Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Reflections at an Ordination

On All Saints Day 2009 an Ordination Service was celebrated by the Northern Illinois Synod, E.L.C.A. at First Lutheran Church in Rockford, Illinois. It was a joyous occasion as Ordinands, families and friends, members of the congregations being served by these new Pastors, and colleagues in ministry gathered to observe and affirm their responses to the Call!

Sitting in that historic sanctuary there were many thoughts and feelings. One was to recall my own ordination back in 1957 – and to recall the admonition of our preacher that “one cannot be a good pastor and a poor father or a poor husband!” The only change needed in 2009 would be “or a poor mother or a poor wife”. One cannot use ministry as an excuse from the responsibilities that go with marriage and parenting.

There were at least two other thoughts which drew me to reflecting.

The First Lutheran Congregation and Edifice.
The First Lutheran Church confronts one with its awesomeness even from the parking lot. Twin bell towers stand at her entrance and the sanctuary, offices and parking lot occupy almost 2 city blocks! This sense of awe continues when you enter the Nave. Deep, dark wood, a surrounding balcony, and a center altar and pulpit help create an inner peace and a sense of security.

The congregation dates back 155 years, while the sanctuary dates back 140 years! While reflecting on that history I became aware that these men and women did not come as immigrants to “do” church – they came to “be” the church. “Church“ is not something one does one day a week. The beliefs and values and priorities were lived seven days a week. Their hard work built a community in which manufacturing enabled families to grow and flourish. Their sense of “communion” started a bank so as to enable folks to buy homes, get through tough times, and finance creative inventiveness. Their sense of “call” kept them true to their values in the work place as well. Profits were important – but profit at the expense of one’s neighbors was wrong. Re-investing those profits in parks and other community ventures was the “value” – not greed!

And one further thought on how they “are” church – they continue to minister even though the neighborhood and the community have vastly changed! At that Ordination Service a Children’s Choir sang and instrumentalists joined with the organ to lead the worshippers “lift up their voices”.

The Presence of Colleagues in Ministry.
Approximately 30 brothers and sisters in ministry wore their robes and joined the occasion as witnesses. Lutherans, United Church in Christ, Episcopal, Clergy and Associates in Ministry led the procession into the Sanctuary! Together they represented more than 500 years of experience!

The 17th verse of Luke 10 [the chosen Gospel] reminds us that after the 70 labored in the “towns and places where Jesus had intended to go” – they returned as a group!

The Presence of so many “colleagues in ministry” testifies to an important lesson for all in ministry. We do not serve as Lone Rangers! We are there for each other - to study together, to share ideas, to support each other when the going gets rough, and, even, to correct each other when our ministries stray off track.

I hope Carrie, Theresa and Sarah will keep these reflections in their memory banks as they begin ministry as “ordained” clergy. That they are part of a wonderful and mighty historic legacy – and that they are not sent as lonely warriors, but as disciples who are many and to whom they can turn.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Time for Dithering

Perhaps the Philosopher, author of Ecclesiastes, would add a new dyad to the verses in chapter 3. He begins with the powerful observation: “Everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses.” What follows are the words familiar to many. Then, I suggest the addition of this verse:
“He sets the time for dithering and the time for impetuosity.”

Former Vice President Cheney, and his supporters, accuse President Obama of “dithering” relative to a decision regarding the depth of our involvement in Afghanistan. “Send more troops” appears to be their desire! While entitled to their opinion, I am very pleased that President Obama is taking time about putting any more of our men and women in harm’s way.

Regardless of the choice made, “dither” is hardly an appropriate word! The dictionary offers these definitions:
Ø As a noun “dither” means an excited state of agitation!
Ø As a verb “dither” means to be nervously irresolute re: acting or doing!

The media reports suggest President Obama is being very resolute in his approach: talking with military advisors in the Pentagon, with Secretary of State, with elected members of Congress, and others who are knowledgeable about the issues in Afghanistan. There are no reports of his being “agitated”.

On the other hand, it might be an appropriate word for Mr. Cheney et al!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

In Praise Of Doubt

Women and men in many significantly different denominations struggle to balance the “ancient Wisdom” passed down through generations and the “modern scientific knowledge” that is so much a part of our age.
* Intelligent Design or Evolution?
* Is homosexuality a sin or is it a sexual identity with its genesis in many aspects of life?
* Abortion – choice or killing?
* Living in harmony with neighbors of other faiths or still sending missionaries?

The list could go on – and, it seems, the challenge inherent in the struggle gets harder. Friends who were present at the most recent E.L.C.A. Assembly report they felt almost torn apart as they listened to the discussions. Whether or not the speakers was at a Red microphone or a Green microphone, my friends sensed that these were people of integrity, but for whom there was no resolution.

One friend in particular went home angry at the dilemma he felt. This is a devout person, well read, and active in the local parish. He is aware that our awareness of and about homosexuality in the 21st century is light years different from the time of Leviticus or the time of Paul. He is also aware of the important role of the Bible in our lives as Christians.

He resents having to choose between Relativism or Absolutism. He believes [and, I think he is correct] that such a choice results in personal and communal loss regardless of the decision!

Peter L. Berger [sociologist at Boston U.] and Anton C. Zijderveld [sociologist & philosopher at Erasmus University] have written a book which could be helpful to those bothered by such a stark choice. The title of their book is In Praise Of Doubt and the sub-title is “How to have convictions without becoming a fanatic”.

I strongly recommend the book. It is especially written with a concern for the religious and political challenges of this 21st century. They also have a concern that society needs a strong and vibrant religious and political life for survival.

Their descriptions of how “doubt” – not a “doubt” that keeps one from action because all is relative – reminded me of what Paul Tillich once wrote in a paper on Pastoral Care. Tillich believed that all pastoral care is directed towards acceptance of three important factors in life: mortality [we are all going to die], guilt [we can never pull off perfection] and doubt [our knowledge can only go so far and then faith has to step in].

The book is only 166 pages in length and it is published by HarperOne. It lists for $23.99 – but Amazon will get it to you cheaper.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What are we so busy doing?

These thoughts are a follow up to the comment by Wendi Gordon (9/29/09) re: the comments titled “Where have all the clergy gone?” My thanks to Wendi Gordon for helping move this issue further along.
Ms Gordon adds another factor interfering with today’s clergy having time is this reality: “..most clergy today are consistently working at least 50 hours a week and simply don’t have the time to add another meeting….”
Her point about long hours appears to be true from my observations. Clergy do work many hours a week and, often, at times that significantly interfere with their obligations to families and selves!
However, it seems that has always been the case. Surveys from the 1960s and 1970s indicate clergy were putting in greater than 60 hours a week – and these figures were often cited as de facto evidence of their dedication to ministry.
That raises the question – What are we so busy doing?
That question reminded me of an article, I believe it was by Robert Leslie that addressed the mental health of clergy. [It was included in Wayne Oates’ book on The Minister’s Own Mental Health.] Leslie identified five roles that clergy must perform: Pastor, Priest, Counselor, Educator and Administrator. A survey of clergy asked for ranking by 3 questions:
Which roles are most important?
Which roles are most enjoyable for you?
How do these roles occupy your time?
The answers to the first: Pastor, Educator, Priest, Counselor, Administrator.
The answers to the second: Pastor, Counselor, Educator, Priest, Administrator.
The answers to the third: Administrator, Priest, Educator, Counselor, Pastor.
Is it any different in 2009?
What really drives our “busyness”. [An old joke tells of a young priest who, one day, sees Jesus at the window. He wants to know what to do and searches for help. His calls are passed along up the line: Monsignor, Bishop, Cardinal and then the Pope. The Pope answers – “Look busy.”]
Are we reading our members correctly as to how our time is prioritized?
And, if the answers to question # 3 are still so completely different than # 1 and # 2, might this be some clue as to the cause of so much depression amongst the clergy?
I look forward to your reactions.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


This could be an important lesson in these weeks following the 2009 E.L.C.A. Assembly. The young man’s questions – and Jesus’ answer – are strong reminders of the concerns at the beginnings of Christianity.
Being a follower of Jesus involved doing and not intellectual assent!
In this 21st century there are almost countless concerns at which our energies ought to be addressed.
Hunger is a national concern.
Many who are sick are unable to afford care, thereby suffering a higher rate of death.
Violence in our streets is killing our children.
Folks continue to lose homes as mortgages are foreclosed.

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” [Mark 10:23]

Jesus did not say “How hard it will be for those who don’t believe correctly to enter the kingdom of God.”

Maybe we might all take time these next 6-10 months to:
Take deep breaths – often!
Identify the poor in our areas – and make a commitment to serve them!

Just a thought.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Random Thoughts re: Health Care Reform - 1

As one who began working in hospitals 61 years ago, the current national debate about “health care re-form” greatly interests me. Indeed, the public debate often replicates the inner debate which has engaged me for years. Those of us who have spent years involved in the care of the sick have long recognized that there were/are problems.
Certainly the lack of insurance has been, and remains, an issue.
Certainly the amount of reimbursement for services, as well as its tardiness, is an issue.
Certainly the many agents that come between patient and physician – be that agent an insurer or a government bureaucrat, is an increasing issue.
Certainly the vast disparities of qualities of care across our nation are an embarrassment.
Certainly . . . . well, you can insert your own list of problems.

One activity of my own inner debate would involve lengthy periods of time wrestling with the question:
If given unlimited power and money, what would I do to “fix” the system?
The time spent in that wrestling, over decades, has increased my understanding of (and sympathy for) those leaders who have, seemingly, been unable to develop their own fix! “Power” [such legislation, licensing, etc.] and “financing” will not solve our many problems involved in the care of the sick. Indeed, one is even able to make a strong argument that they are among the causes of the problems.

However, the over six decades of involvement with the care of the sick plus the hundreds of hours spent in internal debate on ways to improve such care have given me ideas which often seem not to receive sufficient consideration. Those ideas will be the focus of this presentation [and, subsequent ones].

A. What’s in a name?

Whenever I was involved in purchasing a house in which to live my realtors almost always gave the same advice – “Location, location, location!” Everything else desired to make the home a more desirable residence could be added or re-modeled. But – you could do nothing about ‘location’.

A similar mantra ought to be attached to attempts at “health care reform” – Diagnosis, diagnosis, diagnosis! Unless we properly diagnose the problem, no “cures” will work.

The first concern for diagnosis in this process we have labeled “health care reform” is that very name!

Up until the 1960s our major institutions for the care of the sick were known as hospitals. They were places of refuge to which the sick and infirm could retreat. They were places of hospitality, in which the sick could feel secure as s/he sought healing and restoration. They were places that had either been started by religious groups or by community governments in recognition of the moral imperative to care “for even the least among us”.

Gradually throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s these institutions began shifting away from being “hospitals” to be Medical Centers. Certainly there were reasons for such a shift. Services other than caring for the sick were initiated! Many of these represented different “costing centers”. And, quite frankly, “Medical Center” sounded more prestigious than “Hospital”.

Then, in the late 1970s and 1980s another shift in name occurred. “Medical Centers” became “Health Centers”. Proponents of a “wholistic” approach to the care of the sick [or is it “holistic”] often felt constrained by words such as “hospital” or “medical center”. But Health Center – now there is a theme around which we can all rally!

Ahh, but wait a moment stated many of those who cared for the sick! We take care of the “sick” – and there are years of experience that help define shat “sick” means. What, though, do you mean by “health”? The nurses and doctors and therapists and technicians are trained in caring for the sick – trained, licensed; accredited and experienced.

But there is almost no universal agreement on the definition for “health”! None. Nada.
One issue has to do with our understanding of what disease means.
- Is disease the result of forces external to the self? Bugs, Germs, Physical traumas.
- Is disease the response of the self to those external forces?
Another issue would involve problems of social or behavioral concerns:
- Are wrinkles in one’s skin a “health” issue?
- Are smaller breast sizes or erectile dysfunction “health” issues?
- Are arguments between spouses a “health” issue?
- Is depression a “health” issue or a natural response to loss?
Also, we have the issue of death!
- Is death the antithesis to health and to be fought at all cost?
- Is death the ultimate in the process of homeostasis – the “final” solution?
- Is the “naturalness” of death to be determined by age? I.Q.? Social status? Wealth?
- Is the “naturalness” of death to be determined by theologies? Is anything less than all-out treatment an abomination before God? Or, as an act of love for others should death be welcomed – even sought?

There are studies which suggest the need for adequate diagnosis also exists in treatment approaches. The reliance on technologies has greatly hampered the process of diagnosis because it almost solely only looks at externals. Decades ago the act of diagnosis involved anamnesis – “out of the memory”. Patients were asked to tell/narrate the story of their sickness – and, almost always, that story revealed important criteria for treatment:
- Placement of a cardiac stent was complemented with help with stress, diet, etc.
- High blood pressure also involved styles of living.
- Obesity was not just a consequence of food additives.
- Etc.

And, because my involvement in the care of the sick was as a response to my vocation, what of the religious factors in the care of the sick?
Factors that can be positive assets for health as well as factors that can mitigate against health?
Are there any “meanings” for sickness? [How often do religious folk exclaim that such and such is God’s will?]
Is the role of the religious institution limited to times when medicine cannot treat and/or death occurs?
How do the religious institutions foster “healthier” [or, less dangerous] activities?

This is enough for the first installment. Hopefully the 2nd will come shortly.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Random Thoughts re: Health Care Reform - 2

In my childhood none of our friends – or my own family – had “health insurance”. Since those were the 1930s and 1940s there was no “shame” associated with being “uninsured”. The uninsured were the majority!

Being “uninsured” did not mean, however, we had no care for when we got sick:
I broke both arms three times by the time I graduated from high school. Five [5] of those were diagnosed and treated in our living room without any diagnostic x-ray.
My father experienced a myocardial infarct [heart attack!] and was treated and recuperated at home! The doctor made routine visits and dad “rested”. It must have worked as he lived 18 full and productive years afterwards.
My sister was treated for bronchial asthma – all via home visits.

Were we wealthy? No. My father was laid off twice during the depression – and never had any “health insurance” until he was past 55 years of age! The same was true for most, if not all, of our friends. There was this expectation that life occasionally confronted you with illnesses or accidents – and treatments were usually paid from ordinary income. That was possible because:
Most families had a broad spectrum of home remedies. We put Vicks Ó on our chests; drank a milk-vanilla-sugar mixture with up-set stomachs; wrapped sprains; etc.
Physicians made house calls.
Physician fees were usually less than $5.00 per visit.

Gradually, however, more and more citizens obtained “health insurance”. While there were many reasons for providing such coverage, the major factors were as ways for industry to grow wages during WW II when wages were frozen and later when they sought tax-free ways of increasing remuneration. This new “benefit” was not a response to the dictum in Matthew to care for the sick!

However – little effort was directed towards understanding what “health” means. “Home” and “Auto” insurance policies operated quite differently as they became directed towards the “unexpected” and/or the “catastrophic”. One did not ‘expect” the ‘Home” insurance policy to cover a periodic paid job because the old paint peeled or one’s spouse wanted the house to look differently. Nor, did one expect the “Auto” insurance policy to cover a lube or oil change – even though such would add to the ‘well-being’ of the auto.

Society has taken different approaches with their “Health” insurance policies. There was a gradual reliance upon them to finance such treatments and care that are, in any society, part of what is the norm! Instead, since we did not define “health” – then there is too often the assumption that “health” is the absence of disease. And, even more of a problem, “disease” too often comes to mean anything that causes a person to experience “dis-ease”!

It is my belief that unless we focus time and energy towards redefining what it means to be “healthy” or just what is “sickness/disease”, no “Reform” was have a chance of resolving the problems. Such a new “focus” will not be easy. It will involve persons from every walk of life – care providers, educators, religious leaders, economists and politicians.

We must also seek ways to contain, or even lower, the costs of such care! Those ways will, in most circumstances, be complex. There are, however, ways to lower costs that are not complex [or are at least less].
Is the value of a super-specialist 4 or 5 times greater than a primary care physician?
Does society truly need all the free-standing care facilities? The multiple, and expensive, diagnostic machines?
If computers were to initiate a paper-less business atmosphere, can’t we increase that function to avoid the time-consuming redundancies when seeking care?
If death is truly a “natural” event, is it necessary to make it a “medical” concern? If a person opts to die in her/his own home, the process becomes very complex. It takes physician to pronounce one dead. It takes a coroner to make certain your death did not result from foul play.
Just some thoughts!

In the 3rd installment of these Random Thoughts, it will be my goal to explore how some of the resources of religion can also play a significant role in these efforts at Reform. Stay tuned!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Where have all the clergy gone?

In his Sunday [9/27/09] column [Rockford Register Star] Chuck Sweeny asked the question – “Where have the clergy gone?”. He commented that area clergy used to be active in most of the major issues of community life – education, housing, women’s rights, racism, and, the many well known problems associated with poverty. However, in his view, there has been almost silence in the most recent years.

Chuck’s question arose out of a conversation he had with Jesse Jackson while the latter was in Rockford relative to the shooting death that occurred in a local church. Jackson had expressed a desire to have local clergy join in support for an investigation that would affirm justice for all involved – the police, the family of the man shot, the members of that parish, and the greater community.

Others have voiced similar thoughts and impressions.
Just 40+ years ago the Rockford Minister’s Fellowship and the Rockford Clergy Association worked together to improve race issues that had arisen in regards to public housing.
Area clergy worked closely with varied women’s group so as to better insure women’s rights, especially related to reproductive rights. Concerned Clergy for Problem Pregnancies worked several years prior to Roe v Wade in assisting women as they sought counsel and help in seeking abortion services.
Clergy were involved in soliciting marchers when the Hispanic community sought to raise our consciousness about immigration.
Clergy were involved in seeking, and supporting, candidates for election to the Rockford School District Board – candidates who would begin the hard work in moving beyond the lawsuit that had placed us under Federal supervision because of racist practices towards our children.
The annual Crop Walk was such a big deal that law enforcement would get involved with the logistics.
Good Friday Services often involved up to seven clergy at numerous sites throughout the community. These mutual efforts were a loud reminder to all citizens that the religions had more in common rather than the few areas of disagreement.

The important question might be to identify what factors might have brought about such change? Certainly there have been “hot potato” issues with clergy on multiple “sides”. Yet that, alone, can not be the causative factor.
Clergy were on opposing sides during the Vietnam War – yet were able to stay in dialogue.
Clergy were on opposing sides when it came to integrated housing – yet worked together to identify ways to achieve justice.
Clergy disagreed about abortion, yet a majority could remain in discussions on the development of greater access to birth control and the development of better women’s health services.

Some say that today’s clergy are more inhibited by fear! As membership, attendance figures, and giving in many congregations have declined, some clergy often have greater concern that their behaviors might exacerbate those declines. Still others have reported “threats” of negative consequences, from ‘powerful’ members, if the pastor took a public position opposite from that held by the member. [And, in a time when many younger clergy carry a higher debt load from schooling and have an employed spouse who can not as easily move – the consequences of such threats may seem more real!]

Another possible reason reflects a seeming lack of ability to engage in intense academic and emotional debate – and yet stay in relationship with those on “the other side”. This is an important challenge now for members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The recent action at the 2009 ELCA Assembly regarding acceptance of gay or lesbian persons in committed relationship affirms an approach that respects “bound conscience”. We may disagree – even up to 180’ – but, recognize that each other’s position comes from serious study of all available data from all fields of study, and comes after serious time spent in prayer and meditation.

Others would, no doubt, suggest other factors that have served to keep clergy from cooperative dialogue about and involvement in major public issues in the community. Hopefully, those “others” will take the time to share their views.

Because – unless the religious leaders work together in discussions about the many issues, the community will decide we are irrelevant! That would be a terrible price to pay!