Not Counting Pets (or puppets)

And those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.        Matthew 14:21

Old South has now held two online worship services, one on March 22 and the other this past Sunday, March 29.  I’ll admit that I was very nervous about moving our worship experience online, especially as I thought about who might attend, and who likely would not.  My guess for attendance for that first Sunday was around twelve.  While twelve is a nice biblical number and certainly above the quorum set by Jesus himself (wherever two or three are gathered in my name . . . ), it would not have been a very good number at Old South.  We are a small church, to be sure, but not that small.  But, we are an older church with several people who don’t even own computers and others who are not particularly amenable to learning new ways of using their computers.

Our online worship experience, though, has been quite the surprise.  For the first service, we had about 28.  This past Sunday, we had about 40.  Not including pets, or puppets (this past Sunday, one person, who had noticed the presence of pets the previous Sunday, brought a puppet, in the absence of any live animals in his household).  And there were definitely a few pets, like Tad the cat who doesn’t like his owner talking to anyone but him.

I am certainly heartened by this.  And hearing people check in with each other, seeking continued connection as the Body of Christ, before and after the service is both comforting and a little bit exciting.

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Along with my tech guy (my husband) and my feedback crew at home (my young adult children who are not shy about offering “constructive feedback”), we are learning a lot (and quickly), about how to make this experience work with our platform of choice, Zoom.  We’ve been learning about lighting and what I should be wearing (and not wearing– like black clothing).  We’ve been learning about what the right length of an online service should be, and how to include music (a tricky, but important, part of our worship experience).

It’s fascinating to be in the midst of this radical change to how we are church.  And while I’m relieved of much of that initial nervousness, I find that I must, in a conscientious way, keep my feelings of utter disconcertedness at bay– for those feelings are still very much present.  I don’t like doing worship this new way.  I miss the congregation being right in front of me.  I miss the back-and-forth of our usual worship, the familiarity between preacher and parish.  But, I must put those unsettled feelings aside and move bravely forward.

It has occurred to me, over and over again over the past couple of weeks, that there are significant opportunities here, especially for spiritual growth.  And, it’s my job, whether I feel like it or not, to explore those opportunities and to find ways of laying out pathways for connection– to each other and to Christ.

Many need, in these strange and difficult days, spiritual feeding.  Those who consider Old South their church home need to know the reality of care, grace, blessing, hope and love.  It’s my job, my calling, to do what I can to provide that, to seek ways of linking these people with Christ, to help them open up to the spiritual food that Christ offers.  Even as I struggle to ascend the steep learning curve of online worship (as well as other ways of gathering online), I know that I must.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so keenly my role as pastor, of shepherd to the good people of the congregation I serve, and beyond.

And, I trust that I will be shown the way.

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It’s Time to Self-Isolate . . . from the New York Times

Like a lot of people, my usual morning follows a routine.  First, coffee. Second, make toast.  Third, drink coffee.  Fourth, say good morning to others who may be in the kitchen at the same time.  Fifth, open computer, review the headlines and visit the puzzle page of The New York Times.  Sixth, scan Boston.com (I’ve lived in Maine for almost twenty-five years, but I can’t quite shake that connection to Boston).  And, then, finally, I’m usually ready to settle down and read below the headlines in the New York Times.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it may be time to limit my attachment to the New York Times.  While it’s been the primary source to gather news and perspective, in regard to the U.S. and the world, I’ve become seriously annoyed at its coverage of the latest crisis.  Here are just a few recent headlines that have grabbed my attention:  “The Epic Failure of Testing in America”; “Stop Saying That Everything is Under Control.  It Isn’t.”; “Can’t Get Tested?  Maybe You’re in the Wrong Country”; “A New York Doctor’s Coronavirus Warning:  The Sky Is Falling”; “U.S. Is Plunged Into Deeper Disruption and Paralysis”; “The World We Once Lived In Has Vanished.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic is certainly very, very serious.  The news coverage, though, in the New York Times is aggressively disconcerting and unsettling.  Everything seems poised to draw me into panic, rather than offer information and balanced perspective  It feels like the headlines have been ramped up, to become something more akin to “click bait” on much less reputable sites.

As a clergyperson, I think it’s especially important to refrain from panic and to maintain, instead, the mantra that Jesus so often spoke:  “Fear not.”  How many times did Jesus utter such words?  I don’t know.  But, it was a lot.

In the first century, there was plenty to fear.  There was plenty to fear among those who gathered with Jesus as well as among those who gathered long after the crucifixion, in the communities that organized throughout the latter half of the first century (when the Gospel accounts were written).  The words “fear not” or “do not fear” were likely significant touchstones for those who actually knew Jesus when he was walking around, as well as for those who gathered in his name, in the early days of the church.

Do not fear.  Fear not.  These are the words to which we must cling, whether or not we find ourselves in the midst of crisis and/or a global pandemic.

This doesn’t at all mean that we should act recklessly, ignoring the advice of experts and public health officials.  But, it does mean that we resist panic, and we recognize that we may need to do so in a conscientious way.

Therefore, it’s time to practice a little social distancing when it comes to the Times.

Take a breath.  Remember who you are and to whom you belong.   And, speak again and again the words of Jesus.  They are just as important and just as vital as they were in the first century:  Fear not.

And, share your witness of hope and love, of not fearing in the midst of crisis, with everyone you can.

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Can This Old Dog Learn New Tricks?

Ministry in the Age of COVID-19

My twenty-year-old son blames his twenty-three-year-old sister for everything that is happening in the world, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  For Christmas, Margaret gave her brother a t-shirt from Venice, Italy (where she had lived in the fall).  It was a shirt that she had purchased at the 2019 Venice Biennale, with the theme blazoned on the front, “May You Live in Interesting Times.”  Here’s a photo of the theme, juxtaposed with a damaged vaporetto during November’s acqua alta:

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These are indeed interesting times.

I could use a little less interesting, actually.

Since there’s not any choice about it, we have in the midst of this crisis, opportunity (of course).  The question is, for an old, traditional, mainline church like the one I serve:  what sort of community can we be, will we be, in the midst of this new, ever changing and rapidly evolving (and scary) landscape in which we now find ourselves?

And, the even bigger question is this:  how well will I/we adapt?  How well will I be able to deliver meaningful guidance, leadership, and general faith connection, when I have I have to learn a whole bunch of new things?

Ministry in this new environment is no small thing.  For those of us in small, older churches, where there are still people who don’t even have email, let alone a decent computer or a smart phone, it’s simply overwhelming to begin to consider how in the world we are going to offer anything reasonable in terms of worship, meetings and gatherings for our church community.

Sure, I can try to learn how to provide online content.  I’ve subscribed to Zoom and I’ve created a YouTube channel.  I’ll start to update our webpage later today, and start working with the Music Director on what we can do about providing something that resembles worship for Sunday mornings for at least the next few weeks– for those who can access content online.

Can this old dog learn some new tricks?  And, even more than that: can I learn to deliver content effectively?

While there are some things that I think I can do without venturing too far from my comfort zone, I can’t help but worry about my ability to deliver good content.  Let’s take sermons, for one thing.  I know that I rely heavily on the in-person experience of delivering a sermon.  If those in the sanctuary start fidgeting early on, I know I need to just get to the point already. Or, if the sanctuary gets amazingly quiet, and I know that those present are all completely focused on what is coming out of my mouth, I may slow down, alter my voice, and extend for a bit, or simply provide a moment to take in that holy moment of quiet convergence, as if we can actually feel the Spirit tiptoeing through the sanctuary, drawing us in.

I rely a lot on the in-person dynamics of gathering, reading body language and facial expressions, and listening to comments and other sorts of utterances.  I’ve been at Old South a long time.  There’s an intimacy that’s been created over my many years with this congregation.  An intimacy that, as I reflect on it, makes me very nervous about our new life as a primarily online community– even if this time is relatively short-lived.

It’s not so much about the “tricks” of our twenty-first century world.  I use email and other social media platforms.  I can create online meetings, as well as worship.  But, will I be able to provide something meaningful and worthy in this very new way of being?  Will I ever feel the tiptoe of the Holy Spirit when we gather over Zoom?

I’ll admit my doubts.  But, I also need to admit that I know I must trust, trust that the Spirit will continue to make her/himself known.  When only two or three of us are gathered in Christ’s name, surely Christ is there as well.  Even through Zoom?

These are interesting times, that’s for sure.  But, may they be not only interesting, but holy and faithful.

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A Sad Day

When I was a younger woman, I felt confident that at some point during my lifetime, the United States would elect a president who happened to be a woman—or perhaps because she was a woman (women generally possessing many excellent qualities lacking in the average man).  Now that I’m well into my fifties, I’m starting to seriously doubt that confidence that I felt so long ago.  In fact, I’m feeling quite the opposite—that I won’t see a woman president in the course of my lifetime.

After the 2016 election, I became sure of a deep and abiding sexism that simply is part of the fabric of American life, so ingrained and integrated that we don’t really even notice or acknowledge it.  I know lots of people felt that Hillary Clinton had “issues” (she wasn’t exactly my first choice for president either), but were those issues really so much worse than Donald Trump’s????

And, now four years later, it’s clear that no woman will be elected as president in November.  As I perused some of my favorite online news spots this morning, I clicked on the “What We Learned from Elizabeth Warren’s Third Place Finish in Massachusetts” on Boston.com.  I really didn’t need to read the piece.  I knew what it would say—that Elizabeth Warren did well only among the most educated white women, especially those in the nicer suburbs of Cambridge, despite being one of the senators from Massachusetts.

Sure, Elizabeth Warren has her “issues,” and her wonkiness turned off a lot of people, but are her “issues” worse than those attached to Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders?  Really??

This is really so overwhelmingly depressing for me.  But, why am I writing about it here, in this blog on faith?

I have felt for a long time that Christianity has a lot to do with the ingrained and integrated nature of sexism in this country, and other countries as well.  Even with the decline of Christianity, its influence is still very much present.  The two largest Christian denominations in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center, are Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention and they have held onto that status for quite some time, despite their declining numbers.

Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention are denominations that do not allow the ordination of women.  Most Christians, then, who attend worship regularly attend churches where women are kept from leadership.  According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2015, only 11% of congregations in the U.S. had women as leaders.

This is an outrage.

And it’s not Biblical.

Jesus spent a great deal of time in the company of women, offering a place of significance to several of those women with whom he was especially close.  In fact, without the witness of the women on that first Easter morning, we might not have Christianity at all.  Mary of Magdala was the first to announce the good news of the resurrection.

That Christianity continues its sexist ways is a huge problem—and not just for the Church.  For everyone’s benefit, the sexism that is a part of the fabric of our community life must be acknowledged and addressed.  Wouldn’t it be great if the Church took the lead on this?

It’s a sad day, to be sure.  Yet I will cling to whatever small thread of hope I can find, that the Church will finally come to a reckoning of its sexist attitudes in its theology and practice.  And, women will be treated with the same sort of dignity and respect that Jesus showed for them.  It’s way past time.

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A Lenten Discipline 2020

I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.  Matthew 12:36-37

Lent has begun.

Since Lent holds a confessional element, I’ll begin in that vein:  It’s been at least a few years since I’ve followed a Lenten discipline.  When I was younger, I did things like giving up chocolate, which was really hard.  As I got older, I got onboard with the not so much deprivation angle of Lent, but with the “doing of good deeds” opportunity of Lent.  One year, not all that long ago, I kept a gratitude journal for every day of Lent.  Well, in all honesty, I kept it for about two-thirds of Lent.

Around me people talk about giving things up (mostly things that, along with deprivation, offer a health benefit).   I’ve also heard a few people talk about the doing of good deeds for Lent.

In recent years, I’ve discovered that though these two approaches are laudable, they are just not quite so meaningful to me—in the way of feeling closer to the holiness of Lent.  While giving up chocolate might benefit my waistline, as well as my connection to the sufferings of Jesus, it has too much of a “been there, done that” quality.  The doing of good deeds, well, yes I should be about that business to be sure, but, I’d like to think that I try to do that year-round.  Paying closer attention to it through Lent, then, is less than satisfying.

This year, instead of doing my best to ignore the whole business, I decided to go in search of something new that I might actually do, or not do, in terms of a Lenten discipline.  And, somewhere along the way, I discovered just the thing, something to give up that may not benefit my waistline, and will likely not help me connect more deeply with the sufferings of Christ, but will still provide a way of meaning, grounded in biblical lesson and story, that will pose a challenge as well.

For Lent 2020, I’m giving up:  gossip.  Or, at least I’m going to try.

I discovered the idea on a website a week or two ago and it stuck with me as a good one.  And, then, a few days ago, I received an email from an old colleague who now lives in another state, asking for “the story” behind the recent resignation of a Maine Conference UCC staff member.  I thought to myself:  yup, giving up gossip is just the thing.

Maine may be a large state geographically.  But, it’s a small state in many ways, especially when it comes to people and how they interact.  There’s about one and a half degrees of separation, if you’re lucky, between complete strangers.  People know each other, and we know each other’s stories.  And, we like to tell and be told.

It’s not hard at all to fall over the edge from sharing news to engaging in gossip.  In fact, it can be very difficult to recognize the difference, and even more so to act and speak accordingly.  It’s one thing for someone to ask about another person’s health and well-being, for instance.  It’s quite another to ask for the “story,” the material where facts, opinion, supposition and outright guesses and assumptions are melded and molded—and given life.

Among clergy in Maine, at least in my experience in the Maine Conference United Church of Christ, there is considerable gossip.  It often begins with a simple sharing of information, but it doesn’t take long before what we are dealing with is actually gossip, careless words shared person to person—without hardly anyone even seeming to notice that there’s no longer any connection to fact.  It’s just how we talk ‘round here.

It really shouldn’t be so.  And, the evidence is clear enough, as we discover half-truths, partial truths and no truths to be the common currency of chatter.  How hurtful it can all be, as well as dangerous.  It seems a good Lenten discipline, then, to endeavor to refrain from gossip and to be mindful, in this holy season, of the significance and consequence of words.

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Getting My Non On

At some point during this year’s annual meeting at Old South, I experienced a moment—an instance that I can only describe as almost terrifying.  I was looking out at the assembled group of good, dedicated church folk and realizing that the church had experienced a momentous shift from last year’s annual meeting—and it felt decidedly ominous.

One person who probably hasn’t missed an annual meeting since he was an infant was not present.  He wasn’t feeling well enough to attend.  Several people have experienced significant health issues over the last year and appeared frail and diminished.  One person is about to move, and another is talking about moving.   A few others weren’t present because they can’t easily get to church anymore, because of their health.  And, a couple of others weren’t there because they had passed away over the course of the last year.

I felt a moment where I could have easily fallen over the edge into panic.  What are we going to do?  And how in the world are we going to make the difficult decisions we need to make in the near future?

After the meeting was over and the cleanup completed, and I was alone in the parish house with just a few of the church’s leadership, I said something about my concerns about the change from last year’s annual meeting to this year’s.  And, we chatted for a few minutes.

As I was driving home, though, I realized that I had made a mistake.  I need to be careful about how I express my concerns.  While the panic may be on the high side inside, my outside must not show that fear and alarm.

Here’s where I must put on my non-anxious armor, a be the non-anxious presence that is required if we are to get through what we must in the next year or two.  While everyone else can feel and even show panic, I know that I cannot.  It’s not a good thing for the pastor to be as panicked and anxious as the parishioners.  It won’t work—for anyone.

So, it’s time to get my “non” on, and to find a way fully into a place where I can lead with faith and clarity as a non-anxious presence.  How many times did Jesus declare, “Do not be afraid”? A lot.  And, that must be my mantra.

Yet, it is a challenge.  It’s not exactly a surprise that the church finds itself in such a precarious place.  We have known for a long time that this day would come, and I have talked often over many years about the church’s status and what lies ahead.  Somehow, though, that we are now at a time for decision-making, I’m finding that it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.  And, it feels a whole lot more uncomfortable and upsetting.

In the midst of my close-to-panic state at annual meeting, there was also the reality that Old South is a wonderful church.  People listen to each other.  They work together.  They engage in good mission.  They care deeply for and about each other, as well as extended families and friends outside of the church community.  During our annual meeting, as well as the lunch and the worship that preceded it, there was laughter, grace, blessing and joy—mingled amidst the grief that attends the knowledge that the church is in serious decline.

That so many in the wider community not only find no value in church, but seem so casually to dismiss our old-fashioned, strange ways of worshiping a deity (Hallowell is a very secular place, as is much of Maine), is an especially difficult piece of knowledge.  The church, while far from perfect, offers a place of care and comfort, of blessing and hope, of grace and community.  Its passing will not simply be sad.  Its passing will leave a chasm in the community, the loss of a place of significance where very different people gathered to live out an attachment to a weird thing called love, and more than that, a love beyond what we can actually know or understand, a love that offers both respite from and strength for this world in which we live.

It’s time to get the non on, to tackle some very difficult issues, but to know as well that I don’t do it alone.  Not at all.

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Identity Crisis

Last Sunday’s sermon was on unity, focusing on the lectionary passage from the beginning of First Corinthians. The title of my sermon was “Give Me a U.” The plan was to talk about Paul’s encouragement regarding unity, to remind us all to reflect on how we seek unity in our own local church, but also to offer a confession regarding unity on a larger level. Most of the world’s Christians gather in churches that belong to denominations that do not ordain people like me:  a woman. I’m not exactly all that eager to pursue unity in that regard, I’ll admit.

In the time before the service started, as people began arriving and the choir got settled in, I noticed a few people perusing the bulletin and then I heard a few comments regarding the sermon title. “U?” someone asked, “is that for Unitarian?”

My heart sank. Over the course of the last six months or so, several people who are part of the Old South community have admitted to me that they don’t really feel tied to Christianity. Instead, they feel more Unitarian.

This isn’t exactly new to my experience at Old South. I remember a couple who had started attending the church about ten years ago. They openly identified as Unitarian-Universalist, but they didn’t really like the local UU church. They knew a few people who belonged to Old South, so they started to come to worship and to get involved in the church. Occasionally, they would make a comment regarding my “too Christian” approach, suggesting that perhaps I could try talking about Jesus not quite so often. It was hard to know how to respond to them, except to find ways of saying that the church was a Christian church, and was when they started attending.

I am a Christian and I was called to serve a Christian church. Yet, I’m aware that the church that I serve is not universally connected to the One who is supposed to serve as our center, our focus, our “Head.” And, it feels like this is more and more of an issue as the church gets smaller.

I remember when I was in Divinity School that there was a common joking thread that UCC stood for “Unitarians Considering Christ” rather than “United Church of Christ.” The churches that I’ve served and the church I grew up in have all, until Old South, unabashedly identified as Christian. During my first months at Old South, almost fifteen years ago, one of my predecessors warned me that the church was not strongly connected to “the Gospel.”

Over the years, I’ve experienced small reminders of that warning. But, it’s only recently that it has started to feel like an issue. I particularly worry about the church’s sense of identity.  Perhaps among a larger group of people, a few stragglers may not be all that big of a deal.  But, as the church shrinks, it feels more troublesome for the community to be only partially connected to a common sense of purpose, a reason for being.

At Old South, we are blessed with a group of people who do not spend considerable time quarreling with each other.  It’s a fairly unified group.  As it shrinks, though, things are likely to become a more complicated, especially around important decisions that we’ll need to make.  Will our unity hold?  And, how will it hold if we are not all connected to the same sense of purpose, if we cannot agree on who we are and to whom we belong?

I pray, then, that we’ll find our way to a higher sense of unity, and of purpose, that we’ll find our way, together, to embrace and renew our link to our Head.  I’ll take a U, please, for unity:  unity in Christ.

 

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