Living in the Midst of Dying

It’s a hard time to be a traditional Mainline church. It feels harder still to be a traditional church in a part of the world that often feels not only indifferent to organized Christianity, but sometimes even hostile. Such is life in Central Maine.

At Old South, we struggle with many issues, having to do with money, the maintenance of our buildings, the appropriate level of staffing, and our diminishing attendance numbers. Yet, there are ways in which the church not only clings to life, but seems to thrive.

Much of the thriving is related to mission. In recent years, Old South has become an amazingly generous church. Most of this generosity is related to money, and donations to various causes. But, the church has also managed to maintain a commitment to a monthly (except in the summer months) dinner that is delivered to a local homeless shelter. And, we host an annual after-worship potluck that offers information and discussion regarding important local needs, like food pantries and homelessness. This fall, we are organizing a program on immigrant needs in the area.

Another aspect of our thriving mission is the Outreach Fund and the diversity of “causes” for which we gather funds. We helped quite a few people (some young, some not so young) attend the Maine United Church of Christ-related summer camp this season. We’ve also provided assistance to various local organizations that help a whole range of people like those who are incarcerated in the county jail, veterans who are hospitalized, and survivors of domestic violence. And, we’ve reached out much further, giving to disaster relief in faraway places.

In the midst of our mission and outreach, though, we cannot escape the reality that we are a dying church. Our attendance numbers are in serious decline (one Sunday this summer we had an all-time record low in worship: 15). We are facing difficulties in paying bills on a more regular basis. And, we are well-aware of our failure to keep up with maintenance of our two buildings– the large, stone, steepled sanctuary building and the parish house across the street, that contains offices, Sunday School classrooms, and a kitchen.

How do we hold these two things together– a shrinking, dying church community on the one hand and on the other, a church that maintains a strong commitment to mission and outreach? We are already witnessing the first tears at the fabric of what we have become as church. One person has asked why we are not looking at the Outreach Fund as a way of easing the church’s financial difficulties. Another person has expressed distress at our seemingly wanton disbursement of cash, when we are not adequately “taking care of our own”?

So far, we are managing not only to keep up our mission and outreach, but we have expanded that outreach. The voices that suggest otherwise have not gained any traction. But, I cannot help but wonder how long this situation will hold.

As we continue to shrink, we face increasing pressure and, as well, the unsettling experience of church that none of us, not even me, are truly prepared to face: a church that is such serious decline that its closing is now clearly on the horizon, and a horizon that is not far away. While we wrestle with what to do about our buildings, and how to maintain staffing, will we be able to continue to remain committed to mission and outreach?

It’s a stressful time to be church, and to be a shrinking church. Will we, as a group, be able to resist the temptation to turn inward and to view the church itself as “mission”? Will we, as a church, realize that without a commitment to mission and outreach there really is no point of gathering at all?

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Mr. Trump, Evangelical Christians, and the Central Park 5

14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
   and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
   and their ears are hard of hearing,
     and they have shut their eyes;
     so that they might not look with their eyes,
   and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
   and I would heal them.” 
16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.17Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

Matthew 13:14-17Whe

During my recent three-week vacation during the second half of June and into July, it took a bit of time to get accustomed to much less than normal access to news. My husband and I were on a ship exploring the islands off of Scotland, and then hiking part of the Speyside Way. For various reasons, news was often hard to come by. At first it was strange not to begin my day by reviewing several newspapers. Then, I discovered that I liked not knowing what was going on.

But, one piece of news managed to pierce the bubble, and that piece of news lodged itself in my brain. It didn’t appear to be a big piece of news, yet I found myself thinking about it over and over again: the Central Park Five and Donald Trump’s refusal to reflect even for the briefest of moments on his stance regarding this clear case of injustice. This was not only yet another moment of despair regarding the current President, but also one of those places where I was filled with profound anger and hopelessness for the silence of the evangelical Christian community.

If Donald Trump had had his way back in 1989, those young men would have been put to death—for a crime they did not commit. Shouldn’t such a story demand something of any faithful Christian—confession, grief, sorrow, a desire seek reconciliation, a promise to at least try to do better?

While the President makes me angry just about every day, and multiple times on many days, I continue to be especially perplexed and troubled by those evangelical Christians who support the President with such vehemence even in the midst of his wantonly un-Christian attitude and behavior. The case of the Central Park 5, brought back into our consciousness by the recent Netflix mini-series, When They See Us, is yet one more example of the President’s problematic perspective that should not be ignored by evangelical Christians.

The case of the Central Park 5 ought to inspire at least a bit of reflection—individually and collectively. Especially for Christians who speak the language of love, justice, hope, and reconciliation, it is vital to spend a moment considering this terrible episode, what led so many to assume guilt on the part of those young black men, the rush to judgment and then the stubborn inability to learn important and significant lessons once the truth finally became clear.

It is hard for me to accept that evangelical Christians will just heave this incident onto the now very large pile of un-Christian actions of the current President. That the President doesn’t even seem to accept the truth, claiming that the men “admitted their guilt,” is profoundly troubling (see story here). Such an attitude should simply be unacceptable to any person who claims to be Christian.

I have offered my plea in the past, begging evangelical Christians to demand more, and better, from this President. Not that I’m expecting any evangelical Christians to be reading this blog, but I’m not the only one who has pointed out these issues and problems in the relationship between basic tenets of Christianity and President Trump. Or, more precisely, the lack of relationship between basic tenets of Christianity and Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump may be acting in ways that are and will be politically expedient for him and his hope for re-election. And, perhaps evangelical Christians are willing to turn a blind eye in favor of what they see as a path to greater and grander things. But, in that turning away, they are actually turning away from their faith in significant ways, allowing their hearts to grow dull.  The path to greater and grander things actually lies in the opening of our eyes, our ears and our hearts.  That is where there is understanding, healing, and the love that Christ promises.

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A Few Thoughts on Buildings and Churches

During my recent vacation, my husband and I found ourselves with a few unexpected hours in Aberdeen, Scotland. While wandering around the city, we noticed a few church buildings (not really a surprise; we tend to notice church buildings everywhere we go). Like so many places around Europe, church buildings are in a clear state of transition—in the midst of the sharp decline in membership over the last half century. In Aberdeen, we noticed one church building that has been fully repurposed into a museum, another that is now a pub/party venue:

and another that has been developed into an office building,

I couldn’t help but wonder what my own church building will eventually be used for—event space? a residence? offices? another faith community? Or, will it stand abandoned and vacant, an empty shell of its former glory?

I’m mindful that the “church” is not really its building, that the faith community must see itself as the body of Christ, as the presence of Christ in the world, rather than wrapping its identity inside and around the physical walls and structure in which it has gathered. But, my recent vacation also reminded me of the “church” as a physical structure, a place with walls and a roof, a place of quiet and holiness.

Earlier in our trip, we visited the island of Iona and spent some time in the Iona Abbey. There is something both powerful and humbling in sitting in an old church building, a place with thick walls and a tall ceiling, with rows of seats and the artifacts of a worship life—an altar, Bibles, hymnals, worship books, etc.

Iona Abbey
Iona Abbey
Iona Abbey

We happened to visit Iona on a Sunday, which also just happens to be the only day of the week when there is no prayer service in the afternoon. I had to content myself with just being in the building. Still, it felt very much like a Sunday experience for me, a small moment of silent worship and praise.

Sure, it could have had my moment of Sunday worship and praise anywhere. But, I found that the building is not only a convenient and familiar place in which to which to lift up a bit of worship and praise. There is something about the building itself that evokes a sense of holiness, of wonder, of prayerfulness.

What happens when we at Old South can no longer sustain our building(s)? We may live on as church, in important and meaningful ways, but we will also miss something significant to our lives of faith, in the loss of the building in which we worship.  And perhaps more than that.

At Old South, we already spend a couple of months each winter worshiping outside of the building, gathering for Sunday worship in our parish house. Over the years, we have learned that there are pros and cons to this transition. In moving to our other building, we lose the threat of slipping on an icy road (the parish house, across the street from the church building, is closer to the parking area). We also lose the organ and the pulpit, as well as the large setting in which the small congregation tends to spread from one side to the other. The parish house may feel less “church-like,” but there are benefits beyond accessibility:  we have a closer experience and even when our worship attendance is low, we don’t feel small.

My experience in Scotland reminded me that the building is not simply for the community that gathers within it. Church buildings are for others as well. As church membership declines at a remarkably rapid pace and as church buildings are repurposed into spaces that are not connected to religious practice, will the community at large find that we have lost something precious and valuable?

Perhaps a wee bit of hopefulness can be found at Iona, where the first wave of Christianity gained a foothold in 563.  Through great toil and struggle, Christianity has been a part of Iona on and off through these many hundreds of years.  Among the Christians that have found a home on Iona were Celtic Christians, Benedictines and since the 1930s, an ecumenical group of Christians known as the Iona Community.  The Abbey Church has experienced both a strong sense of place and connection, with active worship, as well as complete abandonment.

In all of this, what seems important is to remain tethered to our purpose and our lives of faith, to do our best to refrain from overwhelming worry and concern about the future, and quite simply, to trust, to trust in the work of the Spirit in our midst.

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My husband and I are off to Scotland for almost three weeks to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.   If you would like to see what we are up to:

Susan and Joe Scotland 2019

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Get Outside and Look Up

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the star that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

Psalm 8

This small section from Psalm 8 is an excellent theme for summer (and just about any other time of year). It offers a perspective and question that we don’t ponder nearly enough in our lives of faith. We mostly want to approach God in a more personal way, in how God accompanies us on our journey, or why God seems to do this or that in our lives, or why God allows suffering, catastrophe or horrible pain, especially when disasters touch us in a particularly personal way.

We don’t offer consider why God should be mindful of us at all. It’s not that I think God is not mindful of us (because I believe that God is), but it’s worth a bit of our time and attention to consider the hugeness of the universe of which we are part and to allow ourselves to take in the notion that we are quite small in comparison.

It’s a good thing to take a moment for a little perspective and, at that same time to allow our minds to expand enough to wonder, to wonder in a big, bold way.

Have you ever found yourself outside after dark in a place that is far from city lights, on a cloudless night when you can not only see the stars, but the enormous and awesome grandness of the sky, with all its stars and planets, little dots in a velvety deep indigo sky, taking in not only the grandeur, but the wonder of distance and of otherness, that we exist on one small planet, sharing it with a whole bunch of very small creatures? If you haven’t, I suggest you give it a try.

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Some years ago, when my son, John, was still quite young, we got up in the middle of a summer night. I forget what kind of event was going to be happening in the sky, maybe a meteor shower or something like that, but something was going to be happening in the sky, so we planned to go out well after dark to see what we could see. Long after the sun has finally set and the vestiges of light from that enormous ball of gas finally go away for a time, the clear night sky can be a truly amazing thing to behold. The stars look so bright, and there are so many of them.

In the ancient world, when the psalmist declared his sense of creation, way before there was such a thing as light pollution, the night sky must have been downright humbling. In the reality of the grandness and enormity of the universe, where do human beings fit? How can God truly be mindful of us, each one of us, when we consider the moon and the stars (and planets and galaxies) too?

It’s good to step back and at least try to gain a bit of perspective from time to time. It’s also good to allow ourselves to open our minds and hearts and to wonder, to wonder in a big, bold way. It’s a good thing to let go of all of those little things that crowd our thoughts and to access our capacity to wonder, to open ourselves to the grandeur, the immensity, the mystery of the creation of which we are one small part.

It’s summer. Get outside. And look up.

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None Mother

My daughter recently graduated from college. During the graduation ceremony, the senior class speaker offered a rather confusing, rambling speech interjected with giggles (she seemed very nervous). Given the prestige of this particular college, I was a little taken aback by the poor quality of the speech. I’m not sure what she was trying to convey, but I noticed that she referenced “mental health” several times. This is something I’ve observed from my own daughter and her friends—the open and public sharing of mental health concerns and expectations.

Certainly, mental and emotional health and wellbeing are important, vital to one’s overall wellbeing. And, it’s a good thing that this concept has been taken out of where it was once kept, in the private sphere, and given some public space.

Yet, I can’t help but feel a little unsettled by the ways through which this concept is expressed and referenced, and the seemingly easy dismissal of avenues to wellbeing from the past—like religion.

A couple of years ago, when my daughter was going through a particularly difficult episode in her life that involved medical and educational issues, I suggested that she try religion. She has, for a number of years, professed herself to be an atheist, although willing, from time to time, to grace Old South Church with her presence when she’s home. She has also, and I’m very thankful for this, not made a public display while at church to demonstrate her lack of affinity for the church, its theology and traditions. She may sit with a frown on her face and she doesn’t appear to participate much, but she’s there and respectful about the experience. But it’s clear enough that she’s not especially fond of Christianity, at least not the Congregational/United Church of Christ variety.

When she was going through that difficult patch, I tried to suggest that she might consider another form of religion or religious practice. After all, there are plenty of choices, and plenty of subsets within various religions. Perhaps one of them could offer her a place/space through which she could explore and discover a sense of peace and purpose, a stronger sense of herself and her inner resilience. She gave me one of those “oh mother” looks, like I was suggesting something completely outrageous.

When I was her age, religion was vitally important to me and my sense of wellbeing. I experienced many difficulties on my path through adolescence and young adulthood (and certainly through my adulthood). My Christian faith always offered a place of peace, a sense of belonging (especially when I felt like I belonged nowhere else), and an assurance of love and hope. My faith both nurtured me and challenged me. It helped me feel that I was a beloved child of God, and that my life had purpose and meaning. All of that is still true today.

But, my daughter and her peers appear to reject such paths to wellbeing. For most of her friends, it may be a little more understandable to reject religious practice since their parents (and perhaps grandparents) rejected religion long ago.   And with all of the terrible religiously related headlines, it may be no wonder that religion is not even considered in relationship to wellbeing.

Despite the problems, religious traditions generally offer (much of the time, anyway) ready-made pieces for assembling a structure for understanding oneself, one’s place in the world and one’s connections to others. The path to emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing doesn’t need to be completely re-invented over and over again.   Religious traditions are far from perfect, I realize, and there are aspects of religious practice that have damaged many people. But, religion is not all bad and, in fact, can be very helpful.

As a mother of someone poised at such a significant moment in life, in stepping out into the realm of adulthood, I worry about my child’s lack of a spiritual safety net—and her friends as well. It’s not easy becoming an adult, and seems even more fraught now.   There’s plenty to deal with in setting a path forward. While friends and family can offer love and support, it’s really one’s own inner life that provides that necessary foundation for wellbeing—no matter the path of employment, education, etc. Religious and spiritual practice doesn’t guarantee wellbeing, that’s for sure, but it is through such traditions that countless people have discovered deep and abiding meaning for their lives. It’s too bad that the whole enterprise seems to be in the process of being heaved away, especially without a real sense of a sufficient replacement.

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Understanding the Limits of Welcome

This past Sunday was one of the more bizarre worship experiences I’ve had during my relatively long tenure as pastor and teacher at Old South Church in Hallowell, Maine.

Let’s set the scene: The previous Sunday was Children’s Sunday and Music Sunday, so this past Sunday was a “Sunday after.”   In other words, it was a low energy Sunday. The gloomy, chilly weather didn’t help matters.

Not long into the start of worship, a young man wandered in, dressed in what looked like his pajamas. He went over to one side of the sanctuary, took off his coat and sat down. When someone got up to fetch him a bulletin, he refused to take it, put his coat back on and left.

And, then another stranger came along— this time a middle-aged man. He was dressed normally, but what was immediately disconcerting was that he didn’t sit down. He slowly walked along the back of the sanctuary. Then, he went into the vestry. The large doors between the vestry and sanctuary were open, so everyone could see him. He stood in one spot and then another. I had just started my sermon. I’ll admit that I was irritated by the fact that almost everyone was looking at him and not paying attention to the sermon that I had carefully crafted for the day. So, I motioned to the man and encouraged him to come into the sanctuary and take a seat. He didn’t at first.

Finally, as I continued on—trying very hard to keep my irritation at bay—he finally went to the back of the sanctuary and took a seat in one of the back pews.

Everyone seemed to settle down, at least enough to turn some of their attention to what I was saying. But, then the man took out a camera and started taking photos—of the ceiling, the windows, the architecture (presumably) and then the congregation.

I didn’t like it at all. It was all very unsettling, especially since the man’s countenance was rather severe. He didn’t smile or look friendly.

And, there I was preaching about the “new commandment,” to be known as a follower of Jesus by showing love for one another.  What should I do with this all too obvious “object lesson” right in front of me?

I kept an eye on our visitor, who stayed in the back pew and continued to periodically pull up his camera and take photos. He sat quietly, but didn’t participate. He didn’t sing hymns, etc.

As soon as I pronounced the benediction, I left the chancel and headed to the back of the sanctuary, where I waited for the postlude to finish. Then, I approached the man and introduced myself. I discovered that he was a visitor from a northern European country, an artist (I think that’s what he was trying to tell me) who takes photographs. He gave me his card and then left, declining the invitation to join us for coffee and snacks.

When I went into the vestry, I was descended upon by at least half of the congregation— “Oh, you did so well to keep your cool;” “Who was he, what was he doing here?”; “I was so worried. I thought he might pull out a gun!”; “What would we have done if he had pulled out a gun?”; and, “We need to have a protocol for this sort of thing.”

And, in the midst of the flurry, a few people observed the strange juxtaposition of such a stranger and my sermon about loving one another. Amid the running commentary, there was also a sense of how terrible it was to feel that way, to be so filled with suspicion and anxiety. But, how can we not, after everything that’s been going on in the world?

In our little congregation in the middle of Maine, up in the northeast corner of the U.S., it’s been all too easy to feel a bit cut off from the violence of our country and the world. But, on Sunday we felt that awful vulnerability and that terrible sense of dread of how quickly and violently our lives could be so completely and utterly altered. And, in the midst of that, the painful awareness of the limits of welcome. We might say “All are welcome,” but in reality, that welcome is not quite the beautifully radical invitation we would like or hope it to be.

Sure, the second visitor acted strangely, coming in late, wandering around and taking photos. Perhaps it’s okay to cut ourselves a little slack for thinking those terrible thoughts about what we would do if something horrific happened. Still, it is unsettling to have those feelings in a place where we would strongly prefer not to. We want church to feel safe. We want it to be “sanctuary.”

Last Sunday, worship was not sanctuary. Instead, it offered a moment in which we came face to face with the reality that our sense of vulnerability is just barely below the surface. It was also an unpleasant reminder that when we declare “no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” (slogan of the United Church of Christ) we don’t mean it unconditionally. There are limits to our welcome, in this age of anxiety in which we live. We may have good reason to be cautious, but it’s still a sad state of affairs to know how quickly our welcoming words are cast aside and our suspicious attitudes brought to the surface.

Jesus gave us a new commandment to love one another. That’s not an easy thing. We shouldn’t kid ourselves. And yet we are called to do just that, to love and to welcome. We will experience anxiety, but at the same time, we must exercise self-control in not allowing that anxiety to dictate who we are and how we express our sense of being church. We can be cautious, but we cannot allow that caution to be the ultimate guiding tool for how we gather and how we response to strangers. In the midst of this, we can be loving and welcoming, acknowledging our fears but not allowing those fears to get the best of us.

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