Defining “Essential”

So yesterday I asked what was on people’s minds. I thought I would take a moment and share something that’s been on my mind the past two weeks.

One of the greatest things about times of crises is that we have an opportunity to learn things about ourselves that we might otherwise not learn. There are several things I’ve already learned. And over the course of the next few days, I’ll be sharing some of those learnings. My hope is that it will spur you on to reflect on your learnings too.

My first learning was that there are many in our society who define ministry as “non-essential”.

I learned that lesson most especially during the week of March 8. As the size of public gatherings that were allowed began to shrink (first from 250, then to 100, then to 50), one of the standards that was used to discern whether a facility could remain open was if its services were deemed “essential”.

That week, I was under a lot of pressure to shut down literally every expression of our ministry. First, I was under pressure to shut down the worship service on March 15 (a service that included the baptism of an infant who had family members fly in from Argentina for the life-altering sacrament). Shortly thereafter, there was pressure to close the entire church campus – which meant not allowing any of our 12-Step groups to meet. As a pastor – and participant in the 12-Step movement myself – I knew that would mean those in recovery would lose an important means of support at a time when they needed it most.

My position from the earliest moments was not to be medically irresponsible and encourage folks to defy medical recommendations in order to join large crowds. No, my hope was that those individuals whose need or pain was all-consuming could rest a little easier knowing they had a place to go IF they needed one.

I expected worship services would include no more than 2 or 3 people. That was okay. I once lead a Sunday morning worship service in Denver right after a blizzard where just one person showed! I knew too that 12 Step meetings might have no more than 3 or 4 attendees.

After a week of working hard to keep at least SOME expressions of our ministry open (i.e. I staffed the church office alone most days in case anyone in need dropped by), the decision was finally taken out of our hands when California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a “stay at home” – essentially closing all “non-essential” businesses or services as of midnight on March 20. There were those words again … “non-essential”.

So why does that phrase “non-essential” bother me so when used to describe ministry?

I think it’s hard for us clergypersons to think of our ministries as non-essential because we KNOW we are there for the most important moments of people’s lives on a regular basis. We are there, for instance, when a new life enters the world, and we celebrate the child’s baptism. We are there to help our youth process their fears regarding the future. We are there to bless their new marriages. We are there to provide marital counseling when their relationship hits the rocks. We are there to provide care when the challenges of life seem too great, and not even a pill or a therapist can’t help them find their way to peace. We are there when they lose a parent, a spouse, or loved one. We are there when they receive a life-threatening diagnosis from their doctor. We are there – at their bedsides – when some take their last breath. If those things don’t fit the definition of “essential” services, then I don’t know what is.

That’s why it was so difficult for me this past Saturday to drive away from our church – having just locked its doors to ensure no one could attend Sunday services, and drive past a Bed, Bath & Beyond store that was still open for business – providing “services” that society deemed were more important than those offered at a church!

Deep, deep, deep sad sigh …

So how did I deal with the frustration of living in a world where ministry isn’t deemed “essential”?

I did two things. First, I worked round the clock for the past 10 days to get almost many of our existing ministries brought online. Not only that, I actually added to our ministries. We now have the ability for people to gather online in Zoom meeting rooms 7-days a week. That helped me feel better knowing that expressions of our ministry were still available.

And second, I put all of my 12-Step work into practice, and reminded myself, “Just because society may not consider ministry ‘essential’, that doesn’t mean I don’t have to think that way.” I continue to lead my ministry and my life in such a way that I believe I am every bit as important as an emergency room doctor, a fire person, or a grocery store employee that stocks the shelves with toilet paper. That’s why when I got a call from one of our Community Partner members who was in crisis last night, and was in a spiritual place where talking over the phone or Zoom couldn’t provide what he needed, I offered to meet him in my church office in person (at a distance of 6 feet, of course) for a pastoral care session.

As a gay man who lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980’s – and saw the Christian church COMPLETELY disappear from the lives of so many when they needed their ministry most! – I held on to a powerful conviction: that when the history of the COVID-19 crisis is written, they will NOT say the church was tucked away behind locked doors. No, so many of us around the globe are working hard to ensure that the Body of Christ will show up and be present when it is needed the most.

And when I think about the tough decisions that have been made by those in ministry – and the ways we have fought against all odds to keep our ministries going – I know the next time I sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” – it will take on deeper meaning.

“Though none go with me. Still I will follow.

Though none go with me. Still I will follow.

Though none go with me. Still I will follow.

No turning back. No turning back …”

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. How about you? What are you thinking about today?

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Differences – and what they might represent …

Sharon wrote: “Pastor Craig, I have been reading in Kings. I notice there are different ways in which they were spoken of in regard to the end of their lives. One time it will say, he died, or slept with his fathers, or slept with his fathers and was buried in the sepulcher of David, or slept with his fathers and buried in the city of David, or one was buried in Tirzah (Baasha), or one buried in his own garden, or Omri who was buried in Samaria. I was wondering if there was any significance to the different ways and or places that this is stated. Was this because of how they lived their lives or is there a spiritual significance to this or were there just different places to be buried?”

Hi Sharon. Thanks for the great question. You are a wonderfully careful reader of Scripture. I love and appreciate that!

When you talk about the differences in language in Kings, my first instinct from my seminary days – when we dove deep into matters of biblical exegesis, or biblical interpretation – leads me to believe that the differences you spoke of have to do with different source materials that were used. An early chapter of 1 Kings, for instance, might have come from one source, while a later chapter in 2 Kings came from a difference source. Folks who study Scripture using this method do what’s called source criticism.

When a pastor talks about biblical interpretation and different methods of studies, some lay people get confused. That’s because many were raised to believe that all the material from one book in the Bible came from the same source. Often, however, that is not true. Seemingly random changes in names, pronouns, locations, etc. often suggest that a particular passage was drawn from a different source than its surrounding material.

Let me give you an example of how source criticism might work from modern times. Let’s say we read three books having to do with America’s relations with Russia. In one book, they talk about a city – at that time the capital of Russia – and call it Petrograd. In another book, they call the same city Leningrad. In another, they call it St. Petersburg.

Those who know Russian history would know the first book must have been written between 1917 and 1924: a time when the city was known as Petrograd. They would also know the second book was written sometime between 1925 and the mid-1990’s (when the city was known as Leningrad). The third book would be harder to date – as the city was known as St. Petersburg twice: once before 1917, and again after the early-1990’s.

Biblical scholars use the same sort of reasoning to figure out when biblical material was written. And they use it in a variety of ways – not just with the names of places of places or people. There are certain words or phrases that are used in one time and place – and others words or phrases that are used in other times and places.

My sense (without known the specific passage of which you wrote) is the passages your referred to above were much like this example. The differences in language represent different social contexts more than they represent difference theologies (though, of course, all theology is contextual – but I digress). 😊

What a great question to raise, Sharon. It was nice to think about something else than the COVID-19 scare for a moment. Thanks so much for writing!

How about others? What’s on your mind today? Your matters can be pretty wide ranging.

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Vocational Update and … What’s on Your Minds?

Hi there.  I wanted to give my readers a quick update about my vocational plans.  Originally, I announced that I was leaving as pastor of Woodland Hills Community Church on April 26.  Due to the COVID-19 crisis, however, I have delayed my departure so I could see the beloved congregation I serve through this crisis.  I will work with the church’s five-person Leadership Team to find a date when I will leave after things have settled down and returned to normal-ish.

With that said, for those who are not familiar with my blog – I use the site to live out one of my core values: engaging others (not showing how smart I am – spoiler alert: not very!).  With that in mind you should know I rarely write about what interests me.  I write about what’s on my readers minds.

“How do you know what’s on their minds?” you ask.

It’s pretty simple.  I ask them.   With that said, I am now going to open things up to my readers and ask, “What’s on your mind?”

As you prepare to submit a question/comment, PLEASE know this.  I have a VERY diverse group of readers.  Some are agnostic.  Some are evangelical.  Some are atheist.  Some are Jewish.  You name it.  My readers represent that segment of our society.  While I will try to be as respectful and inclusive as possible in my responses to the questions and issue you raise; it is important, however, to say that my responses will come from my perspective as a non-creedal Christian.  As you interact with other readers, I ask that you be kind and gentle with each other and respect that others will be coming from different places than you.  I consider that to be a good thing.

Also, know this about me.  I’m not very interested in using my space to point fingers at people/groups and talk about what’s wrong with the world.  There are already PLENTY of people out there making big bucks doing that.  Early in my life, I adopted a motto that has guided my life and ministry: “You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.”  I’m ALL about being part of the solution.  By embracing the principles of respect and kindness in the words you submit, I hope those readers who comment will also choose to be a part of the solution – and not a part of the problem by using words that stoke fear, disgust or further division.

So what’s on your minds today?  (If I get multiple responses , I will write on the questions/responses in the order they are received.)

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Teaching Faith?

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She writes: “Pastor Craig. I remember having faith in God at a very young age. It has built over time as life experiences have happened. I don’t know how I could live a day without my walk with God.  I understand how different religious paths can be taught to people, and lessons on right and wrong, but do you think one can ‘teach’ a person to have faith? Thank you for your time, which is precious these days.”

Thanks for the great question, Stevie.  The short answer to your question is, “No.  I do not believe you can ‘teach’ someone to have faith.”  I do believe, however, that you can teach people spiritual disciplines like prayer practices, how to engage the sacred texts of one’s religious tradition, provide opportunities to help/connect with people (i.e. missions), etc.  And a pastor can certainly model what one model of faith looks like.  At the end of the day, however, an individual must make the decision to live a life of faith for her or himself.

Your question provides me with an opportunity to talk briefly about an important shift that’s taken place within me recently as I help people engage this notion of “having faith”.

There are a lot of folks these days who perceive faith in a pretty black and white way.  They believe you either “have faith” – which means you embrace spiritual notions that look like the religious traditions with which you were raised, or you don’t have faith.  A lot of folks who say they don’t have faith (especially those who weren’t raised in religious traditions) are tortured by this black and white approach.  They want to “have faith” – but have no idea of what it takes to let go and embrace faith.

Here’s what I tell such folks these days.

Every human being on the planet already lives a life of faith.  That’s true of atheists; agnostics; and people of every label on the planet.  So the real question one should ask oneself is this: “What is my faith in?”

For some, their faith is in their reason or intellect.  For others, it’s in science.  For some, their faith is in a particular political party or candidate.  For others, it’s in the wisdom of a particular author.  For some, their faith is in the connection they feel to the universe when they are out in nature.  For others, it’s in the warmth and goodness of their family.  To use the language of the 12-Step movement, each of us as “a god of our understand”.

The key, then, is to help people first realize where their faith lies.  Once they do that, they can begin to understand they already have a great deal of experience in living a life of faith.  The remaining question they must wrestle with then becomes this: “Does the thing in which I place my faith provide me with a life of peace and serenity that connects me to a world larger than myself?”  If so, then the person can continue to live her or his life as usual.  If the source of faith is NOT doing that, then it is time to talk about exploring something new.  And that’s where I’m happy to step in and help them begin that process of spiritual exploration.

Those are a few of the thoughts that Stevie’s question raised for me.  I would love to invite you into the conversation.  And for those who don’t want to join this conversation, what question would you raise for our online community today?

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New Announcement for the New Year

This past Monday I notified active participants in the congregation I serve that I will be leaving parish ministry in 2020.  My last Sunday as the pastor of a local church will be Sunday, April 26, 2020.

As I told my congregants, my primary reasons for leaving parish ministry are personal.  As a person who struggles with issues of codependency and establishing healthy relationships, the parish setting is not the healthiest place for me to be.  I have often told friends that asking a codependent person to serve as the pastor of a local church is much like asking a recovering alcoholic to be a bartender.  It can be done – but it takes a LOOOOOOOOOOOT of effort, and it never gets easy.

I look forward to the next stage of my ministry.  I am not sure in what vocational setting – or in what geographical location – my next position will be.  I am completely open to going wherever God calls.  All I know is that the right position will be one that allows me to establish a healthy balance between my personal and vocational lives.

I look forward to the adventures that lie ahead.  I would also ask that you hold the people of the congregation I serve (Woodland Hills Community Church) in your prayers during this time of transition.

May God bless you will a wonderful year – full of your own adventures – in 2020.

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Making Sense of Advent

Today’s comment comes from Andrea.  She wrote: “I would love to hear How Christians of progressive faith navigate Advent. I’m assuming most don’t believe that three wisemen followed a donkey to a stable filled with clean sheep and smelling of wood soap?”

While there isn’t just ONE Progressive take on the Advent and Christmas seasons (yes, they are separate), let me offer these words as a jumping-off point for how some Progressives approach the seasons.

If I were to use the language of Marcus Borg for a minute, Marcus would say that when we talk about matters such as biblical stories and traditions there are at least two ways we can talk about them.  We can talk about them as factual (meaning we spend our time debating whether the accounts happened EXACTLY as recorded), or we can talk about their meanings.

Progressives, of course, will talk about facts.  For instance, they will quickly point out there is no mention of the number of wisemen/magi/kings in the biblical texts.  They will mention that the notion there were three grew out of an early assumption that because there were three gifts there must have been three wisemen/magi/kings.  They will also note that within the global Christian community, there is disagreement about how many wisemen/magi/kings there were.  Those in the West say three; many of those in the East – especially in the Syriac churches – say twelve.

And unlike many Traditionalists – who fold the accounts of the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke together to craft one story – many Progressives will talk about the two versions of the Christmas story separately.  They do so in order to talk about how each Gospel had theological agendas that emphasize a different aspect of the tradition.  The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, includes a telling of the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to escape persecution by Herod while the Gospel of Luke doesn’t include that story.  Matthew (a Gospel written primarily to appeal to an audience steeped in Jewish tradition) wants to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture.  The flight to Egypt picks up on a passage from Hosea 11:1 (“… out of Egypt I have called My son”).  Luke’s audience, on the other hand, is more Gentile and less Jewish.  This Gospel is slightly less concerned with presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture and – therefore –less compelled to tie Jesus to Egypt.

Over the last few years, however, many Progressives realized that ONLY talking about the factual dimensions of the Christmas story left them cynical, bitter, and jaded – and robbed them of the joy of the season, leaving some feeling spiritually adrift.

As a result, some Progressively have grown increasingly comfortable moving beyond a conversation about fact and embracing conversations about the meanings contained in the Christmas story that inform their experience of Advent.

What do these conversations look like?  Here are a few bulleted points about these conversations.

  • These conversations start, for instance, by talking about how while Jesus was initially welcomed by adherents of one religious tradition (Judaism), Advent reminds us that God’s deepest desire for us it to bring us together across lines (i.e. Jew and Gentile).
  • The conversations also remind us that our Christian faith invites us to think about the ways in which God’s love is concrete (or Incarnational) and not purely abstract or ethereal.
  • The conversations remind us that one of the oldest biblical themes is that God initially comes not to the best and the brightest, but to the meekest and most humble. Those on the margins hold a special place in the heart of God.  And while God may enter human experience/consciousness from the margins, God’s radical love and grace spread throughout all social locations.

Those are just a few of the conversations through which Progressives can joyously – and excitedly! -connect with the spirit of Advent and Christmas.

So what about you?  How do you bring your Progressive commitments to the seasons of Advent and Christmas?

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What’s On Your Mind?

As the holiday season approaches, I’m wondering what you’d like to talk about.  Drop me a line and let me know

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