Sunday, August 31, 2008

One Year Later

One year ago, (on August 29th, to be exact) I moved to Franklin Lakes, NJ, to begin my second appointment. Today is the one year anniversary of the official beginning of my appointment here. In some ways, I can't believe I've already been here a year - the months have gone by so quickly. In other ways, I feel like this has been a long year - the first year in a new appointment is full of so much learning, meeting people, familiarizing, transitioning - this year has been so full that it seems like I must have been here longer than a year already.

This is only my second appointment - my first year here has been much different than my first year in Oneida. The learning curve in a first appointment is huge. Here, I come with knowledge and experience, even if it isn't decades of ministry yet. But I'm also in a much different place and, in some ways, a much different congregation. I'm serving outside of my annual conference of membership, North Central New York, the area I grew up in and lived in for all of my life, outside of time at school. I went to seminary at Drew, but actually living in the community in Northern New Jersey is quite different from attending school on a somewhat secluded campus. Greater New Jersey is a different conference from NCNY in many ways. It is more diverse in membership and clergy membership, it covers much more urban areas, it is more 'politically active' in the denomination, etc. These are just a few surface differences. Of course, there are practical differences - I know most of the clergy and lay folks active in the conference in NCNY. In GNJ, I'm still trying to get to know the folks in my district, much less folks in the whole conference. These things take time.

My congregations are in many ways similar - roughly the same sanctuary architecture, almost identical congregation sizes, same difficulty in paying apportionments, same struggle reach young people, same issues of slow decline, wondering what has happened, thinking about days gone by when the Sunday School was packed with kids and you always had enough people to help with events.

But they're also very different. Bergen County is more affluent, more educated, more traveled, more urban-focused than Oneida. People work, from what I can tell, a crazy number of hours each week, added to commute times that are generally significantly higher than in CNY. One of my colleagues who works in congregational development looked at the demographics of the area for me, and his figures and comments confirmed it - people here are most likely to look for how a church fits into their schedule than anything else. Offering options, offering different times, shorter times, more time options - these are all important to a congregation in this area. This summer, we introduced an early morning communion service - and though it is still a small service, it is casual, and shorter, and I think we're meeting a real need with it. One of our focus areas this fall in that service will be rest and Sabbath. My goal will be to talk about rest and Sabbath without making people feel guilty that they don't take enough Sabbath!

I'm also different here too. The difference goes beyond even a first-appointment, second-appointment difference. I find myself, in many ways, back at square one when it comes to discerning God's call on my life. Obviously, I still feel called to the ministry of ordained elder! But for so many years, including most of my time in Oneida, going through the candidacy process and seeking ordination was the way I was answering God's call. Now, I'm ordained, and that part of answering my call is thankfully completed. But now what? I believe God is always calling us - and I'm struggling to discern God's purpose now, and how I respond to that. I'm struggling to balance what I want to do with what I think God might want me to do. What does ministry look like for me in the next 5 years, 10 years, 1 or 2 years? I feel like these are open-ended questions right now. I'm used to having a plan and answers, and I don't have many right now, and it is a position I'm not comfortable in. So, I'm discerning.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to more first with this congregation, like teaching my first class (here) of confirmands this fall. I'm enjoying the recent wave of baptisms - six this summer, I think. I'm excited to be working on the Lay Leadership Nominations Process and actually know who people are this year, and feeling like our team is really matching people and ministries in some creative ways. I'm excited about our fall worship focus, using themes from Bishop Schnase's Five Practices. I'm anxious to try and move forward together, try some new things together, and see where we end up.

Friday, August 29, 2008

new look

After almost 4 1/2 years of the same design on my blog, I decided to try a new template. I still have to replace some of my widgets, probably tomorrow. But for now, let me know what you think of the new look! (I totally am not into designing my own template, so check the link at the bottom for a link to the designer, who has several templates.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

from Fortune Magazine: "The Next Credit Crunch"

I read this interesting article from CNN's Fortune Magazine called, "The Next Credit Crunch." (by Geoff Colvin) The subtitle reads, "Our easy access to plastic is about to dry up - and with it our ability to fake living the good life."

"For the past several years, the average inflation-adjusted total pay of American workers hasn't been increasing. That means we haven't been building a foundation for increases in our living standard. You might be tempted to say that by definition our living standard couldn't have increased, but that's not quite right. Even with stagnant real incomes, we can always live a little better every year through borrowing and pretending that our living standard is still rising, just as it was for decades"

The article goes on to talk about the current economy and how now, at last, things are in a position where people won't be able to pretend. Easy mortgages won't be available, banks won't be giving as much easy credit for people to at least appear to be keeping up with the Joneses.

Colvin concludes, "It may be that the standard-of-living bubble finally has to deflate. Sustainable increases in living standards have to be earned, not borrowed, and that means performing ever higher value work that can't be outsourced. We haven't been meeting that challenge very well; doing so will probably require much more and better education for millions of Americans, which takes time and money.

The result may feel like deprivation, but I don't see it that way. Who knows - we might even find that living within our means and saving a little money actually isn't so bad."

Colvin seems ultimately a bit stuck between arguing that we just have to work harder so we can earn more, and suggesting, quickly, at the end, that perhaps we might even be okay just living within our means.

I read somewhere that surveys show most of us think we would be happy if we had 20% more. (More of everything, I guess, but income, primarily.) The trouble is, if we get 20% more, we still seem to want 20% more. We'll even fake having 20% more if we can, because we like the way it looks, makes us feel, how we stand among our peers with all our stuff.

How much is enough? How much more do you need? I guess a benefit of a struggling economy can be the way it makes us live more simply, even if we do so kicking and screaming in protest. Of course, those who suffer most, though, are those who didn't have enough to begin with. It's a costly way for those of us with so much to learn our lesson of getting along with less.

What do you think is the church's role in a time of great economic stress? Certainly, I've had more people seeking out help from the church, and our centers like food banks and thrift shops are in increasing need as they have to serve more people. But beyond that, what does the church have to say?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Question: Praying for Yourself

This Sunday at my early service, I'll be preaching about Praying for Yourself, as a part of our series on prayer. How do you pray for yourself? What's important to know about praying for yourself?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Review: Sex God by Rob Bell

I recently finished reading Rob Bell's short book, Sex God: Exploring the endless connections between sexuality and spirituality. This is a fairly short, very simple as in easy-to-read book. I guess (even my sentence is ambivalent) I didn't feel particularly strongly about the book either way. There were some chapters I really liked, some arguments and points of views I disagreed with, but a lot in the middle that didn't strike me as particularly inspiring or enlightening one way or another.

Bell starts with the premise that "this is always about that," where something is always pointing to something else, something deeper. "This" is sexuality, and "that" is God. He says, "Where the one is, you will always find the other." (15)

He begins by focusing on being created in the image of God, and what it means to love God and neighbor. "When Jesus speaks of loving our neighbor, it isn't just for our neighbor's sake. If we don't love our neighbor, something happens to us." (28) I'm right with him here.

Bell describes our sexuality as both an expression of how "profoundly we're severed and cut off and disconnected" and of "all the ways we go about trying to reconnect." (40) I really resonate with this description, and I think we can probably say that about a lot of human behavior - it's about being disconnected and wanting to connect.

I struggle with Bell's description of and conversation around lust. He describes lust as something that comes "from a deep lack of satisfaction with life . . . If I had that/him/her/it, then I'd be . . ." (73) I think Bell is oversimplifying here, and lumping a lot into one category. What desires are healthy, then? Is thinking "If" always bad? If this his definition of lust, when is it ok to desire someone, and how? How would he define that differently? To be fair, he does list a series of questions that one should ask to understand more about things we crave (79) - maybe going through that kind of soul-searching is what needs to happen to clarify our intentions and purposes.

Bell's strongest chapter is probably "She Ran Into the Girls' Bathroom," which examines the Song of Songs in a beautiful way befitting the lovely book.

The next chapter is the one I struggle with most - "Worth Dying For." Bell attempts to look at those much-dreaded verses about submission in Ephesians 5. Bell argues for a sort of mutual submission between husband and wife, but he still slants things in a way I find very hard to swallow. He still speaks to men and women in this chapter in somewhat stereotypical ways, speaking directly to women saying, "You are worth dying for." He says, "you don't have to give yourself away to earn a man's love." (124) Earlier in the book he talks about the false dichotomy the world often gives to sexuality - that we're either animals or angels. In this chapter, he seems to use that dichotomy somewhat himself. Men have to let women know they're worth dying for, and women have to know they're worth something dying for them. It seems very princess/knight to me. He quotes a friend of his who says, "When a woman is loved well, she opens up like a flower," (125) and I can barely keep my eyes from rolling every time I read it.

Bell's chapter "Under the Chuppah" uses a strong metaphor from Jewish wedding ceremonies, where close friends/family may hold the posts of the Chuppah, but only the bride and groom are actually under the Chuppah itself. He warns against the effect letting other people under the Chuppah can have on your marriage. I read a critique of how Bell uses this metaphor here, but I think the overall metaphor still works regardless.

Bell seems to love the marriage of June Carter and Johnny Cash (naming one whole chapter "Johnny and June", saying of some friends, "they have one of those Johnny and June marriages," ending the chapter saying, "we desperately need more Johnny and Junes." Now, I love Johnny and June. But I think they're - well, an interesting choice for Rob Bell to make. There's a lot of irony in this chapter, unintended I think.

"We want someone to see us exactly as we are and still love us." (155) Yes.

A short read. Maybe an interesting source to use in part with couples in pre-marital counseling, or with older teens and young adults. Any of you read it? Thoughts?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Question: Premarital Counseling

What's your process for premarital counseling? Or what process did someone lead you through? What resources did you use? What would or wouldn't you recommend?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

jockeystreet posts

My brother just wrote three very good posts on the same day.

Nuts and Bolts is a post about pacifism - how nice it is as an ideal, but how difficult it would be to practice completely. (For Jim at least...!)

And Everywhere Marked with Crosses is a post about good people and suffering and how they usually go together.

And my favorite, because I lived through it as a 12 year-old watching her brother go through a lot of changes very quickly, is The Lost Religion of Jesus. It turns out at the end to actually be a bit of a book review, but is more entirely about how my brother went from a conservative Christian to a then, at least, pretty angry atheist during his freshman year of college. Makes you wonder about the power of our choices and decisions and how sometimes such small events can impact our lives in huge ways. I always wonder what would have happened if different choices in life had been made. Characters in The Chronicles of Narnia often wonder this too, but Aslan always reminds them that no one can ever know that. You can only decide what you will do now.

Good posts, worth your reading.