Safety and Security?

Last week, I attended a workshop on “Protecting Houses of Worship,” offered by various state and federal entities in the state of Maine. The workshop included a whole lot of information on different aspects of safety in light of the peculiar circumstances of houses of worship, in that they are places that are so often “open” and “inviting,” and sometimes the handy target of people who are driven to hatefulness. On the one hand, it was good to be reminded of the significance of planning and looking at our physical plant with the eye of an outsider. What are our vulnerabilities? If the unimaginable happened, what would we do and how would people know how to respond? On the other hand, the workshop reminded me of the very different ways people look at the world. One person’s security can be the source of another person’s feelings of the exact opposite.

The presenters covered a large swath of issues— from emergency planning to active shooter scenarios to cybersecurity. I found myself thinking about all sorts of situations at Old South, some real and some imaginary. Although it hasn’t happened often, we’ve occasionally encountered a new person who arrives for worship behaving in a strange and perplexing way. Every one of these episodes that I can remember has involved a young man who arrived a little late for worship. Since worship had begun, it was impossible to speak to the person, to welcome him and make an assessment of his intentions. One time, the young man came right up to the front pew and plopped down. He had a cardboard sign in his hands that he placed backwards against the back of the pew, so that I couldn’t read it. He made me— and a whole lot of other people— very nervous. After worship, we discovered that he was planning to attend a rally at the state capitol, which is not far away. Another time, a young man arrived a little late for worship and spent quite a lot of time pacing around the back of the sanctuary and taking photos. It turned out that he was a tourist from Germany.

One of the most bothersome aspects of these episodes has been that the worship experience got completely derailed. I might as well have just stopped worship altogether. Once the distraction arrived, almost no one paid attention to worship any longer. After the incident with the German photographer, several people told me how nervous they were through the whole service, and that they were especially concerned for me and my safety. This was before the pandemic, in our old worship format, which put me behind a huge piece of furniture. I was probably the safest one in the building behind that behemoth of a chancel. Still, I appreciated their concerns and wondered about whether or not we should have formal plans for out-of-the-ordinary visitors.

The last session of the workshop involved a panel discussion that included a couple of leaders of religious communities who have experienced situations far worse than mine and a couple of law enforcement officers. One of the officers identified himself as the police chief in a large Maine town. He said that he attended church not in that town, but in a city about 20 miles away.

Although we were told, earlier in the day, that the panel would be the “most exciting” part of the day, I found the panel to be dull and uninteresting— until that police chief started talking about his own church experience and attending worship. He shared with the audience that he keeps a gun on his person when he attends worship and church events, and he’s not the only police officer to do so at that particular church. And, it sounded like he doesn’t conceal his weapon, but that he carries it on his person openly. He told us that he likes helping people feel safe.

I didn’t feel safe. And I wondered if I would feel safe if someone who attended worship at Old South not only carried a gun to worship, but carried it openly. I started thinking about those few incidents we’ve had at Old South, where young men have shown up and acted a little strangely. Could something really unfortunate have happened?

I know that I would probably feel differently if I had ever experienced a terrible episode of violence on church grounds. Still, I am very uncomfortable with the notion that anyone would attend a Christian worship service with any sort of deadly weapon, concealed or otherwise, police officer or not. It’s too easy for small episodes to ramp up to dangerous levels. It’s too easy for people to react and respond in problematic ways. Are weapons the only way of confronting a dangerous situation, especially in a Christian setting?

While it’s not unreasonable to want to feel safe, I wonder about what is given up when people attend worship with weapons for the expressed purpose of “helping” people to feel safe. I would prefer not to feel like I’m living in the Wild West, surrounded by “good guys” and “bad guys,” since there’s sometimes no difference between the two. In a Christian setting, safety must be considered in light of the Golden Rule, with an effort to identify honestly the sources of fearfulness. Relying on a firearm to “protect” a house of worship is a fragile and flimsy method in a community that claims to be the Body of Christ.

Posted in Misc | Tagged , | Leave a comment

I’ve Got that Guilty Feeling, or Maybe Not

Western religious practice and guilt have what might be called a cozy relationship. For some forms of religious practice, guilt is an important motivator for good works and for an approach to at least some relationships. Rather than seeking good solely for the sake of goodness, people (especially religious leaders) find that guilt provides the necessary instrument to inspire good behavior. While it may seem that guilt is something we ought to endeavor to avoid, lest we develop problematic feelings about ourselves and others, how do we deal with those aspects of our own behaviors and those of others, as well as as our ancestors, that have caused real and profound harm not just to individuals, but to large groups of people?

I grew up in a Congregational church in the Boston suburbs where guilt was not actually a major topic— at least not in my childhood.  The senior pastor of that church, who served from when I was an infant until the year I graduated from high school, practiced his craft on the coattails of Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking. Everything seemed to be about empowerment and embracing all of the good that could come from a relationship with God and with the Church.

Around the time I started high school, the Christian Education Committee of that church decided to end the tradition of hiring seminarians from the mainline-aligned Andover Newton Theological School, and instead to hire seminarians from the more conservative/evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I remember quite well the first Gordon-Conwell-educated seminarian who was hired to lead the youth groups. If we had spent our childhood free from religious guilt, he set out to remedy that, in no uncertain terms. It was an astonishing change. I remember one occasion when our high school youth group was on a weekend retreat with several other youth groups, and very late on Saturday night we were corralled into a large room and forced to watch a very dramatic, and graphic, telling of the crucifixion of Jesus, laden with the guilt that we should all be feeling for our sins that Jesus had come to save. Following that very dramatic story telling, we were “invited“ to stand up and declare ourselves saved, that we accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. One by one each and every one of us stood up. Did we stand up because we felt saved? Did we stand up because we felt guilty that Jesus found it necessary to offer himself as a sacrifice because of our personal sins? Or did we stand up simply because we knew that was the only way any of us were going to get out of there? For me, it was this last option.

Guilt isn’t the best motivator for much of anything. And, as I discovered personally, it’s not the best way to entice young people, or older people, to take up a life of faith. Still, I can’t help but wonder about how we should approach the subject of guilt as people of faith— for surely, there are things in this life that should cause us to feel guilty, or at least to feel badly about how people behave, or have behaved, and how others are, or have been, treated. It seems critical that we, as individuals and as communities, engage honestly in and around those places where human beings have gone seriously astray and when the lives of others have been incalculably damaged.

Let’s consider (although I would really prefer not to) the current quest of the Governor of Florida to stop “wokeness,” to end education and training that would lead people to “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.” To stifle, dismiss and even outlaw an honest and full consideration of the terrible aspects of our common history, in order to save people from “psychological distress” seems a completely misguided way of dealing with the fact that past injustices are still a part of the fabric of this country. How can we possibly create healthy relationships and communities in these days if we refrain, or are forced to refrain, from an examination of problematic practices that have directly led to issues that we still face? Whether it’s the treatment of the descendants of slaves, or native populations, etc, issues that stretch back to before this nation’s founding are still woven into the fabric of this land we call home.

While guilt may be a part of the experience of considering the past and the present, it’s important that we consider all of our history, and not just the parts that feel good. As much as Mr. DeSantis may try, no one can erase the past, especially a past that continues to shape the present. Mr. DeSantis, who claims to be a Christian, ought to know full well that it’s only in taking an honest look at the good and the bad, the righteous and the sinful, that we have any hope of being freed from the guilt that clings to the imperfect lives that we live.

Posted in Misc | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Blurred Lines

I recently spent most of a day driving one of our family vehicles that I don’t use very often. Since I didn’t have a way of using my phone for entertainment or access to Sirius XM, I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes: channel surfing through the FM radio stations. At some point, I came across the station that broadcasts Roman Catholic programming. A few words grabbed my attention and I paused. The program involved an interview with a parish priest (I don’t know if this was Maine priest or a program from another state). The priest was in the midst of an airing of grievances. As part of his list of complaints, the priest talked about those people who come up to him, especially before worship, to report building issues, like a loose board or pew. “What am I supposed to do about that?” the priest asked and then continued with something like, “Do I look like the sexton?” He also complained about people who tell him about the lack of supplies in the restrooms. He questioned yet again, “Why are they coming to me? Do I look like I handle such things?” He wondered why so many people turn to him to report these various sorts of issues instead of calling the church office, like any person with good sense would supposedly know to do. To be fair, he didn’t use those words exactly, but that was his tone. After a long stretch of complaining, he offered this strange bit of reflection: “I know I’m complaining a lot . . But, it’s fun, isn’t it?”

Then he went on to talk about how irritating it is when people enter the sacristy before worship, when the priest is not only robing and putting on his various vestments, but saying the proper prayers, preparing himself for leading worship. This preparation includes a significant opportunity for the priest to attune himself to observing the mystery of God‘s presence, and to lead the congregation in that holy observance. Why do people pop into the sacristy just to say hello, when he’s in the midst of his preparations? How can they not understand how inappropriate that is?

As I was listening to this radio broadcast, my first reaction was to be annoyed. He sounded like a whiny jerk. I moved on to more channel surfing. Somehow, though, the words of that priest burrowed into my brain and I have been thinking about them. I’ve been reflecting on my own experience as a clergyperson, particularly on my own preparation time immediately before the start of worship. I don’t have a regular ritual and there’s no sacristy at the Protestant church where I serve, but I must admit that I share at least a somewhat similar list of grievances when it comes to preparing to lead worship.

I, too, am irritated when people bring a problem to me before worship that I can’t do anything about at that moment. I, too, am annoyed when people search me out, when I’m in the church office, or in the back of the sanctuary building, putting on my robe and trying to find a private moment to settle into my role as the worship leader.

In what seems like an increasingly casual culture, I suspect many people have no real idea that they are crossing boundaries or acting inappropriately. There’s a problem or something to report or just the desire to be friendly, so why not search out the priest or minister just before worship, when it seems so convenient?

What is the clergyperson to do? Is it possible to set boundaries without sounding whiny or like a spoiled child? Is is possible to re-establish a sense of formality around worship and its rituals, once a whole lot of casualness has taken hold?

While I think it’s important that clergy use a great deal of care in airing their grievances (I don’t think the radio broadcast and the tone of the interview, for instance, were appropriate), the complaining priest raised issues that are worth broader consideration. For those who are part of a worshipping community, how does that community as a whole define and practice good boundaries in the relationship between clergy and worship, as well as clergy and congregation?

It’s worth considering the relationship between clergy and worship and clergy and congregation. These relationships ought to be defined and tended, nurtured and sustained, in caring and compassionate ways. I know that those who search me out before worship, to pass along a piece of information or request that has nothing to do with worship, probably get the message that they have annoyed me, since I don’t have much of a poker face. But, I suspect that they have no idea why. While I may wish that there were clearly understood rules of engagement, it seems plain enough that, for the most part anyway, there is not. It’s part of my job to help my congregation, the flock that I tend, appreciate my various roles, and among the most significant is worship leadership. If I’m just hanging onto my list of complaints as a talisman of days gone by, when people knew not to bother the minister/priest before worship (although I question that assumption), then I’m doing a poor job not simply as clergy, but as pastor, as a small “s” shepherd following the big “S” Shepherd. Essentially, if my flock has lost its way in how it relates to me, that’s my problem, not theirs.

Posted in My Life as Pastor, Other Denominations/Christians | Tagged , | Leave a comment

To Be Welcomed, Or Not

The death of Pope Benedict XVI several weeks ago propelled me into a memory— a couple of memories, actually— about my experiences of welcome, or unwelcome, in the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve had a decidedly mixed experience. In reflecting on those experiences, I’ve started to wonder quite a lot about what sort of welcome we offer at Old South, especially for special services in which we have visitors. More on that in a bit. I’ll start with the memory part.

When my husband’s grandmother died in 2008, we attended her funeral mass in New York. We (my husband, myself and our kids) sat near the front of the sanctuary with the rest of the family. When it came to communion, the congregation was treated to a stern announcement from the officiating priest, regarding who was eligible, or not, to receive the sacrament. I believe it was Pope Benedict’s idea to tighten things up. If you weren’t a Roman Catholic in good standing, you were not allowed. And, somehow the Pope thought it a good idea to make this— I mean it wasn’t exactly a change in policy— a more sharply worded statement, just in case people hadn’t been listening, or didn’t understand that Catholics have certain standards when it came to this particular sacrament.

Since my husband, my kids and I were not practicing Roman Catholics, we just stood there, as everyone else— including the entire family block, except for us— went forward to receive the sacrament. I hadn’t planned on going forward, but the priest’s statement made me want to go to the front and tell him directly that I had no intention of participating in the sacrament, but I didn’t appreciate the feeling of not being welcome in that house of worship, and I didn’t appreciate the sense of being separated in such a public way, like sheep and goats, in the midst of a holy ritual of the church, even if I did not directly participate in it.

I remember feeling not only angry, but disappointed. By that time, so many of the Church’s sins had been exposed. Why did the Pope find it necessary to dig in and cling more strongly to the Church’s sense of its own supposed holiness?

Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt quite so agitated if I hadn’t experienced something quite different years before. When my husband and I were not yet husband and wife, but we were planning to get married, we visited the Roman Catholic graduate student chaplain at the parish in Harvard Square. At the time, Joseph was a practicing Catholic. Since I was on the path to becoming an ordained Protestant minister, we had a few things to work out. We had decided that we would attend a Protestant church as a family and, in return, I agreed to change my last name, so that we would have one family name. But, it was important to him that our marriage be recognized by the Catholic church. What did we need to do to make that happen? The short answer, from Father George, was that we needed to attend a marriage preparation seminar. He pulled out the area schedule of such classes and clearly indicated to us that, given our situation, we should make an effort to attend a class in Harvard Square, but if the schedule didn’t work for us, there were a few other places that would be welcoming. And, then he circled another group of churches and told us not to go to any of those. We would not be welcomed.

We attended one of the Harvard Square sessions. For St. Paul’s, marriage preparation was one long Saturday. I really don’t remember much of it (it happened almost 29 years ago!). But, I do remember that after lunch, the head priest at the church came into the large meeting space (there were a lot of people there) and asked the “non-Catholics” to raise their hands. I, along with quite a few others, looked around the room and tentatively started to raise our hands. What was going to happen? A scolding or shaming of some kind? Not at all. Once our hands were raised, he offered us a clear and joyful message of gratitude. He thanked us for taking the wishes of our future spouse seriously enough to have our marriage recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, by attending this marriage preparation day.

How hard was that? I remember my first-ever warm and fuzzy feeling toward Roman Catholicism. Alas, it didn’t last long.

I’ve found myself reflecting not only on my own experiences of welcome, or not, in religious traditions that are not my own, but my own attempts at creating a welcoming atmosphere at Old South. I’m increasingly aware that I need to do a better job. Special services, like funerals, are where I’ve started to sense the significance of welcome. As worship attendance declines, so does the general understanding of “churchy” vocabulary words. During the last couple of funerals I’ve led, it has started to occur to me that I need to explain things, even going so far as making sure the congregation knows what a “hymn” is and a “hymnal.” Not only do we need to print out the words to the Lord’s Prayer, but I need to explain—briefly— what it is and why we pray it. Those who do not attend Christian worship may not pray along with the Prayer, but they should be aware of what it is. It’s an important part of welcoming.

It’s a strange thing to gaze upon a funeral congregation and realize that there are quite a few faces looking confused and disoriented. If the only time they have ever entered a church for a service is for a funeral, I suspect that much of what we do seems strange. I could just dig in and let them all figure it out for themselves. It’s not my fault they don’t understand church. While I don’t think funerals are the best places for proselytizing, they are a good opportunity for churches to show warmth and welcome, to demonstrate some of that loving God and loving neighbor thing that we are told, quite clearly, should be at the top of our “to do” list— by the big guy himself.

To welcome or not to welcome? It’s not really a question, if the faith means as much to you as you say it does.

Posted in Other Denominations/Christians | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A Long December

And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe/Maybe this year will be better than the last/I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself/To hold onto these moments as they pass.

“A Long December” by the Counting Crows

The past month at Old South included two of the best attended services of the year. Any guesses as to which services I’m talking about? Christmas Eve perhaps? A unexpected surge in observing the religious significance of Advent? No, to both. The well-attended services of the past month were funerals, and in this case, two people who had been married to each other for a very long time. The husband died on Thanksgiving and the wife died a few weeks later, just days before Christmas.

For both funerals, the sanctuary wasn’t full, but it wasn’t too far off from being full. Plus, each service had a small group of individuals on Zoom. Attendance at our end-of-year funerals far exceeded attendance on Christmas Eve as well as the worship services of Advent. While I usually cringe when church folks start a sentence with “It used to be . . . “, I can’t help but remember the almost full sanctuaries of Christmas Eves past. It’s not just that they were well attended. I have clear memories of Christmas Eve services, during my tenure at Old South, that were so full of energy and wonder that a tear or two would find their way down my cheek— and I’m not one to cry easily at church.

In what seems like the blink of an eye we’ve gone from very full Christmas Eve services that felt not only full in number but in spirit as well, to Christmas Eve services that involve a lot of looking around, with the sense of wonder having little to do with the birth of Jesus, and much more to do with trying to figure out what’s happened to our church. The Christmas Eve attendance number for 2022 may be twice that of a usual Sunday, but usual Sundays have attendance now hovering in the lower twenties. Twice that number isn’t a lot. It’s important to recognize that numbers aren’t everything. I’ve written quite a lot over the years about numbers and the fact that numbers don’t tell much of the story of a church community. But, there is something about how the community feels when it gathers, something indefinable in the sense not only of community, but of its connection to the Divine. And, in that way, there’s something that has started to feel decidedly different.

Given that the Christmas Eve service in 2022 was sandwiched between two well-attended funerals, that sense of something different stands out in greater relief. While I could wish for a long December that would offer reason to believe that the next year will be better than the last, as the lyrics above imply, I feel the doubts creeping in. I fear that the long December of 2022 may bring more long months ahead.

I don’t like the feeling of pessimism about the new year, but our long December has led me to wonder a lot about what it means when a church community attracts many more people to a funeral than to a Christmas Eve service. I will be reflecting and pondering in the days ahead, hoping that the light of Epiphany and its accompanying season may offer a bit of wisdom and understanding, and a renewed sense of what a church community can and should be and do, regardless of how many gather.

Posted in Holy-Days, Worship | Tagged , | Leave a comment

We Will Worship on Christmas Day

The New York Times recently published an article entitled “O Come All Ye Faithful, Except When Christmas Falls on a Sunday.” (12/18/22) The article explored the various issues for Protestant churches regarding worship this year when Christmas falls on a Sunday, when many families want to be doing what they normally do on Christmas morning— sitting around in their pajamas, opening gifts and enjoying a nice breakfast. While Roman Catholics are required to attend worship on Christmas day (although many attend a late Christmas Eve service that goes past midnight in order to fulfill that requirement), Protestants generally do not worship on Christmas day. Most of the focus is on Christmas Eve.

When Christmas falls on a Sunday, many Protestant pastors and worship leaders find themselves in a bit of a bind. As The New York Times article conveys, Christmas Eve is a sort of “Super Bowl” event for a lot of churches, leaving little in the way of energy or interest in holding worship the very next morning. One of the pastors quoted in the Times article summed things up this way, “We still believe in the Sunday morning experience, but we have to meet people where they are.” That pastor’s church will not be holding worship on Christmas morning this year, when Christmas lands on a Sunday. The last time Christmas landed on a Sunday, in 2016, “practically no one showed up for services” at that church.

This all seems terribly backward to me. Sure, Christmas Eve is a big deal and a lot of work and energy is expended in putting together a meaningful experience. At the end of just the one service we hold at Old South, all of those who lead or participate in the service are exhausted. For Old South, Christmas Eve is usually the best attended service of the year. Christmas morning will likely attract only a small group. Still, we will worship. It’s not about “meeting people where they are.” It’s much more about meeting God where God’s at, and recognizing the significance of worship even when it’s inconvenient.

It feels important to me that the church be open for worship every Sunday (in person, hybrid or just virtual/remote). This isn’t about drawing a crowd, or coaxing people to worship when they don’t want to. It’s about recognizing that one of the most fundamental things that churches do is to worship and, therefore, that’s what they should be doing. Even if hardly anyone shows up. Sunday is the Lord’s Day and ought to be recognized as such.

Churches and church leaders that have decided to cancel Sunday worship on December 25 this year simply because it won’t draw a big crowd seem to me to be missing something important in their decision-making process. If it’s not worth having worship if there’s not a large audience, is it actually worship that these churches are engaging in on all of the other Sundays? Or has their worship become a concert or show instead?

At Old South, we will gather for worship on December 25, whether we have our usual small group or an even smaller group. Because it’s Sunday and we are a church and that’s what we do. You know, honor the Sabbath. And keep it holy. Or at least try to keep an holy, instead of giving up without any effort at all.

Posted in Holy-Days, Worship | Tagged | Leave a comment

My Business Plan

I think I might try to start a business. It’s something I’ve never done, so maybe it’s time to give it a try. I’m not sure what kind of business exactly— there are so many options— but I do know one very important thing. In whatever kind of business I decide to run, there is a sort of customer I will not welcome or accept: people with tattoos.

As a Christian, I recognize that God forbids tattoos. It says so right in the Holy Bible: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:28 NIV) Clear as day. Tattoos are not allowed. For God or for me.

I do not have a tattoo myself and my spouse doesn’t either. And, we have set up a sort of incentive plan to keep our (adult) children from getting tattoos. Some may claim, as one of our children does, that we are being unfair. That child doesn’t fully realize that we are endeavoring to save her eternal soul. Just wait until the afterlife. That child will thank us when she’s accepted into what is surely a tattoo-free heaven, full of good people who avoided marking up their bodies, as instructed.

Now, I realize that my business may have difficulty in getting off the ground. There are a lot of people in central Maine with tattoos. And, then there’s the whole issue of dealing with people who have tattoos that are not easily visible. Will I trust people or will I feel it necessary to arrange for a verification system? Should I put a clear sign on the door of my business, “No tattoos allowed” or should I try a more subtle approach? Or, maybe I should just put that Bible verse in a place where it can be seen. That ought to do the trick. Again, it’s clear as day.

No matter the challenges, it’s important that I protect myself and my values from coming into any contact with those who so brazenly trample on God’s clearly stated wishes for humankind. Who knows what other dangerous ideas those with tattoos may harbor or lifestyle options they may practice?

Like wearing clothing of mixed fabrics or sowing their fields (or vineyards) with two different kinds of seed or plowing with an ox and donkey together. It’s all so terrible to contemplate, but clearly a focus on tattoos is just the right place to start.

Posted in Bible, Misc | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Holy-Days | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Worship | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in COVID, Worship | Tagged , | Leave a comment