Pastor? No Surely Not I!

Over the past four years I have been in a period of discernment to discover if God has been calling me to ministry in the Lutheran Church. Nearing and passing 60 is a strange time to be considering such a career move, though I believe this is less about career than about discipleship. My faith has taught me much, but bearing particularly on this situation are two. There is something paradoxical about the nature of God and we should be properly cautious when considering God’s timing. Pick any parable to learn about paradox. And Sarah’s laughter at bearing a child as a senior citizen ought to teach us about timing. I may have more to share later concerning how I got to today. God and I have wrestled. I have managed the practical by doing the paperwork and the psychological profiles. I have tended to the spirit in meditation and prayer. The journey has led to moments of resonant affirmation juxtaposed with searing doubt. I have shed tears of quiet assent and later shouted boisterous denials.

                In the ELCA there is an intense process for those who are considering a life in ministry. I can’t go to a web site and fill out a few forms and receive my certificate as an officially recognized minister. Well, I could. But the path prescribed by the ELCA appeals to me and not just because it is what I grew up with. I believe it has guided me to this point and that it is designed to winnow out the casual and hone the authentically called. I suppose there was that sense the process would winnow me out. God laughs.

The persistence of the Spirit compelled me onward. I was impelled by the desire to see this through and live with the answer. After submitting my candidacy essay I scheduled a meeting with the candidacy committee. That meeting occurred Thursday last and I was feeling confident that I would finally have some answers. I’m not afraid to say that I may have been slightly biased toward the negative, figuring that someone else could tell God no for me.

                The meeting took place at the Northwest Washington Synod offices which is a lot less imposing and grand than it sounds. It shares space with St John’s Lutheran and is situated across the street from the zoo. The office does command a sweeping view of Ballard and Magnolia and a glimpse of the Sound with the Olympic Mountains on the horizon. But there is little to distinguish it from a one-man law firm. I suppose it is entirely Lutheran in character, spare and unostentatious. Stacks of Living Lutheran magazine lay on the table in the small reception area, not a Sports Illustrated or Time to be found, Susan, the receptionist/aide knew I was coming and offered me tea as I waited for the committee to call me into my own personal inquisition.

If anyone had passively-aggressively had set themselves up for a grand face plant it had been me. A cold had dogged me all week long and instead of taking time off from work to tend to the cold, I’d gone to work including right up until an hour before the meeting. I didn’t even review a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism just in case. I’m not saying I was deliberately sabotaging my own interview but I came darn close. In an hour or so this would be settled and I’d be back to my life.            

                The interview was conducted in a conference room, I was given the seat at the witness table and if you’ve seen a Congressional hearing on TV you get the general idea of the set up. A glass of hemlock sat at arms-reach only it turned out it was just water. A panel of clergy and lay-persons asked me gentle and genial questions on my faith journey and my sense of call. The questioners were both friendly but also dug into some of my answers with proper severity. Several offered the idea that I might seem a little wishy-washy and I was certain at that point that I was off the hook. Time to take my tea and retreat to the waiting room while the committee deliberated. I was home free. While I couldn’t hear actual words, I could hear voices going back and forth and even an occasional burst of laughter. Terrific I thought, at least I’d brought some humor to the proceedings. I’m certain that serious candidates provide less laughter and of course more serious deliberation. Still the longer they talked the more worried I became that God was going to get the showdown God had been after. A rejection ought to be a slam dunk. I wondered if I might need legal counsel after all. When a representative was sent to retrieve, me I had become less certain of my fate and when I sat down again, hemlock still untouched, I wondered if perhaps I’d laid too much down on the collective wisdom in that room. When I heard congratulations, it was not, because the next words were “you are free to go.” Hello God, we meet again.

Apparently wishy-washy translates as paradox and if there is anything we Lutherans do well it is paradox. Because as I sat there in stunned silence, feeling the paradox of this willingness to accept God’s call laid against my control minded dislike of the unknown, Pastor Paul Hoffman read these words from my Approval paragraph.

““The deeper I journey, the more paradox I see…” was a sentence Steve shared with us as he reflected on his own story, his faith, his present musings about rostered leadership.  “Be confident that you can ask the questions, and be content that you may be given more questions…”  This sounds to us like one who is ready to engage in theological education”

                Turns out I had convicted myself. Shit just got real. This journey is far from over of course. But there are no more buffers and an easy way out based on the actions of someone other than myself. Jesus and I are face to face and I doubt He will be the first to blink. I suppose I come off as blithe about the process. I am not, but humor is often my way of coping. I say I was stunned, but not by the realization that my exit ticket had been rescinded. The committee had as gently as possible laid a yoke on my shoulders and I felt that weight as both heavy and light. Ah paradox.

There is still much road between here and possible ordination and beyond that to actual service. I will likely ease my way back into academia with a course at Seattle U. I have seminaries to research and options to consider. The very real challenges of doing this when most people are considering retirement are on my mind. But if I had doubts about the sense of call being real, a self-perpetuated delusion, that is no longer the case. Pastor Hoffman a longtime friend and mentor summed up what had just happened. “It’s up to you now Steve”

As I drove off after the meeting, in a weird mix of elation and trepidation the Spirt dropped this into my heart:  Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62. Thanks be to God.

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Transfigured

  1. Transfiguration Sunday is one of the highlights of the Church Year for me. It ranks right up there with Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas. It runs circles around the solemnity of Ash Wednesday. It celebrates the story of Jesus, and Peter, and James and his brother John. They climb the mountain and when they get to the top, “There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”” There is a lot going on here. I think it appeals to me because it speaks to my latent Catholic tendencies. There is a mystical element that strikes a chord in my being.
    The next thing that happens is the disciples fall to the ground in fear. A natural reaction. Pastor Julie even admitted she would probably have done the same. Not me! I don’t know what it says about me, my non-Catholic irreverence for the sacred or maybe a foolhardiness. I’d be running toward that cloud. This God I’ve been trying to track down is here, now. I’d try to be right in the middle of that. Although at that point God might turn the speakers up to 11 just to teach me some respect. I can’t help myself, I want a piece of that cloud.
    There is the after part; after God has folded God’s cloud and packed the special effects gear back onto the semis, and the roadies have God safely ensconced on the tour bus. I’d probably take in the view though. Then I’d see it, there off in the distance, about 40 days’ journey away. A smaller mountain, a pile of crap of a mountain. Something is sprouting out of the top, not a tree but something like a tree. It is wood with a couple of solid branches and is that a human being squirming on one of them? I can’t quite make it out. The thing is, the only way off this mountain is over that mountain; and that’s when I drop to the ground.
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Donuts Coffee and The Trump Years

donut-nut-chocolate-topping-coffee-tasty-fresh-brewed-51166183

It was just a cup of coffee and a donut. In the edgy aftermath of last Tuesday’s events though, it was a small reminder that normalcy still exists. A glimmer of hope in caffeine and a chocolate and nut covered life-preserver of deep fried dough. There was a reminder of my grandma’s kitchen on a random Saturday during my childhood, when she and my mother sat around her linoleum kitchen table and we kids would palm  a sugar cube from the rose patterned dish and pop it into our mouth, savoring the sweet dissolving granules before darting off to play. Coffee and donuts and a reminder that we might be ok.

On Tuesday night, I had turned off the noise well before the final results but too late for the knowledge that against all odds and reason Donald Trump was going to be the next President. Bigotry, hatred, xenophobia had won the day. Enough of his supporters, who had spent the campaign sugar coating the message behind a Make America Great again slogan had elevated a racist sexual predator to the highest office in the land. I imagined even a priapic JFK and a mentally unbalanced Nixon whirling in their graves.    It remains possible that the office will shape the man but that’s not a hand I’m willing to double down on. Not when the dealer shows a jack and I’m holding an eight and a seven.   On Wednesday, I was in the throes of an emotional storm. The weather changed with alarming irregularity, and I rolled from anger to despair to fear and to hopelessness, often within a period of ten minutes. The cycle repeated itself and seemed to be both quelled and fed by the emotions of my coworkers.  If there was a Trump supporter among us their discretion held their elation at bay. The majority were like me, in denial, despair, fear and uncertainty. Shock might be the best summation of what we were all feeling and we shared during our coffee breaks and lunches our frustrations. It was good to have the therapy of work and the company of others. The gay man expressed his fears openly and we affirmed him. A woman could not contain her anger, curses peppering her words freely and received without judgment from the group. Earlier I had received a general email from our Pastor that members of our congregation had been calling her all day, with similar worries and so many questions. She decided to open the church that evening, for quiet, for prayer and for conversation as needed. I had already decided to go, but as I heard my coworkers vent, I knew with a humility borne of the Spirit that I would be carrying their burdens with me. It was the first time in my life that my prayer responsibility had taken on such immediacy.    I had a few minutes to kill before I headed to the church. There is a Dunkin Donuts that lies on busy Aurora Avenue in North Seattle, due east of the church. It had been a meeting place of some of the older men from church, who gathered informally at the Church of The Holy Donut every Monday morning. Due to work and other distractions I had never been privileged to join them, but the symmetry seemed especially appropriate this heavy evening. In a past life I had even taken a Sunday School class there in lieu of the sloppily prepared lesson plan for the day. I became at least for one Sunday a hero to a group of bored middle school students but that’s another tale. This day it just felt better than an overpriced latte and muffin.    Dunkin Donuts is a strip mall stereotype, all glass, metal, brick and harsh fluorescent. It does not carry the too often pretentious ambience of Starbuck’s; truthfully it probably fits the preferences of a Trump supporter than a suburban liberal. But it has tables, and chairs and it has coffee and donuts. Sometimes that’s all you need. As the early evening commute crawled by and the working girls paraded their wares just outside the plate glass I ordered a medium coffee, “black please” and a cake donut covered in chocolate and chopped nuts. I spoke with the proprietor and listened to this Asian man express his own bewilderment and unstated fear of what the future held for someone like him, a thickly accented person who may have felt, rightly or wrongly, caught in the cross-hairs of President-elect Trump. I smiled and tried to express my sympathy via a shoulder shrug and told him about the high school kids on the overpass at 130th holding signs with little hearts and “love wins” written on them. A lifeline of hope, just as his lifesaver shaped donut was standing at the ready to bolster mine. I sat down and enjoyed what turned out to be the best donut and cup of coffee of my life.  Three days later I’m still being buffeted by my own emotional wind storm. A few things have emerged though, that hope exists. It is there in the simple companionship of fear, anger, and despair. It is there in a quiet spot to pray and light a candle, or just light a candle if prayer does not come easily. It is there in the unexpected text from your child, asking after the state of your soul and assuring you that he and his generation are not about to roll over for hatred. It’s there in simple pleasure of life, a cup of coffee and nut covered donut. Our hope should give rise to both vigilance and action when it is called for. I fully expect that call to come often in the years ahead. Just remember to stop for a cup of coffee and a donut occasionally.  Namaste

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Thomas Merton and The Politics of 2016

“The tragedy of a life centered on “things” and the grasping and manipulation of objects, is that such a life closes the ego upon itself as though it were an end in itself, and throws it into a hopeless struggle with other perverse and hostile selves competing together for the possessions which will give power and satisfaction” Thomas Merton, Zen and The Birds of Appetite.

Does this sound like anyone we know? Thomas Merton shared this observation in 1968, yet it is not difficult to connect these words to the current Presidential campaign. I have no trouble identifying Trump with the tragedy Merton speaks of. Donald Trump not only personifies the ego unchecked, but his campaign has been a perfect example of one who exploits the “hopeless struggle” to achieve his own ends. Of course, Trump does not operate in a vacuum. Millions of his supporters, some more vocal than others, see in Trump a leader who can help them hang onto their things, be they material or be they ideological. They operate with an ideology of how the world ought to be, a world of American preeminence and its citizens, the deserving of course, the beneficiaries of that preeminence. Yet Merton, were he still alive, would be quick to point out that this life of things, of grasping after things and manipulating others to get things is not simply a Trump problem. It is in all of us, lest anyone be ready to remove the speck from his brother’s eye before removing the log from their own.

I think Merton, bathing in the still fresh waters of Vatican II, saw an ancient church that had fallen into the trap of the material and had lost sight of the core. He was exploring parallels between Buddhist notions of suffering and it’s causes and the Catholic(Christian) idea of Original Sin. He began to see similar solutions between the Buddhist goal to disengage from the source of suffering (self-interest) and God’s self-emptying on the Cross and the Christian’s duty to follow the example of sacrifice. Let’s be honest with ourselves, any politician manipulates the desires of their followers to gain and maintain power; Hilary Clinton not excepted. Yet there is in Clinton and in her career, a recognition of the notion that something must be done to alleviate the suffering caused by our grasping. Trump on the other hand has a word for those who fail; Loser.

I’m speculating of course on the thoughts of a visionary who died nearly fifty years ago during a journey of discovery in times just as volatile as the current. I do feel confident that Merton might have much to say about our current politics, would be encouraged by the papacy of Francis and critical of the evangelical right that clings to a candidate so diametrically opposed to the teachings of their “personal Lord and Savior.” I think he would be critical of those of a more progressive religious sense as well. I think Merton would be asking why do we remain silent?

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Mark Lane- Flawed Hero

I saw a small announcement in the paper the other day that Mark Lane had died. Lane, a social activist, lawyer and fly in the ointment of the powers that be wrote the book Rush to Judgement a brutal autopsy on the conclusions of the Warren Commission. Lane argued that the Commission had begun with the assumption of Lee Harvey Oswald’s guilt in the assassination of John F Kennedy. With Oswald dead and unable to speak for himself, Lane volunteered his services as Oswald’s attorney before what amounted to Oswald’s trial and conviction. At the end of the hearings and with the production of 26 volumes of material the Commission did indeed conclude that Oswald was the gunman and that he had acted alone. For Lane the sheer volume of material was nothing more than an attempt to mask the truth.

                I went to a lecture given by Lane at Shoreline Community College in the spring of 1976. The Kennedy murder had fascinated me from the moment it happened even though I was only 8 years old in 1963. I had devoured Jim Bishop’s The Day Kennedy Died and William Manchester’s The Death of a President. Kennedy had been a hero in our household and I suppose I was trying to understand why and how an insignificant warehouse worker could cut down the author of the New Frontier. In 1976, I had heard the conspiracy theories but still harbored a belief that Oswald had acted alone and that the Commission had done a thorough job. Viewing the recent Watergate Scandal as an anomaly, I never had reason to doubt the Commission’s version of events, believing that the honorable men we placed in positions of power would never lie to us about such momentous matters. Then I went to Lane’s lecture. I read Lane’s book. It proved to be a seminal moment for me. I began to wonder if the basic integrity that I assigned to our public servants was an illusion. Watergate was not an anomaly but business as usual in DC. Lane cracked the door open to the idea that the men in power, and at that time it was still mostly men at the controls, were less interested in serving the highest ideals and more interested in serving themselves. In the fall I would enter the UW, a bastion of radical thought and healthy pessimism. I would learn of our dealings in Guatemala and Iran in the 50’s and wrote a paper on the way the media was played during the Gulf of Tonkin crisis. Yet despite all that, I’ve never lost my faith in the principles ensconced in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.  

                Over time of course, even Mark Lane began to lose his luster. Lane suffered from the liberal tendency to make excuses when faced with facts. In 1978 Lane represented the leader of the People’s Temple in San Francisco, Jim Jones. When Jones led his followers into mass suicide, Lane continued to defend the group, claiming Jones was harried by a vast conspiracy of CIA and other government officials. It was a lesson to me that men on either side of the spectrum were capable of twisting truth.

                Over the years since reading Rush to Judgment I’ve immersed myself in the Kennedy conspiracy literature. The sheer magnitude and paranoia surrounding all the theories eventually convinced me that it was an unhealthy place to go. I don’t know that I’ve ever come back to acceptance of the Warren Commission’s conclusions; to his credit Lane exposed a hurried and preconceived verdict. Enough questions remain unanswered and at this point may never be answered. We’re just not going to know. In the end, Lane, and others, have taught me that citizenship is not so much pledging allegiance than living allegiance by maintaining a constant tension between distrust and commitment to the higher ideals we avow. Even if it means you have to call the assholes out.

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Tangled Vines

Unless and until you understand the biblical concept of God’s unmerited favor, God’s unaccountable love, most of the biblical text cannot be interpreted or tied together in any positive way. It is, without doubt, the key and the code to everything transformative in the Bible. People who have not experienced the radical character of grace will always misinterpret the meanings and major direction of the Bible. The Bible will become a burden, obligation, and weapon more than a gift.

Richard Rohr- Daily Meditation January 25, 2016 “God is Eternally Giving Away God.”

Grace unearned, Grace Unlimited, Grace that is Relentless.

How I deal with my measure of Grace, well, that is between God and I.

I have No claim on arbitrating Grace between God and anyone else. Not by my baptismal privilege nor any sense of God’s mark on me (be wary of the self-proclaimed anointed ones)

It isn’t really up for discussion but….

Whether we have our own salvation fearfully worked out,

or not…

Toward others we are un-occluded vessels for God’s Grace

If our occlusions get in the way of God’s unrelenting pursuit of the Other, then we need stand down lest we delay God’s work in them and by that delay The Kingdom.

Because in the end…. Mercy and Grace are inextricably twinned in God’s heart and we should be cautious when we take pruning shears to that wild tangle.

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Imagine: 35 Years After the Death of John Lennon

I was in a classroom at the University of Washington the night that John Lennon was killed. We were preparing for final exams, and this would be the last lecture before the quarter ended. I had already earned a Bachelor’s in History but I was unable to quite let go of the world of academia. One because as anyone who has a history degree knows, the only thing you are prepared for is either further study, or working in a copy shop. I was doing the latter as I continued to explore my options. Number two was that I honestly loved the process of learning in a college setting. Given my high school track record and my GPA, no one might have guessed that I would ever find myself in the rigors of college level work. I did and during that time in 1980 I was weighing options as varied as getting a second degree in Communications with an eye toward newspaper writing, getting a teaching certificate, or going on to graduate school, maybe even eventually winding up at the University of Virginia to study and write on Thomas Jefferson and earning a PHD. That way I could stay in the safe world of the university until I died or failed to earn tenure. The world was still my oyster.

 

The class was some introductory level course in newswriting though I can’t recall the name or the number. It was taught by a woman professor who wasn’t too far removed from the very seats we were in that night. She came into the room on the third floor of Thompson Hall with a stricken look on her face. She set her briefcase down on the floor beside her rather than on the lectern as was her usual manner. She spoke a single sentence, “John Lennon has just been shot and killed in New York. Class is cancelled.” She picked up her briefcase and headed back out the door. We all sat for a moment and then in stunned silence put our notebooks back into our backpacks, capped our pens and filed out of the hall, many of us following the professor down to the Hub where we watched the news unfold. An obsessed fan was all we knew about the assassin, Yoko had been with him and some wondered if she had been the target due to her perceived influence of the Beatles breakup ten years before. I had many thoughts swimming in my head at the time but for some weird reason I kept thinking that Lorne Michaels’ offer of a thousand dollar payout for a Beatles reunion on Saturday Night Live was never going to happen now.

 

In the days that followed more information emerged about the killer Mark David Chapman. In the end the verdict is still murky due to Chapman’s self-serving statements and for many ears a less than sincere expression of remorse. The catalyst seemed to be that Lennon had offended Chapman’s “born again” Christian sensibilities with the song Imagine.

 

“Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people living for today

 

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people living life in peace,…”

 

The irony was that it wasn’t so hard to imagine those words setting a fevered mind on a path of violent reaction. This is not to say religion caused Lennon’s death, but like a gun in the wrong hands it isn’t too hard a leap to make a connection; to say nothing of combining the two. So now less than two weeks after the events in Colorado and San Bernardino, where fanatics with weapons decided to impose the “wrath of God” on innocents we can only “Imagine.” And then we have to get to work.

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