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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Crowds and Community

My husband and I live in one of Maine’s lovely lake areas, a group of lakes and ponds known generally as the “Belgrade Lakes.” In the midst of this area is Belgrade Lakes Village, about a half hour drive northwest of Maine’s capital city, Augusta. Belgrade Lakes Village is, on most days, a sleepy sort of place. Those who ski in Maine may know the village as that little grouping of businesses they drive through on Route 27 to get from the interstate to the Sugarloaf ski area. For those who live in or vacation in the Belgrade lakes area, Belgrade Lakes Village is known for the restaurant that specializes in duck and the small general store, with its quirky sign that indicates its normal summer hours and then for the rest of year “damn few.”

On most days, there’s not a lot going on in Belgrade Lakes Village. But on Sundays in the summer, especially in the morning, the Village turns into a very busy place. It’s like everyone in the area descends upon the small village. It’s hard to find a parking spot, for cars and for boats. With every parking spot taken and all sorts of pedestrians milling around, it can be hard to drive through, since the road is not wide.

Since I usually work on Sunday mornings I don’t normally visit the Village, so I don’t witness what’s going on on the average summer Sunday morning. I hear about it, though, from a couple of friends who consistently go to the Village on summer Sunday mornings (unless it’s pouring rain) because “it’s the place to be.” There are a few Sundays in the summer when I’m off. If we are around, my husband and I sometimes boat over to the village to see what’s going on. We did so last Sunday, after I attended a worship service online.

The summer Sunday morning crowd has always struck me as a bit puzzling. Sure, there’s a farmers’ market and there are those who like to go to Day’s store to buy donuts and coffee and the Sunday New York Times. And, there are those who like to go to the bakery at the other end of the village where you can get really decadent breakfast sandwiches (something my husband likes to do— on Saturdays).

This past Sunday, as we made our way through the crowd at the farmers’ market and then through the crowd of pedestrians, on our way to Day’s to get a coffee (oh, alright, and a couple of donuts), I wondered what it was that really drew people to this usually sleepy village on a summer Sunday morning— fresh local vegetables? coffee and donuts? a place to see and to be seen?

As I sat outside Day’s, I couldn’t help but take a good look around and listen in the various conversations that floated out from the various groupings of people. Most of the conversations seemed to be happening in family groups or groups of people who knew each other in some way or another. I wondered if the magnet that pulled people to this small village was the thought of community, a place to be among others and to feel connected to other human beings. But, the “community” that exists on summer Sunday mornings in the Village isn’t much of a community. It’s clear that people mostly connect with people they already know. To the extent that people meet new people, it’s a friend or family member making introductions.

What sort of community is this? Is this the sort of community that helps people find meaning in their lives, or a sense of common purpose and vision? Is this the sort of community that feeds the soul and offers encouragement during life’s trials and tribulations? Is this the sort of community that reaches out when someone hasn’t been seen for a while? Is this the sort of community that provides lessons on how to live well in community? Is this the sort of community that offers hope for that which follows this mortal existence?

In my irregular visits to the bustling Sunday morning crowd in Belgrade Lakes Village, I get the sense that while there is a crowd and there is bustling, there is not so much in terms of community, at least not the kind of community that offers anything deep and abiding. There is simply a lot of people and there’s nothing inherently deep or abiding, or meaningful, in a crowd. It’s just an assemblage of people, many of them looking for connection. And, while they may feel connected to the familiar faces they see on a Sunday morning, it’s not anything like what I usually experience on a Sunday morning— in the summer, in the fall, in the winter and in the spring— in a church where community means something and where community is more than recognizing people, or feeling connected, but where there is something deep and abiding. And, where there is the recognition that we are far more than the small crowd that we make.

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The Man Who Made Such a Difference

In my many years of pastoring and preaching, whenever I’ve experienced difficulty in getting into a passage, searching for the kernel that would get a sermon going or help in wrapping things up, I’ve almost always turned to one person: Frederick Buechner. His thoughtful insights on so many theological and biblical topics have been an important element in the process of my thinking and writing. His work has also been an easy “go to” place when I’ve needed a little encouragement in my own personal practice of the faith. Just a few days ago, Frederick Buechner passed away at his home in Vermont.

I never met him in person. My closest connection was to serve as a student minister at the same church that his daughter served when she was a student at Harvard Divinity School—although I served there several years after she did. I haven’t met her either. Yet, I’ve always felt like Frederick Buechner was something of a friend, someone I could count on, someone who knew just what to say at life’s difficult and weird moments, or at those times when I was just plain stuck and in need of insight and a bit of direction.

The gift that Frederick Buechner gave the world was the gift of wonder, awe, and invitation in and through the Christian faith. When so many Christians yearn for easy answers to life’s heartbreaks and sufferings, and so many Christian leaders and pastors are quick to provide such answers, answers that are so often unsatisfying and flimsy, Buechner resisted the easy answer, choosing instead the path of wonder, contemplation, and the invitation to something deep and powerful, at once fulfilling yet not so easily defined.

One of Buechner’s most powerful moments, for me, is found in his book The Magnificent Defeat in a monologue for the notorious innkeeper from countless Christmas pageants. Although there’s actually no “innkeeper” in scripture, in the story of how Jesus came to be born, the reference to “no room at the inn” has sparked the character of an innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away from more comfortable lodgings. In Buechner’s short piece— one that I’ve read every Christmas, privately or in a worship service— the Innkeeper is someone too busy to notice or to realize that something truly and completely amazing is happening so close at hand, simply because he has allowed himself to become too busy:

Do you know what it is like to run an inn—to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million trees . . . and each tree is a thing to be done. . . . Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet—just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window—just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle of them all. That whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere—only the wind, the wind… . . . Later that night, when the baby came, I was not there, . . . I was lost in the forest somewhere, the unenchanted forest of a million trees. . . So when the baby came, I was not around, and I saw none of it. . . . When he came, I missed him.

The Magnificent Defeat

Perhaps because I spend much of my life in my own “unenchanted forest,” filling up my days with long to do lists, and especially since the Christmas season is so intensely busy for just about any pastor, I have always felt drawn to Buechner’s insight into this one character who missed the birth of the Savior simply because he was too busy to notice. In what ways have I been too busy to notice God’s presence? When have I missed something amazing just because I’m so focused on trying to whittle down my long to do list?

As the Innkeeper’s monologue demonstrates, Buechner’s approach is not to chastise the Innkeeper, or use him as a way to belittle those who are like him. Instead, Buechner cleverly offers an invitation, an opportunity to take note of whatever unenchanted forest the reader (or listener) is living in and to try to alter that perspective just enough to take a different look around. In the midst of all of the ordinary things in life, it may just be that God is at work.

Frederick Buechner’s words and insights have always been there, like a trusted friend, a reliable confidante. His work has encouraged me, and so many others, to live the life of the Christian faith, with all of its remarkable claims, its hard to fathom mysteries, and its incredibly basic call to love. Rest in peace, dear friend.

When the time finally comes, you’re scared stiff to be sure, but maybe by then you’re just as glad to leave the whole show behind and get going. In a matter of moments, everything that seemed to matter stops mattering. The slow climb is all there is. The stillness. The clouds. Then the miracle of flight as from fathom upon fathom down you surface suddenly into open sky. The dazzling sun.

Whistling in the Dark
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Women in the Early Church:  “That” Passage, Part 2

This is an adaptation of a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, July 24, 2022.  Scripture:  1 Timothy 2.

Last week, we considered the authorship and context of this particular passage that we are focusing on for a second week, since there’s just so much here (I could, in truth, probably spend a good month here).  We were reminded last week of the significance of engaging with the Bible, which is a library of pieces written at different times, in different places, with different customs, and in different languages—all of them very different from our own.

We pondered last week the notion that this letter was not actually written by Paul.  While raising the very real possibility that this letter was not in fact written by Paul is a scandalous notion to us, it was not in the first century. This letter, along with its companions 2 Timothy and Titus, does not sound like Paul’s other letters and it contains words that Paul did not use in the undisputed letters. More about one of those words in just a moment.

We’ll begin with the part of the passage that brings up appropriate dress for women.

Many years ago, when my husband, Joseph, and I were first together or first married, we spent Christmas on Long Island with Joe’s family. This involved attending the local Catholic mass on Christmas morning or the weekend following Christmas.  I don’t remember precisely when and I don’t remember anything about the mass itself, except for this one thing:  the fur coat parade.  Not all of the women certainly, but an alarming number arrived, ready to show off their new fur coats that each one had received as a gift for Christmas. The longer and more elaborate and more expensive the coat was, the further down the aisle the woman went.  Or, at least that’s how it seemed to me.  Once I noticed a few fur coats going down the center aisle, I asked about it and I was told that this happens every Christmas, like it’s some sort of weird annual custom. 

The author of 1 Timothy would not have approved.  In fact, something just like this is happening in the church at Ephesus, the church that the author—whether it was Paul or someone who worked closely with Paul—was writing to, responding to a letter that someone in that church had written, very likely asking for help.  Clearly a problem had taken root in the community.

We shouldn’t forget that all of the letters in the New Testament were letters that were written in response to a letter that outlined a situation or laid out an issue or a problem or even a scandal of some sort. We don’t have any of those letters. What we have are the responses, many of them written by Paul himself and some written by people who worked closely with Paul.

1st Timothy was written to the church in Ephesus, where there a problem had developed. One aspect of the problem in that church was the fact that some women were attending the church all decked out in all of their finest and perhaps parading down the center aisle or whatever was the center aisle in that first century faith community and displaying themselves in an ostentatious way. This had become a problem and the writer of 1st Timothy was offering guidance to Timothy in dealing with the problem.  As it is stated at the beginning of the letter:  “To Timothy, my loyal child in the faith:  Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.  I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. (1 Timothy 1:2-4)

Beyond the problem of the inappropriate dress, it also seems that there was a group of women, or perhaps one singular woman, who had begun to engage in problematic teaching, teaching that needed to be corrected.

This may have been connected to a temple that existed in Ephesus, dedicated to the goddess Artemis, as well as other influences that led to various problematic teachings, including a rewriting of Genesis 2, claiming that Eve was created first and then Adam.

And so, the author of 1 Timothy is strongly, and in no uncertain terms, outlining a solution to this particular problem in this particular church.  Let’s be clear here.  While there are some important questions about this letter, and this section of this letter, and a real lack of complete clarity, it is likely that the statements that are lifted out time and time again to deny women pastoral leadership are really about a very particular situation in a particular church that involved a particular group of women or even one particular woman.

That this passage and the one pesky little verse have been lifted out to apply to all women across the entire church through millennia demonstrates a remarkable lack of information about this book in the Bible.

And, then there’s the authority issue in verse 12:  “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”  The word that’s translated “authority” is a rare word in Greek and that makes it extremely hard to translate.  As is offered on The Junia Project website []:

This unusual Greek verb is found only once in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is usually associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.

A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a form of the Greek “exousia” when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21).  So it is strange that some modern versions translate this simply as “authority”. Considering the context, it is likely that [author] was objecting to something other than the legitimate use of authority in 1 Timothy 2:12.

There is also the possibility that the verb used for teach is linked here to the verb that is used here to convey authority, in a sort of conjunction, like “Don’t eat and run,” leading us to a better interpretation as in “don’t teach in a domineering way.”  It’s different, isn’t it?  And, in line with what we’ve been learning over the course of this long series focused on women.

Now armed with this new awareness and knowledge, what do we do with it this new wisdom?  What should we take with us in the days and weeks ahead?

The first is to not make any apologies for being a church that welcomes the pastoral leadership of women.  The second is to be reminded, once again, that the Bible is a complicated library of books that requires study and thoughtful deliberation, attention to context, custom and language, and that there are verses and passages that may appear at first plenty straightforward, but are actually not so clear.  Third, there are times when we may fall into problematic practices and that we need to work together to do our best to realign ourselves in a thoughtful and encouraging way.  Those women who were decking themselves out at the church in Ephesus, in a similar way to the women showing off their fur coats in the church on Long Island, were very likely not bad people, but people who had lost their way, had lost their focus on what it means to be a part of the faith.  We are always in need of reflecting on our habits, customs and routines, on our connection to the faith.  We aren’t meant to be perfect, but we should be, on a regular basis, considering our practice:  how well are you, how well am I, how well are we living out the faith?

This isn’t about the clothes we wear, but about our attitude, about doing our best not only to live out the faith, but to be transformed by the faith.  How well are you, how well am I, how well are we living out the faith, day after day, and how are we allowing ourselves to be open to the movement of the Spirit, drawing us in and transforming us that we may indeed be the people we are called to be, letting go of habits and practices that get in the way, and realigning, over and over again, to the way of Christ?

May we continue to be about this holy work.  Praise be to God.  Amen.

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