Tag Archive | Church

Acts of Religious Freedom

IMG_5401 (800x533)Today, as I was sitting on my back patio having lunch, I looked up at the dying live oak tree near the fence.  The tree is in sad shape, as far as trees go.  A few years ago, not long after we moved into the house, we noticed that it seems to have started dying from the top.  We are not sure if lightning hit it or some plague of insects, bacteria, genetic malfunction, or simple old age got to it.  But the ends of the thick trunks are now splintered.  The woodpeckers and flickers have gouged holes in those trunks as they hunt for protein while dropping a shower of shavings to float in the bird bath below.  The lower branches have gradually died, ending up as lichen-covered sticks which fall on our back lawn as gifts for the dog to chew.  But the middle branches of the tree have endured somehow, and what I noticed today was that they are now covered in blossoms.

They called to mind the oak blossoms which covered our live oak trees every spring when I was growing up in Northern California.  Our yard had four large, strong, healthy trees:  two live oaks and two deciduous oaks of some indeterminate variety.  Each year, small strands of green started to form on the trees, then fell to the ground as they turned brown.  The strands had small nobs on them, not much bigger than cracker crumbs, strung like tiny nuggets along a thread, and their color was no different than the stems.  My parents kept calling them blossoms.  That was absurd to me.  I knew what blossoms were.  The lilies in our yard would explode with vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, and whites; the camelias would open their soft, round, pink blooms; the irises would stand tall with their bearded heads of purple; the roses would open their poetry-inspiring buds, and wherever those marvels didn’t show off, there was room for daffodils and tulips and pansies and petunias to fill in.  Those plants all had blossoms to be proud of.  But the mighty oaks, many times bigger in stature and deeper in root than any of those others, only produced those spindly, weak, little threads of green-drying-to-brown crumbs.  I still imagine the other plants and bushes in the yard were laughing at the mighty oak trees when blooming season arrived.

And now, around here, I hesitate to imagine what the magnolias say when the oaks aren’t listening.  But still, sitting on my back patio enjoying my lunch, I realized that the blooms lend a beauty and a grace to still living, yet dying, oak tree.  They are plentiful enough to make a visual impact, and from the distance across the width of my yard, they rustle like curtains in the breeze.  While the color isn’t spectacular, the gold-glowing green freshens up the place a bit while we wait for the trees, bushes, and plants to fill out with their new leaves.

I’ve been thinking a lot today, too, about the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which is making its way through the Georgia State Legislature this season.  They had to call it the Georgia act because it’s not just the Georgia Legislature considering the bill; variants of this same bill are making their way through a number of state legislatures this year.  The need for this bill, as well as the language of the bill, was conceived by a national organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition.  Supporters of the bill have come forward with all manner of dramatic language to say that the bill is necessary to protect religious people, who, they allege, are under serious threat of persecution throughout the nation.  Some politicians have been more clear: they are promoting the bill so that private businesses would have legal grounds to refuse to serve people who are LGBTQ.

There are so many thoughts in my mind about this bill and the agenda of those promoting it.  I have my gut reactions:  I am repulsed that we are having a serious conversation about how to codify bigotry, and I am scandalized that some think  religion is a useful tool to do that.  Stepping back from those reactions, though, I also wonder why a business would want to refuse any paying customer (for a great story about that from Idaho, see here); I am afraid that is one of those questions to which I do not really want to hear the answer.  I think about a colleague of mine in Texas, who recently wrote that their version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” would nullify a 15-year-old act that was crafted after a broad process involving a wide range of political and religious leaders.  That makes me wonder why our state needs organizers from a national organization representing a narrow segment of the population, which is far from representative of the range of religious perspectives in our state, to set our legislative priorities and to write our legislation for us.  I wonder if there is any way for the cooler heads of more seasoned politicians to prevail in our legislature and governor’s administration, where the conversation is dominated by the voices of radically conservative Republicans.  And I think about my favorite line from one pastor’s testimony against the bill:  “is there a more religiously free people on God’s green earth than Georgia Baptists?”

But I also think about my live oak tree and its blossoms.  I am the pastor of a congregation which I like to describe as radically tolerant.  We have some members who align on many issues with the political right, and some members who align on many issues with the political left.  We have members and friends in our congregation who are gay and lesbian, and we have members who do not support extending marriage, ordination, or other civil and ecclesiastical privileges to people who are LGBTQ.  But we manage to get along most of the time, and more than getting along, we manage to exercise our religious freedoms together.  We pray with and for each other, we visit each other in the hospital, and we bring casseroles when we think someone might need them.  We break bread together, both in the context of worship and in some really great covered dish lunches.  And we serve our community together:  we provide food and housing for homeless people, we tutor children from our local public school, we mentor Boy Scouts, we build ramps for people under Hospice care, and we welcome a whole bunch of different community groups to use our buildings.

Such a tolerant community of people committed to a common ministry and mission seem like my live oak trees.  When I was growing up, such communities were strong and healthy; now, they seem like they are dying because folks seem to prefer to live in enclaves of people who agree with them on controversial issues.  In fact, I have heard supporters of LGBTQ rights talk about their support for bills like the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Their reasoning goes that they want to be able to easily identify those businesses who do not agree with them so they can stay away.  But if we all retreat into our own enclaves of like-mindedness, when do people who disagree encounter each other?  When does a traditional-marriage bakery owner witness the love-struck excitement of the gay couple who is ordering the cake for their wedding?  When does the progressive activist find out that the local dry cleaner with the faded Romney-Ryan sticker on his bumper proudly displays in his shop the photos and certificates of appreciation from years and years of sponsorships of the youth soccer league?

In this metaphor, the vocal activists like the Faith and Freedom Coalition might be compared to the plants and bushes that produce the bold, brassy lilies, irises, camelias, roses, and all the rest.  They quote Sarah Palin on the front page of their website, and you can’t get much more bold and brassy than that.  I can imagine them, perhaps unfairly, mocking institutions like my congregation, large, old trees with our tiny, plain blossoms of church suppers and after-school tutoring programs.  Our blooms do not command as much attention; they have less splashy color, less noticeable shapes; they are less outspoken, less dramatic, and get far less attention from the politicians or the media.

But our blossoming acts of religious freedom have their own beauty and grace.  They may seem small and spindly, but taken together, they have a significant impact.  And they freshen up the place where we are, filling in when the splashier, more dramatic plants and bushes fail.  Life in a community of radical tolerance is not always easy; some days, I worry that the whole thing is going to fall over dead, becoming nothing more than fodder for the woodpeckers.  But on other days, I notice that even when the breeze starts to blow and our blossoms rustle, they look like a curtain dancing with the wind, and I think such places where religious freedom is enacted are the only hope our culture has.

I hope our representatives will have the good sense to vote no on the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Update:  So this happened later on Thursday.  Once an anti-discrimination amendment to the bill passed, the supporters no longer supported it.

An Open Letter to a General Assembly Commissioner

IMG_3544 (571x800)A member of the congregation I serve was elected to serve as a Ruling Elder Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this summer.  This is my open letter to her, published here with her permission.

Dear Ruling Elder M,

Over the past few months, as you have applied to serve as the Ruling Elder Commissioner from our Presbytery to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) next Summer in Detroit, I have been so pleased.  I have been pleased for you:  your election is an affirmation of all the work you do for our Presbytery.  I have been pleased for our congregation:  we will feel even more connected to the larger structures of our church for years to come because you have served.  I have been pleased for our Presbytery:  you have already demonstrated how you will use this work to enhance the connections we have with each other simply by visiting other congregations and introducing yourself as their Commissioner.  And I have been pleased for the Presbyterian Church (USA):  you bring a positive attitude and down-to-earth perspective to the work you will do with the other commissioners.  I believe God is pleased, too, and although God probably has God’s own reasons to be pleased, I like to think that some of them are the same as my reasons.

I was a bit concerned, though, when I learned you were randomly assigned to serve on the Social Justice Issues Committee of the Assembly.  As you now know, that is the committee which will study and make recommendations to the whole Assembly about how to act on overtures and other business related to many social justice issues.  You and the other members of the committee will tackle a dizzying array of subjects:  abortion, homosexual leadership in the Boy Scouts, gun violence, child abuse, poverty, and more.  None of the issues you will have to address are simple, and most of them ignite deeply-held and passionately-expressed arguments on both sides.  Your work will not be easy.

As you prepare for your work, listen to testimony, and participate in committee debates, you are likely to have a range of emotions.  You might find yourself afraid of the implications of some of the stances the Assembly is being asked to take.  You might find yourself frustrated by the work of listening and arguing.  You might find yourself saddened by the tragic situations which the overtures and referrals highlight.  You might find yourself overwhelmed by the enormity of the social problems you have to deal with.  And you might become angry because people disagree with you about how the church should speak to these problems.  All of those feelings are a part of the work you have been called to undertake, and to negotiate that exhausting range of feelings, I hope you will take care of yourself through prayer, long walks, plenty of rest, and conversations with friends and colleagues.  And did I mention prayer?

As I have thought about the work of your committee, though, I hope you will not let yourself dismiss any of the work you are being asked to do as unimportant.  It will be tempting.  Many of the issues you will have to consider do not have any obvious impact on your life or the life of our congregation and presbytery.  Some of the issues might not even seem to be appropriate things for good church people to talk about.  Many of us doubt that those in power listen when the church speaks about these issues.  But if you allow yourself to say your work is unimportant, then you will do yourself and the church a tremendous disservice.

You will do a disservice to yourself because you will make it easy to convince yourself that the work of your committee is a waste of time.  You will start to resent the time you have to be in the committee and at the Assembly, and you will start to long for some excuse to get out of that work.  You will make yourself miserable with that resentment and longing.

But you will also do the church a disservice if you start to think the work is unimportant.  You will foster an attitude which is already prevalent in the culture of the church and which is literally tearing the church apart.  Recently, a large church in California voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).  According to an article from the Religion News Service in the Christian Century magazine, one of the reasons the leaders of the church cited for leaving the denomination is that the Presbytery of which they were a member adopted resolutions on some controversial social justice issues.  The article said that the church leaders “considered the resolutions a distraction from its core mission.”  Instead of engaging in conversation about the issues being raised with their brothers and sisters in their Presbytery, they chose to consider the work unimportant.  And from there, it was easy for that church to sever their relationships with all the rest of us.

The Assembly’s work of responding to the overtures and other requests to take stances and actions on social issues is pastoral work as much as it is anything else.  It is the work of listening to people who are passionate about particular causes.  It is the work of allowing people to tell their stories which have led them to take stances on those issues.  It is the work of affirming those people, their experiences, and their passions as God-given gifts which can help us discover new truth, goodness, and beauty in God’s emerging kingdom.  You will not agree with everything people say about the issues with which your committee will be presented, and you do not have to vote the way the advocates want you to vote.  In fact, that would be impossible; you will discover quickly, if you haven’t already, that the passions run deep and hot in our church on all sides of the issues you will talk about.  Some overtures should be voted down, and some issues should not be acted on.  If your committee is really willing to do the best work, you will be able to get away from the yes-or-no, up-or-down stances you will be asked to take and come up with ways to speak to the social issues before you with a new grace which will bring a greater peace to the church and the world.

But to dismiss the work as unimportant would be to say to the people who are passionate about all sides of the issues that the things which are important to them are irrelevant to you and to the church. That is not what people who are trying to be in relationships say to each other, and it is antithetical to the way Christ commanded his followers to work.  You were with us as we worshiped on Maundy Thursday last month, and you heard me read Christ’s new commandment to his disciples:  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  People who love each other do not dismiss each other’s passions as unimportant.  In the church, when we are at our best, we may not agree about what stance to take on these issues.  But we seek to understand others’ stances and the experiences and stories which motivate them because the people who hold them are a part of our fellowship, and so the passions which drive those people are a part of our fellowship, too.

Please know that  I will be praying for you while you prepare and serve as a General Assembly Commissioner, and I will encourage the other members of our congregation and Presbytery to pray for you, too.  I will pray for you and your fellow commissioners to have wisdom and compassion, to show good judgment and better grace, and mostly to be open to God’s Holy Spirit to guide you and, through you, the church into whatever future God desires for us.  And I will be praying that you do not become so afraid, frustrated, sad, overwhelmed, angry, or otherwise exhausted by your work that you can’t engage it well.  But especially, I will be praying that you do not allow yourself to dismiss any of the work you are called to do as unimportant.


Pastor Eric


IMG_0230 (683x1024)In my line of work, I read and hear a lot about the church’s decline and what we ought to do about it.  But as I sat outside in the chilly air last night, I began to wonder if instead we can take a lesson from what happens in the garden in Spring.

Poets, balladeers, and greeting card writers talk about Spring as the season when flowers are in bloom, leaves are on the trees, and the grass is green.  But that is not the way I experience Spring in my garden.  Spring is the season when I am anxious for all of that beauty to be fully manifest.  And it is also the season when I am reminded daily that the beauty I want so desperately is not, in fact, manifest, at least not yet.

I want new leaves and branches and buds to appear on my hibiscus, assuring me that they have survived a particularly cold winter and will glare again with their flashy yellows, oranges, pinks, and fuchsias.  But all I see are stubby, brown sticks with a couple of tiny, vulnerable green leaves around the bottom.  I want the calla lilies to stick their points out of the ground so I know that soon they will unfurl their verdant swords and, later, their cups of pink and yellow and, if everything went well with the ones I just planted last year, orange and purple and white.  But only one has a few thin sticks pointing out, and the rest are nowhere to be found.  I want to know if the hosta I transplanted last fall made it through the winter, but to find out, I would have to dig under the pine straw and an inch or so of dirt to see if the roots are still there.  Even the cannas, which shot their first variegated leaves above the surface of the dirt a month or more ago seem stuck.  Each one has only one leaf showing, and I worry that at any time that one leaf will whither and rot, rather than pushing a tower above it on top of which will be the orange floozies to animate the front yard.

Everything in my yard seems stuck this time of year.  I am anxious for the plants to be grown and the flowers to be in bloom, but they aren’t ready yet.  They are starting to come back, but when it comes at all, their growth is in fits and starts, depending on the temperature of the nights and the brightness of the days.

In past spring seasons, I have let my impatience get the best of me and gone digging around in the dirt, looking for some assurance that my vegetation will, in fact, grow and bloom.  I have poked at roots.  I have fingered sprouting leaves.  I have even stuck my trowel into the soil surrounding rhizomes and tubers.  I have told myself I do this poking, fingering, and sticking because it is what the experts say I should do:  loosening dirt, pulling away last year’s decaying leaves, opening the plants to fresh gusts of air.  But really, I have simply been looking for assurances that my garden beds have a future, and more often than not, I have 0nly damaged the tiny, vulnerable, thin, singular signs of growth which have already appeared.

As I was outside this evening, I thought about my anxiety and impatience in this season.  And I thought, too, about the church and the logic of some folks in it.  The world has changed and continues to change rapidly.  Everyone knows that.  And the church has to change, too, the logic goes, at least as rapidly as the world, if not more rapidly.  If the church does not change rapidly, then it will not have a future.  I get that logic.  I don’t disagree that we have to adapt to a new world.  I want the church to embrace new ways of communicating, to build relationships with new residents of our community, to meet new needs which appear on our doorsteps, and to wrap our minds as well as we can around new ways of understanding human beings and our institutions.

But I see and hear a lot of anxiety and impatience among some church folks which mirrors my anxiety and impatience at the flora in my garden.  That impatience and anxiety compels those folks to start digging around, poking at the roots, fingering the sprouting leaves, and sticking sharp instruments into the soil.

And I cringe.  Because if we poke in the wrong places, if we press too hard on fragile things, if we disturb soil that has to remain solid right now, then we will do more damage than good.  In the name of loosening things up, we will tear things apart.  In the interest of pulling away decay, we will remove some powerful fertilizer.  As we try to open the church to fresh gusts of air, we will make everything vulnerable to an untimely, hard freeze.

Maybe the best way to lead the church in adapting to a new world is not to poke and press and stick sharp objects in.  Instead, maybe the best thing we can do is to simply notice what is happening in the natural order of the seasons with which God has always blessed the world.  And when we see new growth, maybe all we need to do is look at it and point it out to others:  to appreciate its beauty, to thank God for the hope it represents, but to tread cautiously lest we destroy it before it has a chance to develop fully.  There will be time later to fill in the gaps, to put trellises where they need to be, to train and shape the stems, and to prune the branches that don’t bear fruit.  But for now, early in this new season, we might need to hone the spiritual gifts of seeing, of wonder, of gentleness, and of patience, even as we perceive the rapid changes to the temperature and light.

I think there is a reason the early church named this season before Good Friday and Easter after the season of Spring.  In the liturgical world, Lent is the 40 days (not including the six Sundays) before the celebrations of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Festival of Easter.  But the word “lent” really just means Spring in older forms of English (the Old English version is “lencten”).  And that make sense to me because Spring is not the time when new life has been fully manifest.  The flowers are in their full glory, the leaves are filling the trees, and the grass is most verdant in Summer.  New life has been fully manifest only in the time of Easter; the time of Lent, or Spring, is a time for seeing, for wonder, for grace, and for patience.

Palm Branches

IMG_7146 (800x534)When we moved here as naive northerners who found ourselves planted in a climate conducive to palm trees, we were told by a kindly tree service worker that the branches of a perfectly pruned palm tree are supposed to be between ten and two.  That is, you are supposed to imagine a clock encircling the top of your palm tree, and the ideally shaped tree would only have branches pointing between the ten o’clock mark and the two o’clock mark.

When they begin their journey into the world, palm branches launch themselves from the top of the tree at high noon, like a rocket headed straight for the moon.  Then, they straighten out at a bit of an angle to the branch.  Every branch seems quite straight enough between the ten and the two.  Within a few months, though, the heavy branches start to sag and droop.  They start to point to that dangerously unkempt-looking area of the imaginary clock connoting the lazy late afternoon or sleepy early morning.  Soon, they are claiming it is 4:40 in the afternoon, and they just don’t care about any of it.  Any branch trying to tell you it is 4:40 in the afternoon is clearly out of line.

Last week, it was time to trim one of the palm trees in my back yard back to the more orderly hours.  This particular tree is not very tall, so its branches that are not pointed upward to the proper points on the clock get in the way when I am trying to mow the lawn, take the compost to the compost bin, and do any number of other necessary chores in that corner of my back yard.  In the past, I have always trimmed the palm branches using our long-handled loppers.  We have owned these loppers since we decided to remove several enormous and ancient yew bushes from the foundation in the front of our house in Boston.  We didn’t have much money then, so the $30 loppers seemed like a good alternative to the hundreds of dollars we would have had to pay a service to remove the bushes.  We thought that project would break the loppers, but here we are almost 10 years later using the same loppers.  I think we got a bargain.

But this palm tree has grown mature enough that the loppers would not fit around the place where the branches would need to be cut, so I went back to the garage and got my reciprocating saw.  Now I was working with power tools, which made the project even more satisfying.  Starting at the bottom, I hacked away at branch after branch to get to the desired hours on the imaginary clock encircling the palm tree.

Although the addition of an electric motor made the work of cutting easier, it still was not easy work.  The branches of a palm tree are heavy.  The edges of the branches are sharp, and I was afraid they would slice my hands if I slid them along the branches in the wrong way.  The full branches are long; when I set them on end, they stand taller than my head, elevation six-foot-two-inches.  The fans are wide, too; I was glad it was not a windy day, because if the breeze had caught the branches, it would have twisted them in ways that would make them even harder to handle.  It took some effort for me to heave each branch and sling it into the pile in the middle of my back yard.

And of course, I couldn’t do that work without thinking of the scene in the gospels in which Jesus rides a donkey or two into Jerusalem.  In liturgical Christian traditions like mine, we remember that procession each year exactly one week before Easter Sunday.  And when it comes around each year, I usually remember about three days beforehand that I find our celebrations of Palm Sunday a bit odd.  Why do we go to such effort to remember that one scene in Jesus’ life and ministry?  What meaning can we find from that story that hasn’t been preached a thousand times before?  And in this era of Post-Christendom, when we no longer take it for granted that every one of our neighbors has been participating in churches since she or he was on some congregation’s cradle roll, why do we think it makes any sense to hand them all a palm leaf as they enter worship and to make them cry out “Hosanna!” as if they have any idea what any of it means?

And what about those leaves?  In most churches where I have worshiped, they have been rather puny things.  They are no longer and no wider than a large kitchen knife.  While they are sword-shaped, when you try point them to the ceiling, they tend to just flop over.  When the whole congregation lifts their arms to wave them overhead, it adds some motion and energy to worship, but it’s nothing terribly spectacular.  Some Sunday School teacher sometime figured out how to fold them into little crosses that you can carry in your hand, but I find when I scan the pews after worship that most people have found they work well as bookmarks in the hymnals.

The Bible doesn’t say that the people lining the streets while Jesus processed his way into town waved leaves, particularly not like those puny, floppy fronds we give to baffled worshipers on Palm Sunday morning.  It says they waved branches off of the local trees. These were more like the heavy, sharp-edged palm branches I was slinging and heaving all over my back yard.  They were tall and wide and hard to handle.  They were too big around for the standard loppers, and since I doubt the followers of Jesus could experience the thrill of using power tools, they probably had a hard time cutting them out of the trees.  And I hope the breeze was calm that day, because I wouldn’t want to be out there trying to wave branches like those as the wind twisted them out of my control.

And as I worked, I began to wish I had waited until the weekend before Easter to trim my palm tree.  I wished that we could organize everyone in my congregation to trim their palm trees into that ideal ten-to-two shape on that same weekend, too.  Then, we could all bring the unwieldy palm branches to the church to wave for our celebration.  Some of the elderly people and the small children would probably not be able to handle the long stems and wide fans; we could give them seats of honor on the chancel stage where they could see the powerful effort the others had to put in.  Those who could might choose to wear their work gloves to keep the edges of the branches from cutting into their hands; those work gloves wouldn’t quite match their dresses or suits or polo shirts and khakis or whatever they chose to wear to church.  We could be thankful that we have a very high ceiling, but we could also ask George to turn off the fans until we cheered Jesus all the way through the city gates of Jerusalem, just to keep the breeze from twisting the branches out of our hands.

It would be no less confusing for the people who don’t know the story, but it might evoke more questions, or at least a greater sense of awe and wonder.  And we would have to put a lot of work into it.  We would have to heave and sling.  We might feel kind of awkward as some of us broke a sweat and others had to put the heavy branches down in the middle of the celebration to rest for a bit.  But I think it would be a better reenactment for our Palm Sunday celebration, and a more faithful enactment of what God calls us to as well.

Last week, I read a blog post which, unfortunately, I cannot locate right now.  The post was on the craft of writing, and the blogger quoted someone giving advice to writers.  Writers work best, the quote went, when they lay everything they have out on the page.  Don’t hold back, the advice went; take your most extreme idea, put it into words on a page, and then work it up from there.  And I think that people of faith work best that way, too.  I think we work best when we refuse to hold anything back.  I think we work best when we refuse to trivialize or domesticate any of the truth of the stories which shape our view of the world.  I think we work best when we refuse to wave anything that is puny or floppy or narrow or easily fit in our hands.  I think we worship best when we heave and sling and sweat and have to take a rest now and then because the work is simply too intense.

My palm branches are lying in my side yard now, ready to be dragged to the curb so the city can take them away to be chipped into mulch.  But maybe by next spring, some of the branches on that palm tree will have started to sag and become lazy and drift toward the three and nine, or the four and eight, or even, heaven forbid, the five and seven.  And maybe I will take my reciprocating saw to them, and heave and sling them into the back of my car, and carry them over to my church to see if anyone is willing to remember the stories of Jesus in the best way we can.

Trampled Flowers and the Board of Pensions

IMG_1649 (800x533)As a Presbyterian minister, my pension and medical insurance is administered by the Presbyterian Church (USA) Board of Pensions.  The medical insurance which the Board provides is paid for through dues paid by congregations.  The dues for each congregation have always been calculated as a percentage of the pastor’s salary, and the same percentage of salary is assessed of all congregations who have a pastor.  Currently, the dues for medical insurance are 21%.  The congregations of pastors who have no spouses or children pay 21% of their pastors’ salaries for medical insurance.  The congregations with pastors who are married, have children, and have no other medical insurance for their families pay 21% of their pastors’ salaries for medical insurance.

This system is insurance the way it ought to be. It is based on values of shared resources, community support, and fairness. It means that both wealthy and poor congregations can provide good health insurance.  It means that both single pastors and pastors who have three or four or more children are able to serve where God calls them, rather than only where they can make enough money to pay for their health insurance.  But there is a problem:  the 21% dues are not enough to pay for this system.

Last fall, I received this announcement by e-mail from the Board of Pensions. Their Board of Directors had made a decision.  They considered the option of raising the dues which congregations pay to 25% of their pastors’ salaries, but they decided that such a dues rate is too high.  Instead, they decided to change the way the whole system operates, effective January 1, 2014.  Dues for congregations would be cut to 19% of their pastors’ salaries, but that amount would not provide medical insurance for the pastors’ spouses and children.  If pastors want their spouses covered, that would be extra.  And if they want their children covered, too, that would be even more.  As they have done all the calculations, we have learned that, while the congregation I serve will only save about $83 per month next year because of the lower dues, either the congregation or my family will have to come up with an extra $475 per month if my wife and son are going to continue to have medical insurance after January 1.

There have been plenty of responses to this proposal from all over the church.  In December, I sent my own letter to the Board of Directors expressing the reasons I think this is a horrible idea.  But the more I reflect on how I feel about the whole kerfluffle, the more I think about what happened in my front yard a year or two ago.

Near our mailbox, not far from the driveway, is one of those hard, plastic columns set up by the utility companies to tie all the houses in an average suburban neighborhood like ours into the systems for telephones, cable TV, and other such modern conveniences.  It is a light green color, about two and a half feet high, and between it and the mailbox, mowing out there was more of a chore than it needed to be. So one fall, I smothered the grass with cow manure, newspaper, and mulch, and by spring, I had a new bed ready for some flowers.  It is in the full sun all day, so I was ready to go all out:  some Black-Eyed-Susans to remind us of the bouquet my wife carried in our wedding; some Oriental Lilies, Calla Lilies, and Gerbera Daisies just because they are interesting and colorful and beautiful; some Hibiscus and Cannas to add a tropical flair; a “Cemetery Lily” which a friend gave to us; and other plants to add variety and texture.  These were all flowers I had wanted to grow ever since we moved here, but which had not found a place in the more established beds.  Now, they would all have a home.

A few months later, after the Oriental Lilies and Callas had bloomed their hearts out and taken their summer rest, and just when the Hibiscus and Cannas were coming into their prime, after a long week of negligence while something had come up at work, I went out to check on things in the new bed one weekend afternoon.  And I was horrified.  There were big boot prints in the middle of the flower bed.  The lily stems had been trampled.  The Cannas were bent and broken.  There was dirt scattered all over the place:  on the plants, on the mulch, on the driveway, and if I recall right, even on the mailbox.

It seems that a contractor had been sent by Comcast to do something with the wires in the plastic column in the middle of my flower bed. And he had made a decision to simply trample the flowers, scatter the dirt, and do what he needed to do without regard for what I might think.  He didn’t have to make that decision. I had always known that the utility companies would need to have access to the plastic column, and I had tried to keep things clear from behind. As plants had grown up around it, I knew some would even have to be removed for the utility workers to do their job. That contractor could have made the decision to knock on my door, explain his need to access the wires in the plastic column, and given us a chance to work together.  He would have been able to get his work done, and I could preserve as much of my flower bed as was reasonable. And at the end of it all, I would have been able to trust the utility companies to come on my property to do their work in the future.

And that is what I wish the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions had done, too.  I understand that the medical plan is spending more than it is taking in. I understand that some things will have to change, and those changes may mean more costs have to be shifted to our family or the congregation I serve. But they made this decision on their own instead of asking for ideas and preferences from the people most affected by the problems as well as the proposed solutions. And, as a result, I believe they have made a very bad decision. More importantly, I will have a hard time trusting them to make good decisions in the future.

I do not want to feel about the Board of Pensions the same way I feel about Comcast.  I do not want to believe that the Board of Pensions is only looking at their bottom line. I do not want to believe that they look at me as an object in a system they control, who will simply go along with their decisions, pay what they tell me to pay, and be grateful for their charity for offering medical insurance for me at all.  I want to believe that the Board of Pensions will work with the whole church to make good decisions.  I want to believe that the Board of Pensions will protect my interests as much as possible as they deal with the conundrums of rising medical costs. I want to believe they will seek to manage well a system of medical insurance the way medical insurance ought to be. I want to believe they will continue to live by the values of shared resources, of community support, and of fairness. I want to trust them.

But right now, that is not how I feel. In early March, the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions will meet at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, and at that meeting, they are scheduled to take a final vote on the proposed changes. I pray that their need for the trust of the church will be a part of their conversations. In other words, I pray that they think about knocking on my door before they just trample over the flowers.

December Pesto

IMG_2813 (1024x683)The other day, I was a bit grumpy.  The weather can do that to me sometimes.  Or, at least, I like to blame it on the weather.  It was about 75 degrees, and it was the 11th of December.  That is not the way things are supposed to be.  Don’t get me wrong; on summer days-off, I am as happy as the next guy to enjoy a warm day.  I go out in my shorts and t-shirts and sandals without a care in the world.  On days when I have to work, I can’t very well wear shorts and t-shirts and sandals.  For work days, I have shirts with collars, pants with long legs, belts, hard-soled shoes, and all manner of other layers which stifle and bind me.  In June, at the bright and fresh turn of the season, I can make it all work.  But by December, I am just stuffy and sweaty and miserable, and I feel like I deserve better.  75 degrees is just wrong for this time of year, and I was a bit grumpy about it.

But there was one bright spot in the midst of the injustice of a 75-degree day in December:  fresh basil.  When I came home from work for lunch, my wife and I had our regular conversation about what to eat.  And I looked out of the window in the nook, and I knew the answer.  “I want pasta with pesto.”  I got out the pan and started the water, then I headed outdoors with our kitchen scissors to cut the leaves off of the basil.

Around here, I have found it makes most sense to plant the basil twice each year.  In March, I can usually find the first round of herbs at the nursery.  I put them in a place of prominence in our small herb bed, a little patch enclosed by a small wall of flagstones salvaged from a pathway we removed from the side yard a couple of years ago.  The pathway had become overgrown as stolons of centipede grass meandered across the stones, pushed their roots into the cracks in between, and took up residence in a way that made it clear they had no intention of leaving.  Removing the grass would have been a tedious job at best.  So, we just pulled out the stones, and now I simply run the mower out there when the weeds get so high that we are scared to approach our back-yard gate for fear of what might be lying in wait for us.

The early-spring basil is usually planted in the sunny side of the herb bed, as far away from the house as possible without going into the lawn, so it can enjoy the full day of warm sun which it prefers.  But there is no reason to assume in March that the basil will have any permanence there.  By late June, the basil is feeling the steaminess of a Savannah summer.  Its leaves wither, turn yellow, and fall off the stems, and the plants’ full efforts are put into desperate attempts at reproduction.  As soon as I pinch off one flower bud, another one shoots up.  We usually get out of town for a few days around that time, and when we return, the basil is hopeless.

But in early September, I have found that I can go back to the nursery, pick out a four-pack of fresh, young shoots, and put them in the same sunny side of the little herb bed.  The plants need a bit of watering at first to mitigate against the late-summer heat, but then, they settle in nicely.  As the weather cools a bit, they do not seem to feel any urgency to produce flowers and seeds, so we can simply cut the stems as we need to use them.  Some years, we can get a freeze as early as mid-November.  But this year, like many years, it is almost Christmas and the air has still not reached the fatal 32 degrees.  The basil survives.

I collected my basil, cutting the stems back further than I would another time because I might as well use it before it is gone.  Some of the stems might have been a little too woody, so I probably should have pulled off the leaves.  Next time, I probably will, but that day I threw stems and leaves together in the food processor with the requisite amounts of pine nuts, grated Parmesan, garlic, and olive oil to make the coveted paste.  By the time the macaroni had reached al dente perfection, the pesto was well-mixed and ready to be spread liberally.  An otherwise grumpy day of dealing with the merciless, unseasonable weather was redeemed by the abundance of the autumn basil.

I had a chance to reflect a bit more on this season, and how abundance is revealed in it, the next day when I was talking with the director of a church organization I work with.  This organization works with seniors who have low incomes.  The director told me that another congregation had collected some money and given it to the organization to help the people they serve have a merrier Christmas.  And when the director received the donation, she knew exactly what to do with it.  She has noticed that one of the organization’s clients is always wearing the same pair of pants.  That man told her one day recently that all he had for breakfast that day was some toast because he had no other food in his small apartment.  She set him up with a food pantry and other services, but when he told her about his struggles, she realized something.  He does not wear the same pair of pants all the time simply because he finds those pants comfortable or because he has some quirk of personality that makes him want to wear the same pants all the time.  He wears that pair of pants every day because it is the only pair of pants he owns.  She will use the Christmas donation to buy this man some new clothes.

There are a lot of things in life that can make me grumpy.  A stuffy, sweaty day in what should be a winter month can make me grumpy.  The fact that there is an elderly man who cannot afford food for his breakfast makes me grumpy.  But in this season, abundance is revealed in a lot of ways, too.  It is revealed through autumn basil which provides fresh pesto in the ides of December.  It is also revealed in a collection of cash which provides an old man with some new clothes.  Thanks be to God.

General Assembly & My Flower Bed

The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly ended today after being in session since last Saturday.  In eight days of meetings, over eight hundred of us have taken on the impossible task of wrestling together with issues like the definition of marriage, the best ways to promote peace in the Middle East, the complexities of the ethics of immigration, corporal punishment with children, solitary confinement in prisons, shifts in attitudes about charitable giving, and a whole host of technical questions about how we are going to operate as a church.  And no one in the room was ignorant of our church’s decline:  in number of members, in amount of money, and in power in our culture.

Particularly in the last couple of days, I heard a lot of my fellow commissioners expressing in one way or another a fear I shared:  that we hadn’t actually done anything.  Some came here with an issue or set of issues which they feel passionate about, and their feelings came when those issues were not addressed in the way they wanted them to be addressed.  Others became baffled as we spent hour after hour on procedural votes and policy debates while the fog of all that decline in numbers, in money, and in power hovered all around.  Why do we spend so much time, money, and energy on these statements and procedures which assume that someone beyond the convention center cares about anything we are doing? And why do we not spend that same time, money, and energy on work that would more obviously address all of that decline?  My own fears about the waste of this week are probably more with the folks who became baffled, but I share some of the frustration of the folks whose passionate hopes were not realized.

But in my own exhaustion and fear, this evening, I am remembering the flower bed in front of my house.  Last summer, I realized that the flower bed just wasn’t working.  The lantana had grown too close to the azaleas.  One of the clematis had died and I never replaced it, so the balance was a little off.  The daylillies barely hung on, mostly because I never really did anything with the soil before I threw them in the ground.  Crabgrass was everywhere.  And the shape of the bed was such that it was hard to mow the lawn in front of it.  As they say where I live, the whole thing was just a hot mess.

About the same time I realized the troubles of my flower bed, my wife announced that she wanted to take my son to spend a week with her parents.  I didn’t have vacation time, so I couldn’t go along.  But with them out of the house, I realized I could throw myself, morning and night, into my flower bed.  I worked hard that week.  Sunday afternoon, as soon as I got home from worship, I started tearing up the grass and weeds to draw new lines around my beds.  Monday, I put those pitiful daylillies in flower pots, headed to the big box (please don’t judge me) to buy some pine bark nuggets and manure, and started turning over the soil.  Tuesday, I dug some more; Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday had me working the soil, uprooting and re-planting azaleas, leveling trellises for the clematis, and lifting up valleys and making the mountains a smooth plain.  All of this work was done in the heat of a Georgia August, which is about the worst time to do such work, not only because of the distress the heat puts on the plants, but more significantly because of the distress the heat puts on the planter.  But by the time my beloved family came home on Sunday, I was all finished.

And it looked awful. The grass in front of the flower bed had been crushed and muddied.  The soil hadn’t settled, so the surface was uneven.  The wilted leaves of the plants were covered in dirt.  The daylillies had been hacked to stubs in the process of transplanting.  The new lantana, which I got on a good sale, was pitifully tiny, and there were big holes which could not be filled in until the plants which would go there could be purchased in the spring.  I was disappointed and frustrated.  It had not turned out like I wanted.  I feared I had wasted my time, money, and energy.

The metaphor is obvious at this point.  I felt about my flower bed project the way some of us feel about the General Assembly meeting.  And this is the part of the script when I am supposed to say that things in my flower bed got better over time:  the soil settled, the grass grew back, the perennials filled in, and the springtime brought not only a beautiful display of flowers, but a renewed joy for all of my hard work.

But it didn’t.  One of the azaleas didn’t make the transition well, which throws off the whole balance of the design.  I don’t think a single one of the daffodils bloomed.  The crepe myrtle will take years to get big enough for the space it is in.  And the lantana I got on that great sale fell victim to a late-February freeze which a more established plant would have survived.  There were some bright spots of beauty.  The daylillies were gorgeous this spring, blooming large and long, just like they were designed to do.  The clematis all came back, which was a pleasant surprise given their condition last fall, although the tops of the trellises their leaves and flowers are supposed to cover are still exposed for the whole world to see. But the bed as a whole still doesn’t look that great.

The comparison between the frustrations and fears that accompany the work we have done at General Assembly and the frustration of my work on the flower bed in my front yard does not have an unequivocally happy ending, at least not this side of the new heaven and new earth.  We spend our time, our money, and our energy doing work which is frustrating, disappointing, and baffling in its tedium and seeming waste.  Sometimes we have to wait for anything beautiful to happen.  Sometimes we have to realize the beauty we expect won’t ever come to pass.  Sometimes we have to look hard to see anything beautiful at all.

But I don’t give up.  I spread mulch this spring, and I keep on watering it all when it starts to wilt.  I replaced the lantana.  I am gently training the clematis to fill in their trellises.  And the dying azalea remains where it is, simply because I can’t figure out what on earth to do with it.

And I am going to keep working, patiently and expectantly, with the church.  I expect that some of the things I came here wanting to happen will happen in a couple years.  I know that invites a Comment from a Birmingham Jail; I understand that justice delayed is justice denied.  But there is not much to be done about it now; nothing is going to grow in that place.  I expect that some other things I want to see happen will happen sooner than that, but will happen in a different way:  through the actions of people I trust to cajole anything out of even the most barren soil.  And I will look for the beauty that does come from the work we did this past week, even if, in all my exhaustion, everything I can see around me right now looks wilted and dirty and awful.

Some things we did will have to be watered.  Some things will have to be replanted or rearranged.  In some places, mulch will have to be spread to smother the weeds and cover up the bare spots.  Some things will die, even things which seem essential to the whole design.  Some things will just sit there looking ugly because we don’t know what else to do with them.  That’s just the nature of the work we do in God’s front yard:  we plant, we water, we tend, we even design, but at some point we have to stand back and trust God to give the growth.