Thursday, May 27, 2010

Where Does a Preacher Buy Condoms, Part 2

This is un frickin believable.

I’m going though All-mart to pick up condoms.

Yes, AGAIN.
(See previous article).

I’m trying to use a little taste and discretion in my efforts to practice safe sex and you’d think the Almighty would cut me a break.

But nooooooo….

I covered the contraband with a DVD and a cell phone, and then I wheeled the basket to the checkout line. So far, so good. I looked for one of the automatic checker machines. Most of them were closed, but I found one.

When I passed the cell phone under the scanner, the floor manager bustles up to me. “I’ll have to help you with that, sir. She mashes an interminable number of buttons before it accepts my purchase. And then she rings up the rest of my items until she sees the condoms. “Do you want to ring those up yourself?” she asked as she recoiled.

Geez lady, they’re still in their sealed packets. You’re safe.

She leaves me to complete the transaction, but of course the machine is cranky, so the guy behind me steps up to help me through the process. “Thanks,” I mumble. He has a huge grin on his face as he watches me shuffle away.

I get to the exit. The alarm sounds as I walk through the sensors. I figure the DVD set it off. I hand it to a woman who looks like my Aunt Flossy. She resets the alarm and we tried again.

This time it sounds even louder.

The woman figures I’m in a hurry, so she tries to help me by pawing through my bag herself. Then she scrutinizes my receipt.

At least she didn’t call out on the loudspeaker:

“ATTENTION, NEED A PRICE CHECK ON EXTRA THIN, LUBRICATED, DUREX BRAND CONDOMS.”

Finally, they let me go and I make it out the door.

I swear it would have been easier to smuggle them across the border when I came home from a Mexico mission trip.

Bad Coffee

I have a congregant who actually likes his coffee from a Styrofoam cup. I wished that I did because that’s how I’ve drunk an awful lot of coffee—and I do mean the word, awful.

I’m not sure why it is, but almost all church coffee is bad. It’s always the cheapest store brand brewed in an old urn, where it has sat too long before it’s served in the aforementioned Styrofoam cup.

Then on the other side, I’ve known of very large churches that have their own gourmet coffee shops in the foyer, which seems to go a bit far the other direction. While drinking coffee shouldn’t be a Spartan effort, perhaps it doesn’t need that much emphasis either.

But I can hear the discussions throughout the brotherhood: “We need a coffee ministry like the First Affluent Church has. How are we going to reach the lost if we don’t have a Starbucks?”

Bad quality or not, people need their coffee. In my current church, if it’s not waiting for them, the old timers get pretty cranky. “Where’s the coffee? Why isn’t it ready?” they’ll ask, as if the waitress hasn’t moved fast enough for them in a restaurant.

Many retorts come to my mind:

“Why so cranky over this swill?”

“The cafĂ© is just around the corner.”

“We need a volunteer for this; since you’re so interested….”



I decided I’d make the coffee myself if it was that important to them. People say, “Pastor, you shouldn’t have to do that.”

And they’re right. I don’t have to. I do it simply as an act of service, a favor that no one pays me for. I also do it because I drink coffee and I can’t stand how others make it.

I’m going to start buying the coffee, too. What’s more, I’m going to buy the more expensive stuff.

It’s all part of the service, folks.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Naughty Sea Mammal

I used to keep a figurine on my desk of a dolphin leaping out of the water. There are people who are immediately drawn to it when they enter the room, but not because they like sea mammals. In fact, they can’t say why they like it.

It has a phallic similarity that I did not notice at first. But the dolphin is curved just so, as it stretches up. And it is just the same size as, well… you know.

On occasions when we had meetings in my office, one fellow would pick the figurine up, place it in his lap and play with it thoughtfully while we discussed the Lord’s business.

And I had a secretary, a prim, past middle aged church lady, who couldn’t keep her hands off it. When she entered my office to talk to me, her eyes would light up as she saw it. She’d pick it up and stroke it absentmindedly while we conversed, oblivious to what she was revealing. I would watch with a mix of humor and embarrassment.

I could understand why her husband was a happy, sort of mellow fellow.

I never pointed out to her what she was doing because she would have died of embarrassment.

It has often been mentioned by readers of this blog that people are sexual and we can be silly in our denial of this part of ourselves. In fact, it’s important that people express themselves sexually.

On Sunday mornings, I can often tell who had sex the night before and who didn’t. There are the couples, young and old, where the man leans back against the pew with a satisfied look while the woman nestles against him, sometimes with her hand resting on his thigh. It makes me feel good to see them.

I also see couples who might sit together, but obviously aren’t interested in touching each other. Or maybe only one isn’t interested while the other looks glum.

I never mention this to anyone, of course. And it never got brought up in seminary. In fact, this is not something I can talk about to anyone, so I write about it here. But it’s part of my constant monitoring to gauge how things are going with folks in the congregation.

It used to make me uncomfortable to see these things. But as I get older and more comfortable with myself, I know how to see the people and decide what kind of work will be required of me for the week.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dancing

I grew up in a religious tradition that threatened us with the fires of Hades if we went dancing. Dancing was a shocking sin, every bit as bad as sex (I know… there’s a lot of craziness in that statement).

As an adult, I encourage people to go dancing when they can. But the truth is I cannot dance myself. I am physically uncoordinated for one thing, and I’m way too self conscious for another. And maybe I’m still a little repressed from my religious upbringing.

Which is frustrating because in my soul, I think I am a dancer. In my heart I move in celebration with music. But I don’t because I don’t want to be laughed at or judged in any way.

The other day I was at an anniversary party where there was dancing. My friend is overweight, has an artificial hip and a bum knee, but he took his bride to the dance floor for a turn. They looked good—she in her dress and he in his tux. She always looks good. But he was the one I watched.

While the music played, he wasn’t half crippled. He was a dancer sharing a graceful moment with the woman he loves. They weren’t having sex but they were making love as they held each other and moved to the music.

Then a young woman took to the floor during a faster number. Her dance was exuberant and sexy and sometimes goofy. She came up to me, grabbed my hands and got me to stand up, but that was all I did before I demurred.

I would have liked to have danced that day.

I’ve tried to learn. I once paid money I couldn’t afford for ballroom dancing lessons because my wife wanted us to learn. The poor woman who taught me will probably never recover from all the times I tromped on her toes with my boots. And I still can’t dance.

It seems to me that religion and spirituality should set us free to do things like dance. Spirituality really has a close connection to sensuousness and celebration. To squash that part of ourselves can shut us completely down.

Of course, in some cases, dancing could lead to sex and perhaps that’s wonderful instead of terrible.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Please, God....

She sat waiting for news. Would her son live or die? If he lived, would he get his mental capacity back? Would he even be the same young man he had been before with his humor, vitality, and intellect?

The following week, I’m sitting with other parents. Their new son is terribly premature. I’m shocked at how tiny he is—he could fit in the palm of my hand.

The latest news is not good. He is struggling for his life.

The couple had so wanted this child. This was an in vitro attempt and it was their last chance.

I am reminded of the movie, The House of Sand and Fog. In part, it is about a man who had immigrated to the U.S. and was struggling with his pride as he struggled financially to be the success he had once been.

Near the end of the movie, his son is accidentally shot. As the boy is dying the father is in the waiting room, praying to Allah. He is on his knees pleading, negotiating, even cajoling with bribes. In the end he is shrieking repeatedly:

PLEASE GOD! ALL I WANT IS MY SON!

PLEASE GOD! ALL I WANT IS MY SON!

The parents I sat with were quieter, but that’s what they were praying, too.

They had people all around them offering spiritual advice:

“You have to be strong.”

“You have to believe.”

“Stand up to that ole devil!”

“God won’t give you more than you can bear.”

I wanted to yell at them to shut the hell up.

I remember when Jesus entered a man’s house whose daughter had just passed, he made all the people leave the room. Did he want them to shut the hell up, too? I bet he did.

I knelt by the woman whose son was injured and took her hand. I wanted to kiss it, but I knew that was too intimate.

She said what a lot of people say around here say during their hard times: “I hope you never have to go through anything like this.”

I hugged her and said, “I wish you weren’t going through it now.”

With the young couple, I brought my chair up close, faced them directly and placed my hands on each of their forearms. The young father turned his head to hide his weeping. Good. He needed to cry.

When I pray for people at these times, I do not read from liturgy as some of my colleagues do. Nor do I screech frantic orders for God to heal someone… in the name of Jesus.

I either say nothing or speak softly. I speak of our fears and feelings of helplessness. And I ask big—for healing. I refuse to hedge my bets with “If it be thy will.” I assume God is going to do what he chooses. So I spend my time saying what I want.

I have sons, too. Ministering to people who lose theirs can make me terribly afraid late in the night. In my heart I say what these parents are saying even as I write these words:

Please God, all I want is my son.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Musketeers

The Man in the Iron Mask is one of my favorite movies. It touches on the important themes of honor, bravery, the pride and sorrow we have in our children, unselfish love, and sacrifice.

And sword fighting.

I enjoyed watching the four old musketeers when they were past their prime. When it was time to fight, they moved with practiced speed, outclassing their younger adversaries. When they charged toward the squadron of muskets, one opponent breathed his admiration:

“Magnificent valor!”

They lived and died for a cause greater than themselves. They were strong personalities coming together for a common purpose. And they were loyal to each other:

“All for one and one for all!”

I know it’s melodrama. In real life I work to make good things happen, but I do most of it at my desk and on the phone, and it looks pretty dull. On the outside, I’m a rotund, wordy minister, but on the inside I’m the noble swordsman riding on a powerful steed.

I still believe in nobility, honor, loyalty, and courage. I see these qualities just enough to keep believing in them. Usually they come from ordinary people doing extraordinary things at extreme times.

I wish our churches could remember to look on things through the eyes of a hero. Too often our heroism is leeched away by selfishness, pettiness, fear, and unwillingness to give up comfort.

I’m not the only one that values nobility and heroism. Movies like this one are very popular and not just for the action.

Perhaps part of my job is to call us to be the heroes we secretly want to be.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Second Wind

It’s no secret that I’ve found this a hard church. It hasn’t helped that I grieve for my last church where I was comfortable and did a good work. They put me in this larger, more pretentious one that tries to keep me in my place.

I remember I was sitting in my office a couple of weeks ago, wondering what to do with myself and wondering what would happen next.

And then I realized I had let them do a number on me. No matter what they think or try, they do not lead this church. I do. And as such, I don’t wait for things to happen. I make them happen.

I think part of their frustration may be that I let them take control.

I put a message on my screen saver: “Do the Work.” And that’s what I do.

I go out to the people. Speak loudly with a big smile. Tell them how much I like them even while they’re complaining. I hug them and tell them how great they are, while I ignore their bitching and moaning.

On Sunday morning I found a boy sitting in the foyer in major pout mode. I sat next to him and said, “What’s up with you?”

“I don’t want to come to church.” He moped.

I nodded companionably.

“I understand,” I said. Then I put my arms around him, kissed him on his head, and said, “But you need to understand that no matter how you feel, I’m really glad to see you. Oh, and you can’t stay out here. Go to class.”

BTW, one of the things that makes this place bearable are the children. We have a preschool here during the week and I make an appearance most mornings where they surround me with a group hug. It’s the highlight of my day.

Something else is happening. The old guard—the ones who have been so protective of their turfs, and have tried so hard to keep me out. They’re getting tired. Some are sick. Others are overwhelmed with life problems.

I’m getting my second wind. Maybe I’ve outlasted them.

I might not succeed in this church. But if I go down, I’ll go down my way and not while I’m at my desk wondering what’s going to happen to me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

After Mother's Day

Yesterday was Mother’s Day and lots of families filled the pews as they sat together showing each other off. There were new babies and grandmothers and moms with corsages. We gave out flowers to all the women and I told some funny things that children say about their mothers. I also indulged myself and told a couple of cool stories about my mom.

Some churches honor the youngest and the oldest mothers, but I never liked doing it. (Who wants to be the oldest mother?) I didn’t mind blessing the youngest mothers, even when they were fifteen years old and really didn’t need to be raising a kid at that age—if anyone needs a blessing, they do.

I gave it up the year a nineteen year old woman seduced a fifteen year old boy and had a child by him. I didn’t want to honor her; I wanted her arrested (I felt the same way about the older guys who got the fifteen year old girls pregnant).

I am always aware that this is not a happy day for everyone. We always have a few women in the audience who wanted desperately to have children but were unable to. Our church has more than a few mothers who have lost their children in the last year. Some people did not have happy childhoods and the happy sappy family stories mock their hearts. Plus, while I spoke, I was aware of one mother praying in the hospital waiting room that her grown son will survive the terrible injuries of a freak accident.

I picked one of the Ten Commandments and spoke of what it means to honor our fathers and mothers, and just why this is the only command with a promise—that those who do so will live long upon the earth.

As children, we do what we’re told, and that’s part of honoring parents. As adults, we come to the place where we honor them by caring for them in their old age. As for those who had painful childhoods, who did not have parents worthy of honor, I usually ask, “are you sure about that?” Sometimes it is right to give our parents a break even if they made bad mistakes but they did the best they could. Then I suggest that it is right and good to show mercy where it is needed and that that’s a kind of honor. We find healing when we practice that kind of honor and I suppose that will help us live a long time.

Many grieve for our parents, which is also a kind of honor. The pain can be a testament of our love for them, I suppose.

Call me a kill joy. It’s an occupational hazard that I spend the happiest times of the year ministering to people who are at terribly unhappy. I don’t want to bring everybody else down, but I spent at least a little of the hour asking people to shoulder some of the burden of our saddest people.