Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall.....

I'm staring at yet another blank page.
This one is my application for CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) next Fall.
Sample questions on the application:

  1. Give a reasonably full account of your life including important events and relationships with persons who have been significant to you, and the impact of these on your development. Describe your family of origin, current family, supportive social relationships, and your educational experience.
  2. Discuss the development of your religious life, religious organizations you have affiliated with, your participation in the life and ministry of your tradition, your decision to follow a vocation in ministry, and other religious experiences.

Blah, blah, blah, blah........

I'm just soooooo tired of answering these questions.
For three years I've been answering these questions.
For my seminary applications, for my UCC In-Care application and yearly reviews, for my Psych Evaluation, for my Field Ed interviews, for my upcoming Mid-Program review in which I have to review and update my entrance essay to include answers to a whole slew of theological and "growth" questions......and don't get me started on the Ordination Paper that I'll need to write next year.

Every time we start a new semester inevitably at least one professor wants us to write a "getting to know you" reflection essay in which we recount our spiritual/life journey in relation to whatever the topic of the class is.
The application I just turned in for the Border Crossing trip to Appalachia included a page of questions asking us to describe our background, our expectations for the trip, and an "out of our comfort zone" immersion experience that we've had.
In Field Ed I have to write weekly Theological Reflections, attend weekly and monthly meetings to reflect on my experiences, and I just handed in a four-page reflection on my progress/growth for the mid-year review.
And let's face it, writing a sermon is often just one long reflection, I may not be reflecting on my story (although there is an element of that) but I am reflecting on the ways in which THE STORY of our faith/tradition intersects with our stories.

Reflect. Reflect. Reflect.
I feel like I'm living in a world with mirrored walls where I can't get away from my own image.
I'm so tired of swimming inside my own head.
I doubt if aspirants in other professions have to go through this....
"Well Joe, you're half-way through plumbing school now, can you tell us how installing that toilet made you feel and in what ways it has led to your growth?"

I'm just whining because I don't want to write my CPE application.
Some of it can be cut and pasted from previous reflections but all these applications seem to ask the questions in a slightly different way or want answers to specific questions, which requires extensive editing and further reflecting.


This is why I'm looking forward to the Lenten series that I'm leading at my field ed site.
We'll be discussing how we would answer the questions of Jesus:
"Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29)
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34)
"Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things?" (Luke 24:26)
"Why do doubt arise in your hearts?" (Luke 24:38)

In answering these questions we'll touch on:
Christology: Who is Jesus to us?; theodicy: Where is God in our suffering?; atonement theory: Why did Jesus have to die?; and the Resurrection: What do we believe happened and how does it inform our faith?

The good part about all this is that I get to hear how the people in the pews would answer these questions. I get to hear the reflections of others for a change. And I'm hoping we'll all get to know each other a little better in the process.
Gasp! I may actually spend some time in seminary listening and ministering to others instead of spending hours gazing at my own reflection? Horrors!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sermon: "Our Lenten Journey"

Ash Wednesday Service

February 17, 2010

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:17-18)

"Our Lenten Journey"

Welcome aboard fellow travelers.

This is our departure point on our Lenten Journey.

Our tour will begin here on Ash Wednesday and along the way we’ll be making stops at Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and we will end our journey at daybreak on Easter Sunday. I suggest that you tighten your seat belts, secure any loose belongings and keep your hands inside the car at all times because it’s going to be a roller coaster of a ride.

We’ll begin here in the dimly lit entryway of Ash Wednesday where we’ll leave behind any unneeded baggage and receive a symbolic marking that will grant us access to all areas of the Lenten Journey.

I pray that you ate well before arriving here, as fasting is encouraged from this point onward.

As we move forward from Ash Wednesday we will gradually descend through the long, darkened tunnel of Lent. Here it will seem as if the walls are lined with mirrors - as we’ll be encouraged to look deeply at the images that we project to the world and examine how we might change the direction in which we’ve been moving - To move closer to love – love of self, love of neighbor, love of God - and further away from fear – fear of failure, fear of change, fear of our own mortality.

After 40 days and 40 nights of fasting and reflection we’ll gain altitude once again and ascend to the plateau of Palm Sunday. Here we will briefly emerge into the light of day and raise our hands in triumph at the arrival of Jesus, our beloved brother and guide, before dropping down once again into the darkened tunnel of Holy Week.

As we descend, we will quickly gather momentum until we hit bottom on Maundy Thursday. You are forewarned that on this day, water may splash over the sides of the car and your feet may get wet.

At this point on the journey we will share a meal together and remember the last night that Jesus spent on earth. As we exit Maundy Thursday the few remaining lights inside the Lenten tunnel will dim to black, and we will press on in silence.

As we move into Good Friday our tour will then slow to a crawl.

This section of the journey is not for the faint of heart.

The sights and the sounds that we’ll experience there are not pleasant but I encourage you to resist the urge to cover your eyes and plug your ears,

for we cannot truly experience the thrill and the joy of the height that is to come unless we first know what it is like to go through this valley.

The painful images, the cries of anguish, the metallic taste of fear in our mouths, and the smell of death will all converge and overwhelm our senses.

But then, just as abruptly as this torment began, it will end.

And the world will fall silent.

On Holy Saturday, our tour will come to a complete stop. We will sit in the darkened stillness of the tunnel. And we will wait.

We’ve been told that the exit lies just around the bend, but we can’t know for sure. At this point we will feel disoriented and lost.

It will seem as if our beloved guide has abandoned us, leaving us to find our own way home.

But as the sun rises on Easter morning we will see a thin shaft of light glowing in the distance, and we will begin to move forward once again.

Soon this pinpoint of light will grow to illuminate the walls and the floor and the ceiling around us.

As we exit the Lenten tunnel and emerge into the light of Easter morning, feel free to let loose with shouts of joy and to sing Halleluiah - as we feel the warmth of the sun on our skin and smell the sweet scent of freshly tilled earth all around us.

There we will get our first glimpse of new creation, new life, the resurrection of all that is good and holy.

It is there that Jesus, our beloved brother and guide, will step forward once again to greet us, to welcome us home after our long and tiring journey, and to offer us rest in the loving arms of God.

But we can’t get there, unless we begin here.

Here in the dimly lit entryway of Ash Wednesday.

It is here that we scrub our faces clean and anoint our heads with oil.

It is here that we offer alms and pray to God for forgiveness.

It is here that we begin our fast.

A fast that has little to do with depriving ourselves of what we want or desire, and very much to do with letting go of what we no longer need.

Our sins. Our sorrows. Our guilt. Our shame.

The pain and regret we feel for having wronged another.

The anger and resentment we feel against those who have wronged us.

The fear we feel when we contemplate our own mortality.

The emptiness we feel when we’ve distanced ourselves from God.

It is here on Ash Wednesday that we make a conscious effort to take all these things and lay them at our feet.

To spread them out on the ground so we can get a better look at them.

To say to our self, “These are the burdens that I’ve been carrying.

What is it that God wants me to carry?

And what is it that God wants me to leave behind?”

The point of receiving ashes is to remind us that eventually it will all be left behind.

Returning to the dust from which it was created.

Yesterday afternoon, as I watched the snow falling on the Andover Newton campus and sat mesmerized as the large yet delicate flakes drifted slowly to the ground - it was not hard to imagine that it was not snow that was falling, but ash.

As it blanketed the grass and weighed heavily on every branch of every tree, the world took on an eerie mono-chromatic silence.

The greens and the browns and the reds and the yellows, were obliterated under a layer of ashen white.

I was struck that on the eve of Ash Wednesday, nature had chosen to paint over what God had created, as if to prepare the canvas for something entirely new to appear.

Normally when I gaze out my window on campus and I see one of my classmates walking in the distance, with just a glance I can tell you who they are. Even if they’re too far away for me to see their face, I find familiar clues in their gait, their build, or even the color of their clothing.

Yesterday, their identities were a mystery to me. Bundled up in hats and heavy coats, moving quickly through the falling snow, each person looked just the same as the other.

It was as if nature was using the ashen snow to paint over us as well.

And why not.

We are part of creation.

We are not exempt from the cycle of life and death.

In Genesis, God said to Adam “You will return to the ground for out of it you were taken. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

From this we learn humility, for we die just as the leaves on the trees die, but we also learn that we are not above creation, but a part of it.

And God aches to be in relationship with creation,

God aches to be in relationship with us,

and we ache to be in relationship with God.

And all that stuff we’ve spread at our feet, all the stuff that we’ve been carrying around for years, this is what is getting in the way of our relationship with God.

So every year on Ash Wednesday, we come together in community and receive a smudge of ash across our foreheads.

To remind us that we’re not going to live forever, and the time to unburden ourselves and move into the loving embrace of God is now.

Now understandably, contemplating our own mortality and taking a good hard look at our shortcomings, is not something that we are eager to do. Which is why many of us choose to skip this stage of the Lenten journey.

In choosing to walk with Christ we’re often tempted to walk just part of the way. To skip joyfully by his side during the celebratory times and to run on ahead during the painful times.

Perhaps because spending 40 days in the wilderness picking at our scabs is too much for us to bear.

Perhaps because contemplating Jesus’ suffering reminds us too much of our own.

Perhaps because witnessing his death forces us to face the fact that we too will one day die.

But if our focus is only on the living Jesus, and the risen Jesus, are we missing the point of the incarnation? Are we neglecting to see that God so ached to be in relation with us that God became one of us - so we might know God better and God might know us better. And part of becoming one of us is to know what it is like to suffer and to die.

As we leave here and continue on our Lenten Journey I encourage you to see it through to the end.

To resist the inclination to fast forward to the high points, moving from Christmas to Palm Sunday to Easter Morning, touching only the mountain tops and avoiding the valleys below.

To take the time to visit Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

We know the resurrection is coming, but lets not be in such a hurry to get there.

Let’s walk along with Jesus as he trembles in the shadow of the cross.

Let’s spend some time in the wilderness pealing off the layers that prevent us from moving closer to God.

Let’s invite nature to take its ashen paint, and brush it across our forehead,

preparing a fresh canvas for God to create anew.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Beam me up, Scotty.

I'm supposed to be writing a pastoral prayer for worship tomorrow.
So I thought I'd creak open the rusty door of this blog instead.

My second year in seminary has been much more demanding then my first, and most of that demand is coming from outside the classroom.
I feel as if I'm trying to keep 4 different trains on their respective tracks at the same time. I started the spring semester two weeks ago but I feel as if my classes are just buzzing in the background right now. Field Ed has me hopping: I'm co-leading and preaching at the Ash Wednesday service this week; I've designed a Lenten series that I'll be leading every Sunday in March; in April I'll be leading an entire service on my own (not new for me, but a big deal for my Field Ed church which has never before let the 'newbie' take full hold of the reigns); and I just finished my mid-year review with my supervisor and the Teaching Parish Committee that oversees my Field Ed. I had to review their performance as a teaching site as well, which forced me to confront some issues that have been frustrating me all year. I felt as if I was being underutilized and I was not being included in particular aspects of ministry that I knew my classmates were fully involved in at their field ed sites. Thankfully, the conversations I had with the TPC and my supervisor went well, as they were surprisingly open to listening to what I had to say and have pledged to make changes going forward. Ask and ye shall receive....

Behind the Field Ed layer I have a slew of other stuff clamoring for my attention as I move forward in my MDiv program. The school requires us to participate in a "Border Crossing" experience that takes us out of the environment that is comfortable and familiar to us, so I'm scheduled to go on a 12 day trip to Appalachia in May to learn about rural/poverty issues - the application is due next week. My plan is to do my CPE unit (hospital chaplaincy internship) during the fall/spring of next year, and those applications, which involve the writing of multiple reflection essays, have to be sent in now. I'm also due for my mid-program review as I now have 45 credits and I'm half-way through the MDiv program. This involves even more writing and the assembling of representatives from the school faculty, my denomination and my peers, all of who have to be available on the same day and be willing to sit around for two hours discussing my progress and my strengths and weaknesses. Fun, fun, fun!

Behind all of this is the layer that's looming on the horizon this summer. In mid May I begin filling in for my home church pastor while she's on sabbatical. And since I start 2 days after returning from the Appalachia trip, which itself begins a week before the actual end of the semester AND thus has forced me to hand in final papers and take a final exam a week earlier than I had anticipated.....(breathe)....AND I have ton of class stuff due in April wich will now have to get worked on even earlier because of the early finals....(breathe again).....this means I need to get at least the first 2 weeks of sermons/bulletins for the summer services done BEFORE all of this because there won't be time in the craziness that's coming at the end of this semester.

Floating behind all of this is a bunch of personal stuff...
My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and just had surgery this week (please send prayers); some friends of mine back home are negotiating some difficult relationship issues and they are very much on my mind right now; and....I'm just going to come right out and say it...being away from my wife for months at a time REALLY SUCKS! Not including the week I was home on Christmas break, I think I saw her a total of 5 days last semester. The end of this semester is going to be really crazy but it can't come soon enough.

On the plus side, I attended a UCC Search and Call event yesterday at school that walked us through the process of writing a profile to find a job once we graduate. While looking through a sample church profile from an actual church that is searching for a pastor, I reviewed the list of qualities/abilities that they were looking for in a pastor, and for the first time, I thought, "I have these skills, I can do this."

While just a year and half ago a similar list had me hemming and hawing and backing away from such a claim, I'm really starting to feel that I'm growing into my call.
There are still plenty of things about being a pastor of a church that are unknown to me and thus still have me saying, "Am I crazy for wanting to do this?" but at this point they are outweighed by the things that have me saying, "I can't wait to be able to do this."

I still have a mountain to climb to get to where I want to be, but at least I'm beginning to feel that I have the right equipment to get there.

Now, if I could just clone myself to ensure all the writing I need to do gets done, AND invent a Star Trek style transporter so I can go home every night, then I'd be set.