Crushing My Advent Dreams

My husband and I are on a cross country (and back) adventure this fall. Last weekend, we arrived in Moab, Utah and checked into our hotel where we would stay for a couple days while we explored Arches National Park. The hotel staff was busy that afternoon, decorating the lobby for Christmas. It was November 12.

Earlier that day, while we were channel surfing on Sirius in our car, we came upon one of their special Christmas channels. It wasn’t the first time we had encountered Christmas music along our journey, well before Thanksgiving.

Everyone’s getting decked out for Christmas. It’s not like this is anything new. Christmas has been moving further and further into the fall. Every year it seems to inch closer to summer.

The annual jump to Christmas is difficult for me. While I fully realize that the general culture is less and less Christian and that Christmas has been almost completely taken over as a secular observance, I can’t help being forlorn at the absence of Advent. Even those who approach Easter as some sort of secular celebration of spring, usually recognize— if not appreciate— that there is a season of significance that precedes it.

Advent, however, is a season in name only, insofar as “Advent” calendars have become such a huge marketing bonanza. What better way to usher in Christmas than a daily gift to oneself? I’ll admit that my husband and I enjoy a certain kind of very festive Advent calendar in December. But, I also have an Advent devotional calendar and practice.

It’s one thing for the secular world to festoon itself in all things Christmas, weeks and months before the actual day. But, it feels strange and unsettling when the church goes along with rushing to Christmas, casting Advent aside. Advent is important, as Lent is. Yet, it is so often casually set aside or buried under the busyness of this time of year.

Years ago, when I was a much younger clergyperson, an older colleague who served a nearby Congregational/United Church of Christ church, had a very strict policy when it came to Advent. That policy involved the religious observance and practice of Advent. No Christmas decorations, no Christmas music, no Christmas anything, until Christmas Eve. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, there was Advent. I think of him every year when I arrive at church on the first Sunday of Advent and find the sanctuary mysteriously completely saturated in Christmas decorations. During my second or third Advent at Old South, I spoke to the chair of the decorating committee about maybe holding off a bit on the decorating bonanza. She looked at me like I had three heads and then she made it perfectly clear to me that the Christmas decorations go up right after Thanksgiving. It was the tradition and it was going to stay that way.

The mind-numbing abundance of Christmas, to the point of overload, makes it a challenge for the faithful to be adequately mindful of the season of Advent, when we are called to spend time contemplating the coming of the Savior into the world. This is no small thing, in looking to the past, to the future and to the present as well. The world may not be interested in helping us out, but for the observant, there is much to be gained from observing the season of preparation, of attuning ourselves yet again to the profound mysteries of how God interacts with human beings.

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When a Visitor Is Just a Visitor

Last Sunday, my husband and I attended a worship service in person for the first time since July. I’m in the middle of a four-month leave of absence from Old South and have been attending weekly worship online, visiting a new church each week, usually anonymously (on YouTube or Facebook). Last Sunday morning, Joseph and I were in Iowa City, in the first week of a cross country (and back) adventure. I decided that we should attend worship at the Congregational United Church of Christ, since it was just down the road from our hotel.

It was very nice to be at worship in person, especially in a church that had such a large choir. I especially enjoyed singing hymns in the midst of a large group of people.

As we entered the church and were greeted by several people, I had a rush of memory of other experiences I’ve had when visiting worship. The experience was one that I hadn’t had since before the pandemic so I had forgotten about it. It was the experience of feeling a sense of expectation and anticipation set upon me, and my husband too when he’s been with me. Someone new! Maybe someone who will want to join our great church!

In my role as pastor at Old South, I’ve seen it a lot from my prime vantage point at the front of the sanctuary. A visitor arrives and most of the people in the sanctuary start to develop a look of excitement. Heads turn. Thoughtful looks develop. If there’s time, there might be a greeting or a wave of a hand, offering a clear sense of welcome.

For churches that have been in the long, slow process of diminishment, who can blame long-term members for getting a little excited when a new face (or faces) show up for worship?

I remember a few years ago, visiting a small church not far from where I live. A retired clergy friend of mine was covering worship for the summer season. I told him that I would try to get there on a Sunday morning during my vacation, and I did. It was hard not to notice the excited looks on people’s faces as they saw me, and my husband, enter the sanctuary. But, then word went around the sanctuary, person to person, that I was just visiting. I was a clergyperson, at a church, and not a candidate for joining the small community. The faces went through a dramatic shift, from excitement to disappointment. I almost felt like I needed to get up as soon as worship was over and yell out a great bit apology for getting their hopes up and then dashing them.

Last Sunday did not involve quite so dramatic a change in the general attitude and atmosphere at worship, but there were a few faces that turned in our direction that clearly noticed that we were visitors and, perhaps, maybe new to town and looking for a church. After worship, the woman sitting in front of us gave us an enthusiastic welcome and shook our hands. When we mentioned that we were just passing through town, she paused and then said something like, “Well, I’m glad you stopped by.” Her greeting was warmly offered, but she quickly moved off to speak to other people. Once again, I felt like I should offer some sort of apology.

I have a new appreciation for the worship visitor. Whether or not a visitor is looking for a new church home, it can be difficult to navigate expectations. No one should feel it necessary to apologize for being “just a visitor.” At the same time, it’s understandable that those who have found a spiritual home they love may yearn to welcome others. There’s a difference in all of this, that I think worthy of consideration: for those who are eager to welcome newcomers to the fold, is it from a sense of wanting to share a fulfilling experience or is it simply about adding more “butts” to the pews? If it’s the latter, I would suggest that they not bother. If it’s the former, go ahead and be gracious (without being overwhelming) in welcoming, keeping in mind that it’s not just about drawing in a potential new member. To share is to strengthen one’s own faith and to deepen one’s connection to the Divine.

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Worshipping Online: What I’ve Learned (so far)

I’m in the middle of a four-month leave of absence from Old South, assisting my husband in taking advantage of his full-year sabbatical. We spent most of September in Norway and we expect to head out for a cross-country road trip next week. Although I’ll admit that I have not attended worship every Sunday, I have attended more than a few worship services from home, or away—all of them virtual, either live-streamed worship or recorded worship services that are available on YouTube. I have learned some important lessons.

  1. Address the online audience— and more than simply welcoming them at the start of worship. Whoever is speaking, preacher or liturgist, should look into the camera from time to time. Treat the camera, essentially, as a member of the congregation.
  2. Include the online audience in sacraments. For communion, especially, those attending worship virtually should feel included in the sacred ritual. As an example, virtual participants should be able to have a sense that the elements they use at home are consecrated as the elements in the sanctuary are. Clergy should do things like encouraging virtual attendees to hold their elements during the prayer of consecration, repeating words of consecration wherever they are. I’ve found the worship services that have included communion, but have offered no recognition of online participants, to be trying experiences. It’s where I’ve felt the deepest disconnect and a keen awareness of separateness from the worshipping congregation.
  3. Announcements. When my children attended church camp many years ago, there was a little song that they would sing that went something like, “Announcements, announcements, announcements. What a terrible way to die, a terrible way to die,” etc. There is a great deal of wisdom in that silly little camp song. For someone who is strictly visiting (and not looking for a congregation to join—although this may be true for them as well), long announcements make me just want to turn worship off and do something else. My advice: keep the announcements short, or find a way to corral them outside of the worship experience. When I return from my leave, this will be a top priority. I’ll set up morning worship so that I clearly inform attendees that announcements start at 10:00 and worship starts at 10:10 (or something like that) or I’ll move announcements to the end, after worship is over. I’m not really sure what it is, but long announcements about community activities of a church to which I do not belong (and will never belong to), make me feel like I’m a complete outsider, and not really welcome to worship.
  4. Pay attention to the sound. I know I’ve struggled with sound quality at Old South. As a virtual visitor, I realize how important the sound is. Everyone who reads, preaches, and/or prays should be coached in speaking loudly and clearly.
  5. Post bulletins online, before the service. I’ve discovered that I really want to have some idea of what will be going on in the worship service, especially when I’m visiting a congregation for the first time. I watched one online service that included a long church presentation, instead of a sermon. Good thing I was watching a recording that allowed me to skip the presentation. If I had attended live, I would have been really unhappy. Let me be clear: I don’t begrudge any church from doing special things during worship. But, as an online visitor, I just want to know ahead of time, so I can plan whether or not to attend.
  6. Keep the church website as up-to-date as possible. I know this has been a hard thing for me, since I’m Old South’s webmaster. But, I have a renewed sense of how important it is for church websites to remain current. I really don’t care how polished or sophisticated a website looks, as long as it has the information I need offered in a way that is clear and accessible. I want to know: when worship takes place; who the pastor is (and whether or not the pastor is on sabbatical or vacation); can I attend worship anonymously (YouTube or Facebook) or will I be identified (Zoom); etc. All of these things are important. At least to me.

My exploration of worship and worship services has opened up a whole new sense of what is possible, in terms of attending and engaging with worshipping communities. No more am I tied to attending worship at churches I’m willing to drive to. I can cross all sorts of boundaries— county, state, country, denomination. Online worship has its drawbacks, though. It’s especially strange and unsettling to attend worship where no one greets me personally or talks to me after worship. It’s weird to sing hymns at home, where I hear mostly my own voice instead of a group of voices. It’s unsettling to feel like a voyeur during worship, when there’s little to no appreciation for the fact that there are people looking in from other places than the sanctuary. Still, I’ve appreciated not only being able to attend worship, but to have such a wondrous array of options.

It’s now clearer to me that virtual worship cannot simply be a mostly neglected “add on” to local church worship. Church communities should not just install a camera and spark up a computer, and think that their “hybrid” existence is meaningful and fulfilling to everyone who attends, in person or online. Instead, the needs of those who attend in person and not in person ought to be kept in mind when planning, preparing and leading worship. Hybrid should be conscientiously hybrid, with a balanced approach for those who are in person, online and those watching days or weeks later. Worship doesn’t need to strive to be perfect, but those who lead worship should recognize the reality that pandemic-related changes are not temporary inconveniences. They are here to stay.

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Crowds and Community

My husband and I live in one of Maine’s lovely lake areas, a group of lakes and ponds known generally as the “Belgrade Lakes.” In the midst of this area is Belgrade Lakes Village, about a half hour drive northwest of Maine’s capital city, Augusta. Belgrade Lakes Village is, on most days, a sleepy sort of place. Those who ski in Maine may know the village as that little grouping of businesses they drive through on Route 27 to get from the interstate to the Sugarloaf ski area. For those who live in or vacation in the Belgrade lakes area, Belgrade Lakes Village is known for the restaurant that specializes in duck and the small general store, with its quirky sign that indicates its normal summer hours and then for the rest of year “damn few.”

On most days, there’s not a lot going on in Belgrade Lakes Village. But on Sundays in the summer, especially in the morning, the Village turns into a very busy place. It’s like everyone in the area descends upon the small village. It’s hard to find a parking spot, for cars and for boats. With every parking spot taken and all sorts of pedestrians milling around, it can be hard to drive through, since the road is not wide.

Since I usually work on Sunday mornings I don’t normally visit the Village, so I don’t witness what’s going on on the average summer Sunday morning. I hear about it, though, from a couple of friends who consistently go to the Village on summer Sunday mornings (unless it’s pouring rain) because “it’s the place to be.” There are a few Sundays in the summer when I’m off. If we are around, my husband and I sometimes boat over to the village to see what’s going on. We did so last Sunday, after I attended a worship service online.

The summer Sunday morning crowd has always struck me as a bit puzzling. Sure, there’s a farmers’ market and there are those who like to go to Day’s store to buy donuts and coffee and the Sunday New York Times. And, there are those who like to go to the bakery at the other end of the village where you can get really decadent breakfast sandwiches (something my husband likes to do— on Saturdays).

This past Sunday, as we made our way through the crowd at the farmers’ market and then through the crowd of pedestrians, on our way to Day’s to get a coffee (oh, alright, and a couple of donuts), I wondered what it was that really drew people to this usually sleepy village on a summer Sunday morning— fresh local vegetables? coffee and donuts? a place to see and to be seen?

As I sat outside Day’s, I couldn’t help but take a good look around and listen in the various conversations that floated out from the various groupings of people. Most of the conversations seemed to be happening in family groups or groups of people who knew each other in some way or another. I wondered if the magnet that pulled people to this small village was the thought of community, a place to be among others and to feel connected to other human beings. But, the “community” that exists on summer Sunday mornings in the Village isn’t much of a community. It’s clear that people mostly connect with people they already know. To the extent that people meet new people, it’s a friend or family member making introductions.

What sort of community is this? Is this the sort of community that helps people find meaning in their lives, or a sense of common purpose and vision? Is this the sort of community that feeds the soul and offers encouragement during life’s trials and tribulations? Is this the sort of community that reaches out when someone hasn’t been seen for a while? Is this the sort of community that provides lessons on how to live well in community? Is this the sort of community that offers hope for that which follows this mortal existence?

In my irregular visits to the bustling Sunday morning crowd in Belgrade Lakes Village, I get the sense that while there is a crowd and there is bustling, there is not so much in terms of community, at least not the kind of community that offers anything deep and abiding. There is simply a lot of people and there’s nothing inherently deep or abiding, or meaningful, in a crowd. It’s just an assemblage of people, many of them looking for connection. And, while they may feel connected to the familiar faces they see on a Sunday morning, it’s not anything like what I usually experience on a Sunday morning— in the summer, in the fall, in the winter and in the spring— in a church where community means something and where community is more than recognizing people, or feeling connected, but where there is something deep and abiding. And, where there is the recognition that we are far more than the small crowd that we make.

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The Man Who Made Such a Difference

In my many years of pastoring and preaching, whenever I’ve experienced difficulty in getting into a passage, searching for the kernel that would get a sermon going or help in wrapping things up, I’ve almost always turned to one person: Frederick Buechner. His thoughtful insights on so many theological and biblical topics have been an important element in the process of my thinking and writing. His work has also been an easy “go to” place when I’ve needed a little encouragement in my own personal practice of the faith. Just a few days ago, Frederick Buechner passed away at his home in Vermont.

I never met him in person. My closest connection was to serve as a student minister at the same church that his daughter served when she was a student at Harvard Divinity School—although I served there several years after she did. I haven’t met her either. Yet, I’ve always felt like Frederick Buechner was something of a friend, someone I could count on, someone who knew just what to say at life’s difficult and weird moments, or at those times when I was just plain stuck and in need of insight and a bit of direction.

The gift that Frederick Buechner gave the world was the gift of wonder, awe, and invitation in and through the Christian faith. When so many Christians yearn for easy answers to life’s heartbreaks and sufferings, and so many Christian leaders and pastors are quick to provide such answers, answers that are so often unsatisfying and flimsy, Buechner resisted the easy answer, choosing instead the path of wonder, contemplation, and the invitation to something deep and powerful, at once fulfilling yet not so easily defined.

One of Buechner’s most powerful moments, for me, is found in his book The Magnificent Defeat in a monologue for the notorious innkeeper from countless Christmas pageants. Although there’s actually no “innkeeper” in scripture, in the story of how Jesus came to be born, the reference to “no room at the inn” has sparked the character of an innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away from more comfortable lodgings. In Buechner’s short piece— one that I’ve read every Christmas, privately or in a worship service— the Innkeeper is someone too busy to notice or to realize that something truly and completely amazing is happening so close at hand, simply because he has allowed himself to become too busy:

Do you know what it is like to run an inn—to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million trees . . . and each tree is a thing to be done. . . . Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet—just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window—just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle of them all. That whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere—only the wind, the wind… . . . Later that night, when the baby came, I was not there, . . . I was lost in the forest somewhere, the unenchanted forest of a million trees. . . So when the baby came, I was not around, and I saw none of it. . . . When he came, I missed him.

The Magnificent Defeat

Perhaps because I spend much of my life in my own “unenchanted forest,” filling up my days with long to do lists, and especially since the Christmas season is so intensely busy for just about any pastor, I have always felt drawn to Buechner’s insight into this one character who missed the birth of the Savior simply because he was too busy to notice. In what ways have I been too busy to notice God’s presence? When have I missed something amazing just because I’m so focused on trying to whittle down my long to do list?

As the Innkeeper’s monologue demonstrates, Buechner’s approach is not to chastise the Innkeeper, or use him as a way to belittle those who are like him. Instead, Buechner cleverly offers an invitation, an opportunity to take note of whatever unenchanted forest the reader (or listener) is living in and to try to alter that perspective just enough to take a different look around. In the midst of all of the ordinary things in life, it may just be that God is at work.

Frederick Buechner’s words and insights have always been there, like a trusted friend, a reliable confidante. His work has encouraged me, and so many others, to live the life of the Christian faith, with all of its remarkable claims, its hard to fathom mysteries, and its incredibly basic call to love. Rest in peace, dear friend.

When the time finally comes, you’re scared stiff to be sure, but maybe by then you’re just as glad to leave the whole show behind and get going. In a matter of moments, everything that seemed to matter stops mattering. The slow climb is all there is. The stillness. The clouds. Then the miracle of flight as from fathom upon fathom down you surface suddenly into open sky. The dazzling sun.

Whistling in the Dark
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Women in the Early Church:  “That” Passage, Part 2

This is an adaptation of a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, July 24, 2022.  Scripture:  1 Timothy 2.

Last week, we considered the authorship and context of this particular passage that we are focusing on for a second week, since there’s just so much here (I could, in truth, probably spend a good month here).  We were reminded last week of the significance of engaging with the Bible, which is a library of pieces written at different times, in different places, with different customs, and in different languages—all of them very different from our own.

We pondered last week the notion that this letter was not actually written by Paul.  While raising the very real possibility that this letter was not in fact written by Paul is a scandalous notion to us, it was not in the first century. This letter, along with its companions 2 Timothy and Titus, does not sound like Paul’s other letters and it contains words that Paul did not use in the undisputed letters. More about one of those words in just a moment.

We’ll begin with the part of the passage that brings up appropriate dress for women.

Many years ago, when my husband, Joseph, and I were first together or first married, we spent Christmas on Long Island with Joe’s family. This involved attending the local Catholic mass on Christmas morning or the weekend following Christmas.  I don’t remember precisely when and I don’t remember anything about the mass itself, except for this one thing:  the fur coat parade.  Not all of the women certainly, but an alarming number arrived, ready to show off their new fur coats that each one had received as a gift for Christmas. The longer and more elaborate and more expensive the coat was, the further down the aisle the woman went.  Or, at least that’s how it seemed to me.  Once I noticed a few fur coats going down the center aisle, I asked about it and I was told that this happens every Christmas, like it’s some sort of weird annual custom. 

The author of 1 Timothy would not have approved.  In fact, something just like this is happening in the church at Ephesus, the church that the author—whether it was Paul or someone who worked closely with Paul—was writing to, responding to a letter that someone in that church had written, very likely asking for help.  Clearly a problem had taken root in the community.

We shouldn’t forget that all of the letters in the New Testament were letters that were written in response to a letter that outlined a situation or laid out an issue or a problem or even a scandal of some sort. We don’t have any of those letters. What we have are the responses, many of them written by Paul himself and some written by people who worked closely with Paul.

1st Timothy was written to the church in Ephesus, where there a problem had developed. One aspect of the problem in that church was the fact that some women were attending the church all decked out in all of their finest and perhaps parading down the center aisle or whatever was the center aisle in that first century faith community and displaying themselves in an ostentatious way. This had become a problem and the writer of 1st Timothy was offering guidance to Timothy in dealing with the problem.  As it is stated at the beginning of the letter:  “To Timothy, my loyal child in the faith:  Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.  I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. (1 Timothy 1:2-4)

Beyond the problem of the inappropriate dress, it also seems that there was a group of women, or perhaps one singular woman, who had begun to engage in problematic teaching, teaching that needed to be corrected.

This may have been connected to a temple that existed in Ephesus, dedicated to the goddess Artemis, as well as other influences that led to various problematic teachings, including a rewriting of Genesis 2, claiming that Eve was created first and then Adam.

And so, the author of 1 Timothy is strongly, and in no uncertain terms, outlining a solution to this particular problem in this particular church.  Let’s be clear here.  While there are some important questions about this letter, and this section of this letter, and a real lack of complete clarity, it is likely that the statements that are lifted out time and time again to deny women pastoral leadership are really about a very particular situation in a particular church that involved a particular group of women or even one particular woman.

That this passage and the one pesky little verse have been lifted out to apply to all women across the entire church through millennia demonstrates a remarkable lack of information about this book in the Bible.

And, then there’s the authority issue in verse 12:  “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”  The word that’s translated “authority” is a rare word in Greek and that makes it extremely hard to translate.  As is offered on The Junia Project website []:

This unusual Greek verb is found only once in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is usually associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.

A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a form of the Greek “exousia” when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21).  So it is strange that some modern versions translate this simply as “authority”. Considering the context, it is likely that [author] was objecting to something other than the legitimate use of authority in 1 Timothy 2:12.

There is also the possibility that the verb used for teach is linked here to the verb that is used here to convey authority, in a sort of conjunction, like “Don’t eat and run,” leading us to a better interpretation as in “don’t teach in a domineering way.”  It’s different, isn’t it?  And, in line with what we’ve been learning over the course of this long series focused on women.

Now armed with this new awareness and knowledge, what do we do with it this new wisdom?  What should we take with us in the days and weeks ahead?

The first is to not make any apologies for being a church that welcomes the pastoral leadership of women.  The second is to be reminded, once again, that the Bible is a complicated library of books that requires study and thoughtful deliberation, attention to context, custom and language, and that there are verses and passages that may appear at first plenty straightforward, but are actually not so clear.  Third, there are times when we may fall into problematic practices and that we need to work together to do our best to realign ourselves in a thoughtful and encouraging way.  Those women who were decking themselves out at the church in Ephesus, in a similar way to the women showing off their fur coats in the church on Long Island, were very likely not bad people, but people who had lost their way, had lost their focus on what it means to be a part of the faith.  We are always in need of reflecting on our habits, customs and routines, on our connection to the faith.  We aren’t meant to be perfect, but we should be, on a regular basis, considering our practice:  how well are you, how well am I, how well are we living out the faith?

This isn’t about the clothes we wear, but about our attitude, about doing our best not only to live out the faith, but to be transformed by the faith.  How well are you, how well am I, how well are we living out the faith, day after day, and how are we allowing ourselves to be open to the movement of the Spirit, drawing us in and transforming us that we may indeed be the people we are called to be, letting go of habits and practices that get in the way, and realigning, over and over again, to the way of Christ?

May we continue to be about this holy work.  Praise be to God.  Amen.

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Women in the Early Church:  “That” Verse, Part 1

This is an adaptation of a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, July 17, 2022.  Scripture:  1 Timothy 2.

It’s hard to know where even to begin with this passage.  It’s really hard.  Laugh or cry?  Scream or whimper?  Shudder or dissolve into nothingness? 

Where even to begin.  There are a LOT of issues with this passage, and with “that” verse in particular.  Shall I begin by going completely silent, declaring that we’ve been doing it wrong in this church for these many years, and I should just keep quiet? 

Well, no, I’m not going to do that, and for good reason.

Let’s dive right in and take up the big verse, verse 12:  “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” This particular verse is, as I’ve learned, incredibly important to all sorts of Christian denominations.  The Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in the United States— uses this specific verse to deny ordination to women.  And, other churches and denominations, especially those that are more evangelically inclined, point to this verse to deny pastoral leadership to women.

Watch a few YouTube videos and it’s even easier to get a rather vivid view into the world of the usage of 1 Timothy 2:12, with discussions, debates, etc.  And, a decent share of people using this specific verse to support the subordination of women in the Church and in the family, arguing that while women are important to the Church and in the Church, they have profoundly clear and separate roles, with important and critical limits in regard to what women can do and say. 

So, what do we do about this verse?  How do we understand this verse in light of all that we’ve been learning over the course of months, regarding the significant work, ministry, discipleship, apostleship, leadership of women around Jesus and in the early church?  Why would Paul write such words, in light of his own work with women in spreading the Good News and encouraging fledging communities in the new faith?

There’s quite a lot to discuss.  So much, that I’m not even going to try to squish it into one week.  Next week, we will continue to consider this pesky passage—especially since I think it’s important to consider this passage in a bible study sort of way, and then to reflect on how to deal with this passage now, in these days.  So, we’ll do a little Bible Study first and then a bit of reflection and application—for today and for next Sunday.

Let’s begin by talking about authorship.  The letter says that it was written by Paul and for an awful lot of people, there’s nothing else to say.  For someone else to write it and say that it was written by Paul creates, for us, what appears to be a scandalous situation that would undermine the letter entirely.  How could a letter that says that it was written by Paul, actually not be written by Paul?  And, worse still, how could a letter that says that it was written by Paul but actually not, end up in the New Testament to begin with? 

This whole concept can be really unsettling and disturbing—for us.  It smacks of scandal and deception.  But, just because it’s a scandalous concept to us doesn’t mean that it was scandalous in the first century, or the second.  And, it wasn’t.  It was not uncommon for someone who worked closely with a person of significance to write on behalf of, and in the name of, that significant person, especially after the death of the significant person.

And, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the letter known as 1 Timothy was not actually written by Paul himself.  If you are someone who has read the New Testament, and especially if you have paid significant attention to Paul’s writings, 1 Timothy sounds different.  It doesn’t sound like Paul’s other writing.  Now, this may not seem all that significant.  But, think about it.  Think about your own writing style, or when you read something written by a friend or relative or coworker.  I bet you notice an individual style of writing—words, phrases, common attributes to how you, or someone you know, writes. 

Paul, too, has a distinctive way of writing, using certain words and phrases and ways of constructing a letter.  1 Timothy is different.  And, so is 2 Timothy and Titus.  These three letters are known as the Pastoral Epistles and in the three, there are 306 words that Paul does not use in the letters that are clearly known to be written by him.  And, there are other issues, including early collections of works that would eventually make their way into the canon of the New Testament that did not contain this group of letters, indicating that early on, some authorities knew or were pretty sure that the three letters were not actually written by Paul. 

But, you may be thinking—as plenty of others do—what does it matter?  These letters, including “that” pesky passage are in the Bible.  So, doesn’t that mean that God wants them there?  What does it matter if the letter was written by Paul, or someone who had worked closely with him?  It’s in the Bible.  It’s part of the canon.

We’re going to get to some of that, why we have good reason to be suspect of this passage and “that” particular verse, next week.  So, stay tuned.

For today, what little nugget should we be taking with us, what bit of new awareness should we focus on and hold close, thinking about and praying over?

I would say that we need to remind ourselves over and over again, as we read and engage with our Holy Scriptures, that it’s not only okay, but it is important that we appreciate that our holy book is a library of pieces written by different people in different places and in very different circumstances to our own.  I know that there are those whose sense of “canon” means that the verses and passages can be simply lifted out and that they simply mean what they say.  But, that’s not really the case.  The Gospels, the letters, and those pieces that aren’t easily defined into a category, like Hebrews, as well as the Law, the Prophets, the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures:  each has their own context.  And, while we may not feel inclined to become little Bible scholars, we can at least appreciate that each piece has a context that is very different from our own. 

Sometimes a verse, a passage, isn’t all that it seems.  And, I would say that’s definitely the case for today’s passage.  Just because it says something that on the surface appears clear and direct, that may not be the case.  Again, we’ll talk more about that next week.

Today, we are reminded that understanding the Bible, and its books and passages, can sometimes be a bit complicated.  You might think about in this way:  We have been learning about woman after woman, week after week, month after month.  Lots of women.  At the very least, there are questions to be asked about today’s passage.  It should not be simply lifted out and asserted:  Hey, here’s why women shouldn’t be in pastoral leadership.  Because women clearly were in positions of authority in the early church. 

For today, I know many of you don’t like it when I say this, but it’s still true:  the Bible is a complicated book and one that requires that we engage with it in seriousness, with humility, with an awareness of context, with a sense that there may very well be more to the story.  Just because it seems to state something in a very clear way—like women should be silent and not be in a position of authority over any man—doesn’t mean that that’s what the passage truly intends. 

To be a person of faith should mean that we are aware that our holy stories are sometimes complicated, that they have a context that we must learn at least a bit about in order to understand a verse or a passage, that our holy stories were not written in a time or place, or even in a language, that we can easily understand.  To encounter our holy stories is to open up a world that is at once wondrous in the connections we discover over time and place and, at the same time, mysterious.  There are things to be learned about language and custom, that can help us appreciate stories and lessons.  It is amazing to read these stories and, especially in our time, to discover a kinship of sorts with the early church, gathered in small communities just like ours, while we are also reminded that there are aspects of how the early church went about its life and work that are more difficult for us to understand, that require that we learn more about language and custom, etc.

We are also reminded today of the long stretch of the story of God and God’s people, that small communities gathered and sometimes struggled mightily with what it actually meant to live and breathe, day after day, in the faith.  1 Timothy was a letter written to a church that had lost its way.  They needed guidance and encouragement.

We need guidance and encouragement too.  It’s not easy to be the church.  But, just as the writer—whether it was Paul or someone who worked closely with him—knew:  groups of the faithful must be grounded in prayer, seeking godliness, peacefulness and dignity.  So, let us be, as we continue to seek wisdom and strength:  to be grounded in prayer, seeking in holy humility, the way that is being laid out for us, not by any one person, but by the God we gather to worship and from whom we discover love and blessing, that we may indeed be the people we are called to be.


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The Women of the Early Church:  Nympha

An adaption of a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, Sunday, July 10, 2022.  Scripture:  Colossians 4:10-18. For background and inspiration, I’m deeply indebted to the work and the blog, of Marg Mowczko, for her scholarship concerning women in the Bible.  Her blog post on Nympha is used and quoted in this sermon.

Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him. And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. And say to Archippus, ‘See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.’  I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

Colossians 4:10-18

Let’s get the angry bits out of the way first, shall we?  Probably none of you has ever heard of Nympha.  I’ll admit that I hadn’t remembered hearing or reading her name until I started this series.  Why is that?  Well, this passage isn’t ever in the lectionary.  This is yet another passage that includes the name of a woman that’s never read in churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary.

This passage is similar to the passage about Junia, in that it’s another place where a woman’s name was, at some point, assumed to be a man’s name and changed to be so, even though there was plenty of evidence that the name was indeed a woman’s name.  Still, that didn’t stop the name from being changed.  In this case, it’s an even more interesting case of mistaken gender because as a man, Nympas was assumed to be a person of some significance.  One Anglican bishop, a Reverend Alfred Barry, writing in Australia in the 1800s, wrote concerning the “church in his house”:  “This phrase is found elsewhere only as applied to Aquila and Priscilla (Rom 16:51 Cor 16:19), and to Philemon (Phlm 1:2). Of these Aquila and Priscilla are notable Christian teachers (as of apostles, Acts 18:26) and confessors (Rom 16:4); and Philemon is spoken of as a ‘beloved fellow-labourer,’ and one in whom ‘the saints are refreshed’ (Phlm 1:17). Hence this ‘church in the house’ is seen to have gathered only round persons of some significance and leadership.”

Other commentators who thought Nympha was a man expressed confidence that Nymphas was the leader of the church at Laodicea and perhaps also a ministry co-worker of Paul.

With commentators who believed that Nympha was a woman, there’s less of an appreciation for her a leader of significance.  Instead, her role has been minimized. This downplaying of her ministry reveals a gender bias that is shared by some commentators and perhaps by the scribes who altered the Greek text.

So, once again, we learn that there are plenty of places where we need to employ a bit more of that fun term we learned some time ago, nearer to the start of this series—a hermeneutics of suspicion.  Things are not always what they seem.  And, gender bias is an issue in some texts and certainly in the interpretation of some texts.

It may be that this passage is not in the lectionary because it appears to have little to consider.  It’s primarily a list, with greetings to various people working with Paul, seeking not only to spread the Good News, but also to support and encourage fledging communities, in small churches that existed, as we learn in today’s passage, in houses, and more precisely, the homes of wealthy people.  There were no steepled buildings around the town green.  Churches were centered in homes.  In the homes of wealthy people, including wealthy women, there would be space for gatherings of early church communities.

From the very beginning of the church, wealthy women were attracted to Christianity and they were among the church’s patrons and protectors.  Nympha appears to be one such woman who opened her home as a place for Christians to meet for worship and fellowship.

Since wealthy householders were more likely to be literate than other church members, they probably read and reread letters and portions of scripture, when the community gathered for worship.  They may have offered words of encouragement as well as theological information and possible correction.  They probably organized the Eucharist, ensured that meetings and gatherings ran smoothly, and provided meals.  At a time when poverty was common and crippling, house church leaders cared for the material and physical well-being of church members, and they probably supported and hosted missionaries such as Paul. Some may also have baptized new converts.

So, what does Nympha, her leadership and her house church have to say to us, in these days, so long removed from those fledging house churches that were sometimes gathered around a wealthy woman who had been converted to the faith?

Well, we probably have more in common with the church in Nympha’s house than we at first may think, especially as we look around today and notice the small group we have become.  The church that gathered in Nympha’s house (just like other churches that gathered in the home of a wealthy person) was not large group.  It was very likely a group like our group—a small group of committed, faithful people, seeking to share our gifts, seeking to encourage the sharing of the gifts of others, mutually supportive one to another.  The church that met at Nympha’s house was very likely very much like our church, a small group of blessed people, endeavoring to share that blessing.

We may feel and seem small, but we are likely not all that different from the church that met at Nympha’s house.  We may feel small, but gathered as the faithful, we are able to experience and accomplish considerably more than we can imagine.  It may be a good and helpful thing to channel our inner house church, that though we gather in a large, steepled building, we have more in common with the church that met at Nympha’s house. And through that sense of connection, that we find we gather in a way that fully allows, and depends on, the gifts of the Spirit to be expressed, regardless of gender. We may be small, but we are large in spirit. And, that’s what matters.

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Women in the Early Church:  Apphia

Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, July 3, 2022. Scripture: Philemon 1-6.

Philemon 1-6: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister [and/or beloved], to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.

The book of Philemon is the New Testament’s one true letter, in that it was written primarily to one individual.  Those other “letters” in the New Testament are, as I was taught many years ago, epistles, written primarily to groups of people.  Philemon was written by Paul to a particular person, who was conveniently named, Philemon.   The whole letter is a very short piece of writing, so short that it isn’t even long enough to break into chapters.  It’s just a series of verses.

Philemon also happens to be one of the trickiest and most difficult of New Testament pieces.  Many a preacher has held it at arm’s length, and maybe even further.  It’s a complicated and difficult situation, with a really problematic history.

The basic story is this:  Paul was in prison and learned of a situation in which a slave belonging to Philemon, Onesimus, had run away.  Somewhere along the way, Onesimus was converted to the faith. Paul was fond of Onesimus, so he wrote the letter to advise Philemon on how to receive Onesimus upon Onesimus’s return to the household, presumably maintaining his slave status.  The letter became something of a favorite of slaveholders in the United States in trying to bolster their claim to maintaining that vile institution in the United States. 

We don’t have time, in this small space, to take up the issue of slavery, and the misuse of Philemon.  Instead, we focus in on the woman mentioned in Paul’s greeting to Philemon:  Apphia.

While the Orthodox Church made Apphia a saint, she doesn’t get much attention in the Western Church—probably because her name comes up only once.  And, so it is that we don’t know much at all about Apphia, but we can gather a few hints from the text.

The way through which she is named is a good place to start.  There are real differences in the texts that survived and were circulated.  In some places, she is referred to as “sister” and in other texts as “beloved.”  These may not mean much to us, but they convey a sense of significance, that Paul regarded her as an important person.

Start reading commentaries and the general gist of Apphia is that she was “just the wife.”  She must have been Philemon’s wife.  Clearly, she was a woman and her name appears near the name of a man.  Therefore, she must have been “just the wife.” The end.  For Paul she was a “sister” or a “beloved.”  To commentators, she can be ignored.  She was ”just the wife.”

Take a look at commentaries written by women (and, to be fair, a few men) and the situation begins to alter.  Apphia and Philemon are not named in the same way as other couples that Paul knew and worked with, like Prisca and Aquila.  Notice the difference. Prisca and Aquila are mentioned with a clear “and.”  Philemon and Apphia are not:  “To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister [and/or beloved], to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house.”

 Does it matter that they are not directly connected in the text?  Maybe.  It’s certainly worth considering—and hauling Apphia out of the “just the wife” dungeon.

It’s quite possible that Apphia was a ministry partner of some kind, a beloved coworker.  We should note that the term “sister” was not just a casual reference to a sibling in the faith.  Apphia—whether she was indeed Philemon’s wife or not—had a special role and that is why Paul addressed her.  He needed her to pay attention, perhaps alerting her to help in conveying the message that he was trying to get across to Philemon.

The label of “sister” is an important one.  Clement of Alexandria  referred to those called “sister” as women who were not merely companions, but co-ministers of the apostles. These “sisters” played an often crucial, and sometimes difficult and dangerous, role in taking the gospel into new territory. In places that were influenced more by Greek culture than by Roman culture, “sisters” were needed to minister to other women, such as widows, who lived relatively secluded lives.[see the work of Marg Mowczko at]

As we seek to appreciate a bit more this mysterious woman, a co-worker of some kind for Paul, it’s worth taking a brief moment to lift up this word, “sister,” or “coworker,” and to consider our own status as “coworkers” in the faith.  What are you up to in living out the Good News, in making the blessings of God’s love manifest in the life that you live? 

How do each of us and all of us together seek to be about this holy work of sharing God’s love?  From the small things to the big things, how are we showing our connection to our Savior?  Like Apphia, we may not be well-known, or understood, but what we do, and how we live, matters.  And, in a world with so much division and violence, our willingness to share the good news is crucial.  So, may we step up, as surely Apphia did, as coworkers in the faith.

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Women of the Early Church: Chloe (including thoughts on the overturning of Roe)

The following is an adaptation of a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, June 26, 2022. Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.

What do we know about Chloe?  What do we know about Chloe’s “people”?

Unfortunately, not as much as we would like. Still, there are a few clues worthy of consideration.

Was Chloe deeply invested in being one of those at the center of the quarreling in the church at Corinth?  Was Chloe part of the problem in the church at Corinth?  Or, is it possible that she wasn’t even involved in the church—and perhaps, instead, that it was members of her household that wished to be a part of the church, but were stopped by Chloe, and then managed to find a way to report their issues to Paul?

Or, could it be that Chloe was a leader of significance in the church at Corinth, with people and/or a household (family members as well as servants), who had enough clout to be able to reach out to Paul herself and to seek his guidance and assistance for a church that was falling apart from the inside, arguing and fighting over a variety of issues.

That this letter to the Corinthians identifies Chloe and Chloe’s people as the source, or at least an important source, of information regarding the crisis in the church at Corinth, ought to lead us to a place where we consider Chloe to be a woman of significance that church, the sort of person to grab Paul’s attention.

The issues involved were substantial.  At the heart of the issue was the fundamental understanding of the central foundational allegiance of the community itself.  Those in the church had come to believe that they needed to be aligned with a certain apostle—Apollos, Cephas, Paul.  Or, aligned with Christ, as if Christ were on the same level as one of those apostles. 

Paul teaches clearly and forcefully that the church cannot continue in this way.  He essentially tells them to get their act together and understand Christ as the center of the faith community— that the gospel, or good news, of Christ must be at the heart of the church.  No one else, not even one of the apostles, can be in that place.

Because of reports from Chloe’s people, outlining the disagreements and quarrels in the church, Paul sent this important letter, stressing that the church must re-center itself around Christ. And, through that reconnection to Christ, the church should seek to be in agreement, ridding itself of divisions.

It doesn’t take much thought to begin wondering about this, as we gather in this particular church, just down the road from another church, and down the road and up a block from yet another church and down the hill and over a couple of streets from still another church, and we haven’t even made it to the boundaries of this small city in this one state in this large country.

What is unity in the Church?  And, what does it mean to be in agreement?

What would Paul say to us now?  What would Paul teach?  What would Paul offer as guidance and assistance to us in these days?

I’ve wondered about this in the past, and I wonder about it still.

And, I wonder about it especially as a woman and as an ordained pastor in a church.  What is unity and agreement if my call to ordained ministry is not recognized by other denominations and expressions of the Church?  What is unity and agreement when the denomination that recognized my call to ministry is one of only a few that not only recognizes that women can be called to ordained ministry and other forms of pastoral leadership, but that women have autonomy, the right to have authority over their own bodies?

There are plenty of churches, Christian churches, that today, on this Sunday, are celebrating with joyfulness and gratitude, the decision of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, declaring that women do not have authority over decisions regarding their own bodies, that women essentially have fewer rights than guns.

I don’t think I need to say that I’m very glad that I don’t belong to one of those churches.

And, with this in mind, how do we ponder these important questions: What is unity in the Church?  What is agreement?  What does it mean when individual churches and denominations have such profoundly different views, experiences and understandings of the good news of Christ?

What is unity in the Church when so many churches do not recognize nor appreciate the significance of women leaders in the early church, like Chloe, and Phoebe, and Junia, Priscilla, Tabitha and Lydia, etc, etc? What is unity to the Church Universal that does not recognize that Chloe was very likely an important leader in the early Church, one who felt it necessary to seek guidance from Paul for the quarreling and struggles within the church? 

I grieve the reality of the divisions in the Church, while I also grieve the stubborn grip that so many churches, and their leaders, have in refusing to appreciate and acknowledge that women are full human beings, capable and called to leadership in the Church, capable of making decisions regarding their own bodies and their own reproductive capacities, deserving of privacy when making important decisions about motherhood, how to deal with violent acts that result in pregnancy, and what to do when the catastrophic news arrives that a pregnancy has gone horribly wrong and there is no good way to proceed.

In so many different ways, this is a season of grieving—grieving for the continued divisions, divisions so deep and profound that we really don’t even quarrel about them anymore.  They are unfathomable chasms.

And, in this season of grief and foreboding for what is next in stripping women of their autonomy and dignity, I look at my little church assembled in this small place and I know that I am with my people. For that, I am deeply grateful and, through my faith, I trust that we will find our way to a better place.

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