To Give Up or Take Up?

I’ve always had a rather awkward relationship with Lent. I remember when I was in high school, the season of Lent had an almost athletic contest vibe to it. My youth group friends and I would usually decide to give up something that would be challenging, and then see how each of us would do. We didn’t exactly intentionally try to trip each other up, but there was definitely an edge of competition about the whole thing.

When I was a senior in high school, I decided to take on something that would be especially challenging for me by giving up chocolate. I knew that it would be a difficult, painful slog to abstain from chocolate (the greatest substance in the world) from Ash Wednesday to Easter. And that I probably wouldn’t make it.   It’s hard enough to go a day . . .  Yet, I took it on, likely with a few thoughts of the glory I would feel if I did make it through the season.

That year, as it happens every year, my birthday was not far from the start of Lent. On the Sunday closest to my birthday, my parents would typically arrange to have a little birthday celebration during a youth group meeting, since that’s where all of my friends were. The cake that they delivered to the church that year was of course chocolate, as it normally was (my parents never paid much attention to whatever I decided to give up for Lent and they clearly hadn’t that year).

I stared at the cake for a long moment. Although we were only a week or two into Lent, I had been faithful to my Lenten discipline. I had not consumed any chocolate. But, it was my birthday and my birthday cake. Internally, I was torn. My friends, who were also in the midst of their own Lenten challenges knew very well what I was facing. To eat or not to eat? To give in or to maintain the fast?

Then, the Roman Catholic kid who was part of our youth group, by virtue of his girlfriend being a part of our group, chimed in: “Sundays don’t count!” In fact, Sundays are not part of the 40 days of fasting. Leave it to the Catholic in the group to know the details.

I could have my cake and my fast as well.

So, I ate a piece of that cake, but experience left me with an odd feeling that has stayed with me ever since. How did any of what I was doing in that particular Lenten fast, or in any of the others that preceded it, help draw me closer to Christ?

As an adult, I rarely give anything up anymore. But, I feel drawn to do something. In recent years, I’ve tried taking something up instead. This year, I’ve decided to keep a gratitude journal—each day reflecting on something about which I’m grateful. I got the idea a few years ago, from a writing workshop colleague. I remember her talking about her gratitude journal and thinking to myself that keeping such a thing over a period of time would be difficult—perhaps even very difficult—for me. But, the idea stuck itself to a piece of my brain. This year, I’ll give it a try.

The season of Lent is connected to the withdrawal of Jesus into the desert for 40 days. Not only did Jesus fast during that time, but he wrestled with the “devil” or “the tempter.”

Lent ought not only be a time to “give up,” but to endeavor to connect in a new way, and to face those temptations that keep us from Christ. The season should not be akin to a game or athletic contest, nor about how much we can deprive ourselves, as if that’s the only want to please God. Instead, Lent offers an opportunity to reflect and to act, to ponder and to engage, not only with the deprivations that Jesus himself experienced, but with the temptations with which he wrestled—temptations of power, authority and wealth. For those are very important temptations indeed.

Whether we give up or take up, the season of Lent is a holy time to delve into what it means for us to be faithful people—people who wish to walk the road following Jesus. As we know very well, the road is difficult and will bring us places we would rather not go. But, it is also the road that leads to love, hope and new life.

Lent is a special time, a time of invitation to a mysterious holiness. We should not be so focused on our own willpower, or lack thereof, or whether or not we can be better than another in sacrificing, that we miss the beckoning of Christ, whose hand is held out in welcome to us, that we may be drawn closer and to find in that closeness strength and wholeness for the journey of faith and of life.

 

 

 

 

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The Heisman Approach to Christian Theology

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, there was a saying that became part of the language of my group of friends: “the Heisman.” You may be familiar with the Heisman Trophy, awarded each year to the most outstanding college athlete in the United States. Among my friends, the use of the phrase “The Heisman” had nothing to do with football. It had to do with what the trophy looks like, in that it looks like the figure is pushing away from someone or something:

heisman_trophy

In my group of friends, “The Heisman” was how we referred to a romantic connection gone bad, as in:  Did your girlfriend give you The Heisman? which meant, Did your girlfriend break up with you?

And, sometimes asking the question involved actually assuming the Heisman stance.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about this sort of “Heisman” stance in relationship to Christian theology. At Old South, I’ve long been aware of at least some discomfort in relationship to certain traditional aspects of Christian theology—incarnation; atonement; the promise of eternal life; resurrection; etc. I’ll even admit that I share an attitude of distance toward certain pieces of traditional Christian theology—like Original Sin. I really don’t like that one, for a whole bunch of reasons.

I’m also becoming increasingly aware of the Heisman approach to Christian theology well beyond my little congregation.

At a recent gathering of United Church of Christ clergy, as well as a few lay people, one of the younger people in our midst, a graduate of a respected divinity school, suggested that the theology he had learned was really not at all part of the work that he did, work that he claims to be inherently ministerial (in a chaplain-type setting). The theology that he had learned remained in books lined up on a dusty shelf in his office.

In response to this, I asked him if he really left that theology on the shelf. Is it really not in any way part of the work that you do? I asked. His answer was that it is indeed not any part of the work that he does.  No matter, though, for the rest of my clergy colleagues.  They approved him for ordination.

When I shared a concern about this exchange at another gathering, attended mostly by other United Church of Christ clergy, the only response I got was a couple of shoulder shrugs.

And at yet another meeting, this one involving the Maine Conference UCC summer camp, the out-going camp director reflected on his long tenure at the camp. When he began, all he had to do to entice people to attend camp was to put a photo prominently on the brochure of the camp’s outdoor chapel cross with a sunset in the background. The cross, though, is now a liability. It not only doesn’t entice people as it once did, it repels them.  He, at least, expressed sadness at the change he has witnessed.

There’s certainly plenty of reason for people to be suspicious when it comes to Christian groups and denominations. The other day, I came home to find my 18-year-old son watching the film Spotlight, the Oscar winning film about The Boston Globe team that uncovered the vast conspiracy in the Roman Catholic Church to shield priests who had sexually abused children.   It’s just one profoundly sobering example of how very un-Christian Christians can be.

Still, for those of us who remain within the Church, trying to live in the midst of and endeavoring to live out of what we find to be good about Christianity, I find it unsettling to think that so many seem prepared to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” giving much of Christian theology “the Heisman.”

 

I can’t say that I’m often an eager theologian.  And, while I don’t usually quote important theologians in my sermons, I can’t imagine doing this work without the theology.  After all, how can we even engage with our sacred texts without the theological lens?  The Gospel writers, for instance, weren’t historians or biographers.  They were really theologians, telling a story about Jesus the Christ, who and why he was and is.

What are we, who are we, without the theology, without an interest in active engagement with the study of God and God’s relationship with us and creation?  I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s what I want to be, or where I want to go.  It’s one thing to grapple with traditional elements of Christian theology, considering and re-considering their meaning in a modern context.  It’s quite another to heave it all out the window, pushing it far away.

The Heisman approach to Christian theology may seem and feel a lot more comfortable and palatable to some, but it leaves us unmoored and drifting from the very thing that gives us life and sustains our faith in a deep and abiding way.   To heave our theology also diminishes the love and hope we claim to want to share.

 

 

 

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Where the Epiphanies Have No Name

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At the start of Epiphany season this year, I innocently asked (at least I thought it was an innocent question) for those who had assembled for worship that Sunday to think about epiphanies that they had experienced. The empty looks on the faces staring back at me caught me off guard. I told them that I wasn’t expecting anyone to share their epiphanies, unless they wanted to, but just curious about their experiences. Still, a sea of blank faces.

So, when I reframed the question, I asked if anyone had ever had an epiphany.

Only one woman raised her hand.

She went on to share a lovely experience of a sudden awareness of God as Creator.  Even that, didn’t inspire any additional raising of hands.

I was at a loss, not only at the unexpected notion that I was part of a congregation full of people who had never experienced something that they could classify as an epiphany, but also because my interactive sermon that day got, in that moment, a lot more complicated. I was planning on talking about epiphanies, in a group of people where most of the people knew what I was talking about.

I’ve been Pastor and Teacher at Old South for over a dozen years. How could I not know that the people of this congregation—except for one—had never had an epiphany? I couldn’t help the sudden flood of conversations that I’ve had with people over the years regarding epiphanies. But, as the flood became clearer, with each individual taking shape in my memory, it occurred to me that many of those conversations were old ones, that predated my call to Old South, and except for one or two, were among other clergy types or people about my age or younger.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about this and wondering. What does it mean to be in the midst of so many good and well-meaning church folk, but people who are not able to define a moment of epiphany?

For Christians, there is the big E Epiphany, on January 6, when we remember the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, marking their realization of the Incarnation of God, and there are the little “e” epiphanies, moments of sudden, and unexpected, insight and awareness—spiritual “aha” moments, if you will.

When I asked my little congregation about their own experiences of such moments, I wasn’t at all expecting to encounter blankness. I had simply assumed, based on conversations that I’ve had over the years, that almost everyone who attends church on a regular basis has had some sort of epiphany, that it’s the random epiphany or two in life that compels continued participation in a community of faith.

I’m not sure now what to do with this new knowledge—it’s own strange, unwelcome sort of epiphany. There is the hopeful side of me that wants to believe that it’s not so much the absence of the experience of epiphany, but simply that it’s never been called such a thing. But, then there’s the not so hopeful side that wonders about the actual lack of epiphanies, whether they are called such things or not.

This isn’t really the first of these sorts of moments, when I’m confronted by the sense that for most of those who call Old South home, the life of faith is not defined, nor informed, nor dependent on spiritual “aha” moments, when one is blessed with that sudden, wondrous, awareness in one’s soul.  Instead, for the good church folk who gather at Old South, the life of faith is about gathering among a certain group of people in a certain building in the midst of a certain routine of worship, tradition and the liturgical year.  Faith is not so much about  that resonating “still small voice” (or occasional yell), but about habit and routine, friendships and community.

 

This isn’t to say that one way is good and the other bad, or that one way is correct and the other incorrect.  Instead, it is another witness of the changing shape of life and faith.  The congregation that I lead is essentially an active, practicing community of what was, of what church used to be.

They are not a community of what will be.

In this, some sadness exists, that even some of the language that I speak is not a common language in my congregation.  Yet, I’m also aware of how important it is to not only meet them where they are, but respect them for who and what they are.  The ways of Old South may no longer be what a great many people want (or think they want), but for those who gather in community at Old South, they endeavor to live their faith, actively and fervently.  They are church and a people of faith, a witness to the love of God and the hope of making the world a better place through the sharing of that love.

 

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The Common Good

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16(NRSV)

Last week, as I was preparing my communion Sunday homily, I stumbled upon a column in the New York Times written by David Brooks, “How Would Jesus Drive?” Brooks began that column with this paragraph:

Over the past several years we have done an outstanding job of putting total sleazoids at the top of our society: Trump, Bannon, Ailes, Weinstein, Cosby, etc. So it was good to get a reminder, from Pope Francis in his New Year’s Eve homily, that the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly. The pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, “the artisans of the common good.”

I agree with Brooks on the Pope’s phrase being a beautiful one. And useful.

Although I mostly take for granted the ways of my little congregation in Hallowell, Maine, it’s a good thing, from time to time, to step back and take a different sort of look at what we do, just being who we are. In our gathering, we don’t need to say much about being attentive to the common good. It’s something that we do. Sure, there’s always room for improvement, but we are artisans of the common good—and not just in terms of our gestures of kindness.

Old South may be an older church and predominantly white, but in one area we are not homogenous: politics. We are a mixed bag in terms of how we vote, and why. We have Democrats and Republicans. We also have people who are rather stridently Independent. And, we likely have a few Libertarians. And, perhaps still more of which I am unaware.

We don’t exactly have regular political debates, but most people who attend Old South know that not everyone in the congregation votes the same way. Occasionally, someone will express a bit of consternation that we cannot speak clearly as one voice in matters of a political nature. But, the folks who make up the Old South community generally find it a more significant value to be respectful of our political diversity. We remain a mixed group, yet one that is able to worship and work together. An increasingly rare thing.

For myself, I’m a Democrat, married to a Republican. Years ago, this wasn’t such a big deal, but now I get the sense that it’s not only a bigger deal, but even alarming to some people. My daughter, a junior at a college in New York, has told me that she has learned to be careful about letting people know that she comes from a politically mixed family. Some friends have not only expressed some surprise at her upbringing in such a household, but a sense of disbelief (and even outrage) that such a thing is even possible.

In so many aspects of our public life, people now gather only with those with whom they agree. At Old South, what we do, and who we are, is increasingly rare. In this way, it is even more important that we don’t just keep our “lamp under a bushel basket,” only for ourselves.  We are artisans of the common good, attentive to what lies beyond our differences: our common humanity.

We are called to cast our artisan ways out and beyond, with a sort of stealthy, reckless abandon, furtively interrupting the efforts to keep people apart, and mistrustful of those who are different.  May our artisan light so shine, that it may offer light and hope to others.

 

 

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Big Questions the New Year Brings

The end of December, after Christmas has settled down, usually brings with it reflections of various kinds—looking back at the year about to end, and looking forward to what is to come, or may come, in the new year.

For me, the new year will bring a lot of the bittersweet, as my son enters into his last months at the local high school. For my daughter, we observed many of her “lasts”—the last strings concert, the last big swim meet, etc.—before she graduated from high school. For my son, the “lasts” will not only be for him, but for me and my husband as well. Since there is no third child, John’s “lasts” will be our lasts as well. It’s a strange feeling.

At Old South, the turn of the year feels strange in its own way. It feels especially odd, I think, because things seem fairly calm and quiet. No major budget battle looms. No great argument over bylaws or governance is on the horizon. Even our move to hold worship in the parish house for the harshest of the winter months—after several years of doing so—has lost (mostly) its feeling of controversy.

We will very likely have some tricky budget decisions to make, and trying to find a new treasurer (our current Treasurer has served that role for about a decade and is eager to retire) will be difficult, perhaps even impossible. In looking back, we’ve lost people who are important to us. In looking forward, though we have a few newer people, we are a smaller congregation than we were a year ago.

The elephant in the room, the issue that no one wants to discuss, is our more distant future, which is a lot nearer than we would like to think. As a church, we continue to act as if both of our buildings—the building that holds our sanctuary and our parish house, where the offices and Sunday school classrooms are—can be sustained and maintained, without any significant impediments.

In addition to some harsh financial realities, we also face some difficult spiritual realities. While Old South has done a great deal to expand its mission and outreach, mostly in the form of raising funds for good causes, both near and far, its sense of itself, I fear, is on shaky ground. I know very well that there are active members of our congregation who bristle at the notion that they attend a “Christian” church. Others appear to have difficulty in articulating why they attend Old South, apart from the fact that its part of a routine and that they have friends there.

Although it has been very good to witness the renewed focus on outreach and mission to those in need—and it is a truly wonderful thing—it sometimes feels like all of that mission and outreach is a way of distracting ourselves from the larger, deeper questions. As a church, we are increasingly comfortable with providing aid and assistance, sometimes with several projects going at the same time. But, it’s less clear why we do so, other than churches are supposed to do that sort of thing.

I’ve been long aware that the congregation holds quite a few people who struggle with basic tenets of the Christian faith. I’ve encouraged the asking of those questions, as it seems better to have them out in the open. But, I sense that many in the congregation are moving beyond questions. They have found answers and those answers involve an estrangement from traditional elements of the faith.

I’ve heard people talk about how the sacraments don’t really mean all that much to them anymore. I’ve also heard people talk about their wish, when they die, to have a “celebration of life,” rather than a funeral, an opportunity for their loved ones to share stories, rather than a minister talk about the promises of eternal life. It’s not that they feel unsure. It’s more that they are sure, and that certainty holds a distance from traditional Christian theology, even in a liberal/progressive setting.

So, as I look back on the past year, and consider what might be next, I wonder about my role as “pastor and teacher” to this small congregation. We have realities to face. We have some soul searching to do. It’s not likely to be easy, or welcome. I think I might rather deal with a big budget battle . . .

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My Christmas (Carol) Blues

I love Advent. Christmas, not so much. Right now, I’m wishing I could fast forward to Tuesday, and have Christmas behind me.

It’s not Christmas itself that gets on my nerves. It’s mostly Christmas Eve and the annual Christmas Eve service. I should be more content this year. I’m writing on Thursday (December 21) and both services for December 24—one in the morning and one in the evening—are done, with bulletins printed off and ready to go. This is a wondrous thing that I don’t think has ever happened before.

Yet, I am not content. The complaints have been rolling in for the last week or so. It’s like this every year. The complaints mostly center on the hymns we are going to sing at the Christmas Eve service, the Christmas carols to be precise—and from what hymnal we will sing them.

Christmas Eve is, for so many, like a large, warm security blanket. And, that blanket is made up of certain things—including particular words of Christmas carols. For those who have been going to church for all of their lives, there’s something comforting about the same old words to the same old hymns. And, who can blame those who are looking for just that feeling? Especially in Maine, where it is cold and the sun sets around 4:00 in the afternoon.

Like other United Church of Christ churches in this part of the world, we have two hymnals in our pews—The Pilgrim Hymnal (from the 1950s) and the New Century Hymnal (from the mid-1990s). On most Sundays, in our three-hymn format, we sing one from one of the hymnals, and two from the other. And, there’s little complaining.

At Christmas, though, there is a small, but very vocal, group who would prefer to heave the New Century Hymnal, and all of its “new” language out into the closest snow bank.

It is true that not all of the decisions regarding the updating of Christmas carol language were good decisions. Still, there are some carols, I would argue, that benefitted from the updating. Yet, I have already heard, and will continue to hear mutterings around “those stupid words” and “why do we have to sing that”?

I don’t even choose many from the New Century. Out of the seven or eight carols that we’ll sing for the Christmas Eve service, only two or three of them are from the NCH. A few years ago, I tried allowing the congregation to sing from whatever hymnal they wanted, listing the numbers from both. One person told me that I might as well have scraped my fingernails across a blackboard for the whole service. It was that grating an experience for her.

So, now only one number is listed for each carol, and most of the carols are from the Pilgrim. Yet, the airing of grievances has commenced, and will continue until Christmas Eve is over.

But, it gets to me, this lack of openness to the possibility that some of the new words might actually be better words, and have a lot more connection to the sort of people of faith that we are now. Take the refrain from “The First Nowell.” In the Pilgrim, it goes “Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell, Born is the King of Israel.” In the New Century, it’s been changed to, “Nowell, etc., born in a stable Emmanuel.” Or, the start of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” In the Pilgrim: “Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King.’” In the NCH: “Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the Christ-child bring.’”

I think that we ought to be not only more comfortable with, but more welcoming of, the reworking of those monarchy words—as well as those words that that are all about “men” and “mankind,” etc. Like the start of the second verse of “Joy to the World” where “Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns: Let men their songs employ” has been altered to “Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns. Let all their songs employ.” Especially appropriate in a church that is made up mostly of women.

Yes, the words are different. And, they may feel strange on our tongues. And, they require that we pick up a hymnal and follow words, when we are used to singing without the book.

But, I think it’s worth it. Christmas, as a holy-day, cannot be simply a safe refuge in a difficult and cold world. Christmas, if it is to be a true refuge, should inspire some openness to something new. After all, we are visiting and considering a remarkable thing: the coming of God in the small, vulnerable package of a child. We can’t (or shouldn’t) escape the newness. A nice gift this Christmas, to the worn and tired pastor: a little less grumbling. So that we may all find in this season a renewal of wonder and awe, a renewal of our faith.

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I Could Use a Little Hope

When I discovered that I was pregnant with my first child, my immediate sense of happiness was quickly pushed aside by consternation at my lack of forethought. If the pregnancy went as expected, I would be giving birth in December—perhaps even on Christmas. For someone who is a “planner,” this seemed a remarkable lapse in my skills. That time of year is not exactly a great time for a clergyperson to be having a child.

Having a child in December was not the only concern at the time. My husband was near the finish line for his Ph.D. and on the job market for a tenure-track academic position—with prospects that could be best described as “skimpy.” I might have expected an easier time in securing a position, but clergy positions came with compensation packages that also might be described as skimpy.

We could squeeze another year out of our resident tutor status at Harvard, so we were not in dire straits, with unemployment and homelessness looming. The small voice of concern and worry in my head was easily suppressed by the larger voice in my head that assured me that everything would be just fine.

I wish that I could conjure that feeling now.

I begin this season of Advent yearning for a little hope.

The news feels so unrelentingly grim. While I force myself every morning to keep to my usual routine of checking the same sources of news in the same order—New York Times, Boston.com, and finally the local Morning Sentinel—I’ve found my scanning of headlines to be about as much as I can handle most days. And, even that can be too much.

There’s the President, of course. I am particularly angry and depressed at his continual attitude of bullying, pettiness, and meanness. If he were a student at the local high school, where my son goes to school, he would likely have been suspended by now. Or certainly disciplined and punished.

The barrage of stories about sexual harassment and misconduct is also terribly unsettling, although it is a good thing that this wretched problem is getting some much-needed attention. The “apologies,” though—for anyone who “might have been hurt”—push me further away from anything resembling hope.

On the world stage, the news is difficult, with warfare, chaos, the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities, etc, etc, etc.

And, then there is church, the church I serve, Old South in Hallowell, Maine. It’s budget season and while we may get through this season without too much in the way of dramatic change, change is on the horizon—clear as day. And, also clear: a reluctance to talk about what we are going to do. We have two buildings, each of which is significant to the life of the church community. But with our church community getting smaller, we will not be able to maintain both buildings into the indefinite future. Yet, there’s a sense that we won’t be “Old South” without the buildings, and a very real concern (for me, anyway) that the church may decide to cut away at everything else, including staffing, before allowing any talk about selling a building.

At the start of Advent, I find myself bereft of that thing that usually defines the start of Advent: hope.

Last Sunday, my homily probably spoke to me as much as, or more so, than the congregation. The stark language of the lectionary passage from Mark (13:24-37), calling us to “beware,” “keep alert,” and “keep awake,” is not spoken in the spirit that many Christians would prefer. That is, that many Christians have the tendency to believe that God acts, “God will provide,” and that all we need to do is to sit back— waiting, watching, receiving.

But, I don’t think that’s what’s going on in the passage.

Instead, I think the passage reminds us that we are a part of how God acts in the world. We are not simply beneficiaries of God’s work. We are part of it, offering our hands, feet, hearts and minds to what God is up to in our midst.

Hope, then, isn’t a passive thing, something for which we wait and watch until God decides (or not) to offer it to us. Hope is a choice. It is an invitation.

Back when my husband and I were actively trying to figure out what was next, we discovered that we had to open ourselves to possibilities that were not what we had in mind—or we would surely end up in a hopeless place. Moving to Maine was not exactly on my list for where I wanted to settle down. In fact, I didn’t even look at the clergy openings available in the state before we moved here.

While our move to Maine (twenty years ago) hasn’t been perfect (nothing is, after all), it has offered almost everything we could possibly want—good jobs; a great place to raise a family; wonderful friends; good community; and, meaningful faith communities.

Part of the waiting and watching is to know that God’s hope is often found in places where we prefer not to go, places that feel uncomfortable and alien. Yet, we are called to follow, and in the knowing that God is with us, there is hope. Yes, there is hope.

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