Thursday, December 30, 2004

Thoughts at the End of the Year

You will see beneath this post one that just has a capital T. Such are the vagaries of working with a laptop (brand name I won't mention) that does weird things with the cursor should your hand inadvertently wander around in the vicinity of the touchpad. (If you own one of this brand, you probaby know exactly what I am talking about.) The capital T was as far as I got with this post...then it decided to post, and nothing could stop it or delete it. Be careful what you write on the Internet!

Thoughts at the end of the year...

I am still recovering from surgery, not as quickly as I would like. I am an energetic person, and this forced incapacity does not sit well with me. I want to get back to work and play and all the things I normally do. It is a humbling experience to have to ask someone to take out your garbage because you can't drag that big can down your 200-foot driveway. Midlife is an adjustment; old age is going to be really, really hard.

I have been working on a sermon series for January. I generally work from something called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a selection of scripture readings for each week of the church year; it runs in a three-year cycle. This is year A. Each week's readings include an Old Testament lesson, a passage from the Writings (generally a psalm), a reading from the Epistles (New Testament), and a Gospel lesson. For the first four weeks of January, I'm going to preach a series on "New Year, New Life." New life in Christ, that is. These passages for the next month have so many references to hope and newness and God's promises. One of my seminary professors was always talking about "God's radical newness" and I am unashamedly borrowing the phrase for one of my sermons. It is so easy to think of the Bible as a dusty old book with nothing new to say to our modern day world...or to be so frightened by a world that is changing rapidly that one insists that the text have only one meaning, only one way to look at it, and that God has nothing new to say to us.

God's promises are new every morning. There are new discoveries, new insights to be found in scripture even today, if one will only be open to them. There is still that strange dimension to reading scripture that we call the Holy Spirit, which scares the hooey out of a lot of folks in my denomination because it tends to defy control and definition. But we do believe that the Spirit -- also known as the breath, or ruach, of God -- inspired the people who wrote the Bible and inspires the people who read it, even today.

The first chapter of Genesis says that when God began to create the world, the spirit, or breath, of God moved across the waters. That's the Hebrew word ruach. The Greeks call it pneuma. When Jesus talks about sending the Spirit to the disciples in John's gospel, that word is pneuma. Powerful thing, that Spirit of God, and not to be ignored. Maybe more on that later.

A new year is coming. In many ways, January 1 is going to look a lot like December 31, I predict, but in other ways, it can be a time of newness, if we will only let it.

Pastor Kathy


Wednesday, December 22, 2004

What to read when you're recovering from surgery

As I was headed to the doctor two weeks ago (with a hunch that she would put me in the hospital), I stopped at the mailbox at the end of the driveway. My package from had arrived. It contained a set of DVDs of The Vicar of Dibley and a novel. I began reading the novel in the hospital. I started watching the DVDs after I got home and, sad to say, the Vicar of Dibley's jokes began to wear thin on me after about four episodes. Your mileage may vary.

But the book has proved to be quite the choice during my recovery. It is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, published in 1996 (New York: Fawcett Books, 408 pp.). Technically it's science fiction; as you see by my profile I am a science fiction fan -- Return of the Jedi is one of my favorite movies (not for the blaster battles, but for Luke's struggle to understand his father and to deal with his own dark side). But The Sparrow is about a lot more than science fiction.

In a way, it kind of takes the premise of Contact and runs in a whole different direction with it. Sometime around 2019, radio signals are received from somewhere in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. It turns out the signals are music. There is much excitement in the scientific community about this. And then a private group decides to launch a secret expedition to find the senders of the music.

And who is this private group? Think for a minute. Who were some of the great explorers of North America, around the seventeenth century, who are still around today? The Jesuits. Yes, the Jesuits decide to launch a mission to Alpha Centauri. My first reaction was, in this day and age, if any "Christian" organization decided to do such a thing, the only ones that would have that kind of money would be the televangelists. I can see Brother Billy Bob Whoosis on tv doing a big fund raising telethon to raise money to bring the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to the heathens of Alpha Centauri. But the book makes a quite logical case for the Jesuits doing this: their long history of intellectual inquiry and exploration. The author makes it all somehow make sense. In my hometown, the Jesuits operate an outstanding high school and a well-known university, so even though I am not a Catholic, I am well aware of their reputation.

So, a team of four Jesuit priests and four laypeople go to Alpha Centauri, and they do find intelligent life there. From the beginning of the novel (the book is arranged in flashbacks), we understand that only one priest survived the mission, and he has been badly injured and traumatized by what happened on the planet. The book is his story. But it's not just about a science fiction expedition to another planet. It's about one man's faith journey and how he comes to a deeper relationship with God -- and it's not all wonderful. He is a broken man. Somehow, starting to read the book as I began to heal from my surgery, I could identify with him.

So -- I commend this book to you. I haven't finished it yet, but it is powerful reading, and I don't think the ending will let me down.

Jesuits in outer space. Who woulda thunk it?

Pastor Kathy

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Life Is What Happens...

You have heard it said: "Life is what happens to you when you are making other plans." Two weeks ago, exactly halfway through the season of Advent, my plans got turned upside down. God tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Pastor Kathy, I'm taking you out of the game for awhile."

What started as a bad bellyache never went away, and after three days I ended up in the hospital. The following morning I was having exploratory surgery. Turned out I had appendicitis. Of all the things I might have had on a list of "dread diseases I worry about getting in my lifetime," that one wasn't on it. I had a good surgeon and it was all over before I had time to work myself into a lather about it. It's just the recovery that's taking forever.

At midlife, you give thanks that you're not, well, seventy or eighty years old. You can still get yourself to the bathroom after surgery and manage a shower by yourself after a couple of days. But when the surgeon tells you, "Just remember, you're not twenty years old anymore. It's going to take some time for you to recover," well, it doesn't do the ego a whole lot of good.

After three days, I came home. Friends helped me with ordinary stuff that was suddenly outside my ability to handle: like taking out the garbage, and even tying my shoes. (I never want to have a hysterectomy.) I settled in on the sofa for the duration.

The night I started hallucinating on the pain meds (I can't believe some people use hydrocodone as a recreational drug), that was the end of them. It was pretty tough trying to get by on Advil after that, but I didn't have the slightest interest in going back to la-la land, where I couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't. After a couple of days I was able to get up, shower, wash my hair, and put on clean clothes. I felt like the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8) after he had been healed by Jesus: clothed and in my right mind and sitting at Jesus' feet. The story says that when the people of his community saw the healed demoniac, they were scared out of their minds and asked Jesus to leave them. Anyone with that kind of power, to cast demons into swine and send them over a cliff, might get mad at them one day and turn on them. Jesus was about as welcome as a nuclear power plant. So he left. The healed demoniac begged him, "Pleeease take me with you" (beam me up, Scotty, there's no intelligent life down here?) but Jesus told him to stay in his community and tell everyone what God had done for him. And he did.

When God knocks you on your rear end exactly halfway through one of the busiest seasons of the church year, you know it's no accident. The best thing you can say at that point is what the old prophet Eli told the boy Samuel to say to the voice speaking to him: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." And so I did. God and I have had some interesting conversations this week. Had I not been immobilized on the sofa, I might not have been listening.

I haven't given up on the blog. I just haven't been able to sit at the computer for two weeks. I'm back in action. Stay tuned!

Pastor Kathy

Thursday, December 02, 2004

I didn't take that course

Ever since I graduated from seminary, I have been threatening to write a set of encyclopedias called "Things They Didn't Teach Us in Seminary." I think most ministers starting out have their own outlines for a set of encylopedias on this subject. They don't teach you how many rehearsals to have for a children's Christmas pageant or when is the best time to schedule them, for instance.

Seminary teaches you Greek and Hebrew and Bible and theology and the history of Christianity and pastoral care and that sort of thing. To my surprise, apparently a lot of people in congregations think seminary teaches you how to read minds. My least favorite comment to hear is, "But I thought you knew." I thought you knew X was in the hospital. I thought you knew X died two days ago. As if this information were magically transmitted over the airwaves into the minister's brain by, say, the Holy Spirit. Dang, I didn't take that course in seminary.

I have a phone at church, a phone at home, a cell phone -- and voice mail on all of them, so that you can leave a message even if the line is busy. Also email, at home and at the church. And yet I am told, far too often, "We couldn't get hold of you." Often I am told this by someone who has caller ID but no answering machine or voice mail -- and yes, I do know that these people screen their calls and sometimes don't pick up when they see it's me calling.

"But we came by the church and you weren't there." No, I was out in the world, doing ministry. I was at the hospital or the nursing home, or I was at a member's home or office, or I was at a meeting of a community organization. I may have been dealing with a confidential pastoral care situation that I can't discuss with you. Leave me a message and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. That thing in your house: it's called a telephone. Use it.

Sorry, this is a rant. A brief one. Mind reading does not come with ordination. God knows what goes on in the human heart, but I am not God (thank God) and I don't. I can have a hunch (I am a solid "intuitive" on the Myers-Briggs scale) but I am often way, way wrong.

Tomorrow: another subject they didn't teach me in seminary.

Pastor Kathy

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Even more about media...

A continuation on musings about children, the media, and Jesus:

In the last post, I wrote of a review of a book called The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust by Mark Pinsky (Westminster John Knox Press). Let me be clear on this one point: I am not slamming Disney characters. I am a genuine, first-generation member of the Mickey Mouse Club. It drove my mother nuts when my little friends and I vaulted over the living room sofa in our muddy shoes to land in front of the early-1950s-era Philco TV at 4:30 every weekday afternoon to sing the Mickey Mouse Club song. I loved all the cartoon characters. I loved Spin and Marty. I loved "Lady and the Tramp." You name it. I am not, repeat not, slamming Disney characters. I am just concerned that our kids may be more familiar with Disney characters than they are with Jesus.

In his book, Pinsky says that images of Disney characters are "far more recognizable around the world than images of Jesus or the Buddha." And that is scary.

He also says that there is a kind of gospel associated with the stories: "Good is always rewarded; evil is always punished. Faith is an essential element -- faith in yourself and, even more, faith in something *greater* than yourself, some higher power. Optimism and hard work complete the basic canon."

Well, OK, nothing wrong with those values, I guess. I mean, when we teach our children the story of David and Goliath in Vacation Bible School, that's pretty much the core of it. But the story of Christianity has a whole lot more to it than that. I have told my congregation that if Hollywood had written the story of Jesus, he sure wouldn't have ended up dying on a cross. Peter, after denying him three times, would have gotten so disgusted with himself that he would have rallied, gathered the other disciples, and staged a commando raid on the Roman soldiers on the way to Golgotha and rescued Jesus. I kinda favor Bruce Willis as Peter. I'm not sure who would play Jesus. Maybe Will Smith.

But it didn't happen that way. Jesus died. And then there was that weird morning at the tomb, when the women thought they saw something. It's always the women, huh?

In my own church, I fret because parents aren't bringing their children to Sunday School. Somehow they can get the kids to school on Monday morning at 7:30, but they can't get them to Sunday school at 9:45. How are they going to learn about Jesus if they don't take part in Christian education? They sure learn a lot in front of the TV set and playing video games. The parents tell me, "If the kids wanted to come, we'd bring them." Somehow that argument falls apart when Monday morning rolls around. Very few kids actually want to go to school, but their parents darn sure make them go.

I don't know what to say. My Catholic friends in my community tell me there is still a vestige of belief among some parents that if their kids aren't baptized and confirmed in the church, they'll go to hell. That's a nice motivator to get them there, but it has never been part of my denomination's belief system. I suspect we need to work on the parents in order to get the kids to Sunday school. It's one hour a week. How many hours do they spend in front of the TV?

I have been told by some of my readers that they can't post comments to this blog. Not sure why. Apparently there is something I haven't figured out yet as far as setting it up. Those of you who know how to get in touch with me, please send me your comments. Any ideas you have on kids and the church will be much appreciated!

Pastor Kathy

P.S. Update on an earlier post: Robert Blake's show about Father Hardstep was called "Hell Town."

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

More Media Musings

Many years ago, back in the sixties, I think it was, John Lennon commented in an interview that he guessed the Beatles were probably more popular than Jesus at that time. What a firestorm of outraged protest that remark produced! Christian groups publicly burned Beatles records, Lennon was denounced as some kind of monster (well, he caught a lot of that in those days), etc., etc. True, coming out of his mouth, those words sounded like the most egotistical statement imaginable. But also true, Lennon was probably right. A lot of people (or even fictional characters) popularized in the mass media are so well known around the world that yes, in this secular age we live in, it's quite likely that they are better known than Jesus.

A quick history lesson. Back in the 1950s and 1960s in America, "the norm" ( if I dare say such a thing) was that people went to church on Sundays. Families got dressed up, they brought their children to Sunday School, they all went to worship. Stores were closed on Sundays. There were no kids' soccer games on Sunday (not that any kids in America were playing soccer back then.) In some communities, even the movie theaters were closed.

But then things started to change. I am not going to venture any chicken-or-egg theories here, but stores began to be open on Sundays, professional football began to dominate Sunday afternoons, people began to work all sorts of different schedules and sometimes had to work on Sundays (or Sunday was their only day off and they had to do errands), etc. And people began going to church less often. The children whose parents brought them to Sunday school in the 1950s and 1960s grew up and had children of their own, and they didn't bring them to Sunday school or church. And now those children are grown and have children of their own, and guess what? Some of them may not only have never gone to church, they may never have heard of Jesus.

But all of these children have grown up in front of the TV set, and they do know all the TV characters, really well. They may not know any church hymns, but they do know all the popular songs of their generation. Today's children may not know who John Lennon was, but they sure do know Britny Spears (and I don't even know if I spelled that right!). In today's world, there are probably a lot of people (and fictional characters) that are better known than Jesus.

In the November 16 issue of the magazine The Christian Century, Jason Byassee writes about "Pop Pulpits": the struggle of the preacher to present the message of Jesus Christ to a congregation accustomed to the pyrotechnics of mass media hype. He suggests, without coming out and saying these exact words, that maybe for kids today, Mickey Mouse is more real than Jesus. In reviewing a new book called "The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust," Byasee suggests there is sort of a "Disney gospel" to be found in the movies and TV shows produced by Disney: "a consistent set of moral and human values" that are presented with "scarcely a mention of God." Is it possible that an entire generation has grown up with its values learned at the feet of Mickey Mouse rather than Jesus?

This is a thought on which I have more to say than I have time to write at the moment. Stay tuned for further musings.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Role Models, Not from Real Life

Last night I watched some (not all) of a four-hour epic on Bravo TV called "The 100 Greatest TV Characters." It was fun to reminisce as I watched clips from some old favorite shows from the 1950s through the present day. But afterward, I reflected, there was not one minister on the list! (I didn't see them all, so I could be wrong, but I don't think so, as the theme song from "Monk" goes -- another of my favorite TV characters.) Dang!

I do think we ministers have gotten a bad rap over the years on TV, and I'm not talking about the "real-life" TV preachers. (That's a subject for another blog.) I mean the fictional ones. As I think back over my TV experience, I come up with a few names of TV preachers that might have been candidates for role models. Or not.

1. Rev. Trask from "Dark Shadows." If you watched this soap-opera-turned-vampire-story, you know they jumped around from time period to time period, going back to the 1700s, so some version or other of Trask turned up in different centuries. Rev. Trask was, I am sorry to say, pure evil. He had poor little Victoria Winters arrested for witchcraft and all sorts of things. He was suspicious of everybody. He was the epitome of the close-minded religious type (I can't bring myself to use the word Christian here) who finds no joy whatsoever in faith but uses "belief" to try to hammer everyone else into a mold of his own creation. Some role model for ministry.

2. Father Mulcahy from "M*A*S*H*." Quite the opposite of Trask, Father Mulcahy was a good-hearted soul who really loved the Lord and cared about the people in his unit. But the poor dear always seemed to be clueless. Hawkeye and the gang saw the absurdity of trying to be healers in the middle of a war whose objective was to destroy life, and they developed a system for dealing with the insanity of it so it didn't drive them crazy. Father Mulcahy doesn't seem to be a part of their system, just a minor character floating around on the outside, trying to offer a helpful word here and there but never quite getting it. Hawkeye made the top 100 TV characters list. Father Mulcahy didn't.

3. Robert Blake as Father Hardstep. Dang, I'm forgetting the name of the show. He played a tough, gritty priest in an inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood back in the '80s. Yeah, we like a priest who can shoot pool and struggle with his feelings for a woman he knew before he went into the priesthood. But Father Hardstep was probably a little too, er, secular for most folks.

4. Father Tim of the Mitford series of books. OK, I haven't seen Father Tim on TV yet, although maybe someone has made some movies-for-cable based on the books (I have a vague recollection that someone has). Actually, Father Tim's not bad as a fictional priest -- I think he's supposed to be Episcopal. Someone introduced me to him when I first came into my small-town parish. My first reaction was, "Oh, no, do people in my congregation think my life is like Father Tim's?" Because it's not, no, not by a long shot. Mitford -- which I understand is based on Blowing Rock, N.C., is a kind of present-day Mayberry, which I think was also based on a North Carolina town. It's a cute little town with its little quirks and foibles. I don't live in Mitford. I doubt seriously that a real-life Mitford exists. And while a bachelor Father Tim may have a cute single woman move in next door, and they develop a relationship and end up getting married, that doesn't usually happen in real life, especially if Father Tim is the woman. A single man never moves in next door. Trust me.

5. The Vicar of Dibley. I confess I've only seen a couple of episodes of this British show, but I gotta tell ya, the vicar is probably the closest I've come to finding a role model for ministry on TV. When the ancient rector of a tiny parish somewhere in the English countryside keels over dead one day, the bishop sends the congregation a new, young priest. (At least, I think they call them priests in the Church of England.) Except, this young priest is a woman. They have a bit of a time dealing with that one. But they do. The actress who plays the vicar is actually a comedian, and the show is really funny. Trust me on this. I'm probably going to be in big trouble with my congregation for even suggesting they might be like the members of the church at Dibley, so I won't go into any comparisons. I am told I should watch the episode where they make the vicar dress up like the Easter bunny. 'Nuff said.

Tomorrow is Sunday. No blog entry tomorrow. I encourage you to worship in the church of your choice. Peace be with you.

Friday, November 26, 2004

A Is for Advent

In the church, the new year doesn't begin on January 1. It begins four Sundays before Christmas. The church has a calendar and seasons all its own, and the year for the church begins in preparation for the coming of Jesus the Christ -- his coming to us as a baby so long ago, and his coming to us again at the end of time. So we call the season "Advent," from two Latin words meaning "to come to."

And so I begin this blog about a pastor's life at the beginning of a new church year. It seemed appropriate.

Oh, did I mention? Not only does the church year begin at a different time from the rest of the world, we actually name our years A, B, and C. No, I'm not kidding. This Sunday, November 28, is the First Sunday of Advent in Year A.

This system of A, B, and C refers to a series of readings from the Bible, called lectionary readings, that are used in the church throughout the year. Each Sunday there are four particular passages that may be read in worship, preached on, used in singing, etc. One passage is usually from the Old Testament (there are exceptions, but I won't confuse you even further at this point), one from the Psalms or other "literary" type Old Testament writings, one from the New Testament letters, and one from a Gospel. That's where A, B, and C come in. In Year A we have readings from Matthew, Year B from Mark, Year C from Luke. And good old John, well, we read John at different times throughout the year, all three years. The preacher can preach a sermon on one, two, or even all four passages for that given Sunday. Or the preacher can decide the Spirit of the Lord is calling her to preach a sermon series on something else and not use any of them. Now I know you're confused.

The idea behind the lectionary readings is to make sure the congregation gets to hear selections from throughout the Bible all year long. The lectionary doesn't cover every passage in the Bible, which is why (in my humble opinion) it's a good idea to use other passages from time to time. And sometimes "stuff" happens in the world (think 9/11) and some other passage seems more appropriate to the situation.

Maybe you are in a church that doesn't use the lectionary, or maybe you never heard of Advent. Not all Christian churches follow the church seasons. Some years ago I was a member of a church that never observed Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, forty days before Easter. This used to drive me nuts, because I grew up in a part of the world where even the non-Christians know what Ash Wednesday is, and I was quite upset that my church paid no attention to the day at all. Eventually the church did develop a service of asking forgiveness from sins, which soothed me a little bit.

So, this Sunday as you are driving back from Thanksgiving vacation or stuck in a crowded airport or a Wal-Mart parking lot somewhere, remember: it's Happy New Year A in the church. We're off and running on a whole new thing.

Pastor Kathy

Thursday, November 25, 2004

A View from Where?

"A View from the Other Side of the Hill." Now, what kind of a blog is that? Especially since I don't live on a hill, or anywhere near one.

This is a blog about life after "over the hill." Well, at least it's about one woman's life after she went over the hill. The midlife crisis is over and I survived it, although I still have the red Camaro convertible. But that's another story.

When I was fifteen years old, I decided I wanted to be a magazine editor when I grew up. I got my undergraduate degree in magazine journalism at one of the country's top schools and spent the next twenty years editing magazines. I worked in that strange little niche of magazine publishing known as "business to business magazines," writing for people who worked in specialized industries. Every time I changed jobs, I had to learn a whole new industry overnight: the technical lingo, the key players, the big issues, the government regulations. It was hard work, and I enjoyed it. And I salute my brothers and sisters who are still working in the field.

But all during those years I had a second, unpaid career of sorts, shadowing the one I did during the day. I was a leader in my church. I did all sorts of things, from being a church officer to teaching Sunday school to singing in the choir to going on a European tour to see some of the important locales in my denomination's history. When I was in my early thirties, my pastor encouraged me to go to seminary. The idea just about scared me to death. I knew I wasn't holy enough to be a minister. And although there were a few women starting to become ministers in my denomination, it was a tough road.

And then I hit my forties, and that midlife crisis thing happened. It took about ten years, actually, before the dust started to settle. And when it did, I knew it was time to move on in my work life. The magazine business was changing. The companies I was working for kept getting sold, and new owners had a nasty habit of firing everyone and starting over with new people, often paying them less money in the process.

It wasn't really a case of "Aha! I think I'll go into ministry!" It toook years to reach that point. In my denomination, it's called discerning one's call, and it is never a solitary process. Any nutcase can jump up and decide they've been called by God to do something -- like open fire in a crowd, say. The call process involves not only the individual but also the community of believers, starting with one's own church. Because I am part of a denomination, we have various levels of church government, and we have many, many requirements in the process of preparation for ministry. It was fourteen years from the time my minister first suggested I consider going to seminary to the time I finally enrolled -- and that was just my own discernment process -- and almost five years more until I completed all the requirements set forth by my denomination and was ordained to ministry.

And here I am, pastoring a small church in a small community for the last four years. It's strange, but I have never had any desire to go back to the magazine business. I probably do more writing now than I did back then. Anyone who thinks writing a sermon every week isn't "writing," well, I'd like to talk with you, especially if you were one of those freelancers who kept asking me for extensions on your deadline, because you can't go to the congregation on Sunday morning and say, "The sermon's not quite done yet because the washing machine went on the fritz. Can you come back tomorrow?" And if I'm not writing a sermon, I'm writing liturgies, letters, lesson plans, reports, stewardship materials, and now this blog!

In a nutshell, I expect this blog to be the story of a minister's life. Yes, there are new adventures to be found on the other side of the hill. I live them every day. And I hope to share some of them with you.

Pastor Kathy