About Timothy Brown

A pastor. A writer. A dreamer. Occasionally a beer brewer.

Coming: Advent Devotions with Music Suggestions

For the season of Advent (beginning in earnest quite soon!) I’ll be posting daily short devotions, just a few paragraphs, that will straddle the line between sacred and secular. My intention is to write some thoughtful pieces around the themes of time, waiting, anticipation, shadows, joy/sorrow, and yes, a/theism to make this Advent a ponderful one.

If you’re looking for something relentlessly cheery, it’s probably not the Advent devotional for you. But it will always be thoughtful and hopeful, that I promise you.

My desire is that these will be read by both the faithful and those who have who have left faith behind.

Along with my own thoughts, I’ll dot in some poetry suggestions, and most every day will have a song, secular or sacred, to add to your Advent playlist.

If you want them in your inbox, just click on the page to follow along and, boom, there they’ll be. And if you know someone who you think would enjoy this kind of work, feel free to pass along, post on social media, or print out and snail-mail a reflection to your Cousin Mel.

In this really tough year, as we enter into what I feel is a really sacred time of the calendar, whether you’re religious or not it is…it’s human to feel it in your bones, I wish you a blessed holy/holiday season.

Imma!: A Review of _Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God_ by Lee Ann M. Pomrenke

Full disclosure: I know Pr. Lee Ann Pomrenke. We first met in college way back when we were young and full of dreams, and we’ve reconnected over the years through our shared vocation in the Lutheran Church and our shared love of writing. So, when I found out she was going to be publishing her first book, I was eager to not only read it but offer some thoughts on it.

_Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God_ (New York/Church Publishing Incorporated, 2020) is one of those works that weaves together the practical and the theoretical delving deeply into how our conception of the Divine is not only parental, but explicitly motherly. And she doesn’t have to do much convincing, by the way. Through anecdote and story, Pr. Pomrenke just lays out the territory of how we not only conceive of God, but also interact in the church, and the result will be startling to many readers: God, in practice, is most motherly.

The brief work begins with powerful reflections on her life as an adoptive parent where she touches all the untouchable issues the church seems to shy away from, especially infertility. As we head into the Advent season, this first chapter is supremely prescient. I’ve heard from more than one family that Advent, that “season of waiting” where we celebrate miraculous conceptions and births can be a struggle for families whose waiting has lasted way past their 40 days and 40 nights.

The author addresses both the joyful beauty of parenting, and the well of grief in longing for it but feeling it is unrequited by the Divine hand. She dispels the notion that God withholds fertility outright, bring us back into righteousness (right-relationship) with the Biblical witness on the matter. “I am convinced,” she writes, “that fertility is not actually the point in many of these stories, nor are they preaching some kind of fertility gospel of pleasing God to get pregnant.” Instead, Pr. Pomrenke describes God as friend and fellow-journeyer on the road of waiting and heartache, not instigator.

The theme of “re-birth” and “new-life” run rampant through our scriptures, so why do we shy away from the idea of God as mother and, as Pr. Pomrenke points out, the Holy Spirit as doula and mid-wife to the new creations all around us? The examples are there, we just don’t see them for what they are because we’ve wired our brains toward the masculine.

Jesus, too, is more mothering than not, as the author points out. His use of touch as a way to comfort and heal brought me back to the healing touch of my own mother, cradling and rocking, and to the images of a God cradling the earth in more icons than I can remember. In this way the female pastor is indeed the embodiment of the God they point to, as the lead the gathered community to care and heal one another as a mother tending to her babies. The vulnerability of the Christ, the honesty of the Christ (as Pr. Pomrenke points out, mothers tell the truth…and so should we, in the church), and the centrality of the Christ all point toward a motherly orientation for Jesus toward his disciples and the world.

Beyond noting the glaring Biblical examples of a mothering Divine throughout our faith-narrative, I especially appreciate that the author deftly inter-mingles that deep theology with our practical congregational polity. By that I mean that she always brings the highly theoretical down to the ground of experience (embodiment at its core), and notes how the local congregation relates to the themes of family (for good and ill), adoption, and being mothered. In doing so, Pr. Pomrenke has written a book that is both useful for clergy (as they will absolutely identify with her vocational examples) as well as people in the pew, who get more than their share of tidbits to reflect on as they think about how they interact with their pastor and fellow parishioners.

Of all the chapters, I found Chapter 7, “Emotional Labor,” especially resonant with me. Parenting in general, and mothering specifically, is emotionally laborious, as is pastoring and leading a faithful life. Within the church there is much anxiety about our shared future, a taxing reality that weighs on most everything within the local parish nowadays, like a family knowing there is an impending crisis in its midst. How do we mother one another through it and stay sane? How do we retain empathy with one another while also tell each other difficult truths? This chapter is both intensely personal and universal in scope, and, along with the first chapter “Waiting” stands out as my favorite parts of the book.

_Embodied_ is half theological primer and half memoir, blending the two together in a way that engages and moves the reader. It is in no way a treatise on using feminine pronouns for God (but I think we should, hence why I titled this piece Imma), nor is it an apologetics piece for female clergy or feminist theology. It does something much more powerful, I think: it just lays out the facts.

Clergy, even those who identify as male, are motherly. God is motherly. The church, when it’s at its best, is guided by the thundering velvet hand of a mother. And the fact that we have historically had issues with this is not an indication of outright denial (though there is that), but one of consciously or unconsciously overlooking the obvious.

Pr. Pomrenke reorients us here, and does so with skill and thoughtfulness.

Which begs the very real question: why are there so few female Senior Pastors in church leadership today? Why does it take longer for female clergy to be placed in congregations, and why do they get paid less than many of their male counterparts?

While the book doesn’t explicitly ask any of these questions, I bet you will after reading it. In fact, if there’s a minor critique I would make of the piece, it’s that it doesn’t ask these questions outright.

But perhaps that’s her point. Like a good parent, a good mother, Pr. Pomrenke entrusts the decision making to us, walking with us along the way.

So, who should read this book?

I would offer it to most anyone. Clergy will find a work that names many of the joys and struggles of the vocation, especially clergy who are parents themselves and struggle with the Sunday morning wrestling of our children in the pew. Parishioners will find thoughtful examples that expand our notions of God beyond the conventional, and will be given wonderful food for thought regarding how parishes organize themselves and operate. Book groups and study groups (as well as individual readers) are offered questions at the end of each chapter that spur further conversation and reflection.

I’ve not yet read a work that so deftly intermingles mothering, parenting, and theological reflection as this work does. I commend it to you with confidence and great joy, and think it’s an especially wonderful book to pick up as we head into the Advent season.

On Not Believing Impossible Things and How Religion Doesn’t Help

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Lewis Carroll, _Alice Adventure’s in Wonderland_)

To believe in “impossible things” is quite human, I think. There is a sense of hopefulness, a kind of counter-balance to our fear instincts, that lives strong in our brain chemistry.

But even within the realm of believing in “impossible things” there are some categories. Like, it’s one thing to believe that there is a Divine Being in the universe, and quite another thing to believe that someone gravely ill with little medical probability to recover will, somehow, do so.

The first, a belief in a Divine Being, is a kind of life-assent to some sort of higher power’s existence. The second is trusting that a miracle (which, by definition, means it doesn’t happen except so rarely it can barely be documented and is taken out of statistical probabilities) will happen.

The first kind of belief is existential.

The second kind of belief is banking on the improbable at best, and impossible when it comes right down to it.

Religion has played fast and loose with these kinds of ideas over the years. As recently as last year the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod reaffirmed the Doctrine of Creation which pushes the idea that, due to the Genesis account, the world was created in six, literal, days.

The President of the denomination, Matthew Harrison, wrote in defense of the affirmation, concluding that he is compelled to believe in the doctrine of creation because, in his words, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. And I hear in the words of Jesus that He himself believes the creation accounts are historical. (See MATT. 19:3–9.) I hear in the words of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, the voice of my Savior. And both He and the Scriptures bear witness to their absolute inerrancy and infallibility.” (The Lutheran Witness, January 3rd, 2018)

Not only do I find his position theologically lazy, but I find it utterly senseless! As in, it makes absolutely no rational sense. And I get that his big thing is that faith trumps rationality in all things, but that position is dangerous when it comes to matters of science and life and death.

This is but one example of denominations who still hold and teach this “impossible belief” that flies in the face of so many branches of science and so many years of dedicated scholarly inquiry that I can’t even name all the branches, lest I leave any out.

Add to this the idea that there was a world-wide flood and Noah’s ark somehow preserved creation, that there were giants like Goliath in the ancient world, and that Joshua’s horns fell the walls of Jericho…I mean, you can name six impossible things before getting through the first chapter of Genesis if we’re talking literally.

I remember being in a Bible study once and explaining to the class that the particular book we were reading was an example of “Biblical story,” a tale meant to teach the lesson. It contained many truths, but did not actually, factually happen. And I remember a few souls in there widening their eyes in disbelief at my statement. Their dismay was palpable.

The story was an impossible tale, by the way. A great tale, a truthful tale, but not a factual tale. And were it to be read outside of the religious context, it’d clearly be identified in that way.

One person raised their hand, “But,” they said, “if God can do anything, then I’ll just believe it happened, OK?”

“One can certainly take that approach,” I said, “but it opens up the doors for a lot of problems if you do. Because we live in a world of norms, by and large. And if we give God the big ‘anything is possible’ card, then we might start to disregard the norms that govern our world and society, norms like science, witness, and historical precedence.”

I don’t know if that was the right answer. I don’t know that there is one.

But I bring this all up because we are certainly, as a people and as a society, moving away from a culture of fact and truth and increasingly becoming a culture that “believes impossible things” because they’re convenient.

Like, it’s convenient to believe that mask-wearing is all about control and this pandemic virus is a hoax and, if God can do anything, then we don’t need to fear it because God can protect us.

It’s convenient because it let’s you live in a world where you don’t have to take responsibility for the safety of others, let alone yourself, because you can live in your delusion without question.

But it’s also very dangerous.

And I worry, in the deep parts of my heart, that religion that pushes a literal Noah’s ark has enabled this type of thinking.

Blind optimism has allowed people to believe that, contrary to every authority, the 2020 vote was rigged and stolen. Authority is not held in esteem anymore, but rather is subject to desires and wishes, it seems.

I worry that blind optimism pushed by so much religion, with the “pie in the sky” escapism, has laid the neural irrigation ditches for this kind of thinking to be possible.

What culpability does religion have in the impossible thinking going on in our world today?

I’m not sure, but I’m wrestling with it.

Because while I do believe it is possible to have a critically-thinking faith, I also know (from experience) that it’s more difficult. The easy way out, in many ways, is to not think about it at all and take religious texts, doctrines, and dogmas as gospel truth (pun intended).

The critic of that statement would claim that it’s harder because so much of the texts, doctrines, and dogmas fly in the face of scientific discoveries, sociological progress, and philosophical thought.

“Exactly,” is my response. “So why believe it?”

It’s believed because it’s convenient to do so, and immediately beneficial: you don’t have to wrestle out the truth because it’s given to you.

But our world is not one to give gifts like that. Truth has never been served on a silver platter, but rather wrestled out, verified, re-verified, put to the test, and eventually come out on top.

A religious system that encourages wrestling is sorely needed in this world today, but I fear it may be too late. As the pockets of society that embrace science and those that reject it retreat to their different corners, we’re forced to look at the wasteland gap in-between us all and wonder how the ways we’ve taught faith, spoken about “truth,” and pushed impossible beliefs has led to this in America.

You Are a Family

painting by Sheli Paez: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/family-sheli-paez.html

“Well, if we decide to start a family, then we’ll talk about it…”

I hear this sometimes from couples preparing to get married.  I understand what they’re saying.  Our culture doesn’t really have a good grasp on how to adequately use words to describe life situations.

Usually when they say that, I gently stop them and say, “I want to be very clear with you about what I think is going on here.  The minute that you two say ‘I do,’ you’ve created a family.”

In fact, in just deciding to be together, despite the fact that the State doesn’t recognize it legally, I’d argue that by that decision alone, they’ve created a “family.”

You don’t have to have children to have a family.

You don’t have to have dogs or cats or rabbits to have a family (I am not a fan of “fur-baby”).

You two: you are a family.

When you decide where you go on vacation, you make a family decision.

When you decide how to spend your money, where to eat out, and how you’ll schedule your bedtime routine (yes…adults have bedtime routines), you’re talking about family decisions.

When we talk about “family planning,” we’re not talking about starting a family, we’re talking about adding to a family.

This notion, many times rooted in a long-forgotten-but-always-present past of needing kids to “work the farm” or “carry on the family name” needs to go the way of the dodo in these days.

It’s time.

It’s time to get rid of this stereotypical idea that family = “have kids.”

I saw Kevin Nealon at a comedy club in Denver a few years ago.  He was hilarious.  He spoke about being an “older father,” as his son is 6 and he’s, well, much much older than 20.

But he backtracked and talked about his divorce with his first wife.  When he was going through it people would say, “Oh man, that’s terrible.  You don’t have any kids, do you?  No?  Good.  That’d make it worse…”

To which he quipped, “That’s kind of like asking someone who got their legs blown off, ‘Were you wearing nice shoes?  Oh, good…that’d make it worse…'”

We somehow have cheapened “families” to mean “people with kids.”

You don’t need kids to be a family.

In fact, I’d say you can be a family of one, even.  Our family has had more than one member join by decision or circumstance.  “Uncles” and “aunts” and “grandparents” of all kinds.  And not in some sort of honorific way, but in a real, tangible way.

And listen, there is certainly no religious reason, at least not any Christian reason, to have kids.  Let’s just say that we’ve already fulfilled, as a species, the idea of “be fruitful and multiply.”  

In fact, we may have over done it a bit.  

Louder for the folks in the back: don’t let religion pressure you into having children.

There are legal reasons that the State doesn’t recognize just any-old-relationship as “family.”  That’s not what I’m talking about here…although, it appears from the headlines that some of that notion, even, may soon be back under attack.

There are many good reasons to decide not to have children.

There are many heartbreaking reasons some people can’t have children.

There are many good reasons to decide not to partner with someone, legally or otherwise.

And there are many reasons people aren’t partner at all (or anymore)!

All of the above does not negate the reality that “family” doesn’t mean “with kids.”

Families come in all sorts of constructions. They always have (despite what historical convention tells you), and they always will. And we need a society that not only catches up to this reality, but rhetoric that acknowledges it, too.

You are a family, Beloved.

 

 

 

Life on Mute

“I never want to Zoom again,” a colleague said to me the other day.

Zoom. Teams. Go To Meeting.

Pick any medium you like. The general consensus after six months of a pandemic is that online meetings are about as annoying these days as in person meetings were before the plague. Except, for a number of physiological and psychological reasons, virtual meetings somehow feel more taxing…as if we ever thought that could be possible.

And, as a parent, Zoom School is…well…a practice in education and patience across all sides of the screen.

Virtual meetings are here to stay, I think.

Like healthcare, once people are given something (like the opportunity to work from home), gathering them back into the office on the regular will be more difficult.

I suspect the same will be true for the religious practices of the world, too, for better and for worse.

I heard a pastor say the other day that they had a small regathering of the faithful, and that the people who showed (around 20 or so) were “simply giddy” to be back in person. And I’m sure they were!

But what about the folks who didn’t show?

My hunch is that many people will go to their congregations through St. Youtube of the Screens with more regularity.

I don’t say that with any sort of judgment or even sadness. I’m just saying it…it’s how things have been forced to move, and it’ll be hard to go back. New metrics and ways of measuring ministry will have to be formed to account for this kind of virtual participation, especially as it appears that in-person gatherings on a large scale will not be possible for some time. And even when it becomes possible, church is not very embodied when we can’t touch one another, touch the sacraments, and sing.

It’s just not.

One of the peculiar things that the pandemic has forced everyone to experience, in one way or another, is the pesky problem of the “mute button.”

Oh, the dreaded mute!

Nothing is more annoying than a person beginning a long speech or a response, only to realize they were on mute. The frustrated participants waiting for their words say with alternating humor and exhaustion, “You’re on mute…you’re on mute…”

The mute button is instructive for us, though, and I think we should take this opportunity to think about it a bit. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste!

What voices in our world regularly operate on mute?

BIPOC? LGBTQIA+? Native American? Women, especially women trying to climb a corporate ladder?

What about children? Those for whom English is a second language? Religious minorities? People who don’t practice any religion? The very elderly?

The difference is that these voices have been “muted by the host” throughout history because it has been thought that their commentary wasn’t germane to the conversation. Or, more to the point, whether it was germane or not, it wasn’t wanted.

In fact, many of these populations have also had their cameras disabled, made largely invisible in large conversations. Or we shove them into breakout-rooms of their own so that we can largely ignore their input.

And now there are fears that other sections of humanity, who have often been the hosts of these large-scale life meetings throughout the world are being put on mute: white men, the cis-gendered, and in the United States, Christians. These fears largely stem from the realization that, well, other people would like to host meetings once in a while and have been prevented from doing just that and even barred from doing just that and, like any good host, dominating voices sometimes do need to be put on mute so others can be heard!

Our political and cultural schisms at the moment are all about the mute button, Beloved.

The problem, of course, is that for all intents and purposes, all of history, all of life, has been one big Zoom meeting, even though we haven’t had language for it until just recently.

Virtual meetings are designed to mirror the way culture has designed our common life: some are muted, some are hosts. You get engaged in them and you soon realize how undemocratic they are…and, by extension, how undemocratic most of life is.

Oh, sure…we talk a good democratic game, but the functions embedded in virtual meetings are too familiar to not see the similarities.

Some are on camera, some are kept from being seen.

If you have a question, use the “chat function,” and we’ll see if we get to it…

Maybe this is why Zoom is so exhausting: it’s just our normal operating procedure without any pretense, mirrors, or charades.

But in this moment, we actually have an opportunity.

We have an opportunity to un-mute some of the voices history has long muted.

It’s happening on the streets, but now it can happen in our virtual meetings, too.

Now it can happen in our virtual church services, too.

Now the audience is captive, Beloved, and elevating those voices so that they have a chance to speak is one of the ways this crisis can steer us toward progress rather than stall us all.

Who is on mute in our world?

In your virtual gatherings, who is perpetually on mute and who forgets to put themselves on mute? How can we use this opportunity to shift the power dynamics in such a way that we come out of this plague having heard new things, seen new faces, and gained new understanding, even from the (dis)comfort of our own homes?

When we speak out about the muted voices of the world, some will get uncomfortable. Some will not like the suggestion that they mute themselves so others can be heard over the noise of history they’re adding, consciously or unconsciously, to the conversation.

But seize the opportunity nonetheless.

Because for too long some voices have been on mute in this world, and now is a time they can be heard, by God.

5 Things Every New Pastor Should Know

“Anytime,” I said.

It was an answer to the question, “When can I call you?”

It was the wrong answer.

The sentiment was true; I wanted to help them when they needed help. But I could not, would not, should not, be available “anytime.” Unfortunately I didn’t learn this soon enough in my time as a pastor, and it, over the years, took its toll.

There are certain things that I think every new pastor should know. Here I’ve highlighted five of them. There are probably 5,000, but here I’ve highlighted five to start the ball rolling.

Get a separate cell phone for work.

The cell phone era has made the job of the pastor more difficult, I think.

I didn’t always think that. The ease of picking up the cell phone, storing numbers, even texting…it made it much easier to get in touch with one another at all hours of the day, no matter where you are.

Which is a problem.

Texts late at night that were unimportant. Calls on Saturday mornings for non-emergencies while you’re at the ball field with family, calls that would in past generations end up on a landline answering machine, but instead buzz in your pocket. Social media messaging that, in some minds, has replaced a phone call, but are easy to forget.

It’s too much.

Were I to do it over again, I would get a separate cell phone for work…and just leave it at home when I was supposed to be off.

If that is not possible, use the technology to your benefit. Silence non-family rings and texts on your days off. Ask work-related social media messages to be left as voicemails on the office line.

Make the lines distinct. Be accessible, but not always available.

Also, and this is important to know: you are not a therapist.

I’ve sometimes made myself too available for counseling over extended periods of time. In these cases I’ve almost always regretted it because those kinds of boundaries are hard to sever.

My limit became three. If, after three visits, the situation was not getting any better, I’d refer them on. Usually I’d refer after the first meeting, actually. People in need will always need you, and honestly, they’ll often need more of you than you can realistically spare.

Be good about your boundaries. I wasn’t always, and it takes its toll.

You do get time off, pastor. Take it.

Let people love you.

This can be a tough one for some pastors, but it’s important.

People want to give you gifts of love, and you should let them (provided they’re no political strings attached…cause that happens). But the generosity of your people should be celebrated, not stifled. There are limits, of course, but in general people want to show you their love and you should not only allow it, but welcome it.

Welcome it because it’s part of the bonding experience that needs to happen in this kind of a relationship.

I remember when, just hours after having our son and closing on a new house (it happened the same weekend…terrible timing), folks in the church offered to come and wipe out the cabinets of the new house that had sat dormant for a while.

I said no…it was OK. That was a mistake.

My wife, in her wisdom, overruled, and a cadre of folks came over to take care of us and it was an important piece of our shared journey together. It was important because they wanted to honor and celebrate with us, and I’m grateful for that.

Let your people love you.

Make friends outside the congregation.

I’m one of those pastors who encourages you not to have your friend needs met within the congregation. It creates a power dynamic that is just unsustainable in all but a few exceptional cases.

In those cases where I have made a friend in the congregation, I usually have, “the talk” with them that is not unlike a talk you might have with someone you want to date. It’s an important moment where you kind of redefine everything so there’s understanding. It’s not easy, and can be dangerous, even. If a pastor has a slip of the tongue in the wrong company it can not only jeopardize relationships, but might trespass on confidentiality.

This is why I think that, except for maybe one or two rare exceptions, pastors need to have their friends outside the congregation.

But here’s the thing: you have to make them.

Pastors are at the distinct disadvantage of having their work space, philanthropy space, and their “human-interactive” space all land in the same circle: the church. This means they have to be intentional about cultivating relationships in new circles, perhaps even very different circles altogether.

A running club. A local bottle shop. A sports league. Some of my colleagues have even become gamers, finding their community within the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

However you find it, make sure you find it. Loneliness in the parish, whether you have a family or are single, is a clergy killer. I know this too well.

You don’t have to be social media friends with your parishioners.

Gone are the days when most pastors had two social media profiles: professional and private. It was a lot of work and felt duplicitous. I got rid of my “professional” one with great joy.

However, I made the mistake of allowing every parishioner to be my social media friend.

Not every parishioner will get your sense of humor, Beloved. Trust me, I know.

Not every parishioner will appreciate your political opinions. Trust me, I know.

Not every parishioner will take your hobby as a “fun side project,” but will complain to others that you are “working on other jobs when you’re supposed to be their employee.” Oh yes. It happens. It happened. A few times.

Also, it should be noted that in this hyper-partisan climate, most pastors are generally more liberal than their congregations. It’s just true. And in a world where “live and let-live” is not really the way of things anymore, it might just be smart to not have the potential for an online argument.

Your internet activism may be threatening to some. Trust me, I know.

If your social media presence is meant to be “you,” and not “Pr. You,” then you are absolutely wise in not being every parishioner’s social media friend. Sometimes blocking people from seeing your feed is actually the most loving thing you can do for them and for yourself. For some you will always be your professional role and, like when the third-grade you saw your teacher at Target for the first time, will have trouble seeing you any other way.

Or, and perhaps this is even better, do what author and engineer Cal Newport does and stay off social media altogether. Author Ann Patchett has the same philosophy. It’s worth contemplating…I have thought about it.

Embrace both disappointment and overwhelming forgiveness.

I was disappointing as a pastor.

I’m not saying I was bad at it. I actually think I was pretty good in the parish.

But I was a disappointment in the role, sometimes.

And sometimes, honestly, the work was disappointing. I wanted to change lives, but sometimes it seemed I was expected not to change anything. I wanted to fight for justice, but sometimes it felt like I was usually just matching hymns and texts together and trying to find ways to say hard truths while offending the fewest number of people.

That can be disappointing. You adjust to it, because usually the disappointing parts are outweighed heavily by the beautiful moments.

But when you are personally the one doing the disappointing, well, that’s the worst feeling.

Sometimes it was because people wanted me to be something I couldn’t or wouldn’t be. Sometimes it was because I actually failed in the role, forgot promises, or made mistakes small and large.

It doesn’t really matter what the reason, a pastor has to quickly learn to embrace the fact that they will sometimes fail at the job, and that will feel devastating.

Likewise, sometimes you will succeed at the job, but it won’t be what others wanted or expected, and that, too, will feel devastating.

And sometimes your people will disappoint you, too. They’ll be more fearful of change than you want them to be. You’ll see sides of them that you’d rather not see. Petty sides. Racist sides. Sexist sides. It’s part of the work, Beloved.

And it can be disappointing.

Embrace it. Embrace the disappointment because if you don’t hug it close it will hurt anew every time.

Oh, it will still sting, but if you go in with managed expectations of both yourself and them, you’ll usually be delightfully surprised more than disappointed.

Because you’ll also find that sometimes you succeeded where you were sure you’d fail. And sometimes your people will absolutely knock you off your feet with their wisdom, their tolerance, their ability to change.

Surprises, both good and bad, abound in the parish. Embrace the disappointment and welcome the good surprise.

And here’s the thing: when you do, legitimately, fail at the work, I’ve found more often than not that the people will be more gracious than you ever expected…and it will be overwhelmingly beautiful.

Accept their forgiveness.

And then, try to dole it out on them, too, as the occasion arises.

______________________

Being a parish pastor was the most amazing and most taxing work I’ve ever done. But it’s also unlike any other job I’ve ever seen. It is a beautiful tightrope that requires more balance than I ever fully acquired…if it’s possible to walk at all.

Be mindful of your time.

Be mindful of your friendships.

Invest in your people, but also invest in your hobbies.

And know that you’ll suck at it some days, and they’ll forgive you. And they’ll suck sometimes, and you’ll forgive them.

Go in with eyes and heart wide-open, pastor.






On Failure and Honey

“You don’t lead a church anymore, right?” Alistair asked from the backseat this morning. We were stopped at a stoplight, and like his little brain does, that question just came out of the blue.

“Right,” I said, staring ahead.

“But you’re still a pastor, right?”

His follow-up question was innocent. He was trying to figure it out. Honestly, in many ways, I’m still trying to figure it out.

“I am,” I said.

My exit from the formal pulpit was tough and not easy and complex. It was hard to explain except for, well, I knew in my gut it was the right thing for everyone involved…even if it didn’t always feel like the right thing, especially to those watching from afar.

Why would you do something so difficult if it wasn’t the right thing, Beloved?

But, and I was reflecting on this the other day because I was chatting with a colleague, there is still a sense of “failure” for pastors not in a formal pulpit. It might be particular to my age bracket, but it’s real enough. It’s real even when you continue to work in the non-profit sector. It’s real even when you continue to contribute to the formal life of the church. It’s real even when you do get occasion and invitation to preach and teach and do the things that marked your former formal vocation.

Failure. Shame. Even when it’s the right thing.

And I think that’s something no one ever tells you when you’re growing up: sometimes doing the right thing can feel like failure.

It takes courage. I know this. I lived it. But it often feels more like crap in the moment.

Part of it is attachment. In all my leave-taking from congregations there has been this immense attachment that we’ve had to one another. When you pour your life into something, and people put their trust in you, well, the bonds are not easily severed.

“You don’t really care about us,” came one email.

“I get that it’s good for you, but it’s bad for us,” came another.

When my father left one of his parishes, one parishioner who we deeply loved, who took care of us as kids, whose house we went to and whose pool we swam in, said over and over to him, “Damn you! Damn you!” on his last Sunday.

I remember looking at him in that moment, his head down, not sure what to say. It was grief speaking. All of the above is. Grief and anger and confusion.

Trust me: that’s felt on all sides of the equation.

There were other notes, too.

“You did so much,” and, “You meant so much.” Lots of those. It’s always a mixed bag, right? And they’re said with love. I want to say all comments, even the hard ones, are said with love.

Love shouldn’t hurt physically, but it can sometimes wield an emotional sword that shows no mercy, Beloved.

All leave-takings are confusing and complicated and you try to do them the best you can.

So much of the pastorate feels so overly intimate that it is absolutely impossible to shoulder sometimes. Not only can you not be what others need you to be or expect you to be, I’ve come to the conclusion that a pastor shouldn’t be those things…it’s not healthy in the long run.

Identities become confused. Roles become infused. In work with such a porous border, with such ill-defined relationships, it’s easy to confuse your identity with the work.

I know it is not failure at all. It’s discernment. Wisdom sometimes whispers something that’s difficult to follow but important to heed, and speaks it so softly that sometimes no one else except a few really hear it.

I’ve learned this. Intellectually I know this. And I think it’s true for all people, not just pastors.

But the heart still sags a bit when you recall that you couldn’t be what others wanted you to be.

And I don’t write any of this for any sort of pity. It’s just an honest reflection; that’s all. Christian Wiman writes that just as we are sometimes called to things, sometimes we are called from things.

I’ve come to believe this, intensely.

Today on my run I had all these things on my heart.

When I returned and was prepping for a meeting, I stumbled quickly upon this poem by Antonio Machado:

“Last night, as I was sleeping
I dreamt–marvelous error!–
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.”

And I let out a deep, deep breath.

This pandemic has given ample time for self-reflection, for retracing the timeline of my life, especially as I near 40. And, as my Enneagram type is wont to do, I see more stumbles than successes. Perhaps that’s true for most of us.

But the hardest things, while they’ve felt like stumbles, like failures, I still hold on to the deep hope that they were hidden wisdom and that the bees in my heart are working furiously.

Furiously!

Making those perceived failures into a honey that will, eventually, be proven the right sweet ingredient to live into a life of purpose.

I hope that’s true in your life, too. I hope those bees are furiously making honey out of anything you perceive to be a failure and, in the end, you’ll realize how sweet it all was.

5 Ways Churches and Clergy Can Use the Covid Crisis Constructively as We Head into Month 7

As the shadow of World War II loomed heavily over his country, and his career, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

I’ve repeated this phrase over and over in my life, both to myself and to others struggling to make heads or tails of a specific season of existence. I’ve especially quoted it to new pastors who find the bumps of the parish to be more mountains than mole hills.

Never let a good crisis go to waste.

I no longer serve a parish regularly, though I’m still very involved in coaching pastors, especially those new to their calls. I’m hearing a consistent consternation about the future of the looming Fall.

Will churches meet in person before the New Year?

Will outdoor worship be able to continue in cooler months?

How often can we “open” and then “suspend” meeting in a building before everyone tires of the seesaw?

The recent article by baptistnews.com on pastors and suicidal ideation in these pandemic days was a gut punch to many. Unfortunately, though those feelings and thoughts may be heightened right now, those thoughts are not exactly new to this service profession, despite how little pastors might talk about it, at least out in the open.

I was chatting yesterday with a pastor who has taken a position in the non-profit field, and nearing retirement he was considering going back into the parish to ensure his pension would be in place (he was not Lutheran, and apparently his denomination had odd requirements around this sort of thing).

“I might do it,” he said, “but you know what I haven’t missed these last 14 years of being out of a church?”

I nodded…because I knew first-hand.

“The fear of looking in your email box. The nasty anonymous letters. The complaints at the end of a Sunday service because the organ was too loud for her and too soft for him, and ‘Why are you so political, anyway?’ and ‘We’re leaving this church because, well, you.'”

His reply?

“Bingo.”

As the article points out, those emails and notes are even more legion these days because, well, it’s the only way many people are regularly communicating.

That’s all a bit tangential, but it’s all to say: this is not new, even if it is intensified, and we can’t imagine that somehow, once this pandemic is over, the clergy mental health crisis will magically disappear, as some claim this virus will.

But let’s take stock really quickly and, as Churchill notes, not let this crisis go to waste. What are some ways that churches and clergy can take advantage of this time? Here are 5 thoughts on it…

Thought 1, for Clergy: Practice ignoring the inbox.

I know, I know, it’s your only connection to some parishioners these days. I’m not saying don’t send messages; far from it! I know you are communicating even more in these days than you usually did pre-Covid.

What I’m saying is, when you don’t have control over a situation, forego the long, rational, thought-out response to that long, run-on, emotional email that so-and-so sent you being mad about in-person worship being suspended.

They threaten to leave? Ok. Let them threaten. Maybe, even, let them leave.

Because your call is not to keep them happy, but to keep them safe. Your call is not to play their favorite hymn, but the appropriate hymn. Your call is not to preach what they want to hear, but what you think God is calling your community to hear.

That’s your call in all times, but is especially prescient in dangerous times like this.

Do you respond? Maybe. I’ve sometimes not responded at all.

But if you do respond, maybe it is just,

“Dear ____________, Please know that I love and care for you, and I am sorry all of this is happening right now. I feel as powerless as you do at the moment. I understand if you feel a different community is better for you, and though I would be sad to see you leave the church here, I know that God’s church isn’t limited to our little piece of it, and we’ll remain together in Christ. Happy to talk on the phone about this, but not right now. I can tell it feels too raw. Let’s both wait, discern, and pray a bit.”

Thought 2, for Churches: Go A Little Crazy with Sunday

I see so many faith communities right now trying to replicate the Sunday morning gathering in the virtual space, and honestly it’s just not always working. The flow of the liturgy is not easily translated online.

Now, I’m not saying you abandon the liturgy; by no means!

What I am saying is that you can be super creative right now and try things you’d be wary of trying in normal times.

Go with a sermon series you’ve never considered doing before. Maybe you do a string on the Hebrew texts for a given Sunday, or as we enter Autumn, do a series on the ecology and the Earth. Lutherans Restoring Creation has a bunch of resources to help.

If we are spending any time out of our houses these days, it’s normally in wide open spaces, right? And if you are gathering, so many are doing it outside. Why not capitalize on the theme and make it a thing?

And as we head into Advent, consider doing an extended Advent this year. Imagine 6 weeks of glorious deep blue expectation that actually mirrors Lent instead of just the truncated 4 weeks normally allotted. I’ve enjoyed doing this in the parish occasionally, and the resources are ample and easily adaptable.

Plus, no one is going to walk out of the service if you try some of this stuff in these days…and if they do, no one will notice!

Be experimental. Don’t try to virtually replicate something that can only be experienced in person. Try something new and don’t just regurgitate the norm.

Thought 3, for Clergy: Invest in Yourself

Instead of overworking your inbox and wracking your brain trying to figure out how to do everything you did when you could actually physically be with people (it’s not possible, Beloved…hug that cactus and it’ll stop hurting), take this opportunity to engage some professional passions and skills you’ve neglected.

What if, right now, your call was to take an online class on video creation and editing? Instead of trying to wing it or fret about how little skill you have in this, use the professional development dollars you have allotted to you (and if you don’t have any, lobby your Council to give you an allowance) and lean in.

Or maybe that’ll never be your thing. So instead of doing that, you go all-in on non-profit fundraising. Books, Udemy, free webinars…don’t make this learning an “add on” to your current list of work, but rather embrace it as “the work” right now.

I’ve heard pastor after pastor tell me that they feel they need to “earn their salary” in these times, proving they’re still working hard.

But let’s imagine that your people know you’re working hard. Take that for granted for a minute. If you knew that, and trusted it, what would you do instead of trying to earn their favor?

Go and do that for a bit.

Thought 4, for Churches: Online Everything

I mean, you can decide to do what you want about communion, Beloved. We don’t have online baptisms because you can’t physically be there, so I’m not sure why we feel we *have* to enable online communion (just speaking as a theologian), but that’s a conversation for you and your people.

What you definitely should be doing online, though, are two things integral to the life of the church: education and offering.

Get those offerings online. Set it up. You’re probably about to enter “stewardship season” as it is, so get it going.

There are so many platforms now, I’m not even going to link to any because, well, that’s a conversation for you and your council (make sure to read the fine print regarding cost and functionality!). But you have to get it online, and there is no better time than right now to enlist over 60% of your community in online giving.

Every bank can do it. Unless your folks are stashing their gifts in a mattress or a beer barrel, it’s simple, safe, and easy.

And as for education? Google meets, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, there are so many ways to keep education going, and this is the perfect time to do it, because: we’re all at home! Folks on vacation, folks who have moved away, folks who are perpetually home bound…had I known how effective this tool was in doing education, I would have been doing it from the start.

Seriously, want to get that face-time with the folks who think you might be slacking? Weekly education opportunities are the key. Plus: it’s a great way to keep community going right now.

After this pandemic, these two things (in my opinion) should absolutely continue.

Thought 5, for Clergy and Churches: Take Stock

This pandemic is allowing everyone to take stock of their lives, both individually and communally.

Take stock and ask the tough questions together.

“What would be missing from the world if our community didn’t exist at all? Not just what individuals inside the church, but for the greater community? For the world? What would be missing?

“How nimble is our mission? Are we filling it, even now? If not, does it need to change?”

“What *needs* to resume when we come back to gathering in person? What can we let go of, that wasn’t really working, anyway?”

Take the time to ask the hard questions, Beloved. Take the time to look deeply.

This is a crisis. Moment to moment we’re fragile or have fortitude, and it all feels so tenuous. But this crisis should not go to waste, by God.

Use it. Listen to the wisdom it offers. Dismiss the fears it peddles. Then go and implement what you learn from it.

Kanye’s Mental Illness Does Not Disqualify Him from the Presidency

First: I’m not going to vote for Kanye West for President of the United States.

He’s sexist. He’s vain. He’s got no real plans for, well, anything. He’s a bigot.

I’m not going to vote for him.

But it’s not because he has a mental illness.

If Kanye is elected President, he will not be the first President to have mental illness.

In 2019 it was reported that almost half of American adults experience mental illness in their lifetime. Some mental illness is profound and requires life-long treatment. Some mental illness is episodic, and requires intermittent treatment. Some mental illness is triggered by environment mixed with brain chemistry, and some by brain chemistry alone.

Mental illness is personal, but not unique. It’s individual, and yet experienced by so many in our communities.

Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, either. Lord knows I’ve buried too many people who were too sick and yet too afraid to seek treatment because, well, what would people think?

I think people want to help…but don’t understand it. And are afraid of it.

Mental health is physical health, Beloved. We wouldn’t shame someone who lost an arm or a leg in the journey of life, right? And if we did, well, shame on you. You don’t get to be enlightened by my company.

But if we wouldn’t shame someone who had a physical illness or disability, why would we shame someone who is struggling with a brain chemistry that is so mysterious, so difficult to understand, and yet so pervasive?

I get it: Kanye is easy to dislike. He’s brash, loud, ill-tempered, vain, and often ill-informed.

I dislike most of what comes out of his mouth that isn’t on a CD and auto-tuned (he’s not a great singer, can we agree on that?!).

He’s also damn brilliant, a husband, a son, grieving his mother, and trying to figure out how to reconcile all of the above (and more! I don’t even know the man).

He’s living with mental illness.

But he’s not “crazy.” He’s not “nuts.”

He’s a jerk, but that has nothing to do with his illness.

The stigma. The shame. The hurt. The heartache. The exhilaration. The high. The deep descent into the pit. The rebound. The confidence. The braggadocio. The productivity. The creativity. The insomnia…

And that, Beloved, is one week in a rough patch for many of our spouses, friends, children, parents…and maybe, you.

He’s dealing with what many deal with, he’s just doing it on a stage that’s 100x brighter and 1000x more public than you and I act on.

He’s not nuts, he’s a human living with an illness. And he’s very human in public, which most of us don’t have to be…a luxury for us.

And he doesn’t need our pity. And he doesn’t need our snickering. And, yes, we can take him seriously as he is, but seriously with wide eyes that see the whole story, not the story of the moment.

Mental illness is never just about the moment, but about the whole story, Beloved.

And we must absolutely stop this chatter about his many “isms” being attributed to his mental illness. People who don’t deal with mental illness are prejudice. People who don’t live with mental illness are misogynistic and are assholes and are idiots and are all sorts of things.

Mental illness does not make someone a bigot or prejudice or any of that nonsense.

Unrelated. I’ll say it louder for you in the back: UNRELATED.

My point is: don’t vote for Kanye West if you don’t think he’ll make a good President of the United States. But don’t cross him off your ballots because he’s living with mental illness.

We’ve elected plenty of Presidents who live with, wrestle with (or don’t), and thrive with mental illnesses of all sorts. We have! Statistically it’s certainly more than probable, I’d put money on it.

Look, I pray none of you ever get to peek inside my brain. You’d be amazed and scared of what you find there. I’m sure the same could be said if I were to take a gander in yours.

Mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of, just like having any illness isn’t something to be ashamed of. He didn’t ask for this. Lord, who asks for this?

He’s just trying to live with it. And yes, it’s very public. And yes, it can be alarming. And yes, it can even be amusing to the untrained ear and eye.

But it’s not amusing, it’s an illness, Beloved.

Don’t vote for him because he’s an asshole. Don’t vote for him because he’s prejudice, because he’s misogynistic, or because he’s…whatever your reason.

But it shouldn’t be about the illness.

Mental illness is just that: an illness.

And it doesn’t disqualify him from anything: not the Presidency, not life and the pursuit of happiness, not dignity, not brilliance, and certainly not respect or love.

Christmas in July and Virgin Births and Truth

Christmas in JulyIt’s Christmas in July, Beloved.

I kind of love that.  Christmas is so fun that Americans feel the need to have a preview, a teaser, a taste of the gingerbread feast that is to come.

I’m taking a writing course right now, and we’re studying archetypes in the course.  One of the archetypes we discussed today was the idea of a “virginal birth.”

This is not a religious group of writers, mind you.  I’m not even sure what their stance on religion is.  But we used the many virginal births throughout the history of religions to discuss why that might be important for humanity, and what this recurring theme says about us.

Now, you might do a double-take right there…I’ll allow it.  Go ahead, read it again. Because I did say “the many virginal births throughout the history of religions.”

And I said it because it’s true.  Many of you may have only heard of Jesus, but in the history of supposed virginal birth accounts, Jesus has to get in line.  The Egyptian gods Ra and Horus were supposedly born of virgins, some 2000 years before Jesus.

Oh, and Alexander the Great.  He was conceived by his mother and a lightening bolt, which sounds like a painful story…

And some histories have Krishna being born of a virgin, as well.

And there are others. You probably know of some.

So what, then, do we do with the Jesus account, specifically in Matthew and Luke (Mark and John don’t really think it’s important)?

So here’s my stance on the virgin birth: I don’t care.  And I’d encourage you not to, either.

I don’t care if Mary was a virgin.  Really, only Mary knows…and she isn’t going on record about it, and a lot of the focus on this probably has to do with Christianity’s problematic (obviously platonic) relationship with sex, but that’s a whole other post.

Why do I not think it matters?

I mean, take into account the fact that the writer of Matthew misquotes Isaiah when he says that the prophet said, “A “virgin” shall conceive and bear a son…”

Actually, Isaiah wrote, “A young woman shall conceive…”

In the Greek it’s “virgin.”  But in the Hebrew it’s “young woman.”  What are we to make of this?

Ancient stories of other virgin births (Alexander the Great, for instance) were intended to bestow upon the baby certain prestige and power.  It could be that the writers were meaning for you to see that such prestige is meant for Jesus…

Take all this into account and what do you have?  You at least have some basis to question where it all came from and why it’s in there.

Questions, like sex, are good, Beloved.

What I don’t think we can question is that this sort of image is, for good or ill, powerful for humans.  It’s good, I think, when it conveys some sort of holy surprise.  It’s bad, of course, when it’s all about sex…

I know, though: we’re not supposed to talk about such things because it might disrupt someone’s faith.

I have more faith in you, dear reader, than to believe that.  Plus, a little disruption is healthy.

I mean, look, if this question, or even this type of question, is the foundation that the whole testimony of scripture is built upon for an individual, they must be prepared to be disappointed.

In fact, I would say that about any verse or event in Scripture.  If the veracity of the scriptural account stands upon a Western, 21st Century, post-Enlightenment understanding of what it means to have 6 days for creation, what it means to rise from the dead, what it means to have a virgin birth, what it means to have the sun stand still, what it means to have the blind receive sight, you will be disappointed.

All of those events pop up in other religious narrations, by the way, some long before Jesus. Pastors don’t talk about it often, but it’s true.  There’s no denying it.

Look, when it comes to scripture, the question isn’t “did it happen?” the question is “is it true?”

And judging by the number of supposed virgin births throughout religions, this is certainly a strong archetype that humanity has clung on to for some reason…for ill or for good.

This is a hard concept to wrap the head around; it truly is.  The thought is, “Well, if you question one thing, you bring everything into question!”

Is something wrong with that?  Like I said: questions are good.

When we insist that the readings and accounts contained in the canon that we call the Bible have to be “true” by Western, 21st Century, post-Enlightenment litmus tests for truth to be considered reliable, we are trying to get the texts to be something they were never designed to be.

They are texts of faith, not fact.

We are essentially taking something and trying to fit it into our worldview, instead of allowing something to speak on its own, from its own location.

And when we do that, we usurp its power.

It becomes no more powerful than a dictionary or an encyclopedia whose truth relies solely on its content, rather than a deeper truth whose veracity relies upon its impact, its richness, and its ability to shape humanity.

In fact, I’d contend that quite a bit of what calls itself Christian these days does just that: relegates the scriptures to an encyclopedia or IKEA instruction manual for life.

See, the story of Jonah is powerful.  But it’s not true in the post-Enlightenment, 21st Century, Western understanding of “true.”

To even utter that will be, for some, to call the whole Bible a big fat lie.

But they are the ones missing out, if that’s the case.

Because you will fail to learn something from a story if you can’t take it on its own terms.  Instead of learning the lesson from Jonah, we spend all our time pretending that we don’t know anything about biology or literature, and we try to find ways to allow a human to survive in the belly of a fish without being eaten by stomach acid…

But we cannot pretend that different types of literature apart from histories are not present in the Biblical canon. Myth, legend, short story, comedy, poems, letters…along with histories are all present.

And even the histories that are present aren’t like National Geographic or The History Channel types of histories!  They’re more like Fox News or MSNBC  or CNN types of histories: biased accounts. They have agendas.

And agenda isn’t always a bad thing, mind you.  It’s like the agenda Matthew and Luke have for the reader when presenting Jesus’ birth as virginal: you are supposed to take note that this is special!

Or like John’s agenda when he has Jesus dying on a Thursday.  You are supposed to see him as the lamb of God, sacrificed the night before the Passover.

It’s meant to convey something to you; convey a truth about humanity and the Divine that history can’t hold by itself, so it uses the most powerful thing we have to hit it home: story.

With all these “Christmas in July” posts going on now (which are a welcome break from pandemic updates), it seems timely to remind us all of the power of story.

The virgin birth reminds me of the possibility, the hope, that sometimes miraculous things happen when you least expect it.  That sometimes things can be birthed and you’re just not sure where it came from because you didn’t see it coming.

And in a pandemic, that’s probably worth holding on to for a while.

It is true.

And that truth has nothing to do with Mary’s sexual history.