Okayness and Gayness

s-l1000“Hey Mark,” I said outside the church on a bright day.  He had grocery bags in each hand.

Of course, Mark isn’t his real name…

“Hey Pastor Tim,” he said a little sheepishly.  “How are you?”

“Good, good, how’s the new addition to the family?” I said, putting my hands in my pockets.

“Ha.  We’re all tired, but surviving the transition…” he smiled.

Mark and his wife had just welcomed a new child, a son, into the world.  I remember seeing the posts about it on social media.

“I suppose you noticed we haven’t been in church a lot lately…” he went on.

“Well, new babies disrupt schedules.  That’s just true.” I nodded.  Even though I didn’t have children at that point in my life, I knew it was just plain truth. Babies mess up your world in all sorts of ways.

“There is that,” he went on, averting my eyes, “but I’m not sure we’ll be coming anymore. At least not here.” He was honest and frank and seemed embarrassed about it all.

“Okay…” I responded, “is everything alright?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “but I’m not sure we can raise a kid in this church.”

“Really? Why?” I was genuinely curious.  In the ministry you learn not to take these things personally…well, you try not to.

“It’s not you,” he said, “or anyone.  Everyone here is great.  It’s just, well, we had a boy…” his voice trailing off as if I should know what was implied here.

“Yes…?” I said.  I was hoping he wasn’t meaning what I think he was meaning.

“And, well, your church teaches that it’s okay for people to be gay.  And we don’t want him hearing that. Especially because we have a boy.”  He looked down.

“Wait,” I said, “but what if he is gay?  I mean I’m not sure what having a boy has to do with it, but what if he is a sexual minority of some sort?  Don’t you want him to hear that he’s loved and accepted and alright?”

Mark just looked down.

“It’s just harder because it’s a boy,” he repeated.

I’m not sure how the conversation, or the situation, would have turned out had they had a girl.  I mean, I can’t conceive of how that would make a difference. But I also know that traditional conceptions of masculinity is something still prized in many corners of modern America.

“I mean, I don’t think I have a problem with it, but Sharon…” he said, voice trailing off again.

The conversation was full of lots incomplete sentences, almost like if the sentences were completed, the foolishness of the statement would be too boldfaced to take.  We often avoid saying the thing because to utter the thoughts of our hearts would actually embarress us.

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.  “I don’t think being open and welcoming is harmful to children.  I think it’s helpful. Necessary, even.”

“I know.  But if he hears it’s okay to be gay, he might become gay,” he said.

“I don’t think the biology works like that, ” I smiled.  I tried to diffuse the obviously uncomfortable situation.

“We’re just not okay with it,” he said finally.  “And we don’t want him to be okay with it. But I hope to see you around the neighborhood.”

“Sure, Mark.  And if you all ever want to talk about this, just let me know.  Happy to keep the conversation going.” 

I waved as he walked away.

 

Bliss Burnout

“We had tickets to the Kennedy Center,” she said to her friend. “And I told my husband that we are never going to the Kennedy Center again in the middle of sports season!”

Her friend nodded empathetically.

“Between baseball and football and cheerleading. All the games and practices that they must go to, I just cannot do another concert…it’s too stressful.”

She took another sip, her headband (coordinating with her yoga pants) challenging the wind to destroy the perfect ponytail.

“But,” she continued, “when is it NOT sports season, right? Ha!”

Her friend nodded in solidarity. “It’s just too much.”

Yes. This happened.

And yes, my observation, though verbatim, is full of judgment.

But here’s the thing: the concert is not the problem.

The over-scheduled kids is the problem. The inability to say no is the problem.

Or, at least, the inability to say no to the right thing.

What a privilege to be able to afford all those sports, those tickets, even those trendy pants.

No, truly, it’s a privilege. An honored life.

But the over abundance of ability can sometimes cause what I call “bliss burnout.”

She has bliss burnout. And she thinks that the key is to say no to the thing that actually would be a blessing in the middle of craziness: a concert.

But the true remedy is to get out of the bliss-induced cycle.

Don’t play all the sports. Have unstructured play sometimes.

Don’t do all the things. Do some things, and just do them really well.

No one should ever, over a latte, bemoan the busy schedule of their choosing.

Bliss Burnout is real. It’s a spiritual issue. A physical issue. And economic issue. Maybe, even, a moral one.

Get out of it and watch yourself be blessed instead.

“How Cool That You Get To Disbelieve White Privilege…”

File this under “Things I wanted to say, but couldn’t because I was a pastor of a parish.”

But, actually, now being out of a parish, I wonder if it should really be filed under “Things you need to say as a pastor of a parish.”

The title is sarcastic, by the way.

Because it’s not “cool,” right, or what have you to be able to pretend white privilege is not a thing. It’s actually a…wait for it…sign of privilege. That very privilege you’re trying to pretend isn’t real is what allows you to pretend, with some ignorant success, it isn’t real.

We were sitting at a bar. The meeting had been called because I’d been saying things from the pulpit that caused him to squirm.

He bought the first beer, which I was grateful for. And I genuinely did like him, and continue to, despite the conversation.

“You’ve used this term recently,” he said three sips in, “‘white privilege.’ What is that?”

He looked at me as he took another sip.

“Well, it’s the inconvenient truth that you, as a white person, and a white male in particular, were born with a certain backpack of goods that set you up for success in life, not by your own doing, because our culture is biased toward people who look like you and me.”

It was the Cliff’s Notes version, but I had yet to take a sip and knew we’d probably need another round. I stopped and took a drink.

“I don’t buy that,” he said. “I was born poor. I worked hard for my money. I was the first in my family to go to college. I don’t think I had a very good backpack,” he said.

“Well, you certainly had obstacles. White privilege doesn’t mean that white people, especially economically depressed white people, don’t have obstacles. It just means that, despite your obstacles, you had a leg up.” I took a big drink.

“Nope,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Tell me, when you apply to a job, what does the application say your name is?”

<he said his name>

“Now,” I said, “did you know that your name, as compared to a name that is more non-traditional…a name distinctly not white by culture <looking at you Karen and Chad>, is more likely to be read and full and hired? Just by the name. That’s white privilege.”

“My boys,” he said brushing past my example, “had <he looks around and lowers his voice> black friends all through school. They’d come over to our house. They were the same; no difference.”

Pro-tip: if you lower your voice when speaking about a different ethnicity or culture, you’re probably participating in subconscious racism.

Ok, back to the story…

“Did you ever ask them?” I inquired.

“What?”

“Did you ever ask them about their experience? Or is this just what you observed? Did you ever ask them how many times they’ve been pulled over? Or followed in a store? Or passed over for a promotion? Or had athletics shoved in their face because it was lifted as the only legit way they’d get into a school? Did you ever ask them?”

Well, no…” he said honestly.

“Then I don’t think you really know about their experience. You get the privilege of pretending their experience is the same as yours because your frame is the one all other pictures have to fit in. That’s white privilege. And yes, you had some challenges, and your whiteness helped you overcome them. They don’t have that leg up. It’s just true.”

Beer was gone. I ordered the next.

“I still don’t buy it…”

“When I was teaching in Chicago, a lot of my kid’s parents drove very nice cars. They had little money, but nice cars with huge lease payments. Know what one of them told me about that? They said they did that so that people like me would take them seriously. Now, know what I drove? A beat up Honda with two missing hubcaps that I never replaced because, why bother? I never once thought I’d have to do anything to be taken seriously. And I never thought that because my status as a white male just afforded me that luxury no matter what car I drove…”

“They didn’t have to do that,” he said. “That’s irresponsible.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said, emboldened a bit by the beer, “because you’ve never had to fight for legitimacy on an uneven playing field.”

He shook his head. “I don’t buy it.”

“My Philosophy teacher in college once said, after a long discussion, ‘Tim…I cant force you to see the truth.'” I smiled.

He laughed.

But I was serious.

“I’m going to keep talking about it,” I said.

He nodded, though I knew he wouldn’t stay in the pews if I did.

I did. And he didn’t. And there we are.

I guess it’s part of the privilege to just go somewhere else and not have to be reminded of it.

Would You?

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Terry Funk-“Barbed-wire Jesus”

What if Jesus came back today

in Kentucky?

But came as a little girl, skin as bronze as a penny, named Julia.

And that “laughing Jesus” picture you have

hanging in your hallway,

is laughing at how mistaken the depiction you’ve been looking at for years

turns out to be,

Would you follow still?

 

What if Jesus came back today in Honduras,

wandering homeless,

hands torn by barbed wire

eyes burned by tear gas

traversing borders,

…like God did that first time, trespassing over space and time,

the cosmos, reality…

struggling through the desert in Arizona,

deemed illegal by people who took this land from

other people who looked more like this wandering Honduran

than the Herod in the White House,

would you follow even then?

 

What if Jesus could care less

-actually didn’t give a shit-

about your “personal freedom,”

but rather wanted you to care about

everyone’s safety and right to live safe…

…and healthy…

…and honest…

…and righteous lives…

which would mean that you actually don’t get to

“do whatever you want”

but rather would have to first ask

“What would the Divine maker of a Divinely-loved humanity want me to do?”

And in response

you would have to give up your guns

and a good bit of your wealth

and challenge your voting record…

Would you still follow?

 

What if it turns out that Jesus cares less

about what you do with your body,

and more about how you treat

other bodies?

 

What if Jesus turned out to be sexually marginal

LGBTQIA+

because, he totally could have been, you know…

because we don’t know.

And you, now knowing that, would have to

upend all your moral inclinations…

Would you still follow?

 

What if this Christmas Jesus came back

demanding not your soul

(because that wasn’t the demand the first time around)

but your attention?

And when he got it he pointed it toward

those you overlook as you do your Christmas shopping

(and every other moment)?

 

“But Jesus,” you protest, “I’ve given you my heart!”

“Right,” he says, “and now that it’s mine I’m giving it to them…”

(and “them” is whomever you like the least in the world).

Would you still follow?

 

What if it turns out that everything you thought you knew

about Jesus

is wrong.

Would you still follow?

 

 

Churches Don’t Have Dues, but They Do Have Don’ts

Member Stamp Shows Membership Registration And Subscribing“What are the benefits of membership?” she asked me.

I just kind of stared at her, trying to figure out if she was serious or not.

I hadn’t been in the parish very long, just a year, but I had never imagined that someone would ask that question with any seriousness.  My confusion was my own fault, of course. The bubble of church membership that I had grown up in insulated me from many who had never been part of church culture before.  And, like country clubs offer membership perks, I had before me someone seriously inquiring as to what she might get if she joined our parish.

“There are no perks,” I said, “except that you get to vote and can be on committees.  Which, isn’t really a perk at all because, well, have you been to a congregational meeting?”

I laughed.

She didn’t.

“Then, why would I join?” she asked matter-of-factly.

And that was a great question.  Why would she join?  Why would anyone join?

In all honesty, I’m “post-membership” myself when it comes to churches.  The people who are a part of your community are the people who participate in the community, whether they’re officially on the books or not.  But, deep in my heart, I know that joining something does do something to me.

It makes me feel responsible. Accountable.

“You join,” I said, ” to remind yourself that these people and you have covenanted to do life together.  People join to say something about themselves, to be accountable to others and themselves, and like any marriage, the joining keeps you together until you fall in love again.  So when we fight, you just can’t leave, and we can’t walk out on you, we have to figure it out as best we can…”

It was all I could think of.

She nodded, “Ok, but what are the dues?” she asked.

Again, an honest question that I never expected.

“There are no dues,” I said, “but we are expected to give of ourselves and our treasure, including our money, to fund ministry and give back to God what is God’s.”

In that first year, at our first congregational meeting in fact, I had one family who, though they considered themselves quite important, rarely participated in the life of the church, and they asked me before the meeting, “If we split up the budget equally amongst all the giving units in this church, how much do each of us owe?”

I stood there, blinking.  I had actually done that calculation the night before, but I wasn’t going to offer it to them.  They were a family of means, and could offer to give far more than the number on the ledger, and far more than they gave at the present time.  Meanwhile, they were sitting right next to a family of five kids where the father was out of a job and the mother alone held the roof over their heads through her 9 to 5, but they showed up every time the doors were open and quite honestly were punching above their weight in the giving department, but far below the number on the ledger.

“That’s not how it works,” I said.  “The question we ask isn’t ‘how much does it cost all of us,’ but rather, ‘how much of what I have been given am I deciding to keep?'”

Church budgets are not equal.  They are fair.  Or, at least, they should be.

Back to the woman in front of me: she sat there thinking about the idea of membership and dues and what it all would mean to sign on the dotted line.  I gave her some time…she never did officially join.

But she was a part of the community.  And she was active.  And she gave what she could.

Churches don’t have dues, but they do have some don’ts.

Don’t make your church easy to “join.”  Churches aren’t country clubs, they are costly.  They should cost the members something: of treasure, time, commitment, and everything it takes to do life together.  A Saturday seminar with a Sunday reception does not imply the costly nature of it all.

Don’t treat all your parishioners equally.  Everyone gets treated well, and treated fairly, but if you expect the same out of everyone you’re missing the very important differences between the people in the pews.

Don’t be surprised if the membership culture of church life gets confusing for many.  Some from previous generations think membership entitles them to certain opinions, even if they don’t really participate in the community.  Others, especially those who didn’t grow up in the church, will wonder why they might bother at all.  You should wrestle with this as a community.  Why does it matter to be a part of it all, anyway?

And finally, don’t imagine that any of what worked before will work again.  Change is happening at a pace that is difficult to keep up with these days.  Tweak and refine what membership means.  Tweak and refine what you’re asking of the people in your community.  Tweak and refine what it means to make and meet budget.

Churches don’t have dues, but there are some don’ts.

Pastors Who are Co-Dependent on the Collar

User commentsI was talking with a friend and colleague the other day.  The conversation got around to our profession and how, we’ve observed, some people really love it.

Not the work of the profession, mind you, but the idea of it.  They like being “a pastor,” not pastoring.

At the risk of sounding (more) judgmental, I’ll continue…

The problem with this, I think, is that it causes such a huge identity crisis in the individual, that the person becomes co-dependent on the title in a way that breeds psychological, emotional, and yes, physical illness.

Co-dependency is synonymous with death in all instances.

A definition here might be helpful, though.  Co-dependency is this reality where you can’t see yourself objectively, but only through the filter of whatever it is you are co-dependent on.

Parents can become co-dependent on their children.  When their children have good days, the parents are allowed to have good days.  The same is true for bad days.

People become co-dependent on their spouses, losing themselves in their role as partner/wife/husband.  I’ve seen many friends fall into this, and it seems to be especially true for those early on in relationships.  If you find you have no identity outside of your relationship with your partner, you’ve lost yourself altogether.  And, what comes next?  Resentment.  Rebellion.

We can become co-dependent on our religion, too.  I’ve known people to hang pictures of Jesus in their house like they’d hang a picture of a parent, sibling, or spouse.  Not as an art piece, but as a member of the family…and this, to me, is a sign of attachment to an icon or idol in an unhealthy way.

Plus, Jesus didn’t look like that…

Likewise, people can become co-dependent on their profession.  And while this is probably true for many professions, I’ve found pastors are especially susceptible to this reality, for a couple of reasons.

First, we talk about the profession in such a way that lends itself to abuse.  Pastors are “called.”

True, the church tries to inject that language into every profession or passion.  People are “called to act with justice,” as the hymn goes.  But the idea of “call” is usually reserved for the profession in a unique way, which of course means that, if a pastor leaves a congregation, or the ministry altogether, we have little language to imply anything other than they’re no longer “called.”

A pastor who loves being a pastor for the title, but may have little skill in the way of the pastoral arts themselves, might get wrapped up emotionally in this in a way that leads to un-health.  Want an example?  What about a pastor who stays in the pulpit because they really like the credentials, but aren’t proficient at the work? Or the pastor who pines after the administrative job not because it’s their gift, but because their gift seems to be to want that kind of job?

They do no one any good.

Or what about when a pastor can’t not be a pastor?  Like, all of their relationships are made through that role?  They have no friends outside the parish, virtually making it impossible for them to not only ever leave, but actually do the work effectively. Let’s be honest, a friend cannot tell us hard truths a lot of times.  The relationship is different.  And that works both ways: both with a pastor telling someone a hard truth, or someone telling a pastor a hard truth.

I’ve blogged about this before, but if your only outlet in the world is through the lens of the collar, you’re co-dependent with the profession in a way that is making it impossible for you to do your work.

In other words: you love the idea of being a pastor, not the work itself.  Because the work demands you give some distance.  But the idol of the job whispers that you can do it differently…

You can’t.

Or what about those days when you only measure yourself against the opinions of others in relation to your work in the parish?  You begin to believe you’re good or bad at your work only because others think you’re good or bad at it.  If you constantly measure your worth based on the opinions of the pews, you’re probably co-dependent on your role.

And before you think I’m casting stones in glass houses, let me inject some real honesty here: it’s easy to become co-dependent, especially for a pastor.

It’s easy to buy the lie that people give you that you have to be at every function for it to have any meaning.  It’s easy to buy the lie that you can’t be yourself in the grocery store because, well, what if a parishioner sees you with a political shirt they disagree with? That’s a problem…

It’s easy to buy into the lie that you suck just because that parishioner left the parish, sent you that note, or is gossiping endlessly about you.  Likewise, friend, it’s easy to believe you’re good at your work because people praise you and lavish you with accolades, even though you rarely prepare for your sermons, rarely touch base with parishioners, rarely read or study, and rarely do the actual, hard, behind-the-scenes work that gets no recognition.

It’s easy to buy into the self-serving deceit that you are your job and your job is you and that the letters in front of your name identify you more than anything else you do or have ever done.

It’s an easy trap. I’ve fallen into it. Every pastor has.

We all fall in love with the idea more than the art at one time or another.

But unless you’ve put in some safeguards like people who can be honest with you (who aren’t parishioners), and a healthy dose of “no” in your vocabulary, and some honesty about how normal (and usually mediocre) you actually are despite what your ego and your ordination want to tell you, co-dependency is hard to slough off.

Co-dependent pastors kill themselves, and the church, one forced smile at a time.

It’s OK to just be yourself sometimes.  Those letters in front of your name are not you, but just part of what you have at your disposal to do the actual work.

 

 

Why I See It As Part of My Job As a Pastor to March in the Teacher Rally in Raleigh

downloadOmar was smart.

He never really got good marks, but he was smart.  And he never studied, but had he studied, those marks would have reflected that brain more fully.

I remember when Omar walked into class one day, head down.  His usual smirk was gone.  His eyes were red.

We started instruction, but he wasn’t into it.  As I gave the class an assignment, I invited Omar out into the hall with me.  We stepped out, I shut the door, and he started crying into my shoulder.  It was unlike him.  My quiet class clown, my jokester, my star basketball player.

His friend had been shot and killed ten hours ago.  Chicago alleys, turf warfare, all of it could get dangerous, and it didn’t matter your age.

He cried. I hugged him. He wiped his eyes.  And we went on to Algebra.

And then, a few weeks later, I remember when Omar didn’t walk into class that one morning.

Because he had been shot ten hours earlier.  His leg, shattered.

I went to go see him in the hospital. I brought McDonald’s. As he ate it I spoke to his mom in broken Spanish, and she to me in broken English. She was afraid to be in the hospital long because she was not a legal resident.  He had to heal, and she knew that, but she also had to sell tamales every morning, and how would they pay for the hospital bill?

They wouldn’t, of course.  No insurance, and tamales wouldn’t cover it.  Family would cobble together some funds, but it’d be a bill hanging over their heads.

In my classroom that year I also delivered a turkey to Section 8 housing.  I pulled up in my car, with a frozen turkey in the backseat.  My student, who lived there, was riding shotgun.

“Mr. Brown,” he said as we started to get out of the car, “when we walk in don’t say anything to anyone, OK?”

“Ok,” I said.  We walked up to the tall building, with people hanging around outside.  They called names at me, carrying the turkey and the bag, and to my student.  But I kept my eyes forward, keeping my promise.

Up the stairs, the elevator was broken, to the fourth floor.

His grandmother there, smiled widely.  She was so grateful for the Christmas gift. We sat and chatted, and then my student walked me out, gave me a hug, and I left.

The next time I’d see her was at her funeral, a few months later.  She was the only caretaker for my student, and so I attended the funeral, hugged his shoulder as he cried down the aisle, and a little while later he went to live with other family, elsewhere.

I’m not a professional teacher anymore, but tomorrow the teachers in Raleigh will be marching downtown.  They’ll be marching for better wages, more funding, smaller classes.  They’ll be coming in from around the state.

Someone asked me if I’d ever consider teaching in North Carolina, using my Masters in Education again.  “Not in North Carolina,” I said.  “I loved the classroom, but I can’t teach here.”

No longevity pay anymore.  Starting salaries, even with Masters degrees, are some of the poorest in the nation.

But even though I’m not a teacher anymore, I will be marching with them tomorrow.  And even though I’ll be taking a comp day to do so, I still see myself as “on the clock.”  It’s part of my job as a pastor, I think.

Because the classrooms of America are not just places of instruction.  They are places where social work happens.  Parenting happens.  Unofficial aunts and uncles sit behind those desks. Grief counselors lead children through stages of loss, all while being judged on whether or not their kids are performing on standardized tests.

And tell me who makes those standards?  If they haven’t had a kid cry on their shoulder because their friend was shot, or if they haven’t brought McDonald’s to a kid in the hospital and spoken in broken language to a family who doesn’t know what they’re going to do with that massive bill, then they’re unqualified to tell on-the-ground teachers what the standards are and what their pay should be.  If they haven’t delivered a turkey to Section 8 housing, and wondered at night what would happen to that kid now that his grandmother was dead, then they aren’t qualified to comment.

Even if you don’t have kids in school, or kids at all, you should be out on the street tomorrow.  Even if you’re not a teacher, you should be out on the street tomorrow.  Because we all have an investment in an educated society, in teachers compensated well, in a nation that actually cares about real education.

I may not be in the office tomorrow, but I’ll be on the clock.  Join me.