Not Created for Shame

By Bentley Stewart

“We were not meant to live in shame…” Richard Spencer, white nationalist who popularized the term ‘alt-right.’

I agree.

Let me state that again. I AGREE. We are NOT meant to live in shame.

Notice that I limited Spencer’s quote. There is a very limited amount upon which I can find agreement with him. Even in this limited quote, he and I understand “we” differently.

When he says “we were not meant to live in shame,” he means that white people are not meant to live in shame. His “WE” is white.

I speak as a person of faith. God did not intend for humanity to live in shame. In Genesis 3, God beckons the first human family out of hiding in shame. We are not meant for shame. Humanity, which includes white people, is not meant for shame. Shame robs us of the abundant life that God desires for us and Jesus proclaimed.

I agree with another thing that Spencer said in this edited clip. Here’s the other comment of Spencer’s with which I (mostly) agree:

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

Here’s how I would state it: “America was designed for white people.”

When I use the term “white supremacy,” this is what I mean. “America was designed for white people.” (Some use the term differently and I have much to learn from those nuances.)

“White supremacy” is the version of racism that is endemic to the United States. In other places, there are other versions of racism. It is also important to note that white supremacy exists beyond our shores.

Before I explain what I mean that “America was designed for white people,” let me define racism.

One problem is that the term “racism” has become a shaming pejorative. Remember, I profess faith in a God who desires that we leave shame behind. Calling someone a racist does not have a good track record for liberating people from racism. When I am shamed, I have two default responses. Accept the shame and wallow in it or reject the shame by breaking relationship with the messenger. Wallowing in shame is not only miserable for me. Wallowing in shame serves no one.

My working definition of “racism” is informed by the Reconciliation Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my ordaining body.

Racism = Race Prejudice + Misuse of Institutional Power

We, all of humanity, have prejudices and biases. Don’t believe me? Take a test on implicit biases and prove me wrong. We all have prejudices. It is part of the survival strategy of mammals. In any given moment, we are experiencing too much stimuli to make conscious decisions about all of it. We have prejudices. We pre-judge, in part, to filter our experiences. Without these prejudices, we would be overwhelmed by the number of decisions we would be forced to make in any given moment. Part of what it means to be human is that we have the freedom and responsibility to question our prejudices so that we are not limited by preconceived notions.

Having prejudices based on appearance is not racism. It is part of what it means to be human.

Instead of unpacking the phrase “misuse of institutional power,” I will return to Spencer’s quote:

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

European settlers claimed the land that Indigenous Peoples had lived on for generations. Their relationship with the land was forged through generations of loving and learning from the land as they struggled to survive and thrive. The First Nations people were claimed by the land as much, if not more, than they claimed the land.

This week used to be my favorite holiday. For me, there is no greater spiritual discipline than the corporate practice of gratitude. And, it is becoming harder and harder for me to reconcile my appreciation for this holiday and the genocide it sanitizes.

Please do not stop reading there. Remember, I do not believe that we were created for shame.

A quick distinction between shame and guilt:

Guilt says I did something bad.

Shame says I am bad.

Guilt is about behavior and shame is about the person.

In order to face the legacies of the displacement and genocide of this land’s indigenous people and the enslavement of people from Africa, we need to confront our historic guilt over this behavior. However, we must not wallow in shame. We were not meant for shame. Shame serves no one. In fact, the insidious pathology of shame allows us to avoid our guilt. If I am a bad person, then all I am capable of is bad. I am incapable of anything good. I am not accountable for my behavior. From the place of shame, I bypass my guilt, which means I forfeit my agency to engage in any new behavior.

When we use the sickness of shame to bypass our guilt, we then seek ways to self-medicate the shame with all sorts of numbing agents to desensitize ourselves from the pain of one another. If I collude with the lie that there is nothing I can do about how racism oppresses people, then I will strive to maintain willful blindness about racism.

Perhaps, you are thinking. Hey, I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t own slaves. Why should I feel guilty? I strive to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Again, I speak as a person of faith.

“The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” ~ Numbers 14:18

God loves us. God did not create us for shame. And, God loves justice. God loves us so much that God cares about our behavior. God wants us to love as we have been loved.

The verse above has been used by some to talk about “generational curses” and by others as way to talk about “systemic sin.” Whatever your preferred nomenclature, our country’s original sin is racism. The soil of our land, from sea to shining sea, is soaked in the blood of racism. We still eat the poisonous fruit from this blood-soaked soil.

For this reason, I try to avoid referring to people as “racist.” Again, it is a shaming pejorative. Shame serves no one and God never meant us for shame.

Rather, I say that we live in a country struggling with the insidious systemic evil of racism. We all suffer from how racism misshapes our God-given identities as beings of dignity and sacred worth. God wants to liberate us, ALL of us, white people too, from racism. We are meant for so much more. We are meant for the abundant life of becoming the beloved community.

As a citizen of this nation, I am confronted daily, multiple times a day, with the choice to resist racism or to collude with the powers and principalities. Other citizens, such as Spencer and other white nationalists, have decided to publicly profess their allegiance to this evil.

The temptation is to think that just because I am not professing white supremacy that I am somehow free from racism. In my analysis, we are all confronted with choices daily that present opportunities to collude with or resist racism. I mess up all the time. I refuse to let my missteps to be the end of my journey towards liberation from racism.

If you have read this far, I want to thank you. I want to leave you with a word of hope. Before that, I offer an invitation and a practice: begin to examine your known world for the vestiges of racism. Freed from shame, examine the ways in which you resist the powers of racism and the places where you collude with those powers and principalities.  Every morning, ask yourself how will I resist racism today? How will I be an agent of liberation from racism?

From Romans 8: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

The soil of our land is soaked in the blood of racism. Our land was subjected to the evil of racism. Creation itself is rooting for us, the children of God, to be revealed. Our liberation will be discovered in celebrating our interconnectedness and seeking justice for all.

May we seek to be better caretakers of the interconnected web of creation and by the grace of God, when we stumble on our way to becoming the beloved community, may we fall forward towards love and justice.

Rev. J. Bentley Stewart is the Director of Student Life for Disciples Seminary Foundation in Northern California. He is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and has standing in the Northern California/Nevada Region, for whom he serves as one of the anti-racism trainers. He is endorsed as a hospital chaplain by Disciples Home Mission. In his decade of hospital ministry, he specialized in pediatrics, palliative care, clinical ethics, interprofessional communication, and cultural bridging. He holds a B.A. degree from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and a M.Div. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is organizing the core team to begin a new Disciples worshiping community in Marin County, gathering-desire, where he resides with his wife, their two sons, and their beloved 95 lb. lapdog, Norman.

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America Can Be Great, But Not “Again”

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

One of the candidates for the office of the President of the United States has used as his official campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”  If you want you can go to his official website and buy a baseball cap with that phrase on it.  Depending on which hat you pick it will set you back anywhere from $3.03 to $25.00.  Of course, you have to pay for shipping and handling too.  Once you buy that hat, you can wear it and promote the idea that America has a former period of greatness that we just need to rediscover.   As for me, even though I love baseball caps because they hide my baldness, I am going to keep my money in my pocket.  And not because I think this candidate has more than enough sources of income already, but because the word “again” is just not something I can buy into.

I have learned over the course of my life that history is always interpreted from the perspective of those who have power.  And the idea that our nation has a former period of greatness which we just have to rediscover comes from the perspective of white male privilege and the desire to hold onto that power.  I am fairly certain if we were to ask some other groups to identify when our period of national greatness was, we would be met with silence.  If we were to ask the Native American population this question about America’s greatness, they might refer instead to the ravaging of the land they hold sacred, the many treaties that have been broken, the genocidal Trail of Tears on which many of their ancestors died.   The mistreatment of Native Americans continues today as the current battle over the oil pipeline in North Dakota shows.  The proposed pipeline will go through a sacred burial ground and also has the potential of devastating local water supplies.  Can you imagine the uproar if a pipeline was planned to run through Arlington National cemetery?  Centuries of our violence and broken promises to Native Americans continues even in our day, as peaceful pipeline protestors were met with attack dogs and pepper spray.  Or what about our African-American citizens?  Is there any period of our history that they want to return to because it was great for them.  Was it the brutal days of slavery when they were held in human bondage?  The humiliating days of Jim Crow laws? The time not too long ago, within my lifetime, when beatings and lynchings still happened without fear of punishment for those white men who perpetrated such atrocities?  Is there an American past that African-Americans want to rediscover because of its greatness?  When it comes to these two groups of people American greatness is not something to be found “again.”  As a former United States President once said about the American treatment of these two groups of people:

What we have done with the American Indian is in its way as bad as what we imposed on the Negroes. We took a proud and independent race and virtually destroyed them. We have to find ways to bring them back into decent lives in this country.

We could mention other shortcomings of greatness as well.  The fact that women weren’t allowed to vote until almost 150 years after the United States began.  The children who filled the coal mines and textile mills for meager wages while the owners gained further wealth. The internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.  Our nation’s greatness is not something that lies behind us, except in the minds of those who want to disregard the full history of our nation as they seek to hold onto the power that they feel slipping from their grasp.

If there is a greatness to our nation it is found not in any historical period, it is to be found in the idea of our freedoms which allow us to have a voice about what is wrong with our nation and the opportunity to work and correct it.  Our hoped for greatness lies in continually striving after the foundational idea that “all men are created equal and possess certain unalienable rights given by the Creator – among these rights being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  When Thomas Jefferson penned those words, he could not have known that 250 years later we are imagining a fullness to his words that he never even dreamt of.  Originally those words meant that only white male, land owners were equal and had certain rights.  Our possible greatness lies in our continual work to expand our understanding that human equality and rights exist for all people.

As a person of faith in America it is the striving after a greatness that lies before us and is inclusive of all people, that my faith and my patriotism can work together.  Every week when I stand behind the communion table and invite people to share in the meal of bread and cup, I say that the Lord’s Supper is for everyone, that all people are welcome.  As an American I believe that equality and God-given rights are for all people – all genders, all colors, all creeds, all sexual orientations, all educational levels – everyone gets to be included in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Our national greatness doesn’t lie in our past.  It is not something that can be discovered “again.” It lies in our ideas of freedom and equality for all.  Ideas that we have never completely lived out, and at times we have quite shamefully failed them.  Yet, the ideas of freedom and equality are something we can always strive toward and work for.  Any greatness that the United States of America might attain is yet before us.  So may we work ever harder toward fulfilling the great idea of a more just and inclusive nation for all

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“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life.”

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By Rev. Mindi

I was sad when David Bowie died, and Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey. Each death made me reflect on their contribution to culture and society.

But Prince’s death is still rattling me. Maybe because it was so unexpected. Maybe because he was younger than the other three, although not by much. Perhaps, because, as a late Gen-Xer, his music was the soundtrack of my childhood in the 80’s.

It’s more than that. Prince was an artist that couldn’t be captured in a single genre, an activist through music and art. A hell of a guitar player—one of the best. And someone who celebrated sexuality and faith, writing “Sexy MF” and “The Cross.” Prince transcended social and musical boundaries.

And while I was sad on Thursday, it was the public singing of “Purple Rain” and the purple tributes across the world that got to me. Public mourning is something that brings us together, that unites us.

We have had too many communal tragedies in the last fifteen years, from 9/11 to Sandy Hook, to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and beyond, in which we gather in our sadness, but we are also angry. We grieve and we demand justice. We cry out to God and to each other as to how this could have happened again.

With Prince’s death, for now, we simply mourn. And while we ask why and what happened, and we experienced at first the shock and numbness that comes with a sudden death, we are also free to grieve together, and to celebrate his life. The public celebrations and singing, even the thousands of purple balloons outside of Paisley Park, point to a life well lived, something worthy of admiration, and grief at its brevity.

What we’ve learned since Thursday is that we need to collectively grieve, and Prince has given us the freedom to do that, without the anger and shame that has come from so many other collective memorials in the last fifteen years. Think of all the roadside memorials after car accidents and school shootings. Even when we have come together, it has been incredibly tragic, our feelings of grief meshed with cries for justice. We need a public mourning that frees us to grieve, as well as to celebrate, life.

Maybe that’s why so many churches posted the opening lyrics from “Let’s Go Crazy” on their sign boards. But better yet, we ought to have invited folks to public singings of “Purple Rain,” or at the very least, “The Cross.” Because the church needs to be joining in, if not leading, in collective mourning and celebrating life, death and resurrection.

Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You’re on your own.

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Why The Church Needs Youth Sunday

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By Rev. Evan Dolive

The church I currently serve just had their Youth Sunday. Youth Sunday is a time when the youth of the church (usually the middle school and high schoolers) “take over” the church service and lead the community in worship.  Growing up this was always a great experience.  Whether it was reading the scripture, serving communion or reading a homily, it was a change of pace from the ordinary worship experience week in and week out.  As a youth group we would pick the scripture, the theme and made decision on how the message would be structured.  We had a say in how the worship would look, we chose the songs and liturgy that spoke to us; for one Sunday, our understanding of  who God was, how God had touched our lives and what it meant to be a follower of Christ was made evident in the community around us.

After some discussion the youth settled on the theme of “Molded,” (based on Isaiah 64) specifically speaking to how the church and God has shaped and molded them into the person they are today.  This was just what the community needed to hear.  In church as well as in life we can fall into routines and ruts which cause us to miss the movement of God around us.  We can be so focused on the next thing that we fail to see what the Divine is doing right under our noses.  It takes an outside perspective, a new hearing, a reorientation of our mind and spirits to realign ourselves to God.  This particular Youth Sunday did just that for the church.

I have never had a community react to a Youth Sunday the way the church I serve did a few Sundays ago.  There was an energy, the people were alive.  The church got to hear how their tithe, their donations, their commitments, their countless hours in vans transporting sugar happy, rambunctious children, their service to the gospel was being entrusted to the next generation.  They heard stories of how summer camps, mission trips, hugs and peppermint candies were more than nice trips and simple gestures, they were implements of the gospel.

Youth today need to be an active part of the community in which they reside.  While there have been dozens of articles and books written on this subject, I got to witness first hand the impact that a loving church community had on a group of youth.  There was something about that service that spoke to me.  I was proud of what the youth accomplished, I was humbled by their depth of spirituality and I was honored to their minister.  Hearing how they have felt the love of God in the church inspired many, it lifted their spirits, it reconnected them with God.  Their words and explanation of the gospel reaffirmed my call to serve the church and the gospel of Christ.

The church does not need Youth Sunday for the sake of Youth Sunday.  The church needs Youth Sunday to be reminded that the story of God is being passed to the next generation.  When a baby is dedicated to God, the congregation generally is asked if they will care for the child and watch over her/him.  The charge given to the community is one of great importance.  They are to ensure that the children now in trusted to their care will be taught the faith that they hold so dear.  This charge is not one that the congregation waits to enact when the child is in middle or high school. This task, this charge, this commitment starts immediately.  The story of God and God’s movement in the world is not confined to the four walls of a stained glass building.  It is much bigger than that and the church needs to be reminded of that.

A friend once told met that he disliked the phrase “the children are the future of the church.”  While that might be true on some levels, he wanted it to be rephrased as “youth are the right now.”  Middle and High School students are growing up in a world that is completely different than any other generation.  If you have a curiosity you turn to Google not a book in the library.  Wikipedia has opened the eyes of millions to unknown facts, places and people.  Humanity has access to more information than any other time in human history.  In the midst of all this, it comforting to know that the story of God, the story of the salvation of Christ and the movement of Spirit has not been lost.  This is something that can not be manufactured, summarized in article or found in a smartphone app.  This type of connection is found with faithful churches entrust the story of God to faithful youth.  Their view of the world and how God moves through it might be different than yours but it shows how God is moving, working and molding their lives.

Do not give up on the next generation, do not lose faith; they are just getting started.
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Living Your Best

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By Dr. Mark Poindexter

What matters to me anymore is living the best life possible with the days I am given.  At the age of 53, I don’t yet have one foot in the grave but I know it is likely that I have more days behind me than I have ahead of me.  That actually doesn’t frighten me in any way at all.  What it does is motivate me to live each day to its fullest.  I want to be the best parent I can be to my adult children.  I want to be the best friend possible to those with whom I have such a relationship.  I want to be the best pastor and preacher I can be to the congregation I serve.  I want to laugh hard.  I want to serve faithfully.  I want to listen intently to those who need an ear.  I want to speak passionately for those who have no voice.  I want to use wisely the gifts, talents and resources that I have been entrusted with to help make this world a better place.  A place where the way of God, the way of peace and justice, are made known.  I want to live my life the best that I possibly can.

It is easy in the Christian faith for us to become lazy with the theology of sin and redemption and beat people up with that way of thinking.  It is to think that the only goal of our faith is to get to heaven and we can only do that by admitting what terrible sinners we are and accepting Jesus’ cross as the price paid for our sins and the only path of reconciliation to God.  Though sin and redemption play an indispensable role in Christianity, they are not the only lens through which we should look upon Jesus. It is not only Jesus’ sacrificial death that should be the focus of Christian thought and understanding.  It should also be the life that he lived and which he calls us to.  A life which we live to our best ability by working toward a world where loving concern for others reigns supreme.

In the gospels, salvation is not primarily about a heaven beyond this world, it is about life being more complete and whole in the here and now – the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the prisoner set free, about lives changing for the better in the present moment.  I believe the work of the church is to be found in working for the salvation of the world that is to be known in making broken and battered lives better in the here and now.  We move toward creating such a world when all of us work on being the best people we can be in Christ.  Allowing his teachings to define what we consider good and just and his example of care for others being the one that we follow with our lives.  In other words, allowing the humanity of Christ to be the humanity toward which we strive to live.

For some, believing that “Jesus died for your sins” practically sums up the entire Christian faith.  I have come to believe the life that Jesus lived needs to be rediscovered.  It is that life, lived in faithful beauty, which shows us how to live as his followers.

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The Truth Is Truth Can Be Found In A Lot of Places

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By Dr. Mark Poindexter

My office is “my space.”  If someone takes the time to look around my office they can get a snap shot of my life and what is important to me.  There are the many shelves of books collected from my years in school and from inheriting the libraries of two other ministers.  My collection of Lions and Lambs are prominently displayed on my window sill.  All the finisher’s medals from my road races are hanging from the coat tree – which has no room for any coats.  There are many pictures of my family, especially my children and there are all sorts of small gifts and trinkets that I have gathered from thirty years in ministry.  One thing that hangs on the wall of my office, directly across my desk, is a small poster that contains Gandhi’s “Seven Deadly Social Sins.”  These seven sins are

Politics without Principle

Wealth without Work

Commerce without Morality

Pleasure without Conscience

Education without Character

Science without Humanity

Worship without Sacrifice

Though these words are not part of the canon of Christian scripture, I wouldn’t be opposed to having a Council that consented to adding them.  We could put them in between the Testaments as part of the Apocrypha.  I have them displayed in my office where I do, so that when I look up from desk, the face of Gandhi, which is part of the poster, is looking right at me.  I see his face.  I read his words.  I see the truth that is in both. Of course, Gandhi was a Hindu who said that he had a great deal of respect for Jesus but that some of his followers didn’t seem interested in following Jesus too closely. There is truth in those words as well.

As a Christian, I should be interested in truth wherever I find it.  Whether it be in another religion or in the discipline of science or in the cultural norms of a different society.  Truth is truth and all of it is God’s truth.  For too long, much of the Christian faith has seen other religions as “a tool of the devil” and the only proper Christian response to be conversion.  That should no longer be the case.  Though Christ should always be our plumb line for how we understand truth, we should never think that our understanding of faith is the sole harbinger of truth.  Wherever there is compassion, wherever there is care for those on the fringes of society, wherever there is concern for enhancing life then there is truth to be found.   For those expressions of truth, as we understand it through Christ, we should be grateful for whoever shows it and whenever it is shown.  The ways of God are not limited to those of us who call ourselves Christian.  The ways of God are present wherever love and sacrifice and kindness to others is displayed.

Sometimes, I wonder if we are moving toward a day when the church and the synagogue and the mosque and the temple will no longer be symbols of different religions but symbols of the one thing for which all religions are ultimately looking for – the kingdom of God.

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A Prayer for All

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By Dr. Mark Poindexter

He comes into my office for a few minutes every morning.  His name is Mr. Joe.  He is our eighty-seven year old custodian at church.   He always asks me, “How’s it going today, Pastor?”  He also asks about my children and after I answer he says, “That’s a fine boy you got and a sweet girl, too.”  I’ve told Joe on several occasions that I hope I am in as good a shape as he is when I am sixty-seven, let alone eighty-seven.  This morning when I said that, he said, “Pastor, every night when I go to bed I pray that I might wake up with love in my heart.  Love for God.  Love for Jesus.  And love for everybody I meet that day.”  I thought that was a pretty good prayer to say every night, not just for Joe, but all of us.

Meeting Joe is another one of those wonderful gifts of grace that has come my way after my life took a turn that I did not expect almost two years ago.  When things happened the way they did with my marriage, it was nearly impossible for me to see any of the grace filled goodness of the life that was around me.  But that has changed for me. I am rediscovering in many ways the wonder and beauty of this life.

Yet, even as I rediscover this sense of joy I realize that there are many people, for numerous reasons, who are at the place I was at.  A dark place where joy seems to have vacated and even God seems absent.  A place that when you are surrounded by people, you can still feel very much alone.  Though I am at a different place now in my life, I still remember the dark, loneliness of that place.  Which helps me to feel a deep sense of compassion for others who are there.

There are a variety of situations that can lead someone into that dark place. The loss of a relationship, a dream or a hope.  The struggle many folks have as they live pay check to pay check.  I think many of the refugees who are forced to leave their country and look for a new life, only to find themselves living in the tent cities that offer little to change the reality of their situation.  Families whose lives are broken by the gun shots that claim too many lives in our own nation.

The church is to be a healing place for such folks.  A place where tears can be shed, pain can be shared and ultimately hope restored.  I don’t always know how to provide the care folks need.  But I know that part of that care begins with Mr.  Joe’s prayer – “Let me wake up with love in my heart tomorrow.  Love for God.  Love for Jesus.  And love for everyone I meet.”  Tonight that will be my prayer too.

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By Dr. Mark Poindexter

As I wrote about previously, my life has changed drastically over the last twenty months with the ending of my marriage.  It was sudden and unexpected and for a while I wasn’t able to continue in pastoral ministry.  Trying to lead other people in the walk of faith was not something I could do as my own faith was going through a time of major crisis.   Though I agree it is important for pastors to speak of their own pain and struggles and doubts, there are times when our situations are so intense and disorienting that it is better not to speak about them from the pulpit until we have sorted through them for ourselves.  Such was the case for me with the ending of my marriage.

Over the past twenty months, my faith and my voice have slowly and persistently returned.  I am again grateful for my call to ministry and the life of faith to which I have committed myself. There have been some significant learnings along the way and I thought I would share some a few of those today.

First, I don’t believe “everything happens for a reason.”  I don’t believe the break-up of my marriage was something that God intended to teach me a lesson.  I don’t believe it was part of “God’s plan for me.”  I believe what happened broke the heart of God just like all tragedies break God’s heart.  What I do believe is that out of the tragedy I can make the decision to continue to embrace life and look for the grace that is present.  It means that though God did not will my struggles, but that God will accompany me as I move forward.  For me, it has meant that I have not shut the door on the possibility of a new relationship with a new partner in life.  So I am dating again.  And talk about not knowing what you are doing, re-entering the dating world has been an interesting experience.  Last time I dated twenty-six years ago, the internet was a word I didn’t even know.  Now, it is the way you meet someone.  So I have joined a dating site and developed a profile and been on some dates.  I don’t think God has one person picked out for me.  I do think God will be with me, as I try to find the person with whom I spend the second half of my life.  In other words, my divorce was not part of God’s intention for my life, but neither was it the end.  After working through my grief, I have the opportunity to rediscover again the joy of relationship.  For me, this is God’s gift of grace present in my life.

Second, though I wish it would have happened in a different way, the break-up of my marriage has brought me closer to both my children.  Once I was able to get through some of my own pain – a journey which they both helped me with, I was able to be more aware of what they had lost as well.  In time, I was able to become the parent both of them still needed even though they are young adults.  It has also led to me having adventures with them that I never would have had before.  I have always been scared of ledges and falling, but I have learned that I shouldn’t let my fears hold me back.  So last week, I went sky diving with my son and daughter.  We jumped out of a plane at 13, 500 feet above the ground.  In other words, I fell from about 2.5 miles up.  My heart was pounding.  I was sweating.  I could barely breathe.  But I jumped.  And when I watch the videos of my two children’s jumps and see the pure joy on their face, I would do it again in a minute to share that experience with them.  They are my life’s greatest joy and though we have gone through something difficult, we have grown closer through it.

Re-entering the world of dating and jumping out of a plane are both matters that mean I will seek to live without my fears holding me back.  I have just this one life and though it has taken a turn I did not want or expect, I still have this life and I want to try and live it to its fullest measure.  Not selfishly nor narcissistically but gloriously.  Laughing, loving, serving, dating, jumping.

This is my one life, given to me by the God who has never left me, I want to soar in this life to heights that I never before imagined, but now I seem more clearly as a gift of grace.

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Some Thoughts about Congregational Leadership

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Dr. Mark Poindexter

The office I now occupy in the congregation I serve went unoccupied for about eight months.  After their former pastor left, the church decided not to hire an interim pastor, but instead had a local hospital chaplain fill the pulpit on a weekly basis.   He was not responsible for any of the pastoral or administrative work that needed to be done.  His role was to preach and preside at the table.  Everything else a pastor might do, church members took on themselves to do.  I have to admit they seemed to do it quite well.  The elders and the church board kept meeting and doing their work.  The elders pastorally caring for the church members and the board overseeing the whole life of the church, with special attention to the financial situation.  Sunday school was staffed each week and the entire youth program was continued.  They kept alive their ministry of partnering with other congregations during the winter months to make certain the area homeless have food and warm shelter for the cold nights.  All in all, the folks did a very good job of keeping the ministry of this congregation moving forward.

So I am sitting now in the office that went unoccupied for several months and thinking about my role as pastor of this quite capable congregation.  Where should I spend my time? To what areas should I give my attention?  What should be the focus of my leadership?   The question of the role of pastoral leadership in this day is an extremely important one.  Not just for me, but for anyone who seeks to provide leadership in a local congregation.  Are we called to be leaders who help maintain the organization?  Should our focus be on the numbers?  Looking for growth in membership and budget.  Are we chaplains or prophets?  Or a little bit of both?

Since I went to seminary thirty years ago, I don’t know what is presently being taught now about the kind of leaders that congregations need.  I do know as I sit in this office that went unoccupied for a while, surrounded by people who are very able to be church without me, I am giving lots of thought to what kind of leader I need to be for this congregation.  Here are something things I think:

1)      My role isn’t to be a program builder, but the one who reminds the folks why we do what we do.  In other words, remind them about Jesus and how we are to be His presence in the world.  My role is to help the congregation stay rooted in the Gospels and the message of good news for all people that is there.  I just finished reading the book, “Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in Ministry Failure.”  The author wrote of a mega-church conference where a number of pastors spoke about their “success” in ministry without even mentioning Jesus.  When we forget about Jesus, it may not be his work that we are doing at all.

2)      My role is to help the congregation as a whole to interpret the faith for this day and time.  When the question “Where are the young people” is asked my job is to help the church ask the question “Are we talking about and doing the things that help younger folks in their own experience of faith?”  That is, are we talking about meaning and purpose and are we engaged in hands-on-mission that makes a difference in the lives of people?

3)      My role is to help the congregation be ready for the emerging expressions of faith that are popping up around us.  Not to be afraid of them or feel as if we are in competition, but to understand that it might well be God doing a new thing in our midst.

4)      I need to be a leader who lets the people know that I am on the same journey in life that they are.  I am also trying to understand what my place is in this world.  And how I try to make sense of things from the perspective of my faith.  I lead by not just standing in front of them, but walking beside them as we journey together on this path of life. I came across a quote recently that asked “What does the world need: gifted men and women outwardly empowered? Or individuals who are broken, inwardly transformed?” (Gene Edwards, “A Tale of Three Kings”)  I think the church needs leaders of the second sort.

The specifics of my leadership role, of course, include sermons, bible studies, pastoral care and some oversight responsibilities.  It includes being present with the people as we minister together to the homeless of our area.  But understanding the reason behind those specifics is, I think, extremely beneficial to myself and to the congregation.

If you are a pastor, I encourage you to try and be clear about what your leadership role is in the life of the church you serve.  If you are a parishioner, I hope you and your congregation are clear with your pastor about what kind of leader you hope the pastor will be.  Leadership makes a difference and there needs to be clarity about what that leadership is for the church today.

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Listening to Your Life

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By Dr. Mark Poindexter

If we refuse to take the risk of being vulnerable, we are already half-dead.

Madeleine L’Engle

If someone were to ask me what book, other than the Bible, has most influenced my understanding of life and faith, I would without hesitation answer, “Telling Secrets” by Frederick Buechner.  That book, more than any other, has helped me to learn to listen to my own life and the lives of those around me.  I learned that the Holy and the Sacred is not to be found primarily in the doctrines and creeds that we have constructed, but in the story that is each of our lives.  What I find amazing about “Telling Secrets” is that it is not about the high points and successes of Buechner’s life, it is instead about the difficulties and struggles that he has experienced primarily in his family of origin.  It is his effort to deal with them honestly.   It is the raw truth of his life.

Buechner’s willingness to share out of the pain he has experienced, helped me to come to terms with some of the difficulties that were part of the family I grew up in.  Though it was a family where love and faith were present, it was also a family broken by the excesses of alcohol by my father and the enabling behavior of my mother. In my family, as in Buechner’s, we were encouraged to keep silent about the brokenness that was part of our family. To keep things hidden from others the best that we could.  To keep things secret.  It has only been in my more recent years that I have come to understand how fully my adult life has been affected by growing up in such an environment.  How some of my own behaviors, especially my own sense of perfectionism and my all too present anger, are rooted in things I learned as a child.  This is not too blame my parents for my faults.  It is to try and understand why I am who I am.  If anything, being willing to listen to my own life, has helped to listen to the story that was my parent’s life and a willingness to accept the brokenness that was part of each of them.  It has helped me to look upon them with compassion.  My father who had his own alcoholic and often absent father that he grew up with.  And my mother, who was simply trying to maintain a household the best that she knew how. Listening to my own story and to the story of my parents has connected us through the shared tears that are part of each of our lives.

Listening to stories has been an important part of my work as a pastor as well.  Standing with people in the midst of the laughter and the sorrows of their lives has become, for me, a Sacred and Holy place.  A place where life’s deepest mysteries of meaning and purpose and hope are experienced.  I remember once calling upon parishioners who had just lost their thirty year old son to cancer.  It was the time between the death and the funeral.  I went to the home, which was full of family, and found a place to lean against a wall and listen.  I listened as the family told stories of when the man was a young boy playing sports and how he grew into an awkward but funny teenager.  I listened to them as they laughed at some of those teenage antics.  I listened to them as they finished telling stories and sat together in silence, the reality of the loss in the room with them.  After a few moments had passed, I asked if we could gather in a circle and have a prayer.  I do not remember any words I said in that prayer, but I do remember being with that family in that time was as close as I ever was or ever have been to the felt experience of God.

In pastoral ministry, I try to listen carefully to the stories people tell me.  I am listening for how the Sacred and the Holy is a part of the flesh and blood world that we exist in.  I have no energy to argue with anyone about doctrines and creeds that seek to put into finite terms infinite mysteries.  I don’t want to spend my time discussing what is the orthodox belief of the church. History shows us there have been several orthodoxies through the centuries.  I don’t want to go to another church growth seminar which tells me what sound-bite to use, what music to sing, and what mass-marketing tool to incorporate into our “evangelism strategy.”   What I do have energy for and time to do is to listen to the stories that make us who we are and find in those stories the presence of the One who in the beginning started the larger story that we are all a part of.

I began this year by reading from a Buechner devotional that someone gave me called appropriately, “Listening to Your Life.”  These are the words I encountered on January 1 of this New Year:

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

My encouragement for you this year is to learn to listen to your own story and the story of others.  In those stories you experience the great wonder that is life.  And if you listen closely enough you might hear the whisper of God.

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