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.