Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Adventures of Obama - 5

Obama confronted an unruly bunch;

Republicans about to eat him for lunch;

Liberal Dems threatening mutiny;

Independents jumping ship in futility;

Tea Partyers added their noisy chatter;

Everyone blamed him for what was the matter.

Barack Obama he didn’t worry.

Obama didn’t react in a fury.

He marshaled his forces and faced the Nation;

Then got those lame ducks to pass legislation.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 21: The Prairie

Kearney, Nebraska. Well, it was not quite living on the prairie, but it was in the middle of the state, if you ignore the panhandle, on the way to North Platte, Ogallala, and finally Denver. Situated on the Platte River, which meandered across the width of Nebraska, until it joined the Missouri just south of Omaha. The locals, cattlemen and farmers, coined the phrase for the Platte: “too thin to run; too thick to plow.” Kearney was a cattle-town and a college town with salt-of-the-earth people and a few intellectuals imported to teach the kids the ways of the world. The town was next to Interstate 80, following the old U.S. route 30; before that it was Fort Kearney, a trading post and stopping point for Wells Fargo Stagecoach Line and the Pony Express.

First Christian Church of Kearney, a congregation of the denomination that ordained me, had just fired their pastor in the wake of one of those “church scandals”: Minister runs off with a) church secretary; b) organist; c) choir director; d) other. Half the congregation had left the church. They needed an interim pastor to help them heal and hopefully recover some of the “lost sheep.” I was wrapping up my 3 months at my former parish at Trinity in Lincoln. That church building was being sold to a family which was going to convert it into their home. I was available and, hey, I was an expert at taking on troubled congregations. So while circulating my ministerial portfolio around the country, awaiting my next career challenge, I accepted First Christian’s invitation. My family was able to remain in our Lincoln home until we found another place to serve. So I moved to Kearney into a small house rented and furnished by the church.

This was, I discovered, a time of healing not only for the congregation, but for me. I remembered the advice of my home church pastor in Minneapolis, Forrest Richeson, my mentor and father figure: “Preach good sermons and love the people and you’ll do well.” Old school for sure but wisdom nonetheless. The five or six months at Kearney were an oasis in my desert. I tried to preach good sermons. I visited church members who were still involved and those who had left, some with bitterness. I started small group sessions for people to share their joy and pain and begin to heal. I organized the annual pledging campaign which turned out to be a huge success because it was a part of the healing process. My nights were spent alone since my family was half-way across Nebraska. But I discovered that being alone on the prairie was a necessary part of my own healing. Kearney had one drive-in theatre. I saw every B movie that came to town that summer.

When I left Kearney First Christian they had just called a pastor and I was able to leave him a much healthier situation than when I arrived. The search committee had approached me with the proposal that I consider staying on as their pastor. I thanked them for the compliment but could not in good conscience accept. I had only come as an interim. I had learned my lesson. The Trinity experience was enough to teach me that going against good advice and my better judgment should not become a habit.

I was a good interim facilitator, not a savior. What next?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 20: The Desert

I was never drawn to Catholicism. But I certainly know what some of the doctrine points to in life. My denomination in its wisdom assigned me for 3 months to go over to the church formerly known as Trinity UCC and inventory all of the property and equipment so that it could be sold or distributed to other congregations. Every day I went to my former office and put in at least 8 hours cataloguing everything, making lists, boxing hymnals, bibles, Sunday school curriculum books, files. I knew I was not in hell—or heaven either—I had given up believing in a 2-story universe long ago. Besides, there was suffering during this period. Aha! This must be purgatory! The Catholics got it partly right after all!

It was the suffering of purgatory, a painful purification process. The ego was being put through it. Herr Pastor was dying. Actually, the image of who I was was dying. I was in a desert. I was adrift on a dead sea with tattered sails and no fair wind in sight. Abandoned by God. Alone. All hope gone. Now even “purgatory” could not hold this experience. Even my family was no solace. I could hardly face them. The only respite I found during this time of terror was in learning to play O Sacred Head Now Wounded on the Hammond organ. When I would find myself staring at the empty room with the ghosts of Trinity Church appearing and disappearing, I would go to that old Hammond and play it over and over until I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“O sacred head now wounded

With grief and shame weighed down

Now scornfully surrounded

With thorns thine only crown . . .”

Purgatory was not adequate to describe this period after all. There was no doctrine that could hold it. All that was left was to go through it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 19: The Lincoln Years—Endings & Beginnings

It was just after Christmas 1970, New Year’s Eve. The little church hall that had served as sanctuary, education center, and fellowship hall for nearly 13 years was filled with Trinity members, former members, members of other Lincoln churches, and our denomination’s state officials. A catered meal was prepared: the obligatory baked chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and dinner rolls, with a large decorated chocolate cake with “Trinity UCC—1957-1970” in white frosting across the top. Not your usual potluck of many church dinners past, with varieties of hot dishes, baked beans, potato salad, fruit-laced jell-o, and assortments of pies.

After dinner we sang a few of our favorite hymns, introduced all the visiting dignitaries, provided ample time for those present to share memories of the congregation’s life for the 13 years. It had barely reached puberty. There were the work days when we painted the parsonage and the entire church building, the summer pre-school to adult vacation schools, the pre-school started by my wife, Sue, the marriages and deaths, baptisms and confirmations celebrated in that very room, the hopes for completing the sanctuary, the hard times and the spirit-soaring times.

Then came the time of asking each Trinity member family to share their plans for continuing their spiritual journeys. Some were re-joining First Plymouth Congregational, the big downtown cathedral-like church. Some were going to the little neighborhood EUB/United Methodist congregation just a few blocks away. Pastors of both were present to give them a warm welcome. Others were still uncertain where they would land and planned to spend time visiting churches in Lincoln. There were representatives from several denominations in the room, assuring our people of their prayers and willingness to be there for them. It was a real ecumenical event.

It was time. I asked Marie Schneider, who had played the Hammond organ for all the years of Trinity’s life, to play “For All the Saints” as we tried to sing it with gusto through many tears. Then I picked up my guitar and sang, to the tune of “They Call the Wind Maria”, the words from Kazantzakis’ Saviors of God:

“The Cryin’ – The Cryin’ – It calls me to my dyin’”

I put down my guitar, hoisted above my head the big pulpit Bible I had read from and preached from for 3 years, formally sent out the members of Trinity United Church to other congregations in Lincoln, gave the last benediction to be uttered in that place, dropped the Bible on the table in front of me, closing it with a loud bang, and proclaimed the formal life of Trinity UCC ended.

It was an awesome funeral, the best one at which I ever officiated.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 18: The Local Church Experiment

From the fall of 1967 to December 31, 1970 I served as pastor of Trinity UCC. Founded in 1957, it had grown under the leadership of Don Stuart to a membership of about 150 members and built its first building, a combination education and fellowship hall with a kitchen and office to the side. It was a typical suburban congregation with a vision of building a large sanctuary for worship as soon as they could raise the funds. Then when their beloved founding pastor left for San Francisco and they called his replacement, Bill Hall, who didn’t share their vision for the cathedral they had their hearts set on, things changed. According to the stories I heard, there were also some personality conflicts. At any rate the Rev. Hall was “fired” after 2 ½ years and the congregation shrank by a third.

When I accepted their call I was aware of some of the history. The Executive Minister of our denomination’s state Conference took me aside and gave me a piece of advice (the Conference was still providing partial financial support): “If you accept this call I just want you to know that you may be their last pastor. Your job will be to either help them stand on their own or end the congregation’s life.” Of course I was not entertaining the thought of failure. I was going to be their savior. I was “Herr Pastor.” Besides, I had been to RS-1. I knew exactly what the church needed.

The Ecumenical Institute had an intensive training program, an 8-week in-residence re-education in theology, Bible, church history, world religions, parish education, sociology, the family in mission, etc. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity but could not get away for 8 weeks, so I attended in 2-week segments over a 2-year period. In addition, EI brought together people from across the U.S. and world in month-long summer “research assemblies,” attended by as many as 1000 people, to work on practical applications of local church and societal renewal. The summer of 1970 was devoted to the theme “The Local Church Experiment.” Clusters of congregations formed in many cities across the U.S. for leadership training and parish education.

Lincoln was not one of those chosen. So I and a handful of others decided we would experiment on our own. In addition to being co-coordinator, along with Terry Wright, a local Methodist clergyman, of what was known as the Kansas City Region, covering Nebraska, Kansas and parts of Missouri and Iowa, I set about re-writing my congregation’s education curriculum and mission statement, with good intentions but not enough compassion for what I was about to ask of my people. Regional responsibilities involved primarily recruiting pastors and lay people to attend the Institutes weekend training courses, beginning with the basic Religious Studies (RS-1) course. This was in addition to my regular pastoral duties and responsibilities to my denomination.

Having convinced a number of young couples in our church to attend RS-1, and capitalizing on their enthusiasm to bring new life into our congregation, we were on the way to re-imagining the role of our church as a smaller, more vital, congregation with a strong educational ministry that did not require the building of a large sanctuary building. But this scared some of the substantial established families who were not able to share our/my vision. When two of these founding families left the church to go elsewhere, some of the others of the “old guard” became discouraged and decided that we were not going to make it as a viable congregation. It became clear that we were never going to build that great cathedral. They could not see that there were other possibilities. We were a small congregation with a vital and growing pre-school-to-adult education program that was beginning to attract young families. That was not in their vision of what the church was or should be. So the church council made the decision, against my pleading with them to give it more time, to close the church.

I was in shock. My own vision for a vital church in mission to the community was called into question. My idea of the Local Church Experiment was being destroyed. It was about to die.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 17: The Lincoln Years—Discovering the Spirit Movement

“You really need to attend this weekend seminar.”

Larry and Sherry Brown were two of my students at Cotner. I had introduced them. Sherry was an attractive, petite, black-haired girl from a family in one of the churches I had served on weekends. Larry was a handsome, well-tanned product of the western Nebraska sand hills who was planning on attending seminary. I and Fran Houchen, another young radical who had been Larry’s pastor and was now on the staff of a large church in Lincoln, co-officiated at Larry and Sherry’s marriage service. The two of them had just returned from a weekend in Chicago at the Ecumenical Institute’s campus in the west-side ghetto, the very neighborhood where I had taken my Peoria high school group two years earlier.

The Institute (EI as it became known to many, sometimes articulated admiringly and by some in a derogatory manner) was attracting students from all around the country to weekend seminars called Religious Studies I (RS-1 as it became known). EI, part of the church renewal efforts of the sixties, was led by Joe Mathews who I had encountered while on the university campus, and a group of radical young clergy and laymen who had been exploring living in community while teaching and practicing a theology of the church taking responsibility for the community in deep and transformative ways. It was, you might say, the left wing of the church renewal movement.

I was searching for a way to make my spiritual inclinations relevant to the real world. I had learned as much from my students as from any of my teachers. So in November of 1967 I found myself, along with about 20 other pastors and a few lay people, in a church basement in Lincoln, Nebraska being re-introduced to Kierkegaard, Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer and H.R. Niebuhr in a way I had not dreamed. David McClesky, a tall, lanky Texan, one of 2 “pedagogues” (i.e., teachers—EI had a way of re-interpreting the old words and giving them new images) from Chicago introduced himself with: “I’m a Baptist, and not only am I a Baptist but I’m a Southern Baptist and you can’t get more Baptist than that.” George Holcombe, the other of the pair, who reminded me of a young Scrooge, began his opening lecture on G-O-D (they wouldn’t actually say the word God without spelling it out, at least in the beginning of the course) with this statement: “I’m a radical, fanatical churchman of the 20th century.” He was actually a Methodist minister and McClesky was, I later discovered, a recovering Southern Baptist. I was intrigued enough to stay for the entire 3 days of my mind being assaulted with radical-sounding theological statements, some of which began to make sense in my world, although my intellectual ego had difficulty admitting it.

We began the course by studying a paper by Rudolf Bultmann called The Crisis of Faith, followed by what I now believe was Paul Tillich’s greatest sermon ever, You Are Accepted

You are accepted; accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now. Perhaps you will learn it later.

It was that seminar on that sermon that opened me to see the heart of the Christian Gospel, without all the theological clap-trap that usually smothers the experience of grace and throws us back into our own self-made justifications and judgments of ourselves, others and the world. Before bedtime on the second evening and after a discussion of Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica, a massive anguished response to Hitler’s saturation bombing of the Spanish town prior to World War II, we watched the classic film Requiem for a Heavyweight, the one with Anthony Quinn, Mickey Rooney, and Jackie Gleason, and discussed its theological implications. All of this was designed to force us to confront our own world views and beliefs and images of God, Jesus, and the doctrines we had been mouthing without ever grounding them in our actual experience of the way life is.

It began to dawn on me that what we were being exposed to was a method of teaching that stripped away old worn-out expressions of concepts that were becoming virtually meaningless through taking their meanings for granted, then re-investing them with meaning from our own experience of life. We were being taken through a journey of de-mythologizing and then inventing new myths (stories) more relevant in a 20th century context. By the time we had been dragged through studies of Bonhoeffer’s paper on “Freedom” from his book on ethics, and H.R. Niebuhr’s “Church as Social Pioneer” I was almost theologically and emotionally exhausted, besides being so physically drained from 2 late nights and just plain rigorous intellectual work. What was I going to do with this now? How was I going to take my little congregation through the veil I had just gone through?


Then came the altar call. The closing meal at which we were each asked for a response to the three days and what we were going to take away. I mumbled something about how I hadn’t really learned anything new from this course (my ego trying to convince everyone that I knew things but actually trying to hide my ignorance). Dave McClesky just quietly nodded, accepting my comment and said simply: “Well then, maybe it’s just a case of how you are going to be responsible for your colleagues and your parishioners.”

I was finished and I didn’t know it. The next chapter will be about the unfolding of the response.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 16: The Lincoln Years—Herr Pastor

1967—teaching assignment at Cotner over as of June. My ministerial portfolio was being circulated far and wide. I was interviewed by a couple of small town churches in Iowa and Wisconsin. Though I received a few letters of interest, nothing seemed to be “clicking.” Academia was no longer a viable option. Then two offers came at the same time, and both were right there in Lincoln. We liked Lincoln. We had made lots of friends there. Our kids were doing well. Both job offers, however, were uncertain as possibilities for long-term employment.

The first offer was with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” as a community organizer. The second was from a local congregation on the southern edge of the city—Trinity United Church of Christ. I was conflicted for more than one reason. I was in conflict over staying with the Church and especially a career within an institution with which I had a love/hate relationship. To use an image from the Old Testament prophets “The Church was a prostitute, but the Church was my mother.” Or should I choose to act out my passion for social justice and get paid by the government. I was wavering and waffling.

But I had been preaching at Trinity Church for a couple of months on an ad interim basis. So when they offered me a full time permanent position at nearly twice what I had been making, $5500 annual salary plus housing and a car allowance, after consulting with my family it was hard to turn down. I accepted the call at the end of the summer of ’67 and moved into the house owned by the congregation, a three-bedroom ranch-style on a corner lot. Members of the church held a work day and together we painted the entire inside. Then on moving day they came to help us move in. It was the perfect job. My own little parish church. My own little flock of about 100 families to feed, while feeding my own not-so-little ego.

Trinity Herr Pastor

Not satisfied with being a good preacher and pastor, I tried to lead the congregation toward being “relevant” to the times, to be a servant of God in the unjust world. The founding pastor of the congregation had left three years before to be the first “Night Minister of San Francisco.” His parish was the Tenderloin District; he was pastor to the prostitutes and pimps, the down-and-outers and drug dealers. So I got this bright idea that Lincoln needed a ministry to its night life and organized a group of young ministers to take turns, one night each, to visit the taverns and clubs in town. We connected with the local police department and accompanied officers in squad card. We wore clerical collars so as to be easily identified. The only hitch with that was no matter where we went we were known as “Father.” “Let me buy the father a drink” was a common mantra and we would often have a line-up of beverages in front of us wherever we sat. The biggest problem with my little project turned out to be of a sociological nature. Lincoln is not San Francisco. The night life just did not quite measure up in terms of dire need for a ministry. The Lincoln Night Ministry lasted less than 3 months.

Trinity UCC Lincoln NB-2

Trinity UCC was a small congregation whose roots were in the Evangelical Church of North America, which in turn came out of the German Lutheran tradition. It was one of the first new-start congregations after the merger in 1957 of the Congregational-Christian and Evangelical and Reformed denominations. So you had this weird amalgam of Lutheran, Calvinist, New England Congregationalism, and Baptist traditions forming one new body, the proverbial camel that looked like it had been created by committee. Trinity had retained some of the old conservatism of its parents, but since it was a young congregation attracted a number of families from the neighborhood, which was as close to a suburb as a “cow-town” on the edge of the prairie might be expected to have. It is amazing to me now that they put up with me as long as they did. Yet some of my best friendships and memories were formed during the four years I spent as pastor there.


        My 1st Confirmation Class

In many ways the people themselves were open and caring, willing to allow me to try new things. For example, during the 1968 presidential election campaign, following assassinations and Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term, I was approached by Eugene McCarthy’s campaign, the infamous “Children’s Crusade,” to allow campaign volunteers to use our church building as a headquarters for two weeks, sleeping, eating, using phones, etc. I approached the church council and their only question was “Has any other campaign asked to use the building?” When I said “No” they gave immediate and unanimous approval. So Trinity was the only congregation in Lincoln that housed about 50 volunteers for two-weeks during that historic and turbulent campaign.

The patience of the congregation was stretched to the limit, however, when theological issues came to a head and 2 disparate images of the church’s mission collided. That will be told in the next couple of chapters.