Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wow, What a Resume!

Sarah Wilke is the new World Editor and Publisher of Upper Room. This announcement is of more than passing interest to me as I, too, had applied for the position. I really did not think I had much of a chance, but found as the weeks went by and my name didn't (meaning, I stayed in the hunt for a good while), I let myself believe that I might get the job, might could do the job, might be just the guy they were looking for.

I made the final eight, as I am given to understand, but was not in the final three--or, obviously, the last one standing. I was okay with it pretty much right away. Again, did not really think I had a shot. That I made it as far as I did after a national search was, in its own way, gratifying.

Now that I read Ms. Wilke's resume, I have no questions as to why I was unchosen. Man, what a resume!

(This is at least the second time I have gotten close to a substantive change in career, only to have lost to a WAY more qualified candidate. No brainer for the institution in question, of course; no less hurtful for me to know they made the right choice!)

Salvation may come by grace, not works--though we act as if it is by "works alone"--but these kinds of positions come by resumes, or at least partly/mostly so. I am a work-a-day pastor who happens to write a little (though my books have been called "laborious," and that benediction from a dear friend!). I am no veteran of publishing.

I would like to have offices in both Nashville and Johannesburg--that said, I don't enjoy traveling all that much. I would like to lead a staff of 81--that said, my management style is more "The Office" than anything else. I would like to be an Associate General Secretary of the General Board of Discipleship--that said, I am not a "company" person at all. The honor would have been great, but the Ring really is beyond my reach.

So here's a prayer for Ms. Wilke, and for the Upper Room, and for all those who hold down significant posts in the Kingdom. Those of us manning lesser duty are no less part of the work, we believe. Or hope.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pistol-Packing Preachers

When I was in college I served a small Baptist congregation a good little ways out from Nashville, TN--in Winchester, of all places.

Get the picture, dear reader. Every Sunday morning, clad in a double-knit suit with piping on the lapels, I climbed into my '73 Monte Carlo with the half-vinyl roof and 8-track tape player and set my tinted glasses and mustached face east, began the hour-long interstate pilgrimage, and through pretty uninhabited precincts, I must say, to bring the good news of the Gospel to a few saintly souls (including "Granny Sherrill," who always, but never sincerely, invited me home with her after church "for a tater," and who "never allowed a deck of cards under (her) roof!")

A fellow named Andy, Andy...something... also went to that church; in fact, he was a general contractor who built the place and threatened another member, who questioned the no-bid arrangement, to a fight: "If he doesn't quit saying I'm not the best Christian in this church, he is going to be missing some teeth! Like my new Cadillac?" (I promise I am not making that up.)

On my second Sunday there, the choir sang a special (or, as they said it, "spatial") in my honor. It had to do with the old Circuit Riders (and most of them Methodist, of course) who, as they made their pilgrim way through the new wildernesses of America to preach the old-time gospel, carried their Bible in one hand and (with sincere apologies to Karl Barth), a Colt .45 in the other (and I mean, of course, the gun, not the drink, though there may have been cold nights when they would have traded the former for the latter). ANYWAY, the choir's song was a kind of valentine to me, and romantic in its own way: "The Pistol-Packing Preacher."

(As an aside: my friend David is a world-traveling, trophy-taking hunter who believes I really, really need a hobby. He knows hunting ain't it on account of the pro-Bambi plank in my personal platform, and finds my deep squeamishness with firearms and boar-blades and killing wild game wildly entertaining. He would absolutely collapse, I mean collapse, to imagine any choir anywhere so clueless as to offer that particular Sunday-morning benediction my way. "Him?" he would say. "Him? A Pistol-Packing Preacher? Bwaa-ha-ha-ha." Whatever.)

I thought about that little church today as I sat in a group of ministers who are about to move. We Methodists still ride, as it were, the circuits of our geographical barriers, and all of us are about to get on our horses, if you please, and "Away!" We were discussing the dynamics of leaving, of serving, of ministry--and there was just so much pain around the table. So many beat-up preachers. Peace-makers, so called, who might wish for the blessing of a Peacemaker to return fire, so to speak, but can't. We have to pray for those who abuse us. We have to love those who betray us and work against us. We have to turn the other cheek...if not the exact cheek we would most like to turn to our congregations, some of us, as we ride into the west or north or south or east.

Anyway, some of these folks were talking about the power struggles, the turf battles, the control issues, the neuroses and character flaws of their congregants (and some of us confessed our own junk, too) that had chewed them up. More than one told about "this one person" or "that one family," and I was reminded of a parable told me by a therapist friend when, in such a time in my own ministry, I lamented having to take on the "bad guys" alone, with little in the way of back-up or support, congregational, institutional, collegial or otherwise.

Of course, he said. It is like the Old West, all the movies you have ever seen. The gentle Townsfolk are held hostage in their own streets and homes, paralyzed with fear of the one old man or the one outlaw family. Every time a new sheriff comes to town, the good people know a showdown is inevitable: High Noon; the Gunfight at the UMC Corral.

The Townsfolk hope and pray that the new sheriff will win the gunfight. They really want to be free. They are really, really tired of being afraid, of being held hostage in their own town.

But then the clock strikes twelve. The man (or woman) in the white hat appears at the one end of the street, sweaty hands trembling--if sometimes, truth to tell, spoiling for a fight, cocky and arrogant, sometimes just as self-important and crazy for control as the Old Man (or Woman) who terrorizes the town. The Man (or Woman) in the black hat appears at the other end of the street, cold, calm and practiced. And at that defining moment, what do all the gentle Townsfolk do? They go inside, close their doors and pull down the window shades.

They do not pick up their own rifles. They do not stand with the sheriff. They pretend not to notice. Yes, they really want the sheriff to win. Still, they have been through all of this before and if the sheriff gets plugged, if they have to plant a new body on Boot Hill, well, the Townsfolk can always find another sheriff. Maybe someday the battle will go the other way. Till then, well, they have to live in the same town with the bad guys, the bullying family, the folks in the black hats.

Lots of sheriffs out there, fearful or pugnacious. Lots of bullies,too, with all sorts of weapons. It ain't the Kingdom of God, Lord knows, but it sure is the church. At least sometimes.

Makes me believe those old Circuit Riders may have been onto something.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Midrash on Moving

Tabloids love the celebrity break-up: Jennifer, Brad and Angelina, say. The bottom-feeders of the journalistic world offer us “candid” photos, breathless “reporting” of all the latest rumors and “expert” commentary on the speculation and gossip. How long the rags will run with this already exhausted story depends, I suspect, on sales.

It would be too easy to blame the tabloids, specifically, and the media more generally, for the atmosphere of acrimony and divisiveness we are forced to breathe on even the simplest trip to the grocery or drugstore. Oh, to buy a bag of frozen limas, or get a bottle of aspirin, without the bombardment of banner headlines announcing another custody battle or war of words between former lovers or spouses or members of the boy band! (“Make that two bottles of Tylenol, please.”)

I am disgusted by such stuff; but I am also complicit. I do not inhale, but I scan the headlines. There is something deep in me—and my only excuse is that there seems also to be something deep in the race—that loves a good catfight. We may not like to be in conflict ourselves but we seem to delight in it otherwise.

And what is it in us that needs this kind of contentiousness? What is it in us that tolerates this stuff, even in the church?

I have been thinking in recent days about poor Corinth. There were big problems in that little congregation—lots of cliques and clatter—and some of the worst related to the preachers who have served them. One group likes Paul, another likes Peter, yet another prefers Apollos (and at least a few of the folk say they don’t need preachers at all because they have Jesus!). One group or the other is so glad when this preacher arrives or that one leaves—but that is commentary only on them because Paul and Peter and Apollos (not to mention Jesus) have no enmity between or among themselves. They don’t double-date, of course. And they have been known to disagree about this or that. Still, they would each and all offer an “Amen” when Paul’s writes, “Is Christ divided? Who then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted. Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

The work of Christ is not a competition. There should be no fodder for the tabloids among us—and especially not among United Methodists, who advocate a connectional polity.

We Methodists believe that ministry is both unified and ongoing. Preachers pledge to go where they are sent; congregations pledge to receive those who are sent to them. Preachers do their best to build on what has gone before and help their successors to continue the work. Congregations do their best to bless each minister as they come and go, grateful for whatever gifts and graces God conveyed through them. Whether plowing, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, all those aspects are of a piece, just parts of God’s constant and continuing work.

Who then is Mike? Or JC? Or Patricia? Or Bob? Or Larry? Or Frank? Or Tom? Or Noel? We are servants, through whom you believed or will, as the Lord assigned to each.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Hope YOU have a happy Mother's Day

Hope your mom saw the strengths you could not and nurtured them.

If she did not aggravate your weaknesses, you are doubly-blessed.

Sadly, there are many out there who are still crippled from their mother's ability to engender self-doubt, to paralyze with guilt, to eviscerate with shame.To this day many question their judgment because they can hear a mother's voice doing exactly the same thing. About everything.

I think those messages, all the moving targets, the withholding of approval and affirmation--"Quit crying! You're not hurt!" Well, I thought I was hurt, I mean I am bleeding--leave folk prone to all sorts of bad decisions, if only because they are unsure as to what constitutes a good decision.

Not to say mothers, or parents, are to blame for all bad decisions...not at all. Only that, unsure as we are as to what constitutes virtue, we can fall victim to all sorts of vice.

Hallmark cards do not give voice to those kinds of benedictions.