Question #18

I’d hoisted my 30-pound bag of overpriced kibble onto the counter as the pet store’s owner—let’s call him Tom—stopped clicking the cash register’s keys and gazed at me.

He asked, “You’re the minister, right?”

The 2nd Sunday of Easter – for May 1, 2011

“Do not doubt, but believe…” (from John 20:27)

I’m a regular at Tom’s store. With three cats and an aging dog, my wife and I try to be responsible pet owners. I’m also a minister and rarely hesitate to share that information with folks. Selflessly, telling another you’re an ordained United Methodist pastor is one way to open doors to conversations about faith. Selfishly, I recall a Disneyland vacation (early 1960s) and being fascinated by a sign on the entrance kiosk. It listed ticket prices. Adults cost the most. Children were cheaper. Clergy received a 50-cents-off discount! I don’t think Mickey Mouse and his bottom-line buddies offer that deal any more, but it made an impression on me. Who knows what experiences will contribute to your future calling?

“Yes,” I replied to Tom, “I am a minister.”

His fingers hovered above the keyboard. He still hadn’t added the low-fat salmon & chicken feline food we always buy. Madison, in age our middle kitty and in size a cat with an ever-expanding middle, requires this special (overpriced) grub. So says our vet.

“What do you think are some of the obstacles to becoming a minister?” Tom asked.

If I’d been a stockbroker, maybe he would’ve asked when Bank of America might finally climb over $20/share again. Or if a doctor, he’d jab at an elbow or earlobe and ask why it throbbed in the heat.

I reminded Tom I was on leave-of-absence because of wanting to spend more time with my wife (a Top 10 obstacle: ministry’s impact on a family). I quickly added a second Top 10 no-brainer: life in a fish bowl. In most parishes, “everybody” knows what you’re doing.

Tom interrupted. He had an agenda. He wanted to talk about how much ministers were paid. Tom shared about feeling a call to preach, but he’d gone into his family business. When that business took a nasty financial nose-dive, he careened into debt. Now he and his wife were balancing several jobs, the pet store being one of them, battling their way back to financial solvency.

“Ministers don’t earn very much, do they?” Bob asked.

What would you say to someone about obstacles?
Would the “low” annual income be on your list?

In my United Methodist tradition, we ask a series of questions before ordination. These are “historic” queries, developed by John Wesley over two hundred years ago. There are about twenty of them . . .

#18 is: Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?

And your answer is? Graduates from seminary leave with diplomas and five-figure debts: maybe $20,000, maybe $70,000. More? Ministers serve churches where a salary is dangerously near whatever the federal government currently designates as the poverty level. Continue reading →

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O is for . . .

OOHH!

Sometimes, there are no words. Once I gave a “pitch”–a brief description like you’d find on a jacket flap–about my novel and the listener reacted with wide eyes and a loud, “Oohh!?” She was intrigued, obviously wanted to know more. It truly warmed my heart.

In the realm of faith, we search for the best word for how we believe, trust, and hope. But often no word is adequate.

In Biblical scholarship, zillions of words are written about single verses, comparisons between Gospels, and what the original Greek really, really, really meant. And we end up either adding to the confusion or, worse, far too confident that we have KNOWLEDGE. TRUTH. INFALLIBILITY. Blah-blah-blah . . .

I’m happy with “Oohh!?” Or a smile. Or shared laughter. Or an embrace.

Faith is frequently best understood when our words are tucked away.

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Easter Dares

Easter. Again. Do I even need to read any of the scriptures . . . about the early morning visit of the women, about Peter’s lung-aching race to the tomb, about Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord?

Don’t I know all I need to know? The Gospel’s dawn walk seems as familiar as the daily route I take with my dog for our morning stroll. The empty tomb feels as exciting as staring inside my open garage door. And whether it’s Matthew’s sleeping guards or Mary’s mistake about Jesus-the-gardener, those involved in the resurrection account appear as predictable as the clerks and cashiers in my local supermarket.

Easter Sunday – for April 24, 2011

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” (John 20:1)

Easter. Again. The April (or late March) lilies bloom. The cross on the wall is draped in white (or gold). Christ the Lord is Risen Today is lustily sung (almost better than Silent Night, Holy Night).

I know it all. Easter’s been on my calendar forever . . .

On the way to church (1958?). Gotta love Mom's hat...

I am the kid in the pews, nestled between parents, stuck in church for an endless hour. On some Sundays, maybe even Easter Sunday, I spy the cute blonde-haired girl on the other side of the middle aisle. She smiles. I look away. I smile. She looks away. We peek-a-boo between hymns and grumpy looks from parents and time clunkety-clunks forward. Oh thank-you Jesus when we finally sing the final hymn!! I glance longingly toward the exit, toward freedom.

I am the teenager in the upper balcony. At least now, transitionally trusted by my parents, I can sit anywhere. The balcony’s good; hardly anyone there. I have an excellent view of the preacher’s bald spot and can observe his sermon as he turns the manuscript pages. 1…2…3…4 . . . each next page brought us closer to the benediction, to that sending forth. Please, send me forth. And yet, once in a while, I don’t count pages. I hear words. The preacher, once in a while, looks up at me. At me.

I am a church’s student intern while studying at seminary. For a year, for a pathetic salary and the honor of playing pastor, I get to be mentored by established ministers. I do a few funerals. I do one marriage. I’m mostly relegated to helping with the youth. On Easter, I wait along the side wall of the sanctuary, just behind the Senior Pastor, watching the room fill with women in hats, kids in clean jeans, men with ties and suits. I’ve been at this church for enough months to recognize the active members. But this morning, this Easter, there are so many “new” faces.

As we wait to process down the middle aisle, I grumble to my mentor: “All these hypocrites, showing up once or twice a year.”

Without pausing a beat, he replies, “Or maybe this is like a family reunion. Families don’t get together too often. I think of Easter like a joyous reunion.”

And we process in. Continue reading →

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