Just Ask Brandon Marshall

Matthew 20:1-16

I don’t usually offer commentary on the sermons I deliver to churches I serve. But this sermon starts slowly and not particularly well, and there’s a reason for that. Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers and teacher of preachers in the United States, tells us that certain sermons should be preached from notes, certain from manuscripts, and certain from neither. This sermon illustrates the difficulty of preaching without notes when preaching about a sensitive topic. The beginning of the sermon casts about as I tried to find an entree into the meat. My planned openings took some wrong turns and did not engage the audience, and rather than simply moving ahead, I attempted to recover and get people on my same page. This didn’t work. I was so preoccupied with getting into the domestic violence issues delicately that even my fairly weak transition skills failed me. I had considered going back to the manuscript for this sermon, but thought my run-through was sound enough that it was unnecessary. Unfortunately, a couple of bad new examples popped into my head at the last minute, and I went with them. I thought the sermon did go well once I got to the meat and the issues of domestic violence, it just took a long time to get there.

Warning: this sermon contains extended discussion of domestic violence.

Presidential Debates

As I sat down to watch the debates last night, and saw the eager facebook and twitter posts from friends hosting parties and debate drinking games, I remembered what it was like when election season was all about the game of the election to me. I still have friends who recognize that their lives will be unaffected by these elections, and are able to snipe on that basis. But whether it is vocational change, or geographical change, or simply growing older, I cannot engage at that level any longer. The stakes are too high, and almost always entirely ignored in the noise of the election season. Will there be substantive differences in the lives of the rural poor based on who wins these elections (especially the NC gubernatorial election)? Yes. Will these issues get any play? Almost certainly not. Whenever I go to the Jackson County Health Department, there are long lines. Advertisements for free dental clinics are prominently advertised at my doctor’s office. Every week, different people from CBC unload massive boxes of food for delivery to local school children. And yet, my political mailings are about whether John Snow is not dedicated enough to banning family planning services.

To reiterate, elections matter. A great deal. But it seems to me both a waste of time to spend extensive energy tracking the campaign like a pennant race and a trivialization of the issues at stake to do so.

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.

Memorial Day

Remember the dead. But remember them in life. It is easy to sum up a man’s life by his method of death, but each soldier who died had a life in the service and prior to the service. And it is the absence of those lives that tears at the fabric of our own lives and forces us to ask, “why?”

Missions

[written while on mission, edited afterward. This was originally the second of two postings]

Thursday night, on the eve of our departure from our mission site. I am feeling even more ersatz Baptist than usual, as our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship mission group now consists of two ELCA Lutherans and a UCC minister playing a Baptist on TV.

Yesterday was still somewhat morally and ethically difficult for us. We discovered that the sponsoring church for Monday’s food pantry chose not to accept USDA food specifically so they could proselytize there. At the food pantry they run in their church basement, they DO take USDA food, but of course recipients can see all the devotional messages on the wall. At the same time, the church provides free health services, too (and a very nice meal for volunteers), so it’s clear that they are committed to serving the needy. Where are the lines? a five-minute devotional at the food bank and signs up reminding folks that they need to turn away from sin? The issue is and has been, what happens to the people for whom this _is_ too much; too much pressure, too much of a reminder of hurt the church may have inflicted? At the same time, this is the mission work these churches and food banks feel called to. If nothing else, it expresses the tension that arises from religious organizations administering governmental programs.

Slightly more problematic for us was our time at a community center here. The services are wonderful-an after-school program for kids and a morning day-care for 3-4 year-olds to help them prepare for school (where I found myself working twice this week when other helpers were unavailable). But for some of the day care and food pantry services, mothers needed to come to their Bible Studies and do some quilting for the center (I’m a little confused here. It’s clear that some of the parents do not do anything with the center. So I don’t know if the requirement is just talk–this is the sort of place where kids won’t be turned away, for sure). On the one hand, we were a little uncomfortable with the mandatory Bible Study. But on the other hand, one of our big jobs was putting up fences around gardens the center had helped to install at the homes of parents. That’s just a really cool thing to do for the folks who have room (and, given the properties in that area, this means just about everyone). It’s such a great idea–modern day victory gardens–and adds a giant multiplier for donations (cheap seeds turn into expensive produce). I can’t really criticize the center; it is doing a ton of necessary and great work within its context. But, again, where do folks uncomfortable with its religious mission go?

I had a great time working with the kids, both in the preschool and in the afternoon. One lesson that was clear from our time: elementary school kids LOVE TuxMath and TuxSpell. Especially competitive network TuxMath.

Our nights have been spent talking and thinking about our past as it relates to our present mission work, except for Tuesday, when we turned on The Great Muppet Caper and had two of our four immediately fall asleep (only a fear my snoring would be too loud and a desire to brush my teeth prevented me from doing so as well. Particularly difficult for me, as I was lying on my own bed to watch said movie). I don’t think any of us expected to be quite as tired as we are proving to be at night.

I must say that I did not expect as much excitement as I got when I demanded we stop at a bookstore to get postcards to send home to Cullowhee. We showed up at the only obvious used bookstore in town and discovered that, while its antiquarian section was meh, its used section was outstanding and bountiful, with a particularly good YA section (unusual, in my experience). We wound up spending well over an hour and closer to two there. I think the proprietress was happy to see the back of us, but we all spent between $10-30 on books, and lots of time sitting on the floor examining lost treasures.

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