Monday, December 29, 2008

Disagreeing with Sermons

Several times Susan has suggested that I return to parish ministry just so that she can hear meaningful, stimulating sermons again. I am flattered, but having the privilege of preaching to my spouse strikes me as insufficient cause to reverse my entire life direction. But she also has a compelling secondary argument: she misses the theological conversations that inevitably sprang from my sermon preparations. I do miss the weekly discipline that was so much a part of regular preaching: the reading, the pondering; the new ideas that grew from reading and pondering and moved the sermon in unexpected directions. Regular preaching was a lens through which I experienced and appropriated all the events of my week.

Sadly, there is less quality preaching out there than there should be, and I have been shaped by the Reformed tradition to hunger for sermons that are articulate, focused, thoughtful and faithful. I heard two sermons in the last week, and there was a remarkable contrast between them.

The first was delivered on Christmas Eve at St. Paul’s UCC in St. Paul (that sounds redundant, but is not). St. Paul’s was once a “cathedral church” first for the German Reformed Church and later for the United Church of Christ in St. Paul. It is located on Summit Avenue in the midst of other cathedrals and stately homes. The congregation has declined radically in numbers, but we found the members absolutely delightful: warm, welcoming and hospitable. We were given a mini-tour by a fascinating and very sweet man about our age who sported dramatic facial tattoos and the most impressive earlobe ornamentation I have ever seen (maintaining eye contact was a bit of a challenge).

The sermon was delivered by their interim pastor, a very nice woman whose heart is clearly in the right place. There was nothing in her sermon I disagreed with, but perhaps that is because I never came close to sorting out what it was she was attempting to say. She used the word “home” a great deal, perhaps in the hope that if she said the word over and over it would somehow connect all the unrelated anecdotes she rambled through. If I were to attempt summarizing her overall message it would be “Baby Jesus was born so that justice-minded bankers would write ethical mortgages that connect people to one another; home, home, home.” We heard a few lessons and carols (four lessons: the condensed version) and at the conclusion of the service we got to light little candles and sing “silent night” in German and English, which was all very nice, but it would have been nice to have a sermon to chew on after we left.

This past Sunday we attended a small, conservative church where our friend Jonathan Menn was preaching. Jonathan is a fascinating guy. His parents were members of First Congregational, and shortly after I began my ministry there he stopped by to ask me (we both love to tell this story) whether his parents were going to hell because of me or in spite of me. We were adversaries in the dramatic “abortion wars” that got so ugly locally in the 1980’s. A few years ago, Jonathan gave up his law practice to attend seminary, and now trains African pastors through EPI (Equipping Pastors International); we have become dear friends, testifying to God’s peculiar sense of humor.

It was the kind of morning I always dreaded as a pastor: freezing rain had given way to snow in the night and it was the Sunday after Christmas – perfect excuses to stay home on Sunday morning. Only about 25 hearty, faithful souls made it to the church. Again folks were welcoming, although their ears all appeared to be normal. The service was a bit on the loose side, even by the usual standards of a small Evangelical church: moderately praisy praise music, and bizarre power-point slides that had no relationship to anything else going on (while Jonathan preached, various tropical beaches appeared behind him). But Jonathan preached for a good 40 minutes on the Second Coming, a wonderful topic for the Sunday after Christmas, and it was easily the best sermon I have heard since, well, since I last preached: Biblically anchored, theologically articulate, and profoundly thoughtful. I disagreed with at least 70% of what he said, of course, but how wonderful to hear a sermon worth disagreeing with! I found myself giving the sermon my full attention while also mentally writing several sermons of my own that wanted to spring from ideas in his, particularly on the theme of “final judgment.” Jonathan believes that at the end of being (our own or the world’s, whichever comes first) we will be judged by Jesus (which he rightly argued is a much better deal than being judged by Peter). But Jesus himself said that by his incarnate presence he has already brought judgment into the world, which I have always taken to mean that we bring judgment on ourselves by the manner in which we do or do not receive and follow him. So does the risen, enthroned Christ even need to “judge” us on the final day? That was one of about seven themes (beginning with the place of Revelation in the Christian canon) I found myself wanting to debate passionately.

One of the most disappointing responses people would give to my sermons on the way out the door was “Great sermon! I agreed with every word you said!” That meant I had failed: failed to challenge, failed to stimulate new ways of thinking about what it means to live faithfully. How wonderful to still be thinking about a sermon on Monday, at least in part because I did not agree with every word the preacher said.

After we got home from our Christmas visit, I briefly fantasized about applying for the permanent position at St. Paul’s in St. Paul. Could a once-great urban church that is still doing many things well experience renewal and revitalization if preaching were restored to its central role in worship? Could these good-hearted, progressive folks open themselves to something as truly radical as the Gospel of Jesus presented fully, faithfully and well? I wrote to our son Colin about my little fantasy. He told me to go for it: I would look good with gigantic earlobes.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Merry Christmas, Shannon!

As is always true in the final days before Christmas, I had myself convinced that there could be no earthly reason for me to enter a retail store of any kind until at least December 27 and, as always, I wound up at Fleet Farm anyway. The situation was not as extreme as the Christmas Eve where I made an emergency run to Fleet Farm just before the first church service to purchase a wax O-ring so that I could dissemble a clogged toilet on Christmas day (amazingly, I have dissembled a toilet on Christmas day more than once). Today is only the 19th, but with a big snowstorm behind us and another one looming, the place was packed with last-minute shoppers.

Why was I there? I was out of niger seed. My religious identity was in some ways shaped and formed by the worst of two very different traditions: in my Catholic childhood I was schooled in the ways of Guilt, and in my Calvinist adulthood I have been schooled in the ways of Duty. So I was feeling guilty that the goldfinches had nothing to eat (we have very fussy goldfinches who will eat only niger seed, which is pricey stuff) and duty compelled me to purchase more. Which is how I found myself in a long check-out line dominated by shopping carts groaning under the weight of torque wrenches and My Little Ponies, clutching a single five-pound bag of niger seed.

On the plus side, I was in a rather festive spirit, and enjoyed chatting with the other folks in line (“Yes, I always give my wife niger seed for Christmas.”). When it was my turn to check out, I greeted the young woman with a cheery: “Hi Shannon! Merry Christmas to you!”

An aside: there are complex matters of both etiquette and theology involved in the question of whether one greets the check-out person by his or her name, given that they are required to display their name to us while we (the customers) generally do not wear name tags for their benefit. Some believe that greeting them by name pushes boundaries of overfamiliarity, given that there is an inherent inequality between the “named” and the “nameless.” Me, I figure as long as they are forced to display their name in public, we might as well have the courtesy to use it in addressing them. Theologically, I see it as honoring their worth as a fellow human being. As a friend said many years ago, “Every time you forget which waiter is yours, you have broken the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ because you have treated him as if he were a thing, not a person.” An extreme position? Perhaps, but there is truth to it.

So back to Fleet Farm, and “Hi Shannon! Merry Christmas!” Shannon looked up, startled, and gazed directly at me. Her face lit up. “Hi!,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in such a long time! How have you been?”

I had no idea in the world who Shannon was. Did she actually know me, or was my tone so friendly and personal that she assumed she was supposed to know me and was therefore faking recognition (and doing a good job of it)? We were in pretty deep now, so I faked recognition in return. “I’m great! How are you holding up with all the craziness here today?” We carried on like that for the next minute or so and wished one another a wonderful Christmas before I slogged out to the snowy parking lot.

I wonder whether when Shannon gets home from work tonight and her loved ones ask her how her day was, she will respond “It was really busy; I am so tired! But this older guy came through my line who knew me and I’m pretty sure I know him, but I can’t remember where from…” Me, I am pretty sure that we never laid eyes on one another before, but I like the fact that we both faked it: there is something fundamentally human and good about seeking a sense of connection between one another, even when we don’t know how that connection exists, or even if it exists. So Shannon, wherever and whoever you are, have yourself a merry little Christmas!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Tastycakes of the Magi

Cousin Eileen’s Christmas gift arrived this week. It was the same gift I have received for as many years as I can remember: a carton of Tastycake snack cakes. For those who do not hail from Philadelphia or its environs, Tastycakes are akin to products made by Hostess and Little Debbie, although of somewhat higher quality, and are one of the five food items that folks from Philly greatly miss when they move elsewhere. The others are:

1. Scrapple. Scrapple is to die for! The parts of a slaughtered animal that might get made into sausage elsewhere – the parts one would just as soon not have specifically named – are mixed with cornmeal and spices then pressed into gooey bricks. Slices are cut from the brick and fried. Served with a bit of ketchup, scrapple is the perfect accompaniment to eggs and toast.
2. Cheese steak sandwiches. Menus all over the country advertise “Philly cheese steak” but it is never a Philly cheese steak. The bread is all wrong. The meat is all wrong. The cheese is all wrong. Philly cheese steaks simply do not exist more than 20 miles from Philadelphia. Years ago I read a science fiction story in which the earth was successfully invaded by aliens who were obnoxiously self-important. They declared the Philly cheese steak the best food item on the planet, drawing howls of protest from the world’s food critics. The aliens were right, the food critics were wrong.
3. Hoagies. In some cities they would be called “grinders” or “subs,” and there are conflicting theories as to how the hoagie got its name. A genuine Italian hoagie is a mix of flavors and textures that transcends the sandwich genre. The key ingredients are capicola ham (prosciutto if you are going up-market), provolone, and that amazing bread that cannot be made or purchased elsewhere. Those who have only eaten the “Italian subs” from sandwich chains cannot begin to imagine how good the real thing is. If I were condemned to death and asked to choose my last meal, it would be a cheese steak and a hoagie. But only if I were being executed in Philadelphia.
4. Pretzels. Soft pretzels sold in Philadelphia streets bear no relationship to bland “shopping mall pretzels.” And bagged pretzels in Pennsylvania come in dozens and dozens of varieties; so many that they often have their own aisle in supermarkets. Only a few brands of Pennsylvania pretzels are shipped to other states, and they tend to be the least interesting ones. Look for pretzels made by Unique, Sturgis, or Wege.

Which brings me back to Tastycakes. Frankly, they are the Philly food item I miss the least. Yes, they are better than their competitors’ products, but I do not normally eat “snack cakes” of any kind. So we save a few packages, force some on our children, and the rest Susan takes to the university, where people will eat anything. I dare not tell Eileen that we really do not want Tastycakes anymore: it would be poor etiquette and a denial of my geographic roots.

Instead I pay her back in kind. Each year I make a pilgrimage to the Kaukauna Club Cheese plant for their annual warehouse sale, and put together a box of genuine Wisconsin cheese. Or rather, genuine Wisconsin processed cheese products, heavy on the cheese balls coated in crushed almonds. Eileen, I suspect, believes that we Wisconsin folks eat this stuff all the time. I always buy one cheese ball for ourselves and somewhere around April throw it away, untouched: another important tradition.

It may well be that Eileen’s family has no more interest in the cheese box than we do in the Tastycake box. But the Tastycakes say “you are remembered fondly in Philadelphia” and the cheese says “and we are thinking of you in Wisconsin.” Call it an odd variant on the Gift of the Magi. If anyone is nostalgic for a butterscotch krimpet or chocolate candy cake, feel free to contact me. But do it soon: we are trying to get these rascals out of our house.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Escape from Da U.P.

I have not posted in ages. Last weekend was taken up with a visit from Colin during which, among other things, we recorded Jane Gilday's song "The Year of Mr. O" and posted it to youtube. Those who have somehow remained unaware of this singular cultural opportunity may find it here.

Yesterday we drove to the cabin, stopping on the way in the crossroads village of Traunik to do some shopping at Lily's (pictures), a wonderful little organic food and gift shop we are trying to support. When we got to the cabin, neighbor Steve Wills had opened up a path and had our wood-stove going, which was greatly appreciated. We were there primarily to clear three feet of snow from the roof - we really got hammered in November, with snow accumulation within a few inches of the all-time record. With the job done we joined Steve and Rhoda for cocktails, had a nice dinner, read by the fire and took a sauna. We were about to crawl into bed when we checked the local television station and learned that a full-scale blizzard would hit in the morning and last well into Sunday (this had not been in the forecast).

It was 10:30 (central time), we were dead-tired, and had a decision to make. If we did not leave that night we likely would not get out until late Sunday. We had no food and (worse) no whiskey. So we dressed, packed, and I launched into the complex process of draining pipes, taking apart the roaring fire in the stove, etc. I hope I did everything right despite the sense of haste. We were on the road about an hour later, and already in the teeth of a winter storm. The snow was not heavy yet, but the winds were strong, blowing the snow around in a way that made it nearly impossible to know what lane I was in much of the time. It was a very long and challenging drive, and it got worse the closer we got to home. By Green Bay there seemed to be more cars in ditches than on the road (bar closing may have had something to do with that). Thankfully we had four hours of our old "friend" Vin Scelsa from New York days on Sirius radio, playing live performances and interviews with the recently-deceased Odetta, for company. A pleasant distraction can make all the difference in the world...

So we are grateful to be safely home. We defied a blizzard warning once, many years ago, and will never make that mistake again. Da U.P. in winter: not for the timid or unprepared!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sunday: the Phunhouse Girls

It seemed like an essential expression of hospitality to invite out-of-town guests to stop by for brunch before they took to the road. Susan had arranged for a former student to cater a simple meal so that we could concentrate on people rather than food. Originally it was set to begin at ten, but we learned at the reception that some folks wanted to be on the road earlier; since we knew the food would be here, we moved the time up to 8:30. Fortunately most of the guests were as tired as we were, so I likely got away with my incoherent moments.

The last to arrive and the last to leave were the members of the wedding party, most of them Kate's former roommates from "the Phunhouse." (The "ph" is, of course, homage to the band Phish) They lived together for two years. At the time it was not encouraging to have our daughter move into a place called The Phunhouse, a shrine to non-stop partying, but they have all grown into responsible adults, and are still very close friends. I officiated at Kristin's wedding; these girls have been like family to us for more than a decade. It was so fitting that the last gathering of the weekend would be with them.

Then it was just Kate, Eric, Colin, us, and Kona the bulldog. We held a small birthday party for Colin before he took to the road, and then Kate and Eric left for the Milwaukee airport and their morning flight to St. Lucia. We get to keep the bulldog for a week, which is the most generous wedding present we gave them.

Saturday: Wedding Day

We had been warned that our phone would be ringing a lot, and it was. Bob and Bonnie Buchanan hosted a marvelous brunch at their house, with Jone Reister serving many gallons of coffee to the Minnesota folks (what is it with Minnesotans and coffee?). Bob gave one guest a tour of the house, and that guy began giving tours to everyone else; it is a pretty neat house.

The wedding was at four, but Susan and I had to be there around two. I seemed to find plenty to keep my occupied; fortunately I still pretty much know where to find everything at First Congo: light switches, music stands, thermostats, full-length mirror... It was all something of a whirlwind.

One immodest sentence: our daughter was drop-dead gorgeous! Steve led a warm, moving, and very hospitable ceremony. I did not cry, I swear.

Our wonderful photographer, Kim Klein, kept the photo session moving, but it still took awhile, and Susan and I stayed to clean up all the - there is no other word for this - crap that the bridal party had left strewn around. Eric and Kate drove to the club in Bob Buchanan's SmartCar (the anti-limo). Most of the guests went in the shuttle bus we had contracted for the occasion. That had been one of Kate's bottom lines: "my friends are not driving after the reception!" Good call, and well worth the money. As near as I could tell nobody was blotto, but it is good to have no deaths on our conscience.

The club was (immodest again) more beautifully decorated than I have ever seen it, largely thanks to Eric's cousin, Paul, who hauled calla lilies over from Minnesota and decorated the church and club. Truly elegant. The challenge and frustration at a wedding reception is trying to extend hospitality to all of the guests, particularly you own friends and families: I fear we were only partially successful. It was such an amazing mix: our neighbors from our U.P. cabin, a dear friend from New Jersey, local friends old and new, Susan's family, and all of Kate and Eric's friends who have been precious to us for so many years. They came from Texas, New England, even Hawaii...

After eleven it was down to the hard-core dancers and party people, and they did not slow down until the music stopped at midnight. It was a special joy to dance with my nieces, who have grown into beautiful and very dear young women. The shuttle bus had to do a second "final run" at 12:20, the driver smiling tolerantly while being serenaded by a wretched version of "the wheels on the bus." Susan and I, of course, had to stay to gather things up, so it was well after one when we got home and began to clean the house for the Sunday morning brunch. Sometime after two we settled in for a short, fitful nap. We learned that most everyone else, including the parents of the groom, shut down the downtown bars, and some continued to party in their rooms until four. Amazing stamina, questionable judgment...

Friday: My Chevy Chase Imitation

The day before a wedding is less demanding if you are a guy. Kate spent an obscene amount of time having her nails done, Susan entertained her mother all day, and my only responsibility was taking her mother's boyfriend to lunch. Colin arrived in the afternoon. About 90 minutes before the rehearsal, Kate asked me to run the name cards to the country club, so Colin and I hopped in my car. Which was when he noticed the puddle under Susan's car - it was leaking coolant pretty badly. I made a Monday appointment with the dealer and figured we should add some anti-freeze. We headed for Fleet Farm, but learned than Audis only accept something called G12 which must be purchased from the dealer and costs $25 a gallon (one more reason to avoid German cars). By the time we had picked that up I was running well behind, and still had to stop by the country club. I got home fifteen minutes after we should have been on our way, and still needed to change clothes.

By the time I was ready, everyone else had left for the church. We decided that taking Susan's car would not be a good idea, and Eric had his (locked) car parked behind mine in the driveway. Normally I would have taken several swings in and out of the garage to get safely past him but we were running late, and I just knew I could do it in one. I kept my eye glued to his bumper in the right-hand outside mirror. I did not keep my eye glued to the driver's side mirror, which smashed into the garage door track and shattered into pieces. The impact also dented the track and knocked the "don't crush a toddler" sensors mounted to it, so the garage door would neither go up or down. More time went by as I tried to repair it and finally disconnected the door from the opener. It was a scene from "National Lampoon's Family Wedding"...

So, with one car disabled and the other damaged, we went to the church. Steve Savides ran a very relaxed rehearsal, and the out of town guests oohed and aahed appropriately over the sanctuary.

The dinner was at Il Angolo, which was closed to the public for the occasion. There were maybe forty people - Loes had invited many of the Minnesota friends to attend. Wonderful food, wonderful service, a good time had by all. Susan and I then went to the bar at the Paper Valley to spend some time with other guests who had arrived; it was very, very loud. When we got home at last, there was an RSVP on the answering machine: "We'll be there!" So much for final meal counts and table assignments...

Prelude to a Wedding

It is interesting how much one thinks about not getting sick or injured in the weeks and days leading up to a daughter’s wedding, which is better enjoyed without, say, crutches. I had a terrible virus a week before the wedding, but began feeling human again on Wednesday, which was cutting it close. Thursday was when folks began rolling into town. We had a casual dinner for Kate and Eric, his parents, Susan’s mother and her boyfriend. All but Kate and Eric left relatively early, and the four of us relaxed for a bit and went to bed at a sensible hour, knowing how full the next few days would be…

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Brewster Village Update

Call this one a little “follow up on the story” post, a violation of my current practice of only posting brief essays on this blog. It has been more than ten weeks since things first blew up at Brewster Village when my former blog became the buzz among the staff. The first issue to emerge was that even though I had referred to residents only by the first letter of their first name, staff could easily identify them through my descriptions and stories. This led to both internal and external HIPAA investigations, and I was relieved of duties while they were conducted.

A second issue then emerged, one that nobody at BV or the county had previously had on their radar. After a resident died, I often wrote a brief tribute to them, including a picture when available. It turns out that HIPAA protection does not cease merely because you are six feet under. Who knew? You may be dead, but at least your health insurance cannot be canceled.

I have had virtually no contact with Brewster Village during this time. I have had several phone chats with the county compliance officer, and today had a meeting with him and the county’s corporate counsel. They have decided that they are required to contact everyone who was ever mentioned in the blog, no matter how discreetly, and inform them that their privacy has been violated. This includes living residents, guardians of those not competent to manage their own affairs, and guardians of deceased residents. The letter will note that the violations took place in the context of a personal journal and that the intent was to honor and affirm them, but that a violation took place none the less. They will apologize, and hope that no-one is angered to the point of litigation.

It was a civil and businesslike conversation, but painful for me. In the course of the conversation I learned that my volunteer position at Brewster Village has been permanently eliminated by the administrator. I had pretty much assumed that was, or would be, the case, but it would have been nice to hear it directly from him. I imagine he is not the happiest guy in the world right now, since it is documented that he was aware of the blog, had read portions of it some time ago, and had given permission for me to continue. I hope a point may come where we can have a face-to-face conversation. I would also value an opportunity to apologize personally to any residents or staff who have been hurt in any way, but it was made clear today that this is not under my control.

So now I wait to see how the next part of the story unfolds: if there is such a thing as “closure” (I have always been suspicious of the term; I am not convinced there is ever true closure in this life) it remains some distance off. When I am certain that all dust has settled I will ponder a new way to invest myself in significant volunteer service. Sadly, it will not likely be in nursing home chaplaincy: imagine trying to explain all this to the director of another facility!

Brewster Village has been central to my world for these past two years, and there is deep grief in knowing that I will not be a part of its life in the future. Sixty years old and – sad to say – my hindsight is still a lot better than my foresight.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Snow Tire Rant

When I purchased my little Volvo coupe late in the spring, I knew that it had big honking wheels with high-performance summer tires, but did not give the matter much thought beyond noting that I would need to change over to snow tires for the winter. Over the last month, I have had cause to give the matter much thought. Here are some of my learnings:
1. Very few snow tires are manufactured in the 215/45-18 size. Those that are manufactured are all high performance and very expensive.
2. In addition to being very expensive, snow tires in this size are not particularly effective in the snow. It is the equivalent of trying to walk in clown shoes: tires that big and wide spread the car’s weight over a larger surface area, and therefore do not grip snow and ice very well. They also have a tendency to push the snow ahead of them, functioning like rubber snowplows.
3. Because the fancy alloy wheels on the Volvo cannot accommodate clip-on weights, stick-on weights must be used to rebalance the wheels every time you switch from summer to winter tires or vice versa, raising the cost to $60 - $100 a pop.
4. The ideal for winter driving is smaller, narrower snow tires, meaning buying a second set of wheels that are 2” smaller in diameter and mounting 205/55-16 tires.
5. These will look kinda dorky in wheel openings designed for bigger wheels.
6. In theory, buying smaller wheels and tires will cost less over the course of two or three years than purchasing big honking snow tires that do not perform well. This is because many different snow tires are made in the smaller size, and most of them cost less than half what the big, high-performance ones do. Also, there is no ongoing cost of remounting and rebalancing twice a year. Sounds like a winner, right? Ah, but…
7. Federal regulations will not permit any tire dealer to sell or install wheels that disable an “essential safety feature” of an automobile (just as a licensed electrician cannot install a non-GFI outlet near a water source).
8. The Volvo has pressure sensors mounted in each wheel (as I believe all new automobiles are now required to, or soon will be).
9. Pressure sensors are essential safety features.
10. Pressure sensors are also expensive. Which takes us back to point six, which is now negated by the additional cost of having pressure sensors mounted in each winter wheel.
11. Just as I as a homeowner can install a non-GFI (“ground fault interrupter” for those who enjoy technical terms) outlet in my own kitchen but an electrician cannot, I am free to buy wheels without pressure sensor and install them myself, so long as I do not admit that they will go on a car equipped with pressure sensors (See point six, where tire dealers may not knowingly sell a wheel that will compromise an “essential safety feature”).
12. Exercising my rights as a citizen would require me to store the wheels not in use in my crowded garage, swap them out twice a year myself, and spend the winter looking at red lights on my dashboard warning me that my tires are all completely flat. So,
13. I have bitten the bullet and ordered tires and wheels with pressure sensors. But now I am starting to wonder if I should have voted for McCain after all.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Modest Proposal on "Same-Sex Marriage"

My only major disappointment in the election was the passage of Proposition 8 in California, prohibiting same-sex marriages. But I wonder if we need to rethink the entire issue in completely different terms.

There are a lot of socially/religiously conservative folks who honestly fear “the Gay Agenda” (I have never figured out exactly what this agenda is supposed to be: mandatory homosexuality?), but a fair number of them claim to have Gay friends they value and support civil rights for same-sex couples. How you can fear the Gay Agenda and support civil rights for Gays is something of a mystery to me, but it appears to be true none-the-less.

Likewise there are a fair number of social progressives who are passionate about “Gay rights” but waffle a bit when the word “marriage” is used to describe committed same-sex partnerships. In the commitment services at which I have officiated over the years I have never used the word “marriage,” primarily because I wear two hats when officiating, one for the church and one for the state of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin does not allow me to perform a “marriage” for two persons of the same gender. But I must confess that I also struggle with that word in theological terms. I agree with Stanley Hauerwas that God is likely a good deal less fascinated by our genitals than we are, and that the heart of Biblical teachings on relationships is not about gender orientation but about fidelity and commitment, but still the “M word” makes me squirm a little bit.

So here’s a potential solution: we eliminate the term “marriage” from civil law for all persons, gay or straight, and the states issue only “civil union licenses” rather than marriage licenses. The state assumes its proper role, which is to guarantee legal rights and protections to committed partners regardless of orientation. Then religious communities assume their proper role, which is to bless the spiritual commitment of marriage in accordance with a given religious community’s doctrines and practices. Some religious communities/denominations, including my own, would bless spiritual marriages for same-sex couples while many others would not. Fine. If two nice Mormon boys fall in love and want to share in a civil union, they would have that right. If they also want to be married in the eyes of God, they would need to decide if that is a higher priority than remaining Mormon, because their church is not going to permit them to marry.

Negatively, this would tend to isolate folks into spiritual communities with like-minded folks, perhaps contributing to our division as a society (which, of course, is already the case). Positively, it could lead more people to experience how the theology of their faith tradition shapes and forms how we live together in community: "this is who we are, this is what we believe, this is how we live."

It would also make it easier for faith communities to say “no” to people who hold no religious faith but still want the church to perform their marriage ceremony; “marriage” in the church would be reserved for those who understand that it is a spiritual commitment and who genuinely want to make that commitment. This being a reputedly free country, persons who do not hold religious convictions would remain perfectly free to declare themselves “married” – who’s gonna stop ‘em? – and could have a ceremony performed by a New Age Guru with feathers and crystals and tap-dancing squirrels if they wish. But churches, synagogues and temples would no longer need to prostitute themselves by accommodating requests from couples who desire a “church wedding” but would just as soon not have God mentioned.

It’s not going to happen, of course, if only because it makes too much sense, and because the tradition of church weddings is so deeply established in our culture. I remember when my colleague Lillian met with a couple who had asked her to marry them in her church, and they could not identify a single religious belief they held. “Why do you want to be married in the church, then?” Lillian asked reasonably. The bride giggled: “I just always pictured myself walking down an aisle.” Lillian nodded understandingly. “Have you considered being married in a supermarket?”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Living in Two Christian Communities

We have two “church families” we dearly love, and for the foreseeable future we are likely to have a foot in each. They could hardly be more different. More than two years after my departure, First Congregational is filled with life and energy, with many good things happening. I could not be more delighted. We have been attending about every other week, and have been made to feel very welcome. There are so many people we cherish there, and the place is rich with memories for me. Which, of course, is a part of my struggle with returning there.

It is the same, yet different, which is how it should be. Churches evolve, and a new leader reshapes the church’s identity in significant ways. I could not ask for a better successor than Steve Savides, and I know that “my baby is in good hands.” But (and there is also a “but” or two)… When I attend I am reminded that I was probably about as “confessional” a senior pastor as a large Mainline congregation could handle, and that Steve has moved the church a few nudges back towards “mainline norms.” I have spent the last couple of years associating mostly with progressive Evangelical folk, which makes it a bit of a challenge to readjust to less Christocentric Mainline theology. It is hardly a huge, sweeping change – I suspect few members have even noticed – and it may say more about how my own journey has evolved than anything else. And then there is also the issue of how deeply I can participate in the life of First Congo while honoring ethical boundaries: Sunday worship is fine, as are occasional fellowship activities, but at least for another year or two that will be all that I permit myself. Certainly I can never offer comments or opinions about any dimension of congregational life, a limitation that makes me feel more like “visitor” than “member.”

Then there is San Damiano, the altogether peculiar little emergent church community we have been a part of for more than 18 months. It is an assemblage of quirky, interesting and diverse folks we have come to love dearly. The worship is sometimes rambly and formless, and some weeks the content is there and some weeks it is not. Its long-term survival is very much an open question as there seems to be no collective will to make “institutional viability” a focus. If emergent churches in general break all the rules about how a Christian church is organized and conducted, then San Damiano breaks all the rules about how an emergent churches are organized and conducted. Sometimes it makes he want to tear my hair out, but as the guy in Breakback Mountain said, “I wish I could quit you.” As long as there is a San Damiano, it will likely continue to claim a part of my heart and soul.

This was reinforced this morning when my friend Mike and I visited yet another new church in the valley, “The Mission Church.” Its story has amazing parallels with San Damiano’s: started by a youth pastor who served in a big-box Evangelical Church (Pathways, in this case) with an initial core of teens from that youth program and their parents, along with an odd smattering of folks with personal affection for the pastor. They meet in a dance studio, which has a different feel from meeting in a bar. They cover all the mirrors on the wall with black cloth so that folks at worship do not have to stare at their own reflections, like San Damiano has to cover the least-tasteful beer poster in the room used for “kids’ church.” Oh, and The Mission Church folks sit on folding chairs rather than barstools, which has some advantages for us older folks.

At least for now, they have appropriated far more norms from “big box worship,” including a full rock and roll praise band, which was bit jarring to me after the musical simplicity of San Damiano. The sermon also struck me as “big box,” blending scripture with pop psychology and funny stories. It was not a bad sermon by any means, but it could have passed for a corporate team-building pep talk…

Lots of teens there, many of the boys looking bored and sullen, as teen boys are supposed to do. It made me aware that we have almost no teens left at San Damiano – being more than two years older than The Mission Church, the teens who had been in Greg’s youth group at Christ the Rock have now grown up and graduated. In some ways I was experiencing what San Damiano was like at its beginning; as we were leaving Mike commented that he felt like he had just attended a youth group meeting…

Oh, I even had the lady behind me who seems to be sitting behind me whenever I visit a big-box Evangelical church; the lady who talks to Jesus through the entire service. I think it is mandatory to have at least one of those in every Evangelical worship service.

So, it was nice to visit, but it served as reminder there is likely no “perfect fit” church out there for me. The part of me that loves sound liturgy, thoughtful sermons, timeless music and a passion for social justice will be fed at First Congregational. And the part of me that loves simple devotion to Jesus, meeting people where they are and embracing spiritual chaos will be fed at San Damiano.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Goodwill, Health Insurance and Privileged Liberals

It goes around in circles that make me dizzy. The poor have more health problems, and therefore health insurance for folks with lower incomes costs more. Folks with lower incomes have more health problems for a number of reasons, prominent among them that they see doctors less often because – you guessed it – they lack health insurance. The illness that could have been avoided altogether by good preventive medical care is neglected until it becomes a crisis. Lacking a family doctor, the person in crisis must go to the emergency room, the most expensive place to receive health care. The medical bills resulting from this emergency care tip the already tight family budget into chaos, which means there is no money to see a doctor or dentist, much less to purchase health insurance, and the entire circle starts to spin around again.

Goodwill’s People Team (“HR” in most organizations) is now hosting “open enrollment” discussions in all of our sites. Surprise, surprise: the cost of health insurance has risen yet again. Our folks labored hard to secure the best possible coverage at the lowest possible cost, but we are swimming against a mighty strong current. Our employees will be hit with higher co-pays, and our bottom line costs are taking a big hit. All the things that make Goodwill the unique and wonderful organization it is, including our progressive hiring practices, conspire to make our health insurance costs significantly higher than those for most other organizations. Call me small-minded, but sometimes that feels like getting punished for doing the right thing.

In my conversations with our employees, I hear stories that make me proud, stories that break my heart, and stories that make me flat-out angry. I spoke last week with an employee in her late forties who had just enrolled in our health plan – at the most basic and inexpensive level possible – and will now have at least some health insurance for the first time in her life. Will her budget be strained? Terribly. But as she said to me, “I’m not getting any younger; I’ve got to start taking care of myself.”

Another team member desperately needs extensive dental work. She receives such health insurance as she has through the state’s BadgerCare program, and has been waiting months to receive approval to proceed. Even if they grant approval, they will pay for only a portion of this very expensive work. Why did she neglect her dental care so badly? Because for many years she has been making sure her children got to the dentist regularly, which left no money for mom to take care of her own teeth. I have heard versions of this story dozens of times: we have a lot of employees with missing teeth.

I remember when I was a kid and my dad was turned down by the bank when he applied for a small loan to replace our leaking roof. “Banks only lend money to people who don’t need the money,” he said to me with a trace of bitterness. He died many years ago, so he did not get to see the era where credit card offers arrived in the mail daily and banks became eager to lend money to people who had no hope of repaying them, throwing the poor into horrible debt and ultimately melting down the entire credit market.

But it remains true that the affluent, who live healthier lifestyles overall, have wonderful access to medical care while poor folks, who face greater health and lifestyle challenges, have very limited access to quality health care. The only real solutions are political in nature: our society must come together with a common will to say that this is not just, and it is not sustainable. Yet another reason to vote for Obama, and to hope that he has the courage to provide real leadership against the entrenched interests that will oppose meaningful change every step of the way. Bluntly stated, those “entrenched interests” include folks like you and me, who take our own privileged lives for granted. There are a lot of progressive folks who are eager to demand justice for the poor, but still have not figured out that this requires surrendering some of our own privileges. My 403B make be down for the count, but I still have all my teeth, and that is privilege.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why We Need Halloween

I have a particular gift for selecting the seat at a banquet table right next to the person I am least likely to enjoying having a conversation with: bores, braggarts and people who believe I will be fascinated by a recitation of their various medical conditions. It was during the last week in October some years ago that I was seated next to a woman who was delighted to learn that I was a pastor because she was certain I would support her cause, which was a national ban on Halloween and everything associated with it. Away with trick or treating! Down with jack o’ lanterns and cardboard cut-outs of witches on broomsticks! Be gone, ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night! In her eyes, Halloween was a demonic festival, propagated through the combined efforts of “atheists and devil worshipers.”

I cannot resist a quick aside here. Why is it that such folks believe that atheists reject Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism but think that “devil worshipers” are really swell people? If atheists reject the truth claims of all religions, why would they make an exception for devil worshipers? But I digress.

The woman was shocked, of course, to learn that I – a pastor no less! – had no objection to Halloween. I tried to explain to her that its pre-Christian history among the Celts had nothing whatsoever to do with Satan, but she wasn’t buying it. Someone whose mind is already made up has no interest in facts, so arguing with them is the equivalent of mud-wrestling with a pig: you just get dirty and the pig gets annoyed.

There are also folks who object to Halloween for non-religious reasons. Some see it as a celebration of greed and tooth decay. Others view it as another bit of consumerist hype, or an excuse for adults to drink too much and behave in a licentious manner (even our morally upright Goodwill stores sell fishnet stockings for sexy witches). There is a dribble of truth in all these objections, I suppose, but in the end they all amount to the same thing: some people get offended and upset by anything that looks like too much fun.

Halloween is when kids get to deal with the things that frighten them – monsters, pirates, ghosts, witches – in the healthiest way possible, which is to make fun of them. It is what sociologists term a “transgressive” festival, where we deliberately do things we normally do not. Small children should not be wandering the streets after dark, but on Halloween it is ok to do so (with a parent hovering nearby, of course). Small children should not accept candy from strangers, much less beg for it, but on Halloween we break that rule. Responsible adults with high moral values should not be dressing up like hookers and pimps. In a very real sense, we affirm our normal values and practices by violating them in small and safe ways for a special occasion. How will we know where the acceptable boundaries are if we never step a single foot outside of them?

Halloween is about being silly, about breaking the rules a little bit, about a tiny whiff of danger. It is about having fun simply for the sake of having fun. Children understand all of this intuitively, which is why they get so wonderfully excited. When times are hard and the economy is in the toilet, we need Halloween more than ever.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Homogeneity and Extremism

There is a growing and important conversation about the risks inherent in homogeneity, political homogeneity in particular. It begins with the “red state, blue state” phenomenon: increasingly we resemble two nations with significantly different perspectives on everything from hot-button social issues (abortion and homosexuality) to foreign policy, leaving a few swing states to determine the outcome of national elections. But even within local communities we tend to associate less and less with people who hold views different from our own. Churches, for example, used to be one of many settings in which conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, prayed, worked and broke bread with one another. Churches have now become far more politically and culturally homogenous: liberals attend liberal churches and conservatives attend conservative churches, where our existing views are reinforced. We increasingly make friendships and form social circles only with like-minded people. Not only are we less likely to have our views challenged, but we no longer feel constrained from expressing our views in strong terms because of the risk of causing offense to others.

Studies demonstrate that this growing homogeneity is responsible for greater extremism, intolerance, and the demonization of those who hold view different from our own. Perhaps the most disturbing example occurred at the McCain rally where a woman got directly in Mr. McCain’s face and told him he had to defeat Obama because Obama was a Muslim. The look on Mr. McCain’s face was amazing: he was clearly knocked for a loop and deeply troubled. McCain corrected her and said that Obama was a “decent family man” – how odd that only the man she was relying upon to “defeat the demon” had the opportunity to challenge her narrow views. McCain had no opportunity to address her unstated but clear conviction that Muslims are inherently evil: it would be fair to assume she has never met a Muslim herself.

Attack ads and negative campaigning reinforce this extremism and intolerance: folks who have already demonized the opposing candidate become more rabid with each new attack. Attack ads are not designed to change opinions. Rather, their purpose is to create discouragement and doubt in the minds of those who support the person being attacked while “firing up the base” for their own candidate. Increasingly we are a society that does not so much vote for a candidate as we vote against one. My hunch is that such ugly attack ads would not be nearly as effective if more of us moved in circles that were politically, culturally and religiously mixed and were forced to interact with people whose candidate or party had just been demonized by our own candidate.

There was a time when friends supporting opposing political candidates could rib one another in a light-hearted manner and remain good friends. Now we simply do not speak about politics with friends whose views differ from our own because it is almost impossible to maintain a light-hearted spirit.

Last month I was chatting with an elderly woman about all this. “Do you know who you are going to vote for?” I asked her. “I’m waiting to see who has the meanest, ugliest ad, then I’m going to vote for the other guy.” I think she may be onto something.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sex and the Economic Downturn

This will be one of the oddest items I post, and I shall endeavor to do so tastefully. Let me begin with an article that caught my eyes in Sunday’s New York Times. Several new hotels in Manhattan were being reviewed, and in one up-market, high tech hotel the reviewer was surprised to find that the mini-bar featured a “sensuality kit” that included condoms, lubricant, a small vibrator, and two strips of silk with pictures of handcuffs printed on them (presumably the hotel’s lawyers vetoed actual handcuffs). Price for the kit: $195.00. Recession? What recession? One can only hope that the purchaser leaves the vibrator out at room temperature for a bit before employing it.

This could easily lead to an essay on people’s behaviors in motels and hotels, but we will leave that for another day. I ran out to the All-Tel office this afternoon to renew our contract and pick up a new phone (my clunker again failed to alert me to an incoming call while set on “vibrate” during Rotary). As long as I was out there, I stopped next door to say hello to Evelyn, co-owner (with her daughter) of D’Von’s Lingerie, who I had not seen in nearly two years.

Evelyn first started D’Von’s in a cavernous space in the old Valley Fair Mall nearly ten years ago. Susan and I wandered in one day after getting flu shots and liked her so much that we worked hard at finding things to purchase from her: candles, as I recall, and a nightgown for Susan’s mother (we would not find anything for her mother in Evelyn’s current product mix, I suspect). I bonded with Evelyn around our mutual love for classic pin-up art, and would stop in from time to time. Three years ago or so I conducted the wedding of her daughter, Denise, one of the most grounded, solid young women I have ever met, and a wonderful mom to her kids (even if she sells “insertable pig tails” and other such gear). Both mother and daughter, in other words, are great people laboring in an interesting corner of the retail world.

So I asked Evelyn what was new and how the shop was doing. Her husband worked at the New Page mill, so is out of work, and business has been miserable. Halloween is normally a big season for shops like hers (I have speculated on where one would wear the kind of costumes she sells in public; parties we never get invited to, I suppose), but this year “the season hasn’t even started yet.” I asked her about her core customer base, the exotic dancers who work in local clubs (they get a discount). The dancers, she told me, have been complaining about poor business and lousy tips for the past six months. “They’re only buying shoes and panties, the things that get worn out,” Evelyn lamented. I decided not to ask a follow-up question on that one.

I told her I had thought that the sex business – and that is, in the end, what she and Denise are in – would be pretty much recession-proof. She paused for a moment. “What keeps us going are the toys,” she finally said. “Four years ago I refused to carry them, and now they are 75% of our business. They have become completely mainstream, and if you can’t afford a night out you can at least buy a couple of toys to make it fun to stay home.”

I told her about the hotel’s “sensuality kit” and she howled. “A hundred and ninety five dollars?” I could put together a much better kit for twenty bucks!” I’m sure she could, with or without the pig tail.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

On an Imploding Economy...

Our September brokerage statement arrived today, and at least I was courageous enough to open it. I winced, of course: about a ten percent decline in value for the month, and the carnage this first week of October has been much worse. There is a bottom out there somewhere, but right now not even the savviest pundits have a clue where it might be. Only those who put all of their assets into copper drain pipes and used manhole covers have been spared the pain: there are no safe havens when the very structures of the global marketplace tumble.

How interesting, and sad, that we seem to be without an inspiring leader to offer us a vision of stability, sanity and hope not just in the US, but in the world. Still-president Bush has fallen from "lame duck" to "completely irrelevant" status and clearly is aware of it: he is looking like a broken man to me. McCain and Obama are sniping about incidents in one another's younger lives rather than offering inspiration: perhaps tonight's debate will see one of them demonstrate genuine leadership, but I am not optimistic. There are times where I find myself wondering if this is, in the end, a financial crisis or a leadership crisis.

Something like -what? - thirty percent of the world's wealth has simply vanished in a very short period of time. Sometimes that concept seems absurdly abstract: there is no less "stuff," no fewer useful or beautiful objects, just a loss of confidence in what that stuff is worth in market terms.

Certainly I need to rethink things like plans for retirement, which I had allowed myself to believe was just a few years away (memo to self: the markets are not going to recover that quickly, bonehead!), but the impact on my actual day-to-day life will be modest compared to so many others. The poor, as always, are going to take it on the chin in multiple ways: more expensive goods, vanishing jobs, fewer resource available to the agencies and programs that have supported them, etc. And the highly-leveraged high-rollers are essentially screwed save for the few - and most morally offensive - who have already "gotten theirs" and salted it away. The hard-to-pronounce and difficult-to-spell German word for "taking satisfaction in the misfortunes of others" is getting a real workout referring to such folks, but it is an ugly place to take comfort.

Markets do some things extremely well, but they are completely and utterly without compassion: the do not care who gets left out or left behind - the elderly, the poor, the disabled -as they merrily (and, in theory, efficiently) do their thing. Which of course is why markets need to be regulated. Greed and hubris trumped wisdom and compassion, and now the piper has showed up with the bill.

A spiritually mature response to a collapsing economy is to repent of the idolatry that led us to invest entirely too much value in pretty, shiny things and focus on gratitude for the things of true worth than can never be lost or taken from us. Mature, but I am not sure it is going to play well on either Main Street or Wall Street.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Aristotle nailed it!

Susan and I have committed to co-authoring a book titled Aging Together: Community, Friendship and Dementia, so this week I have been reading, thinking and writing about friendship. The obvious place to begin is with Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, where he discusses three forms of friendship: friendships based upon utility, friendships based upon enjoyment, and friendships based upon virtue. In his view, only the latter is a "complete" friendship.

Aristotle believed that we could sustain only a modest number of such friendships because they will - and should - make real demands upon us, including the demand that we spend time with our friends. He therefore believed that we should be very cautious in forming a friendship, making certain that the potential friend shares our ideal of what constitutes "the good." Here I will quarrel with him a bit, not about the number of real friendships we can sustain, but on whether our deepest friendships are consciously chosen or are given to us as a gift. Certainly my deepest friendships are with a motley bunch, and in most cases it is hard to identify a moment where I chose to enter into them: like life itself, real friendship just happens. Or at least that is what I will argue. Pretty sassy, taking on Aristotle.

But it is interesting to ponder his views in the context of the culture of "social networking" - what in the world would Aristotle make of "Facebook friends" and "Twitter friends"? I now have more than 100 "friends" on Facebook, not all of whom I am certain I would recognize in real life: they ask, and I say yes if the request seems genuine. When I check into my Facebook account I can scan in 30 seconds or so what is new with many of these "friends." Rarely do I read anything interesting or important, but once in a while something stands out and I send a quick note. Is that "friendship" in any meaningful sense? I have come to believe it has meaning, even value, but it is a long way from Aristotle's "virtuous friendship" that helps us to form and live an ethical life.

One thing we are experiencing that reinforces Aristotle's argument is that as we get older our close friends become more dear and important to us, and that these friendships demand more of our time, which we are glad to give. Aging brings more challenges with our health, greater needs in our extended families, etc. - there are more occasions where people we cherish need the presence of a true friend to support and sustain them, especially a friend they have been close to long enough that we really know one anther's stories.

Which brings up the challenge of geography. Aristotle named five features of a complete friendship, and one of them is that we commit to spending time with our friends. How much time? Every month? Every week? Friends we cherish live in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon... Some we see once a year if we are lucky, others every third year. Can we truly be "present" to one another across the miles? Can phone calls and emails sustain Aristotle's vision of complete friendship? Increasingly I am thinking not: complete friendship requires regular "face time." This does not mean that we value geographically distant friends less, but rather than the nature of the friendship necessarily shifts a bit: we now know these friends less intimately, and we are not building a common story the way we did when we saw one another frequently.

Many, many Americans pick up and move on a regular basis, of course, forming new "friends" wherever they happen to land. Somehow, by the grace of God, a few of these friendships "stick" over time and are experienced as sustaining. But it is interesting that the same moment in culture that gives us Facebook and Twitter also gives us so many coffee shops. Many people sit in them alone tapping on a laptop, of course, but others are using them as a setting in which to be intentional about getting together with their friends. Aristotle would be pleased: the new lyceum serves espresso.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Baseball and Spiritual Virtue

“Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying.
Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.”

(from Baseball and Football by George Carlin)

During the Brewers’ last regular season game I was a bundle of nervous energy. I needed to keep my hands occupied. I brought the kitchen “junk drawer” into the den and sorted it in front of the television. I took the radio into the back yard (tuned to the Milwaukee station; for some strange reason the local station was broadcasting a football game) and spliced wires that the squirrels had chewed through. Occasionally I would run to my computer to check on the score of the critical Mets’ game. Oh, and very occasionally I would switch channels to see how badly the Packers were losing to Tampa Bay. When the Brewers won (thanks to CC Sabathia and Ryan Braun) and the Mets lost, I was as exhausted as I would have been had I just run a marathon.

I am a Baseball Guy, which is an untreatable condition. I moved to Wisconsin in 1983, the year after the Brewers last appeared in the World Series. I have been waiting 26 years for my team to make it back to the post-season. Along the way there have been many heartaches and disappointments.

I was schooled in the ways of heartache and disappointment from a tender age. I grew up near Philadelphia. I was passionate about the Phillies and attended a fair number of games at Connie Mack Stadium. I once saw Richie Ashburn foul off 23 straight pitches. Another time I saw Wes Covington (“the kingfish”) hit for the circuit. The one thing I never got to see at Connie Mack Stadium was a winning game. I was just a kid: I assumed it was my fault.

Then came 1964. On September 20, the Phillies held a 6 ½ game lead in the National League with 12 games to play. They lost the next ten in a row, including several to the Cardinals, who snatched the pennant that was rightfully ours. I have no patience for the whining of Cubs’ fans: what do they know of pain and anguish?

A lifetime spent as a fan of losing teams provides profound schooling in the spiritual virtues. Among the many virtues that baseball has formed and shaped in me are:
1. Patience. Fans of faster-moving and more aggressive sports likely regard watching an entire baseball game as a torturous exercise, given that an hour or more can go by in which “nothing happens.” But within that nothingness resides the full range of human experience: exultation, disappointment, nail-biting anxiety, moments of grace and beauty – the universe in a grain of sand. Patience is living through the pre-season, 162 games, and – if the baseball deities smile upon you – the post-season with your team.
2. Fidelity and Loyalty. “Nobody loves a loser,” say the pundits. Nobody but a true baseball fan. Your team is your team, through good times and bad. A man who will not abandon his team during a protracted losing streak is likely a man who will not be unfaithful to his wife when the marriage is strained.
3. Compassion born of suffering. Only one who has known genuine suffering himself or herself can be fully present to the suffering of another: as Nouwen notes, we offer the gift of healing love out of our own woundedness. Devoted baseball fans are the most wounded people on the earth (except, of course, for Yankees fans: those arrogant bastards are finally getting what they so desperately need), and therefore the most compassionate.
4. Hope. Perhaps the greatest virtue of them all, and baseball fans have it in abundance. “If we can just get some consistency from our middle relievers we’ll be right back in the hunt.” “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.” And, of course: “Wait ‘til next year!”

The Brewers just lost the first game of their series with the Phillies. We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Getting Back to Church

As a workplace chaplain for Goodwill Industries, I have many conversations with people who state the desire or intention to return to church. Chatting with me seems to trigger their guilt and/or longing: “I really gotta get back to church one of these days…”

Most are folks who fell out of church participation many years ago. Some left wounded or angry, but the great majority simply drifted away for reasons that are no longer clear to them. Many cannot even name what denomination the church they attended belonged to (unless they were Catholic, an identity that seems impossible to forget). Was it conservative or liberal in its views? Was the service liturgical or informal? They don’t know: it was simply church.

Very few have memories of participating in the life of the congregation beyond Sunday morning (which is likely what made it so easy to drift away). Almost universally they tell me that attending Sunday worship “made them feel better.” The desire to recover that feeling is often what motivates their desire to return.

Most do not have a clue how to select a church to visit; they are unaware of how widely contemporary churches vary in their style, form, doctrines and cultural values. People who do endless comparison shopping before selecting a new coffee-maker will pick a church because “I known someone who goes there” or “I drove by it and it looked nice.” I suspect that this is because religion is such a foreign world for them that they simply do not know how to think critically about selecting a potential spiritual home.

There is a lot of magical thinking about what will happen if they finally haul themselves to a church on Sunday morning. Those whose lives are in chaos fantasize that just walking through the front door will instantly mend all the brokenness. Others wish to check “tend to my spiritual needs” off the list that includes “floss my teeth daily.” Some have the hope that God Almighty will be so tickled that they showed up that they will begin winning the lottery on a regular basis. Many, many others hope and pray that they will find the sense of peace and comfort for which they long so deeply.

Maybe, as some insist, there is no bad reason for attending Sunday worship: God welcomes us no matter what our motivations are. But unless we come with realistic expectations, it will not be long before we drift away once more. Among those realistic expectations are:

1. It will take time. Worship is not a quick recharge of our spiritual batteries, it is a discipline that shapes and forms us over time. As we learn to worship God alone, we become less vulnerable to the temptation to worship the false idols of success, popularity, materialism and all the others.
2. One hour on Sunday morning will not be enough. “Being church” is sharing in the overall life of a congregation made up of people who are struggling to live faithfully in a world shaped by greed and violence. If we wish to become friends with God, we must build sustaining friendships with other people who also wish to be friends with God.
3. It is not about your needs. That sounds harsh, I know, but a church is not a spiritual mall where we can purchase religious goods and services. The truths of religion often sound like paradox, and one of these truths is that it is only through obeying God by serving others that we ultimately find that our own needs – including needs that we did not know we had – have been met.

So if you are thinking about “getting back to church,” I offer you every encouragement. But do not go with the illusion that it will require no discipline or effort on your part. And please do not go expecting God to bless your life just as it is. If you do it right, God is going to mess up your life in interesting ways.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My Italian Toaster

Before closing down my former blog, I joked that in the new one I might write about toasters. Susan read it and asked "Really?" So why not begin with an essay about my toaster...

This toaster is for me the essence of Italy because:
1. It is very stylish
2. It is quite expensive; and
3. It does not make toast particularly well.

I fell in love with Italian toasters during my first visit there because they are so decidedly non-American. They feature no "programmed settings" or bells and whistles. They are useless for things that should not exist anyway, like "toaster pastries." They do not even pop up: the user removes one of the baskets, inserts a piece of bread (any size or shape), drops the basket into the slot and turns the wheel of the mechanical timer. An Italian toaster is a simple, friendly, happy device.

When we returned to Italy, we rented a villa to share with our kids. To my great consternation, the villa had no toaster. So I went to Stephan's, the Italian discount chain, and purchased one for fifteen bucks. It was a lovely shade of green and it brought me great joy (my children, sad to say, appeared to be underwhelmed by its charms). I brought it home with me, of course.

Problem was, it was a 220 volt toaster. So I had to purchase a step-up/step-down transformer that cost far more than the toaster itself did. The toaster made several pieces of fine toast, then fried itself to death (anyone need a transformer?)

I was now out about sixty bucks and had no toaster. I searched the Internet and found the only Italian-style toaster that ran on 110 volts, one that was designed for sale in art museum gift shops and therefore obscenely priced. At least I got a discount on it.

Please note that it features two lights. The red one on the left indicates that the toaster is plugged in. This light is very important, because the instructions strictly warn that the toaster should never be left plugged in. Presumably this is because leaving the toaster plugged in might burn out the bulb that indicates that the toaster is plugged in.

The light on the right indicates that you are in the act of toasting, important knowledge that is reinforced by the very loud ticking of the mechanical timer. It ticks for a very long time, because it requires a very long time to make a piece of toast: Italians do not believe that anything should ever be done in haste (except, of course, driving).

Not everyone will share my love for overpriced, underperforming Italian toasters. But everyone should have at least one stylish, impractical thing that they love for no other reason than that it brings a smile to their face each time they use it. Just remember to unplug it when you are done.