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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Neighbor 2 Neighbor or Angels Unawares

On Sunday morning at 9 am, a group of members, friends, family, Interfaith partners and a few folks who just happened by the church, gathered in our courtyard to be "commissioned" to go out into the community or stay at our church, and serve others.  A small group of committed volunteer leaders and coordinators were launching the 2nd annual Neighbor 2 Neighbor day.  Our worship that day was our work.

We had projects ranging from visitation to some of our less mobile members, pack rice and beans to be given through food share programs, paint park benches, build backpack racks at a school, write letters to military personnel and children in a Romanian orphanage, repair and build bikes, and much, much more.

There was a lot going on and as my colleague and Head of Staff at the church made clear, nothing we did that day was going to fix problems or even really make a dent in any of the need or problems that we were addressing.  It was more about experience God's love and compassion and expressing our love and care for people and places in our community.  And as a result, some really amazing things happened and we did show forth God's love and communicated a desire to be a community of caring and sharing in a time when greed, power, political positioning and a seeming lack of compassion rule the day.

What I saw when we re-convened at the church for a closing time of worship and sharing, was a group of people who were ecstatically tired, happily exhausted and joyfully spent.  These are people that would not often choose to hang out together as a whole, and when they are in Session meetings or other church gatherings or committee meetings, don't always agree with one another or even get along all that well.  But on this day, that didn't seem to matter.  In fact, the dividing walls, defenses and tensions seemed to literally melt away.  Viewpoints, ages, interests, and all the other ways we separate ourselves took a back seat to the work of the people (i.e. worship) on this particular day.

People shared a word to characterize the day...included in the litany of words were fulfilling, sharing, love, community, diversity, accomplishment, gratitude, caring, just to name a few.  And then there were the stories.  There were several stories about fear of not having enough...enough help, enough paint, enough people to receive the gifts we were giving.  None of the fears were realized.  One of our coordinators told a story that moves me still.  She stopped at Safeway in the morning to pick up snacks for the workers who stayed at the church to do projects.   The store was fairly deserted at that hour of the morning and she met eyes and shared looks and exchanged greetings with the one other woman at the store.  Later on in the day she went to the park to participate in feeding houseless people a lunch.  She looked at one of the recipients, and they looked at each other several times, and then the woman said to her, "I saw you this morning at Safeway."  I had goose bumps as she shared this story and my very first thought was of Hebrews 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Another story involved the bike builders and repairers.  A boy came to get his bike fixed and his 16 year old sister was with him.  The volunteers asked if she would like a bike, as she did not have one.  She said yes.  She had never ridden a bike before.  Then, the volunteers looked over and saw this young woman learning how to ride her new bike.  And these are just a few of the stories and words and spirit of the day.  The church at large has many tasks and many challenges, but perhaps none so great as redefining what it means to show hospitality.  We can no longer sit in our "homes" and wait for guests to arrive so that we can welcome them.  We have to go to Safeway, to the park, to the corner at the bike repair station, to the women's shelter, to the prisons, to the schools and offer a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus Christ, or a bike or a bag of beans or a letter or anything we've got that says "once you were no people, but now you are God's people."

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Today I got a letter in the mail.  This is what it said:
Dearest Gail,
First, I hope that you have been kind to yourself in these last few weeks.  Keep a gentle space for your soul to stay vital and alive.  Know when to stop.  Make space and don't let the seemingly good and urgent things squeeze out the really important moments and the depth of who you truly are.  Those deep spaces are the spaces from which you can give to the world.  Others know you have a lot to offer, and they will suck you dry and unknowingly offend and violate the parts of your life needed to cultivate strong habits of the heart.  Be the fierce protector of your own sacred Circle of Trust.  Practice boldly.  Speak truth and hold tensions but hold them lightly.

Breath in.  Breathe out.  Let it Go.  (from the Carrie Newcomer song).

Yep, I wrote that to myself.  Sigh.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Why I pay $20 to see other people's children dance

This afternoon I went to a dance show entitled, "Dance Changes Everything" at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore, California.  It featured "upper division" dancers from a local dance company who range in ages 8 to 18, I am guessing.  I don't really know.  I have no children in the company.  I have no grandchildren in the company.  I have no cousins, co-workers' children or neighbors in the dance company.   The closest I come to knowing anyone dancing with this group is a friend from long ago whose daughter happens to be a dancer.  I have never met her, but I decided to go and support my friend and the arts and these young people.

At the beginning of the show, I was already a weepy mess as they played a video at the beginning of each half that featured children, mostly girls, telling about how dance had changed their lives.  Most of them said it was fun, gave them more confidence, helped them reduce stress, introduced them to new friends, made them stronger physically, challenged them, gave them bruises or chronic back pain, or helped them express themselves in new and different ways.  I am sure all of the above is true, but it was not really the content that moved me.  Instead, I was taken by the diversity of sizes, shapes, voices, personalities, ages and more.  Remember, I don't really know anyone in this show, and this happened before the dancing even started.

It was a long program and I was puzzling for the longest time trying to pick out my friend's daughter, and I finally did.  At that point I relaxed a bit more and was able to focus on the program as a whole.   What I noticed most was how many of the dancers were having a really good time.  The music choices were great and most of the choreography was really smart and appropriate for the music and the dancers.  Once in a while I was a bit uncomfortable with the cheekiness and the sexiness for the age of dancers, but not that much.  I was also struck by how great it is that the arts are appealing to this many young men and women.  What really choked me was thinking about their stories.  I had heard them speak generically about how dance had changed their lives, but how had it really?  I started to wonder if any of them struggled with eating disorders or body images?  How many of them were experiencing divorces and other relationship turmoil in their homes?  Any of them using drugs or around those who are using drugs?  How many of them strive to be the best dancers and the best students to make up for all the ways the feel "not good enough" or "not pretty enough" or "not as smart as" all the rest?

From there, my mind drifted to a video that was not playing.  "Church Changes Everything"  I am not sure when I last heard a person, especially a young person, tell me that the church changed their life, spoke into their lives that gave them more confidence, helped them face the stress and limitations of everyday life or was just plain FUN!  I think I used to hear that more than I do now.  I seriously sat there and wondered out of the 50+ young people in that show, how many of them went to any sort of religious institution on a regular basis.  10%? 20%? More?  Less?  Are most people in that age range more likely to say that dance, soccer, baseball, violin, drama, cheer or ? changed their lives than church?  I wonder....

I keep looking and searching and seeking and praying for the church that can be the Feature Presentation of many lives where people would go on camera and tell the world how "Church Changed My Life" because the church showed forth the light of Christ and not just changed lives, but transformed them.    Until I do, I'll keep showing up and paying $20 to see other people's children dance because maybe that is where Jesus would have me be.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Resurrection Happened, Happens and Still Needs to Happen

A very long time ago, I was on staff at the Community UCC Church of San Carlos, CA.  I worked for any amazing woman who was the pastor there, the Rev. Diane Dulin.  I've often mused that while I was there as both youth director and church secretary, I learned more about ministry and the life and role of the pastor than in any seminary course or workshop or training session.  One of the things I remember in great detail is my own role of typing  her sermons for her every week.  She was meticulous, organized and I could sense the care and heart that she put into all of her sermons.  One week, when we were conversing, she mentioned to me that one of the parishoners commented to her as they were exiting the sanctuary after a Sunday morning worship, saying in a rather skeptical and chiding tone, "You preach these sermons like you really BELIEVE that stuff in the Bible."  (a bit of a paraphrase after all these years, I'm sure)  She was somewhat bemused but also a bit saddened by the comment.  In my naivete and late-20s, I was horrified!

Well, that was over 25 years ago.  Since then, I've seen a lot more that would argue against what is in Scripture, lived a lot more life that would suggest that most of the Scripture is hogwash and wondered a lot about the role of miracles and prayer and all sorts of theological doctrine in our everyday lives.    On this weekend, I find myself wondering about the Resurrection.  When I preach it, do I have people out in the congregation who could exclaim to me, "You preached that sermon like you really believe the Resurrection!"?  I hope so, because, I really do believe it is the core and center of all that holds our lives and our faith together, my life and my faith.    When the disciples and the women reached the tomb, their own lives were crumbling, and they were probably asking a lot of the same questions we were asking.  It wasn't just that their best friend, teacher, brother, child or mentor had just died.  The world around them was in turmoil.  Their own lives were threatened.  They probably didn't know what to think or say or believe.  Some ran scared, others betrayed, others denied and some returned to tell the story.

Today, we see evidence of the need for Resurrection nearly everywhere we turn.  All creation moans and groans and waits for new life.  Wars and rumors of wars seem never to cease.  Walls divide and look impermeable.  Diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS and heart disease appear nearly incurable.  Addictions, abuse, and mental illness gets mentioned in hushed and secretive tones.  Droughts, unseasonable storms and all types of severe weather phenomena are commonplace.  All of God's children are still not treated as equals and their love is not honored as equal love. 

We also know stories where the impossible and improbable overcome light in the shadows, tales of empty tombs, and witnessed accounts of love defeating hatred and fear.  This very day, the Klan scheduled to march in Memphis and just across town people are meeting at an anti-racism conference.  All over people are marching, running, biking, hiking, walking and pledging to fund research and treatment for diseases like AIDS, cancer, MS, ALS, Diabetes, etc.  People like Rosalyn Carter speak up for people with mental illness and speak to the systems that can provide assistance and interpretation.  Physical walls like the Berlin Wall and virtual ones like Aparthied in South Africa have crumbled into the past.  Wars have ended.  Warring neighbors have reconciled.  Love has found a way where there has been no way.

Tomorrow, I hope and pray that someone, anyone, if even just one, will in some small way, hear the meager and frightfully inadequate words of this preacher and be able to say "It sounds like you really believe this Resurrection story." and "Christ is Risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!"  Past, present and future....

Friday, March 15, 2013

March Madness

If you come to our house in the next several weeks, there is a pretty good chance that you will find us watching a college basketball game, or at least that one is playing on one of our two televisions as background to something else that we are doing.  Yes, as a Christian pastor, I know that we are in the season of Lent, but we are also in the season most commonly and fondly known as March Madness, leading up to the Final Four tournament and the crowning of the NCAA Division 1 basketball champs. 

Another thing that you will figure out, if you spend any time in conversation with me, is that I am going through my own March Madness.  There has been a lot of transition in my life in the last year, and I and God decided that we should just turn everything upside down and inside out all at once.  Some of my closest friends have suggested that the last year and a half since my cancer and staph infection have made me much more definitive and decisive when it comes to how I will spend my time remaining on this earthly plane, regardless of the length.  I think that is probably true. 

This week, a letter went to my congregation letting them know that I will be ending my five and a half year ministry there and that I am moving into a 3/4 time interim associate position at First Presbyterian Church of Livermore.   I have wrestled with the uncertainty of this but the theme of joy that I am carrying with me through this Lent was actually one of the biggest deciding factors.  When I met with the search committee at Livermore, the resounding theme of our conversation was genuine, free and infectious laughter.  I still hear it echoing in my soul.  If you know me at all, you know that I require a certain amount of laughter in my day. 

Don't get me wrong, there has been joy in my current call.  However, in the last couple of years, grief and loss have been a more predominant theme.  I have been so privileged to walk with so many people in their times of illness, loss and recovery.  It just is a lot to carry alone.  I've learned in this solo pastor call that it is not for the faint of heart and it probably is not the role best suited for me.  I sincerely like being "the boss" but I don't like doing the job alone.  I need other peers around me who compliment my own gifts and growing edges and people who will collaborate with me on a regular base to plan, solve problems and, yes, laugh!

I had no idea when I put on this bracelet this Lent, that God would use the word "joy" to change my life in such profound ways.  I am thinking God might have a slight grin on Her face as well!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Performance Anxiety

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday.  First day of Lent.  Time to reflect and take on new practices or let go of things that block us from knowing God and self.  40 days in the Wilderness.  And on and on it goes.  My Facebook wall and Twitter feed were abuzz with all sorts of ideas and practices upon which people are embarking this Lenten season.  I was intrigued and for a few hours, I was nearly trapped into pulling out of my own Lenten pledge to simply "Be" and respond in the moment this Lent.  Why is that, you may or may not ask?

I believe it is a deeply seeded anxiety I have that I must always be performing at the highest level and seeking to attain achievements that will prove my worth and justify my existence on this earth.  So, there is and was an enormous TEMPTATION for me to run out and sign up for an online Lenten retreat, make sure I have my camera with me each day to take a Lenten photograph, journal my thoughts and feelings, read everyone's online Lenten reflection, and on and on and on.  However, I caught myself in the nick of time.  My inner voice finally yelled at me to STOP!   I realize that I have a commitment and I need to stick to it.

After all, this is not about anyone else.  Lent, more than any other season, really does challenge us to say, "this is all about me!"  Me and Thee.  So, I stand by my challenge and discipline to hang with the moment, to respond to each challenge, joy, problem, defeat, victory, etc. with a thoughtful, prayerful and accepting attitude.  I am going to walk through my Lenten desert one step at a time, one foot in front of the other, minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day.  It's really all any of us can do.  I'll let all the cool kids outdo me with their Lenten disciplines this year.  I think this attitudinal shift will be more than enough challenge for me.  Hopefully when the challenge is too great, some angels will come and attend to me. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Gearing up for Lent

I am taking an opportunity to make official my plans for observing Lent this year.  Lent has never been my favorite season of the church year, as it has always seemed so dark and foreboding.  For some it hearkens to the days of fish on Fridays, regular fasting and giving up something really, really good in order to become closer to God, examine one's own earthly existence, or to spend time praying and reflecting upon the upcoming events of the life of Christ, the betrayal, the agony, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. The whole confusing and ugly lot of it.  For others, it is a time to cease singing Alleluias.  And for still others, well, with all the talk of nones and the unaffiliated believers in our communities, I guess it means very little.

This year has started out as one for me that already seems very Lenten like.  Our congregation has witnessed a preponderance of death and illness.  Our church as an institution, along with many, many others, is shivering in the cold, cruel realities of decline through aging and death, as well as the not uncommon case of inability to draw enough new membership to compensate for the losses.  All of this is enough to make any organization and its leader discouraged.  Of course, we are not facing persecution and crucifixion at the levels experienced by Jesus, but it still can bring a body down.

In my own personal life, in the past 12 months I (along with my family), have remodeled a home and staged to sell our home of 10 years, sold a=the house, bought a home, moved, remodeled (still in process) the new house, said goodbye to our family dog, mourned the death of my mother, and embarked upon a long and arduous process to reclaim a healthy and happy weight for this 53 year old body.  So, between the professional and the personal losses and sacrifices, I'm taking a stand this Lent!  I am not giving up anything more than I already am (least of all wine or dark chocolate), and although it has been popular in recent years to take on a new spiritual practice such as centering prayer, daily devotions, fasting or service, I am not going to do that either.  Instead, I have a different plan. 

My plan is simply to change my attitude.  Sounds easy, huh?  Well, a while back when things seemed particularly grim, I found this box at a gift store.  I bought it and posted a picture and it sits in my room as a reminder.  Lately, I've been bored with my glum and self-centered attitude.  So, I pray this simple proverb will be my daily guide. 

My own adaptations would be to add a few more proverbs to this.   I also want to talk less and listen more, take less and give more, laugh more and cry more, die less and live more.  And when death occurs, I will believe more and more fully the power of resurrection.  After all, our Brief Statement of Faith in the Presbyterian Church (USA) opens with these words, "In life and in death we belong to God," and Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in the 2nd Century, “Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God.” Another translation says: “The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7).  In all that is and all that I am and all that will be, may I behold life and God.  May it be so this Lent 2013. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Some of my reasons for deciding to quit my Dmin. program

2013 has already been an interesting year and we are not even 1/12 of the way into it.  50% of the month I spent in the Greater Atlanta area for the 3rd installment and 4th course in my Doctor of Ministry program in Gospel and Culture at Columbia Theological Seminary.  This most recent course was Eucharist of Crumbs:  Women and Vocation in the Medieval Church.  The course was fine, but not really the highlight of my time there.   I am much more intrigued to spend extended time talking to other ministers and friends from across the country to find out what they are doing to survive the pastorate and expand the gospel in whatever ways they are able.  I enjoy the alternative to my own West Coast sensibilities...getting out of the familiar and noticing what is different and what is the same in another part of the country.  Oh, and to simply be and not be responsible for family, food and flock for a time is good for the soul. 

What I am not loving, frankly, is the program.  I'm not all that excited about the course work.  I have lots of ideas for growing my own ministry and projects and creative endeavors for myself, but none of them really seem to add up to a 400 hour practicum, and I'm not at all interested in writing up some "exercise" in a 35 page paper.  I am adding all this up to the fact that I am practical.  I don't really see the grand benefit of doing a 20 page paper on a medieval woman and a small pericope of her writing so that I can analyze her history, culture and theology, and then, at the very end, propose a tiny little bit of how I might use this in my ministry, which frankly, I'm pretty doubtful that I can. 

Churches all over the country are in crises, and our small church here in Contra County is no exception.  Theresa Cho, former moderator of San Francisco Presbytery, says that we are closing five Presbyterian churches per week.  This sort of urgency is another reason that I just don't feel I have the time or additional energy to expend on the luxury of academic pursuits.  I need to seek out my own Doctorate.  Perhaps it is sort of a Doctorate of the Street, rather than a Doctor of Ministry. 

All if this started to hit me pretty hard on the plan ride from Atlanta to SFO.  I should have been reading and working on Christine de Pisan's "Book of the City of Ladies," but instead, I could not pull myself away from Phyllis Tickle's "Emergence Christianity."  My office table is piled with Jossey Bass, Alban and Abingdon books on leadership, times of transition and church growth.   I'm trying to see if I can make peace with and find merits in "Building a Discipling Culture" by Mike Breen and Steve Cockram. 

On a personal note, I am also reminded that I'm not growing younger.  My time is limited on this planet and there is so much that gives me life, hope and energy, that I don't really have time to spend doing something that does give me a sense of doing something that really matters and in which I am fully invested.   A wonderful parishoner who has ALS reminded me of this just today when she said via Facebook, "believe me. time is short here on earth. spend it being happy and laughing."   I just don't need more letters in my title.  I need more inspiration and energy and innovation to face the challenges of the calling to which I have been called.  I trust that God has something in store!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

It's a new day, it's a new year

I am not all that fond of New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, the whole resolution setting and all the rest that comes with this time of year.  I do like new calendars and still buy a paper one for the wall, though the days of a fresh day timer with all those clean, blank pages as been replaced by my ever rotating electronic modes of keeping track of appointments.  Over the years, I have found that the resolutions or goals that I have set at other times of the year have been more successful or held over time.  I'm a bit unsure why that is, but I have a sneaking suspicion it is due to my stubbornness against doing things when everyone else is doing them, this is why I dislike "the Wave,"  never saw or read Dan Brown's book, "The DaVinci Code" and well, tend not to make resolutions around New Year's Day!

On the other hand, I feel as a person of faith and a person who leads others on that journey, I should have a sense of hope and to be able to articulate that for myself and to others.  So, allow me to be idealistic and non-specific, as I share some of my hopes for 2013
1.  Peace in the places and people who need it the most
2.  Reduced abuse of this earth we call home
3.  Flourishing of the arts in all its forms and mediums
4.  A clearer sense toward where the Holy Spirit is moving the church and/or what new forms of the church may be emerging
5.  An increased number of children to know that they are loved and cared for
6.  A greater sense of mutual understanding in the Middle East
7.  For most of us to be glad that the Mayan calendar was incorrect or misguided
8.  Less political posturing in all human institutions
9.  Reconciliation
10.  And finally, very specific and entirely frivolous, I hope there is less of me.  Hmmm, maybe that is both literal and metaphoric, in which case, it could also be less frivolous than I originallyy thought!

At first read, you may think these are cop-outs because they don't seem as specific or self-directed as goals or resolutions, but I find them more motivating.  If I am truly serious about these hopes, then I will do everything in my power to act in ways that might contribute to them, whether they be big or small or possibly even fail.  I also am more motivated by them because except for number 10, they don't feel like all the other resolutions people are setting out at the beginning of the year.  Remember, I am very stubborn. 

 Happy New Year to all!