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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The Ways of Men, and Women, Politics, Power and Morality

The explosion of stories regarding sexual harassment and misconduct is unsettling, while it is also a sort of relief. Finally, this issue is getting some important attention.

We find ourselves in not really new territory. But, we are certainly in a strange place. Whose misbehavior is deemed vile and worthy of reproach? Whose misbehavior is loathed, yet without any real evidence to support claims of misconduct? Is it okay to ignore misbehavior if the accused simply sticks to denial? And, what about words and actions caught on tape, yet successfully classified as “boys will be boys”?

I very much hope that the current disturbing landscape will lead to meaningful conversation—making it clear to men and boys what is okay, and what isn’t, and for women and girls to know how to deal with harassment and misconduct, instead of suffering in silence, in confusion, or thinking that this is just how things are.

Part of what makes the current situation especially problematic is that we have a long-standing tradition of looking the other way, especially when men of power misbehave, and more than that, when we’ve too often been selective in our outrage. We’ve been distracted by inconsistent notions of what is “personal” and what is “public.” In the recent accusations toward more conservative men, for instance, there’s been an outcry that goes back to Bill Clinton’s misbehavior and misconduct. That’s a fair criticism.

I remember well when we were in the midst of that time. I remember well the strange conversations in which I found myself, where smart, thoughtful and reasonable people bought all that twisted business that Clinton’s dalliances were “private” and none of our business. I couldn’t disagree more—then or now. A white house intern. The oval office. It wasn’t private. Nor were the accusations of groping, sexual advances and even rape (that had even more evidence than some of the current crop of accusations). I was baffled that Bill Clinton somehow managed a “rescue” when no one else would be granted such treatment. How could good Democratic women—feminists—be so blind to the accusations of Clinton’s predatory behavior?

And, now we are in a sad and frustrating time with men in all sorts of positions of power, and all sorts of political persuasions, being accused of misconduct. Does this have anything to do with Bill Clinton not ever being forced to take responsibility for his misdeeds? Clinton was certainly not the first man with considerable power to take advantage of his place to satisfy his carnal lusts. But, Clinton signaled a shift in our culture and how our lives are lived.   There were new ways of communicating and new expectations for feeding a public hungry for scandal.

Yet, there was, and still remains, the sense of a call for a reckoning. It may be too late for Bill Clinton to be held responsible for his disgusting, and likely illegal, behavior. But, women, and especially feminists, must take stock and must be willing to take an honest look not only at the current landscape, but the paths that have led us to this place, and the errors that have been made in supporting certain men, while vilifying others—usually based on political affiliation.

Morality may seem an old fashioned concept, but it’s one that could be useful at this time. If we could get past the notion that morality is simply a set of rules that are meant to interfere with our ability to have fun, we may discover that morals and morality possess, at their foundation, important concepts of the dignity of individuals and how we human beings should treat each other. You know, Golden Rule stuff. Love God and treat others as you would have them treat you.

Religious traditions and institutions are not without their own issues when it comes to the problematic treatment of women. This would be a good time for widespread and wide-ranging reflections on women and the treatment of women—by women and men, and women and men together.

The complex and difficult mess in which we now find ourselves demonstrates that a conversation regarding morality is not just for those who are prone to treat women as objects for their sexual fancies or for their need to express their power and influence. A conversation regarding morality is for all of us, including those who have an influence of their own and sometimes deem politics to be more important than the victims of misconduct.

We can do better, and we must. This opportunity must not be allowed to pass, with the notion that our work is done when at least some of the careers of perpetrators are in tatters. The problem is bigger than that.   And, we must be bigger too, bravely examining the lessons of the past and the present, and seeking to pave a new path forward.

 

 

 

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Guns, Violence and Church

Last Sunday, on a gloomy and gray afternoon, we gathered from a wide swath of Maine, representing various United Church of Christ congregations along the Kennbec Valley and the northwestern part of the state, up to the Canadian border. We came from places like Hallowell and Wilton, Waterville and Farmington, Winthrop and Jackman, New Sharon and Benton Falls. We spent the afternoon at the Farmington church getting to know each other, as we are still a relatively new merger of two Maine Conference Associations. I didn’t count how many people were in attendance, but my guess is around thirty.

Most of us could be dead right now.

Just as our meeting was breaking up, just after we had smiled and giggled our way through “Getting to Know You” (not exactly what we usually sing at church gatherings, but it felt appropriate to what we had been up to all afternoon), someone announced that there had been another mass shooting. This time in a church.

A wave of silence took over the room, along with an almost palpable sense of shock and dismay. Another horrible incident. Another horrible day. And, the unspoken veil of futility hung over us: nothing will change.

The slaughter of country music fans in Las Vegas, or a bunch of young children in an elementary school on an ordinary December day in Connecticut, and now a group of caring and faithful people at worship at a quiet church in Texas—somehow none of them count enough to motivate a serious, wide-ranging discussion about guns and violence in our communities.

This week, we have heard the rhetoric of the extreme, and vocal, end of the NRA, calling for more guns and for armed security in places like churches. We are hearing the dangerous adage that the only way to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun—as if bad people go around with large “I’m a bad person” hats on their heads, just so we are clear about everything.

Tuesday’s New York Times included, related to its coverage of the church shooting on Sunday, an article, “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer.” And, in that article, the statement: “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”

The question, then, is why. Why so many guns?

Is this really about the NRA stuffing down our throats a narrative about freedom and protection of self through gun ownership? Or, is there more to it?

From my little perch in this corner of the country, I find myself wondering about our violent tendencies, as well as the fraying of ties that hold us together as community. I find it curious that, in a country in which so many claim some sort of tie to Judeo-Christian traditions, there seems to be a remarkably tenuous relationship with basic tenets of those traditions, like “do not kill,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” While there are many who cling to “do not kill” when it comes to abortion, that commandment doesn’t get much attention when living individuals are attacked so wantonly and viciously.

Why can we not truly talk about what is happening? Why can we not dig deep and to let go, for a moment, of our long-held opinions and positions, in recognition of the agonizing loss of life, to engage in meaningful conversation about what is happening in our country? As the bodies mount—not only through mass shootings, but also in the acts of violence that get little or no attention—how can we simply slide into our usual responses and only for a short time until the incident recedes in our consciousness?

Isn’t it time that we find the courage to honor those whose lives have been cut short, and to talk about violence and guns? Not to shout at each other, or to assume we know where other people stand on these issues. And, put aside “talking points” and the narratives of lobbyists. And talk. Talk about violence. Talk about the willful neglect of God’s commandments. Talk about the Golden Rule and what it means, and how it should influence how we treat each other—how we should take more seriously mental health, and loneliness, and domestic violence, etc.

Those who have been so brutally killed, and their loved ones who mourn, deserve more than our “thoughts and prayers.”

We must do better.

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The Reformation at 500: Are We Reformers or Protesters?

For its 500th anniversary, the Reformation has been receiving a lot of attention—in the media (even The New Yorker, see “The Hammer” in the current, October 30, 2017 edition); in denominations; and, in local churches. Of course, the moment 500 years ago when Martin Luther nailed or, more likely sent, his 95 theses, was not the only major shift in the life of the Christian Church. The Church has always been about the process of altering and changing.

At Old South, we’ve been focusing on the Reformation in a variety of ways. We’ve been learning about some of the important theological concepts associated with the Reformation (indulgences, predestination and everyone’s favorite, especially John Calvin’s, total depravity). And, we’ve been learning about the people—those who helped pave the road for the Reformation (like Jan Hus and John Wycliffe) and those who helped propel the ideas of the Reformation (Martin Luther obviously, along with John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli too, among others).

In November, we’ll begin to talk about how we, in the twenty-first century, are still involved in reforming the Church. In fact, many years from now, this very time of change may be viewed as a time similar to the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

A church not far from my house has a large sign on its front lawn: “Put the Protest back in Protestantism.” Along with that, an invitation to a worship service involving other area Protestant churches.

I see that sign at least once a day, but usually several times a day. And, I find myself wondering about it, and wrestling with its words and invitation.

Are we about the work of “reforming” or “protesting”? Should we be involved with one more than the other?  And, what should “reform” and/or “protest” look like in churches like the one I serve? Is the best part of Protestantism really the “protesting” part?

Here’s the thing that troubles me. Reform seems to me to be the sort of work that includes rather than divides, where the work of altering and improving involves a variety of people. Protest seems to be the work of telling other people that they are doing something wrong. The one who is protesting asserts knowledge of what is right, against something else that is wrong. The “other” must change, but necessarily the one who is protesting.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are times for protest. And, there are times when people of faith should protest.

But, is the current moment, as we celebrate the Reformation at 500, will we decide that it’s the “protest” part of “Protestantism” that matters most?

I hope not.

In our weekly Bible study at Old South, a group that includes people from a variety of area churches, we have been discussing and arguing our way through “A Study Guide for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation,” written by the Stillspeaking Writers’ Group of the United Church of Christ. This past week, when we focused on the third session, we were confronted by “Hot Button” issues, like “Total Depravity.”

In his presentation of the topic, leading up to discussion questions, Anthony B. Robinson offered the following:

“Total Depravity,” a Reformation teaching particularly associated with John Calvin, does not mean every single one of us is really a Hannibal Lecter. . . . It means that the power of sin and self-centerness are real, and have a way of insinuating themselves into everything.

Sin’s power and self-deception insinuate themselves—and here’s where this doctrine gets really useful—even into our attempts to do good. And you can take this a step further, when we are inclined to feel very confident that we are “the good and the just,” this doctrine would urge special caution. We are never so dangerous, observed theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, as when we are absolutely convinced of our own virtue.

I couldn’t agree more.

There’s a place—an important one, no doubt (as we are experiencing in no uncertain terms in this time)—for protest.

But, perhaps, we ought to keep a focused eye on reform even more—when we are not so much pointing the finger of accusation, but inviting a more constructive, thoughtful, and inclusive path forward. Protest will do some good, but making the sorts of changes necessary for a more just world will take a lot more.  As Anthony B. Robinson asserts, “Only by honestly knowing the depth of our need, can we also know the height and breadth of God’s capacity to find, to heal, to save.”  Amen.

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Me Too, and the Church

In the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein—yet another powerful man accused of sexual harassment and/or assault—women have lit up social media with their “me too” stories. When I first heard about Me Too, I couldn’t help but wonder that maybe it should have, instead, been a campaign to get women who haven’t been sexually harassed or assaulted to speak up. I’m guessing that that sort of campaign would involve mostly silence—deep, wide, profound, silence. What woman hasn’t been the victim of sexual misconduct?

Sure, most of the stories in the media center around the sexual harassment and sexual assault of men in positions of power, but in the “me too” torrent, we are clearly, but really not surprisingly, discovering that sexual harassment and assault is not limited to the powerful. It’s a component of the life experiences of many, if not most, women. If the current movement is to be the “watershed” moment that some think it might be, we need to acknowledge that this is not just about very powerful men. It’s also about regular, ordinary men, some of whom probably have no clue that what they are doing is offensive.

And, we need to consider the elements that lie at the root of this problem—one of those elements being the Christian Church.

I could write my own stories, but it would take awhile. In my personal life, I’ve experienced both harassment and assault. I’ve been more fortunate in my professional life, where I’ve experienced no assault and not a lot of harassment. I remember one incident that took place when I was a student minister at a church in Cambridge, Mass. As a student minister, I wasn’t comfortable wearing a robe. I had wanted to wait until I was ordained. But one Sunday, after many months of serving that church, an older man who rarely missed worship, came up to me after a Sunday worship service. He unabashedly looked me over from head to foot, and then in a tone dripping with lewd suggestion said, “I like your dress.” I started wearing a robe the very next Sunday.

Professionally, I’ve been lucky. I’m sure there are plenty of women with very different experiences, women who have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted by those in positions of authority in the Church, or not—with no one who will take these stories, and their consequences, seriously. Let’s hope that Me Too begins the incredibly important work of making sexual misconduct much less common.

While it’s good to have these stories more out in the open, I wonder about what this movement of outrage and storytelling will bring. It’s not as if we haven’t heard such stories in public in the past. The collective response as been less than inspiring— “boys will boys”; questions about what the victim was wearing; accusations of women changing their minds after the fact; etc. All very disheartening.

Part of the root of these attitudes belongs to the Church, and the Church must face this reality. It’s not enough to show compassion toward these women, or even disgust at the perpetrators. The Church must be willing to take a good look in the mirror and recognize its part in the problem.

Attitudes toward women have been problematic in the Christian Church for a very, very long time, despite the fact that such attitudes have a shaky foundation in the scriptures we declare to be holy. For example, although women are often blamed for the “fall,” when, in the second creation story in the Bible, the woman is said to have eaten fruit she was forbidden to eat, little attention is paid to the fact that the man, too, ate willingly and then was quick to point at her when they were caught—chivalry not yet a concept, I guess, nor sharing the blame for a shared act of rebellion. And, why don’t we chastise the man for tattling?

In the New Testament, there are plenty of stories that teach clear lessons regarding the significance and equality of women. Jesus taught women. Jesus upheld women. Jesus included women in his ministry. And, Paul too, despite a rogue verse or two about women being silent (which may not have been written by Paul at all, but altered at a later date) worked with women in his missionary work (the material contained in the “pastoral epistles” where women are told to be submissive is also widely believed to be later work, not written by Paul).

Not only is there no reason at all for the Church to engage in demeaning women, there is plenty of reason for the Church to be the champion of women.

The Church, and its various denominations, ought to take very seriously the stories of Me Too, and to seek not only to alter the perspectives and behaviors of powerful men, but also to dig deep and to alter the dangerous and problematic perspectives of ordinary men as well. Me Too, if it is to be the watershed moment that we as a society so desperately need, cannot just be about telling stories or sharing outrage. We must be willing to engage in a transformative moment that will lead to the telling of very different stories, stories that do much more to demonstrate and uphold the equality and dignity of woman, grounded in our holy texts.   This equality and dignity should be assertively, enthusiastically, and frequently taught. And, it should be expressed through living example in our communities of faith.

 

 

 

 

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I Can’t Throw and Catch at the Same Time

When the New England Patriots lost Super Bowl 46 to the New York Giants in 2012, Gisele Bundchen, supermodel and wife of the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, angrily assessed the reason for the loss: “My husband cannot [expletive] throw the ball and catch it at the same time.” Brady had thrown plenty, but several of his teammates dropped those passes, especially in the last quarter. And, the Patriots lost.

I’ve found myself thinking about that quote quite a bit lately, in my role as pastor and teacher of a small church in the middle of Maine. Old South is blessed with very dedicated people who work hard for the church, and for its various ministries. But, the church is a small one and it can’t do everything.

How do we let go of those aspects of church life that we simply cannot do anymore?

At the top of Old South’s list of problem areas: Sunday School. Christian Education has been riddled with challenges for almost the entire time I’ve been with the church. We don’t have adequate volunteers. And we don’t have many children.

Letting go of the Sunday School, though, has proven to be a most difficult proposition. What kind of church doesn’t have a Sunday School?

But, the reality is that we don’t—at the moment— have anyone who has a sense of call about Sunday School. We have a few who are willing to help out, mostly because they have young grandchildren who attend Old South regularly. But, no one teaches Sunday School for the love of Sunday School. No one talks about Sunday School like a few people talk about the choir, or a couple of other people talk about the preservation of our physical plant, etc. In our small church, there’s no one with a call to teach, or to organize, Sunday School.

And, I can’t do it, since Sunday School takes place during worship. I can’t throw and catch at the same time.

Yet, many conversations about our dilemma end up with people turning to me, as if I possess the key to unlock this mystery, as if I can turn someone into that “called” person we are looking for. Still others lay before my feet their ideas and proposals for how to tackle our very unfortunate problem. All of those ideas involve additional work—sometimes considerable work—for me. My plate is already more than full.

I can’t throw and catch at the same time.

Instead of courageously admitting that we simply can’t do it anymore, we limp along. It probably doesn’t take much for visitors and newer families to get the message that Christian Education is just not one of Old South’s strengths.

Is it important, then, that we continue to have “something,” little as it is? Or, would it be better for us to admit that it’s time to let it go?

I wish for the latter, but I find myself, time and time again, stuck with the former.

For the last few years, especially at this time of year, when the school year has begun, we get a few families who come to visit. And, we enter once again, into the insanity of trying to organize Christian Education. But, with no one with a sense of call, it’s plain that there’s not much in the way of Sunday School. And, even though we usually manage to throw something together, none of those families ends up staying with us. They move on.

But we do not.   Perhaps it’s because we can’t let go of the hope that maybe one of these days the effort will pay off. Or, perhaps it’s just another sign that we are in denial.

The whole situation signals, for me, an unsettling inability to come to grips with the reality that we are a small church, not a big church in disguise. Small churches can’t do everything. But, they can do a few things—and do them well. When small churches try to do everything, they unwittingly create not only unrealistic expectations, but also a sort of dangerous vacuum into which a lot of time and effort go, and vanish—including my time and effort.

I can’t throw and catch at the same time.

I’m certainly aware of how painful and disillusioning it is to consider having no Sunday School at all. What sort of church doesn’t have a Sunday School? For many, the answer is a dying church. For me, the answer is a more honest church, a church that, though it may not be quite ready to embrace, at least understands its limitations. We ought to spend more time focused on what we do well, on those things to which we feel called, and find the courage to admit that we can’t do everything. We can’t throw and catch at the same time.

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Come Sunday Morning

It’s an oft heard lament of good church folk that there are too many things going on on Sunday mornings, things that get in the way of people going to church. Over the years, I’ve heard more than my share of complaints, the steady beat of the same old grumbles and moans, especially focused on sports practices for children and youth.

My family and I have experienced the great luxury of not so much in the way of this particular set of conflicts. While we occasionally encounter an event of some significance to us that occurs on a Sunday morning, it’s been a rare thing. And, since it’s been rare, we have often allowed our children to participate.

For this new school year, the situation has already been different. Our son, who is now a senior in high school, has had two Sunday morning events two weeks in a row—one a fundraiser for the high school music boosters; and the other a fundraiser for the golf team. Lest I consider myself all of a sudden too sensitive to the scheduling of events on Sunday morning, I found myself chatting with a Jewish friend specifically about the music event— a community event for which the students in the music program were heavily encouraged to volunteer. She was rather agitated about the whole thing herself, as the local Hebrew school meets on Sunday mornings.

The conversation with my Jewish friend included more than a simple lament about the scheduling of a sizeable event on a Sunday morning. It wasn’t just that Sunday mornings have been, traditionally, for religious observance, but that Sunday mornings have mostly been left alone in our community—not so much for religious reasons, but in acknowledgement that there should be one morning a week when family life is not rushed, unless the family chooses it to be so. Family time should be honored.

The gloves, though, were now off. What would be next?

I then asked my friend about what she and her family did, in order to make decisions about balancing religious observance and the demands of the world, and of sports, and of school, etc. As members of a small religious minority in this part of the world, the family makes such decisions on a regular basis. Hebrew school may be held on Sunday mornings, but regular religious services are not. Those are held on Saturday mornings, when there are a lot of other things going on that involve their children.

For the most part, she told me, the kids go to sports practices on Saturday mornings, but go to religious services “out of season.” High holidays are different, though. Those are observed, including when school days need to be missed.

I started to wonder. How long will it be, in this very secular part of the world, when the “high holy days” of the Christian faith will no longer be considered off limits? Is it enough that Christmas has become also a secular observance, or will the day come when choices will need to be made about observing Christmas?

There’s a part of me that is irked, certainly, about the changes quietly taking in place in our community. But there’s also a part of me that thinks this is all a good thing. A church like the one that I serve, as it still remembers the “glory days” of the 1950s when it was at or near the center of community life, has not only lost many members over the last half century, it has also lost a sense of its own mission, purpose and identity. The church so enjoyed being central to community life, that it didn’t need to think very carefully about why it existed and what it was truly for.

I must admit that there have been times, when I have attended a bar or bat mitzvah, when I have felt a wee bit envious. In the smallness of the local Jewish community, there is also a strong sense of who they are and what they are about. I know a couple of young people whose families have had only a tentative attachment to the local Jewish community, who have set out with clear purpose to claim their Jewish identity.

I wouldn’t mind something of the same. And, I don’t just mean for the young people. For the older people too. It’s simply not enough to think that church is a good thing. Why it is, why it exists, what it means for us, and how it lays a claim on how we lead our lives, all pose critical questions for us.

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