Friday, February 24, 2017

Parent Guilt and Adventist Eschatology

I have a policy that I don't read books and articles on parenting.  The reason is that I'm not a fan of guilt.  Okay, maybe the books aren't so bad, but parenting articles online are the textbook examples--once they start making textbooks on this--of guilt click-baiting.  You've seen the headlines, right?

 "Medical Expert/Psychologist/Random Famous Person Dishes on what Parents are Doing Wrong"
"The One Perfect Strategy to Make Your Kids Behave"
"Why You Shouldn't Ever [insert popular parenting instruction we told you to do last week]"
"Why Kids in [insert name of foreign country] don't have Your Kid's Problem/s"
and of course,
"Childhood Nostalgia Article Urging You to Reproduce the 1970/80/90s for Your Kids"

Let's face it, friends--parenting anxiety and guilt are a gold mine for the entrepreneur.  We put so much energy into doing things right, and at the end of the day we're still not convinced we haven't messed it all up.

The average parent gets to lay in bed imagining their kid's expensive therapy in 20 years.  The Christian parent gets visions of hellfire spurring them on to "get it right."  But the Adventist parent is uniquely blessed in our middle-of-the-night visions.

Adventist parents get to enjoy a particularly vivid mental movie, thanks to our detailed eschatology.  We get an imaginary view of our children's angelic faces being rejecting in the Investigative Judgement, of them turning into persecutors during the Time of Trouble, Of them rallying like the goblin hoards outside the Holy City at the Third Coming.  Other parent worries, you've got nothing on us. You all are wimps.

And if you weren't thinking about all of this, being other Adventist parents, there is always a devout grandparent, or church member or friend of the family somewhere worrying about it on your behalf.

This is one reason we can scroll past the arguments on breast-feeding, and delayed kindergarten, and growth mindset.  It's because we have more important things to consider.  And what lies at the center is this question: Have we taught our children about Law, and about Grace?  Do they understand each one so well that they see how valuable the other is?  Have we walked the tightrope? Did we get it right?

We know, in a way the defies explaining, that grace is a meaningless word without a law, and law is a force of destruction without grace. It can't really be articulated.  Like every foundational idea learned in childhood, only experience can teach it. So every day, every conversation, we stand on the tightrope with our children.  And we try not to look down too often.

Because there is no formula to get this question right.  There is no money-back guarantee.  There is just us, struggling parents.  So here's to you, other struggling Adventist parents--may you survive another day.  And then, may you get out of bed tomorrow and do it again.  And again the next day.

And when you go online, do yourself a favor, and only click on the owl videos.

Friday, February 17, 2017

An Army of Old People, Rightly Trained

I think it's time to quit pining for an army of youth. I've heard the phrase all my life (especially when I was a youth)--visions of what a great army of youth, rightly trained, could do in the world.  And I do believe in the potential of young people. But I also believe that the longed-for army is becoming a crutch now. The church sits backs and folds its hands and waits for the army of youth to sweep in at the end of time and fix things. There is another way.

I sat in a morning meeting at Campmeeting last summer--I had specially arranged babysitting so I could go to one meeting of the day for grown-ups.  I remember looking around me, and noticing the others were more grown-up than I.   The army of youth was not bivouacking at Campmeeting that year.  The pre-retirement adults weren't exactly flocking there, either.  I didn't see much hair in tones that weren't silvery. What I did see, however, was a lot of potential.

I saw people who got up early, carrying their Bibles, to sit on hard benches and listen to a sermon.  Yes, a sermon. I looked around at them, faithful souls, if slow-moving, and I thought about the commitment that must have brought them. I'm sure those benches were harder on them than on me. I thought about how many sermons they had absorbed over the years, how many miles of underlining in those Bibles, how many hours of prayer.

We have an army. They've already shown up. We can't afford to overlook what we have, because we're pining for what we don't. We can't afford to huddle in our Sabbath School classes, encouraging each other with the thought of other people sharing the gospel for us. It's time to embrace our reality.

I'm picturing the objections now.  The seniors have already given their years of youth to serve the church. What's more, age hurts--what they give costs them more than it would a younger person.  

And I agree. But they also have resources we need.  They have experience, and they have connections. 

Grandparents especially are rich in the relationships that don't sever easily--family.  Young adults may leave the church, but as long as Grandma dotes and Grandpa tells good stories, they can't stop the church from coming to them.  People with a lot of life experience not only know people, they've grown the confidence and wisdom to care about eternity, and to talk about it out loud. And in the end, who's going to be more approachable and easy to trust--your overworked pastor, stuffed into a suit and weary from a parade of people, or a warm grandparent type? 

 Maybe it's time to free up our seniors from baking the communion bread and taking up the offering, and focus on what they can do for the lost world.  Our best evangelistic resources might just be going to waste, wishing they were younger, not knowing what potential is in their hands.

Maybe.  Maybe my vision of an army of seniors is just the same thing as the dream about youth. Maybe it's a crutch--daydreaming that someone else will share the gospel and change the world. It's always easier, I expect, to see your own obstacles, and other people's potential. Maybe the key isn't finding the right demographic of people to tie the burden on to.  It's seeing what we have, and using it. It's our burden, and it's not so heavy when we lift together.

We have an army.  It might not look the way we pictured, but we can't afford to overlook people who show up. It's time to kill the daydream, and make something out of reality.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Cult of the Pastor's Wife

The rule of thumb I go by is, "If the pastor's wife does it, it must be okay."  It started as a joke, when a couple of young people pretended to be shocked at me for picking my dessert first at potluck.  Now, it's a sanity strategy.

Because the cult of the pastor's wife is real, no matter how much I try to deny it.  The expectations change in content and intensity from place to place, of course.  But it's always there.

In the South, when Jim was still a ministerial student, guest preaching, and we were still dating, it began. I remember the senior pastor gently pushed him to stand by the door after the sermon, then steered me until I was standing next to him.

In rural northwest Pennsylvania, a member at the business meeting suggested holding a vegetarian cooking school, and all eyes at the table turned on 23-year-old me.

I remember apologizing to a member in the Philadelphia region who was holding a fierce grudge against me.  It turned out that my crime had been that, when she brought her painfully shy toddler-aged granddaughter to Sabbath School, I (not the teacher, just in class with my own toddler) had not approached the child and tried to draw her out.

And no matter where we go, I am always caught by how surreal it is to be interviewing for a job for which  I'm not applying.

I have a collection of books of advice for pastor's wives.  I gather them partly for humor, and partly for curiosity.  I would love to find, someday, a book addressed to pastor's husbands, telling them how they should dress and behave, and meet their many social obligations, but I'm guessing it doesn't yet exist.  I'd like to see if it includes a chapter on how to accessorize a single suit to make it look like a whole wardrobe, or teaching the young deacons about building maintenance and lawn care. Or dealing with members who criticize them for how their children behave.

Recently, our church's associate pastor got married, and for the first time, I was no longer the only pastor's wife.  I marveled at the experience, but I also found myself caught up, like all those book writers before me, wondering what I should say to her, how I ought to advise her about the life she was walking into, eyes open.  I made speeches, never delivered, in my head. They went something like this:

You get to define what it means to be the pastor's wife.  That's because the pastor's wife is, in fact, you.  There is no ideal Pastor's Wife model out there, no matter how much she appears in people's heads (and sometimes our own). There is only us.

And the fishbowl life isn't all it's made up to be.  It is true that people will notice you--they'll notice, and an unnerving number of them will have an opinion about you, but it won't all be the same opinion.  And I have found, after all these years, that what they notice most is whether or not you notice them.

Like it or not, fair or not, there is a mystique granted to the pastor's family.  You are a very small celebrity, whether the job suits you or not.  So what you think of them (or what they guess you think) usually determines what they think of you. If you notice them, remember their names, greet them in the lobby, ask about the family members or troubles they talked to you about last time, they won't usually find much to criticize.  In fact, you will find you have the power to give people value just by your notice.  And if this sort of thing isn't your gift (it isn't mine), you just muddle through, like the rest of us.

The cult is real.  It's a burden, and a blessing. But it doesn't have to be a curse.  It's not a straight jacket, and you must not allow it to bind you, or to make you something you're not.  Instead, do what I do.  When you're faced with some ambiguous choice, don't know if something is okay or not, just ask yourself what the pastor's wife would do.  Because if the pastor's wife does it, it must be okay.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Adventist Identity Crisis

I don't usually follow politics, but lately my head-under-a-rock default hasn't been working for me. Indeed, in order not to notice the turmoil over the new American president, it's not enough to stick your head under a rock.  You also have to pick up the rock and drop it on your head repeatedly.  Whatever your political persuasion, it should be clear that we have people with different ideas of what our problems are, and as such, we're not going to agree on the solutions. So we have people watching their leaders (okay, one leader) addressing a reality they don't share by taking actions they cannot condone.

I know the feeling--disbelief, anger, but mostly helplessness.  I had all those feelings last autumn, waiting for and watching the General Conference Annual Council.  I got to see church leaders (more of them) deal with an entirely different idea of what our problems are.  To me, it was clear that the troubles were arthritic institutionalism and a failure to apply our values to our employment practices.  But to them, it was simply astounding insubordination.  The issue, of course, was ordaining women who pastor.  And their response was very nearly the one that has been called "nuclear," the administrative dismantling of the offending entities.  Although, for the sake of unity, (or perhaps to get policies in order first) the process of pushing the button has been extended into next year.

I don't know what it felt like to you, if you were watching, but for me it was a kind of identity crisis.  I felt adrift, alienated from my denomination, whose choices and priorities I couldn't recognize anymore.  And although the crisis is delayed, I remember walking through the midst of it--long walks with Jim when I had other work to do, wondering what we would do with ourselves if the denomination imploded.  Sober contemplation of just how much of my identity was bound to the church--my childhood, my education, my social life, all of my volunteer time.

So I've been thinking again about how to get through the unstable times, because I am certain more, and larger, are probably ahead.  There were a few anchors that gave me a ground for my identity, and brought me through to the other side, the place where I can live in this reality.

1. Feed the human being.  We are still human.  If the great big constructs of my life were out of whack, the foundations were still there.  I went outside and looked out at the horizon.  I made sure my eyes experienced green whenever possible.  I fed my senses, simple things like colors and  flavors.  I made sure to notice when the children were funny, or unbearably cute.  I reminded myself that I was happy.  The joy of life is not controlled by people in suits in meetings.  The center of your soul is still the human being whom God created, among other purposes, to see, and touch, and taste the wonder of life.

2. Feed the Christian.  I needed my faith to be about something else, something besides gender equality, as sold as I am on the idea.  I was weary of advocacy, and sick from disappointment. I sat down with CS Lewis's Mere Christianity, and other similar works.  I listened again to simple themes of my faith, and discovered they are bigger than I remembered them.  I forget sometimes, distracted by other ideas.  But it turns out that creation and redemption are still enough to feed, and heal, and fill the human heart.

3. Live locally  I doubted my denomination, but I never had to doubt my local congregation.  I realized, in hindsight, that I was making the same mistake many people make--believing that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is centered in Silver Spring, Maryland, rather than in the local church.  And I know not everyone is as lucky I am, to have a church family which feels like "your tribe." But we all have a tribe.  Belonging cannot be done by numbers, over long distance.  It's acceptable--it's even preferable--to find your community closer to home.

So perhaps the Adventist identity crisis of 2016 was good for me, because it forced me to come back to the foundation of my identity.  After all, I can't be a good Seventh-day Adventist unless I'm first a good human being, and Christian, and member of a local community.

I'm sure there's going to be an Adventist identity crisis of 2017, and it's probably going to be a doozy. And as a member only of a local church, I know I will have exactly zero influence over it. I don't know what will happen to the denomination, but I have a say in what happens to me, now.  Because I have an identity I'm sure of.  And I pray that you will, too.