. A Land of Nice Drivers. People who seriously considered HWJD? And they said Oregon was an irreligious land. Pshaw!

All of this is on my mind because today I was driving in the Safeway parking lot and stoppped to let someone back out of a parking spot. I wasn't waiting on the spot, just trying to be a Nice Driver, practicing my spiritually superior driving.

The lady pulled out of the spot and headed on her way.

And did not wave a "thank you."

I said horrible things about her and her whole family. I said them quietly so God wouldn't hear, but I said them.

Didn't she appreciate my gracious gesture? Didn't she know how much the world has benefitted from my one man Drive Nice Campaign? How could she be so rude, so clueless? In that moment, I wished I believed in karma, so that I could know that she have some fender bender in a later life to counter her selfishness in this one.

Dammit, lady, I'm trying to start a movement here and you're not getting on board! A simple hand wave goes a long way in making the world a better place! Some people are so irretrievably stupid and self-centered that they're going to ruin things for everyone.

I just want to be acknowledged for my graciousness!


And therein lies ye olde rub.

I'd come back to being an angry driver. Only now I was a self-righteous, piteously self-important angry driver. At least before I was merely an angry driver without any spiritual pretense.

Why do I always do this? Start with something good - maybe even godly - and squish it around until it becomes something else entirely? Religious practices become legalities. Holy humility morphs into spiritual pride.

So, I'm back to square one. Starting tomorrow, I'm going to try and drive like Jesus would. Not for any reward or recognition, but because it's the right thing to do. It's a kinder, gentler Clay on the road from here on out.

Unless I see you texting while driving. Then I'm gonna PIT you.

much peace, much love, etc.

(1) And, what with nearly a dozen readers of the old blog here, word will surely be out soon.
(2) Central Expressway is neither "central" nor very "express." Discuss among yourselves.
(3) I went to a seminar featuring Lovett Weems and he used this phrase often. Not only is it funny, but apparently, due to the peculiarities of record keeping amongst our Baptist brethren and sistren, is factually true in some places.

01 May, 2009

Sweet Weepin' Jesus

Christians are more likely than non-Christians to think that torture is "often" or "sometimes" justified. (Link goes to the story...) (1)

We screw up a lot of stuff in Jesus' Church. But this one really would seem like a no-brainer to me.

We really want to say to the world that Jesus is concerned about what our children watch on TV, whether teenagers take a sex-ed class, whether we say cusswords when we stub our toe, but when it comes to torture, he says, "Look, it's not really that bad. I should know...."? Reeeallllyyyy? (2)

Words aren't enough. But I wonder what the sound of Jesus slapping his own forehead in dismay is like.

much peace, much love, etc.

PS - I would like to say that those are really fancy cuffs Our Lord and Savior is sporting on his robe. It doesn't come across in translation, but the Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of John make it clear that El Jefe Del Universo is sartorially in the know.

(1) A new friend recently referred to CNN as "Constantly Negative News." I didn't believe it in the moment, but this might be enough to convince me.

(2) I hear this in a very sarcastic/whiny voice. You could also opt for the "Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura" voice. Either is acceptable.

23 April, 2009

Been a Wee While

Well, it's been a wee while since I last posted. And, weirdly and disturbingly, two people have told me that I should post. They both used the word "withdrawal." If I believed in the Apocalypse, I'd be pretty certain this was a sign of its impending arrival.

So much has happened over the last few weeks: Holy Week and Easter, Nap Week (the week after Holy Week, natch, observed by pastors everywhere), my home state is threatening to secede and elect this guy President, Susan Boyle....

And, today, two major events.

Number One, I became a Mac person. Bought a new laptop - a refurbed MacBookPro. So far, it's pretty and it has needed about 2 hours to download updates to software. (Hopefully, his isn't a regular occurrence.) That's what I know about Apple products so far.

I know this, too: already I feel hipper. Younger. Sexier.

And I feel like I've joined a cult. As soon as I Facebook-posted that I was an Apple-y kind of guy, about 20 people felt compelled to congratulate me and welcome me to the ranks. I think fewer people would have responded had I said that Jen and I were great with child.(1)

So, today, I am a man. I bought an Apple. But - and here's Major Event Number Two - little did I know what far ranging effects my choice would have. I was, by all appearances, the tipping point for Microsoft's downfall. Who knew?

OK, I've got a new computer to play with. I promise to post again soon, so that those of you fighting an unnatural addiction won't have long to wait.

much peace, much love, etc.

(1) No, Mom and Dad, this isn't some sort of sneaky paving of the way for a Major Announcement. Just a silly comparison.

21 March, 2009

About Those Bonuses

The national discussion of late has been about the AIG executive bonuses. Much outrage and political posturing all around. For me, it is hard to imagine the kind of money these folks (and lots and lots of others, who don't make the news) seem to take for granted.

I'm pretty tired of hearing about, thinking about it, reading about it.

So I am offering a proposal: Let the AIG executives keep their bonuses, down to the scroungy last penny.

All they have to do in exchange is follow this man's example.

Maybe there are two versions of the "American dream."

One looks like executive suites, vacation homes and the "good life" provided by wealth. Another looks strangely like a story Jesus would tell.

Give me Jorge Munoz's version.

much peace, much love, etc.

19 March, 2009

Of Plays, Divorce Court and Dangerous Grace

A few things've been bumping around the old noggin of late.(1)

One is a conversation I recently had with a friend and ministry colleague here in the L.G. He's more conservative than I am and so we disagree frequently about the Christian faith. But we do so agreeably. We call one another heretic, laugh and move on; it's good fun and we do this every Wednesday.

But this particular conversation is sticking in my craw.

At one point, talking with yet another colleague about how denominations can tie themselves in knots trying to issue statements about social issues, my Amigo Conservativo suggested that the Church shouldn't get too worked up about such things. After all, we have bigger fish to fry, what with telling people about Jesus and all. The particular topic under discussion was the war in Iraq.

Granted, we serve the Prince of Peace, who said things like "turn the other cheek" and "if you hate your brother, you're guilty of murder." But maybe Jesus didn't mean these things exactly that way. Fine. You say the Church should focus squarely on the proclamation of the Gospel, offering an alternative vision of life rather than being entangled in the things of this world. I don't agree, but maybe that's a defensible position.

But not half an hour later, the topic of the Play That Shall Not Be Named(2) came up. And this colleague was glad that some churchy people had got together and got the thing stopped, if only from being performed on the high school campus. "After all, someone has to stand up for what's right. And if the Church won't do it, who will?"

Hmm. I'm not sure I can add anything here. Except to say, "Really?"

Two stories d'news news stories caught my eye of late, as well.

Everyone's favorite VERY NOT GAY former megachurch pastor, Ted Haggard, and his wife are appearing on Divorce Court, to counsel folks that divorce is not the best option available to them. Again, what can you say? Life (and life in the Church, particularly) is funny.

And finally, on the topic of "Grace and forgiveness are GREAT! Well, for me, not you...."

A pastor in New England is facing threats and intimidation for making like Jesus. And you know that's gonna rouse the rabble.

After the conversation with my colleague and the story on the Formerly Reverend Haggard, I was tempted to blast our conservative bretheren and sisteren for their weirdness and hypocrisy. But, Lo! and behold!, the pastor of the River of Grace Church steps up to the plate in the name of Jesus and belts one out of the park. Good for him.

And, dear God, forgive my arrogance.

Honestly, I'd rather that life in the Church was easier to untangle: my guys are right, everyone else is wrong. Agree with me and be saved, disagree and perish. But it doesn't seem to work like that. It seems that the Kingdom may be larger than our ways of understanding, that neither progressives nor conservatives have the market on righteousness and that we may just be in this thing together.

Silly God, being bigger than we think.

much peace, much love, etc.

(1) I have a sizable noggin, so there's lots of room for things to bump around in.
(2) As an update, in case you've missed it in the national news: Steve Martin, whose play is at the center of the tempest here in the L.G., wrote a letter to the editor of our little paper and has offered to pay for an off-campus production of the play. I sometimes wonder if the nice lady who got the play banned in the first place realizes that, had she said nothing, a few hundred people would have seen it. I suspect that, thanks to all the free national publicity, this may be the best attended high school play in La Grande's history.

12 March, 2009

Sneaky Jesus

It's long been an article of faith for me that Jesus is sneaky. Not Dick Cheney's Merry Band of Secret Assassins sneaky, but sneaky in a different way. A good way. Just when you least expect it, Jesus comes busting through the door of your heart like a heavenly CIA agent, sans search warrant.... but, I digress.

To be slightly less theologically cartoonish about it: my experience has been that God speaks into my life in strange and surprising ways. Usually quiet ways, unexpected ways. But seemingly always at the times when I most need to hear something from El Bosso Muy Grande Del Cielo.(1)

My shorthand/smartalecky way of talking about the subtle ways that the Holy Spirit whispers into our lives is "Sneaky Jesus." Partly, I like coopting simplistic theological language for my not-so-conservative ends. Mostly, I like the mental image of Jesus hiding in some shrubbery or around the corner of a building, making the "sneaky-eyes-looking-left-and-right" face from cartoons.

I've had two grade-A, USDA Prime Sneaky Jesus Experiences of late.

To Wit:

#1) A friend from a certain southern state (known for its BBQ and as the home of our most recently former President) was fired from his church job. He's a super cool, incredibly gifted pastor, hired not 3 months ago to lead children's ministry for this church. Did he abscond with money? Perhaps he kicked a little kid? Maybe he was just generally incompetent? Nay. He got fired because he has the queer notion that God loves God's gay children just as much as the straight ones. And he had the gumption to say so. To people. IN CHURCH! Well, we can't have that kind of a radical Gospel floating around, making us uncomfortable. So, via an email at 5:00 am (!), Mike got offed.

Mike being not only a friend and colleague, but a mentor and inspiration, this got my knickers in a twist. I was mad at the Poopy-head senior pastor who fired him, at baseless paranoia and bad theology and at the Church for being so small-hearted and stupid. And I said so via my Facebook status update.(2)

A few folks commented on my status, including one friend from back in the day: elementary through high school days specifically. She asked what church it was, seeing as she and her partner were looking for a church and wanted to make sure she didn't accidentally go to this one, where she would clearly not be welcome.

Well, long story slightly longer, we chatted via Facebook messages for a bit and I pointed her to another UMethodist Church that will actually, you know, treat them like, you know, people. Shocking. Offensive to Jesus, surely. But that's what this church does. Crazy damn liberals.

So, here I was, stuck up in east Oregon(3), being irked about my friend Mike's situation when, Lo! and behold!, Sneaky Jesus shows up and says, "Oh yeah, that sucks. Here's something you can do: help your friend and her partner find a church that will love them. Maybe not so much a karma thing as striking a small blow for the Kingdom." And then, like that, he was gone.(4)

#2) A few days later, it's a Wednesday. And since it's Lent, that means it's time for our church's simple supper and Taize service. But no one has signed up to bring food. And not as many folks are coming this year as did last year. This all led me into a few hours of bummed out self-pity. Bemoans me to myself: "Why should I even do this? No one really appreciates it. It's just my own little worship fetish that makes me want to start Taize services wherever I go..." That sort of (really attractive) crap.

So a few hours before I need to head to the store to get food for the ingrates so that we can eat sandwiches before sludging though a half-hearted worship, Sneaky Jesus shows up. (But, of course!) Only this time, SJ looks like my friend Sue from England and s/he's chatting me up through the Facebook instant message program. We're catching up on one another's lives and I'm getting all the gossip from North Molton, Devon. It seems things are still pretty much as we left them 4 years ago. This is part of North Molton's charm.(5)

Then, Lo! and behold!, SJ-as-Sue, apropos of nada, says, "We still do those Taize services." Oh yeah. The ones I started there. During Lent. The ones that always left me feeling like the good people of North Molton were just playing along to entertain their nice American minister. Damn.

So, I went to our La Grandian Taize service, had a great sandwich and maybe even felt the Spirit moving a bit during worship. I certainly left there feeling a tiny bit less navel-gazingly self-involved, which is clearly a plus.

So that's why I think Jesus is sneaky. 'Cause he is.

But the real moral of the story is this: God is down with Facebook, apparently.

much peace, much love, etc.

(1) (a) Some really bad, faux Spanglish for you. Me gusta faux Spanglish. (b) I think that using asterisks for these ridiculous footnotes is unweidly, so I'm trying numerals. Standard, not Roman, because Roman would have been unwieldier than multi-askterisking.
(2) "Clay is blogging/working/watching TV/going to bed." It's important that my friends/people-I-haven't-talked-to-since-high-school know this! I love our narcissistic culture.
(3) Thank you, Mr. R.E. Keen.
(4) You know, like Keyser Soze.
(5) That, and the sheep. Lots of sheep.

04 March, 2009

Playing Dirty

Well, well, well, well, well...

We have quite the little storm brewing here in La Grande. And now it's on the verge of blowing up into a hullabaloo in our once-quiet little hamlet.

The tempest, you see, is all because someone at the high school wants to put on a play. A bad, dirty play. By Steve Martin, he of the arrow through the head and (gasp!) banjo-playing. By all accounts, this is a play that, were it subject to the MPAA's rating system for moving pictures, would warrant a PG-13.

Well, we can't have that kind of nastiness working its way insidiously into our little cupcakes' delicate little heads, so someone did something about it: Got herself a petition together and got the play banned by the interim superintendent. And upon appeal, the meeting room was packed and the school board rejected the appeal, 4-3. So, no play. But then the Young Democrats at EOU (Go Mountaineers!), our local university, caught wind of the brouhaha and decided to rent university space for the banned play; so now the show, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, will indeed go on.

That might have been the end of it, but the story got picked up by the AP and then found its way to Fark.com (and quite possibly other news aggragate sites) and so now folks from faraway and exotic places (like upstate New York and western Oregon and probably even the South Pacific) have their knickers in a collective twist about the censorship efforts of our repressive, backwoods school board members/nazis. This is the kind of thing that happens in Oklahoma (or red-state places like it), not very blue, very libertarian Oregon!

It's moral outrage all around. And lots of letters to the editor.

Maybe in a few years we'll all look back and realize, as we often do in retrospect, that this was much ado about nothing. But for now, hoo boy!, is it much ado about something. It's now about the twelfth night since this all started, and still, every evening the local paper has at least two letters about this play.

Honestly, the whole thing has been amusing to watch.

Or sad. Everyone seems so invested in something so minor, as though this play is the last bit of grease necessary to send us down the slippery slope into either an inescapable moral abyss or a religio-fascist society worse than anything the world has ever seen, depending upon whom you listen to.

I kind of have a hard time working up too much passion for either side of this. I look around at spring awakening in our little valley and it is beautiful. And maybe that's reminder enough that life goes on, that this too shall pass, that there are bigger problems (and bigger blessings, too) in the world than whether our high schoolers perform a play with slightly off-color humor.

What I'm left wondering, though, is this: Does the nice, sincere lady who started the petition (ostensibly because this play offends her Christian values) let her children read the Bible? 'Cause that stuff will make your hair stand on end.

much peace, much love, etc.

Director's Cut: Alternative Ending
Since all of this began, something like 360,000 children have died of preventable causes. But there's been nary a letter to the editor about it, and zilch in terms of moral outrage. Maybe there's nothing we can do for those kids. But at least we've saved our children from making jokes about drinking and sex. God must surely be glad.

Director voiceover: Ultimately, we decided that this ending was a it too dour for the tone of the blog so we went for the "wry observation" ending instead.

26 February, 2009

Church Smells Funny

It's Sooty Thursday (the day after Ash Wednesday, natch...) and our church smells funny. Angela Marie (my esteemed colleague) says it smells suspicious, which is a better description. What it smells like is pot.

As a pastor, my usual Ash Wednesday routine includes making the ashes. Following semi-ancient Church tradition, we save the palm fronds from the previous Palm Sunday and burn them for Ash Wednesday. The last few years, this has been a challenge - it's taken lots of patience and no few matches to get the suckers to burn down enough to use. You don't want chunky ashes.

"This year," thinks I to myself, "I'll figure something out."

So, facing my challenge squarely, I realized that lighting the palms outside is part of the problem - too windy. And palms don't seem to naturally want to burn, so an accelerant (as they call them on those CSI shows) would probably be in order.

So, I gathered the palms, found a large pot in the church kitchen and whipped out the lighter fluid I had brought from home. Now, momma didn't raise no fool, so I used only a small squeeze of the lighter fluid. And I decided that if I was going to play with fire inside, I should be near the kitchen sink, should things get out of hand.

Thus properly prepared, I lit the palm fronds.

Well, apparently I either used more lighter fluid than I meant to, or this year's palm fronds were especially apt to burn. When I touched the lighter to the palms, I got flames. Large flames. KISS-stage-show-pyrotechnics kind of flames.

And smoke.

And as the flames subsided, things got smokier. And stinkier.

I turned on the kitchen exhaust fan and closed all the doors to the kitchen, hoping to contain the trouble. After a few minutes, I realized that I was having a hard time seeing. Our church kitchen looked (and smelled) like a sight gag from a Cheech and Chong movie.*

I left the kitchen, opened the doors of the fellowship hall and hoped for the best. By the time our Lenten soup supper started about 5 hours later, it still smelled like Michael Phelps and 50 of his closest friends had been partying in the church basement.

So, we gathered in the sanctuary, praying for repentance and forgiveness, marked our foreheads with slightly stinky ashes (since recovered from the very stinky kitchen) and began another Lenten journey. And then everyone went home smelling like they'd just come back from Lollapalooza.

I love working in the church sometimes.

much peace, much love, etc.

*For the record, I've never seen a Cheech and Chong movie, although I passed by one on Comedy Central the other day. I think the 30 seconds that I saw probably let me on to the bulk of Cheech and Chong's cinematic comedy-adventures.

And also for the record, I've never smoked dope. Cigars, (tobacco) pipes and even a cigarette once, but ix-nay on the onic-chray. I'm sayng this because (1) it's true and (2) my momma reads my blog. And (3) my Bishop might... So I just wanted to be clear. But I went to college, so I know what it smells like.

23 February, 2009

On Feeling Old(er) and Having Less(ish)

I've been feeling a bit reflective lately - a confluence of momentously significant moments has left me so: I turned a year older (36, which isn't necessarily old for a pastor, but has officially aged me out of even the most liberal definition of "Young Adult"*), I just got back from a series of meetings in the Portland area (living out of a suitcase for a few days always has me feeling oddly semi-monastic), and Lent is well-neigh upon us.

During said reflectiveness, I've been thinking about how much stuff has accumulated in my life - physical stuff to be sure (basements are both a horror and a blessing for the hiding of stuff), but also non-physical stuff - the habits and practices of life that tend to accumulate like so many barnacles on the underside of my soul.**

My life feels cluttered. Unfocused. Diffused. (Not in the "weird hair dryer attachment" sense, but in the "scattered" sense.)

I think it's time to unclutter, to unburden myself from the stuff which seems so necessary in the moment, but which, upon further review, ain't.

So, one of my Lenten disciplines*** will be to get rid of one thing each day for the 40 days (not counting Sundays) of Lent. Mostly, this will be the physical stuff because: 1) it would be too easy to pretend to be getting rid of non-physical stuff - "Today, I have rid myself of the habit of eating too much ice cream before bedtime." - without 2) actually making any changes. ("Well, just this once, I could have a pint or two of Ben & Jerry's before bed...")

I think it'll be easy to get rid of stuff the first week or so - I have lots of underwear with holes (the extraneous kind, not the ones for my legs) that I've been meaning to dispatch anyway. But come Lenten Days 30-40, I might be struggling to find stuff to dump. It might even be, God forbid, hard. I might even, God forbid, want to quit. So, I'm going to try to list, at least weekly, on this here blogspot, what it is with which I have parted.

Hopefully, less stuff = a life lived with slightly more intention and care.

My theory is that the reflective act of deciding what I can rid myself of is the actual (semi-spiritual) cleansing. I know that it probably won't take long to re-accumulate the physical stuff. But maybe, oh just maybe, there will be some minor inching forward toward perfection**** as I realize how much I have and how much of that I don't need.

Failing that, at least I'll have a bit more space in my underwear drawer. And that's always nice.

much peace, much love, etc.

*according to the United Methodist Discipline, my standard for most every aspect of life.
**Perhaps for Lent I should give up tortured and unfunny similes.
***Jen and I have also covenanted to eat out only once per week and I'm participating in a church-wide, Lenten reading of the entire Gospel of Mark. But I should probably really consider the whole "tortured simile" thing. And my over-use of footnotes.
****That's right, I'm busting some Wesleyan theology on you. 10 Wesley-Nerd points if you caught it without the footnote.

06 February, 2009

Redemptive Violence Works!

I like movies. I like them when they're deep and thought provoking. I like them when they're funny. I like them when they're chock-full of symbolism and allusion. (Thank you, Dr. Gaines' "Film as Literature Class.") I like them when they're terrible enough to be funny. I like them in a box. I like them with a fox.

And I even like them when they are absolutely mindless entertainment.

I saw Taken last night, which fits neatly into the latter category. Fifteen minutes of set-up, a kidnapping and an hour and twenty minutes of Rob Roy running around Paris killing or torturing-then-killing bad guys. (I hope I haven't ruined any of the surprise for anyone....)

For what it is, it's well done. Tightly-paced, no convoluted twists de plot (but a few appropriately cheesy plot devices), lots of action and a good guy we can cheer for because, after all, he's doing the Right Thing. And, better yet, he's doing the Right Thing against some Very Bad Foreign People - nasty Albanian kidnappers, corrupt French police and vilely gluttonous middle-eastern royalty.


Unless you stop to think about it.

I've grown up in the Church and now find myself slouching toward ordination as a United Methodist pastor. That's 36 years of trying to follow Jesus, who amongst his various titles, is known as the Prince of Peace. This is the chap who said, "Turn the other cheek." Same dude what inspired Gandhi and thence Martin Luther King, Jr., to practice non-violence as a way of changing the world.

I like to think I'm a fairly non-violent guy. Aside form a few dust-ups in elementary school (I'm looking at you, Jason Spear...) and another one in Junior High, I have been a fairly meek fellow.* But I cheered for good ol' Liam as he punched, elbowed, electrocuted, stabbed and shot his way through a menagerie of Deserving Stereotypes.

"But his daugter was kidnapped and being sold into slavery," says the plot, "He was only defending his child. You would do the same thing."

I wouldn't do the same thing, mostly because I'm not a retired CIA agent with "a very particular set of skills," access to a private jet and various intelligence and law enforcement contacts. I might want to do the same thing, but I couldn't.

And that, I suppose the movie's makers would argue, is the point. We all know we can't do what Mr. Hero does on the screen. We know it's a fantasy world and for 90 minutes we get to live in that world and have things go exactly how we wish they could.

But I'm bothered by the cheapness of the violence. (After travelling to France and killing, I don't know, dozens of people and leaving dozens more headed for Parisian hospital, Mr. Neeson makes his way safely home, with no trouble from French law enforcement.) I'm bothered by the cardboard stereotypes used for target practice. (A greasily obese middle eastern prince who comes to Paris to buy young white virgins for his pleasure? Really?) I'm bothered by the ease with which violence solves the problem of violence. (Do we think that works in any other facet of life? "My goodness, this floor is really wet! What we need is some water!")

Maybe it is just a story, mindless fantasy for the sake of two hours' escape. But Jesus told lots of stores, and he told them, at least in part, because he knew something: Stories get lodged in our heads and can, over time, shape us into a new people. I wonder what kind of people we are shaping ourselves into by these stories of redemptive violence...

It was so easy and so fun to cheer for the hero as he violenced his way to justice.

Maybe I should have seen Bride Wars after all.

much peace, much love, etc.

*My little sister would say that I was not that meek in our childhood, but she's a liarhead and I'll beat her up if she says any different.

01 February, 2009

Numerology, or, Are You Sure Wesley Done It This Way?

On Friday, I finished making up, err, I mean, carefully calculating facts and figures for our Year End Statistics Doodad for the United Methodist Church. 7 pages of 6-point font, all so that someone, somewhere, can compile the numbers that will give an accurate portrait-via-accounting of the death of the United Methodist Church.

I don't want the UMC* to die. Good Lord willing (and BOOM don't read my blog), I'm about 16 months away from standing (barefoot, probably) in an auditorium full of folks and God His Own Self to offer myself - unreservedly, wholeheartedly and until whatever the mandatory-retirement age is by then - for ordained ministry in this Church. I've got 30 or more years in front of me as a pastor in the UMC; I don't want to make that covenant to a dying Church.

But, still, it sometimes seems like the Emperor is a might bit short on proper attire.

I know that lots of folks - from the ones who write books and teach in seminaries, to the Bishops (including my own) and, yea, even all the way down unto most of my colleagues - don't want the church to die. And there are signs of hope, yes indeedy, yes indeedy.

But there are also signs of dire trouble right under our own noses and I think most of us are finally willing to acknowledge it. Mostly because the stench of death eventually becomes undeniable.

But while we lose members and vision and passion and a sense of being the Kingdom in the Here and Now, we keep counting and counting and counting some more. And it is important to know what's happening. I know lots of people (more important, more studied and longer served than I) would tell me, with great vehemence, how wrong and naive I am to discount the value of these statistics. ("Allow me to retort...")

But I don't remember reading any part of the Gospels where Jesus says, "Verily, I say unto thee, go and make disciples of every nation, and count them annually, measuring them in number and in depth. Categorize them and keep record of them in tiny little boxes on pieces of parchment, for in this way, you fulfill the law of my Father who sent me."**

Mayhaps this is my biggest beef with this process: it cannot possibly count what it is we really want to know - Are people growing into the Kingdom of God? Are they becoming disciples?

Here's my soapbox example of the problem, as I see it:

There's a family that comes to my church. I won't use their names because I haven't asked permission to talk publicly about them and my mentor Kristie would whup my butt for talking about people without asking first...

Anyway, this family is a Parent and three children, who range from junior high-ish to early elementary. This parent came to visit me early in my ministry here in "The Big"*** asking if it was OK to come to church even without believing in Jesus.

"You'll fit right in," says I.

When word got out on the home front, the children were none too amused at the prospect of going to church. They held a protest. With signs and everything, marching in a circle and chanting slogans. But to church they were drug.

I learned more about Parent's story. It turns out that Parent came from an actively anti-church home. And most of Parent's friends would count themselves athiest. Parent didn't tell those friends about going to church for a long time, for fear of what they would say. But Something was tugging, or poking or prodding.

Fast forward 2 years or so.

Parent and I have had lots of discussions about God, Jesus, faith and church. The family comes to worship almost every Sunday. After a couple of long discussions, the family receives Communion and Parent can discuss the Sacrament with more depth, passion and honesty than most folks in most pews.

A few months back this family was at church for our Sunday school thing, but Parent had to leave before worship. But before the family could leave, the youngest girl searched out my wife Jen, not to say goodbye, but to ask if Jen would "babysit" her so she could stay for worship. Same kid who was part of a protest (with signs, chanted slogans and everything) and was drug to church now can't hardly be drug out of church.

Statistically speaking, from the first day this family walked in our doors, they fell into the "Constituent Roll" category (Table I, line 7d). Two years and a thousand spiritual miles later? They fall into the "Constituent Roll" category (Table I, line 7d).

No journey, no story, no difference.

How many stories of faith are we missing while we count noses and nickels so scrupulously? How many journeys are happening that never appear on Table I, II or III?

Jesus told stories about the Kingdom of God; he didn't teach an actuarial table of grace. The feeding of the 5000, the sending out of the 70, the struggles of the 12 apostles, the healing of 10 lepers, being hung between 2 thieves... the point of these stories isn't the numbers involved, it's the stuff that can't be categorized and counted.

I have a fantasy. I'm a Bishop (hence, the fantastical nature of this vision) and the first thing I do is scrap the Statistical Table - I, II, and, verily, even III. Instead, pastors send in 3 stories about the work of God in their churches.

Might that change our focus a bit? Might people be more attracted to a church that tells good stories? Might it make a difference for the Kingdom?

Might not. But, then again, it might.

398.7 hectoliters of peace, 1953.22 kilograms love, etc.

*Maybe what we UM's need is a hipper name, a new slogan for a new generation. I thought about "UMeth" but that has unfortunate connotations.
**Yes, Bible-nerds, I know there is a book called "Numbers" but 1) that's not what Jesus called it and 2) no one reads the actual number parts of "Numbers."
***Funny how place names don't sound quite so cool when translated into English.