Friday, August 24, 2007

Requiem for New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina - Picture Originally uploaded by Mary-Jane Maybury

We recently watched Spike Lee's documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" which is about the devastation brought to New Orleans and the surrounding area by Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of the levees around the city. This coming week marks the second anniversary of that tragedy, and as we watched this four hour documentary, I was reminded of what a horrible, appalling event that was. As the headlines fade, we tend to forget about the devastation, the human suffering, the injustice. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend that you watch it. I promise it will open your eyes, break your heart, and make you mad.

Two weeks ago we blessed three people from our congregation who were evacuees from New Orleans following Katrina, and who are now returning to their homes there. Hildebrand, Bill and Evelyn are all in their 80's, but they are strong, brave, proud people with deep roots in New Orleans, and although we will miss them greatly, I am so glad they are going back home. New Orleans needs people like them in order to rebuild, and our prayers go with them.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Leaving Church

This summer I read a book that really made me stop and think--about my life, my vocation, about the church. It's called Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopalian priest and one of the best preachers alive today. In this book she recounts how and why she went into ordained ministry, and why after 20 years, she left the local church to teach religion at a small liberal arts college in Georgia. This book came out a while ago and to be honest I have been afraid to read it--afraid that I would resonate with it too much, perhaps; or afraid that it would make me question my own sense of call and commitment to the local church. And it did. But as it turns out, that's not such a bad thing.Because every now and then it's important to re-evaluate why you're doing something and if it's still where God is calling you to be.

Brown Taylor writes that although she went into the ministry because she loved God and wanted to be as close to the Holy as possible, she found that much of the time in ministry she was so busy doing God's work, she lost that mystical connection with God that comes from just being, which was what drew her into ministry in the first place. I can relate to that. I accepted a call into the ministry because I love God, and I love people. But there are plenty of things in the church that aren't about God at all, and there are lots of people who are pretty tough to love.

But I also learned some things from her story about how to keep from getting burned out on church (and, by the way, I think this goes for anyone who's deeply involved in a church, and not just ordained clergy). First, take time to do the things that remind you of why you answered a call to ministry in the first place. For me, that means going on a VIM trip to Louisiana in October (even though at 7 months pregnant I won't be the biggest help). My call came to me through the experiences of mission/social justice work, and I need to reconnect with that passion again.

The second thing I learned (and this one is more for the clergy out there, than for the laity) is that, while ministry requires you to be everyone's pastor, you also need to let yourself have relationships with people who feed your soul, even within the church. Brown Taylor writes: "...I wound up with a couple I had always thought I would enjoy but whom I never really got to know since they did not serve on any committees and were never, as far as I knew, in crisis. We sat down in adjacent rocking chairs with plates full of lobster and corn balanced on our laps, laughing so much that I spit food clear across the porch. I did not wonder why I had not sought them out earlier because I already knew the answer. By my rules, caring for troubled people always took precedence over enjoying delightful people, and the line of troubled people never ended. Sitting there with corn stuck between my teeth, I wondered why I had not changed that rule sooner." Being everyone's pastor, means everyone. The troubled people, and the delightful people. Don't forget the people who are easy to love, too, because in reality they usually out number those who make it hard.

The other really important thing I took away from this book was Brown Taylor's understanding of the church as one who had been deeply inside it, and now, after leaving, felt like more of an outsider. She writes: "The clear message was that...God lived in the world. If churches saw their mission in the same way, there is no telling what might happen. What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they were doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church's job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?"

Really...what if?

I highly recommend this book--especially for pastors--but for anyone who has struggled with the church. It has given me a lot to think about. And no, I'm not leaving church. And even more importantly, I have been reminded about why I am staying.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Faith Night Follow-up: Report from the Field

So, last Sunday afternoon Marcus, Nora and I join my friend from seminary, Amy-Ellen and her boyfriend Jason at the Washington Nationals vs. St. Louis Cardinals Baseball game which had been designated as "Faith Night." As I said before, this was actually a coincidence. We weren't there for "Faith Night," even though we are, I suppose, part of the marketing demographic for this sort of thing given that we are Christians. But we were there mainly because of Marcus and Amy-Ellen's inexplicable (in my opinion) love for the St. Louis Cardinals.

But since I wrote about this previously, I thought I would offer a little follow up here.

First of all, the big deal that some people were making about the Washington Nationals "endorsing" this "Christian" event was in my mind totally blown out of proportion. A mountain out of a molehill, I would say. Because during the entire game there wasn't even a single reference to any church (except the church of baseball, of course). There wasn't anyone handing out tracts. There were no Veggie Tale characters mixing it up with the presidents, no Bible verses displayed on the big screen. The only thing that might count was that the contemporary Christian band Mercy Me sang "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch. But they ALWAYS sing that song at that point in the game, and at least Mercy Me sounded good. (Sometimes it isn't even in tune--making it that much more painful.)

Secondly, unless you already knew about the "Faith Night" event that was to take place after the game, you never would have had known it was going on. In fact, as far as I could tell, unless you had already bought your ticket to the concert in advance, you couldn't even stay afterwards for the concert! Which, I think, proves my earlier point, that this was not an effective evangelization tool; this was about marketing Christianity to people who have already bought in. Faith Night was for the already converted. Church groups and individual Christians who heard about the event on the Christian radio stations were the ones who bought the tickets. The two drunks sitting in front of us, the ones who (OK, let me make an assumption here) may really need to hear about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, had no idea about Faith Night, and even if they had, they didn't have tickets to the concert, so too bad for them.

Now, some people that I really like and respect commented on my previous post that "God can use all things for good" and that faith night, though it might be a bit crass and commercial, might offer the opportunity for someones life to be changed. And that's a good point--who am I to doubt the power of God.

I for one would never say that we self-professing Christians don't need need to have our faith strengthened by events like these, if that's what works for you. It's also possible that some good church-going Christians brought some of their seeker friends with them, and maybe that made a connection--I think that kind of person-to-person evangelism is the most effective kind anyway. But as for "Faith Night" being somehow exclusive to people of other faiths, and as for it being some great opportunity for searching people to come to Christ, well, I'm still not buying it.