Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Really Nice Present

When the phone rings on Christmas day, it’s either relatives or bad news. 

A few minutes ago, I answered the phone to hear the voice of my student who tried to kill himself back in the fall.  The semester is over and I wasn’t sure I would ever hear from him again.  I took a quick moment to gather myself in order to talk him through another crisis. Or maybe he was in the hospital this time….

“Professor?” he said, “I just called to wish you a merry Christmas.”

“Thank you,” I said. He sounded pretty good. “How are you doing?”

“Actually, I’m doing pretty great,” he said. 

“Really? Hey, that’s terrific! What have you been doing for this holiday?”

He has a woman in his life and they’d been out playing—I don’t think he has done much of that in his young life.  They had been out driving all night, stopping in at truck stops (they were the only places open) to eat.

“We had waffles at 3:30 this morning,” he said. He speaks in a low voice, but he was obviously in a good mood.” 

“Yeah,” he continued, “So, I just wanted to say thanks for all your help.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. “I’m proud of you.”

I’ll tell you the truth. I’m very tired from the holidays and all I want for Christmas right now is a nap.  But when I get up, I suspect that my favorite moment will be this phone call.   

Friday, December 21, 2012

Still Here

The world did not come to an end.  

We'll have to find something else to feed our anxiety.  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I Can't Look

I can’t look at the TV and I can just barely glance at the headlines.

I don’t to hear the details of the shootings. I don’t to know how many shots were fired. I don’t want to speculate on what the children felt during the time of the shootings. I don’t want to see the faces of the children’s parents. I don’t want to hear of the heroics of the teachers. I don’t want to hear about what people witnessed when they who first arrived on the scene. I don’t want to see funerals. I don’t want to know about the quiet awkward guy who did the shooting and I don’t want to see the agony of his mother.

I can’t look at the pictures of beautiful children that died violently.

I don’t want to hear interviews of psychological experts. 

I don’t want to see the news whores scrambling to interview traumatized parents. 

I don’t want to hear political whores use this event to pontificate about their own views. 

And God, I’m can’t stand facebook where people feed their anxieties about gun laws and extra security and questions about who is at fault for letting this happen.   

I’ve already seen dead children and held shattered parents. I’ve walked through traumatized crowds.  So I don’t want to think about these things.

And yet it’s all I can think about.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I Only Work On Sundays

This morning I stayed home from the office to have some quiet.

I’m trying to write up the advent services for the next few weeks.  I was also hoping to get started on my sermon series.  Plus, I have a little more work to do for my college class tonight. 

I awoke in the night thinking of yet another friend in the community who attempted suicide, and has now reached out to me (and a couple of other people). I’ve been facebooking with her this morning. 

A few moments ago, a member of my last church contacted me and asked me for words to help her deal with grief, guilt, and anger, all mixed into one big ball of family confusion. 

And just now, a woman calls me as she drives to another town to look after her grown daughter who is sick, in great pain, and has been so for years. The mother is a wonderful, beautiful person who is desperate for her child and reaching a place of frustration in her faith.  At her request I pray with her on the phone while she drives down the highway.

Come to think of it, I have phone calls that need to be made to two other mothers who are with their children in hospitals. 

Even as I jot these words down, I’m interrupted to answer another text.

And then the phone rings.  The “Wellness” coach from my insurance company called to ask me how I’m doing with my weight loss, rest, and exercise, which almost triggers a spell of maniacal laughter. 

But I’m back in control.

It happens like this sometimes. Everything comes in at once. I actually like moving back and forth from one thing to another. I like being of help to people.   And to be honest, I’d rather do this any day than attend another goddamn church business meeting. 

I just want to have it on record somewhere for those who wonder what I do during the week that this is what I did before 10:30 this morning. 

And I still have my sermon series to write.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

Better Now

The boy who tried to kill himself is in better shape for the moment. He told his family and friends who all responded by listening, encouraging, and spending time with him.  

They took him out to eat good things because he hadn't been eating.  He has started sleeping again. Those two things alone can help enormously. 

And he treated himself to a fun evening, something I was thinking he should do.  He went out with friends for pizza, and then to a bar for dancing and some imbibing.  

He told me all about it the next day. I don't believe I've ever told a person that I thought it was wonderful that he went out and got drunk with friends.  But I did this time. 

I found out from other teachers that there are several students who are or who have been suicidal at that school. One took his life last year.  If this is the case, I've found a new direction to focus on. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Squaring Off with the Southern Baptists

I hate Southern Baptists. 

Oh, not really.

I hate Southern Baptist preachers.

Well, that’s not exactly true either. 

I sort of hate a handful of Southern Baptist preachers and I have a solid reason for it. 

They’re a--holes.

I’m sorry to say it. I kept trying to think of a more polite word, but I just can’t find one. I’m even sorrier that it’s true that they’re a--holes. 

They may not be bad people, but they have some characteristics that lead them to do evil things, and that annoys me. 

Like the time my five-year-old son came home from one of their functions, afraid he’d go to hell if he weren’t baptized the proper way.  Before he told us, he spent several lying awake worrying that he would “die tonight, wondering if he would go to heaven.”

Before then, I used to try to let well enough alone, but I’ve had enough of the Southern Baptist organization coming after my people and telling them the same thing they told my child, that they were going to hell for being my church. So I don’t pull punches anymore.

In the place I live now, I squared off with the SB minister at the ministerial alliance meeting, and told him I didn’t want him trying to convert every graduating senior of the high school at the baccalaureate. I shook him up enough that he decided to put me on his church’s prayer chain. “We need to pray for the unity of our ministerial alliance, and then he mentioned my name.”    

A friend of mine and a prominent member of my church heard about it and she was pretty mad when she came to see me. “It’s being spread around town,” she said.

It made me laugh.  “It won’t hurt me,” I said. “It will make me look good. I’m a nice guy and everyone knows it, while he is an a--hole, and everyone knows that too.”

In fact, I got a couple of his die-hard members coming to my church because they couldn’t stand him anymore. By the way, soon after this incident, he suddenly left his church and moved out of town on a Sunday afternoon (it’s hard to believe he had problems getting along with his own beloved, exclusively saved flock)

When he quit, I realized my job was going to be more difficult because he wouldn’t be sending me any more of his members.  But it will be okay, I’m sure they’ll find a suitable replacement.

Okay, I’ll confess that I don’t really hate Southern Baptist’s at all. But they are sick and dysfunctional and it’s a contagious disease that they try to pass on to the entire community. 

They’re not the only churches like this, but they’re the biggest.

They intend to be of help. They feed hungry people, and have clothes closets, and will save the same person at least three times in his life. For a people who say they teach grace, they use a lot of fear and shame to motivate themselves and others. 

Most of the members are conscientious and trying to do right. But it also allows a place for more than a few a--holes to be their ministers. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Hardest Lessons

Thriving Pastor on Facebook posed this question: "What are some of the hardest lessons you've had to learn as a pastor? I couldn't pass this up, so here is a partial list.  

1. Seminaries train people to be theologians, but they don’t train us to run or start churches. We can’t do without theologians in a world that loves its pop spirituality, but we also need to know how to read a financial spreadsheet, organize volunteers, deliver a message, supervise staff, do the work of a social worker, maneuver in political waters, and relate to the public, all of which I’ve had to learn (somewhat imperfectly) on my own.

2. You won’t get the love you need from your church. No matter how much they say you're part of their family, it is not true (I expect some argument, but I'm right about this)  They pay you to do the job and when you can’t do it for them, they want you to leave so they can get someone else. Your family has to be ready for this, too.

3. God is never who you think he should be and she is never really what you teach others about him/her.  Theologians need to remember that the search to understand God never ends. That’s hard enough to accept for yourself, but it’s sometimes intolerable for your people who want you to tell them concrete answers to their spiritual questions. 

4. The quest for truth often needs to be put on hold so you can help someone in distress.

5. Most of the time, the people you help cannot return the favor. Don’t expect their loyalty. That’s not why you helped them in the first place (or is it?). 

6. Friends are hard to come by and come from unexpected places. The ministry can be unbearably lonely, so never, ever take a true friend for granted. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dissolving Into Music

I often watch my son when he listens to music on his mp3, and I see him close his eyes to go into his own world where there is only him and the music. I have often done the same thing. 

I remember a time when he was first learning the guitar and I played along with him as he put his notes together. He was almost breathless with excitement that he could play together with someone else.  I remember that feeling, too.

I’ve read some of the things I’ve written about music and I’ve tried to understand how my relationship with it has evolved.  I’ve spoken of music as if it has been a turbulent love affair. I love it. I hate it. It’s boring and has let me down. It came back to me and I remembered why I loved it.  We’ve done everything except agree to “just be friends.”

I think it’s because for a long time, I associated music with God, as if it were a tangible version of the Holy Spirit. It was my way to be in touch with the Divine Entity. If a piece of music was especially effective in church, it could give me chills and I’d feel the Presence. I’d find assurance and comfort in that feeling.  And when I lost it, I felt betrayed by the music.  Over time, I’ve associated it less and less in this way, until it seemed a hollow, mocking thing. 

But lately, music has become wonderful again, only I don’t associate it with God’s presence anymore.

I hear it as the expression of the musicians and the composers.  And that’s pretty wonderful. It’s wonderful when one of the kids at church struggles through a song in front of the church—because that’s the child’s expression.  It’s wonderful when a musician with years of training performs for an audience because I’m hearing a testimony of that person’s life.  It’s wonderful when I get to perform because I’m doing something that expresses something about me.

I especially love singing and playing with a group of friends and it all comes together to sound right. I love getting people at church to sing the old familiar songs with me, perhaps showing them that they still have music inside them.

It’s still spiritual to me, but it has more to do with my spirit.

I think that when I die, my soul will dissolve into music and rise into heaven to combine with everyone else’s melodies in a grand symphony. 

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll see God there.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Professional Crisis

Egad! I’ve become one of those pansy-assed sissies that sip tea instead of coffee.  It’s not even real tea. It’s herbal tea. 

You can’t be a preacher in these parts and drink hot tea.  If you want to relate to people, you have to be able to plunk yourself down at any time of the day and drink the gawdawfulest, caffeine laced, black coffee that has distilled on the burner all day until it has become a near solid.  

They teach this in first year seminary. 

I now know that I’m in full professional decline. First, I started adding cream and sweetener (in seminary, this would lower your average by one letter grade). Then I went to decaf which is the worst kind of hypocrisy. 

To say it’s not my fault, to protest that caffeine now makes my heart race and my chest flutter—well it’s just sad. My colleagues shift uncomfortably and look at each other with sideward glances as they assure me that they don’t think any less of me. 

But I know what they’re saying when I’m out of earshot. They’re saying that I brought it on myself, that it has to be my own fault. 

But they’d be wrong, I protest. It could happen to any one of them, too.  As Job once told his so called friends, “Look on me and be afraid!” 

Next thing you know, I’ll have to give up fried chicken.

And that really hurts. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Vicarious Thrills

It wasn’t too long ago that I read from a textbook that ministers and counselors can be tempted to get their vicarious thrills through the personal accounts of people who come to them for help.  For instance, while the clergyperson may not have engaged in many sexual adventures, he could enjoy hearing about what other people have done when they confess in the counseling room.

As soon as I read it, I realized that I used to do that.  However, I grew out of it before I read that it was a problem.  I couldn’t really draw a clear boundary back then, but I gradually realized I was on the wrong side of the line. I was using someone else’s misery to fill an emptiness in my own life.

When people come to me they’re often terribly conflicted about their pasts and they’re looking for resolution and perhaps absolution. They don’t intend to be a source of entertainment. 

Well, okay some of them do, but I’ll write about that another time.

I wish I had had better training in my younger days. However, we focused primarily on the study of scriptural texts and articulating doctrine. Nobody warned us of the temptations that few people other than ministers and counselors face. 

As I matured, I sharpened my focus on the concept that I’m supposed to help people, not use them. Plus--and this is a big thing--over the years, the sadness, cruelty, and pain of people’s lives have had a cumulative effect on me.  I’m still interested in being of help--sometimes even passionate, They honor me with their trust.  and I find satisfaction in helping. But I'm no longer excited by someone else's misadventures. I’m usually relieved to find refuge at home at the end of the day.    

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Old (Crazy) Songs

Here are some words to a song that was popular in the fundamental conservative denomination in which I grew up. 

Troublesome times are here, 
filling men’s hearts with fear
Freedom we all hold dear now is at stake….

Jesus is coming soon, 
morning or night or noon,
Many will meet their doom
Trumpets will sound….

Believe it or not, this was one of those “feel good” songs, where people stood up, swayed, and clapped their hands, smiling at each other, marveling at how they could worship and have fun at the same time. 

Here’s another one:

It’s gonna rain. Yeah, it’s gonna rain
Oh, you better get ready and bear this in mind.
For God showed Noah the rainbow sign
It won’t be water, but fire this time….

The teenagers would rock to this one, using it as a way to get the joint jumping just before we had pizza and volleyball. 

We had several other tunes that were catchy enough, but as anyone in their right minds could see, the message was full of anxiety, doom, and destruction.

It took me a long time to see how nutty we were: “We’re gonna be destroyed. We deserve it. Praise God!” And then we'd tell each other that heaven would be just like this.

It was more than conflicting. It reflected a crazy, schizoid lifestyle full of depression and anxiety.   

When I became a minister within that community, I considered myself a reformer, someone who could help deliver us all from our craziness. My efforts were often not appreciated. I got into more trouble telling people they were okay, that God loved them, and that they were going to heaven. 

After a few years, I quit trying to save the “saved,” and I moved on.

Now here’s something really odd to me.  I get a weird nostalgia when I think of that crazy music. It’s part of my childhood. Sometimes it feels like it was somebody else’s life. I miss it.

Then I take an aspirin and lie down until the feeling passes.