The Return of the Lost Sheep

A bit of a different sermon from my for September 15; I delivered this as my candidate sermon at Ankeny United Church of Christ. And so it is much more about me, and about what kind of a church we can be together, than it is about anything in particular in the scripture.

Sermon Text is Luke 15:1-10

Preached at Ankeny UCC in Ankeny, Iowa

The Freedom to Act

The Freedom to Act

Preached at the Congregational Church UCC in Iowa City, July 7, 2013

Sermon text Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

I felt inspired on the fourth of July, and wrote out most of the sermon text for this week. I was really inspired by the recent political developments around the voting rights act, and found the insistence on proclaiming our freedom while at the same time watching it be restricted in a day-to-day way (voting, increased security at public events) somewhat jarring. Because so much of what I believe about the Gospel of Jesus focuses on freeing ourselves from fear, I could not help but think of all those people who took up the job in front of them in spite of the fear of repercussions. I think they followed in the best steps of the disciples in this story of Luke’s, who were not allowed even to bring shoes on the road to heal and preach the Gospel.

On the end of a ministry

This time last year, I was anxiously awaiting the final say on whether I’d be hired as a campus minister (I wasn’t really sure until late July, and even then there was some ambiguity as to the length of my service). Anxious partly because this seemed like the only ministry work that I seemed likely to find up in my part of the rural mountains.

That uncertainty has returned. Do I, as suggested by a friend’s father, try to break into higher ed administration (as is the natural state of things with my family), committing myself to some sort of novel bi-vocational ministry that would likely not entail ordination? I have been contemplating the future of liberal protestant ministry, and wondering whether it is a return to the bi-vocational ministry of our non-conformist forefathers. But facing the reality is something different, especially as I watch so many friends receive their stoles. The polity of the UCC requires ordination into a call. My committee did not immediately recognize serving as a campus minister for a group with whom we were not covenantally tied as ordainable, and for financial reasons I chose not to push back on that understanding. So here we are.

But before that, a realization about this past year:

One reason I have been hesitant to pursue hospital chaplaincy is that I need a balance and a big picture to grow, learn and be satisfied. I found during my clinical pastoral education that I would quickly grow bored exercising only one set of skills. The campus ministry I served this year came from a very democratic tradition, and so I was carried where the students led. And, this year, a year of transition for them and the ministry, that was a very safe place. As a result, I found myself again in something of a box. While I loved working with the students, the ministry’s activities were not diverse enough for me to fit in; my strength has always been connecting disparate parts to make a whole, but there were no disparate parts, so I was trying to mentor the group members on the same things all year. And neither of us benefitted from that arrangement. It’s hard to draw out themes and connect dots without some continuity and variety, and yet that’s the way that I teach. I tried to create a space with more variety for the first few months, and to reach out to other campus ministries, but that’s just not where we were. It’s also a reminder that the terms of interim ministry need to be settled amongst all stakeholders up front. For various reasons, that did not happen this year, and that affected our ability to use the unique opportunity of interim ministry effectively. Rather than planning out an orientational shift or addressing the specific concerns that were needed to get from point A to point B, we started in a steady state, carrying momentum from the previous year, and waited for that steam to expire before coming to terms with the necessary adjustments. Interim ministry can be such a wonderful chance to understand identity without the burden of history and offense when done right, that it was a disappointment to waste the chance.

For me, personally, too, it was a reminder that a double context-shift might be too much. I am not a Baptist. I am UCC. And I am not from a small town in North Carolina. I’m from Iowa, raised by New Englanders and trained in Boston and New Haven. I think a move to a more urban-dominated Baptist chaplaincy, or a more rural UCC chaplaincy, would have been an adjustment that was possible for me, jumping from an urban UCC setting to a rural Baptist setting was difficult for me and for the students. I have always believed that ministry has a setting, a time and a place, and this was a reminder that bringing God into different times and places requires a mental and attitudinal flexibility that takes time to achieve. If I am to stay in this place long-term, I will need to understand what God needs me to be here. And that’s still hard and unfamiliar.

More to come as I process this past year and reflect on more general lessons for the future.

Music and Meaning

I went to see a locally-staged workshopping of some songs from Carner and Gregor’s Island Song cycle by the WCU University Players on Tuesday night. The project highlights the loneliness and alienation that can come in the midst of the excitement and energy of being young in New York, effectively using humorous lyrics and catchy tunes to capture the absurdity that comes from being in that world. I found myself reflecting on the feelings that the pieces invoked in me; I was filled with an eerie feeling of nostalgia and wistful regret as the New York-centric life I had lived between 2000-2003 was put to music. When I mentioned this to the writers after the show, a sudden game of the “I lived in New Haven” “Oh, I used to live in New Haven, too” dance broke out. And so it came out that it should have been no surprise that the show captured that period of my life so succinctly, for Carner was a Yalie a year behind me; this was written from their experience with folks who might have been me.

It is hard, here in the mountains, to live in the present and look to the future, rather than the past. Perhaps it is the lack of work for me, perhaps it is the distance from the challenges facing my friends, perhaps it is just being older and having some fewer possibilities for my life than in those early days. But at the same time, I know, a day apart from the visceral reactions I had in that theater, that those were just highlights of my life in 2000-2003, memorable for their exceptionalism. The question for now, as it was for then, is “what is one’s life in this place?” For me now, there has been a sense of stagnation and loneliness because I have been starved for contact with people thinking about the same religious questions I am; in 2002 it was an office full of people who did not know the name Paul Wellstone.

In 2000, I did not think about the ways in which our place shapes us. I knew I did not want to live in New York, but was otherwise geographically flexible. Now, we find ourselves torn between the elements of our lives that we have longed for and the sense that we are not of this place and may never be. I have thought my call to ministry might include finding people a way to adapt to their own mismatched sense of place. But now I am not sure.