Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Moses' 11th plague, or medical leave as spiritual practice

Yesterday, I started writing a poem about Sabbath and how wonderful it is for ordained and lay ministers to enjoy their day off.  Overpowering my desire to be creative, however, was that drone lack of concentration that accompanies the cold or flu. Instead of finishing my poem, I put my head down on the pillow of the couch for what I thought would be a few moments.  Two hours later, I woke up feeling congested and guilty.

Today, instead of attending a staff meeting, I called-in sick.  Apparently I sounded disoriented on the call.  My persistent cold symptoms and my compliance with my body's nagging really surprised me.

What is it about self-care that makes us feel guilt when we give-in when my body tells me to take it easy?  Why would we feel shame in the midst of modeling exemplary "right relations" with our immune systems?

The dilemma has something to do with a conflict between the American imperative to be productive vs. the Sabbath.  Today, I had literally 36 emails I wanted to read and respond to this Wednesday morning and a planning meeting that would have influenced the next six months for my RE program's Family/Intergenerational ministries.  In other words, it was just another day at the office, but I was very much looking forward to accomplishing these routine though foundational tasks.  When things depend on us, but our bodies won't let us be dependable, the American tradition of productivity grinds to a halt. 

Perhaps there is a different cause for our guilt.  Many of us were raised under the Mosaic commandment, "Thou shalt honor the sabbath day to keep it holy."  It is possible that part of the dilemma of conscience we feel is the conflict between being productive vs. the Mosaic commandment that we must rest and reflect, in order to follow the pattern that the books of Moses established for God's created order.  What insight have the writing communities of Moses' books obtained with regard to the body/spirit and the need for rest as a way to honor our covenant with God?

Traditionally, the monotheistic people of Moses' time were Egyptian slaves who, like the American workforce, would have felt tremendous pressure to be as productive as possible.  Resting, therefore, is counter-cultural both for the Hebrew monotheists as for the American workforce.  Whether to honor God or to help us get over our colds, we can take comfort in knowing that the desire to keep working has been a dilemma of conscience plaguing the Judeo-Christian world for at least 6,000 years.

What is the answer?  Whether we like it or not, we are all subject to that commandment of "thou shalt." This is not to say we will burn in a lake of fire if we fail to take a sick day, but it is to say quite confidently that our cultural, if not religious, situation confronts us with two competing values.  So, to congratulate a student for having perfect attendance may be rewarding an important character-trait, dependability, at the peril of honoring our bodies or our Lord.  Contrarily, to reward individuals unproductive work might easily be abused.

It all boils down to the agreements we make.  Whether we agree to follow the Mosaic Law or accept a job with limited sick day benefit, we must follow through on the commitments we make.

So, I will reply to those three dozen emails and reschedule that foundational meeting, which will probably compound the number of tasks in my Microsoft Outlook for the next three days.  I am blessed to work for a congregation that values my commitment to care for myself.  Keeping this sick-day Sabbath has also helped me reflect on covenanted living--horizontally, vertically and inwardly.

Therefore, the final element of the Sabbath is integration.  The anxiety of the dilemma of conscience begins to disappear when our religious, cultural and workforce expectations become integrated with the self-expectation.  The guilt dissolves and the healing begins.

For the secular American workforce, may we make peace with the counter-cultural precedent set by Moses and embrace this commandment to be good to ourselves.  As Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, "You were bought at a price; therefore honor God with your body."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

To will one thing.

When I held more orthodox Christian beliefs, it would have been easy for me to articulate the one thing I pursued.  The answer was "Jesus."  Now, as a member of a congregation affiliated with Unitarian Universalism, which many regard as heretical or even "a cult," I find refuge with those who appear to will more than one thing. What is it UUs seek, and why do our congregations seem so darn heretical?  What attracts me to an apparently schizoid movement?

Kierkegaard writes that remorse is a guide that calls out to the wanderer that he should take care.  It is precisely the divided mind that makes a person seek to be centered in all that we call Love.  This being of two minds can lead us towards feeling remorse for past transgressions, perhaps, or more generally, simply lacking integrity.  Kierkegaard argues that, in confession, one becomes at one with himself.  Kierkegaard argues that a mediator--an outside actor--is necessary to make an individual whole again.  In Protestant and some Orthodox churches, the mediatrix is Jesus.  In Roman Catholicism or other Orthodox traditions, a priest or deceased "saint" may hear our confession or bring our petition to the foot of God for us.  For secular humanist, a confessor might be a psychologist.  Well, what about folks like me?  What about religious, humanistic Christians?  For us, we still have a mediatrix.  We call him by the name of Christ, but our Christology becomes inseparable from our ecclesiology.  If traditional Christians took seriously the call to become the hands and feet of Christ, they too would connect their Christology to their ecclesiology.  Yes, the congregation is the one who becomes our confessor--not that we actually share personal gossip with our fellow members of Christ's body--but that our common struggles, our joys and sorrows, our shared outrage at dehumanizing transgressions against civil and human rights, and our shared vision for the kin-dom of God become different criteria we apply to a single thing we will: unity.  

If it seems that UUs seek more than one thing, it is only because the certainty of creedal language can disguise the truly schizoid nature of orthodoxy.  The seeming disunity of Unitarian Universalism only serves to expose the shallowness of orthodoxy.  What is it that orthodoxy seeks?  Is it belief for the sake of belief, or to see Jesus in the afterlife?  And if it is the latter, is it in order to be united with Jesus, or is it to excape punishment?  

Kierkegaard's admonition to seek one thing challenges us all.  It makes me reflect upon my preparation towards ordination in this new denomination.  Have I stripped away all the distractions from nurturing the Body of Christ, or am I still struggling with orthodoxy?  Am I engaging the congregation in order to become one with myself, as Kierkegaard invites me to do?  I must confess more with the kin-dom of God.  I need to forgive my debtors.  I have responsibility in bringing "thy will be done on Earth..."  Where it seems that this response divides my thinking, it is an effort to create more of one single thing: unity.

So, I still desire Jesus, or even Christ, but that means more now than it meant ten years ago.  Jesus has been fleshed out.

Friday, January 15, 2010

This sickness unto death

Ministry is not for the faint of heart. When I first began pursuing the religious vocation to serve the church, I was under the impression that the louder I preached, the more the Holy Spirit's anointing was over me. For many, the "loud-mouthed preacher" archetype still represents authority. I have found that the full power of words becomes manifest in what is said softly.

All people who work directly with people in a church should have a call to do the work of the people. OK, anyone reading this who has ever worked in a church realizes how easily this statement can be romanticized. See, we encourage people to cast their burdens unto Jesus and so forth. That can also be a problem. For clergy who are not individuated selves, this call to worship becomes our career's benediction: ministerial suicide--especially since our ecclesiasiology tells us that we become the hands and feet of Christ.

Doing the work of the church (or God's work) is really difficult when the demands of the outside world pull on the hearts of the faithful all week long, then are brought into the church and displaced onto those who work in the church. The frustrations of marriage, unfair circumstances at work and financial woes all come to church with the people who attend church. When they are not voiced in Joys and Sorrows but are instead cast upon those who work in church--in blame or anger--then the price of the call to ministry increases dramatically.

While I would love to say, "Depart from me, you evildoer," the words of Jesus, "Pick up your mat and walk," are the only words worthy of this situation. The goal of ministry is to care for people, yes, and that care must help people pick themselves up. That can be accomplished by setting clear boundaries, modeling integrity and helping people find spiritual renewal.

I have no sagacious words to share here other than a call to love thy neighbor--even thy enemy. Unfortunately, not all members of the church will appreciate the church worker's self-sacrifice in order to remain in ministry. It is the task of the minister to find edification and reinforcement elsewhere. However we feel about those to whom we minister, church worker must respond with an empathetic ear, the love of the crucified God, and when all else fails, a stiff drink.