Crossing Paths

At Family Movie Night on Friday my path crossed again with that of an old acquantance, bringing back memories of a day when I was discerning what the heck it was I was called to do with my life, and reminding me of the presence of God's hand on my shoulder the whole time.

Family Movie Night is a wonderful ministry with children and families at my congregation that meets on the third Friday of every month.  In its second year, Family Movie Night usually invovles a pizza dinner, a Bible story, a VeggieTales movie, and a closing prayer.  This year we've added "Resurrection Kids," a program for the upper elementary kids who felt they were a bit too old for VeggieTales.  After the dinner and Bible story, the older kids usually split off from the younger kids.  The Resurrection Kids play some fun youth group games, while the younger kids – age 2 through 2nd grade – enjoy the movie.

On Friday night my congregation welcomed Monte Lesiter to share his music ministry with our children and families at our monthly Family Movie Night.  This was a bit of an experiment, as we have never deviated from the movie part of Family Movie Night.  But our first Family Music with Monte Night was great, and something that we're sure to do again.

Monte and I met several years ago – in 2004 or 2005 – when he was a youth director at a Lutheran congregation in Maryland, and I was a Philadelphia-based sales representative for Augsburg Fortress, the publishing ministry of the Lutheran Church.  My strategy for sales calls was not "let me show you all the curricula and catalogs I have in the trunk of my car."  Rather, I usually got into conversations about ministry and congregational life, trying to learn more about the person in front of me and the work God had called them to do in that place.  And though Monte and I did talk about ministry resources and curricula, we also talked about our own calls in life and ministry.  He and I were both discerning new calls in our lives – he to a full-time music ministry, me to ordained ministry.  Monte and I met probably only once or twice, and one day he gave me a call and told me that he had left that job.  I wished him the best, but never thought that I'd run into him again.

Many years later, thanks in part to the miracle known as Facebook, we got connected again.  By this point we had each followed the calls we were discerning years earlier.  He was working full time in his music ministry, and I was a pastor in Arlington, VA.  Monte and I traded some emails and phone calls, and eventually got some dates on the calendar.  I put Monte's name forward as someone who might do well as musician for our synod's senior high youth event, and in early December he played for 200+ people in Northern Virginia.  Two weeks later he came to my church, playing for a smaller and younger crowd, and getting five children sponsored through World Vision, a ministry he sponsors and invites others to support.

Monte is just one of the many wonderful and faithful people that I met while working as a sales representative for Augsburg Fortress.  Yet, he is one of the few that I have had the blessing to get reconnected with in my post-Augsburg Fortress days.  Truly, after so many years and different paths, I give thanks to God that our paths have crossed again.  Seeing Monte again is a wonderful reminder of how God leads each of us along different paths, and that the path God sets before us might at any day change direction.  When we last saw each other Monte and I weren't sure what was ahead of us, but we knew that God was up to something.  It's really awesome, so many years later, to see some of what God was already stirring up in our lives on that day we first met and talked about our lives and ministries …

Grateful for paths crossed, and for the cross that rises over our paths.

—–

If you are in the mid-Atlantic region, I encourage you to check out Monte's website and invite him to your congregation.  He has a wide range of music, from active, move-around music for preschoolers and elementary kids, to great Christian rock for teens, to inspiring contemporary worship music for all ages.  He has a strong testimony and a great talent for this music ministry.  You and your congregation will be blessed by crossing paths and spending a little time with Monte.

Check him out on Facebook, too.

Colbert v. Stewart, and brief thoughts on clergy authenticity

There's lots of love out there right now in the religious world – well, in the Comedy Central-watching religious left world, anyway – for Stephen Colbert.  Several outlets have picked up on a Religious News Service (RNS) piece, Behind Colbert's right-wing funnyman, a quiet faith, and it is making its rounds among my friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook.  But count me among the less-than-impressed.

Stephen Colbert is funny and has good hair, and he often makes great and biting commentary through the faux smile of his conservative caricature.  Those who know religion can catch his subtle references to maters of faith and can appreciate that his comfort with matters of faith is rooted, by all accounts, in his own deeply-held personal faith commitments.  Most recently, Colbert went before a congressional subcommittee and, after a testimony offered in persona as the right wing commentator blowhard, he offered what seemed like a heart-felt and authentic plea for the better treatment of migrant workers, who he identified with "the least of these" in Jesus' famous words from Matthew 25:40.

Stephen_colbert-9310 But there's one problem: Colbert is phony.  For someone who is a comedian, authenticity isn't Goal #1 – laughs are.  Phoniness is part of the gig, making him funny … in an exaggerated and contrived way.  There's almost a Sasha Baron Cohen as Borat quality to Colbert when he is in persona.  But, when isn't he in persona?  We don't really get any sense of who Stephen Colbert himself actually is – except, perhaps, when he laughs at his own absurdity, temporarily falling out of character.  We don't know where the line separating his eponymous role from his own self is drawn.  It is this inherent quality of caricature in Stephen Colbert that makes him unsettlingly funny … but which, by contrast, prevents us viewers from having any clue with whom we're actually dealing. 

When an actor portrays a role in a movie or television show, the rules are clear – the actor is acting.  But when Stephen Colbert "acts" in a role named after himself, and when he comments on political and social issues of current interest in that role, we're not sure what we're seeing any longer.  Where does the shtick end and the reality begin?  Again, it's funny.  But – and now in reference to this RNS piece about his faith – it is this inability to trust just who or what we're dealing with when we watch Stephen Colbert that diminishes any impact his unique testimony of faith might have.  For how can we tell if his faith is part of the act or perhaps something authentic?  That too was the problem with his testimony before Congress.  His testimony was an act.  The form in which he offered his testimony detracted from any serious message he may have had to share with our elected leaders.

That's why, in the contest between Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, I'm on the side of Jon Stewart.  Stewart isn't a caricature.

Jon Stewart is a comic, but he is also more than a comic.  He is either "the smartest funny man or the funniest smart man" on television, as Paul Begala described him on an ill-fated episode of Crossfire six years ago.  But he's even more than a smart social commentator mixed with comedic relief.  Stewart is, dare I say, real, in a world full of fakes.  What is real?  I'll leave that question to the philosophers and to Neo and Morpheus from The Matrix.  But whatever real is, I believe that Jon Stewart is it. 

Six years ago Jon Stewart appeared on CNN's Crossfire, not in any persona, but as himself – a comedian, yes, but also as an American passionately worried about our nation and the state of its political discourse, insisting that shows such as Crossfire are "hurting America."  Whatever you think of him and his views, Stewart that day spoke honestly and earnestly and, almost single-handedly, brought down a show that epitomized the worst of American political discourse.  That's his appeal, and that's why I like him so much.  When on The Daily Show Stewart is blasting FOX News on one hand and is exasperated at the Democrats on the other, we sense that this is not an act but the brilliantly-delivered insights of a left-of-center comic who is one of the few people willing to say that none of the political emperors are wearing any clothes.

Shift to the church.  Who are we ministers when we step into the pulpit?  Are we phony preachers putting on a show, trying to portray a particular persona of faith and piety?  Or are we able to be ourselves in our own skin, trying less to play a role than we are trying to share a message in a compelling yet personal way?  We follow a script, yes, but are we following one that makes room for and gives voice to authenticity in message and in self?  I am reminded of one of my favorite verses from the Bible: "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves" (1 Thessalonians 2:8; italics my emphasis).

In his classic, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger offers a commentary on preachers through the observations of a cynical Holden Caulfield.

If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers. The ones they've had at every school I've gone to, they all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons. God, I hate that. I don't see why the hell they can't talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (New York: Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback edition, 1991), pg. 100.

How often do we who lead churches try to play the role, speaking in our best "Holy Joe voices" (literally or figuratively) when a good ol' "inside voice" without any bravado or vibrato would do just fine?  And how many people in the pews and in our neighborhoods see right through the phoniness of our clergy and our churches and opt instead for the authenticity of other relationships, communities and causes?

May we who lead churches steer clear of Holy Joe voices and leave faux personas behind.  Instead, may we strive to conduct our ministry authentically, honestly, and faithfully, for in so doing we follow the way of our Lord Jesus, the Word of God, who came not with bluster or grandeur or in any "role," but who came to us in the simplicity and down-to-earth authenticity of a crying baby, truth-telling storyteller, and the suffering of one dying unjustly.

Pastoral Identity and Authenticity Online

A wonderful article by Lynne Baab in Spring 2010 issue of Lifelong Faith explores how various e-communications platforms – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, regular congregation-wide emails, and a good website – can work with established forms of communication – sermons, printed newsletters – to support and enhance the task of faith formation in the congregation.  It's a well-done piece, and worthy of your attention.

[Note: link to the article sends you to her personal website; Lifelong Faith is an excellent journal, and should be on the reading list of every church leader involved with faith formation ministries.]

In her article, Baab talks about the importance of the congregation – and the pastor(s) – having an online presence.  Baab writes that she has been "increasingly impressed with the strategic use of both Facebook and Twitter by congregations and by
Christian leaders," and she suggests that "every minister should consider having a blog."

Which – departing from her article now – got me to thinking about the identity and authenticity of pastors online.  When I started blogging over five years ago, many pastors and seminarians blogged anonymously or under pseudonyms.  I blogged semi-anonymously for a while myself, but then I shed anonymity in March, 2007, feeling a bit awkward about trying to keep quiet about things I was posting online for the world to read.  Some folks still blog anonymously, though it seems to be a less frequent occurrence (thanks to the rise of Facebook, blogging itself has declined in our Lutheran blogosphere).  Furthermore, many blogs that technically remain "anonymous" are much less anonymous these days, thanks to linking from Facebook and Twitter accounts. 

Yet the presence of those anonymous church-oriented blogs poses a question of authenticity – can we trust the words of someone who won't stand by their words?  No pastor can preach or teach anonymously, so why should they blog anonymously?  Can a pastor be anonymous and authentic at the same time?  I'm not so sure. 

"Authenticity" is not the same as "letting it all hang out," or revealing every last detail about your private life for all to read and see.  An authentic pastoral self is one that is honest about the brokenness of the human
condition, one that doesn't hide behind theological or liturgical phoniness, but instead uses the gifts of faith, scripture and tradition to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to bear through the caregiver's life and presence on the ministry of walking with God's people in their daily lives.  Indeed, the ministry is not just tasks and words, but tasks and words shared in real life … as we read in 1 Thessalonians 2:8: "We are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also
our own selves
" (emphasis mine).  [Three years ago I reflected on this verse during my 9-month hospital chaplain residency.]

Surely we all have filters that we use in our
professional and personal lives, revealing ourselves more to some people
than to others.  But how we manage ourselves online – what we share, what we don't, and how we share – is important for pastors and church leaders to consider, since we are interacting with our members and communities both online and "IRL" (in real life).

But more.  There are pastors who keep two Facebook accounts – a "personal" account for use with family, friends, and personal acquaintances, and a "pastor" account for use with their congregation.  I don't get this, to be honest.  This practice, like the anonymous blogs above, seems to present a question of authenticity.  Who is the pastor presenting himself to be through the "pastor" account?  Is this the image of the "pious pastor," constantly posting Bible verses and faithful insights?  What, then, is the pastor hiding from church members that he posts on his "personal" account? 

Rather than create two profiles – rather than present himself in two different ways on the same social network – a pastor should have a single personal profile and a separate Facebook page for the congregation.  Having a Facebook page for the congregation would create a Facebook destination for church members that is distinct from the pastor's profile, thus encouraging patterns of online communication that are tied with the congregation rather than with the pastor.  Pastors come and go, after all …

But assuming that you only have one Facebook profile – with which you're connected to high school friends, past co-workers, and distant cousins – do you become Facebook friends with people at church?  Do you set up different Facebook groups among your friends, being a little more judicious about what information the folks in your "church" group have access to?  Or do you simply deny Facebook friend requests coming from church members altogether?  

I am Facebook friends with people at my church, and I have found Facebook to be a great way to connect with folks about life and our shared tasks in the ministry.  Admittedly, I am fairly judicious about what I post on my Facebook profile (those of you who are friends with me might disagree – I do post a lot on Facebook!).  As my number of Facebook friends has grown – including among church members, long-lost high school friends, and people I've met only once at a conference – I've become less inclined to share my politics online, for example.  [UPDATE: Full disclosure: when I got ordained, I did some cleaning up of my blog. See details a few paragraphs deep, here.]  I simply don't see the need to get into political discussions/debates with a growing group of folks, many of whom I'm glad to be connected with online but with whom I have little, if any, personal relationship.

Twitter is a slightly different animal than Facebook, and it makes sense to me that pastors and church leaders would have multiple Twitter accounts.  Twitter is less personal than Facebook.  On Facebook you become "friends" with other Facebook users, and you share all kinds of personal information – from schools to relationships to pictures to your answer to the famous question, "What's on your mind?"  On the other hand, on Twitter you "follow" feeds of information – brief comments and quotes, links to articles, updates on a live event such as a conference, speech, or a baseball game.  Twitter is about sharing ideas and information, especially with hashtag searching

I've been "tweeting" regularly for several months – after some fits and starts for over a year – and most of my Twitter followers are church folk, people who connected to my twitter account via my blog or our shared work in the church.  Yet most of my tweets are about baseball – I can easily send 20-30 tweets as I listen to a baseball game, whereas tweets about church or local community issues come along much less frequently.  So rather than clog the feeds of my churchy followers with comments or re-tweets about the #Phillies, I created a new twitter account for my baseball tweets: @getyourpeanuts

So whether for personal or ministry use, multiple Twitter accounts with clearly-defined uses – one for congregational announcements, another for Bible reflections, another for your love of NASCAR, for example – can be both effective and very helpful to those who follow you on Twitter.  Because of the nature of Twitter, I don't see as much of an authenticity concern with Twitter as I do with multiple Facebook profiles or anonymous blogs.

—–

Holden Caulfield, the great angst-ridden American prophet who could call out phoniness a mile away, yearned for an authenticity of life and love that was ultimately illusive for him and for so many people who have identified with him over the years.  He saw the phoniness not only in his teachers and classmates, but in ministers, too.

"If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers.  They
all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons …
I don't see why the [heck] they can't talk in their natural voice.  They
sound so phony when they talk."

– Holden Caulfield
(of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and central image in a
recent sermon of mine
)

Online and in person, let's give up our "Holy Joe voices," and replace them with a "natural voice" that is authentic and honest … a voice which opens us up to conversations and relationships that become places of holy encounter with God and with others.

Getting Reacquainted with Running

I haven't exercised much since 1993, the year I graduated from high school and won a state gold medal in the 4×800 meter relay.  Sure, I have purchased gym memberships and bike equipment, but I haven't used either much, except perhaps for the few months of biking I did just prior to my October 2002 wedding.  I gained weight, got warnings from doctors about borderline blood pressure and high cholesterol, and purchased larger-sized pants.  I haven't done much of anything to return to any semblance of the athlete I was in high school.

To be clear, I know that I'll never run a 4:23 mile or a 16:30 5K ever again.  And I'll never weigh in at 169 pounds, my high school weight, again (at 6' tall and a big frame, I was one of the biggest runners on my team).  And I'll never win a gold medal in anything again.  And I'm OK with that … now.  But that wasn't always the case.

You see, for me – someone who experienced significant success as a runner in high school – the past has been an amazing deterrent to my attempts to keep fit.  I think the past can do that to many men.  In recent years when I've gone out running I've felt dejected that what was so easy in the past had become so difficult, and I quickly lost patience and confidence.  The framed gold medal and photo of my relay team hanging on the wall was simultaneously a source of great pride and of great shame – Look at what I once did!  But wow, look at me now.

I think I've turned a page, however.  Since Easter my wife and I have been running again.  We started slowly, with the Couch to 5K training program.  [When I say slowly, I mean slowly – the first week of workouts consist of 60 seconds of jogging followed by 90 seconds of walking, for 20 minutes.]  We ran our first 5K on May 29, and now I'm up to running 4-5 miles on training runs three days/week.  Though when I'm running my mind and my body remember what it was like to run 17-20 years ago – and that experience surely helps me today – I'm quite happy these days with distance runs that come in at a 9:30 pace, rather than the 6:00 or faster pace I often ran on such runs in high school.

What made me commit to running now?  People, specifically my wife, a few friends, and many strangers.  It all started when a couple from church invited me to sign up for the Army Ten Miler in October, knowing that I was looking to get back into shape.  And since the race registration last year filled up in less than a week – and that's for 30,000 runners! – I didn't have much time to mull it over.  I said yes, got online, and signed me and my wife up for the run.  Then I joined the Couch to 5K page on Facebook, and was excited to post my updates on the page after each workout, and read how others were doing with the plan.  Finally, I joined DailyMile.com, a social network for runners, cyclists, and triathletes.  Sharing workouts, receiving advice and encouragement, and "meeting" other runners has been a great help for me as I've stepped up my running since May.

What does all this mean?  Like many people my age, and particularly many pastors, I am overweight and out of shape.  Getting reacquainted with a long-lost passion of mine has been a gift from God, for all kinds of reasons.  I am working on my health and investing time and energy into something I love to do, a commitment which forces me to re-evaluate my priorities, from the foods I eat to the schedule I keep to the amount of work I'm willing to take on.

But perhaps most significant for me is the way that returning to running has allowed me to reconcile who I was with who I am.  For many years I've sort of written off my former running success, so irreconcilable was the memory of my "glory days" with the weight gain and fitness failure of my 20's and 30's.  And though I am not the runner that I once was, I am a runner again … and that alone makes me happy beyond belief.  I'm on the road to health and fitness, and am excited for the 10K and Ten Mile races I'm running in August and October.

Well, there's more to say about this, but it's time to go to bed.  I have a 5:00am alarm set to wake me up for my morning run.

Reporting on Weather and my Ordination Anniversary

In my monthly report to council I include a section I call "narrative highlights" before I list the various pastoral acts, meetings and events in which I was involved over the previous month.  I'm not thrilled with the "listing" I do in the report, but I enjoy writing the narrative highlights (if any of you have monthly report formats that you like, please share!).

Here is the narrative highlight I wrote in my January report, reflecting on the ministry we shared together in December through the lens of the record snowfall we had on the 4th weekend of Advent:

It's a good thing that I don't read divine messages into meteorological events, for on December 20, the first anniversary of my ordination, Arlington was all but shut down.  18" of snow covered our area the day before in the largest December snowfall ever recorded in the DC region.  It was a fitting anniversary, filled with the challenges and joys and quirks of pastoral ministry.  A day earlier I spent hours shoveling the church sidewalk.  On Sunday I preached wearing blue jeans and snow boots (something that you may never see ever again!), while men from our church continued to clear the sidewalk in service to church members and neighbors alike.  On Sunday evening I stayed inside with my family, since our caroling of good news in the neighborhood was canceled.  We also regrettably canceled the Young Adult wine and cheese scheduled that evening at the parsonage.  December 20 was an exhausting and somewhat disappointing anniversary.

But that day also highlights just how vibrant our church is.  Despite the snow, we worshiped and we worked hard to make ours the driest and clearest sidewalk in Arlington.  A devotion was emailed to the congregation via our new email system, and a Sunday School teacher sent her lesson to parents to use as a snowed-in activity.  The wine and cheese event was rescheduled to shortly after the New Year, and was a success.  By Christmas Eve, enough snow had been cleared and melted that worship services went off without a hitch.

I'll always remember December 20, 2008, the day I was ordained here at Resurrection.  But I'll also always remember December 20, 2009, the day that we stepped up in faith to a snow storm that threatened to close us down.

The Gift of Worshiping with my Family

I'm a pastor.  I wear the funny shirt, the robe, the stoles.  I say the P parts of the liturgy.  I sit up front.  And I love it.

But one thing I don't love so much is that I no longer sit alongside my wife and children in worship.  Before I was ordained, I loved worshiping with my children. Yet I no longer worship alongside them, hold worship books for them, whisper instructions to them, or help them with their Bible story coloring sheet.  I do enjoy seeing their faces as they worship from my seat up front, and I cherish the opportunity to declare the forgiveness of their sins, and to place the sacrament in their hands.  But still … I'm no longer there, by their side, holding them, whispering to them, coloring with them.

Tonight I received a special gift as I attended my wife's cousin's wedding (yes, a wedding scheduled on the Monday after Christmas!).  There we were, Mommy, Daddy, and our two daughters sitting in the pew together (Naaman, our two year-old son, was more than glad to romp around in the nursery.  We were more than glad to let him!).  I held my 3 year-old up high so she could see the pastor's gestures as he said the Words of Institution.  I took her to the bathroom during the Prayers of the Church.  I struggled to hold a hymnal as I held her in my arms.  Yes, by doing these things, I wasn't tuned into every moment of the liturgy.  But I was participating and praying with my children, gathering with them around the table and at the foot of the cross, held with them within the Body of Christ and surrounded by the sights and sounds of God's people at worship.  It was a beautiful thing.

And so tonight I am grateful for this wonderful Christmas gift – the gift to worship as a family. I wouldn't give up my job for anything.  I love what I do.  But I also love when I get the chance to worship alongside my wife and children.  Thank you, Ben and Marissa, for getting married this evening.  You've given me a wonderful gift!

Blessings to Ben and Marissa, and to all in this Christmas season.

I’ve Done This Before

It's been just over a year since I was ordained and installed as a pastor.  I am no longer a "rookie" in the technical sense, though in many respects I continue to bump and feel my way through this ministry as I have for the past year.  I've heard it said that it takes 18 months to get settled into a new job (don't ask who said that – I have no idea).  Perhaps that is true.

But for the first time in my ministry I can say "I've done this before," in advance of a particular annual event.  This first struck me as I saved my sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent,
and I saw in my computer's sermons folder that I preached on the 4th Sunday in
Advent last year, too.  

Christmas Eve?  Done that.  Annual Meeting?  I was there last year.  I'm now asking fewer questions and moving forward more confidently, even as I continue to grow into the nuances and unique patterns of ministry at my congregation.  And for this I'm excited.  It's been a great first year of ministry, and I look forward to many more to come.

_____

FYI, I've changed the manner in which I post my sermons.  They now appear on a separate blog with their own feed and email subscription.  If you want to get my (more or less) bi-weekly sermons, visit my sermons blog (linked in tab above), and scroll down to the "Subscribe to Sermons" box in the right hand column.

As the Blog Fades …

If there's one type of blog post I don't really enjoy reading, it is the post that dwells on the task of blogging itself.  As if personal blogging in and of itself isn't narcissistic enough, blogging about blogging certainly is.  You put yourself out there on a blog, write on a regular basis, get some response.  You bookmark the blogtracking website, and you begin to get interested in your blogging stats.  Perhaps you even begin to time your writing and posting so that it hits the readers when they're likely to be online, rather than on Saturday night.

But then, for whatever reason, the blogging slows down, and aware that there might be 40, 50 or even a few hundred people out there who have noticed your blog, you decide to write about blogging.

Over the past four years I've followed that track and have arrived to this place where blogging seems increasingly     irrelevant to my life.  So add this post to the list of posts I've written about the task of blogging (click on that link at risk of falling off into a boredom-induced stupor), and the various posts I've written about the end of my blogging career (including this one back in May, this one last December, and this one in April '08, among others).  Oye.

Blogging for me was an outlet, a way for me to dabble in issues of church and pastoral ministry while I was on the outside looking in.  But now that I'm on the inside of parish ministry – ordained and serving a congregation since December – I find that my desire to blog has plummeted.  For me, blogging was a prelude, a preview, an appetizer. 

Well, the main event, the feature presentation, the main course has arrived.  What I used to do on the blog I now do via email and in person with parishoners, at conference meetings with fellow pastors, every other week in my ministry of preaching, and in the planning and preparations for the ministry areas for which I am responsible.  That is, the theological and ministry dabbling that this blog allowed me do I now do elsewhere … in my call as pastor.

And though I love to write, I'm finding that I do plenty of writing in the course of my job, and don't need a blog to scratch that itch.  I've been writing for my work within the congregation, and also some for Augsburg Fortress and the ELCA.  It's been fun – a bit overwhelming at times, actually – but has also crowded out the blog.

Finally    , I can see nothing but bad things to result if I were to blog about my parish.  Broadcasting parish news on my personal blog, or referring to parish situations (even if I were to change some of the circumstances for the sake of the innocent) seems to be a violation of a pastoral trust that must exist between parish and pastor.

So, whatever … this post is now annoying me.  Perhaps this is a love/hate thing, one of those "it's not you, it's me" kind of break-up things, or simply an overly narcissistic thing that needs to end here and now.  Whatever it is, this might be the end of it.

Until, that is, I have something else to share with the world.  😉

“We all have our religions, but …”

Once again, the religious faith of a presidential nominee is being brought into question.  

Today's Washington Post profiles Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, the president's pick to be Surgeon General, and gives particular attention to her religious faith (Surgeon General Pick's Stance on Abortion May Clash With Church's, by Cheryl W. Thompson, Sat July 28, 2009, A5).  Dr. Benjamin, after all, is a practicing Roman Catholic.  Yet, according to friends, she aparently supports abortion rights (she has not made any public statement on her abortion views). The article attempts to play up the potential conflicts between her religious faith and her public service, and also between her stance on abortion and her membership in the Roman Catholic church.

Cited in the article are the now-common yet simplistic refrains that the nominee can separate religious faith from public service. Supporters – and nominees, too – often make this claim when their religion teaches something that might come into conflict with their public role. In this case it is an odd claim to have to make, since Dr. Benjamin seems to support the law on access to abortion, and since the position for which she is nominated has little influence on the abortion issue.  Nonetheless, the faith-is-separate-from-public-service argument has been trotted out:

"We all have our religions, but when you speak as the surgeon general to the American people, it's not about your religion," said David Satcher, a fromer surgeon general under President Bill Clinton ….

"You kind of have to park your personal beliefs at the door when they conflict with what your role is," said [Jorge] Alsip [a long-time colleague of Dr. Benjamin's], who said he opposes abortion rights.

What both Drs. Satcher and Alsip fail to grasp here is that religious faith can send someone into public service, and that faith indeed can lead someone – out of a call to serve others – to at times work within settings and tasks that otherwise might be in the "thou shalt not" category of faith.  

The concept of faith that Drs. Satcher and Alsip seem to have is one that can only operate in isolation or in the ideal, and has little ability to maneuver the challenges and realities of the "real world." Indeed, I have serious concerns about a faith that is comparmentalized and easily set aside when faced with challenging circumstances. A robust faith – and with it, a robust theology of vocation, human anthropology, and of God's two kingdoms – is one which can navigate the challenges, pitfalls, and moral inconsistencies of daily life.  A theology of Christian perfection gets the real-world Christian nowhere, and forces her to ditch her faith in the face of human imperfection.

I've written about this topic before, concerning two Bush administration nominees – about four years ago at the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts (Our Discomfort With Faith), and two years ago at the nomination of James Holsinger to be Surgeon General (Partitioning Faith). In each case it is claimed that the nominee can keep their faith separate from their public service. I say hogwash. Rather, I would expect that it is religious faith which first propeled them to enter public service, and which sustains their daily work.

More on this later, perhaps …

So Help Us God (or Virtus)

I never imagined how "holy" an experience it would be to register at the courthouse for authorization to legally offiate at weddings.
  • I provided papers proving that I am a called and ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (We call you to exercise among us the ministry of Word and Sacrament which God has established and which the Holy Spirit empowers, one of the documents reads).
  • I provided $29 in cash, bearing the words In God We Trust, as payment of the courthouse's administrative fee.
  • I took an oath which concluded with the words So Help Me God (and yes, in a strange feat of government orthography, the first letter of each word in that phrase was capitalized). 
  • And to top it all off, as I walked into the Arlington County Courthouse I passed the seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which prominently features the Roman goddess Virtus. 

All this God-talk is required so that I can be authorized to declare a marriage legal.  I'd expect God-talk in the church and in preparation for my ordination, but to formalize a state-sanctioned, legal relationship?  I don't see how such language is necessary, to be honest.

One thing this experience has taught me is that when it comes to God's role (or the role of ancient Roman dieties, for that matter) in our state and society, I think we're a confused lot …

(Click here for more of my admittedly radical perspectives on the separation of church and state.)