Monday, February 28, 2011

Struggling With God and Loving God More

To set this post up I need to talk a little about my Sunday evening group. Every week Rebekah ("The Preacher") and I meet with our support and accountability small group. We started around 14 years ago as POTs (Parents Of Teens), huddled together in common defense at one end of the church while our snarky offspring attended youth group at the other. Over the years we've shifted focus as our children grew up and moved on. There's now another POTs group, comprised of younger folk than us, faithfully keeping one-another sane and the young people prayed for. The commonality of our tribe is now young adult children.

We meet with the POTs parents for dinner, try to empathize with the ongoing insanity of their fate, then grab a plate of the best desserts and break out for 90 minutes of Bible study/encouragement/prayer. We have 19 committed members, with anywhere from 14-19 in attendance each week.

Personality: We are -
      A writer, a preacher, a technology sales consultant, a seminary student, an office manager, a bio-chemist, a banker, a retired UPS guy, two school-teachers, a veterinary office manager, a CFO, an accountant, two school principals, a Christian camp manager, an airline pilot, a school-psychologist and a hospital administrator.
      16 have served as elders and all are active leaders in our church.
      We have 25 children between us, ranging in age from 16-32.
      The level of commitment and faithfulness and love for God in my Sunday-evening small-group is - as my son, Andrew would say - "epic!" Not only that, but - without exception - it's a discipleship constantly on the move. Every one of us has a closer walk with Jesus today than we did a year ago. I don't see anything in this group's future other than more of the same.
      If I had to pick a scripture that sums up what's going on with my friends, it would be this: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3)

Conversation and struggle:
This doesn't mean that we don't struggle. In fact, I'd say we're where we are because we're not afraid to wrestle with God.

Yesterday evening, for example, we read the story of Abraham and Isaac. You remember, it's the one where God suggests a human sacrifice, dad ties up his son and places him on the woodpile, then an angel stops it at the last minute and the sheep gets it instead. Lovely.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of passionate conversation, a lot of heartache, a lot of questioning. Last week we had talked about Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Most of us said he should have argued again.

      "If ever there was a good time to argue with God, this would have been it!" Peter said. 
      "This seems so out of character for the God I know," Debbie pointed out.
      "That's not the kind of 'test' that's good for a loving relationship," someone else declared.

In her sermon Sunday morning, Rebekah had talked about a woman she met at the doctor's office earlier in the week. Apparently she quit going to church because she was told it was wrong to ask questions!

"But I really wanted to know more," the woman said. "I want to understand, I want to be allowed to talk things over with God."

It's a good thing to wrestle with God, to struggle with the text, to ask hard questions, to search the scripture together, to be honest when God bugs us, to explore our relationship with God and with one-another in terms of honest dialogue.

God meets us right where we are; always. That's exactly where God met Abraham and began an ongoing redemptive work with a brand-new people - the people God intended to make a covenant with, to be a work in progress.

Abraham lived in and was part of a barbaric culture where human sacrifice - child sacrifice - was an accepted part of life. 
      Maybe that's what Abraham thought a deity required to seal his side of any covenant? 
      Maybe Abraham "heard" that from God when God asked for his total allegiance? 
      Maybe that was the only religious language Abraham knew?
      Maybe God needed to meet Abraham exactly there before God could lead him anywhere else?

AND GOD stopped Abraham's hand. God made it clear that this Covenant was to be a New and Living way. And God made it clear that "The way of the Lord" was not/is not the way of the ambient culture. In other words, God required that Abraham be subversive, and not fall in line with the way everyone else operated in his violent, fear-filled, barbaric world. 

Rather than God simply being a projection of the values of the world around Abraham, a deity designed to reinforce the status quo, Abraham's God was a God who offered something new and radical. This "Lord of Lords" set in motion a relationship where the values of this world would be turned upside down, and it was going to be - eventually - God's own self who was to be the sacrifice, through Jesus.

So this is how things go on a Sunday night. We study and cry and pray and argue and struggle and love together. And God calls us still, to be subversive in THIS culture.

Peace - DEREK (The Preacher's Husband)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Adding Life to the Annual Church Meeting!

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. (Romans 15:13-14)

Sunday, driving up to church in the cool of the morning, the twin towers of mulch from last week's pre-construction work steamed like active volcanoes waiting to erupt. In a way they are, because they represent the amazing sense of energy and power that's building around here. Even our annual church meeting served as a testimony to God's awesome work amongst us.

Yes, I'm writing about our "Church Annual Meeting" - if you can believe it! I mean, who in their right  mind would consider inflicting such tedious content on innocent Internet blog readers?

I'm glad you asked. First, I'm in my "write" mind, and my write mind tells me there's a story here. Second, something happened that I - in my Preacher's Husband perspective - see as HUGE, and most certainly worth talking about on a Monday morning.
  • Annual meetings in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are held to fulfill a requirement in the denomination's book of order. At the beginning of the year, a booklet is prepared containing written reports from the pastors, the church staff and the various ministry teams, summarizing their work during the previous year. The publication includes tables, statistics, accountings, exact detail of monies received and spent. This detailed information is passed out a couple of weeks ahead of time. Then the church meets to hear the reports and vote on certain items. Blah, blah, blah....
This can all be exceedingly tedious. And - ask your Presbyterian friends - such a meeting typically is.

But - and this is why I'm writing this post - I noticed something wonderful yesterday. We met in the fellowship hall for lunch, where the food was prepared and served by our elders - servant leaders every one. Then, and this was - as Rebekah would say - "Chilly-bump-ish", every ministry-team chair who stood up to speak ended up sharing a testimony.

In each and every instance the "report" - carefully prepared to meet standards of order - morphed into a testimony of God's grace and love-charged initiative amongst us:
  • "You'd think in these difficult economic times," our mission elder began, "that giving would be down. But, once again and in character, this congregation has responded with generosity and love...." 
  • "I'm so grateful to be a part of this church," our music director said. "My colleagues in other churches talk about reduced budgets and slashed positions and declining ministry; at First Presbyterian it's just the opposite..."
  • "Thank you from the bottom my heart for allowing me the privilege of serving you," the member-care elder said. 
  • "I'm very proud," our elder for stewardship said, "of the ministry work this church accomplishes in God's name..."
  • Personnel Chair Lee said this: "With 15 paid staff positions FPCBrandon is now larger than 75% of the businesses in the USA. I knew the work would be valuable, but I assumed personnel would not be one of the more exciting, miracle-filled ministries... I was wrong... I'd like to thank out entire staff for making this a miracle-filled and exciting year."
... And so it went, from ministry team to ministry team, this steady stream of witness to power and grace via the Gospel of Love. Instead of a tedious business meeting, the event was a shot in the arm and an affirmation of life.

The visioning team had the last word, bubbling with excitement because construction is well under way and we have the piles of debris and mulched trees to prove it. They just can't hold themselves in, and it's so cool to see them bursting with hope and promise for the future.
The Preacher puts it this way when she talks about the "So What?" of ministry. "There is so much activity that goes in to making a church 'tick'. But I don't want anyone preparing food for the hungry, or visiting shut-ins, or cleaning out the gutters, or mowing the grass, or tutoring children at the elementary school, or polishing the furniture in the sanctuary, or teaching Sunday-school, or folding bulletins, or serving at I-Am-Hope Cafe, or singing in the choir, or organizing a mission trip to Central America, or building a Habitat house, or even handing out a cup of coffee to a homeless person... unless it comes out of hearts full with love for Jesus."

Our Annual Church Meeting - yawn - turned out to be a "GO CHURCH!" party - because we are a "Go With Jesus" congregation!! It's the only recipe for ministry that really matters.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Looking for a few good "Clergy-Hubbies"

No matter what happens, live in a way that brings honor to the good news about Christ. Then I will know that you stand firm with one purpose. I may come and see you or only hear about you. But I will know that you work together as one person. And I will know that you work to spread the teachings of the good news. So don't be afraid in any way of those who oppose you. That will show them that they will be destroyed and that you will be saved. That's what God will do. (Philippians 1:27-28)

First off a shout out to my new friends at the RevGalPals blog ring. There are more women clergy out there than most people realize (I don't mean to say that they're "out there" - although I'm sure some of them probably are - aren't we all!). The Rev-Gal-Pals provide an excellent forum for conversation.

But - and this is becoming a real concern to me - even though a lot of my new friends are married, I'm not managing to make that many connections with fellow members of the Clergy-Hubby club...?

Do you want to know who reads "The Preachers Husband"? Well, it boils down to two main categories:
  • Preachers - both men and women...
  • and then - People Who Simply Enjoy my Writing. 
  • Fact is, more "Preacher's Wives" read this blog than "Preacher's Husbands".
So what gives, fellow nurturers of awesome Rev-Gals?
- Are there particular issues you need addressed?
- Are you maybe too busy serving in your faith community to read blogs?
- Are you not that interested in what you perceive as stereotypical roles?
- Are you desperately trying to keep a low profile and hoping that I'll just go away?
- Are you unsure of what it really means to serve God in this unique capacity?
- Or do you have ongoing doubts and you're simply afraid to voice them?

On the one hand, ours really is a unique calling. Then, on the other, there's absolutely nothing about being The Preacher's Husband that's not exactly the same as being The Preacher's Wife.

But what does seem to be different is the in-general willingness of Clergy-Hubbies to stand up and claim the role, and to step into being the pastor's spouse with the kind of confidence and commitment that our Rev-Gal needs.

Now she might not be so willing as her male colleagues to confess that she needs anything - even you. Because perceived need, after all, is one of those huge double-standard issues used to bludgeon female clergy. The "I-can-do-it-myself" malady is not surprising considering the barriers so many women are forced to negotiate. You can only "prove yourself" so many times before losing balance and setting up permanent camp on the toxic self-sufficiency side of the line.

Meanwhile, the RevGals' male colleagues lean heavily on their spouse for every conceivable kind of support from "prayer partner" to "amateur therapist" to "make my home a sanctuary/refuge, I need it" to "best friend" to "cheerleader in chief" and everything in between.

And there's nothing wrong with that because ministry is a tough job to pull off solo. The irony is that so many women pull off "all this and more" because they:
- A) Believe they're supposed to be tougher than the men...
- B) Live in a culture where skepticism and doubt still shadow their ministry...
- C) Don't want anyone to think they need their husbands to pitch in...
- D) Don't occupy a position where their spouse would be "allowed" that privilege....
- E) Don't have a Clergy-Hubby who really "gets" it...
 -F) Still - in their hearts - are trying to prove something to themselves....

Women are strong. Rev-Gals especially. I get it.
That said, it's still the responsibility of every Clergy-Hubby out there to love-nurture-encourage-support-serve their heart out!

Let me hear from some of you. Your voice is important.
  • Rev-Gals - please pass this on to your friends/husbands/colleagues/contacts/seminary connections. 
  • Pastor's Husbands - I need some feedback, pronto. Am I wrong about all this?
  • Church members - What's your take? Do you think female clergy are short-changed in the "helpful spouse" department?
"No matter what happens, live in a way that brings honor to the good news about Christ..."


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ministry Beyond "Decorative"

Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That's why we have the saying, "If you're going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God." (I Corinthians 1 - The Message)

So what does "The Preacher" do after watching the construction crew begin demolition at church? Easy - she comes home and rips out the floor of our shower. My wife is a classic "I was just going to clean the grout but I might as well rip the tile out and start over" do-it-yourself-er.

Of course, she has every right to rip out the tile because she's the one who put it down in the first place.

Here's how Rebekah rolls: A few years ago she was picking at a loose tile on the shower wall when she detected moisture underneath - and, of course, some nasty black mold. If it had been me I'd have filled in the gap and left well enough alone.

But nooooooo...., not Rebekah. She went to the garage for - I thought - some putty. Ten minutes later I heard this loud CRASH! Next she came out for goggles and it was game on. By the end of the week the entire bathroom had been reduced to concrete flooring and wall studs. She dragged out sub-standard cabinets, trashed the worn flooring, pulled down all the tile, threw away the corroded fixtures... and the misshapen door... and the stained sinks... and the cracked toilet.

If a job's worth doing.... The only tasks that got subbed out were concrete - a graduated pour for the new walk-in shower pan - and an electrician to wire the can-lights from the attic.

The preacher dry-walled, she laid tile, she installed flooring, sinks and toilet. She did the cabinetry and the finish carpentry. She was the plumber. She put in fixtures. She even learned how to "sweat" pipes. Our son, visiting at the time, ran out to the kitchen with his eyes wide open. "OMG, dad," he exclaimed, "I can't believe you let mama get a blow torch!"

That's right - and I wish I had this photograph - The Preacher was sitting on the floor in front of some exposed plumbing, blow-torch in one hand and cellphone in the other, talking to her brother in Orlando. "Okay, I've got the blow-torch lit and the solder alloy ready to go... what do I do now?"

No mold left behind: Thinking about it, I have to acknowledge the theological and practical truth that Rebekah's approach reveals. The bottom line, for her, is "Deal with it" over "Look good" every time. Never-ever cover up anything that needs fixing, and that applies most especially to the things that grow in dark places.

Rumors, gossip, innuendo, assumptions... rot... mold. The principle remains the same.

The preacher I live with values honesty, and accountability, and at church she cultivates a staff atmosphere that is open and supportive and encouraging. The elders are trained as a ministry team; they love one-another; it's not about them it's about Jesus. We don't patch over problems, but clean things out and start over if that's what it takes.

My preacher spouse doesn't play games, or dress things up to look nice when they're not, or cater to anyone's ego, or do the "politically correct" thing, or hold on to membership numbers because 600 looks better than 500 on the resume....

Sometimes it costs a lot to refuse to play the games.

And that's all right because eventually - if you simply fix the cosmetics on top of the mold - instead of a solid, functional structure/bathroom/church, there's going to be a fragile shell with a lot of nasty gunk underneath. That might look good on the surface, but it's got nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.

And that's not ministry - that's decorating.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Unless the Lord Builds The House

Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain... (Psalm 127:1)

"The Preacher's Husband" is psyched... jazzed... stoked... fired up....  I am, in a word (or two) all a-tingle.

Those of you who know me won't be all that surprised. Sometimes it seems I spend most of my life in the the sweet zone. It's not unusual for me to get up in the morning already smiling. Life is good, yes, but life is better still when its fundamental meaning is so clear.

But I digress! The specific reason I'm all a-tingle this week is 100% church related. Yesterday was another huge landmark in our sojourn at First Presbyterian of Brandon, as real-life, dust-raising, debris-producing demolition marked the "can't-turn-back-now" phase of new construction.

As you can see (and thanks to Marianne Evans for the photos), the score at this juncture stands thus: Construction Crew 1 - Campbell Hall - 0. Or, "CC 1-0 CH".

But building can be stressful. Like it or not, believe it is the case or not, intentional or otherwise... the moment a capital campaign of any sort is launched the process becomes a kind of de facto referendum on the senior pastor's ministry. For the pastor's spouse - male or female - standing on the sidelines can be frustrating to the core. Should I actively participate in the debate? Or is the most appropriate response to stand quietly by Rebekah's side, vote by my absolute confidence in the church's vision, and then simply pledge $$$ as generously as possible?

For Rebekah and me, the course of events leading to this moment has been long and costly. The plan may have been developed and presented by the Visioning Team, but every congregational vote along the way felt like a vote of confidence in what is now over 14 years of ministry here in Brandon.

That equals a boatload of pressure on the pastor and a unique opportunity for the pastor's spouse to do whatever it takes to provide the encouragement and support that is not only crucial but possibly the most key element of our calling.

At the root of dealing with such stress must be the following understanding. "Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain..." God has given the Presbyterian congregation that meets at Carver Avenue a clear vision of what it means to do ministry here in Brandon. The Visioning Team has been instrumental in terms of interpreting that vision on behalf of the congregation. Rebekah, as the senior pastor, is gifted and equipped as custodian of the vision, its cheerleader, and its chief expositor.

In the world of theater, exposition is defined as the art of helping the crowd understand the characters and the action. In our church, right now, we have both characters and action:
  • The Characters are God and God's people - both those who know they belong to God and are exploring the relationship... and those of God's people outside our doors, the ones who need to hear the Good News (Go, therefore, and make disciples). 
  • The Action is building a center for discipleship and expanding our ministry in terms of equipping the saints. 
All this - dust, rubble, prayer, building, raising money, vision-casting, faithfulness, and being disciples - is serving to move First Presbyterian of Brandon forward in terms of our simple mission: To share the love of God by serving within our church, community and beyond: and to develop and empower passionate followers of Jesus Christ.

Your continued prayers are valued.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Vulnerable yet loved in our "permission-giving" church

You let me rest in fields

   of green grass.

   You lead me to streams

   of peaceful water,

    and you refresh my life. 

(Psalms 23)

Yesterday I tried something brave in worship. It helps, of course, that ours is a "permission-giving" church. By permission-giving I mean that the community owns an underlying grace that is more interested in authenticity than performance. Consequently, the pressure is off when offering an act of worship that comes from the heart.

So, a little background. This weekend, huddled around a small grave in a quiet cemetery, our family buried little Audrey Rose. The parents - my niece, Hannah, and her husband, Andrew - were surrounded by love (you can read about the event at Grief & Blessing). Hannah asked Rebekah to lead the service and me to sing "Jesus loves me this I know..."

I wanted a different take on the song, so I slowed the tempo and rearranged the music with a light rock lilt and contemporary guitar chords. Here it is if you want to try it:

D       Em7       D/F#
Jesus loves me this I know

G2                           D
For the Bible tells me so

D       D/C#    Bm   Bm/A
Little ones to Him  Belong

G2          D         Em7 A   D
We are weak but He is strong

D       D/F#      G2
Yes     Jesus    loves me

Bm    Bm/A  Em7        A
Yes  Jesus   Loves me

D     D/F#   G2
Yes Jesus Loves me

         D      A        D
The Bible tells me so

D    D/G     D      D/G

The next morning, Sunday, I was preparing for worship with Mark, our most excellent music director. We play guitar & piano duets - purely instrumental - while the elements are being served. I suggested "Jesus Loves Me", and sung my arrangement so he could get a feel for the interpretation.

"I think, first time through, you should sing it," he said. Tim, our awesome associate pastor, stuck his head in the room and seconded the idea. They both felt is was a "Spirit" thing, not a performance idea.

So I tried. At the 8:30 service I got the first few words out and found that they were stuck to a huge lump in my throat. But at 11:00 it worked. I only had to sing the one time. Then for the remainder of the communion service, Mark and I simply worked around the chording while people in the congregation hummed or quietly sang as they took the bread and the wine.

What better accompaniment for such a sacrament? Yes, Jesus loves me! Saturday's funeral service was deeply sacramental too, and I am so grateful to be a part of a faith community where I can wear my heart on my sleeve, where honest emotion (read "Derek choked up"!) means more to the spirit of worship than correct fretwork on my guitar, and where the best laid plans of people are willing - at least partially - to move out of the way for the agenda of the Spirit of God.

NOTE: It was "SuperBowl Sunday", and the traditional service opened to much hilarity as a member wearing a "cheese-head" hat walked into church and sat next to a family clad in Pittsburgh Steelers gear. The Pittsburgh contingency stood up and moved ten feet down the pew. The cheesehead followed. It took Rebekah a good minute or more to settle the crowd down!

Friday, February 4, 2011

These Are the Good Old Days

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1)

Back in 1976 I enrolled as a freshman at Stetson University over in DeLand (FL). I was a foreign exchange student with a vague idea that, maybe, I wanted a college education. Stetson was willing to overlook the fact that I'd failed high school in England in consideration of my "savant" facility with a soccer ball. They took me in based on the following criteria:
  • I was a really, really good soccer player.
  • My former principal wrote a letter saying that, while he had no actual evidence in hand, he believed I most likely had the intelligence to at least give college a try.
  • I took the SAT and did fairly well.
  • I was a really, really good soccer player...
So I settled in, played lots of soccer (that's me on the program cover from '79) learned how to study, survived the fall semester, and enjoyed my first Florida winter. I shared a ramshackle house with 10 wanna-be Baptist ministers, one recovering former ultra-conservative, and "Moose" - a completely awesome Muslim grad student from the Sudan.

Then, one day early in February, the lobby phone rang.

It was Rebekah Alexander. We'd met a few times around campus, and once I'd even walked her home and offered her a piece of pumpkin pie. "Hey," she asked, "a bunch of us are going to the basketball game Friday. Would you like to come?"

She only had to ask me out the one time. 

Some people are amazed that we remember and celebrate our first date. But I can't think of a more appropriate day to get excited about! Talk about a day that changed my life in unimaginable ways!

Of course I didn't know, in those early days when I was rapidly falling for absolutely the most beautiful woman on campus, that one day soon I'd be introduced as, "This is our pastor's wi-.... Oops - err - this is our pastor and her Derek... No, that's not right - this is Derek - he's married to our minister."

Since then we have - in a deliberate and proactive fashion - lived a life together defined by celebration. Celebrating the anniversary of our first date fits our MO (modus operandi) as a couple. 

After a few weeks, when it became evident that this relationship had some potential beyond a few dates, we started shoving dimes and quarters into a piggy-bank (except is was a brown ceramic frog). We decided to go out on the proceeds if we were still dating after a year. If there was $5, we'd go for a hamburger.

By Feb 4, 1978, we had well over $50! I made reservations at "Maison et Jardin" in Orlando and we borrowed a car. My menu had prices and hers didn't, so you know we used the entire contents of the frog! We haven't missed a Feb Four since.

Our commitment to celebrate at every possible opportunity has helped put a positive slant on everything that's happened since our August 1979 wedding. There are always two options in every marriage:
  1.  To focus on what is wrong and interpret everything else through that muddied lens...
  2.  To celebrate what's right and, as the hymn puts it, "Live into Hope"...
It's a choice that also has powerful applications to ministry.

Okay, Derek, don't go all "Captain Sunshine" on us:
Don't misunderstand, I'm not talking about Pollyanna, ignoring problems that need to be addressed or the kind of serial denial that leaves no room for growth. What I'm referencing is the deliberate decision Rebekah and I constantly make (sometimes several times a day) to shift the balance of power toward what is positive.

There's a kind of momentum that accompanies such a shift. Why not increase the odds by leaning toward the light?

Life is undeniably difficult at times. Leading a church is no different, it's an experience fraught with challenge and difficulty. Being married is often a minefield of stress and overwhelm. Parenting can - and should - drive all of us to our knees. Struggle is the nature of life.

Light may be stronger than darkness, but sometimes it's incumbent on us to at least reach out and flick the switch.

That's one reason we celebrate. It's our way of affirming the light. Today is the 34th anniversary of that - fateful - first date. 

Carly Simon said it best. "These are the good old days." That would be today, 34 years in and - constantly - humbly - making the choice to celebrate.

- DEREK (The Preacher's Husband)