Monday, March 19, 2012

4th grade theology

A couple of weeks ago, I got the children’s ministry newsletter in my inbox. At the top was a desperate plea for teachers. Our children’s ministry does a very cool rotation model for elementary Sunday school. The children learn a story for 6 weeks, reinforced through different ways of engaging – cooking, drama, art, music, etc.

Since I’ve transitioned out of youth ministry, I no longer have a regular commitment during the Sunday school hour, so I e-mailed the children’s ministry coordinator to offer to sub. Sunday before last I had drama with the kindergartners, which was a blast, even though the Scripture we were covering was Peter’s denial of Christ. This week, same curriculum, but 4th graders were coming to my room.

First, it was a very small class, what with this Sunday being at the beginning of spring break. No problem, I decided to myself that rather than break into two groups to act out pieces of Scripture, we’d do it all together. But my good intentions never came about.

In the midst of decorating crosses and drawing ocean scenes for a VBS t-shirt contest, some deep questions started to come out.
·         Why do we have a cross for Jesus? Isn’t that where he died? It doesn’t seem right.
·         Where is the devil? I heard someone say he’s in the middle of the earth since it’s hot down there.
·         Isn’t the devil a bad angel?
·         If someone doesn’t believe in God, but never does bad things, do they go to the devil?
·         Why do people think God is a boy?

I tried to take them as they came, seriously but in terms understandable for their age and stage. Here are my efforts (with their help in parentheses):

Why do we have a cross for Jesus? Isn’t that where he died? It doesn’t seem right.
I’ve wondered why we have a cross for Jesus, too. But here’s the thing, is Jesus still on the cross? (No) That reminds us how even death can’t stop God. Jesus died on the cross, which is a very painful death, and was buried in a tomb. But 3 days later – BOOM! – the rock rolled aside and Jesus was alive again, he was resurrected. And then he was seen by his disciples and taught them some more things before going back to God.

Where is the devil? I heard someone say he’s in the middle of the earth since it’s hot down there.
I think it’s hard to put a specific location on spiritual things. We tend to think heaven is up and hell is down, but our spaceships have never bumped into heaven. I think spiritual things work differently. I also think this is important when some people say hell is in the earth – who made the earth? (God!) That’s right. And what did God say after God had made everything? (It was good.) That’s right, too. So everything that is created, from you and me to the horse to the earth, starts out very, very good. So it would be weird to me to think that hell is somewhere inside the earth.

Isn’t the devil a bad angel?
From what I can remember this morning, there’s really not very much about the devil in our Bible. There’s much more in there about God and us and how we’re supposed to be in relationship. Some people have written a lot of other stories about the devil, since people always wonder about how things work, why bad things happen, etc. But one of the places I remember that is about the devil is in Job, when the hasatan, or the tester – someone who tests you, goes to God to talk about Job. Hasatan is a title, a role, but it is also where we get the word Satan. The hasatan’s job is to test people. So he asks God to test Job, to see if Job would still be faithful to God if he didn’t have his wife and children and camels, in other words, if he didn’t have everything a person could want. But that is a hard book, so let’s talk about that more later.

If someone doesn’t believe in God, but never does bad things, do they go to the devil?
Well, we all do some bad things, but you mean they haven’t killed anyone, they don’t steal – they’re not any better or worse than most of us. I get that. So there are lots of different thoughts on these things, but here is what Pastor Jessica thinks – I know God loves us. God loves us a lot. God wants to be in a relationship with us. And I can’t imagine God ever turning away from us or sending us somewhere away from God. It’s good to believe in God because it lets you enjoy a little bit of heaven now – you can have joy, peace, love, and incredible strength and comfort from knowing that God is with you. If you don’t believe in God, the world can be a lot scarier.

But if you don’t believe in God, I think when you die you go to work all that out with God. And, of course, you can keep choosing not to believe in God, which I think is what hell is like. Just because you choose not to believe in God, doesn’t mean God is not there. It’s like closing your eyes. Just because you can’t see the light, doesn’t mean it’s not there. But a lot of these things are a mystery. I don’t know exactly how they work, but I know that God does.

Why do people think God is a boy?
That is a good question! Back in the day, back in Bible times, who were really powerful people? (…pause…kings?) Right! Kings had lots of power and they were boys. Every once in a while there was a queen, but most of the time it was a king. Physically, boys are built to be stronger, so they were the ones who could get their way and make themselves the bosses. People wanted a strong king so he could protect the people from other people. So when they talked about God, it was natural to talk about God as a mighty king.

But there are also other images for God. God is described like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. And there’s also this part in our Bible
Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.' So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
So, what does God look like? (…pause…like Jesus?) Yes, but who else…it says “male and female he created them.” (So, God looks like me? says a girl) Yes, we all look like God. All people are made to look like God. (God has a wife?) No, God doesn’t have a wife. God made us to look like God, boys and girls. (I don’t think God is a boy or a girl.) I think God is probably beyond things like that, too, but God is very creative and made us all a little different, but we all look like God. It may not be what we look like on the outside that’s most important, but how we love others that makes us look most like God.

By the end of the hour, we hadn't done very much of what I had planned. And it was completely and entirely good. I thanked the children for their questions and encouraged them to keep asking. I let them know that many times adults stop asking questions because they think they're supposed to have the answers already, which doesn't feel good. I was amazed and humbled by the children's good questions and willingness to dig around to uncover more about God. It was such a good morning. What a gift for a pastor to be a substitute elementary Sunday school teacher!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Realizing you're there

I always have goals for my life – a metaphorical there to reach. Usually the details are not too specific, but the overall destination is important, for example finishing college (while not passionate about any particular major), getting a good job (that I really liked, hopefully), getting and staying married, continuing to learn (many things!), becoming a mom, etc. While I do like being in control of things, I’m also not a very disciplined person, so I tend to try to head fearlessly in the direction of my dreams, flying by the seat of my procrastinating pants most of the time.

And I’m always looking to the trailblazers. Growing up, I’d never seen a clergywoman, so I never imagined myself where I am now. But when we moved to Texas and I got a job as a secretary at a United Methodist church, I saw clergywomen doing what God called them to do. And I was inspired! Perhaps you could be a wife, mom, amazing woman and pastor. I was finally able to see what God had intended where before I had been blind to the opportunity.

In the ordination process, a whole new set of destinations were created for me – inquiring, exploring, declared and certified candidate (I know I’m dating myself here), seminary admission, completion, and graduation (preferably with some sort of honors), commissioning and ordination amidst the topsy-turvy process in itself of appointments. So I set out for there.

Sometime in seminary, a friend invited me to the clergywomen’s group that met for lunch. It was so amazing to see all these women, varied and beautiful and wise, who had all made it there. They talked about appointments, General Conference, the history of women in ministry in our conference. They reflected on holding the hands of the dying, the baby being baptized, and the Bible as they preached. They were amazing and I was grateful for these embodied glimpses of there.

So, as I posted earlier, I was recently at another one of these clergywomen’s lunches. I was running a bit late and as I entered, juggling a fast food lunch and drink and purse while fumbling with the door knob, I looked for those familiar wise and gracious faces. I saw them, but it was different – well, there were my friends and compatriots from seminary – and over there was the pastor from the church nearby who organizes local clergy get-togethers – but I was missing the women I had seen when I first came to these lunches. Where were the women who were there?

We went around the tables, introducing ourselves, and as we applauded those who had just been passed for commissioning and ordination, my mind startled in realization. I was there! Could it really be? I took stock – yup, I’m an honest-to-goodness elder in full connection doing hands-on ministry that’s a blessing and a challenge each and every day. Oh, and I’m actually serving on the clergywomen’s leadership team. I’m there. When did that happen?

The night I was ordained, the bishop laid hands on my head, praying the Spirit’s blessing on me, as I knelt in heels and my clergy robe, and then had a stole draped over my shoulders my two of the pastors I admire most as my mother and husband stood nearby. I smiled and talked with my friends afterwards, then drove home to change into my pajamas, wash the dishes, and go to bed, ready for another day of conference business the next day. It’s not as glamorous as what some of my friends did, so maybe I need to be better about celebrating it when I get there. But, honestly, there doesn’t look all that different once you’re there. It’s just another day to love life and live it fully.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Way Death Comes

Last Thursday I attended a conference clergywomen’s lunch. We were asked to break into small groups to discuss how we were observing a holy Lent and what our churches were doing to do the same, especially any neat ideas or innovations. Well, I can tell you the first is a giant fail for me this year. I shared that with the group with the offhand remark that Ash Wednesday is probably my least favorite day of the Christian year, except maybe Good Friday.

My clergy sisters seemed shocked. “Really? Why?” was the general follow-up. I don’t know. Who wants to be reminded of their mortality? And who really wants to walk to the cross? I know why we do it, I know it’s healthy, but I don’t have to like it.

I was surprised that my sentiments were so unusual. Do some people really love these holy days of remembering death? Maybe I was younger than usual when I realized the reality of mortality. I remember lying awake in bed as the shadows crept around the room, feeling utterly small and alone, knowing that one day my heart would stop, my breath would cease, and something of what it was to be me would no longer exist. That’s a scary thought for a child, and some of that remembered fear colors my thoughts on it even now.

Most of the time you don’t know it’s coming. Death, that is. Well, sure you know that it comes to everyone, but most of the time, it’s the last thing on my mind. At the Large Church Initiative in January, Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church near Dayton, Ohio, said that he always tries to pretend that he has one year left to live and then live into the boldness that inspires. And that sounds good to me, on the surface, but if I really knew I only had a year to live, I think I’d be depressed for a good long while. I’d probably become rather me-focused, seeing as how I was the one who was going to die. But maybe not.

Recently I logged onto Caring Bridge, a great website that helps those with a medical issue keep friends and family updated without the continual barrage of phone calls. While I was there to read a church member’s page as he battles another round of leukemia, as I logged in, I was brought to my home page. Listed there was my page as well as the pages I’ve visited. My page is the one I created for my grandmother a little over 2 years ago. And because I’m a masochist, I guess, I clicked on the link and read it in chronological order.

My eyes teared up as I realized how deeply we didn’t know what we were in for. My grandmother, who had suffered for a long time with Alzheimer’s, had gone in to figure out what was going on with her stomach. I remember being frustrated since she couldn’t help us with this diagnosis – the cruel overarching disease prevented her from telling us simple details like where it hurt, when it had started, what the pains were like, did they come and go. So her family had to make their best guesses with medical advice.

We thought she was doing better after surgery. She was moved into a nursing home, set up with rehab exercises. I read my reassuring tone as I talk about a scrapbook project she is working on with a therapist. And then the next few entries detail the quick decline as one surgery led to another to repair things that had gone wrong. In a matter of days, she was gone.

My mother said afterward that if she had known what the eventual outcome would be, she wouldn’t have put my grandmother through so much. But there was no way for us to know. Death comes like that sometimes. It walks alongside of us, content to stay at arm’s length, until it is our turn. Sometimes it brushes across our shoulder by mistake and we shudder at the near miss, if we realize it. Or it claims someone dear to us and we cry out in distress.

I believe in God, but many times I wonder at the Christian doctrine of providence (see the post More Questions than Answers). Some people use it to say that if God’s protective hand is on you, no harm will come. Really?! Surely God did not abandon the early Christian martyrs or those who still die for their faith today. Some people say that a natural disaster or an illness is the fault of those afflicted because of their sinfulness. Really?! It couldn’t possibly be because we rape and ravage the earth such that paradise is showing the scars.

But I also know what it is to huddle in the bathroom, my arms around my infant son, as the sirens wail the warning that death is approaching from the clouds. And I prayed. O God, did I pray. I bargained and whispered and cried. But I don’t think that my prayers spared me or that God chose to turn the storm aside from my home. I just think it happened to work out that way. As I preached last week, God limits God’s own self for the sake of the free will and creativity of humanity, despite our proclivity for evil. While I’m still struggling with the story of Noah and the flood, I can see it more clearly in Jesus. God put limits on God’s self to show us the way, not force us.

Yesterday morning, a clergy sister and I discussed a church member’s passing. It was unusual in that he was very conscious just before it happened. She shared the gift it was to her to be able to ask him, “Are you at peace?” and offer any pastoral counsel he might desire. I thought about the funeral I led a little over a week ago, how I got to know the family and be alongside of them in a hard time, but how I felt guilty that the service lasted only around 30 minutes. Shouldn’t it take more time to honor a life? I know the family chose not to have much music and not share witnesses, since the grief was so fresh, but I felt that it was so little to offer. They hadn’t seen death coming, since she went into the hospital for one thing and was on her way to rehab before coming home. But death kept pace with her and claimed her from our sight.

I don’t like Ash Wednesday. I don’t like Good Friday. I don’t think I have to. But I take comfort, hope, and strength from the fact that God is alongside me, even as death counts my steps. And though my mortal strength shall fail and death shall try to claim me, I’ll sing on as I go to glory. Death, while not a welcome companion, has no final victory. That is God’s. Glory be.