Saturday, March 24, 2012

Island of Flowers in the City Twilight

In January, the temp agency had me three days in a row at an independent insurance adjusters' office. Each of those evenings, I got off the bus coming home, tired and famished, walking off some slight motion sickness--and after crossing the street, I walked past a little patch of grass with pinkish-purple flowers in it. After a full day of staring at a computer screen, and then the jerky, malodorous ride home, the beauty of this lush little island of vibrant plant life, sprouting in the midst of concrete, exhaust, and asphalt, pierced my heart every time.

 I'm not sure I can even describe how it felt. Like catching a glimpse of paradise.

When Brandon's parents visited from Seattle in the winter, his mom commented on all the lovely blooming flowers here in Pasadena. It's true. There are always flowers everywhere.

Begonias and star jasmine line the way to Fuller campus; there are roses planted along the side of a beautiful old church building converted now into offices, near City Hall, on the way to train station; poppies and manzanitas in front of the library; and a stunning variety of camelias behind the apartment complexes on the way to the other train station.

Seminarians like to talk about "realized eschatology"--"the kingdom of heaven is among you"--i.e. heaven is already here. But actually, seminarians like me prefer to talk about "partially realized eschatology"--i.e. heaven is kind of already here. But there is still much more to look forward to.

It's kind of the paradoxical thing about beauty: it makes you at the same time feel filled beyond capacity, and content that this should be all there is, yet still somehow longing for more.

Anyway, I thought the painting turned out okay. Hope you enjoyed it and the kind of disjointed commentary. (-:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

then he chose to make them laugh

Last night I dreamed about "the enemy"
from a work of young adult fiction:
the no-fun, follow-the-rules
uptight principal of a school.
A cat started asking him
questions--stupid questions, like
Why don't you use your tongue to clean yourself?
Why are you always walking on the ground instead of jumping up on stuff?
But it got him thinking
And he addressed the students
He told them why
Why am I so boring?
Because I hate my life
Why am I so boring?
Because I hate you all and I hate myself
And instead of feeling pity
everyone laughed and knew
he was well on his way
to becoming a great principal and stand-up comedian

Monday, March 19, 2012

Inviting Criticism

As part of the ordination process in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I have had to meet with a regional committee that examines my readiness for ministry. I met with them for “final assessment” this past Saturday. I preached a sermon before the committee and submitted quite a bit of writing, including a one-page statement of faith. Everything went well, and they eventually voted unanimously that I be certified ready to receive a call as an ordained minister. (Hooray!)

There was a bit a constructive criticism involved in the meeting. It was certainly very respectfully, even kindly offered and helpful. And I was reflecting afterward that this is part of what has drawn me to pastoral ministry: I would imagine pastors get more criticism, and from all kinds of people, than professionals in most any other capacity. Because pretty much everyone has opinions about theology and liturgy and how a church should be run, and what pastors ought to do or be like, regardless of their (lack of) training or education or their position.

Of course, receiving criticism induces anxiety, which is not pleasant, but the reward of managing that anxiety, and learning both when to change, and when to stand one’s ground, is … well … something I highly covet. I have always wanted to become wise, and I think being confronted by people who disagree with me will assist me toward that goal.

The problem is … so many people are afraid of confrontation and would rather stop attending a church than call the pastor out on something they think is not right. I don’t know yet whether the congregation I get called to will need encouragement in providing criticism or not. But I’ve been considering how, in either case, I could institute some practices to invite constructive criticism. I could start a suggestions box (actually, I think that would be a great idea for other reasons, too). I heard about a pastor who sends his sermon manuscript to several people for critique a few days before preaching. That sounds awesome. I’ve also had an idea that maybe there could be a quarterly “Town Hall” type of congregational meeting. I would like to find ways not just to welcome input, but to solicit it. A lot of people don’t offer anything unless asked directly.

Anyway … I just can’t wait to have all kinds of people tell me nit-picky, odd, and conflicting things about how to do my job! Hooray, conflict and anxiety! (Hooray for growing wiser.)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Socialist Libertarianism: The Party For Me?

Yesterday I received a letter in the mail that made my stomach turn. It was some kind of request to confirm my membership in the Republican party. I felt like screaming “WHAT?!?!? No, no, no! I’ve never been part of your lousy party! This is all some kind of horrible, horrible mistake!”

I would also have been horrified if I’d received such a letter from the Democratic party—but probably not to the point where I felt I needed to take a bath to wash away the slime of association.

I know I shouldn’t be so hard on Republicans. They make some valid points and I agree with their stance on some issues. But their ideology just seems so muddled to me.

Anyway, I was thinking a while back to post something about my framework for analysis of political issues. I guess it will kind of explain why I am neither a Republican nor Democrat (nor anything else).

As I see it, there are two great American political traditions, both of which are important, but which constantly come into conflict: the libertarian tradition and the socialist tradition.

Libertarianism is basically the idea that this is a free country. Everyone is free to do whatever they want as long as it does not interfere with other people being able to do whatever they want. And the sole purpose of the government is to prevent people from infringing on each other’s rights.

Now, unfortunately, in order for government to exist, it must infringe on some rights—most notably, property rights. The imposition of taxes is an infringement on people’s right to keep their stuff and do with it as they please. But this is an absolutely necessary infringement that cannot be gotten around. So, the libertarian tradition must come to terms with the fact that the government sometimes has to infringe on people’s rights in order to prevent the infringement of other, more important rights.

The second great American political tradition (socialism) is basically the idea that the government can also infringe on people’s rights in order to serve the common good. Taxes are imposed to provide valuable services which may be as widely supported as public libraries, post offices, schools, or as controversial as subsidized healthcare and welfare checks.

Or looking at issues of free speech, for example, the libertarian tradition would say that a person's right to say whatever they want should only be abridged in order to prevent harm to others (as in the case of slanderous libel, yelling "fire!" in a movie theater, or giving false credentials). But the socialist tradition would allow for infringement of free speech in order to serve the common good (as in the case of corporations not being allowed to run political ads lest the wealthy be given a free hand in trying to sway an election).

As I see it, these two great American political traditions are always coming into conflict, and always will, because the libertarian tradition is not sufficiently compassionate and the socialist tradition is not sufficiently protective of liberty—we need both, held in tension—but that means there are a lot of “grey areas” where we have to make difficult decisions about when and how much to abridge people’s rights.

So anyway, that’s basically my framework for thinking about politics … and why I don’t like the way that Republicans and Democrats (in my view) tend to overemphasize one tradition or the other as if everything were really quite black-and-white. Although in truth, there are some issues that I think are black-and-white (e.g. I think the right to free speech obviously should trump the supposed common good of attempting to prevent the wealthy from swaying elections--more on that here).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

My First "Wedding"!

Wednesday night I got a call asking whether I would be available to do a wedding this Saturday. "I can't; I'm not ordained yet." "That doesn't matter; they're already married." Apparently, the couple got married two years ago, but didn't have money for a ceremony, so this now was to be the "wedding" for family and friends. But they had somehow not realized they needed to find a minister to do the ceremony for them until the big day was less than a week in the future. Amazing, isn't it?

So I got to do my first "wedding" (technically: renewal of vows ceremony). I was hesitant at first because I felt sure I did not look at all like what they thought a minister should be (too young, too short, female). But it quickly became apparent they were just grateful to have found anyone who was willing and able to do the job. And besides, I also quickly realized I could do it well. Everything ended up going smoothly, and the bride seemed sincere in her effusive thanks to me afterward, which is the most important sign of success. (They even gave me an odd sort of honorarium in the form of a Costco gift card.)

It is such an incredibly wonderful feeling to do a job that one is really trained and gifted and prepared to do. Which is not at all to say that my performance was stellar--actually, I've been thinking about the many things I could have done better--and hope to improve next time. Especially, the homily was not my best work--I thought about posting it here, but at the moment I am too embarrassed. It was the work of just a few hours, though, so I won't be too hard on myself.

Anyway, it's very exciting to think that soon I can make a career out of this whole minister/pastor thing. I really can't wait to get called to a church and start doing what I love.