Friday, June 29, 2007

"Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah"

Today is the Feast of St. Peter and Paul, and the tenth anniversary of my ordination.

I wish I could also say it marked the completion of my tenth year of gospel ministry. But things haven't worked out that way since that evening when the presbyters laid hands on me in my home church and I was ordained a Minister of the Word and Sacrament.
My ministry has been marked by some success, some failure, and much interruption. In that I am told that I am following a usual course for women in ministry. A friend and colleague in my current presbytery did her Doctor of Ministry thesis on the rate of continuance of ordained women in full time parish ministry as of ten years after their ordinations. Her research demonstrated that the percentage is very low.

There are some who would say that that attrition is only right and proper and can be put down to the realization, by congregations or by the ordained women themselves, that females ought not to be ministers of the Christian faith.

But the real reasons are less heroic.

Sometimes women voluntarily abandon the Gospel plow for the same reasons men do: poor health, family issues, frustration, financial problems.

And as with male pastors, some women leave the ministry because their ministry temporarily or permanently has left them. Intradenominational conflicts, creeping congregationalism in connectional church bodies, modern individualism, the market mentality, and a lack of appreciation for the pastor's efforts and duties all lead pastors of both sexes to be fired or forced to resign without substantial cause. Some get right back into the church job search, some step away from pastoral work to breathe for a little while, and some give up parish ministry altogether, finding it necessary to serve Jesus Christ in some other way.

A consumerist sense of entitlement leads many churches literally to demand that their pastor be all things to all people. It doesn't matter that the pastor is faithfully and purely preaching the Gospel, reverently administering the sacraments, lovingly and conscientiously ministering pastoral care, uprightly representing the congregation in the community, and fruitfully participating in the higher bodies of the church. Anything or nothing is adequate to start a dump-the-pastor campaign. Did you not like the hymns last Sunday? Fire the pastor! Do you abhor the way your pastor combs his hair? Fire the pastor! Did the pastor wait till the day after her day off to come visit your aunt's best friend (who goes to that other church, but still--!) who had outpatient surgery to get her corns removed? Fire the pastor! After all, there's plenty more where this one came from! We'll get perfection next time!

But even where both men and women might suffer an interruption of ministry, I've noticed that with woman pastors, the ramifications of a perceived misstep are more severe and the tolerance for pastoral error is lower. Women pastors, especially those who are single, are expected to be both pastor and pastor's wife. Woe to her if she doesn't show up with a pie for the social, though her male predecessors never did! Women pastors are more susceptible to being pushed around by strong lay leaders, and more likely to be resented if they push back. Strong doctrine coming from the mouth of a woman is frequently considered "unpastoral"--a woman should look out for people's feelings! A woman pastor can be taken as anti-man, simply by virtue or (vice?) of having gone for ordination, and grievances will accumulate that she has no idea of. And let not a clergywoman betray any unsurehandedness on a church's tiller! Too often, I have observed, it will be put down to a lack of competence, rather than to simple inexperience or to systematic problems in the congregation itself. This tendency in higher judiciaries can work against male pastors' ministries as well. But isn't there just a wee bit more temptation to swoop in and rescue the poor little woman and send her off for counselling while the congregation goes its merry way?

To be fair to my current presbytery, they pretty much had to send in the cavalry on my last fulltime charge. The church had been chewing up and spitting out (male) pastors for the past twenty years, and my only distinction was that I was the catalyst that brought things to a head. But in that, my being a woman was instrumental. Even before I took that call, the Committee on Ministry in their formal interview said, "This church hasn't had a woman pastor before. Do you think [the Clerk of Session who was also the Moderator of the Pastor Nominating Committee] might want you because he thinks that as a woman you'd be easier to manipulate?" Oh, no, no, he was a nice, upstanding guy! We were in total agreement on doctrine and church leadership! He'd never do that!

Yes, he would. If he could have gotten a little twerp of a clergyman to play Mr. Collins to his Lady Catherine de Bourgh, that would have served his purpose. But as a woman, I was seen as ideal: the powerless figurehead, with the clerk and his family as the real motive force. As a woman, I would not make trouble; I would let things go on as they had in the three years they'd been without an installed pastoral head.

But, surprise! I did not. I could not. And as I was overmatched in my clerk, the presbytery had to step in. For the record, the clerk and his family jumped ship to another denomination, and the remnant of the congregation have settled down under the hand of a part-time Stated Supply, who is-- a woman.

. . . This was not supposed to be a rant, but a reflection. So, as I look forward to a future fulltime pastorate, let me reflect on what I would do differently. Let me consider what the interview process would be like, God helping, as I offered myself to a church as a woman pastor.

I would explore with a PNC what it would mean for the church to have a woman pastor. What would be the hopes? The fears? The expectations?

I would begin as I meant to go on. If I meant to be forthright and outspoken, I would be that in the interviews. The forms of cooperation I expected from my lay leaders, I'd make known from the first. I would do my best to make sure the committee saw me, and not just what I might represent to them as a "woman pastor." I would flee the temptation to be what they wanted me to be, instead of who I am.

I would be honest about my capabilities and what I could deliver. I would not fall into the trap of promising the moon when I can only bring a good three-way lamp. On the other hand, I would be willing to be stretched and to grow.

I would, God willing, have the courage to follow up on anything that seemed doubtful. I would not let my desire for a call turn my vision distorted and rosy. As I pursued such matters, I would do so with an attitude of "we all want what's best for the church. Let's see if I would be a good person to work together with you to achieve that best."

And I would look out for what I could bring the congregation, for how I could serve them, and not be swayed by the excitement of being wanted into accepting a position that isn't really mine.

Because, let's face it, it is very "feminine" to want to avoid conflict, to want to be nice, to want to be wanted. I have to acknowledge those tendencies in myself and turn them around for good. I have to face that every pulpit committee will inevitably see me as a woman first, though for much of the past decade my attitude has been, "My gender doesn't matter. What matters is preaching and ministering the Gospel."

But our God is a God who works through incarnation. He likes it so much, He took on flesh Himself. Every ministry, even the Word of God itself, is mediated through a human being: through Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, first of all, then through His ministers. I can't pretend to be a detached intelligence, a bodiless heart! I am who I am: a woman of a particular age, of a particular time and place, of particular education, appearance, and experiences. I am perceived, rightly or wrongly, based on others' interpretations of who and what I am.

So let me be honest and aware of that, and do my part to see that my being a woman pastor really and truly undergirds my being a woman pastor, to the glory of Jesus Christ. And may the God who called me guide me as I guide His church, remembering the closing hymn of my ordination service:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty:
Hold me with Thy powerful hand!
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be Thou still my strength and shield,
Be Thou still my strength and shield.

(William Williams Pantycelyn, d. 1791)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

On Clothing, the Lack Thereof, and Time

Here I am at nearly 3:00 o'clock on a Sunday morning, and I'm finally printing out my sermon.

No excuses; maybe just a comment or two while the old printer works.

My texts deal with Christ's freeing of the Gerasene demoniac in Luke, and the freedom we have in Christ in Galatians. It struck me that both texts dealt with being clothed after being ill-clothed, inadequately clothed, or, in the demoniac's case, not clothed at all.

And it came to mind that I'd recently read a column by Suzanne Fields, about a nude bike ride a couple weeks ago, ostensibly held to protest global warming and automobile emissions (never mind the sort of emissions that pollute the air when they're not caught by one's clothes!). Seemed like something I could take off on (sorry), to show how people who equate nudity with freedom are only deluding themselves.

But when I brought the column up on line, I was disappointed. I'd forgotten that Ms. Fields had only used the protest as a jumping-off point for the sorry state of British society (a little misapplied, since this nude bike ride took place not only in London, but all over the world). And I'd forgotten that the statements that got me thinking there might be a connection were in the comments, and weren't exactly as I'd recalled.

Nevertheless, the misguided theme of nudity-as-freedom was there. So I Dogpiled the subject (you can Google, I'll Dogpile) to see what the promoters of this demonstration say for themselves. On the home page of the Chicago site I was greeted by a cartoon of a simpering modern-day Lady Godiva making do with a bicycle for a palfrey and wearing nothing but three strategically-placed little hearts and a tattoo or two. And to my grim amusement, under her image the legend declared, "Protest oil dependency and showcase your gorgeous self love."

I think they meant "self-love," but the kicker was this: Above her was the title of the event, and writhing out of one of the i's was a veritable serpent, with an apple in its mouth, offering it to the naked cycling lass as to a new Eve!

You silly idiots! Giving into that ancient serpent and his bloody offer is why we have to wear clothes in the first place! That and our "gorgeous self love"! If you really want to "get back to the Garden" (as the song "Woodstock" puts it), it ain't gonna happen by accepting more produce from talking snakes!

Of course, I couldn't put that into my sermon. The "self love" motto, yes, but not the cartoon. Churchgoing people spend all week watching who knows what on the TV and at the movies, but heaven forfend the preacher should admit on Sunday morning to having seen an informational site with naked people on it! Oh, yeah, we're supposed to guide people through the hard-hitting realities of this fallen world, but we're to do it in total unawareness of those realities ourselves!

Not that I believe we should go out and sin on purpose, as some people advocate, to appreciate what Jesus has saved us from. And if a nude cyclist protest was ever held here in the Valleys, I would stay safely indoors with my curtains drawn.

Not that I fear so much falling prey to the sin of lust. No, I'm too liable to the sin of derision and disdain. Most people's bodies simply will not stand public exposure.

What's the other comment? Oh, that I have a sudden paranoia that the church where I'm preaching tomorrow may have changed their hours for the summer. Not that they ever told me they had. But a year ago at this time, another church in the same presbytery just happened to forget to inform me they were starting an hour earlier, and only the fact that I arrived thirty minutes before what I thought was the correct hour got me there in time to deliver the Gospel reading and the sermon. Then guess whose fault it was?

Happily, I have my contact elder's home number, and can call her in the morning to make sure.

Meanwhile, I need to iron my preaching dress before I retire for such sleep as I'm going to get. Otherwise, I will be improperly clothed!

Friday, June 08, 2007

New Sermon Blog

I've always wanted to post my sermons, since I started this blog in 2005. But I couldn't figure out how to attach another page to it, and I didn't want to overwhelm my day to day musings (blatherings?) with a lot of text. So I've started a new blog just for the sermons.

I'm calling it "Not Exactly as Preached." In plain English this means, "When I took my manuscript into the pulpit on Sunday, the Holy Spirit told me I'd better clarify this, expand on that, cut that other, display more of Christ's compassion here, be more forceful against sin and bad doctrine there. And to the best of my fallen human ability, I did it. But just now I don't have time/am not ambitious enough to reconstruct what actually came out of my mouth. So here you have the working drafts. May the Lord bless them to your edification and use."


Oh! By the way, it was not a sung Eucharist at the Lutheran church last evening. I was told I might chant it, if I wanted . . . but I was also told the congregation can't carry a tune in a bucket. Sadly, my informant was correct.

So I said the liturgy in the usual way.

For the sung version: Another time, another place, Lord willing!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Oh, Joy!

Thank you, Jesus!

The USB-parallel port printer cable and extension I ordered on line the other day have come, they're connecting my old printer and my new computer, and they work!

And I have my sermon for this evening printed out in one go!

Yes, for this evening. Tonight and this Sunday I'm supplying the pulpit at a Lutheran church down the Ohio River, thanks to the interdemoninational agreement between the PCUSA and the ELCA.

It'll be my first time celebrating the Lord's Supper at a Lutheran Church. This congregation chants part of the liturgy, which I shall rather enjoy . . . except that I don't know the tunes yet. And I'm told that Thursdays are always a capella.

Meaning I'd better get ready and get on the road. Maybe if I arrive early enough, someone will be there to go over the music with me.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Books and More Books!

This past Saturday the area library held its annual book sale.

And regular income or not, I needs must go and see what I can find. At a dollar per hardback, I'd be an idiot not to.

Here is this year's haul, in the order they happen to be stacked on my study floor:

1) Common Errors in English and How to Avoid Them, by Alexander M. Witherspoon, Ph.D., 1943.

I've inherited some of my English teacher grandmother's propensity for being a grammar and usage cop. And as much fun as it is to deplore others' mishandling of the language, it's salutary for me to make sure my own writing is itself up to par (hmmmm . . . . should that actually be "propensity to be"? And would it be more accurate to say I want to get "down to par"? I'd better read this book and find out!). Then, too, it'll be interesting to see what usages have absolutely changed in the past 64 years. I actually hadn't known that "contact" hadn't always been a verb as well as a noun!

2) Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley, no copyright date shown but originally published in 1853. The design and frontispiece illustrations of this American edition look more Edwardian. 1905, let's say.

Charles Kingsley is a familiar name, somehow in association with the Inklings of Oxford. A predecessor? And I'd heard of his Hypatia, but I hadn't known what it was about. Turns out it concerns a young woman, a philosopher and teacher, who is trying to bring back Classical paganism against the momentum of post-Constantinian Christianity. But that's only the first two chapters. I'll see what ensues.

3) David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, 1948 Literary Guild edition, first published in 1850.

Everybody needs a copy of David Copperfield. Otherwise, how are you going to know when Masterpiece Theatre gets it wrong?

4) Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, English translation 1943; French original published 1862.

Gosh, I hope, I hope, I hope this version is unabridged, discursions on argot, the Battle of Waterloo, and all!

5) Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, by Frances and Joseph Gies, 1994.

Promising-looking treatment of Medieval architecture and technology, with reproductions of period illustrations. The people who put together the library sale tables had filed it under "Religion." Hilarious! (Unless you really do think that architects will save the world).

6) All Things Bright and Beautiful, James Herriot, 1974.

Dogs! Cats! Horses! Furry critters in general! And the vicarious pleasure of looking in on a country vet's life without having to get cold and tired and grotty oneself! Eh, oop!

7) Laughing Stock, Bennett Cerf, editor, 1945.

In his Introduction, Mr. Cerf states, "The joke book of the future will bear little resemblance to this collection. My grandson will tell me . . . 'For Pete's sake, is that what people laughed at fifty years ago?'" Alas, Mr. Cerf was right. But there are still enough good ones to amuse any occupant of the porcelain throne-- which is why I pick up books like this in the first place.

8) The Hymnbook, David Hugh Jones, editor, 1955.

Not a lot of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations still use the Dark Red Hymnal. But occasionally I'll preach at a church that does. Now I can return the copy I borrowed from the church of a pastor friend of mine two years ago (sorry, Deb!)

9) The Presbyterian Valley, William Wilson McKinney, editor, 1958.

A collection of essays on the history, development, and accomplishments of the earliest Presbyterian churches in the Upper Ohio Valley. The church I used to pastor is shown on the map on the endpapers, but far, far south of where it's located now. Another congregation by the same name? Or the same one, and is this yet another example of the lack of communication and obscurantism I encountered in that parish? I knew when I was there that the church had moved at some point to its present location, but nobody could or would tell me from where. Maybe they had no historic sense and simply didn't know. Or maybe it was more of the quality that made the clerk of session keep the church register and Session minute book at his home and refuse to ever, ever let me see them.

10) Home Painting, Wallpapering and Decorating, a "Wise book," 1951.

Screamingly out of date for many products, tools, and techniques, but containing some recipes that may come in very handy as I renovate my 1920s foursquare house (see my blog The Sow's Ear). Worth spending a buck for, just in case.

11) Decorative Painting, by Emma Callery, 1990.

I've already done some nice (I think!) faux finishing on my kitchen (which someday I'll get round to publishing on my house blog). This book should come in hand for the next such project I may try. Lots of well-photographed illustrations.

12) A Certain Justice, by P. D. James, 1997.

I "read" this story before, in 1999, by way of Books on Tape, while en route to a Face-to-Face pastor search cattle call in Corning, New York. Got so wrapped up in the story that I missed my exit for my friends' house in Cincinnati (where I was to spend the night) and ended up in Over-the-Rhine. There are times when that could've been very awkward for someone like me, but happily, that midnight was not one of them. A friendly gas station clerk set me straight and I eventually made it back to the suburbs.

As for the story, P. D. James can always be relied upon to give the reader a grim but gripping, well-constructed, psychologically-motivated tale. And, what fun, I see that she has signed this copy on the flyleaf!

13) The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, fourth edition, Vol. 1, Maynard Mack, general editor, 1979.

14) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, fifth edition, Vol. 1, M. H. Abrams, general editor, 1986.

15) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, fifth edition, Vol. 2, M. H. Abrams, general editor, 1986.

Back in June of 1975, Judy, an architecture school classmate at my Great Midwestern University, borrowed my Norton Anthology of English Literature; I think it was to clear up an Incomplete she'd had to take in an English class. But she absconded to Iowa, transferred to Maharishi University, and I never saw her or my Norton again.

When I laid eyes on these books last Saturday, I thought, "Ah! here's my chance to recover my loss." But the sale room was too crowded and the books were too heavy to see if any of them were the same one I had in the mid-'70s. I'm particularly looking for a story called "August Heat," about a man who goes walking in London on a blindingly hot Bank Holiday afternoon, and somehow ends up in a stonecutter's yard where the unknown craftsman has just finished chiseling a tombstone with the protagonist's name on it . . .

Haven't found it yet. Maybe it was in the 1974 edition, but left out of this. I know it always creeped me out enjoyably.

There should be one more, going by the amount I was charged. But I can't find it. Oh, well, if the volunteer made a miscount, that's one more dollar for the library fund!