Among the Exclamation Points

Any normal Easter Sunday usually involves a fair number of exclamation points:  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Etc.

As I prepared for Easter Sunday worship this year, it felt like the exclamation point had run amok, taking over every aspect of the holy day.  Looking for inspiration for the opening of worship, exclamation points were everywhere, sometimes at the end of every statement that was offered for a suggested Call to Worship or an Invocation/Opening Prayer. 

Easter Sunday certainly deserves an exclamation point, or two, but should every statement end with this particular punctuation mark? 

While our approach to Easter is deeply connected to the fuller and longer story of the resurrection and its aftermath, it’s a shame that we don’t devote more time, attention and reflection on the early morning stories of the first Easter.  Most Christian services, especially those that follow the lectionary, include one of the early morning stories.  Yet, there’s actually not much focus on what’s really going on in those stories that capture the mood of the first Easter morning.

I think the exclamation points may be blocking our view.

In the early morning stories, there’s fear, confusion, grief, mistaken identity and, in the case of Mark, terror.  All of these reactions could be accompanied by exclamation points, but these are not the reactions incorporated in your average Easter Sunday morning worship service.  Calls to Worship don’t usually offer things like:  I’m afraid!  I’m afraid indeed!  I’m confused!  I’m confused indeed! 

It is in the confusion, grief and fear that we could explore and reflect on how the Risen Christ comes to us now.  For congregations whose sanctuaries that are no longer full on Easter Sunday morning (whether in person or online) and where the average age is in the range of retirement, the triumphant mood conveyed by the onslaught of exclamation points impedes our ability to spend some quality time in that space where confusion, grief, fear and mistaken identity are clearly communicated in the scripture story.

For many who remain faithful to churches that were once at the center of community life but are now struggling and feeling sidelined, much could be gained by delaying the rush to exclaim our excitement and instead, allowing ourselves to express our disorientation, a theme that is a significant component of the Gospel accounts of the first Easter morning.  Many of us are feeling confused and disoriented.  We are also grieving.  And, we are certainly fearful, although many are not eager to lift up that sentiment.

Spending time in the midst of scripture that so compellingly details confusion, fear and grief would be a good process for many of us who are becoming—whether we like or not—well acquainted with these feelings.  The stories of the first Easter morning articulate a clear sense that the difficult feelings that people like Mary Magdalene experienced helped to open the way for the joyous realization of the resurrection.

We ought not, then, skip over the reality of the fear, confusion and grief, propelling ourselves into the forest of exclamation points. In the dimness of the first Easter morning, the seeds of hope, joy and new life find fertile soil. It could be fertile soil for us as well, if we endeavor to keep the deluge of noisy exclamation points at bay.

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As Holy Week Begins 2021

I have unexpectedly mixed feelings as we embark on this year’s Holy Week.  Holy Week is usually a week that I look forward to.  It’s a time to think deeply about important theological issues, and a time when there are more opportunities for what I think of as good church—gatherings of my companions in the faith, good music, meaningful connection, silence, a complicated story that offers new insight every time I read through it in the midst of community.

Last year, Holy Week was enormously different because we were not only in pandemic mode, but in more or less lockdown mode.  Everything got stripped down to the essentials.  We hadn’t quite figured out Zoom, but it felt good that we could still “gather” at all, even if it resembled the opening of The Brady Bunch. 

We are not in lockdown this year, but still in a “safer at home” situation, with face masks and physical distancing, as Covid rates stubbornly persist (and as we await a high percentage of the fully vaccinated).  Old South’s Holy Week services will be on Zoom, as they were last year, although we have now become more sophisticated with our Zoom services.  We are also engaging in more collaboration, with two services during the week held in conjunction with another local UCC church.  And, one of the big bonuses is that I’m away from home for Palm Sunday weekend, visiting a very lonely adult child whose schedule did not allow for a post-Easter visit.  With my laptop in hand, I can continue to work, and that includes the leading of the Palm Sunday service.

Still, I am unsettled.  While I am grateful for the opportunities that technology allows, it is in the midst of Holy Week when the limits of technology are laid bare.  Our Maundy Thursday service usually involves a potluck dinner.  Easter Sunday includes a larger, and louder, congregation, with lots of women wearing hats and plants adorning the chancel.  Before the pandemic, we held an Easter breakfast, with still more together time.  The loss of sharing a communal meal is a significant one.

Perhaps most of all, I miss the intimacy of observing Holy Week while in direct contact with my small congregation.  When we are in the same space, I am able to speak more directly from the pulpit, and out of the pulpit, to those who call Old South their spiritual home.  This allows a key ingredient to understanding what’s going on with individuals and the congregation as a whole.  Holy Week, in particular, is a key time in the church year to get a sense of things—how people are feeling and what they thinking in relationship to faith, what parts of the passion story are especially challenging, in what places do they perceive hope and new life.  All of these things are impossible on Zoom.

Gathering in any way is important, and so we shall.  But, as the congregation ages and shrinks, this is not a good time to be physically distanced from each other.  Mainers are not good at sharing aloud what they are deeply feeling and thinking.  I get more from body language, eye contact and the almost imperceptible facial expressions during worship or a one-on-one conversation.  The long stretch of distance is taking a toll on how I lead this group.  I feel that toll most keenly now, in this important time in the liturgical year.

In recent months, there’s been a fair amount of chatter—among groups of churches, in associations, conferences and denominations— regarding the sharing of “new life” stories and “resurrection” stories as congregations, large and small, have met the challenges of pandemic in remarkable and surprising ways.  But, I’m also interested in how we relate to, experience, and connect with the part of the story before the resurrection.  What’s happening in the dark and difficult places?  What’s going on in the challenging, uncertain and terrifying parts of the story, and how we experience and understand them one year after another?

Holy Week is not only about the joyous and wondrous message at the end of the journey.  It’s about the story as a whole, about spending time in the painful and demanding moments, the hard to comprehend moments, moments of betrayal and desertion, moments of yearning and longing, moments of feeling completely and utterly hopeless, lost and abandoned. The observance of Holy Week involves gathering, just as those early followers gathered, and not just in spirit.

We will gather in this strange time. We will engage with the old story. We will listen for something new. We will consider what it means to follow and to live a life of faith. But, something important and meaningful will be missing in the loss of the bodily component of our faith, which is so much a part of the holy story of this week.

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The Covid Year

Over the last few days, lots of people, news outlets and other organizations have been spending time in reflection mode.  It’s been a year of dealing with Covid.  A whole year.

Where were you when you heard the news that Covid-19 had been declared a pandemic and then the news that the best response was lockdown?  What did you do to do to collect groceries, paper goods and other supplies?  What changes were you required to make to adjust to the new reality? Which changes did you hate, which changes did you like and which changes did you secretly love?

Among my most prominent memories:

  • The whole family together, including adult children.  My daughter was already living at home and my son, who had thought he might try to stay at his college, came home after most of the campus cleared out.  Game nights became a fun routine.
  • The process and decision to take in a local college student from abroad, who couldn’t easily get home.  Where would we put her in our house and how long would she be with us?  Did her family know what was going on and where she would be staying?  Would she get along with our children?
  • The discussions and emails regarding church.  Before lockdown, we spent a considerable amount of time planning around how we could continue to worship on site—more cleaning, social distancing, no coffee and snacks after worship, etc.  And then after lockdown, we spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to be church virtually.  What platform?  How?  What should it look like?  How should we deal with music?  Would anyone attend?

At the time, we all thought we were making what would amount to short-term plans.  Remember that?  We would lockdown, movements would be limited, places people normally congregate would close for a couple of weeks, or maybe a few, and we’d get through this and back to our normal lives.  It would all be over by Easter, many of Old South’s regulars declared, even when it became clear that it wouldn’t be over by Easter, or Pentecost, or summer, etc.

The last year has provided the opportunity to experience many blessings that we would not have experienced otherwise.  Before the pandemic, I know that Old South would never have considered virtual worship.  When forced, though, the congregation (most of it, anyway) not only considered online worship, but worship became a meaningful experience in new ways.  Our old dog selves learned new tricks—and some of them, we have liked.

The last year has also brought, of course, a great deal of loss.  Several church members, including Old South’s matriarch, have passed away since March of 2020.  The loss of normal grieving rituals has been extraordinarily painful and disorienting.  There’s just no way to meaningfully engage fully in grieving while physically distant from each other.

It’s been a long and challenging year.  When we are able to return to in-person worship and gatherings, will we be able to bring some of the things we’ve learned with us, or will we eagerly slip back into old patterns and routines?

My fear is that the latter will dominate.  My hope is that we’ll bring at least some of the new things we’ve learned with us, including the lesson that we actually can do unimaginable things, that we can learn new ways of being together, and perhaps most of all: we don’t need a building to be church.

Old South is a congregation that is getting older, and smaller.   And we have two buildings that are becoming—like many in the congregation—in more need of maintenance and repair.  While we yearn to gather in person without masks and distance, while we yearn to offer a comforting hug or touch (and to receive the same), while we yearn to belt out an old favorite hymn, we don’t require those aging buildings to do those things. 

Trying to figure out what’s next for Old South is going to be a complicated conversation and process.  But, our Covid time has offered gifts that we ought not simply heave to the rubbish bin of memory as soon as we can.  This past year has taught us valuable lessons about who we are and to whom we belong. Reflecting on those lessons and integrating them into how we discern the path ahead, will likely make the journey more manageable and perhaps more hopeful and encouraging.

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Please Don’t Try to Curate My Faith Experience

The word “curate” (and its relatives) seems to be everywhere.   Playlists are “curated,” as are skin care products, vacations, restaurant menus, and just about everything else.  For those of us who’ve been around for a while, “curate” (and its relatives) is usually associated with art and art museums, where collections and exhibits are “curated,” and there are “curators” on staff.   Now, the word is all over the  place, seemingly suggesting that even the most mundane aspects of our lives—like taking care of our skin—can have (and perhaps ought to have) an artistic, fashionable quality.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “curate” means “carefully chosen and thoughtfully organized or presented.”  It fits, then, neatly with museums and museum exhibits.  And, I suppose the word could relate to things like playlists and restaurant menus, but could it be true that so many of the commonplace aspects of our lives are really so carefully chosen and thoughtfully organized?  Can we even discern the difference between those things that are carefully chosen and those elements of life that are haphazardly thrown together?

My plan is to stay away from the word, and to refrain from using it—except for this blog post, of course.  The excessive usage of the word suggests an element of organization that feels stifling, as if something that is curated also leads to a well-defined, curated experience.  Curated playlists of music are intended to set a certain mood.  Curated restaurant menus lead to particular taste sensations.  And so on.

Faith experiences, then, should not be “curated.”  It’s not that we shouldn’t be careful and thoughtful about religious practice, especially those of us who organize regular worship for our flock.  But, too much care, too much control, too much of our own brand of “thoughtfulness,” will likely interfere with the experience of faith, and interactions with the sacred.

For Christians, our faith stories are full of the surprising, unsettling, and not at all carefully organized experiences of the holy.  Can you imagine what the feeding of the five thousand might have looked like if it had been “curated”?  What about the birth stories of Jesus, or the healing story involving the group that manages to get their ailing friend through the roof of a house so that he could get close to Jesus, or the transfiguration or the resurrection?  What about the Prodigal Son, or the Samaritan Woman?

When it comes to the life of faith, please keep “curated” out of it.  And, let faith be—in all of its wonder, in all of its mystery, in all of its blessed and holy untidiness.

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Bringing Thankfulness for Today into Tomorrow

Old South held its first ever virtual annual meeting this past Sunday.  It was a nice, neat and short meeting.  As with any normal annual meeting, we voted on a slate of officers and a budget for the coming year.  In lots of ways, the meeting was, of course, not at all normal.  We didn’t enjoy a potluck lunch of soups and chilis (along with favorite dessert items) before the meeting got started.  We didn’t stand in a sort of circle to sing a prayer of thanks before sitting down for lunch.  We didn’t spend time at table, commenting on the amazing array of choices, and how we were planning to try as many as possible without bursting.  We didn’t experience that last minute scramble, to make sure everything was in place and that presenters had everything they needed before the meeting commenced.

This year, it felt like business was only a small part of our meeting.  The greater part was devoted to thankfulness.  We were thankful that we were able to gather, in our Brady Bunch existence (courtesy of Zoom), and that the majority of Old South folks were willing and have been willing to give this new virtual thing a try, and to stick with it over these many months.  We were thankful to one of our members who brought her computer to the church’s fellowship hall, to share the meeting with a couple of people who wanted to attend, but do not own computers, and another couple whose computer recently died a horrible death.

We offered gratitude for our “tech guy” who manages weekly worship services, doing his part to ensure smooth transitions from piece to piece, helping with the weekly set up and the lighting, and is available to respond to questions and issues that come across the chat box. 

There were lots of other expressions of thanksgiving as well:

  • For our long-suffering treasurer, who really doesn’t want to be treasurer anymore, but there’s no one else capable of taking the job and she is loathe to hand it over to a paid professional.
  • That we managed to get through 2020 without a financial crisis.  Owing to a PPP loan that has now been forgiven, we held onto the staff and kept them occupied, and compensated, through the entire year. 
  • For congregational leadership that has helped to keep us together in such a challenging time.
  • A music program that has made significant adjustments to our new way of being church.

It was good to take time to lift up and express our gratitude, that in the midst of a lot of uncertainty and worry, and the many challenges of the pandemic, Old South managed to get through the year without a major crisis of its own.

As we move steadily into this new year, it is clear enough that next year’s annual meeting will bring much more difficult business.  We are a small group, and getting smaller, and our buildings—now used only in a minimal way—aren’t shrinking with us, although they join us in aging and the need for more maintenance.

The choices and the decisions ahead are daunting, to be sure.  For today, the question is this: as we bask in the glory and wonder of gratitude, will be able to cling to our thankfulness as we face the future?  Will we be able not only to hold onto our gratitude, but keep it front and center as we sort through our choices and make decisions?  Will we allow the appreciation we feel today to guide how we engage with what is to come?

Will we spend just as much time next year, offering many words of gratitude, when we will very likely have difficult, and painful, decisions to make? In so many ways, this really ought not be a question, for God’s people have faced over the years, many complicated, thorny and heartbreaking moments. The important thing is always to be aware of who we are and to whom we belong. And, be thankful.

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Diverging Prayers

The lead up to the Inauguration made me edgy and unsettled.  After what had happened on January 6, I found myself wondering quite a lot about what might transpire as we approached the big day when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would be sworn into office.

I didn’t need anything that would lead to more uneasiness.  But, then . . .

A couple of days before the Inauguration, as part of my usual morning routine of getting connected to the day—coffee, local paper, New York Times, Boston.com, Washington Post, and finally, YouTube—I noticed a video on that last site that caught my attention, “A Reporter’s Footage from Inside the Capitol Siege” from The New Yorker.

At first, I just looked at the little thumbnail box and the title, and thought about it for a moment or two.  Do I want to see this?  Do I really want to see this?  And, then:  do I want to see this now?  Answers:  No.  But, I probably should.  No.

Later in the day, still thinking about it, I went back to YouTube and clicked on that video.  I watched with a mix of horror, fascination and increasing distress.  The footage begins with the rumblings outside of the Capitol complex, then the break through the perimeter and the entry into the building, with the rioters, among other things, expressing dismay that the Senate chamber had been emptied of people, their voices dripping with violent intent. 

Then the footage focuses on the raised rostrum in the Senate chamber.  A man with a furry, horned hat, face and torso painted in red, white and blue is there, victorious at his accomplishment. A few “MAGA” hat wearing compatriots join him.  At 7:56 in the footage, one of the men wearing a MAGA hat raises his arms and yells out in a loud voice, “Jesus Christ!”  Not in a jeering way.

Instead, a sort of prayer begins, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name.  Amen.”  And, the men (all men, young men) roar in assent, and then repeat, in loud voice, some with their hands raised, “Amen.”  And, the man with the furry, horned hat announces that they should have a prayer.  With megaphone in hand he begins his prayer, thanking the Heavenly Father, “for gracing us with this opportunity”  . . . “to stand up for our God-given unalienable rights.”  And, then continuing, “Thank you Heavenly Father for the inspiration needed to [garbled] send a message to all the [garbled], the communists and the globalists.  This is our nation, not theirs.  We will not allow America and the American ways, the United States of America, to go down.  Thank you [garbled] for filling this chamber with your white light of love, your white light of harmony.  Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and love Christ.”  And, the prayer continues, including still more references to “white light.”

The young men with him can be heard murmuring Amens along the way.  Some of their arms raised and their eyes closed.

It’s a scene that I found more than a little disturbing.  The juxtaposition of “harmony” and “peace,” with “our nation, not theirs,” the violent tone, and quite a few uses of the word “white,” made for a concoction that didn’t seem Christian to me, and definitely not prayerful.

As if I needed more reason to feel edgy and unsettled.

I remain deeply concerned about the rifts in our country, laid bare so completely in recent days.  Inauguration Day itself offered a bit of comfort when it came to prayer.  The prayers that bookmarked the swearing in ceremony of the new President and Vice President were very different than the prayer of the rioters.  The Invocation, offered by a Roman Catholic priest, spoke of a people of “many races, creeds and colors, national backgrounds, cultures and styles . . . our vision of equality, inclusion and freedom for all.”  The Invocation also called for care of the common good, with malice toward none and charity for all, that we might follow the path of love.  The Benediction, given by an African Methodist Episcopal pastor, offered a vision in which we discover ourselves through our connection to God:  “We will seek the good in and for all our neighbors.  We will love the unlovable, remove the stigma of the so-called untouchables.  We will care for our most vulnerable, our children, the elderly, the emotionally challenged, and the poor.  We will seek rehabilitation beyond correction.  We will extend opportunity to those locked out of opportunity.  We will make friends of our enemies.”

I’d like to think that the prayers of Inauguration Day are the prayers that actually reflect who we are, what we are and to whom we belong, as a people, as a country.  But, I can’t escape holding these diverging prayers together in my brain, allowing them to cast a portrait of division, distrust and alienation.

We are a divided people, with diverging views of what the United States should aspire to be.  For those of us who claim a connection to the Christian faith, we speak of God and we may employ a common language. Yet, it seems clear enough that the meaning of the words we speak is very different.  How will we proceed from here?  Will we continue on our diverging paths, moving further and further away from each other?  Or, will we find in the midst of our common language the call to humility that will begin to bend our diverging paths toward each other?

I find myself deeply unsure about what is to come, and how people of faith will be involved in the process ahead. Will we sow seeds of still more division, or will we cultivate efforts toward unity? Will we find ways to speak less in prayer, and instead to engage in better listening as we pray? And, will we find ways of putting down our own megaphones, in order that we might be open to perceiving the still, small voice of God? Sadly, I do not know.

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Let There Be Light. Please, Let There Be Light.

Living, as I do, in a nice house with large windows that offer a considerable view onto a vast open section of Great Pond (one of the Belgrade Lakes in central Maine), I have a familiar relationship with light.  Now that I’m working more at home, during this wretched pandemic, I’m even more aware of light, its presence as well as its absence.

Every fall, I notice, with a sense of dread, the slow movement of the sun, day after day, setting much further away from my line of sight.  Like lots of other people, I find the creeping shortness of the days discouraging.  On those mornings when I get up early, like I usually do on Sundays to finish up a sermon and to get myself settled for the day, I often feel edgy and disconcerted by the utter darkness.  How can it be so dark at 6:00 in the morning?

Now that we have turned that corner, and the light is becoming more apparent, and the days noticeably longer, life is looking up.  Or, is it?

Today is January 7, 2021, at 8:00 in the morning. I look out at the clear, still day outside my window, and I fervently wish that the rest of my life felt even a fraction as clear, still and light.

This is my prayer:  Please, let there be light.

Light for this country, after the violence and chaos of yesterday, as the Capitol complex was breached and rioters violently disrupted what should have been the ceremonial certification of the electoral results from the 2020 election, egged on by a callous and dangerous President.

Light for individuals, groups and communities who feel overwhelmed and unsure, in the midst of so much uncertainty and disruption.

Light for those who would just like to put their heads in the sand, thinking that wishing the problems away will amount to the problems actually going away.

Light for those on the frontlines of this long, long pandemic.  Light for those who must deal with the ravages of Covid every day.

Light for those who long to touch and to connect with loved ones who are sick and perhaps dying.

Light for leaders who must communicate a fair and effective plan for the roll-out of the vaccine, and then act.

Light for those who feel compelled to live out acts of resistance—to masks; to ordinances meant to keep communities, and the individuals who live in them, safe; to practices that will help to reduce the pressure on those who work in health care; to simple acts of community kindness.

Light for those who cocoon themselves in echo chambers, enveloping themselves in ways that provide only the information they desire, rather than information that actually informs.

Light for those whose faith has become a weapon, instead of an opportunity for grace and blessing.

Light for those who resort to name-calling, rather than call people by name.

Light for those whose faith has become tired, shriveled and burdensome.

And, in a more personal way, I pray for light for the small congregation I serve that faces big issues, as we try to figure out how we are called to be church in the midst of significant challenges, particularly in relationship to our large building that refuses to keep itself maintained.

In this season of light, may we do what we must to perceive the light, for certainly there is light.  We may need to look in a different way.  We may need to find the boldness to explore new paths of perception, new paths of awareness, new paths of engaging in what it means to be people of faith, God’s people.

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Reflections on Christmas in a Strange, Strange Year

In the midst of pandemic, a divided country, and the prospect of a Patriots-less NFL playoff season, it’s hard to know how to think about Christmas.  On the one hand, keeping things as close to normal is appealing.  Church gatherings and services will continue to be held online, but they will have the trappings of gatherings of the past.  On the other hand, it seems like we should keep going with the paradigm breaking.  What else can we do to push the boundaries of how we gather and how we observe this important holy season?

Old South’s Worship Team meetings through the fall have included considerable discussion regarding the significance of the familiar aspects of the Christmas Eve service, our most well-attended service of the year.  At this dark and cold time of year, in the midst of a global pandemic and our continuing online existence, shouldn’t we endeavor to make the service as close to “normal” as we can?  Shouldn’t we offer something cozy and comfortable, that in the midst of so much disruption, those attending might find solace in the tone, rhythm and content of the accustomed Christmas Eve service?

Those arguing for the usual service (or, as close as we can get on Zoom) have been persuasive and a feeling has grown among the small team, that familiarity is the way to go for this holiday season.  And, that’s what we will have.

But, as we inch closer to Christmas Eve, I’ve been wondering if we are making a mistake.  While something that feels like the typical service—despite everyone being at home rather than in the sanctuary—is understandable, my concerns are growing that we are doing something that will get in the way of an opportunity to experience Christmas in a whole new way, a way that could be substantial and significant.

At the heart of the Christmas story is a profound notion:  that God came to share our common human lot, from the very beginnings of human existence in the womb through birth and childhood and on to adulthood.  How remarkable it is that we worship a God who did such a strange thing—such a mysterious, wondrous and hard to understand thing.

I’ll admit that it’s a fairly common experience for me, that as we get closer to Christmas Eve, I begin to feel a bit of angst.  This angst is related to the feeling that many of those who attend the annual service do so out of routine and habit, looking for something of a Hallmark moment, as if the Christmas Eve service provides something akin to a large, warm, fuzzy blanket.  Those assembled have the glow, in the midst of the candlelight, of the comfortable and soothed.

I’m not sure what I’m looking for, except that I think I would welcome a face or two that demonstrates shock or bewilderment, at the story we so casually lay out every December 24th.   The story, after all, is an astonishing tale.  Regardless of whether or not the birth of Jesus really happened as it is laid out in Matthew and Luke (whose accounts don’t really line up with each other, with Mark and John silent on the matter), it’s an amazing thing that these stories became the stories of how Jesus came to be with us.  It ought to mystify, and disconcert.  It ought to feel at least a little unsettling.

This year, I can completely understand the pull to the familiar and comfortable.  We are experiencing so much disruption, why should be purposefully create more?

Still, I can’t help but wonder:  is this the best way of approaching Christmas Eve in this strange year?  It’s not that I want to completely upset the usual routine, but I wish that I had done more to persuade the Worship Team to try something different, to use the opportunity to consider the holy-day differently, to perhaps provide an experience that could be both comforting and unsettling.

While comfort is a good thing, and certainly part of our experience of God, new awareness so often comes in experiences that unnerve and surprise us.  Shouldn’t we seek to do more with surprise, in the midst of so much that is unsettling about this year’s Christmas?  The comfort of the familiar is not actually the comfort most of us need.  Instead, we could use the comfort that comes after we’ve been startled—by the unexpected nature of how God usually comes to us.

Our Christmas Eve service will tend to the familiar and comfortable, but my prayer is that those who gather in the Zoom Brady Bunch boxes will experience something much more than comfort. My hope is that in the astonishing story of birth in the midst of a remarkable year, a new awareness will take root: our faith calls us to seek God not in the familiar, but in places we have, until now, dared not go.  The challenges of 2020 could lay the groundwork for helping us to consider anew the old, old story, and to wonder afresh about who we are, to whom we belong, and how we are called to be.

May Christmas be not only merry, but meaningful, wonderfully new and joyously unsettling.

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Days of Our Nine Lives

At Old South, Advent season is also budget season.  Budget season coincides with preparation for our annual meeting that is held every year at the end of January.  On many occasions over the course of my long tenure at Old South, the initial budget draft that begins budget season has offered a bleak prospect for the coming year—anticipated income not nearly covering expected costs.  The governing board then moves into fraught discussions regarding the various ways through which we might force the income and expenses to line up.  In good congregational fashion, there is, at the start, little agreement.

Prior to the 2020 budget season, I’ve reacted to the looming crisis outlined by the first draft of the budget by grasping at something I was once fairly good at when I was a child:  math.  I look at the figures and start playing with them, often focusing on the lines of the budget that concern myself as pastor (salary and benefits are a large chunk of the budget) and how a reduction in those lines that would force a reduction in my time at the church, and how that might be managed.

One of the most difficult of the budget seasons—about ten years ago—resulted in my time and salary being reduced from full-time to three-quarter time.  During that particular budget season, I spent a lot of time in difficult conversation with the Board of Trustees.  A couple of the Trustees, it turned out, were very willing to reduce my salary, but couldn’t understand why I insisted on a reduction in time as well.  I remember one gentleman finally raising his brewing accusation at a meeting of the Trustees:  “I know what you’re up to! You want to work less.”  I took a deep breath.  And, then tried to respond nicely and clearly:  “Yes.  If you are going to cut my pay, we’re going to cut my hours.”  He still didn’t seem to get it.

Except for that one year when my salary and time were cut, I’ve discovered that every other looming crisis has turned into no crisis at all.  Every time, the crisis has been averted—without even the slightest need to delve into my carefully crafted plan, with its elegant math.  Something has happened—a mistake in the assumptions that the treasurer made when compiling the budget; an unanticipated gift or pledge; a decision to take on a fundraising project; a commitment from church leaders to take on things like leading worship when I’m on vacation so that the “supply” line can be significantly reduced; or, a reworking of several lines that result in lower expenses.

My elegantly crafted math-scapes all coming to nothing.  I remember one of those years, that I put together a multi-page report in preparation for the December meeting of the governing board.  We had averted several crises several years in a row, and I felt that our run of luck had come to an end.

Only it hadn’t.  I don’t remember what exactly happened, but yet again, the crisis fizzled.

This year, the initial budget was emailed out to the governing body in November and it didn’t look good.  But, instead of pulling out my calculator, I spent my time in better ways.  Somehow I knew what was going to happen.  Somehow, I knew that the crisis would be averted.  Yet again.

And, it was.

How many lives does a church get?

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If a Church Falls in a Small City, Does Anyone Care?

Hallowell, Maine is a very small city in the middle of the state, just south of the capital, Augusta.  The mighty Kennebec River serves as the boundary on the eastern edge of the city that is home to about 2500 people, although it often seems bigger than that.  There’s a largeness of spirit that exists in Hallowell.  Residents call it the “little Easy” or the “New Orleans on the Kennebec.”

A recent local newspaper article carried the very sad news that the Episcopal church in Hallowell is closing.  The church’s stately building sits just a block away from Old South.  Since Hallowell’s clergy are mostly part-timers, sometimes with more than one church to cover, there is little clergy connection these days.  So, the news of the closing of St. Matthew’s came as a surprise to me, and a big one at that.

Central Maine is home to many church closures.  The Episcopal church in Augusta closed several years ago.  The small congregation that was left at the end merged with the Lutherans.  The Congregational church in Gardiner, just a couple of towns south of Hallowell, closed years ago.  The remaining congregants did not merge with another church, although a small group came to Old South.  And, the Roman Catholic churches in the area have been in the process of consolidating, with some buildings mothballed, others sold, and still others demolished.

The church closures mostly appear to involve what can be described as Protestant “mainline” churches, the old churches that grace many a New England town common—plus Roman Catholics churches.  Most of the closures take place without much of a fuss, except for the small group that’s left to make the decision, that the expenses and demands of staffing and maintenance have finally proven too much to bear.

In the case of this most recent closure, of St. Matthew’s Episcopal (along with its yoked companion, St. Barnabas in Augusta), appeared to elicit little response.  The article in the paper inspired only two online comments, and one of those was from a parishioner who wanted to clarify a couple of issues that the reporter had got wrong.

It’s no surprise that churches are closing.  There are plenty of studies and reports that have documented the decline of church attendance and connection, especially in the Mainline.  Still, it’s heartbreaking to get the news that yet another church has closed or is on the brink of closure.  And, it’s even more heartbreaking that so few seem to care.

St. Matthew’s will close, with some sort of small ceremony, presumably when the pandemic is at least mostly over and people can gather once again in person.  I suspect that only a small number of people in Hallowell will take any notice at all.  Some may have believed that the church had already closed.  We’ve heard comments along those lines regarding Old South, especially when we ask people not to park in our parking lot without asking.  “Oh, you’re still open?” they ask, clearly surprised to learn that we are still an active faith community, though we are mostly online these days.

What happens as church after church falls, and hardly anybody seems to notice, or care?  What happens as people turn their back on yet another church building looking to be repurposed, and a small congregation feeling lost and abandoned?

I realize that it’s too much to ask that people consider giving church a try, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that more attention be paid to those churches that close.  Many of these churches have been integral elements of the community, offering a spiritual foundation, a place to observe milestone moments in our lives, and help in times of trouble.

Don’t they deserve something better than the cold shoulder?

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