Wednesday, March 23, 2016

On Fences, Grass, and Relative Greenness

I feel the need to make a disclaimer:  These won't all be about sheep.  I promise.  But this one is...and the last one was.  So I get that you might be suspicious.

Curb that suspicion, gentle reader, and ask yourself, instead, why it is that sheep still speak in our modern and far less sheepy world!  Think about it.  Whether it is the old idea of counting sheep to help get to sleep or slinging all manner of sheeply metaphors or colloquialisms while living in a mostly urban or suburban existence, these critters just seem to persist in our homo sapien psyche.

When I was in the business (not so very long ago) of doing funerals on a regular basis, I would meet with grieving families to plan a service for their lost loved one.  Many times these were awkward meetings between a pastor and relatives of the deceased who often had little or no relationship to the church.  They came to the church out of some sense of....what?....duty?  Cultural norms?  Where is one supposed to go in such a time?  It turns out, after a long life lived with only vague attachment to any particular community of spiritual conviction, people for some reason felt the need to invoke religious language and ritual at the end of their lives.

I don't say this with judgment, far from it - I was just plain perplexed as to why they didn't create some family observance of their own, why the need to set up this thing in the church they didn't attend with a pastor they didn't know?  Probably this is some kind of residue, a muddled mix of felt needs that arise in the midst of a culture that has a significant number of people who consistently claim some kind of Christian identity, yet rarely, if ever, darken a door of an actual church community.  Well, they darkened my door often enough, in their hour of perceived need, and awkward conversation ensued.

"So," I would ask at some point in our meeting, "did So-and-So (the deceased) have any particular verses of scripture that they were drawn to?" This question was often raised during my fishing expedition with the family, trying to draw some inspiration for the heartfelt and moving message they hoped I would give on behalf of a stranger.

"Oh, yes," they would say, eyes widening as they looked around the table for help, "Yes, yes...old So-in-So just loved that one....um....that one.."  Their eyes scanned the room in desperation, hoping some fragment of religious-sounding speech might leap out at them.

"Maybe," I would prompt gently, "something from the gospels?.....or....the Psalms?"

Their faces would light up with relief and recognition.  The Psalms, of course, everyone has heard of those!  "Yeah, the Psalms," they would exclaim, "especially that one!"

"That one?" I would ask, even though I knew the answer already.

"Yeah, that one about the Shepherd!  So-in-So loved that one!"

That one about the Shepherd.  They meant Psalm 23, of course, which in the big wide world of the Psalms is the one that folks tend to remember.  There are probably several good reasons for that, but one of them has got to be the fact that the Psalm talks about sheep.  Sort of.

It talks about a shepherd, anyway, and about green pastures and other things that sheep like, so the actual sheep are strongly inferred.  And we like the sheep, we human folk, probably because we have had a long relationship with the woolies, and by long I mean like buried in our DNA sort of long.  So when we read an ancient text, like Psalm 23, and those long-ago, far-off people start dropping sheep references, some part of our brain springs to life and says, "Hey, yeah....somehow, that makes sense."

That's the part of our brain that recognizes some kind of content to a little aphorism like, "The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence."  We might live in a condo in Phoenix, unfamiliar with both grass and fences....but still, we get it.  I hope you don't live in a condo in Phoenix, that really sounds like the worst.

Can you tell where the fence line was?
What is all of this driving at?  It's all about that grass and those fences and relative greenness.  That old wisdom about fences and green grass arises out of a real observed phenomenon with sheep and other grazing livestock.  Placed in a pasture, they seem to think that the grass that is just out of reach is always the best and most desirable grass they can imagine, and they will put themselves in sometimes ridiculous situations trying to get to it.  Their antics wind up as our country wisdom, and the whole fence and grass proverb describes a kind of vain longing for something different, when what you have right  now is more than adequate.  It warns of disappointment if you risk the effort of getting over, under, or around the fences, the boundary lines that prescribe your life and circumstances.  And like most folksy wisdom, it is true.  Sometimes.

There is an alternative yet complementary truth of pastured life, one that is hinted at in that old Hebrew poem.  You might recall that little stanza, "He makes me lie down in green pastures....he leads me beside the still waters...he restores my soul."  There is the necessity of constant movement in sheeply life.  A shepherd does a lot of leading, choosing new, greener pastures on which the sheep can find forage.  They need to do this because they are incredible eaters, walking, breathing lawn mowers and weed trimmers rolled up in a woolen package.  Around this little farm, after a long winter of eating bales of alfalfa and dried orchard grass, they are eager to get after every new shoot of green that has the audacity to spring up out of the ground.  In just a little time, they will eat their pasture down to the ground, and then they need to get moved.

That movement, that change, is necessary for health and life.  The longing for other pastures is not always fickleness, as the fences proverb warns.  Sometimes the longing for change is part of the need for new fields in which to roam, new nourishment on which to feed.  Sometimes change is necessary if what we are really looking for is restoration of our souls.

Find yourself longing for something new?  One of the voices in our heads invariably tells us that we are just dreaming vain dreams, that the higher good is to stick it out right where we are.  Certainly as I contemplated this big change in my life (Everything is Changing), I encountered a strong thread of advice, internal and external, that suggested I was just a little tired, and after a rest I would find the stamina to carry on doing just what I was doing.  Not only that, this advice came along with a sort of ethical argument that named the "good" as staying the course, and called change the "bad."  This kind of ethical rationalization is especially prevalent in ministry circles, where "faithfulness" is defined in one way - a lifetime committed to the calling of the clergy.  It is not uncommon to hear the idea that if someone exits the ministry it must have been because they were never really "called" to it in the first place.

But, just like the sheep, we are made for change, for movement.  That longing inside of you might just be telling you that it is time for new pastures or quiet waters.  Those dreams of a different life could be your very soul making a case for restoration.  So, don't let one bit of country wisdom hold you back from pursuing your big change.  That little proverb on fences doesn't tell the whole story.  Remember those sheep that you sometimes count to get to sleep?  Take your cue from the woolies - they are out there in your near-dreamland jumping fences.  Maybe it's time for you to do the same.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sheep's Clothing

It's the Year of the Leap, and I am taking time to blog about the strange experiences of a big life change.

This past week was my first as an unemployed.....er....self-employed person.  On Monday I cleaned out my office and walked out into a brave new world.  Oh, the freedom that awaited outside those doors, oh the liberty!  I imagined the first days would be filled with leisurely reflection, a slow and careful assessment of the path ahead.

Right.

There is an interesting psychological backlash to becoming suddenly vocationally unattached - rather than creating a sense of freedom, instead I experienced an immediate and overwhelming urge to get some stuff going, to get irons in the fire, to get things FIGURED OUT!  Probably not a mystery, my "provider" identity was suddenly in real crisis and the compulsive business that resulted was a predictable reaction to fears of destitution.

And so I launched into a maelstrom of productivity, a near fit of projects, chores and new initiatives.  My to-do list has been enormous and unfocused, my days so full that I felt a gnawing frustration that there were not enough hours in the day to address my ambitions.  Though it scratches that little insecure itch that says, "you're not DOING anything," it is otherwise impractical and unsustainable.

There are lots of things that are disorienting about a big change, stuff that is confusing to yourself and to others.  I had occasion to reflect on this while I was doing a chore that comes up around the farm in the springtime - the time for sheep shearing has arrived.

I have been keeping a little flock of sheep for several years now.  You can go into the Wayback Machine and check out some of the genesis story here.  Since those first days we have grown that little flock, which, with the addition of 10 lambs this spring, now numbers 23.  Their wool grows with relentless consistency, and each spring I take up shears and commence trimming.  It is not particularly easy work, but it is satisfying in many ways.  Certainly I am standing in the footsteps of my Scottish ancestors, those muddy, manure laden footsteps - and that is sort of a nice feeling.

The sheep are corralled and picked out, one by one, to suffer the indignity of a haircut.  With each blow (thats what they call a cut of the shears, in sheep-handling parlance), their heavy coats are cut back, revealing a creature that is by many degrees cleaner and smaller than they appeared before.  Their wool, if white, glows anew, and if they were caramel colored before, their wool bleached by a season's sun, they are returned to the pure black of their younger days.  It is a pretty remarkable transformation.

Now, sheep suffer from a poor reputation in the smarts department and though they are winning creatures in many other ways, that particular slight is at times well-deserved.  One annual demonstration of their dimness inevitably arises at shearing time.  A freshly-shorn sheep is unrecognizable to his or her peers - really.  Sheep don't recognize their colleagues after a haircut, to such a degree that, for instance, the rams will set upon one another with all kinds of head butting and other displays of dominance because Odin, our younger ram, believes that old Atlas, freshly shorn, is really a new kid on the block that needs to be put in his place.  But Atlas is still Atlas - the king of the pasture, something Odin will rediscover in short order.

I think we are prone to the same mistake, in our own ways.  Our culture associates so closely the ideas of "who we are" with "what we do" that when someone makes a dramatic change in the latter we are tempted to translate that change to the former.  In my own case, leaving behind a career in church ministry has brought about all kinds of confusion in some folks.  It is as if, having embarked on this change, I have become unrecognizable.  And it's not just them - I think that half of my frenetic doing of all the things this past week is rooted in the same misconception.  Cut loose from what I have been doing for so long, I have been instinctually filling in the gap with lots of other stuff, scavenging a new identity from bits of activity.  A fearful shield to guard against the inevitable question, "So, what do you do?"

As I have been working through this big life change others have reached out to talk about their own life transitions and I realize I am not alone in this.  One of the impediments to embracing a needful change is a sense of identity conflict.  We get wed to a particular path, a career trajectory, and some of the reluctance to changing that is the sense that it somehow it would be inconsistent with who we are.  A friend of mine was struggling with this very problem, wondering if his desire for a change somehow painted all of his past endeavors as mistakes or misjudgments, a grand waste of time.

I don't believe that's the case.  Old John Locke, that english thinker from the 17th century, used to talk about things having a "real essence" and a "nominal essence."  The nominal essence was what we could observe and describe about a thing, but the real essence was what lay underneath, a kind of core.  Maybe I can suggest that we have similar layers to our own identity - of course we are in some way reflected to the outside world in the things that we do, the work we engage in, etc. - but those identifiers are not who we are, our real essence.  Underneath the dirty woolen fleece we are the same person - a big change just gives us a chance to shake off some of the tangled, matted accumulation of life and step out feeling lighter, fresher, newer.

There was a story out of New Zealand that ran around the interwebs a couple of years ago about an old sheep named Shrek.  This cagey fellow managed to avoid the indignity of the shears for six long years, apparently he'd taken to hiding in caves when the shepherds came calling (maybe not so dim after all).  His fleece, left unattended and unchanged, grew....and grew....and grew.  Impressive, but not particularly healthy.  He was finally caught and shorn, yielding a 60lb fleece, stepping out into life a new man...er...um...sheep.  New, but also the same.

Are there lessons here?  How about this one...don't hide in a cave when it's time for a change.  Step into it, welcome it, let the old trappings fall off like sheep's clothing.  The you that is always you (ewe that is always ewe?) will be happier for it.








Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Year of the Leap


The past several months have been a something like a climb up the ladder to a high dive platform.  Over the summer I went public with my impending retirement and since that time have been occupied with all kinds of regular-type work, helping to guide the church I have served for the last six and a half years through this big transition.  It felt sort of good to retreat into the routines of work, even if those routines were now being carried out in the shadow of a looming deadline.  But yesterday, Feb. 29th, 2016, I  reached the top of the ladder and stood with my toes hanging over the edge of the platform.  Yesterday was Leap Day.

It was my last day as a pastor at Yakima Covenant Church and, more than that, my last day working in church ministry.  I am walking away from all of that, for reasons you can read about in posts like "Everything is Changing" and "What's Love Got to Do With It?"  Our farewell was marked by an incredible outpouring of love and support, for which we will forever be grateful.
But with the support of my amazing wife and kids, I am striking out on my own, vocationally speaking, seeking a new kind of life, new ways to make a living.  It is a little bit crazy - to leave behind the security of a successful career.  I have only a few answers to the many questions this usually provokes from reasonable people.  What will I be doing?  How will we pay the bills?  Have you been taking your meds?  All will be answered in due time!

Leap Day was a wildly appropriate day to mark such a radical change in our life.  I admit that as I packed up the last things from my office and walked out for the last time, I felt a moment of panic - this is really a big leap, a risk, it will bring new challenges, some of which we can anticipate and some that I am sure are the sneaky type, waiting around corners we haven't reached yet.  While I've been observing a sort of radio silence since last summer, wanting to give the community that I served plenty of room for the big changes they have been and will be experiencing, that will be changing.  Over the next weeks and months I will be positively prolific as I try my hand at this new thing, whatever this new thing looks like.  And I'll reflect a little not just on the "what" that occupies the coming days, but also on the "why."

Here's how I figure it: everybody has got some big leap they are contemplating.  If the faltering, stumbling, bumbling steps of an aspiring beekeeper-shepherd-farmer-philosopher can be of any help at all as you consider taking whatever plunge you are staring at, then I call that a win-win.  I'll chronicle adventures and reflections during this whole Leap Year.  What kind of story will it end up being?  Time will tell - it's the year of the leap and we'll take it as it comes!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

What's Love Got to Do With It?

I'm leaving the ministry.  I'm going to be a beekeeper.  If  you haven't been following the last couple of posts, I've caught you up in two short sentences.  This post is going to be long and occupied with a specific subject - I hope you'll spend the time to read and understand it.  I'm going to try and explain some of the reasons I have felt a growing need to leave the ministry.  I'll be describing, in particular, one area that has generated a growing disconnect between my personal life and my professional life, and how that disconnect has fed this decision for change.  This will be something like a confession, and like all confessions is equal parts pain and relief.  And, as a reminder, this is my personal blog, a cataloging of my own journey - here I do not speak for the church I serve or the denomination that carries my credentials.  These are my own thoughts, relating to my own journey and my own convictions.

Not all of what follows will be entirely understandable, I fear, if you, dear reader, are not from the strange land of Christendom.  Understand that much of my own personal history has occurred in some relationship to the church, and that has had a profound effect on what I have perceived to be important, right, and true.  What follows will be an accounting of that history as it relates to a particular conversation within and outside of the church.  This conversation, and the controversies it embodies, are not, of course, the only pertinent or important factors in my decision to leave the ministry as I have so far known it - but it is a window through which you might come to understand the levels of fatigue, disillusionment and cynicism that contribute to such a decision.  Those things have their answers, in more than equal portion, in renewed energy, enthusiasm, and optimism for what I hope is ahead.

Over the past several years, I have been involved in some complex discussions related to changes facing the church.  Macro-scale happenings in our North American context that are being felt right down to the old, wooden pew in that church down the street that you probably haven't been to lately and that fewer and fewer people are going to at all.  As a bit of background, I was raised in the Presbyterian tradition, my grandfather was a minister, church life was also family life.  As I grew older I came to understand some additional nuances - we weren't just Christian, we were Presbyterian, we weren't just Presbyterian we were PC(USA), we weren't just PC(USA), we were West Coast PC(USA), which meant that we were part of a broadly evangelical-identifying tradition within mainline, protestant Christianity.  

Lost?  Don't worry, most of those nuances don't matter in the outside world, but those tribal identifiers informed me in very specific ways.  They shaped what I believed, what I felt was right, how I reasoned through things, what kinds of authority I accepted and where I was likely to be a skeptic.  The church has as one of its primary tasks the passing on of the faith, but it also effectively passes along a whole set of values, mindsets, judgments, biases and beliefs that sort of hitch a ride along with what one might call the core or essential aspects of faith.  For me, these combined in their own way to produce a young man who, when first entering the ministry, could pretty well be described using words like conservative, Reformed and Evangelical.  Those words not only described the sort of theology I tended to find plausible, but also my starting point for approaching social issues, politics, etc.

I take a moment to describe that because it may help you understand my starting point, my...what should I call it?...default understanding?....on a subject that has had an immense influence on the church and our culture at large in the past several decades: LGBTQ sexuality/identity.  Like so many in the evangelical world, I had been taught very little about the LBGTQ community, my worldview was formed by the kinds of playground humor that filters down from adults to kids, and, importantly, by the prevalent teaching of the church on LGBTQ matters which boils down to some variation of: God doesn't like it, it's not natural, it is sinful, etc., etc.  I didn't come up in communities that were putting out nonsense about the "Gay Agenda" or that kind of thing, though I certainly recognized and brushed up against those kinds of teachings within Christian circles.  Yet, though the rhetoric was less harsh, there was certainly a sort of uniformity in evangelical circles, a level of presumed agreement that left very little room for deviation.

At a certain level, this means that communities are able to achieve a pretty high level of homogeneity of opinion, which can shelter members from critical questions, arguments, and resources that would suggest any view counter to what has been traditionally held.  I received, almost through osmosis, the evangelical view of LGBTQ matters, and then, as I became older, reaching high school and college age, I was equipped, through teaching and bible study, to defend that viewpoint.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I was given answers to what were perceived to be "liberal" arguments against orthodoxy.

As I progressed along a career path in ministry, the "battle" over sexuality issues became more overt, and looking back I see that I was being equipped as a soldier in that battle.  When I was being examined for ordination, at the end of my seminary training, I met with a committee for final evaluation and found myself stepping into the battlefield in earnest.  I was a candidate from a "conservative" church, the language of my confession of faith contained all the right keywords that aligned me with "orthodoxy" in this matter, and others, and I met with genuine hostility in that committee from members that were in the "liberal" camp within the PC(USA).  It seemed to confirm everything I had ever been taught about the war over future of the church.  I was passed along into ministry, because, among other reasons, conservative churches still held great influence in various corners of the organization.

You may have noticed a lot of '' ''s in the last paragraph.  Read them as big airquotes, and you'll catch my tone.  All of that language, the binaries of liberal and conservative, orthodox vs progressive, even the language of battle, war - that language serves to perpetuate the mythology that fuels the conflict and these days I am much more careful in my diction.  But back then, it reflected, in some ways, how I thought, who I saw as "my people", and who I saw as operatives of the "other" side.  Becoming an ordained minister meant that I was now a voting member of my organization, and now had opportunity to work to protect the church.  And I did.  In sexuality issues I voted the conservative line, every time.  I rolled my eyes at the rainbow stoles of my colleagues, I shook my head at their arguments for a different understanding of human sexuality, one that would be inclusive, welcome things like same-sex marriage.

Things were changing in the culture that were complicating the picture.  Same sex marriage was becoming legal in state after state, and with those changes came better awareness of the kinds of arguments that were changing minds: refutations of the pseudo-science that gets passed around in the church; lucid and compelling arguments based upon civil rights for the gay community; increasing awareness of the pain and suffering endured by LGBTQ youth and adults as part of a minority population; and a growing celebration of "out" culture that meant everyone began to realize that they knew LGTBQ folks as friends or family.  We've seen a remarkable shift in public opinion and cultural acceptance of LGBTQ folk over the past two decades.  In the evangelical wing of the church, however, this created a sense of defensiveness, even panic, and one's theological convictions on LGBTQ issues became a litmus test for orthodoxy.  Lines were drawn in the sand.

Not surprisingly, churches have been splitting over these issues.  The Episcopal Church in America is remembered for taking the leap first, with the ordination of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in 2003.  Conflict erupted after that, and headlines were filled (for a short time) with stories of property disputes and political realignment of congregations.  The Presbyterians were laboring along in their own way.  With many shared organizational characteristics with the US Congress, the machinations of advocacy groups for and against inclusion were creating an increasingly polarized atmosphere in the General Assembly (the hive-mind of the Presbyterian Church(USA)).  There were rumblings of a split coming, as evangelicals increasingly saw themselves as a faithful remnant in an organization largely gone astray.

In early 2011, the rumblings of a split reached the surface, and a group of influential evangelical leaders in the PC(USA) began talking about a new denominational expression.  This would eventually become ECO, the new Presbyterian denomination with the unwieldy name (the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians).  I was a part of the early formation of this organization.  I was already becoming ill-at-ease with the teachings and conclusions I had held on the LGBTQ issues by this time.  My confidence in my previous beliefs were being undermined as I watched the narratives of the church spin up in defense of evangelical orthodoxy.  I listened to people link theological deviance on this issue with heterodoxy of every kind, from rejection of the Trinity to outright cultural idolatry.  Now, here I was working with leaders I had always respected, from churches within the evangelical family tree that I knew so well - and I found the discussions being had were ugly.  It was carefully concealed theological ugliness most of the time, language about authority of scripture, welcoming but not affirming, high calling of celibacy, etc - all of this lipstick put on what increasingly seemed to me to be the face of bigotry.

I attended and was even a visible leader in a meeting in September of 2011 that marked the beginning of the end for me as a part of my evangelical family of origin.  Attendance at that meeting, held in Minneapolis, swelled at the same time as the official stance on openly gay clergy was beginning to change within the PC(USA).  The increased interest in what was to be ECO was no accident - though the new denomination was talking a lot about new ministry practices, it was painfully clear that many people were there because they were fleeing the "gay" issue, seeking a safe port in the storm of cultural change.  I heard talk in those halls that deeply bothered me - a kind of easy self-assurance of rightness, narratives of self-justification that seemed so transparently self-serving, and even outright bigotry on occasion.  I left disillusioned and unsure of my place.

National events in the PC(USA) were having regional effect, and it was clear that the church I served would be forced to make a decision on their denominational future.  I helped lead them in that discernment process, including an in-depth study on matters related to the LGBTQ community and the church.  I am ashamed to say that the process was really the first time that I had done any such study myself, and I suppose I used it as an opportunity to hit the reset button, to apply critical thought to the entire subject, to start from scratch and examine everything that I had been taught, as well as give hearing to the whole wide range of theological thought on the matter.  My previously held convictions, what I had been taught as orthodox belief on matters of sexuality, were already tipping...but it was actual study of the scripture that toppled those convictions for good.  I was careful to let the leadership of the church and eventually, in later classes, members of the congregation, go through their own study and reach their own conclusions.  But my own mind was irrevocably changed during that process.

I am deeply sorry that I have, for so long, hindered the progress of understanding and hospitality in the church.  I have, for too long, contributed to an ancient bigotry, one that has been perpetuated and sustained through church doctrine and culture.  Heterosexual privilege and perspective has informed the dominant culture for so long, it has caused such harm for the LGBTQ community and the church.  Rather than being a community of good news, the evangelical community has institutionalized and theologically justified prejudice against the LGBTQ community, turning good news bad, transforming freedom in Christ into a millstone for those who have the misfortune to stand out as different from the majority population.  Majority populations are very good at writing totalizing narratives that justify their own beliefs, culture, practices, etc., and also excel at marginalizing and radicalizing populations that diverge from that majority.  I think that sociological truth goes a long way towards understanding the kinds of narratives of support of heterosexuality as an expression of theological orthodoxy.  Those narratives are the air one breathes as a bona fide member of the majority....it takes some effort to get enough perspective to begin to see outside that bubble.

So, I have, over the last several years, gone through a conversion of sorts.  My mind has been changed, my convictions radically altered on this matter - and that has put me out of step with much of the Christian world, especially the evangelical world.  Professionally, this has made my job as a pastor more complicated.  I serve a community that is full of mixed and strongly held opinion on these matters.  I serve in an organization that has traditions and policies that, by and large, align with historical orthodoxy on these matters.  For the past several years I have stood in a very strange middle ground, having to carefully weigh every word, be measured with every teaching, hold in tension a great many views.  This certainly is a trivial discomfort compared to the great pain endured by LGBTQ persons so often in the church, but it is a discomfort I have felt keenly at times.  While personally I have become more and more convinced that the church is part of a problem of perpetuating injustice, professionally I have often had to share space with people whose views I find increasingly problematic, if not outright bigoted, especially in circles of pastors.  I don't belong to the evangelical world any longer, and the disconnect personally and professionally has been part of the formula for my weariness and burnout. 

I don't think it is my place or role to enforce my personal views on a congregation, that is not my idea of what the calling of pastor is all about.  However, I have become more and more uncomfortable with my own association with teachings that I consider wrong...flat out wrong.  And as I've become more convinced of the wrongheadedness of much of church doctrine, tradition, and church culture on this matter, I have also become more discouraged by my own enabling of that tradition by my participation in the very system of which I am growing more and more suspicious.

I think there is nobility in working for change.  I have spent time and energy in the past year contributing to advocacy efforts within the Evangelical Covenant Church, the denomination that ended up being the new home for my congregation here in Yakima.  Within the Covenant there are people of incredible talent and possessing great stamina who are working to bring about changes in the church, like the brothers and sisters working through Mission Friends for Inclusion.  They wage an uphill battle and will always have my appreciation and admiration, for whatever those are worth.

The Covenant, generally, is a pretty good fit for this congregation.  It is certainly part of the evangelical world, but also embodies an ethos, polity and culture that has some promise of providing a decent context for conversations about inclusion to carry forward.  Change will not happen overnight.  Yet, at the same time, the ECC is part of an evangelical tradition that I now chafe under, a tradition that I can't, with any personal integrity, continue to identify with as a pastor.  Indeed, the process of my credentialing within the ECC (a travail, to say the least) revealed to me just how far out of step I have become with the majority culture and the leadership of the denomination.  The posturing and positioning of the denominational leadership as they seek to resist change of hearts and minds around these important matters is, on the one hand, entirely understandable to me as a command/control response to rapid change.  It is also entirely unacceptable to me personally, and I no longer possess the patience for it.

This all may not be easy for folks in the church to hear and understand.  I am not angry with those who hold to a traditional view, though I do earnestly hope that view will change.  Nor do I see myself as abandoning those who hold an inclusive view, though in some ways it feels something like that.  I just can't see myself standing in the middle of all of that in the role of pastor any more.
I can no longer stand in the pulpit as a voice speaking on behalf of "the church" while this debate slowly and painfully plays out.

There probably aren't enough words to express all of what I feel on this, and no doubt the ones I've chosen will prove to be inadequate in many ways.  I hope I've been able to shed some light onto some part of my own personal journey, and the ways in which this particular subject has had a profound effect upon my own sense of identity and purpose.  It does seem strange, ironic, that in order to live most honestly with my own convictions and to embrace love for all, I would feel the need to leave the church which, in many ways, taught me the value of both of those things.

That's enough for now.  Next post will be on the delicate subject of the birds and the bees.  Well, the bees, mostly.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

There is Always Money in the Banana Stand

You can read the earlier post Everything Is Changing to get caught up on what's happening.  In this post I reflect a little on the difficult choice to make a career change, as well as let you know what I am planning to do with my time when I become suddenly rather underemployed!

I will be retiring from ministry in February of 2016.  That's the language I have been adopting of late, the language of "retirement."  For some it will feel like a short career and the use of that terminology will feel entirely premature, but it doesn't feel that way to me.  I began working in church settings in earnest as far back as 1993.  I had taken the previous semester off from my undergrad studies at CU Boulder, and found myself available for an opportunity to take a mission trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, where I lived and worked for 5-6 months.  When I returned to Boulder and took up my studies at CU again, I felt the call of full-time ministry, and began preparing myself for that.  I started working part-time in a small church in Boulder and become active in the college fellowship group through First Presbyterian Church.  I spent my summers working for a Christian camp/adventure ministry, a fun time plying the waters of the Arkansas River as a whitewater guide, but also a productive crucible of leadership training.  In late spring of 1996 I interviewed for full-time ministry positions and was offered a job as an intern at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, in the Bay Area.  After one last summer of full-time work on the river, I took up church ministry full time and have been engaged with that, in one way or another, for the past 20 years.

I will spend future posts doing a bit more reflection on some of the intervening events, but I describe that timeline so that you might understand the language of retirement.  I have put time into this calling, and more than time - 20 years of effort, creativity, training, strain, risk, and at times, sacrifice.  And after 20 years, I am ready for something new, really new, not just a change of location, the same set of responsibilities in a different context.  I am not seeking employment in another church, nor do I have plans to do so.  It is time for me to retire from ministry.

But now what?  There is a pile of studies citing clergy burnout and dissatisfaction out there, and my own experience in talking with colleagues is that there are many who would entertain career changes....if they felt they could.  But the truth is, many of us feel we cannot.  We have been trained for a strange context of work, molded into something of a priestly caste, an embodiment of a very ancient role crammed into a contemporary world.  We are trained, sometimes formally, at times informally, in history, theology, psychology, homiletics, biblical studies, organizational leadership.  We act in the capacity of counselor, leader, coach, friend, boss, teacher, social director, community organizer, funeral director, wedding coordinator, facilities manager, CEO and CFO.

These might seem marketable skills, but all of this work occurs in the strange world of the church, which has its own internal language and logic.  It doesn't always sync well with the rest of the world, and there are old adages that describe that disconnect - "Pastors are too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.", or, one of my favorite variations I heard while in seminary was (forgive the inherent gender bias), "There's a man's hands...and there's a pastor's hands."  The implication, of course, is that the pastor's hands are not accustomed to difficult work, to real work.  There is plenty of hard work to do in the church, exhausted clergy are a testimony to it - but one of the things that contributes to clergy burnout is the strange isolation that occurs in such work.  As much as one receives accolades and appreciation from the people you serve, it can feel that there are golden handcuffs slowly being tightened over time.  Some would leave if they could, but where would they go?  What work would their specific training be good for?  The silence that follows these questions contributes to a sense of hopelessness, depression, or despair.

I've lived with a growing sense of those very feelings for some time now.  First it gnaws away slowly, at the edge of one's consciousness.  After a time, escape fantasies are imagined, I'm sure everyone engages in those kinds of flights of fancy, as natural as wondering about that grass on the other side of the fence.  But there comes a time when questions like, "What might I do with my life if...." get paired with internal realizations like, "I can't do this anymore."  A powerful moment - a moment when it becomes clear that it is time for a change.  This moment arrived for me several years ago, and I began to take up the task of imagining a new future.

What I've come up with is a mix of lot of my own interests and passions as well as something that I hope will accommodate some of the things I've learned about myself over the years.  I have long taken pleasure in agrarian pursuits, and some of you have followed me through some of the adventures in farming and the like.  I have been paying attention to the joy I find in all of that, and so when time came to think about my future, it felt right to give serious consideration to something in that arena. 

So, beginning early next year, I will be stepping into a couple of notable new pursuits.  The first is a new business, it is called Northwest Bees, LLC.  Over the past several years, I have been growing in my experience and capacity as a beekeeper.  Yes, a keeper of bees.  Northwest Bees will be a small business focused on pollination, honey and wax product sales, and the sale of bees and equipment.  I've been at work already, in my spare moments, selling honey locally, building up a bee yard, investing in equipment.  Now I will be trying to make a go of it, building up the numbers of colonies for Northwest Bees, developing our brand, and building contract relationships with growers in the region.

A new business is a lot of work, and I don't pretend to know my way around it all yet - there will be a lot to learn as I grow this thing into what I hope will be a legitimate way to provide for myself and my family, as well as contribute to the Yakima Valley.  I'll be telling you more about this new venture in future posts, including what it is that draws me to it and some of our plans for the future of this new business!

Northwest Bees will not be a business that can fully provide for our family's needs in its first few years.  I am looking forward to contributing to the local community in several other ways, including spending some of my time helping out at the Yakima Maker Space.  This special community is a fusion of art, craft, and imagination, and is an expression of a lot of what I value and hope for in the Yakima Valley.  

Apart from these things, you may also find me pursuing all manner of new interests and vocation in the area, I'll be patching together a network of work opportunities that I hope will equate to a life that is both interesting and sustainable.

It is terrifying and exciting.  I have a family to consider, and all of those insecurities about what a pastor is good for linger on the edge of my mind, chipping away at my confidence.  Wouldn't it be easier to just stick in the job I have, to occupy my mind with distractions and just collect the paycheck?  Certainly I've seen others do that - and every time I saw it I swore to myself that I would not let myself become that kind of pastor, the one on auto-pilot, the one siphoning off the resources of a church community because they could not think of another way to make a living.  I am scared - but also determined; and grateful.  Grateful for the support and encouragement of my wife who has taken up her own career again, which allows us to take on this change together, in mutual support of the whole family system.  Grateful for the support and encouragement of friends who I have shared this wild idea with and have given a thumbs-up, or helped me dream of how to make it happen.

With a little luck, and a lot of work, Northwest Bees will grow into a new future for me, for my family.  And along the way I am looking forward to being a positive, contributing member of the Yakima community in new ways.

I will write again soon, and reflect some more on this big change.  Thanks for following along!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Everything is Changing

Big stuff is afoot.  Everything is changing.  I will be publishing a series of posts that explains some of what's happening for this little family of ours, and I hope you will follow along!

This Sunday morning, June 7, 2015, I announced to the congregation I serve that I have decided to retire from ministry.  This will not be an immediate action, in discussion with the leadership of Yakima Covenant Church, we have settled on a date in February of 2016 when this will take effect.  But it is a definite decision - in February I will be stepping down as pastor of Yakima Covenant Church.  It is time for a change.

It is a big change of course for me personally and professionally, it is full of all kinds of risks and unknowns, and it is also, for me, a necessary and needful change.  Over the course of the next several posts, I will be explaining some of the background for this decision, explaining what has led us to this course, and some of my hopes for what lies ahead.

A transition like this begs a lot of questions.  Why this?  Why now?  What next?  I will spend some time in future posts trying to give answers to some of those questions, as well as I am able.  But it is enough to say at this moment that it is a personal choice, one arrived at after much thought, after lots of discussion and dreaming with my wife, Shannon.  The past six years at Yakima Covenant have been good ones, and it is a community that I am proud to hand over to the next iteration of pastor.  But there has been growing in me over the course of the past several years a discontent of sorts, a gnawing awareness of the need for new direction.  Those feelings have grown stronger over time, they have not dissipated upon reflection, they have not been dissuaded in counsel with friends or family.  Rather, I reached a point when I knew that what had been sort of run-of-the-mill escape fantasies had morphed into legitimate longings for a new experience of life, family, time, and vocation.

We feel great hope and anticipation about what is ahead.  I can't wait to tell you more about it, and I hope you'll come back to hear about what's ahead and some of the reasons that have led us in this new direction.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Martial Sewing Arts

I've been working on a bunch of sewing projects over the past month.  Some were for the holidays, including some fleece pj bottoms for the kiddos, stuff like that.  I've been slowly working through tailored shirt patterns, learning my way around that stuff.  Got a couple of cool pattern books from Japan for Christmas, and those things have me all excited to try out shirts and jackets.  So why, you might be tempted to ask, why would I, in the middle of all of that, suddenly take up an entirely different project?  Well....in this case, I will have to plead self-defense.

For a little over two years now I've been taking karate at a local gym.  It started out as an activity for one of the kids, and twice a week I would drive her down there and sit on the parent-bench (you know the one), with all the other parents, waiting for the 1-hour class to finish.  The class was fun, my daughter was enjoying herself, which was nice.  The bench, however...well, it might not have been the Group-W bench, but it filled me with a kind of dread nonetheless.  Parents slouched on the bench, staring into their smart phones, in various states of could-be-better health.  I noticed that there was a beginner's class for adults happening at the same time as my daughter's class - it took me all of two weeks to put two-and-two together and I enrolled for classes.

Since then I've been training away, several hours a week, for more than two years.  You might know that karate, and other martial arts, uses a special outfit for training called a gi (pronounced "gee", like geek....shut it).  When I started out I got the starter uniform, a lightweight and ill-fitting piece of work, its only positive attribute being...... actually, I don't remember how this sentence is supposed to end.  Upgrading to a heavier-weight gi is a bit of a gamble, the sizing and such is always a mess since they are made out of cotton canvas, which can shrink and move quite a bit.  On top of that, they need to be sturdy (for all of that grappling and throwing around stuff) and roomy (lots of athletic movements).

I got a heavy-weight gi about a year ago, and I like it fine.  The pants are great, I really like them, but the jacket is less than perfect, especially in it's length.  Gi jackets are cut in a bunch of ways, depending on use and tradition of origin, but I have come to want a longer "apron" on mine, meaning a long jacket that hangs down to mid-thigh.  So, I took out my heavy-weight jacket and started creating a pattern from it, then altered that pattern to create something more to my liking, and a bit more fitted.

I finished the project today and will wear it to practice tomorrow night.  The gi ended up being great practice for several techniques, mostly due to the heavy-weight, sturdy construction that is required for a piece of clothing that will undergo so much use-stress.  Flat-felled seams are used throughout, a yoke piece is integrated into the shoulder area in an interesting way, several ties and gussets are incorporated, and all hems are super-reinforced.  Lots of top-stitching to do, often through several layers of canvas.  A denim needle (or two...broke one near the end) is a must, as well as a healthy dose of patience, especially when approaching seams where layers are stacked up.

The jacket will get its real test in the coming weeks, as I work out in it and see how it wears (and tears).  But I am pleased with the way the thing turned out so far...it was a big project, but came together fairly quickly and is something I can put to use right away.  I marked it with an improvised tag, working in some tartan colors along the way.  Highland colors on a karate gi!  Fusion!