Small Church, Big Sanctuary

While Old South is certainly one of those churches that wonders quite a lot about what the future will hold—with our small numbers, our difficulties in maintaining and paying for staff, worries about the demands of our physical plant, etc.—Old South is also a church that has a lot going for it. People genuinely care for one another. We have a shared commitment to worship as well as other aspects of our communal life. We give generously (especially given our size) to mission projects near and far.

On “low attendance” Sundays, though (and there are more of them than there used to be), it’s hard not to feel very small, and insignificant. On some Sundays, the small congregation is scattered, as singles or couples, across the sanctuary. The only group of any size is the choir, and they are, on most Sundays, significantly smaller than they were just a few years ago. Occasionally, it feels like there are just as many people in the chancel area—with the choir and me— as there are in the pews.

While those who are a part of the congregation may know about all of the things we do well as a church, it’s hard not to feel at least a little despairing, fretful and uneasy when there are so few in such a large space.

During the time I’ve been at Old South, attendance has never been what might be described as robust. When I first started, more than ten years ago, average attendance was somewhere between fifty and seventy. In a sanctuary that can hold a few hundred, it never felt full (except for Christmas Eve, Easter and a few funerals), but it didn’t feel empty either.

With average attendance now in the low 30s, worship is starting to feel empty. No matter what we say about our largeness of spirit, or that the numbers don’t matter, that faithfulness to the Gospel is the most important measure, it’s much harder when there’s so much space around us.

It’s too bad that we can’t engage in an “app” that shrinks our sanctuary as the congregation shrinks—now that would be a helpful piece of technology! Instead, we must remind ourselves to see past the empty spaces, and to see the significance of who and what we are.

This is easier said than done.

In a recent blog on the Christianity Today website, Karl Vaters argued, “small churches are a vital component of the most powerful force for goodness the world has ever seen – the gospel of Jesus lived in and through his body, the church.” []

He is absolutely right, and I’ll offer that Old South is a good example. Yet, we stumble in the doubts and worries that afflict us when we gather for worship on lots—not yet all—Sundays of the year when our smallness is not felt as a strength but a very real liability, that in our small gathering we cannot escape the notion that we’ve got ourselves into something we can’t handle. And that is the physical reality of the building around us—aging, and needing of more and more maintenance.

Vaters goes on in his blog to focus on love and encourages, “Let’s shower the world with tangible proof of God’s love.”

The challenge will be, for small congregations in large buildings—like Old South—to see if they, if we, can truly live out of God’s love, loving people more than the building in which we gather. This, I fear, will be easier said than done.

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Who Are We? Why Are We Here?

When Admiral James Stockdale, Vice Presidential candidate in 1992, asked in the Vice Presidential debate, “Who Am I? Why Am I Here?” he was mocked mercilessly. His questions, though, actually were, and are, very important ones, questions that we all ought to ask ourselves more often—and churches too. Who are we? Why are we here?

I wrote recently about Old South’s mold problem—an unwelcome and expensive guest to evict. The Oversight Committee, after lengthy discussion regarding bids for remediation and other aspects of the problem, decided to hold an “informational meeting” for the congregation. Instead of proposing a clear plan and asking for approval, the Committee shared the information with the congregation and asked them to pray and think about how we should move forward. Though unsettling, the mold problem is not an emergency. We have a bit of time to make decisions.

What has transpired in the last couple of weeks has been quite remarkable. People have been talking not just about the mold, and the high price tag for its removal.
They are also asking key questions about the church, its purpose and existence. “Even if the money to pay for the mold remediation fell from the sky,” one woman asked me in a private conversation, “is that the best way for us to be church, to feel like we are constantly spending money to maintain the building in which we gather?” She went on to ask about the needs of our community and how we might do more about those needs. Are those needs any less of a priority than the problem that lurks in our basement? Is our primary purpose to keep standing the beautiful building in which we gather, or is it something else? Is it time to let go of the church building? Can we afford to keep maintaining it—and not just in terms of money?

These questions have been asked in various forms by various people, not just one or two people—although mostly in small gatherings of two or three, and not in the midst of larger gatherings. Still, I feel that we are experiencing a significant moment in our common lives of faith: Who are we? Why are we here?

How do we live out the notion that we are to seek justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God, especially in a community where so many needs are so very present—poverty, mental illness, homelessness, addiction, domestic violence? How do we show faithfulness to the Gospel? Through our building? Or through the actions of our people?

Who are we? Why are we here? These are significant, important questions that ought be asked regularly, individually and collectively. It’s crucial that we take a moment to step back a bit, to reflect, to pray, to talk together—and to consider our purpose, our connection to Christ.

I really don’t have any idea what will happen, but I’d like to think that even if we decide to find the money to remove our unwelcome guest, that we will also discover a different, and more welcome and positive, growth—a new awareness of what it means to be church, to be the Body of Christ.

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The Ugly Reality of Sexism

There’s something about presidential campaigns—no matter who’s running—that causes me to want to stick my head in the sand, or to go to a faraway place (which I have done—in 2004 and 2008), just so I don’t have to witness it, or be a part of it. This year, it feels even more dreadful. I am especially troubled at the blatant, and not so blatant, sexism and misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton. Given that there are plenty of legitimate issues that can be lobbed at her (even as a Democrat, I’ll admit she’s not the perfect candidate—though, then again, who is?), gender should not be one of them.

For a little proof regarding the vileness of sexism and misogyny on display at a Trump rally:

And, for a bit more on Trump’s sexism, and the sexism that is swirling around him, is here:–even-if-she-wins/2016/09/08/c561c82c-7603-11e6-b786-19d0cb1ed06c_story.html?utm_term=.6a4f57d2f9cf

For someone living in Maine, the mix of politicians and sexism is not news. Maine’s governor, in addition to homophobic and racist remarks, has also made a few sexist remarks. While there’s been some complaining, there’s been no substantive response—no censure, no impeachment.

Sexism, it seems, is just part of the landscape, something that we must live with, deal with, tolerate. As Samantha Bee on Full Frontal has observed, Mr. Trump’s sexism (and racism) is acknowledged by many of this supporters, yet it appears not to be a “deal-breaker.” How can this be? Is sexism seeping back into our common lives?

Recently, I experienced an unexpected and strange bit of sexism myself, in the role that I hold in the Mission Council (Board of Directors) of the Maine Conference United Church of Christ. In a recent conversation with Council colleagues, regarding the progression of leadership in the Council, I brought up the name of a relatively new person on the Council who’s showing strong gifts for leadership—someone who happens to be a man. I suggested that we consider how to engage his gifts more fully. The reaction to this was not only enthusiastic, among the men with whom I was speaking, but these men went so far as to suggest that asking this particular man to be the next chair of the Council (leap-frogging over the current vice chair) sounded like a great idea.

I was taken aback. I’m the current Vice Chair. And have been for two years. When I finally found my voice, and stated that I expected to be the next chair, and that the man about whom we were speaking would make a good vice chair, there was a quiet nodding of heads, and a reluctant sounding, “Oh, okay.”

In a Christian denomination that has had women in leadership positions for a long time (including ordination), I’ve grown accustomed to living with, at most, minimal examples of sexist behavior. My recent experience may only be an isolated one, but I can’t help but wonder about the seepage of sexism—even into places where it’s generally not seen or experienced. Is sexism becoming more acceptable?

What’s even more frustrating is that sexism is something that I feel should already be on the “endangered species” list for human behavior in the United States. We’ve been at this for a while. And, there are so many other important issues that deserve, and demand, our attention—poverty, homelessness, hunger, the refugee crisis, violence, racial issues, just to name a few.

Yet, sexism continues to be a problem, and seemingly more so than it was—although perhaps it’s just that it had been better hidden. And now it’s more in the open—not a deal-breaker. Sure, my own experience was just one small example. I cannot help feeling, though, with the national political landscape seeming more fraught with sexist notions that seem not only acceptable, but worthy of mass distribution, that sexism is beginning to infiltrate other aspects of our life in these United States.

A recent Hillary Clinton ad shows a series of teenage girls, looking at themselves in the mirror, while Donald Trump’s sexist statements are playing in the background. The ad asks, “Is this the kind of president we want for our daughters?” My fear is, though this is a profoundly important question, it may not be the sort of question that resonates—if sexism is not a “deal-breaker,” but instead accepted as part of the landscape of our lives.

There’s a part of me that’s eager to go and hide, bury my head in the sand, try to ignore it all. But, I won’t. It’s too important. On the small stage like the Mission Council of the Maine Conference as well as on the big stage of national politics, sexism must be taken seriously. It should be a deal-breaker—for everyone.

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Signs of New Life in the Midst of Unwelcome Growth

There’s something growing at Old South. Something terrible, horrible, unspeakable. Something that we don’t need or want. It’s like a cold slap in the face, as the community struggles to figure out whether or not it can grow the congregation. Instead of the growth of people, we have growth of an unwelcome organism: mold.

On the positive side (always look on the bright side . . . ), the problem is almost completely limited to the basement of the church—a place that is rarely used and has been easily deemed “off limits.” But, we can’t ignore it forever. Whether we like it or not, it will continue to grow, our unwelcome guest.

In the midst of all of this, though, I’m beginning to sense the opportunity for the church to consider itself in a new way. At a recent Oversight Committee (Old South’s “church council”), as well as a congregational information meeting, something new was clearly afoot.

One Oversight member took charge over the summer of investigating the problem, and seeking bids to remove the mold. The extent of the problem is significant, and the cost as well. That information was shared and discussed with the leadership of the church. Instead of making a clear plan to present and vote on, and then presenting it to the congregation for a vote, we decided to discuss and not to rush into a plan. And, we would share the information with the congregation as a whole, without a plan for them to approve. This would allow people to absorb the information, while we also asked for good thoughts and prayers for how we might proceed. Although we cannot ignore our unwelcome guest, we are not in an emergency situation.

What has come from these two recent meetings—the Oversight Committee and the congregational informational meeting—has been very interesting. In the midst of the expected questions about how the congregation will be able to raise the money, the extent to which we might use the endowment, or what it means for us to consider removal of the mold but not the reconstruction of the space (it was, until recently, the church nursery, though not often employed in that function), and so forth, there were also questions like: Should the congregation spend this kind of money to fix the building? Should we consider trying to sell the building instead? Is it a responsible use of our resources to spend so much money to rescue the physical space in which we worship? Is the building so important to us? What about the needs of our community—the poverty, homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction?

I must admit that I was a bit surprised to hear these questions. Old South has a beautiful church building, and it is truly heartbreaking to consider the possibility that we will try to disengage from the building. But, it’s also clear that the building is a significant liability to us, especially as our numbers shrink. It will get harder to fix things—and things will need to be fixed. The mold will not be the end to unwelcome guests.

The questions that I’ve heard have been deeply important and meaningful questions—about what it means to be the Church, the Body of Christ. And what has emerged is a newly articulated question about the Church separate from our building, our sanctuary.

On the one hand, I am thankful to be in the midst of such a congregation (and, to confess, gratified that it feels like a small part of this reflects some amount of listening to me over the years). But, as much as I am pleased by some of these big, important questions, I am also feeling overwhelmed and at least a little bit scared.

For a few people at least, the building is how they worship and experience God. To separate the congregation from the building will likely feel like a separation from God. This may seem ridiculous to some, but it is very real and very serious. The building is a meaningful place, a place set apart. While many are able, even now, to see the church in the people who gather, rather than the building, there is a sense of the holy and the sacred that will be lost.

My hope, somewhere in the midst of all of this, is that we will experience—whatever the plans ends up to be—a renewed sense of what it means to be the Body of Christ. I know this won’t be easy, and may for some be profoundly painful and difficult, but it is clear that it is not simply in the decisions we make where we show our faith, but in how we reach those decisions. And, if we pay heed to that, we will experience the best kind of growth—growth of spirit, growth of faith, growth of closeness to the Savior who brings us together and calls us to be church.

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The Christian and Days of National Tragedy

When my daughter was very young, it was not uncommon for older adults, in places like church, to engage in a little conversation with her. These adults asked questions that are often asked of small children— about how old she was and what sorts of toys she liked to play with. Sometimes the person asked my daughter about her birthday. Like most children when talking about their birthdays, Margaret’s face would light up and she would answer by sharing her special date, December 7. The person who had asked the question would usually pause and then say something like, “Oh, what a terrible day for a birthday.” I never knew how to respond to this and my daughter was even more perplexed, and distressed. While I was certainly aware of the significance of December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, it was a difficult concept to explain to my young child. Plus, I didn’t have any personal attachment to December 7, 1941, having been born long after the “date which will last in infamy.”

Then September 11, 2001 happened, and I began to know a little more about what those people were talking about when they looked into the bright face of my young daughter and declared that her birthday was a “terrible day.” It’s hard not to respond that way, when a well-known date, a day when it felt like the world was coming apart, is mentioned.

As we approach the fifteen anniversary of September 11, I’m thinking of many things—like where I was when I first learned the news of the attack, how it felt to watch those enormous buildings come down, the unutterable horror at watching people jump from the buildings before they fell, the distress for those covered in ash running through the streets of New York City and the deep, abiding grief of those whose loved ones died. To say that it was a “terrible day” seems such an understatement. I suspect December 7, 1941 felt much the same.

Still, it’s hard not to think of that response to my young daughter, born fifty-five years after the attack on Pearl Harbor and wonder about a different response. Yes, that particular day was profoundly horrible, full of such painful memories, a day that felt like the world was coming apart. Yet, we are still here. The world still existed in which my daughter could be born, and into a country where freedoms are still exercised, people live their lives, moments of grace, hope, charity and faith are still with us.

There should be a place for mourning and grief, for remembering a day that brought such shattering violence. But, we must also remember resilience, strength and hope. And, somehow hold them together.

As Christians, I think it is especially important that we not dwell only on the terrible. After all, if we cannot see beyond suffering and horror, we might never be. We would be stuck on the memories of that terrible Friday, not able to see the Easter that followed, not able to appreciate the empty tomb.

Although the United States is not a Christian country, we Christians have much to offer in times such as these. We don’t just remember Holy Week, and Good Friday, we observe them and try to feel part of them. And, then we enter the joy of Easter, and even with the limits of our understanding, we endeavor to be Easter people, with a hope that goes beyond our imagining.

In the face of national tragedy, we must do something similar. We can remember the pain, but we must not get stuck there, as if remembering is a rite cut off from what follows. In marking difficult days, we may recall the pain, but we must also reflect on the hope and the healing—and know that they are real.

I can’t say that I have a good solution for a better thing to say to a young child born on a day of national tragedy, except to say that I don’t think “Oh, what a terrible day for a birthday” is the best option. Instead of bringing to mind just the terrible, we ought to bring to mind the hope as well, knowing that even in those difficult places, there is new life. That child is proof.

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Worship in Paris

This year’s family vacation took us to France. The first week was spent with extended family in eastern France, along parts of the Saone and the Rhone rivers. Then, my husband, children and I spent a few days in Paris before returning home. This was not our first visit to Paris, with trips that included Paris in 2004 and 2008. This visit, though, we knew would be different.

Paris is a city on high alert. Police and guard units, armed with large scary weapons, roam the streets—on foot, on horseback, on bicycles, motorcycles, cars and vans. They are everywhere. Every tourist venue now involves a security check, some not unlike the airport. During our visit, we passed through many security checks. When we saw the person with the security armband, we knew it was time to open our bags and empty our pockets.

We were not exactly surprised, then, to find the security detail at the front door of the American Church in Paris when we arrived for Sunday morning worship. I opened my bag for inspection and my husband had to empty his pockets before we were allowed admittance. We weren’t surprised by this. Still, it was both sad and unsettling.

My experience of worship on that Sunday provided two distinct, entirely opposing impressions.

On the more negative side, I couldn’t shake the significance of the security check, wondering about this world in which we live. That particular worship service involved the dedication of two young children from one family, and a baptism for another child of a different family. As a nondenominational church that seeks to support a variety of traditions, baptism takes on a more fluid meaning. One family was clearly of a Baptist stream and the other was not. The pastor, though, found a way to make these two concurrent ceremonies feel distinct, yet special and meaningful in their own way.

As the pastor introduced the children to the congregation at the end of the ceremony, parading them down the center aisle and back, I couldn’t help but think about the world in which these children found themselves, and the security detail that met them at the door of their church. I wondered about those who wish nothing but harm for those who gathered in that church for worship, service and ministry. In that moment of reflection, the congregation seemed small and vulnerable.

On the other side of my experience, was a deep sense of hopefulness. For there was hope—brazen, remarkable, and plain. The American Church in Paris is a place of amazing diversity. While the congregation was not huge, the array of parishioners was stunning. There were people from various African countries, as well as Asian. There were also Brits and Americans and a few people I couldn’t quite figure out in terms of where they had come from.

And we were all at worship. During the passing of the peace, we greeted each other with words of Christ’s peace. A couple of people were especially enthusiastic, moving quickly from pew to pew, seeming to want to pass the peace to as many people as possible before it was time to return to their seat.

During worship, a candle was lit for “God’s Global Vision of Compassion, Justice and Peace.” This was clearly a weekly ritual. The pastor who spoke as the candle was lit did not speak of Paris and the ongoing trauma and fear of terrorism. Instead, he spoke of a recent visit of Pope Francis, who had spent a day with victims of human trafficking. Although it took only a few minutes, I found this part of the service to be very moving.

The American Church in Paris, simply by its existence and its ministry of presence, speaks to the way of hope in a profound way. In that multi-colored and multi-patterned worship, we worshiped as the people of God, demonstrating the way of peace and hope. And, in that way, the congregation seemed very powerful and strong.

Returning to Maine, I am back to a place where we have no security check at our front door, nor do we have the sort of beautiful diversity on display as the American Church in Paris, but I will carry that experience of worship with me, trying to maintain a renewed mindfulness for what it means to be God’s people, no matter where we live. To gather as God’s people is to live in the midst of hope, even where it seems most fragile, and to remain steadfast in celebrating God’s grace and blessing, no matter the circumstances, and to do our best not to take them for granted. And, to be a people always in search of peace, of the peace of Christ, so elusive yet so present.

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When the Small Church Shines

[Note:  I’ll be on vacation for the next couple of weeks and will take a brief break from this blog.]

For the small church, it’s easy to get caught up in worries. Parishioners are fretful about the future, about our ability to pay the bills, about how many are coming to worship, and how many will be in the choir come fall. It can also be easy, then, to lose sight of those moments when the small church shines.

For Old South, one of those especially good, shining Sundays was this past Sunday, August 7.

I should explain first that Old South depends quite a lot on an open “sign up” (with the actual lists in the church vestry and online). People sign up for a whole range of duties for individual Sundays—greeting, reading the psalm of the day, leading the start of worship, providing special music during the summer months when the choir is on hiatus, providing hospitality, and assisting with worship duties (known as the “worship assistant”).   The worship assistant (or two) is in place of what used to be done by the Deacons. At Old South, we no longer have Deacons. Now, it’s an open system, where anyone can sign up to help get the sanctuary ready for Sunday morning worship, including the preparation (and serving) of communion on the first Sunday of the month.

This past Sunday, we had a couple who just started worshiping with us this summer, in the role of greeters. My seventeen-year-old son read the psalm of the day. The Worship Assistant role was actually the work of several people. Someone who’s a relatively new member of the church had asked about serving communion. She had never served communion at Old South, although she had done so at a previous church. A couple of former deacons offered to help her out, in setting up the communion table and talking her through the role.

We also had James, a five-year-old who attends worship with his grandmother. James likes to “help” me, mostly by sitting with me in the chancel or standing with me when I’m speaking.

Finally, we had a retired American Baptist pastor who attends Old South with his wife while they are in Maine for the summer months. During the offering, Steve sang a song that he had written himself years ago. It happened to go nicely with Sunday’s homily, in which I encouraged us, as a church, to focus on faithfulness and on our ministry, to try to let go of our fretfulness. By the end of the song, Steve’s voice was cracking with emotion.

It was a good Sunday. At Old South, this is not a rare occasion. Lots of Sundays are good Sundays. Yet, we often fail to stop for a moment and recognize these shining Sundays, and to be grateful for them, knowing that we as a community of faith, were drawn closer to each other and the God whom we worship.

I’m about to go on vacation, so perhaps I was feeling especially mindful of the significance of taking note of a good Sunday, since I’ll be away for several Sundays. In the meantime, I’ll hold onto some of Steve’s lyrics and I’ll be grateful for the small church that I call home:

When the storms of life assail my boat and I find it hard to stand,
My Lord, He holds the tiller in his great and mighty hand.
In his great and mighty hand, in his great and mighty hand…
My Lord, he holds the tiller in his great and mighty hand.

And when the rocks of doubt appear to rend my boat in two,
His voice cries out, “Hang on hang on”, I’m here to steer you through!
I’m here to steer you through, I’m here to steer you through…
His voice cries out, “Hang on, hang on”, I’m here to steer you through!

I set my sails unto the skies, and sail through unknown seas,
My Lord is there to be my guide, a faithful friend indeed.
A faithful friend indeed, a faithful friend indeed…
My Lord is there to be my guide, a faithful friend indeed.
(“My Lord, He Holds the Tiller,” lyrics by the Rev. Stephen Tolander)

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