None Mother

My daughter recently graduated from college. During the graduation ceremony, the senior class speaker offered a rather confusing, rambling speech interjected with giggles (she seemed very nervous). Given the prestige of this particular college, I was a little taken aback by the poor quality of the speech. I’m not sure what she was trying to convey, but I noticed that she referenced “mental health” several times. This is something I’ve observed from my own daughter and her friends—the open and public sharing of mental health concerns and expectations.

Certainly, mental and emotional health and wellbeing are important, vital to one’s overall wellbeing. And, it’s a good thing that this concept has been taken out of where it was once kept, in the private sphere, and given some public space.

Yet, I can’t help but feel a little unsettled by the ways through which this concept is expressed and referenced, and the seemingly easy dismissal of avenues to wellbeing from the past—like religion.

A couple of years ago, when my daughter was going through a particularly difficult episode in her life that involved medical and educational issues, I suggested that she try religion. She has, for a number of years, professed herself to be an atheist, although willing, from time to time, to grace Old South Church with her presence when she’s home. She has also, and I’m very thankful for this, not made a public display while at church to demonstrate her lack of affinity for the church, its theology and traditions. She may sit with a frown on her face and she doesn’t appear to participate much, but she’s there and respectful about the experience. But it’s clear enough that she’s not especially fond of Christianity, at least not the Congregational/United Church of Christ variety.

When she was going through that difficult patch, I tried to suggest that she might consider another form of religion or religious practice. After all, there are plenty of choices, and plenty of subsets within various religions. Perhaps one of them could offer her a place/space through which she could explore and discover a sense of peace and purpose, a stronger sense of herself and her inner resilience. She gave me one of those “oh mother” looks, like I was suggesting something completely outrageous.

When I was her age, religion was vitally important to me and my sense of wellbeing. I experienced many difficulties on my path through adolescence and young adulthood (and certainly through my adulthood). My Christian faith always offered a place of peace, a sense of belonging (especially when I felt like I belonged nowhere else), and an assurance of love and hope. My faith both nurtured me and challenged me. It helped me feel that I was a beloved child of God, and that my life had purpose and meaning. All of that is still true today.

But, my daughter and her peers appear to reject such paths to wellbeing. For most of her friends, it may be a little more understandable to reject religious practice since their parents (and perhaps grandparents) rejected religion long ago.   And with all of the terrible religiously related headlines, it may be no wonder that religion is not even considered in relationship to wellbeing.

Despite the problems, religious traditions generally offer (much of the time, anyway) ready-made pieces for assembling a structure for understanding oneself, one’s place in the world and one’s connections to others. The path to emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing doesn’t need to be completely re-invented over and over again.   Religious traditions are far from perfect, I realize, and there are aspects of religious practice that have damaged many people. But, religion is not all bad and, in fact, can be very helpful.

As a mother of someone poised at such a significant moment in life, in stepping out into the realm of adulthood, I worry about my child’s lack of a spiritual safety net—and her friends as well. It’s not easy becoming an adult, and seems even more fraught now.   There’s plenty to deal with in setting a path forward. While friends and family can offer love and support, it’s really one’s own inner life that provides that necessary foundation for wellbeing—no matter the path of employment, education, etc. Religious and spiritual practice doesn’t guarantee wellbeing, that’s for sure, but it is through such traditions that countless people have discovered deep and abiding meaning for their lives. It’s too bad that the whole enterprise seems to be in the process of being heaved away, especially without a real sense of a sufficient replacement.

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Understanding the Limits of Welcome

This past Sunday was one of the more bizarre worship experiences I’ve had during my relatively long tenure as pastor and teacher at Old South Church in Hallowell, Maine.

Let’s set the scene: The previous Sunday was Children’s Sunday and Music Sunday, so this past Sunday was a “Sunday after.”   In other words, it was a low energy Sunday. The gloomy, chilly weather didn’t help matters.

Not long into the start of worship, a young man wandered in, dressed in what looked like his pajamas. He went over to one side of the sanctuary, took off his coat and sat down. When someone got up to fetch him a bulletin, he refused to take it, put his coat back on and left.

And, then another stranger came along— this time a middle-aged man. He was dressed normally, but what was immediately disconcerting was that he didn’t sit down. He slowly walked along the back of the sanctuary. Then, he went into the vestry. The large doors between the vestry and sanctuary were open, so everyone could see him. He stood in one spot and then another. I had just started my sermon. I’ll admit that I was irritated by the fact that almost everyone was looking at him and not paying attention to the sermon that I had carefully crafted for the day. So, I motioned to the man and encouraged him to come into the sanctuary and take a seat. He didn’t at first.

Finally, as I continued on—trying very hard to keep my irritation at bay—he finally went to the back of the sanctuary and took a seat in one of the back pews.

Everyone seemed to settle down, at least enough to turn some of their attention to what I was saying. But, then the man took out a camera and started taking photos—of the ceiling, the windows, the architecture (presumably) and then the congregation.

I didn’t like it at all. It was all very unsettling, especially since the man’s countenance was rather severe. He didn’t smile or look friendly.

And, there I was preaching about the “new commandment,” to be known as a follower of Jesus by showing love for one another.  What should I do with this all too obvious “object lesson” right in front of me?

I kept an eye on our visitor, who stayed in the back pew and continued to periodically pull up his camera and take photos. He sat quietly, but didn’t participate. He didn’t sing hymns, etc.

As soon as I pronounced the benediction, I left the chancel and headed to the back of the sanctuary, where I waited for the postlude to finish. Then, I approached the man and introduced myself. I discovered that he was a visitor from a northern European country, an artist (I think that’s what he was trying to tell me) who takes photographs. He gave me his card and then left, declining the invitation to join us for coffee and snacks.

When I went into the vestry, I was descended upon by at least half of the congregation— “Oh, you did so well to keep your cool;” “Who was he, what was he doing here?”; “I was so worried. I thought he might pull out a gun!”; “What would we have done if he had pulled out a gun?”; and, “We need to have a protocol for this sort of thing.”

And, in the midst of the flurry, a few people observed the strange juxtaposition of such a stranger and my sermon about loving one another. Amid the running commentary, there was also a sense of how terrible it was to feel that way, to be so filled with suspicion and anxiety. But, how can we not, after everything that’s been going on in the world?

In our little congregation in the middle of Maine, up in the northeast corner of the U.S., it’s been all too easy to feel a bit cut off from the violence of our country and the world. But, on Sunday we felt that awful vulnerability and that terrible sense of dread of how quickly and violently our lives could be so completely and utterly altered. And, in the midst of that, the painful awareness of the limits of welcome. We might say “All are welcome,” but in reality, that welcome is not quite the beautifully radical invitation we would like or hope it to be.

Sure, the second visitor acted strangely, coming in late, wandering around and taking photos. Perhaps it’s okay to cut ourselves a little slack for thinking those terrible thoughts about what we would do if something horrific happened. Still, it is unsettling to have those feelings in a place where we would strongly prefer not to. We want church to feel safe. We want it to be “sanctuary.”

Last Sunday, worship was not sanctuary. Instead, it offered a moment in which we came face to face with the reality that our sense of vulnerability is just barely below the surface. It was also an unpleasant reminder that when we declare “no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” (slogan of the United Church of Christ) we don’t mean it unconditionally. There are limits to our welcome, in this age of anxiety in which we live. We may have good reason to be cautious, but it’s still a sad state of affairs to know how quickly our welcoming words are cast aside and our suspicious attitudes brought to the surface.

Jesus gave us a new commandment to love one another. That’s not an easy thing. We shouldn’t kid ourselves. And yet we are called to do just that, to love and to welcome. We will experience anxiety, but at the same time, we must exercise self-control in not allowing that anxiety to dictate who we are and how we express our sense of being church. We can be cautious, but we cannot allow that caution to be the ultimate guiding tool for how we gather and how we response to strangers. In the midst of this, we can be loving and welcoming, acknowledging our fears but not allowing those fears to get the best of us.

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Old South the Musical or Old South the Opera?

Are we comedy or tragedy?

One of the most important Sundays on the church calendar for me is the Sunday after Easter. That’s when I get the best sense of the state of the church I’ve served for almost fifteen years.

After all of the thrill and spectacle of Easter Sunday, when the choir sings and the bell choir performs and the sanctuary is decked out in the spring colors of tulips and daffodils and the occasional hydrangea (we discourage lilies as several members of the choir are allergic) and we gladly claim “He Is Risen” and “He Is Risen Indeed,” we can finally get to a more realistic sense of Easter on the Sunday after Easter. It’s a strange thing, after all, to try to make Easter into a Christmas-like extravaganza. Christmas has the long list of characters, with the choir of angels and the visit from afar of the exotic magi.

For Easter, we yearn for something similar, especially for those of us living in a place like Maine. As Christmas offers an opportunity for a celebratory way of dealing with the onset of winter, Easter ought to allow for a celebration not only for the coming of spring, but the survival of another long, brutal winter (which often feels still very much present even when Easter is in late April). We replace Christmas poinsettias with spring flowers, the green and red of Christmas with pastels, and “O Come All Ye Faithful” with “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (the older version, thank you very much).

But it just doesn’t come off very well. Easter really doesn’t lend itself to the big celebration. The Gospel accounts offer no great cast of characters. There’s no angel choir, no visit of strangers from a faraway land, no young couple huddled up in a barn with a bunch of smelly, but adorable, animals. Instead, Easter offers an empty tomb, a few frightened close friends, and the small murmurings of something wondrous, but very strange. According to John, Mary Magdalene doesn’t even recognize the Risen Christ at first. She thinks he’s the gardener. It’s only when he speaks her name that she realizes who’s standing in front of her.

For those of us who are not CEOs (Christmas and Easter Only), the big celebratory atmosphere of Easter feels a little, if not a lot, odd.

It’s the Sunday after Easter when I get a real sense of the state of Old South, and a very real glimpse of who has also heard their name called by Jesus in a quiet, unexpected moment.

This year, as I have done in the past, I took the opportunity, on the Sunday after Easter, to note the strange way that we deal with Easter. But, also recognized that what actually happens on the first Easter, according to the Gospel writers, doesn’t make for especially good  worship.   Would anyone want to gather for Easter worship and shout out things like: “We are fearful. We are fearful indeed.” “We are doubting. Praise God for doubt!” “Lock the doors and be quick about it.” “We are confused. Alleluia and Amen to that.”

On the Sunday after Easter, when those who attend church only rarely are gone, when our normal small group is back, we can say those things. And, this year we did. We said out loud those things that we feel: “I have doubts!” and “I am fearful.”

And we said them over and over again.

After the worship service, one long-time member wondered what it would have been like if we had put those phrases to music. And, wondered more about other lyrics that could go along with those sentiments.

Then a few others joined us and we had quite an animated conversation that led to the question: is this a musical or an opera? Is this comedy or tragedy?

Both, I would say. And more.

We are a small church, and getting smaller—although, thankfully, not stagnant (we have a few new members in our midst). But, we aren’t likely to survive into the indefinite future.

Yet, we are a community of faith, a church. We are a group of people committed to, though still a little wary of, Easter and what it means for us not only to gather on that one glorious day, but to be together for all of the other days as well. And, in that, there is both comedy and tragedy. And everything in between.

The road we travel is not an easy one. There is confusion and fear, doubt and trepidation. Just like those first disciples experienced.

So we press on, keeping our ears and hearts open to the voice of the Risen Christ and singing along to the lyric and rhythm of faith. It may not be completely harmonious, but it is wondrous and wonderful.

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Where Would We Be Without the Women?

Western Christians gathered this past weekend for the most significant of holy days, Easter (Eastern Orthodox Easter is next weekend). For those Christian Churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary (and many that do not) the Sunday Easter worship service included, perhaps even highlighted, the story of the first Easter morning as told by the Gospel writer of John. Mary of Magdala is the first to discover the empty tomb and is then the first to encounter the Risen Christ.

Although Mary was, according to the writer of John, the first evangelist sharing the news of the resurrection, this hasn’t done much for the status of women in the Christian church. The great majority of the world’s Christians, whether they celebrated Easter this weekend or will next weekend, gather in churches that belong to denominations that deny ordination to women. It’s rather starting, really, that in the 21st century, that this is still an issue. And, it’s more than a little depressing.

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis released a document stating that women have “legitimate claims” to seek more equality in the Catholic Church, but he wouldn’t go so far as to say that women ought to be in positions of leadership.

Years ago, I remember attending an Easter worship service at a Congregational Church in Massachusetts where the preacher emphasized that the women in the first Easter stories really don’t deserve much, if any, credit. After all, the women were there for the wrong reason. They didn’t go in search of the empty tomb or to discover the whereabouts of the Risen Christ. They went to the tomb to take care of the body they assumed would be inside.

As I sat there listening to that terrible sermon, I wanted to jump up and yell—and what about the men? They didn’t do any better. Some of them were even in hiding.

Yet, there they are, given sole authority in leadership for the largest Christian denominations in the world.

Two centuries after the start of this religious tradition that includes powerful testimonies of women in its earliest stories and most holy of moments, the great majority of the faithful worship in churches that belong to denominations that deny ordination to women—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Southern Baptists, etc.

It’s hard to understand the continued insistence on keeping women out of the ranks of the ordained, and out of leadership. Clearly, the men aren’t doing an especially good job. Sexual abuse and sexual misconduct have scarred and continued to scar the Church in profound and unspeakable ways.

To be fair, it ought to be noted that nuns don’t exactly enjoy a spotless reputation. There are lots of deeply troubling stories of their abuse as well.

Still, Easter offers a remarkable moment of the evangelism of women, especially Mary of Magdala. As Christians around the world observe this most holy of days, it’s time to pay attention to the person who first shared the amazing news of the Risen Christ, and her gender. Presumably, Christ could have appeared to whomever he wanted. He could have appeared to Peter, or one of the other disciples, but he didn’t. According to the Gospel of John, Christ appeared to Mary, and spoke to her, relying on her to bring the news of resurrection to the disciples.

Where would we be without her?

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A Church on Fire: A Confession

 

The scenes from Paris were (and are) startling and heartbreaking. When part of the spire of Notre Dame fell into the huge cauldron of flames, I gasped. It was hard to take it all in from the vantage point of my laptop computer so many miles away. Clearly, I could appreciate only a very small sense of what it was like to watch the beautiful cathedral burn.

Structure fires always conjure a special dread. They are so striking, as the flames consume everything they can, while they seem to leap and dance at the same time. Church fires feel particularly heartbreaking. Last year, the large Baptist church in my hometown burned in a massive fire. Although I wasn’t there, the photos were enough to make me feel ill. Something precious and important had gone.

While terrible and heartbreaking, I must also make a confession: I wouldn’t mind a fire, a fire at Old South. It’s hard to type out those words, but they are true. I wouldn’t mind a fire. After the first shock of watching the Baptist church in my hometown burn, and then discovering that it had been hit by lightning, I wondered: why can’t we experience a bit of lightning?

Old South has a beautiful sanctuary building, graceful and elegant. The exterior is made of large, granite blocks, extracted from the earth at a local quarry. The interior is lovely with its decorative organ pipes and its acoustically inclined architecture.

If a fire were to occur, I would be heartbroken. But, at the same time, I must admit that I would also be a little grateful.

Old South’s sanctuary building is beautiful, but it’s also expensive. Utilities and maintenance are only getting more complicated, especially as the congregation decreases in number. We’ve had to deal with mold in the basement. The slate tile roof won’t last forever. In the past few weeks, we discovered a leak in the back of the building that allowed water into a storage closet.

The sanctuary building sits on a steep hill, looking down on the Kennebec River (Hallowell is a very hilly place). Access in the winter is a problem, especially for anyone who has mobility issues of any kind. We have three choices—scale a tall flight of wooden stairs, cross a street that may be covered with snow and/or ice, or hold worship in the parish house across the street (where the primary parking lot is located). For the past five or six winters, we have opted for the third option, for January, February and the first part of March.

Once inside the sanctuary, the problems don’t disappear. The sloping floor, while providing “stadium seating” with a great view from anywhere in the room, offers an uncomfortable and almost treacherous environment for anyone in a wheelchair. Some years ago, I tried to point that out in a dramatic way, asking someone to use a wheelchair to access the sanctuary. There was a remarkable lack of sympathy for the woman struggling to maneuver her way into and around the room—except for a few people.

The sanctuary building is gracious and lovely, but it is a problem—an increasingly large problem. It may very well end up the last remnant of our faith community. My fear is that it will stand as a monument to a painful, difficult and not especially faithful ending. As a congregation, we have a diversity of opinions regarding the sanctuary. For some, it is how they experience the divine; it is how they communicate with God, and show their reverence to their Creator. For others, it is simply a convenient gathering place. For some, the sanctuary holds a cache of important life memories. For others, it’s just associated with the relationships they have with others who find Old South to be a meaningful place in which to gather for worship on Sunday mornings.  For some, it is a significant historic landmark.  For others, it is just a big cause of worry.

How will we deal with the sanctuary building as its maintenance requires more and more of our resources? Will we find our way to faithful consensus, even if that means making heartbreaking decisions, or will the demands of the building tear us apart as a community of faith?

In the aftermath of the terrible fire at Notre Dame, it is clear enough that the cathedral will be rebuilt. It’s a symbol. It’s a monument. It’s part of the fabric of Paris. It is a tourist attraction.

Let’s be clear: Notre Dame will not be rebuilt because it is crucial to the religious and spiritual lives of Parisians, or the tourists who flock to that beautiful city. It will be rebuilt because it is an iconic monument of Paris, and gothic architecture.

I confess:  I feel like the fire that Notre Dame experienced could have been put to better use elsewhere. I also confess that this is a terrible thought. Yet, it would make a lot of important decisions go away—if a fire were to visit a certain corner of Chestnut and Second Streets in Hallowell, Maine.

I can’t say that I’m happy about my confession, or that I will to do anything at all to make such a thing happen.  But, in my confession is a deep worry that without something like a great fire, the decisions that Old South will face in the coming years will be no less heartbreaking and no less terrible.

I wouldn’t mind something coming along to lift that burden.

 

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The Remarkable Sound of Silence

Many years ago, when I was a second year divinity school student trying to figure out what sort of ministry was the right path for me, I took a field education assignment at a local church, after a year spent at a day shelter for homeless women. One of the benefits of this new placement was frequent preaching and worship leadership. Field education sites at churches were notorious for giving students the jobs no one else wanted, especially in the way of youth group leadership.   My placement included youth work (which I didn’t mind), but that work was balanced by ample time in the pulpit, including monthly preaching.

I don’t know how many sermons I preached before I experienced the remarkable, humbling, almost goose-bump producing, moment of unplanned silence. But, when it happened, I was completely awestruck. And, continue to be whenever such a moment of grace occurs.

What in the world am I talking about? In some churches, the sense of the presence of the Spirit is measured in noise—in music, in animated preaching, in voices raised up in affirmation of various kinds. In predominantly white Congregational churches of the Northeast, the sense of the presence of the Spirit is measured in silence (much of the time, anyway).

In those moments when the only sound is the sound of my voice, when the congregation is completely silent, it is tempting to take the moment and stop talking myself. I’ve never gone that route, but still it is noticeable when a sanctuary of people moves into a space of silence, so quiet that one could hear a pin drop. Even in a relatively small congregation, complete silence is hard to come by. Coughing, clearing of throats, shuffling of paper and the contents of purses, and the general rustling of body movement, is omnipresent in a normal worship service, even during the sermon.

Moments when the sanctuary is full of people who are completely engaged in the moment, when it feels like all assembled are collectively holding their breath, so urgent to grasp and maintain that sense of the Spirit, that collective yet unspoken experience when we are aware that we are not alone, are moments of remarkable grace and wonder. It’s also very clear that such moments can’t be manufactured. Sometimes, in the planning for a Sunday worship service, I feel like what I’m putting together something—an observation, a point, a perspective— that will lead to a moment of utter silence. Yet, it never happens that way.

Silence is always unexpected, unplanned.

In my many years of ministry, these moments of silence feed my spirit and assist me—especially now, when our situation seems so precarious. As we struggle with our shrinking numbers and our stubbornly needy buildings and demands on our resources, it can be easy to allow worries to get in the way of experiencing a moment of grace and offering a word of gratitude. How wondrous it is when a moment comes suddenly that is teeming with that sense of the Spirit, that feeling of otherness that comes upon us.

For a brief moment, I don’t need to care about what will happen tomorrow or the next day. I don’t need to think about what we are going to do with our aging, shrinking church. I don’t need to contemplate our deficit budget or the developing leak in the roof.

These moments of grace and wonder are holy reminders that we are a part of something greater—greater than our building or our endowment—and something much smaller, and intimate. Let us be not simply grateful. Let us be captivated by awe and wonder, that it will help us to discern our path forward—not in fear, but in love and hope found in the still, small voice that speaks to us in silence.

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The Dreaded Funeral and Its Dreadful Portents

It doesn’t happen often, thank goodness, and less often than it happened in my first years at Old South: leading a funeral/memorial service for someone I’ve never met. In the almost fifteen years of serving Old South, I occasionally discover a person or an entire family who feels that Old South is “their church,” even though they haven’t attended in many years—not even Christmas Eve or Easter. When there’s a family death, I get the call to schedule a service. It’s an especially awkward moment when the funeral home calls to share the very sad news, only to discover that I have no idea who they are talking about.

In my first few years at Old South, I didn’t mind these services, strange as they were. I would meet with the family, plan for the service, etc. For the service itself, I always made sure that I didn’t pretend to know the deceased, but tried to be comforting and helpful. If nothing else, I felt like a good memorial service could offer an opportunity for a sort of evangelism. It got people into the church building and then I would do my best to suggest that the church is not so bad and scary, that it is a good place to be—and not just when mourning the loss of a family member or friend.

It took a while, but I finally realized that these memorial services did not bring the hoped for sense of good will. In fact, I noticed that there were some memorial services where people attended only out of obligation to the deceased or the deceased’s family. They made it clear that they didn’t want to be in the church, and no one was going to convince them otherwise. In looking out at the congregation, I could see people with their arms crossed over their chests and the look of distaste on their faces. I recall a couple of times when I actually heard someone audibly scoff during my homily, when I mentioned something along the lines of God’s comfort and Jesus knowing our suffering through his own experience on the cross. One time, the noise came from a member of the deceased’s family.

Now, I dread the phone call from the funeral home, when they mention a name I don’t know and then add that the family or the deceased “used to be active at Old South.” “Used to be” is usually counted in decades. Because it is a sad and difficult occasion, I refrain from asking the question that I always want to ask: how they could abandon the church, but then expect it to be there when they need a nice big place in which to offer a farewell to a loved one—along with a travel guide through the early stages of grief?

At a recent memorial service for someone I didn’t know and had never met, despite the fact that the family lives not far from the church, the sanctuary was almost completely full—with a bunch of people I didn’t recognize. Before the service began, the sanctuary was abuzz with people chatting in small groups, or coming forward to offer words of condolence to the family. Then, the service started and everyone quieted down. Near the start of the service, came the first of two hymns. And all that could be heard was the organ. Hardly anyone sang. Not even the family (even though they had chosen the hymns). And, when it was time to say the Lord’s Prayer together, hardly anyone joined in. For the hymn near the end, Amazing Grace, I hoped that its general familiarity would aid additional voices singing along. It didn’t.

It was the most painful memorial service I’ve ever led, or attended. It was clear that there were only a very few regular church-goers in attendance. It felt like a large group of tourists had come to visit my country, even though they didn’t really want to, and we didn’t share a common language.

I certainly don’t require any additional evidence for the decline of mainline churches, but it’s still a heartbreaking moment to recognize that the meaning that I find in church is now shared by so few and that it likely won’t survive until the day when it’s time for my family to say goodbye to me. Where will my funeral take place?

I find myself wondering about these funerals and what they signal. Is it too late for churches like Old South to turn the tide and, if it is too late, how do we embrace (or at least acknowledge) our decline in a way that is faithful and meaningful? Is the decline we are experiencing our own fault or was it inevitable, part of the natural course of human existence?   How can we continue to welcome and include, even as we face the reality that lots of people think ill of the Church and by extension, local churches?

The days ahead will be tricky and painful, but I hope not full of despair. I hope that we’ll be able to maintain a steadfast hold on our faith and what it means for us to gather as God’s people, in this place and time, in the midst of obvious challenges.

The next time, though, the funeral home calls with a name that I don’t recognize, I’m not sure what I’m going to do. While I can’t imagine that I would ever say no to a family in grief, I don’t ever want to lead another memorial service like the one I led recently. But, perhaps I’ll find a way of asking why—why abandon the church, but then expect it to be there when the need arises?  What will happen when the need arises, but there isn’t anyone there to answer?

 

 

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