19 August 2012

Compassionate Christianity: I Am the Bread of Life

Source: Microsoft Clipart

Being there authentically. Present in the moment. That is who you are. That is what you call us to do as the Body of Christ. Compassion is what we display when we have become one with you. Compassion is the road to living fully, eternally. Compassion is the way by which we too will be raised.

23 June 2012

Managing Not to Laugh

From my Crowd-Sourcing post Turnip Ghost asks the question:
How do you manage not to burst out laughing at the things you have to say and the people you have to meet?
I admit that I think this question was meant to be unkind, but let's take the question seriously and break it down into two parts:
Question:  How do I manage not to burst out laughing at the people I have to meet?

Answer:  I'm a Chaplain in a hospital. Most of the people I meet are sick. Either a little bit sick or extremely sick. I don't know about you, but I'm not tempted to burst out laughing when someone tells me they've had a knee replacement or they have cancer.

However, there are times when it seems appropriate to tell a joke so that the person can laugh. I wouldn't make fun of their illness, but I'd try to appeal to their sense of humor. People who laugh and smile get well faster than people who are scared and depressed.
Question: How do I manage not to burst out laughing at the things I say?
Answer: Well, when I tell a joke, I usually know the punch-line already so I don't have to burst out laughing. When I talk about serious matters, I speak about things that I know to be true from my own experience. I don't pretend to be someone I'm not or to have had experiences that I haven't had.

I speak the truths that I have learned from my own life and I present them as such. And I remember that other people experience life differently than I do and that they might not think the same way I do.

I remember that I'm there to help the person in front of me find their own meaning, not to try to convince them to accept my meaning as their own.

No one "has to" believe as you believe or as I believe. Everyone can say no and disagree. A person can tell me that they don't want to speak to me. A person can walk out of a church and not listen to the pastor - and there are some churches that folk should definitely walk out of.

No one needs to feel put down if other people believe differently. Two people can have opposite experiences of the same situation and neither one of them has to be stupid or worthy of being mocked or laughed at. Just be yourself, speak your own truth with kindness and patience.

That's my answer.

19 May 2012

Compassionate Christianity: Chaplaincy, Aging and the Elephant in the Room

It's probably no exaggeration whatsoever to say that every day, I go into a hospital room of an older person who tells me that they don't want to live if living means having no quality of life and no dignity.

The main purpose of this Hub is simply to put that message forward. And to let you know that, if you feel that way, you are not alone. (link)

02 May 2012

Ornery Christianity - How I read the bible

A new post: on how I read the bible. Go to link to take the poll.

Is everything in the bible true?
One of my favorite teachers puts it this way: "Everything in the bible is true. Some of it really happened."

24 April 2012

Ornery Christianity - Take Up Your Cross

Take Up Your Cross

I can't think of anywhere that Jesus preaches anything along the lines of "If you follow me wholeheartedly, you will build a large and successful denomination that millions will flock to" or "If you follow me faithfully, you will build a large and successful charity that will wipe out hunger in your lifetime."

20 April 2012

Blatant Crowd-Sourcing

Blatant crowd-sourcing.

What questions would you ask a Christian minister if you could ask anything? Leave questions in the comments section and I'll do my best.

10 April 2012

Compassionate Christianity: Love Your Neighbor. Love your self. Some thoughts on a compassionate and balanced approach to the Great Commandment.

Marta's Story

On Good Friday, I had an amazing encounter with a 100 year old woman of faith who had spent the day testifying to her family about the message she had been given of God's love while she was dying. I hope you find the story as inspiring as I did. Read Marta's Story.

05 April 2012

24 March 2012

Hospital Chaplains - what do they do?

Source: Microsoft Clipart
A new post on the subject of the job of a hospital chaplain.

20 March 2012

Compassionate Christianity

Please see my new writing venture over at Compassionate Christianity

19 February 2012

22 December 2011

Always worth a read.

Fr. Richard Rohr is, in my opinion, one of the most sensible mature pastoral voices speaking into the current Christian context.

He started blogging in November and I have just found his blog: Richard Rohr: Unpacking Paradoxes.

For my money, he is always worth hearing or reading.  I look forward reading his blog.

17 December 2011

Thank You For Calling

Thank you for calling This Catalog. My name is Pam. How can I help you?

For the last three weeks, I've being working as a temporary order taker at a mail order catalog company. It's a seasonal job and I started doing it at the beginning of December.  Each week has had it's own unique pace which has been interesting to observe.

It's the first time I've ever had any kind of call center job. The other day, I sat next to another temporary order taker who said that she normally does data entry and isn't used to dealing with people. I said that I normally deal with people but I'm used to doing it face to face and I'm not used to typing while I'm doing it.

Here are a few observations.

First, the vast, vast majority (98%?) of the callers are very pleasant and friendly. Now, this is a catalog where folk are calling in to buy stuff they want, so I hadn't expected to get a lot of grief. Still, I was positively surprised - given the volume of the calls we take - just how patient and pleasant most people are, even when they are calling in with a problem. A really positive experience.

Second observation. Being hostile and aggressive to get what you want is a very inefficient strategy. This is has been interesting to observe. I'm sitting at my desk taking orders, being efficient and not making any mistakes as I take people's orders. Someone calls with a complaint and they are pleasant, and I resolve the problem without too much fuss. Then someone calls and starts venting and insulting and raising their voice and my efficiency goes out the window. Magically, I can no longer even manage to type and the more I try to help, the more mistakes I make. And you'd be surprised the number of people who act aggressively from the beginning of the call in the expectation that this will make the order taker work faster.  In fact, they are very effectively making me work more slowly.

Third observation. It's really easy to tell who has ADD and who is hard of hearing. The ADD people sound like they have a 300-lb gorilla trying to get through their front door but still somehow manage to take15 minutes place an order (we're supposed to finish each order in 4 minutes or less). And, when I ask you "Can you confirm your billing address for me?" and you respond "Thank you, I want the black socks in a size large" and I'm already screaming down the phone with the out-going volume at the maximum, I know it's going to be a difficult call.

And, speaking of four minutes or less, there are the people who call in thinking that they are going to manage to order 5 items in the 30 seconds before their El Train comes who get upset about how long the call is taking when you ask them to confirm their name and address.  Then there are just the odd calls.  I actually had someone call me on Friday who got angry at me when I asked her for her name and address; she asked "Can't I just order the items without giving you my name and address?" and then hung up on me when I said I needed to know that information to send her the items.  Hello? It's a mail order catalog!

This is Pam speaking, how can I help you?

01 November 2011

Boundaries and Clergy Burnout

In my previous post, I talked about Boundaries and Sin and my next thoughts are on the matter of Boundaries and Clergy Burnout.

I think that there is probably something like "Laity Burnout" which results in people who are otherwise devoted to God either changing church communities or dropping out of church altogether.  I also think that Clergy Burnout and Laity Burnout are directly related to some of our fuzzy thinking about sin and boundaries.

Please don't think that I don't have sympathy for Laity Burnout - I do.  The problem with Clergy Burnout is that, because clergy usually make their living at what they do, they may feel more trapped than lay people feel.  Clergy also can't complain publicly about their experience the way that lay people can, that would be pastorally and professionally inappropriate.  I think many clergy also feel that they can't reach other to those within church structures who are assigned to give them pastoral care because then they would be seen as ineffective pastors.

Assuming that the clergyperson does have a genuine vocation to the ministry and isn't getting burned out simply because ministry is not their God-given vocation, I think that the number one cause of clergy burn-out is bad boundaries.

The problem is that the Church often inadvertently teaches that God wants God's followers to have bad boundaries. 

Inadvertently (and, in some cases, intentionally) we teach that "love your neighbor" means "give your neighbor whatever they want, whatever they think they need, whenever they want it."

Thus, we believe things like "God wants us to give money on a regular basis to the local neighborhood con artist" and we'll back this up with the biblical verse on giving to anyone who asks (Matthew 5:52) while we'll completely ignore the text that states that the person who refuses to work isn't allowed to beg from the community (2 Thessalonians 3:5-15).  We think we are being kind and loving and nice by giving money to the con artist but what we are doing is enabling them in their maladaptive behavior. 

The problem for clergy is that congregations also often want the pastor to enable them.  Each and every one of us is addicted in some way to maladaptive behaviors and most of us will find changing these behaviors painful.

What is so exhausting about being placed in the role of Enabler is that the Enabler has to work significantly harder than everyone else to maintain the appearance of the community being dynamic and vibrant and whole.

As a small example, assume that 3 bible study group leaders drop out of their positions over the course of two years.  Each time Pastor Boundariless is pressured by his congregation to take over the role of leader and, at the end of two years, he has added a quantity of work to his schedule that is not nearly as insignificant as his congregation might think.  If you expect good quality scholarship at each class, it's not only going to take some preparation on the pastor's part, but it's also going to be a lot better if he's not exhausted.

There is also another way I think that the Institutional Church of many denominations is enabling the lay people who belong to them:  the myth that if the Pastor is a Really Good Preacher with a Really Good Strategic Vision, that new members will come flocking to churches.

There is a myth of Magical Thinking that all we have to do is be Genuinely Faithful and people will come flocking to our doors.  Of course, none of this falls as a "should" or an "ought" on the heads of the congregational members.  The "shoulds" and the "oughts" fall on the Pastor because "We are paying her" (to enable us in doing exactly what we want to do and to take the blame when our dysfunctions are found out).

Of course, at the end of the day, the only way to cease being an Enabler is to say "No" and to say "Stop".  That takes a lot of growing and a lot of courage, particularly if the prevailing theology of your community has it that being an Enabler is being A Good Christian and that refusing to exhaust yourself by trying to do the impossible is Being Selfish and Sinful.

Ultimately, as Christians, we need to get our theology straight about boundaries.  That doesn't mean we won't have disagreements about where the line in the sand should be drawn.  But hopefully, we won't argue that the act of drawing a line in the sand is unChristian.

31 October 2011

Boundaries and Sin

I was born in 1957.  A year that, I am led to believe, was the peak year of the Baby Boom in the US.
Theologically, I think that my generation has a lot to answer for.  We were the babies born (in the US) at the height of post WWII affluence.  Not only were we looking forward to a level of economic prosperity that our parents - who grew up in the depression - only dreamed of, but we were also quick to throw off the shackles of institutionalism, bureaucracy and rigid social expectations.
Many of us, myself included, were raised in religious environments that emphasized how sinful and bad we were.  My stock joke - which really isn't all that funny - is that as a kid I thought the Gospel message was "Jesus died for your sins, so the Father has to let you into heaven.  However the Father is absolutely livid that He's been bribed like that because He hates you."
In reaction to this sort of theology, my generation responded in two ways.  Firstly, many simply left the Church and Christianity entirely.  Secondly, many of us adopted a theology of "cheap grace" - which I outlined in my previous post.  Briefly, "cheap grace" means that we give people the impression that just because God wants to forgive everyone (who repents properly), that God will forgive everyone regardless of whether they are sorry and regardless of whether or not they want to repent.
Another way of saying "cheap grace" is "no boundaries".
I like the "no boundaries" way of looking at the problem of sin because it brings the problem of sin and cheap grace quickly into focus.  
My generation often behaved as if boundaries didn't matter and we often didn't teach boundaries to our children.  No wonder the next generation is reacting in the opposite direction:  boundaries galore, including a lot of boundaries that make the love of God too narrow.
Human beings have a way of doing this.  Black-and-white thinking and jumping from one extreme to another.  If the boundaries I had were too rigid, then do away with them altogether.  If the boundaries you had were non-existent, then put in some rigid boundaries so that everyone knows where they stand.  If the punishment I received was too harsh, never punish anyone for anything.  If no one seemed to care what you did, then impose strong punishments so that the values you're upholding have meaning.
Some wise common-sense thinking will quickly help us realize that there is a more central position:  boundaries which maintain the values of love of God and love of neighbor which are enforced consistently and lovingly.
For the most part, it seems to me that that is the witness of Scripture about Jesus' behavior.  OK, yes, he knocked over the tables in the Temple once.  But in many stories, Jesus forgave the sins of an individual with compassionate understanding, warned the person to truly repent and to not repeat the sin and sometimes even healed them.
Generally speaking, having and enforcing boundaries does not require harshness on the part of the enforcer, it requires mainly consistency of enforcement.  Preaching about how much God hates us when we breech the boundaries isn't going to result in better behavior, it's going to result in a character-assassination of God, not to mention bad theology (God doesn't hate us).  Making up a lot of zealous boundaries like "God wants women to be subservient to men" or "God hates LGBT people" or "God will cast you out if you believe in evolution" doesn't result in better boundaries, it simply perpetuates bad theology.
Yes, sin is bad.  Yes, sin damages us. Sin can keep us in hell.  Sin estranges us from God.
The solution is good boundaries born from wise theology.  The solution is consistent enforcement of those boundaries.  The solution is compassionate, mature enforcement of boundaries.

Sin and Hospital Chaplaincy

Sin and Hospital Chaplaincy - a strange title?  Not from my perspective.

If you were to ask me what are the most important spiritual care tasks I perform, I would have to say that hearing patients' confessions is probably right up there at the top of the list.  Comforting and praying with patients is probably the most requested spiritual care task, but I think that hearing confession is one of the most important.

But isn't confession just for Catholics?  And how can a swingeing theological "liberal" like me hear confession when all I want to talk about is God's love and when I don't want to talk about God's condemnation of sinners?

Well, I'm here to tell you that confession is not just for Catholics.  You'd be surprised the people who want to confess their sins to another, embodied, human being.  Lots of Protestants want to tell you their worst sins when their lives are in danger and they want the reassurance of God's forgiveness from someone they see as God's representative.  (I believe all baptized Christians are God's representatives, by the way.  As my Baptist supervisor says, you can be a priest to any individual as long as that individual ordains you for service to them.)

So what does this theological liberal say when someone asks me "Do you think God will forgive me?"  My first question often is "I don't know. What did you do?"  I usually follow this up quickly with "I believe that God wants to forgive everyone, so if you're asking me if God will forgive you or that God can forgive you, the answer is yes.  But if you are asking me to assure you that God has forgiven you of a specific sin, then I need to know what the sin was but, more importantly, I need to know how you have repented.  You need to make things right not only with God, but with the person against whom you sinned, if that's applicable."

Tough stuff for a theological liberal?  And how does that fit with a theology of unconditional grace and forgiveness?

My theology of unconditional grace and forgiveness is my belief that God wants to forgive every person and that God will forgive every and any sin.  There is no such thing as an unforgivable sin.  There is no such thing as an unforgivable person.

But....unconditional grace is an entirely different thing than cheap grace. Here is an example of cheap grace: "God forgive me for being with a prostitute yesterday night and, by the way, you and I know full well that I intend to do it again."  Not only is this not repentance from a theological point of view, but from a simple human perspective, we all know in our hearts and our guts that this is not repentance.

We can run away from this fact all we want, but if you are a cardiac patient who is conscious and awake and you know that, medically, you might die any minute, believe me that you know darn well that this is not a repentance.  And that's probably why you're calling the chaplain in.

The patient asks the words "Will God forgive me?" and the answer to that is yes.  The question that the patient should be asking, however, is "Will I be able to benefit from God's forgiveness if I don't really intend to amend my ways?"  The answer to that is no.

So what happens to that cardiac patient?  If the patient dies without having had the opportunity to confess to his wife, to amend his life in faithfulness to his marriage vows and to demonstrate his repentance, will God have forgiven him?  I don't know.  And neither does anyone else.  This is why we leave judgements of the human heart to God.  God knows if a person is genuinely sorry and I believe genuine repentance is possible, even without having had the opportunity to demonstrate one's repentance.

The real tragedy of sin is that so many people live in the hell of unforgiveness for many years.  And if you visit a patient whose life is in danger and who wants to make a confession, you know that it truly has been hell.

18 October 2011

Directing hatred at sin is self-defeating

In my previous post, I admitted that I think that God hates sin but I stated that I'm nervous about the use of the word "hate".

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hatred as:
a) Intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger or sense of injury; b) extreme dislike or antipathy
To put it crudely, is the Gospel message that God wants to punch sinners in the face? Or even that God wants to beat the daylights out of sin?  I don't think so.

For one thing, I think God is smarter than to constantly focus on what God doesn't want. I hold before you Creation for my evidence.  Creation is not a process of negating.  It's a process of of making all things new.  I also hold before you human psychology (we are supposed to be created in God's image, if you'll remember).  Psychologists will tell you that if you constantly tell yourself - for example - "no beer, no beer" what you're brain is hearing is "beer, beer";  ironically, you will be reinforcing the very behavior that you are seeking to stop.

Focusing on sin, even focusing on the destruction of sin, won't eliminate sinning.  It may very well increase sinning. 

This may seem a bit simplistic, but it's true:

If you're worried that this was said by the Buddha instead of Jesus or YHWH, I'll point out that the Great Commandment, is love God and love your neighbor.  Our "Prime Directive" is not about what to hate but rather about whom to love.

And, in God's wisdom, God somehow managed to put this "Prime Directive" into our sense of natural justice.  It's the central tenet in all major religions and altruism (loving one's neighbor) is also considered the highest ethical good by secular ethics.