When the Small Church Shines

[Note:  I’ll be on vacation for the next couple of weeks and will take a brief break from this blog.]

For the small church, it’s easy to get caught up in worries. Parishioners are fretful about the future, about our ability to pay the bills, about how many are coming to worship, and how many will be in the choir come fall. It can also be easy, then, to lose sight of those moments when the small church shines.

For Old South, one of those especially good, shining Sundays was this past Sunday, August 7.

I should explain first that Old South depends quite a lot on an open “sign up” (with the actual lists in the church vestry and online). People sign up for a whole range of duties for individual Sundays—greeting, reading the psalm of the day, leading the start of worship, providing special music during the summer months when the choir is on hiatus, providing hospitality, and assisting with worship duties (known as the “worship assistant”).   The worship assistant (or two) is in place of what used to be done by the Deacons. At Old South, we no longer have Deacons. Now, it’s an open system, where anyone can sign up to help get the sanctuary ready for Sunday morning worship, including the preparation (and serving) of communion on the first Sunday of the month.

This past Sunday, we had a couple who just started worshiping with us this summer, in the role of greeters. My seventeen-year-old son read the psalm of the day. The Worship Assistant role was actually the work of several people. Someone who’s a relatively new member of the church had asked about serving communion. She had never served communion at Old South, although she had done so at a previous church. A couple of former deacons offered to help her out, in setting up the communion table and talking her through the role.

We also had James, a five-year-old who attends worship with his grandmother. James likes to “help” me, mostly by sitting with me in the chancel or standing with me when I’m speaking.

Finally, we had a retired American Baptist pastor who attends Old South with his wife while they are in Maine for the summer months. During the offering, Steve sang a song that he had written himself years ago. It happened to go nicely with Sunday’s homily, in which I encouraged us, as a church, to focus on faithfulness and on our ministry, to try to let go of our fretfulness. By the end of the song, Steve’s voice was cracking with emotion.

It was a good Sunday. At Old South, this is not a rare occasion. Lots of Sundays are good Sundays. Yet, we often fail to stop for a moment and recognize these shining Sundays, and to be grateful for them, knowing that we as a community of faith, were drawn closer to each other and the God whom we worship.

I’m about to go on vacation, so perhaps I was feeling especially mindful of the significance of taking note of a good Sunday, since I’ll be away for several Sundays. In the meantime, I’ll hold onto some of Steve’s lyrics and I’ll be grateful for the small church that I call home:

When the storms of life assail my boat and I find it hard to stand,
My Lord, He holds the tiller in his great and mighty hand.
In his great and mighty hand, in his great and mighty hand…
My Lord, he holds the tiller in his great and mighty hand.

And when the rocks of doubt appear to rend my boat in two,
His voice cries out, “Hang on hang on”, I’m here to steer you through!
I’m here to steer you through, I’m here to steer you through…
His voice cries out, “Hang on, hang on”, I’m here to steer you through!

I set my sails unto the skies, and sail through unknown seas,
My Lord is there to be my guide, a faithful friend indeed.
A faithful friend indeed, a faithful friend indeed…
My Lord is there to be my guide, a faithful friend indeed.
(“My Lord, He Holds the Tiller,” lyrics by the Rev. Stephen Tolander)

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When the Bible Gets in the Way

During a recent trip to the grocery store, I bumped into a former parishioner from a former church. I had not seen the man in many years, but I had heard long ago that he, along with his family, had left that other church not long after I did, and had started attending an evangelical church. I wasn’t surprised to hear the news, as he and his wife had always bristled at the more liberal theological bent of the United Church of Christ.

When this former parishioner spotted me, he made something of a beeline for me. Something about the sparkle in his eye made me think that this was not going to be just a social visit. He asked me about my kids, who were quite young the last time he saw them. Now my daughter is in college. I asked about his family, and his growing list of grandchildren.

Then, he asked if I was still involved in church life, and I informed him that I am serving as pastor to a Congregational/United Church of Christ church about a half hour away. That’s when the tone of our friendly conversation took a turn.

He told me that he had changed churches and, after much prayer and study, had become aware of the waywardness of the UCC. And, now he wanted to help me see the error of my ways.

He was very blunt. In fact, he shared his deep concern that, if I didn’t change the direction of my faith, then the consequences would be dire. On the last day, he informed me, “When it’s your turn to stand before Jesus, he’s going to say to you that you’ve done some good things, but that ‘you did not know me, so go away.’”

Yikes.

I responded by telling him that, while I was glad that he had found a faith community that was meaningful to him, I was unlikely ever going to agree with his approach. Yet he persisted, calmly but determinedly quoting Bible verse after Bible verse and insisting, though there are some places where Christians may disagree, there are certain other places where there can be no debate—and he was very clear on the difference. There are “basics” that must be professed, otherwise one ought not consider oneself a Christian, and should be prepared for a dreadful eternity.

I did my best to remain respectful, but I offered to him that, though it appeared that he had scripture on his side, it seemed problematic for any Christian to be making some of the judgments he—and presumably his church—was making. To worship God, I told him, is to know that I am not God and therefore, I cannot know all of the dimensions in and through which the Divine operates.

He nodded and paused. And, then started in on scripture again, especially the part about correcting error (2 Timothy 3:16). I, in turn, said something about the problems in treating the Bible so literally, especially since it was not written in English and that the languages of the Bible are so different from English.

I wasn’t surprised that he remained doggedly attached to his approach (clearly, he had found something truly compelling), yet I was still taken aback by his perseverance. He seemed unwilling to end the conversation without some sense that he at least planted a seed that might eventually turn me from my waywardness.

Although I could have walked away at any time, I continued with the conversation. I stayed not only to be polite, but because I had liked this guy when we were at the same church together. I had been especially drawn to his gift of music. I had known even then that he struggled with a looser interpretation of the Bible. He was clearly someone who liked definition, but yet he was a good man with a powerful gift.

And, that was how we finally got to an end. Somehow, I managed to turn the conversation to that gift of music, and how I still remembered a few times when his music especially touched me.

The conversation ended respectfully, although I am sure he was disappointed that he had not made much headway in my stubbornly non-literal approach to the Bible and had not done much to keep me from an unpleasant eternity. It was certainly not the first time I had found myself in the midst of such a conversation, yet this one seemed particularly sad.

What is that they say about the relationship between Americans and the British? Two peoples divided by a common language. And, Christians have something similar. We are various peoples divided by a common book. It’s sad that we cannot find some common ground, or at least some path out of thinking that our way is right and all others are wrong. Or, if we believe others to be wrong (as I think of this man, and his church, after all), that we do so without making the leap to believing that they are damned for all eternity. There’s an important difference there. One that all Christians ought to ponder in more meaningful ways.

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The Significance of Saying Good-bye

At Old South, we seem to say good-bye a lot. Occasionally, it’s in the form of a funeral. But, more often, it’s because a person (or a couple or a family) is moving. Most people are nice enough to inform me (and others in the church) of their departure, although there have been a few who waited until they had moved before informing me.

I know, good-byes are hard.

For those who share the news regarding their impending departure, I usually suggest that we observe the departure in some way during worship, recognizing their place in the church community and wishing them well for the journey ahead. The person usually cringes a little and asks something about the necessity of such an occasion. When I inform them that it’s really not for them, but for those they are leaving behind, they usually go along with it—albeit grudgingly.

I know, good-byes are hard. And no one wants to be in the spotlight like that.

For those not going away, saying good-bye can be especially painful and difficult, especially in a small church where everyone knows each other. That’s precisely why I insist—when the opportunity presents itself—that those who are leaving allow time for saying good-bye and to do it, if at all possible, during worship. I usually say something during “joys and concerns” and include in the pastoral prayer a blessing for that person or persons who are leaving us. There is in that moment grief as well as gratitude. My hope is that it means something for those who are leaving, and that it means something for those left behind, recognizing the loss while also turning to each other and to God for comfort and assurance.

Good-byes are hard. They are hard because our relationships hold significance, and those who choose to gather with us in our small church are each a vital piece of who we are, how we see and understand ourselves as the body of Christ.

And, that is why I try not to allow people to dodge the good-bye, although I have noticed that there have been a couple of occasions (and one that is upcoming) when a person seems to specifically choose their departure to coincide with my vacation. This sort of departure may be easier, but it isn’t better.

Good-byes are hard, but they are important. Saying good-bye allows the one who is leaving as well as those staying behind to experience a moment of grace, a time when sadness and thankfulness, as well as good wishes and peace, may be offered and experienced.

And, in the midst of the sadness and the anticipation of a new journey, there is blessing.

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The Dismay of Convention Season—2016

Perhaps because I am part of a fairly well-known (locally) dual political party couple, I occasionally receive the odd, whispered confession. Usually it is from a woman, who wants (or needs?) to share with someone that she’s not a Republican, as her husband, but a Democrat. The confession usually involves the further revelation that she’s not sure that her husband is aware that she does not share his political views.

Although I don’t receive a lot of these confessions, I hear them from time to time. This year, I’ve heard several—and they feel different. In the past, the “confession” is usually offered in an off-hand sort of way, in a way that almost feels that the gap between the pair is not very distant, or serious.

This year, though, the feeling is much more grave, full of deeper concern and anxiety.

The political landscape is different. It’s not just that the two main parties are lining up their candidates, talking about, and championing, their differences. It’s one thing to disagree with the other side, to believe that one party’s solutions are better than the other’s. It’s quite another to feel that one is expected to loathe the other side. For dual political party couples—even when one is relatively silent—this new dynamic feels especially problematic.

In the past, it’s been relatively easy to consider the opposing political views of one’s partner as based on upbringing or different priorities or just simply misguided. The cancelling of each other’s votes at the voting booth seemed not so big of a deal, rarely forming any sort of marital rift. Basically, the differences were things that couples could live with—not all that far from the other imperfections of one’s partner.

This year, it all seems changed, more charged. Each political camp—and both do this (although one is doing it a little more flagrantly at the moment)—assesses the opposing camp not simply as stupid, wrong, or misguided. Instead, the language is of hatred, implying that those aligned with the opposing political party hate the United States, or hate certain people who live in the United States, or hate the Constitution, etc.

For dual political party couples, the landscape is fraught with tension and disquiet. How does one listen to the language of national politicians and then look upon—and go on living in the same household with— one’s spouse?

And, this is where the confession comes in. The spouse who speaks to me is worried, anxious. It’s not that she (mostly, it’s a she) thinks that her spouse will suddenly hate her because of her political views. Instead, there’s the feeling of betrayal, well beyond marriage. It’s as if these marriages reflect a national betrayal. These couples have lived together for years, just as the people of the United States have managed to live together with their differing political views. Somehow, we’ve known, deep down, that hammering out compromises is how things are done. We’ve done so in our marriages. So, too, as a country.

No more, though. The language of compromise is now the language of weakness, shallowness of character. Instead, our politicians—and upheld by their base of staunch followers—insist on maintaining the purity of the single-minded, in order to show strength. And, part of that is to cast the “other” as evil, loathsome, repugnant.

For dual political party couples, it’s an awfully strange and sad predicament. The ways of our households are no longer the ways of our country. And, more than that, the ways of our country now seem alien, uncomfortable, and distressing. Just as we cannot hate our spouses, we wonder about the language of hatred on the national level.

We dual political party couples, though often quiet and perhaps even unsuspecting (especially when one does not share one’s views fully with one’s spouse), are no longer part of the national fabric of our democracy. Instead, we are a weird liability. It’s dismaying, to be sure, and certainly a very sad commentary. We seem “united” only by the smallness of our thinking, and our desire to hate the other into submission or oblivion.

We can’t do that at home. We’ll surely discover that can’t live that way as a country either.

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Lessons on Race at Divinity Hall

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

When I was a first year grad student at Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1989, I lived in the hallowed Divinity Hall on Divinity Avenue. The rooms in Div Hall each had little brass plates with the engraved names of former residents, like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson gave his famous Divinity School Address in the chapel of Div Hall, which was just next door to the room in which I lived.

Div Hall was an amazingly diverse place, especially for someone like myself, reared in a homogeneous environment in the Boston suburbs and then educated at a small Maine college. Although Harvard Divinity School is known as a bastion of liberalism, that was not quite my experience in Div Hall. On the day I moved in, one of my new neighbors welcomed me to “Jesus Boulevard.” It turned out that I lived close to several Pentecostal students. I became friends with someone whose church affiliation was the Nazarene Church (and shared with me fascinating stories of being scared into good behavior as a child by films about the Rapture). Another friend was a Missouri Synod Lutheran. Not exactly what anyone would describe as “liberal.”

The students in Div Hall shared a large common kitchen in the basement. In that basement, many interesting conversations took place—from mundane gossip to philosophical and theological debates to the sharing of various kinds of information. The kitchen was also a great place to learn about different cultures. A group of us shared cultural experiences through a weekly dinner group. The group included a Buddhist monk (from Vietnam, I think) and my roommate, a woman from China who almost didn’t get to the Div School after what had happened in and around Tiananmen Square the previous spring.

I also learned a great deal about race, and the realities of life for those who looked different from me. I was naïve enough to think that there couldn’t be much in the way of racial problems in the late twentieth century in Cambridge, Mass, stuffed as it was with students from around the globe. But, I heard story after story, especially from the young black men who lived in Divinity Hall.

One of the stories they told was about how difficult it was for them simply to go shopping at places in Harvard Square, like the Harvard Coop, the department and book store in the middle of the Square. They couldn’t go in there without being followed by security. Often, they were also harassed in some way as well.

This, I decided, I could try to see for myself. Whenever I found myself in the Coop, I watched. I especially looked for small groups of black men. Sure enough, if there were two or three black men together, a security guard was never far away. The black men were watched, followed. Once I saw this for myself, I also realized how obvious it was. I just had never noticed.

In late October of that fall, in 1989, a man named Charles Stuart shot (and killed) his pregnant wife in the Mission Hill section of Boston, and then shot himself in the stomach. He blamed the incident on a black man. His story was widely believed.  A massive hunt ensued for the black assailant.  In the kitchen of Div Hall, though, the black students—especially the black men—were immediately suspicious.

Things got tense in that basement kitchen. And, when it turned out that there had been no black assailant, and that Charles Stuart had been the one to shoot and kill his wife and unborn child, one young black man who had been a warm, friendly presence in Div Hall, made the decision to no longer speak to any white people. He came into the kitchen, made his meal, spoke to other black students and then went on his way—no longer warm and friendly, but troubled and serious instead.

In the years since, and certainly now as I contemplate what’s going on in the United States, I’ve been thinking a lot about the shared common kitchen in the basement of Divinity Hall and wondering about the lessons I learned there—and the lessons that we all ought to take more seriously.

One lesson certainly has to do with stepping into another’s skin and walking around, learning a bit about what it means to be and to live as another person does. Considering the perspective of a black man, knowing what it means to live so often under suspicion, feared. Considering the perspective of a police officer, knowing that each day holds danger. Considering the perspective of a parent of an unarmed teen or adult who’s been shot by the police during a traffic stop, grieving deeply for the profound loss.

We live in country with “united” in its title, and yet recent events have shown that we are not united at all. We gather in our groups, with others of similar mind, experience, perspective, assuming that our own perspective, and that of those around us, is universal. We have a hard time with notions of understanding, of even attempting to appreciate the ways of life from another’s perspective.

In this time of unease, distrust, and worry (and the strange, unhelpful manifestations of these responses), we could use a little of Atticus Finch’s advice, and truly and honestly consider another’s perspective, accepting that other people have experiences that are different, and to open ourselves to learning about those other experiences. It’s not always easy to do so, and sometimes it requires a real change in how one looks at the world—including a willingness to see things one doesn’t really want to see—but it’s the only that we can move our way out of the current morass and to discover something hopeful on the other side. It’s not just about taking a little peek in another’s experience, but stepping into their skin, walking around in it, and allowing that new perspective to be a light on the path to understanding.   As the advice goes, we’ll get along a lot better “with all kinds of folks.”  Sounds like something worth the effort.

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Weddings and Church Buildings

Those who know me well know that I’m not a big fan of weddings, especially when I’m the one presiding over the event. I find that there’s usually too much emphasis on the “show,” and not so much on the meaning of the ceremony. More care is often shown to the photos than to what’s going on in the photos.

Over my eleven years at Old South, the number of weddings at which I preside has declined significantly—and I don’t think it’s because word is out that I don’t like them. Even for those connected to Old South, if I’m asked to officiate, the wedding is more often off-site at an “event venue,” where the wedding ceremony can be outside. No one seems to get married in a church building anymore—unless it’s raining outside.

I can understand the desire to have one’s wedding ceremony outside. I like the outdoors too, especially in the summer. Maine summers are beautiful indeed. I can also understand the desire to have the whole extravaganza in one location—ceremony and reception. I bet it makes things a whole lot easier for everyone.

But, I’m also aware that something is missing in these sorts of weddings. And, that something is something very important, yet often overlooked.

This past Saturday, I participated in a wedding at Old South that was truly lovely. It was a rare wedding for me, when the couple talked quite a lot about creating a meaningful ceremony. The service wasn’t very long, but it included a spectacular soloist who sang two pieces, one for the prelude, in order to “set the tone,” the couple informed me and the tone was certainly set, with praise, awe and reverence.  The service also included lengthy vows, through which the couple made promises to each other, while also acknowledging their reliance not just on the power of the love they have for each other, but the power of the love they know that is beyond themselves.

I think it would have been difficult not to notice the sense that in our gathering last Saturday morning, there was an awareness of, and inclusion of, “other.” Call it holy, or sacred, or God, there was something beyond just the human beings who gathered in that space.

It’s not that a church building is required to gain that sense of the holy, that sense of the presence of God, but it certainly helps. Outdoor weddings can sometimes draw in the “sacredness” of nature, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The beauty of nature isn’t going to be there as a source of strength and blessing when marriage gets difficult—and it will get difficult.

A church wedding certainly doesn’t guarantee that a marriage will survive, but I think it helps to begin the marriage in a stronger way. When a couple feels grounded in something beyond themselves, when there is acknowledgement of the holy and a connection to our Creator God, a wedding is not just a simple ceremony, an exchange of rings, a private exchange of promises. Instead, a wedding is worship, a place for praise and thanksgiving, an opportunity for reverence. And reverence is just what is needed to begin a good marriage.

A church building isn’t required, but it certainly helps.

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During my annual visit to the doctor’s office not long ago, I was asked if I had any interest in getting connected with their new online “patient portal.” Sure, I told them.

When I finally went to check it out, I noticed that under my name and a few other pieces of personal information, there was a box that somehow seemed to summarize the practice’s view of me and my current status: overweight.

Sure, I could lose a few pounds. I could consume fewer cookies or lower my intake of wine (especially in the summer). But, it’s not like I don’t exercise or take care of myself—because I do. I exercise vigorously 3-4 times each week. I eat my veggies and I limit my consumption of red meat, etc. I don’t smoke (cigarettes or other substances) nor do I eat a pint of ice cream every day.

Yet, as far as the medical practice is concerned, there’s just one word that sums me up: overweight.

What puzzled me even more was that my visit with the nurse practitioner didn’t even mention weight. We talked mostly about my inability to get a good, full night’s sleep, my symptoms and some possible plans of action. We also talked about some of the normal issues around aging—creaky joints and so forth.

I get the sense that, somehow, with all of the things that the nurse and nurse practitioner typed into the medical chart program that the practices uses, the program, in all of its computerly wisdom, decided that the best word to sum up my medical status was: overweight.

We live in a world of labels. It’s as if our embracing of technology has stripped us of the wealth of descriptors that are actually available in the English language. Nuance seems gone as well.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why, even though it’s not very popular in this part of the world, I stick with church. I have a renewed appreciation for the church’s ability to resist the temptation to do things like reduce people to simple (and not helpful), one-word labels. At Old South, I can be myself without worrying that everyone is trying to sum me up in one word.

It’s not that there aren’t words that are used to describe me, or that I don’t use certain “describing words” (a popular phrase in our house, since the kids went to Montessori school) to talk about others. But, I can’t think of any time, in my career as a pastor, when we’ve actively engaged in efforts to reduce people to one or two words.

Because people are just more complicated than that.

At Old South, I can think of several people who might easily be described in one or two words, mostly because of difficulties they have faced in life. But, I’ve noticed that, without ever needing to remind people, that we simply don’t do that. Instead, there’s a lot reaching out, a lot of accepting, a lot of not worrying too much about personal foibles. People are accepted for who they are—the good and the not so good.

It is through the acceptance of the whole of the person, with a whole assortment of “describing” words, that each of us trusts that we ourselves will be accepted in that way as well. And, more than that, that through such acceptance, we all become—each of us and all of us together—more, and more, like the people of God.

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