Telling Our Stories

I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy. The travel blog starts here: https://smritaly21.travellerspoint.com/1/

It’s a very interesting time in which to travel. My travel companions and I hatched the plan to go to Italy in late spring, when Italy announced its reopening in light of declining Covid rates. As the delta variant began to wreak havoc with the world through the summer, we debated whether or not it was wise/advisable/responsible to travel at all. In the end, we went, abiding as well as we could with restrictions, advisories and recommendations. Along the way, we were very grateful that we had our vaccination cards to flash whenever asked (and we were asked a lot), but wishing the US had got its act together for a meaningful digital option, which would have been much more convenient.

This trip to Italy began with several days in Rome for all three of us and then a walking tour through parts of Umbria and Assisi for two of us, while the third attended an in-residence workshop for artists.

I’ve been to Italy several times, but the Umbria and Assisi part of our trip was all new to me. And, with these new places (Orvieto, Morre, Spoleto, Assisi, and the little towns nearby) there were new churches to explore. Well, not “new” of course, but new to me.

All of the churches I visited were, no surprise, Roman Catholic. Some of the churches were so overwhelmingly stuffed full of stuff (paintings, sculptures, candles, devotional pieces, etc), I found myself glad that I wasn’t a part of a tradition that would take such an approach to the faith. It all seemed so busy, distracting and sometimes just plain bizarre. Other churches, though, were lovely and quiet refuges, with artistically offered pathways to the pondering of faith and story. How does each person and each community reflect on and find themselves part of God’s holy work? How does the faith, and its stories, find expression in the buildings in which we gather and how do those expressions inform, influence, convey, and carry forth the various elements of spiritual connection, whether mundane or profound?

The artwork of some churches seemed driven simply to scare people, using demons and the torments of hell to inspire, I suppose, faithfulness and good behavior. Here are a couple of photos from the Duomo in Orvieto:

Other churches offered fascinating windows into theology, story and the significance of the Trinity, especially Jesus Christ. While there was generally a consistency in the messaging from church to church, occasionally we would find something unexpected. One example is the Basilica di Santa Maria Trastevere, a minor basilica in the enchanting Trastevere neighborhood in Rome. This church is one of the oldest in Rome and includes some amazing mosaics from the 13th century. One of those mosaics, at the front of the church, above the altar, offers a picture of Jesus and his mother, as if both of them are working in concert as intermediaries between earth and heaven:

And, then there were the other places where we encountered interesting, and sometimes disturbing, elements of Christian-related storytelling. Take the Vatican Museums. In the Gallery of Tapestries—a long, narrow room with large tapestries on both long sides (on one side, tapestries depicting the life of Pope Urban VIII, and on the other, the life of Christ)—of the nine tapestries focused on Christ, THREE of them visualize the slaughter of the innocents from the second chapter of Matthew. I asked our tour guide if she had any thoughts or insights into the remarkable display of the murder of young children in the wake of the birth of Jesus. She did not.

Of all of the stories about Jesus in the Gospels, why does this single story, connected to only one of the Gospel writers (and not corroborated by any historical account) find its way to so many tapestries? And why is the Vatican so eager to display them?

I’ve been wondering quite a lot about story and the stories of our faith. Which stories mean the most to us, as individuals and as churches, and do those stories remain consistent over the course of our lives of faith, or do our attachments to stories alter as we age? How do we, and how should we, convey those stories to others? How do those stories find expression in how we live our lives, as people of faith?

Our stories are important. How our stories connect to those holy stories contained in scripture is also important, and worthy of serious contemplation. We may not be so inclined to paint a large mural, assemble an intricate mosaic or construct an enormous tapestry, but we should be about the work of wondering how we bring to life the sacred stories that feed our faith, as well as how we engage with those biblical stories that cause distress and pain. How do we tell our stories and how might we do so in ways that are yet more life-giving and life-affirming?

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Sound Complications

The transition to hybrid worship has been something of a trial.  While I’m comfortable holding worship on Zoom, and in person, it’s quite another thing to try to do both things at the same time.  I feel like all of the things that I’m least good at are being paraded in front of me on a regular basis.  Like so many others, this isn’t what I had in mind when I followed the call into ordained parish ministry—more than twenty-five years ago.

Yet, this is clearly the path.  Old South may be a small congregation, but we have some people for whom in person is the only way to really feel at worship and others who can only join us online.  So, hybrid it is.

After watching a lot of YouTube videos about hybrid worship, one of the things that I found especially mind-boggling was the fact that many of those videos that involved local church people featured people who are not the pastor of their local church.  Churches appear to have parishioners who are not only very comfortable with organizing and executing hybrid worship, but in some cases, there are people who do such work for a living, who also just happen to be active church goers.

Where can I get one of those?

At Old South, the “tech crew” is me and my husband.  While we’ve been learning a great deal about cameras, camera angles, internet access, etc, there’s one thing that has emerged as the most troublesome aspect of this whole enterprise:  sound.  I have a whole new appreciation for people who are called “sound engineers.”

Sound is a problem.  Sound is a challenge.  Sound is especially complicated now that we’ve moved worship into the sanctuary.  For those who join us in person, the sound quality is great.  Old South’s sanctuary is a good space, acoustically speaking.  For those who join us on Zoom, though, the sound quality is decidedly wanting.  Inexpensive microphones don’t pick up sound just as you think they should or wish they would.  They tend to have minds of their own, and they don’t communicate with the human crew very effectively.

For the online side of our new hybrid experience, the sound of worship is less than ideal, and it varies depending on the kind of sound.  When someone is speaking, the sound carries a hollow quality.  In the music department, the range has its own sense of drama.  Loud music or singing is rewarded with a decent sound quality online.  Softer music, from the piano or organ, is sent off to some other sphere of reality—sometimes barely heard, or wavering, as if it’s unsure about whether or not it should be listened to by human beings.

What’s the nature of a “joyful noise” in the midst of this new context? And, is it part of my role of pastor and teacher to wade through the various complications of sound to find our way to a more consistent sound experience, whether it be in person or virtual?

Or, better yet: where can I get one of those sound people?

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Days of Disconnection

During most summers, my husband and I spend several days with some friends on an island off the coast of Maine.  Getting to and from the island is a bit complicated, involving a ferry from the mainland to a large island, a drive from one side of that island to the other, then a small boat from the large island to a smaller island.  In the midst of it all, there’s the loading and unloading of a lot of stuff, plus the meal planning that happens before we even set out, since most of the food (and beverages) must be purchased well before the ferry. 

The island has no electricity and no running water, except for the collection of rainwater into cisterns for the washing of hands and dishes.  There are several buildings on the island and each building has a gas-powered range and refrigerator, so it’s not exactly a camping experience.  Each building has its accompanying outhouse, though, which really reinforces the sense of displacement from normal life—especially when one needs to visit an outhouse in the middle of the night.

In these days of cell phones and powerbanks, portable solar panels and communication towers dotting every landscape, we aren’t exactly cut off from the world.  But, it feels that way.

The older I get and the more that technology becomes a permanent fixture in my daily routine (at home and at work), I look forward to my days on the island, when I can feel disconnected.  These are days of respite and renewal. 

There are lots of trails to hike and strange mushrooms to marvel over.  A common question:  what sort do you think that one is?  There are lots and lots of rocks, some very large and many very small.  There are meadows full of blueberry bushes, although this year there were not a lot of blueberries (but enough to put in the cobbler on the last night).  We played games and shared stories.  We gathered for happy hour before dinner every evening, sitting in the Adirondack chairs in front of the main farmhouse.  We watched the lobster boats going about their work each day and enjoyed a fabulous lobster dinner one night, feasting on lobsters that had been caught that very day.  We were lulled to sleep by the gong buoy that sits at the mouth of the small harbor of Swans Island.

Disconnection is a wonderful and wondrous thing.  It doesn’t take long to realize that the natural world has a lot to share—from the songs and habits of birds, to the butterflies that seem completely fascinated by a thistle, to the water lapping against the land (sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently), to the fascinating colors found in a sunset.

It’s important to disengage from time to time, not only to be away from work and normal routine, but to put oneself in the midst of creation and to take time to allow one’s own sense of wonder to be renewed.

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The Ties that Bind, to a Building

In Colonial New England, the first public building erected in a settled town was usually something called a “meetinghouse.”  This building was used for gatherings, especially gatherings of the faithful for regular worship.  The concept of meetinghouse was intended to convey that the “church” was not the building, but the people who gathered there.

It’s a shame that the word “meetinghouse” is no longer widely used—or practiced. For aging and shrinking congregations, buildings are a problem.  They cost a great deal in maintenance and utilities.  Yet, it can be difficult to cut the ties between congregation and building.  Sure, it’s emotional to consider putting a church building up for sale.  And the whole situation is harder still when the church and the building in which it gathers become entwined, as if they are the same thing.  The complications continue when the church building is more beloved among those who do not regularly gather with the assembled faithful.  Somehow, there are people who feel a deep connection to the building itself, as if the very existence of the building as a “church” is all that they need to think of themselves as part of that “church,” even if they rarely, if ever, attend a worship service.

At the church that I serve—Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ—in Hallowell, Maine, we are poised to begin serious conversations about our buildings.  Yes, that’s plural.  We have two—a sanctuary building (where, not surprisingly, the sanctuary is located) and a parish house (where offices, classrooms, a kitchen and a fellowship hall are located).  With an average weekly worship attendance in the thirties, even one building is a bit of a burden.  Two is simply unsustainable, tipping the balance of church finances away from ministry and mission.

The governing body has been dipping its toes into this thorny, sensitive subject over the course of the last few years.  One of the issues that hampers the conversation is that the building with the lion share of emotional attachment—the sanctuary building—is clearly the more problematic one.   The building with its large, imposing organ, is lovely. But, it has no office space and it doesn’t even have a phone line, much less internet access.  And, perhaps the biggest problem is that the building is nestled neatly into a steep hill, with very little parking.  In bad weather, getting into the building can be hazardous.

If we are to shed a building, it should be the sanctuary building.  Understandably, that’s a hard thing to contemplate, and still harder to act upon.

Interestingly, many of those who have remained actively connected to Old South through the pandemic—attending worship and meetings online—are starting to acknowledge that their ties to the sanctuary building are not as strong as they once were.  Even those who spoke up before the pandemic about the spiritual significance of the sanctuary building, are now beginning to reflect on the fact that a year and a half without the building has brought a remarkable discovery: the ties to the sanctuary are not that strong.  Instead, it’s the congregation that matters.  It’s the people who have helped them to maintain connection and to grow spiritually.  While the buildings are convenient, they hold much less spiritual significance. For these folks, there’s a new awareness of the old New England concept of “meetinghouse.”

Not everyone, though, has been with us through this journey.  Not all of Old South’s members have attended online worship and gatherings. I haven’t surveyed each and every one, but I am well aware of at least a few people who have been very vocal about the fact that, for them, there is no worship without the sanctuary building.  It is in the sanctuary where they experience God.

The path ahead will be difficult, to say the least.  Will those who have become, through experience, more inclined to the meetinghouse model remain so?  How will we navigate the differences of perception and experience between those who gain greater awareness of God’s presence through the gathering of the faithful or through bricks and mortar (or, in the case of Old South, granite and mortar)?

Through our discussions, contemplations, reflections and arguments, will we continue to “meet” God, with a deep appreciation for the ties that really matter? Will we be able to extend our journey into the future, open to what the Spirit has in store for us, including the possibility that we are called to be something that we cannot, at this point, even imagine? Or, will we get so weighed down by the building(s) that the ties that connect us to the Divine, and to each other, will unravel and break apart?

These are all deeply important questions that must be considered and prayed over, over and over again, as we move into what’s next for Old South, as we learn in new ways what it means for us to be church.

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Tending to the Aggression

But now you must get rid of all such things: anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)

This aggression won’t stand, man. (The Dude, The Big Lewbowski)

I live in a part of the world where Donald Trump is popular.  In the 2020 election, Mr. Trump received over 52% of the vote in the town where I live, Belgrade, Maine (about same as in 2016).  In the town just south of Belgrade, Sidney, Mr. Trump received a still greater share of the vote—57.14% in 2020 and 55.2% in 2016.   

Many of those who supported, and continue to support, Mr. Trump are not shy about their enthusiasm. During the 2020 election season, I dreaded my drive through Sidney, driving from home to church and back again.  I started to refer to my journey as a ride through “the gauntlet.”  Several houses and businesses not only posted Trump campaign signs, but went all out with flags and banners on almost every external surface that faced the road that connects the Belgrade Lakes area with Augusta, the state capital. 

The post-election season brought, thankfully, a reduction in signage.  Many of the flags and banners were taken down, although there are a few that remain.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t flags and banners aplenty.  It just seems that they’ve been taken off of the lawn and the buildings—and attached to poles that are connected to the beds of pickup trucks.  And, the messaging has also ramped up, with much more in the way of obscenity-laced intention like, “F__K Biden” and so forth.  There’s one guy who seems to relish driving his obnoxious flags through the most liberal areas in this part of the world, including the small city where Old South is located—Hallowell—well-known as a bastion of liberality (where Mr. Biden won almost 72% of the vote in 2020).  The truck is sometimes spotted multiple times in a day, as he drives circuits around the downtown area.

The issue of the signs, and the flags, and the ramping up of aggressive language has been the subject of many conversations.  In the midst of a few of these discussions regarding the heightening sense of aggression of Trump followers, I’ve discovered that there’s plenty of aggression to go around.  Even a few good church folk have casually mentioned their very angry responses to the bold signage of Trump followers.

And, then there’s my own reaction.  During election season, as I drove through the gauntlet (not as often as usual, thanks to the pandemic), I found myself increasingly agitated and irritated.  On a few occasions, I boldly yelled my own angry response—from my moving vehicle with its windows all tightly closed.  I even felt the desire to offer a certain hand gesture.  Truth be told, I may have actually done so on a couple of occasions.

I may loathe the belligerence shown by Trump followers, but what about my own hostility?  I may be soothed somewhat by a feeling that they started it, that their side came out punching first and not just in the latest presidential election.  While I’m sure there are angry signs and banners pointing at Trump, I don’t see any of those in this part of the world.  And I haven’t seen vehicles sporting large flags declaring “F__K Trump.”

Still, the level of anger and hostility concerns me, including my own.  What happens when aggression is met with aggression?  And, what about the call of good church folk to be people of peace, the turning of the other cheek? What am I doing to get rid of anger, malice, slander and abusive language? Can I challenge myself to put aside the anger and aggression and meet hostility with calmness and peace?

These are all important questions, and still more important for people of faith, individually and collectively. The path ahead may not be an easy one, but it seems clear as day.

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Give Me a Groan!

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Romans 8:22-27

For this year’s Pentecost observance at Old South, we spent much less time focusing on the most common Pentecost passage—Acts 2—and more on one of the other readings from the lectionary: Romans 8:22-27.  On Pentecost, I’m usually drawn—year after year—on the dramatic passage from Acts.  The mighty wind, the tongues of fire, the various languages, the accusation of drunkenness.  There’s just so much to like, so much to consider, so much great material.

It was all so different this year.  The Acts passage didn’t resonate as it normally does.  So, I found myself floundering a bit, wondering what I was going to do.  Lots of Old South folk would be getting into the Pentecost vibe, wearing some sort of red.  What could I say, or do, that would feel inspiring and dramatic?

And, then I found it.  In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul offering just what I needed now, in 2021 Hallowell, Maine—groaning, sighing and pain. 

For this moment in which we find ourselves, in the context of the last year plus a few months, this is just the thing—acknowledging the groaning, sighing and pain that the pandemic has brought, as we have become the new thing that we are.  And, appreciating that what’s next will very likely bring its own groaning and sighing.  And pain.

At the start of the pandemic, Old South—small congregation filled mostly with post-retirement folks—was willing to try a lot of new things.  Most of them, anyway.  We moved to a mostly remote worship and then a fully remote worship.  We endeavored to make worship both new and old at the same time, with music and a participatory experience.  It helped a lot that the Music Director regularly recorded preludes and postludes from the church sanctuary.  The Music Director also gathered a group of “hymn singers” who have been recording hymns for worship, with the words added to the video. And, we brought our new knowledge to meetings and other gatherings. We also tried some new tricks for worship, like slide shows and other visual devices. We even worshiped with another congregation from time to time.

Did this transition happen with joy, excitement and enthusiasm?  With a spirit of “let’s try more new things!”? 

In a word:  no.  There was a lot of groaning and sighing.  And, the utterance of bad words.

Like lots of other good church people, we did what we had to do.  Mostly.  Some wouldn’t go along, no matter how much coaching was offered.  Others were suspicious of worshiping online, declaring that it felt an awful lot like “social media.”  For those willing to brave this new thing, there was a fair amount of what I would call a willing spirit.  Sure, let’s give this new thing a try, if it will keep us together as a community.  But, that didn’t mean that the groaning would be set aside.

There was groaning.  And sighing.  And, other expressions of frustration.  But, we managed, and came up with something that was worshipful and meaningful. We have grown, spiritually speaking, as a community of faith.

Now, we must bring our groaning, sighing spirits to what’s next.  While it may be tempting to just slide back into what we were, we know that we cannot.  We’ve left that behind. 

What’s ahead, however we are able to be a hybrid church, will very likely include a lot of groaning.  And sighing. And, the utterance of some bad words.

So, bring on the groans, and the sighs, for they are signs of the Spirit with us.

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Switches, Cameras, and Platforms, Oh My

Like many other churches, Old South has been an online church during the pandemic.  Worship, meetings and other gatherings have been almost entirely on Zoom.  And, for the most part, this approach has worked well for us.  Also like many other churches, we have come to the realization that we should not simply return to our pre-pandemic lives, now that restrictions are starting to loosen.  We have become something new already, and we ought to continue to embrace this evolution.  Discussions have focused on a hybrid approach to church, one that incorporates both in person and online components, allowing those who wish to gather in person to do so and also welcoming those who cannot join us in person.

We are not alone.  Lots and lots of churches are doing the very same thing.  And, that means that there’s lots of information, workshops and webinars, to help churches in this transition to a hybrid existence.

I have read many blogs and articles on hybrid church.  I’ve explored opportunities to engage in this work with a group, or groups.  I’ve watched a few webinars as well.

In a word, I’m feeling rather overwhelmed.

One of the biggest issues for me is that one of the first pieces of advice offered from several different sources is:  gather your tech-savvy people to help.  One webinar went even further in encouraging a group of tech-savvy people:  “the more the merrier!”

The problem for Old South is that gathering the “tech savvy” is not exactly an inspiring prospect.  There are two.  Not much of a group, and certainly not especially merry.  To complicate the situation still further, one of the two is the music director, who really cannot manage music and technology at the same time.  The other is my husband.

We face the next dimension of church with some clear challenges.  While a couple of people have indicated a willingness to learn the new technology, and that’s certainly a good thing, the path ahead feels decidedly thorny.  When talking to a small group about the work to create a new, hybrid church, one person was taken aback that we would want to maintain an online existence at all.  Why should we bother with such a thing, because, well, church should be an in-person experience and we should all be glad to cast off our virtual existence as soon as possible?

The path ahead will surely be a strange, new thing, with lots of strange, new questions:

  • What does it mean to gather as church?
  • Can we have meaningful worship with no singing, or at best, limited singing (until we get the green light for more singing)?
  • Will we be able to acknowledge and appreciate the various ways through which people feel connected to Old South?
  • Do we have the capacity to learn new things, and to embrace the winds of change that swirl around us?
  • Do we have the ability, and the desire, to learn about the technology and the equipment needed for a hybrid existence to our church life?

We’ve come a long way in our pandemic journey.  It is my hope, and my prayer, that we will embrace the knowledge that we have learned new things, and we can learn still more new things, that we can become what’s next, rather than slide into what was. We may never have a “the more the merrier” sort of tech savvy group, but a small group of willing tech novices would be pretty good.

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The Silencing

Over the many years I’ve been in parish ministry, it’s not uncommon to find myself in a particular situation that I find especially challenging:  dealing with adult children of a recently deceased church member whose spouse has already passed away or is not capable of making decisions or plans. It’s the children who are in charge.   On more occasions than I would like to count, the children of the deceased do not go to church and more than that, they exude a veiled (thinly or otherwise) hostility to Christianity.  So, what to do when the church member dies?

About a decade ago, when one of Old South’s most faithful members died suddenly, I was informed that the children did not want a service at the church.  There would be a short service at the funeral home.  I, as Old South’s pastor, could lead that service if I wished.  If not, the funeral home would find someone.  I was shocked.  I had never met any of these people, but I could not fathom how they could dismiss their parent’s close connection to Old South.  In the end, I led the service at the funeral home, but then I also organized a memorial service to take place after a regular Sunday worship service.  I informed the children and invited them, making it clear that there was just no way to not have a church service for their parent, who had rarely missed a Sunday worship service.  The children attended and were gracious about it.  The swell of condolence and heartbreak of the congregation clearly made an impact on them.

During Covid time, it feels like it’s been a lot easier for adult children who are not connected to the faith to simply ignore it or push it aside when their last parent passes away.  Several members of Old South have died during the pandemic.  Most of the families have suggested that they’ll attend to a memorial service when we can be “in person.”  One of these families is serious about that service, as the adult children involved are all church goers.  For the others, I’m not so sure. 

Recently, I was contacted about leading a service for a member of Old South who passed away.  This woman moved away some years ago to live with a family member, but the family will hold visiting hours and a short service near Hallowell, in order to be closer to the cemetery where their loved one will be laid to rest.  The funeral home called to see if I could lead the service to be held at the funeral home.  If yes, great.  If not, no big deal.  They would find someone else.  I said I would do it. I had known her. I had visited with her at her home. She had been an active member before she moved.

In the planning of the “service” that’s taking place, it’s become increasingly clear that the family mostly wants more of an emcee than a minister, someone to keep things moving.  A few members of the family will share poems or stories.  There will be a video with music.  And, a soloist.  What will I do?  I’ve been told that I may lead an opening prayer.  When I asked about reading scripture and offering a homily, I was informed that I could lead a prayer at the graveside.  If I had something personal to say, I could do that after the opening prayer.

How many times has something like this happened over the course of my career?  Too many.  And, it’s hard to know how to handle it.  I don’t want to pick a fight with the grieving, but I’m uncomfortable with the notion that I’m being silenced.  When the service is on my turf, in the church, then I do what I do, and I organize a religious service.  When it’s not on my turf, like a funeral home, it’s less clear.  On the one hand, maybe I should be grateful that I’m being asked to do less work.  On the other hand, I feel like a traitor to the faith.

What’s so wrong with recognizing the faith of the parent, even if one does not share it? What’s so problematic about incorporating something that was meaningful to the parent, even if the adult child does not understand it?

It’s often said that a funeral or memorial service is really for the survivors, for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. But, should the service really be fashioned solely around their needs and desires, especially when they have a different relationship with the church than their parent? What about the one who has died and her/his attachment to a faith tradition that has quite a lot to say about death, grief, loss and what happens to us after we shuffle off from this mortal coil? And, what about the poor clergyperson, stuck in the middle of this delicate tension? Stay true to the faith, regardless of the family’s expressed expectations, or succumb to those expectations, and refrain from causing difficulties, discomfort, and even anger?

The situation is a challenging one, to be sure. And, one that does not lead neatly to a clear solution. I suspect I will continue to find ways of, nicely and pleasantly, incorporating as much faith language as I can into every small opportunity I am given, to lift up and convey the hope and love of the faith, and the consolation available for those willing to open their hearts. Silence is simply not an option.

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Among the Exclamation Points

Any normal Easter Sunday usually involves a fair number of exclamation points:  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Etc.

As I prepared for Easter Sunday worship this year, it felt like the exclamation point had run amok, taking over every aspect of the holy day.  Looking for inspiration for the opening of worship, exclamation points were everywhere, sometimes at the end of every statement that was offered for a suggested Call to Worship or an Invocation/Opening Prayer. 

Easter Sunday certainly deserves an exclamation point, or two, but should every statement end with this particular punctuation mark? 

While our approach to Easter is deeply connected to the fuller and longer story of the resurrection and its aftermath, it’s a shame that we don’t devote more time, attention and reflection on the early morning stories of the first Easter.  Most Christian services, especially those that follow the lectionary, include one of the early morning stories.  Yet, there’s actually not much focus on what’s really going on in those stories that capture the mood of the first Easter morning.

I think the exclamation points may be blocking our view.

In the early morning stories, there’s fear, confusion, grief, mistaken identity and, in the case of Mark, terror.  All of these reactions could be accompanied by exclamation points, but these are not the reactions incorporated in your average Easter Sunday morning worship service.  Calls to Worship don’t usually offer things like:  I’m afraid!  I’m afraid indeed!  I’m confused!  I’m confused indeed! 

It is in the confusion, grief and fear that we could explore and reflect on how the Risen Christ comes to us now.  For congregations whose sanctuaries that are no longer full on Easter Sunday morning (whether in person or online) and where the average age is in the range of retirement, the triumphant mood conveyed by the onslaught of exclamation points impedes our ability to spend some quality time in that space where confusion, grief, fear and mistaken identity are clearly communicated in the scripture story.

For many who remain faithful to churches that were once at the center of community life but are now struggling and feeling sidelined, much could be gained by delaying the rush to exclaim our excitement and instead, allowing ourselves to express our disorientation, a theme that is a significant component of the Gospel accounts of the first Easter morning.  Many of us are feeling confused and disoriented.  We are also grieving.  And, we are certainly fearful, although many are not eager to lift up that sentiment.

Spending time in the midst of scripture that so compellingly details confusion, fear and grief would be a good process for many of us who are becoming—whether we like or not—well acquainted with these feelings.  The stories of the first Easter morning articulate a clear sense that the difficult feelings that people like Mary Magdalene experienced helped to open the way for the joyous realization of the resurrection.

We ought not, then, skip over the reality of the fear, confusion and grief, propelling ourselves into the forest of exclamation points. In the dimness of the first Easter morning, the seeds of hope, joy and new life find fertile soil. It could be fertile soil for us as well, if we endeavor to keep the deluge of noisy exclamation points at bay.

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As Holy Week Begins 2021

I have unexpectedly mixed feelings as we embark on this year’s Holy Week.  Holy Week is usually a week that I look forward to.  It’s a time to think deeply about important theological issues, and a time when there are more opportunities for what I think of as good church—gatherings of my companions in the faith, good music, meaningful connection, silence, a complicated story that offers new insight every time I read through it in the midst of community.

Last year, Holy Week was enormously different because we were not only in pandemic mode, but in more or less lockdown mode.  Everything got stripped down to the essentials.  We hadn’t quite figured out Zoom, but it felt good that we could still “gather” at all, even if it resembled the opening of The Brady Bunch. 

We are not in lockdown this year, but still in a “safer at home” situation, with face masks and physical distancing, as Covid rates stubbornly persist (and as we await a high percentage of the fully vaccinated).  Old South’s Holy Week services will be on Zoom, as they were last year, although we have now become more sophisticated with our Zoom services.  We are also engaging in more collaboration, with two services during the week held in conjunction with another local UCC church.  And, one of the big bonuses is that I’m away from home for Palm Sunday weekend, visiting a very lonely adult child whose schedule did not allow for a post-Easter visit.  With my laptop in hand, I can continue to work, and that includes the leading of the Palm Sunday service.

Still, I am unsettled.  While I am grateful for the opportunities that technology allows, it is in the midst of Holy Week when the limits of technology are laid bare.  Our Maundy Thursday service usually involves a potluck dinner.  Easter Sunday includes a larger, and louder, congregation, with lots of women wearing hats and plants adorning the chancel.  Before the pandemic, we held an Easter breakfast, with still more together time.  The loss of sharing a communal meal is a significant one.

Perhaps most of all, I miss the intimacy of observing Holy Week while in direct contact with my small congregation.  When we are in the same space, I am able to speak more directly from the pulpit, and out of the pulpit, to those who call Old South their spiritual home.  This allows a key ingredient to understanding what’s going on with individuals and the congregation as a whole.  Holy Week, in particular, is a key time in the church year to get a sense of things—how people are feeling and what they thinking in relationship to faith, what parts of the passion story are especially challenging, in what places do they perceive hope and new life.  All of these things are impossible on Zoom.

Gathering in any way is important, and so we shall.  But, as the congregation ages and shrinks, this is not a good time to be physically distanced from each other.  Mainers are not good at sharing aloud what they are deeply feeling and thinking.  I get more from body language, eye contact and the almost imperceptible facial expressions during worship or a one-on-one conversation.  The long stretch of distance is taking a toll on how I lead this group.  I feel that toll most keenly now, in this important time in the liturgical year.

In recent months, there’s been a fair amount of chatter—among groups of churches, in associations, conferences and denominations— regarding the sharing of “new life” stories and “resurrection” stories as congregations, large and small, have met the challenges of pandemic in remarkable and surprising ways.  But, I’m also interested in how we relate to, experience, and connect with the part of the story before the resurrection.  What’s happening in the dark and difficult places?  What’s going on in the challenging, uncertain and terrifying parts of the story, and how we experience and understand them one year after another?

Holy Week is not only about the joyous and wondrous message at the end of the journey.  It’s about the story as a whole, about spending time in the painful and demanding moments, the hard to comprehend moments, moments of betrayal and desertion, moments of yearning and longing, moments of feeling completely and utterly hopeless, lost and abandoned. The observance of Holy Week involves gathering, just as those early followers gathered, and not just in spirit.

We will gather in this strange time. We will engage with the old story. We will listen for something new. We will consider what it means to follow and to live a life of faith. But, something important and meaningful will be missing in the loss of the bodily component of our faith, which is so much a part of the holy story of this week.

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