I Can’t Throw and Catch at the Same Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in My Life as Pastor | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Come Sunday Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Misc | Leave a comment

What’s In a Name?

A few weeks ago, when my husband and I traveled down to Boston to pick up our daughter at Logan airport, I noticed a very large sign on a Roman Catholic Church along the way, in Revere.

IMG_1624 2

I’ve been noticing other similar signs, all about the business of inviting, welcoming, even cajoling, people to visit, to attend, to “come back” to church. I can’t help but wonder about the effectiveness of the signage. Are there people who drive by and experience a sudden pang of guilt, realizing that they can’t remember the last time they went to church, then thinking that maybe it’s time they should?

At Old South, we’ve been talking—a bit—about our sign in the front of our church. Under our very long name, Old South Congregational Church United Church of Christ, the sign includes a message of welcome, along with a rainbow symbol, to indicate our open and affirming status. The last time we updated the sign, a few years ago, there was some discussion about that rainbow symbol. Wasn’t it enough simply to use the words “open and affirming”? I had argued at the time that it wasn’t nearly enough to use just the words, since lots of people have no idea what “open and affirming” means. The symbol, however, would convey a much clearer message. In the end, they agreed to include the symbol.

There’s another part of our sign, though, that’s getting an increasing amount of my attention: congregational. No one knows what that word means anymore. And I’m not just talking about people outside the church. There are clearly people on the inside who really have no idea what the word means either. And it’s a long word that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

It’s a problem. When we offer our welcome, what exactly are we welcoming people to?

The church in Revere with its stark, ginormous sign probably experiences not nearly as much confusion about what it is as we do in our little congregational church in Maine. Roman Catholics have a well-known brand. We Congregationalists, not so much. Although there are quite a few Congregational churches in Maine (and in the Northeast in general), we don’t necessarily have much of anything in common with each other. We are not even all part of the same denomination. It’s confusing, even for those of us who are active, faithful members of our own local church.

These days, when “outside” people encounter our full name, they almost always think it says “congressional” rather than “congregational.” This is not only troubling to me (what sort of people would have a “congressional” church??), but it offers an important clue suggesting a serious problem with the name so proudly and clearly displayed on the sign erected on our front lawn.

What to do about this situation is not at all clear. Names, after all, are important, and the confusion that is experienced may not be dispelled simply through a name change. It’s certainly part of our job to make clear who we are and what we do. That Trader Joe’s, for example, sells groceries is not at all clear by its name. Yet, most people know exactly what Trader Joe’s does because Trader Joe’s has been very good at marketing itself.

To change our name, or to begin a more aggressive marketing campaign—or both—is not simply about encouraging those “out there” to come join us. It would also be a good way of figuring out for ourselves who we are and what we are about. And, that would be a very good thing.

 

 

 

Posted in Misc, United Church of Christ | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Different Sort of Eclipse

I took a short break from my vacation last Sunday to lead worship at Old South. When I told the church secretary a few weeks ago that she could call off the supply search (for the first time in a dozen years, we could not find anyone to cover worship for me that day), I thought it not such a big deal to lead worship. I wasn’t planning on being away last weekend anyway. And, I could “recycle” an old sermon from the vast treasure trove. Easy.

Then, lots of things happened, including Charlottesville. Recycled sermon: out. I read the Pastoral Letter sent out by the Council of Conference Ministers and Officers of the United Church of Christ, strongly condemning “the acts of violent hatred expressed by these white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members.” The letter also contained an exhortation: “Our local UCC churches must be true solidarity partners with those who march in the streets.  Our UCC churches are encouraged to move from the sanctuary and walk alongside other clergy and community leaders who seek to resist, agitate, inform, and comfort. We must resist hatred and violence.”

While I wasn’t planning to start marching during worship, I thought a sermon would be a good place to remind us of the significance of resisting hatred and violence. Easy.

Easy to condemn racism, white nationalism, white supremacists, the KKK and Neo-Nazis. Easy to condemn the response from the President, regarding the “many sides.” And, easier still, to condemn Maine’s Governor, who supported the President’s statement, asserting that both sides were “equally violent,” somehow missing the point that the side that started it holds some deeply disturbing ideas about what the United States should strive to be.

Easy.

But, as Sunday approached, and I continued to explore the subject and read up the issues at hand, I started not so much to get cold feet, but to be filled with a sort of sad sense of irrelevancy.

While I would love to think that what I have to say, what we have to say, as Old South Congregational Church United Church of Christ of Hallowell Maine, to speak up against bigotry and hatred, racism and a whole host of other isms, and to know that it means something, and that our words and witness would go beyond our own community, it also seems painfully clear that what’s going on in the country right now is another distressing indicator of the sidelining of religion, and Christianity.

Today’s proponents of white supremacy, the “alt right,” don’t turn to the Bible for guidance. In fact, religion is not a major factor, not a place for inspiration for them.

The language of the church, the language of love and justice, the language of Judeo-Christian values of right and wrong, is no longer a language that offers an effective counterpoint to their hatred and bigotry. In the past, groups that sought racial purity turned, at least in part, to scriptures to find support for their warped and twisted views of how humans should organize themselves. Churches and church leaders could confront vile hatred with the very same scriptures. That’s no longer how it works.

The Church has been eclipsed.

Let me be clear in stating that this doesn’t mean that the Church, its leaders and its people, should be silent or should fade into some sort of corner, in the face of those who wish to “Unite the Right.” But, it does mean that we need to approach these issues differently. It’s not enough, I would suggest, simply to state things like “God is love,” etc. Instead, we need to dig deep into our stories, and into our scriptures, and to be clearer on why we think and why we believe that “God is love.”

In Maine, we are especially aware of the sidelining of Christianity, and religion in general. To offer an effective voice, we can no longer assume that people know anything about religion, about the practices and perspectives of those of us who go to church, beyond the stereotypes that have become so prevalent.

In an article (“Breaking Faith”) in the April 2017 edition of The Atlantic, Peter Beinart observed, “When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, ‘Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.’”

Beinart also pointed to Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari’s Breitbart.com essay, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.”  The essay in question contained five references to “tribe,” seven to “race,” 13 to “the west” and “western” and only one to “Christianity.”  The alt-right, Beinart concluded, “is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age.”

For people of faith, the challenges of today are not the same challenges faced by the church in years past. During previous clashes involving race and culture, churches and church leaders held a certain level of moral weight, and were recognized as significant participants.

While churches are not often of the same voice, nor have churches, their leaders and people, consistently found themselves on the side of justice and the Golden Rule, churches and church leaders have been a vital voice in recognizing and lifting up our common humanity. Churches have provided significant, theologically-based, approaches to those places of struggle, with such powerful practices as forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolence.

What happens now, when churches and Christianity, have been eclipsed? And, what are people of faith being called to do? How do we resist when those who spew hatred not only no longer share a common language, but more than that, have rejected the language and concepts of Christianity, as well as other religions?

We are in a different place. We cannot simply reach into the past and pull out what we’ve done and used in the past, and think they will be effective weapons against the hatred of today. In this new more secular age, we must forge a new awareness and a new sense of who we are and what and why we believe. This isn’t just about simply walking alongside, resisting hatred and violence. We must also renew our understanding of why we believe we are called to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in United Church of Christ | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vacationing in Vacationland

There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and I will get to that in a few days, but right now I’m on vacation.  For the first time in many years,  my vacation has been spent almost entirely in Maine.  Since I live here, I often forget that Maine is “vacationland” for all sorts of people, with hordes of people pouring into the state throughout the summer months.  While my family and I usually spend a bit of our vacation time in Maine, that time is usually dwarfed by a much more significant trip with family to a distant place.

Our almost annual trip to spend a few days with friends on an island off the coast of Maine has been the focus of our vacation time this summer.  The island is off of Swans Island, off Mt. Desert.  It’s a bit complicated to get to the island– a drive to Bass Harbor, then the ferry to Swans, and then a small boat from Swans to the small island.  The island has an old farmhouse, and an old cottage, and a newer cabin that sits near the water’s edge.  There’s no electricity, but all of the buildings have ranges and refrigerators powered with propane.  Water must be hauled from the well and there’s no indoor plumbing.

It’s a lovely respite from the normal crazy busyness of our lives, and an opportunity to remind ourselves of the beauty of God’s creation right here in our home state.

The view from the cottage, where my husband, daughter and I stayed:

DSC_0295

We watched lobster-people hard at work each day, and enjoyed a small bit of that work for one of our dinners:

There’s really nothing like feasting on lobsters that were caught just that day.

We hiked trails covered with moss,  as well as trails that that took us over large rocks and  fields of small rocks.

We gathered blueberries, for pancakes and cobbler, and listened to the sound of the gong buoy, as it echoed the rhythm of the harbor.

We had the time to pause to enjoy the sight of wildflowers, and an occasional butterfly sitting atop a thistle.

And, to notice what happens when the water of the sea meets land.

DSC_0348

“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it.  Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”  (Psalm 96:11-12, NRSV)

Posted in Misc | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Where’s Christ in the United Church of Christ?

I recently attended a funeral (actually, a “memorial service”) at a United Church of Christ church not far from my own church. The service was for a woman I had known fairly well, a woman who was a very active and faithful member of that particular church.

In the course of the entire memorial service there was hardly a mention of Jesus or Christ, except for maybe in the hymns that we sang. Instead of a sermon or homily, the service had a “reflection,” which was a well-crafted catalogue of the deceased woman’s life. If there were vague suggestions of “God,” they were tepid, at best. Even the prayers didn’t seem explicitly Christian.

We could have been anywhere, any sort of gathering place, remembering a special person who had died. It was as if the church had simply been a place where the woman had spent her volunteer time, instead of a place that had nurtured her spirit, had provided shape to her life of faith, had helped foster her relationship with her Creator, and conveyed the promises held in the death and resurrection, and in the lessons and parables, of Christ.

As I sat in that sanctuary, slowly seething with frustration, I remembered that this was not the first time for this sort of experience, attending a memorial service with little religious content and even less explicitly Christian content. I had been to a similar memorial service at another local United Church of Christ church a couple of years ago.

A day or two after this most recent memorial service experience, I attended a meeting that included a Maine Conference staff person—a clergy person—and shared my frustration of the seemingly “non-Christian” funeral. This particular person, despite being a leader in the Conference, did not share my consternation.

And then, at yet another Conference related meeting, I was told that the senior pastor at one of Maine’s largest UCC churches had shared the reflection that if they were to go back to do this all over again, they would more likely be a pastor in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School many years ago, we often heard the joke that UCC stood for “Unitarians Considering Christ.” In recent weeks, I’ve started to wonder if we are actually considering. Or, if we have made up our minds: we’ve considered and we’ve opted against Christ. We like Jesus well enough, to some extent anyway, but the Christ part maybe goes too far.

In Central Maine, an area where church attendance and affiliation is low, it is tempting to tone down the overtly Christian stuff. It can be risky, after all. I remember a memorial service that I led about a decade ago, for a family member of one of my most active church members. The family member who had died had not regularly attended church, nor did most of the family. But, his daughter did, and she was the one I had in mind in crafting the service. In the middle of my homily, where I did talk about Christ and the cross, at least one family member actually made an audible sound of derision.

At Old South, we have quite a few members—myself included—who often struggle with what it means to believe in, to follow, to have an attachment to Christ. We don’t pretend that isn’t going on. But, just because we struggle doesn’t mean that we end up letting go altogether. Instead, we are a community of people who invite doubts and questions—and wonder too. We do so openly and honestly, without judgment, but rather with a sense of deepening wisdom, grace and faith, as we grapple with the compelling, yet mysterious, story of God incarnate.

It has begun to feel that what we do at Old South is not widely shared. Instead, we seem to be a part of the Maine Conference United Church of Something, we don’t know what, maybe nothing.

No wonder we in the United Church of Christ are losing members at an alarming rate. Who wants to be a part of an organization—and a church no less—that doesn’t know what it is or why it exists?

Posted in My Life as Pastor, United Church of Christ | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Being a Weed in a World Full of Roundup

After a weekend off, I’m back in the pulpit this Sunday. I’ll be preaching from the lectionary Gospel passage, the series of small statements from Matthew regarding what the kingdom of heaven is like—a mustard seed, yeast, etc.

I’m quite fond of the notion that the kingdom of heaven is like a weed or an invasive plant, as is the mustard plant. Although I’m not much of a gardener, every spring I find myself battling a certain weed that likes to lurk in one of my beds of perennials. It’s one of those weeds with runners. I’m forced to gently tug on the plant, and then try to keep hold of the runner, following it to the next place where it’s decided to spring roots and to tangle my lovely garden. Although I can usually keep the weed at bay for much of the spring, by the start of summer, I’m forced to admit defeat.

While I don’t relish the experience of admitting defeat every year, this annual struggle offers a nice metaphor for one of the ways through which the people of God ought to consider their work, and their life of faith. Let us be weeds! Let us be invasive plants! The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed; “it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

I appreciated the column by Matt Skinner this week on WorkingPreacher.org. In that piece, Mr. Skinner contends that “the work of Christian ministry usually has a furtive aspect about it—simply because it’s the nature of God’s reign to sneak in unannounced or to undermine what appeared to be unquestionable foundations.” He goes on, “What is the reign of heaven like? It’s like a surreptitious act, like implanting an undetectable virus that will transform a whole body.”

This is a helpful way of thinking about who we are and what we do. It’s even more useful as we at Old South consider what it means for us to be church in central Maine. In our context, it can feel like we get squeezed on multiple fronts. In the very secular environment of Hallowell and its surrounding communities, Old South is sometimes perceived (by those who don’t know us well) in a negative way, as a sort of stereotype, as if all Christian churches are essentially the same, sharing beliefs and expectations for behavior and relationship. But, at the same time, we don’t fit in with the growing Christian churches in our area, like the Southern Baptist church in Augusta and another Baptist church in Hallowell, who hold very different views and interpretations of the Bible than we do.

It’s important that we re-orient how we do our work as the people of God, as followers of Christ. Our smallness is not always a liability. Sometimes it’s an asset. The kingdom of heaven is like something small—a pearl, a pinch of yeast, a treasure hidden in a field.

In our smallness, we may feel vulnerable to those things around us that seem to want to kill us. The job of planting the seeds of the kingdom of heaven is a risky one, and there are those around us who do not wish for anything like the kingdom of heaven to take root. We may often sense that we are not welcome, and that weed killers imperil us. This is where it’s good to try to be weed-like, furtive, a little sneaky.

As people of faith, we are called to embrace small things, resisting the temptation to worry that we are not big enough, or that our small acts of faithfulness will not take root anywhere. It is simply not our job to worry about how the kingdom grows, but to continue to do the work, to trust our relationship with the God who calls us together.

The kingdom of heaven is like something small, something like us. Amen to that.

Posted in On the Hopeful Side | Tagged , , | Leave a comment