My Life in Exile

Maine can be a challenging place to live, and work, especially for those of us “from away,” and sometimes even more so for those from Massachusetts. Perhaps owing to complications from their past of once being one state, Maine and Massachusetts do not always play very well together. People from Massachusetts tend to view Maine as something of a playground, from the coastal beaches to quiet lakes to mountains for skiing, full of people and places whose primary worth is to cater to their vacation whims. Mainers tend to view people from Massachusetts as obnoxious know-it-alls who don’t drive well, referring to them as “flatlanders,” or even more contemptuously, “massholes.”

I was born in Massachusetts, not far from Boston, and grew up there. I went to graduate school there, was ordained there, and began my ministry career there. Massachusetts is an especially good place to be part of the United Church of Christ, as the Massachusetts Conference is a large and active Conference.

Whenever I find myself despairing of my exile to the north, I think of a class that I took at Harvard Divinity School. It wasn’t so much a lecture I remember, but an off-hand sort of comment that was made by the teacher, Ron Thiemann, who was Dean of the Divinity School at the time. He made a remark that suggested his dismay at the tendency of graduates of places like HDS to cluster in certain, specific places—the Cambridge/Boston area, sections of New York City, certain suburbs of major metropolitan cities, etc. He went on to say that it seemed to him that graduates of these institutions should endeavor to live not so close together and instead, to spread by their mere existence their knowledge and experience to far flung places.

Central Maine is not exactly far flung, at least in terms of its geographic relationship to Massachusetts, but there are certainly times when it feels very far away and very different from the land of my childhood and young adulthood, particularly the latter. Where I live and work now is a far cry from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While I don’t miss the traffic and the inconveniences of living in a crowded place, I loved living in Cambridge for the time I was at the Div School and then after, almost ten years altogether. I probably remember that casual remark by Dean Thiemann because just as he said it, I likely started to feel a twinge of shame, as I was hoping to find a way to stay and live in one of those clusters of the privileged and well educated myself.

Over the almost twenty years I’ve lived in Central Maine, I’ve come to like very much many aspects of living in this little corner of the United States. It’s been a great place to raise our children and we have a wonderful community of friends. And, there’s not a lot of traffic.

Still, from time to time, I wistfully wonder how life would be if I still lived in or near Cambridge. There are moments when I’ll admit that I can’t help but feel a little in the way of uncharitable derision for some of the ways of Central Mainers. A good remedy to those moments is the thought that, even though it wasn’t my plan, I’ve done my own small part to fulfill the expectations of the former Dean of the Div School. Though it hadn’t been the plan that I had had for myself, I recognized its merit from the moment he said it.

Now, I hold onto it.

It’s not that only people with degrees from elite places are smarter and cleverer than everyone else (in fact, many of them are not so much), but I learned a great deal from receiving an education from a place like Harvard Divinity School. I gained important knowledge and experience that prepared me for the work that I do. I also learned quite a lot about religious experiences and traditions very different from my own. Perhaps most important of all, though, was the environment, the community, at HDS and Harvard in general—full of smart and engaging minds asking hard questions and considering, on a regular basis, complicated matters of human life.

I’m still fortunate to have plenty of smart people in my life, but most of them are not among my colleagues in ministry. While there are a few minister friends with whom I can wrestle with deep and unanswerable questions, there aren’t a lot of them. I miss that. There is no broad community, no real “environment,” where my ministry colleagues and I engage deeply with significant questions and matters of life and faith on a regular basis.  Occasionally, I try to insert some sort of question or discussion topic that might lead to somewhere beyond the normal small talk, but it never seems to get very far.

I don’t know if, by my mere existence here, that I’m doing anything constructive to raise the level of debate, discussion or dialogue.  But, I hope that I am.  It may not feel like much, but I continue to plant those seeds and do the best I can not to despair of my professional exile, but to embrace the challenge it presents.

 

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My Struggle with Public Prayer

I serve on the board of a local homeless shelter. We recently developed new program space and hosted a ribbon cutting and open house to celebrate. During the planning of the ribbon cutting ceremony, I sent out to the planning committee a draft of the “line up” of speakers. One person responded by informing me that I had forgotten to include an invocation.

And, thus a new chapter opened in my long struggle with public prayer.

I have, on a number of occasions, been invited to offer prayer at various public events—inaugurations of local officials, the state senate, the state house of representatives, etc. I go, I pray, but I never like it. The instructions almost always include some kind of directive to make the prayer acceptable to all (or as many as possible). For me, it’s an impossible task, yet I go mostly because it feels impolite to say no and in order to contribute to a diversity of voices offering such “prayer.”

At one local inauguration, I got a good sense of how my prayer fit into the program when I was shuffled off to the side and told to offer my prayer from the floor, where there was no microphone. With the city council assembled on the stage, I was told, there wouldn’t be room for anyone else. And, then in the course of the proceedings, every other participant was welcomed onto the stage, with the mayor herself stepping aside so that each one could speak into the microphone. When I complained, the mayor apologized and invited me back the following year. I was invited onto the stage, but only just barely. I was told to offer my invocation from the top of the stairs. Still, no microphone. That was the last time I did that.

Then there is the state house, where leaders of various religious communities (almost entirely Christian) are welcomed warmly and eagerly. When I’ve accepted an invitation to offer prayer (with those instructions to keep my prayer from being too obviously religious) at the beginning of a session of the state senate or legislature, I’m introduced and given a prime spot to offer my prayer, and with a microphone so that all can hear. And, then, I receive a warm thank you and I’m escorted to the back, where I can exit or stay and watch the business of the day unfold.

Public prayer is a strange and complicated thing, at least for me. Personal prayers and prayers at church are particular; they are connected to my particular faith. To “water down” the prayer so that it might be more acceptable, or more tolerable, to those who don’t share my faith seems not only strange and odd, but also not very prayerful.

At the homeless shelter, the question about having an invocation is tied to our roots, as the shelter was founded by the local interfaith council (which no longer exists) 25 year ago. Although the shelter is not affiliated with any particular religious organization or group, beginning our board meetings with prayer is a tradition. Most of those who serve on the board are Christian, as is the current executive director. Prayers at the start of board meetings are overwhelmingly Christian in tone and content.

In organizing our most recent ribbon cutting ceremony, I shouldn’t have been surprised that someone mentioned that we should include an invocation. But, I was surprised at what happened next. In response, I shared some of my own concerns regarding our tradition of prayer and argued that it not a good idea to have a prayer at such a public event. I went on to share the observation that our prayers at board meetings tend to be Christian, although the board is not made up entirely of Christians. The non-Christians don’t complain, but shouldn’t we at least attempt to be sensitive to the diversity of faith traditions on the board, and even more so at a public event?

The debate, though, didn’t end there. In response to my response, a couple of people suggested that we should offer thanks to God for the “miracle” of completing our project (a problematic theology, in my humble opinion). Another person offered that surely we could find someone to offer a prayer that would be acceptable to everyone. Etc.

Clearly, I hadn’t convinced anyone of my point, but as the chair of the board, I made the decision not to have an invocation and everyone went along.

I wonder how they would feel if we lived in a place or a circumstance where the dominant religion was not Christian. Would they be so insistent regarding a public prayer if the one praying chose to offer a prayer in the language of another faith tradition, even if “watered down” for more public consumption?

For me, prayer is religious—deeply, inherently and unavoidably religious. If we are to have public prayer, I would rather it be religious, openly and honestly. And, to endeavor to invite other religious prayers and devotion at public events, allowing not only a brief religious observance but also a way of educating those in attendance of the variety of voices of faith. We could use a little more awareness and understanding, instead of assumptions or the grandstanding, even if unwitting, of one particular religious expression over others.

It would also be a good thing to rid ourselves to the notion that we can “water down” prayer and somehow have it both truly palatable and meaningful at the same time. Because we really can’t.

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Sorry, Viola Davis, But You Are Wrong

During last Sunday’s Academy Awards presentation, Viola Davis won an Oscar for her role in Fences. During her emotional acceptance speech, Ms. Davis declared how glad she is to be an artist because it’s “the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”

Really?

I can think of all kinds of professions that celebrate what it means to live a life. And, not only that, I can think of professions other than art that not only celebrate what it means to live a life, but help to give life purpose, value and meaning. There are a lot of professions that do this important work, but I’m especially thinking about doctors, nurses, aid and rescue workers, social workers, caseworkers, etc. And, I’m thinking as well about what I do: ministry.

The other day, I spent a good part of a morning next to a hospital bed that had been set up in the living room of one of my parishioners, Elsie, who was approaching the end of her life. I sat next to that bed, with the Elsie’s daughter on the other side.

We talked about Elsie’s life and her family. We talked about the service that will take place after Elsie dies. We talked about all of the good things, as well as the sad things, that happened to Elsie over her eighty years of life. It hasn’t been a perfect life, but it’s been a good one—full of family, friends, neighbors, church and faith.

We held hands and we prayed. And we laughed too.

One might refer to the scene as attending to a deathbed. Yet, it was like the many other such experiences I’ve had over my career, my profession, as a minister: it had a lot to with life, the meaning of life, and the celebration of life. During most of the times when I’ve gathered with someone approaching the end of her/his life, our conversation often focuses on the accumulation of a lot of small moments, hardly noticed at the time, but all coming together, marks of a life fully lived, or, sometimes, not so much. When I sat with Elsie and her daughter, we talked about what mattered most to Elsie. We talked about gratitude and the ties of love. We also talked about loss and grief. Elsie’s husband of many, many years died last summer. And, she’s the last of her nine siblings.

I’m sure Viola Davis could do a fine acting job of the scene that I experienced the other day. I don’t begrudge her the power of her profession. For acting is an important art, often helping us to consider the lives that we live, sometimes bringing to life something previously unknown, unrecognized, or unappreciated, sometimes mirroring back to us the sort of life that we ourselves live.

Acting is not the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. Not by a long shot.

There are all sorts of people out there celebrating what it means to live a life, in the ordinary course of a normal day and in real places and relationships. Lots of us celebrate what it means to live a life without a director, without the opportunity for second takes, without a script that tells us how the story goes. We just do it. And most of us won’t ever get a round of applause or a golden statue. Perhaps that’s a good thing, for then we won’t be tempted to think that what we do is more important than what loads of other people do.

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An Interesting Time to Be Church

It’s an interesting time to be church. With immigration and refugee policies in the news, we can explore and talk about what it means to be neighbor, how the Judeo-Christian tenet of “love thy neighbor as thyself” influences, or not, how we think of “neighbor.” The rolling back of protections for transgender students ought to bring up what it means to look after the vulnerable in society. After all, the Bible has quite a lot to say about helping those who are at risk for ill treatment.

And, yet, behold another fascinating topic: the ditching, or “destroying,” of the amendment that requires churches and pastors to refrain from supporting, or opposing, particular candidates from the pulpit.

I might like this development.

During my entire career, I’ve learned to dance carefully and cautiously around politics from the pulpit. Occasionally, I’ve danced a little too close and every time, there’s been a “helpful” parishioner who has informed me, in one way or another, of the Johnson Amendment (they don’t usually know what it’s called, but they know, sort of, what it says). We don’t want to risk the church’s status with the IRS . . .

And, now that may all be done away with.

Although I can’t recall any time when Jesus preached about a political candidate, he was plenty political, and mostly in ways that made the powerful feel awfully uncomfortable.

In his decision to undo this long tradition of keeping pulpits from declaring support for or opposition to particular political candidates, President Trump likely has in mind the unleashing of those conservative Christians who supported him through election season.

But, he might just unleash a whole lot more than he intends.

It’s an interesting time to be church.

While I’m not sure that I would want to use the pulpit to support or oppose particular candidates, as I think church folk ought to be able to think for themselves and that pastors ought to be conscientious regarding the power they have when speaking from the pulpit, I’m intrigued by the notion of churches engaging in more outwardly political ways. People of faith certainly have different approaches to the lessons of the scriptures. It would be interesting indeed to introduce a new realm of conversation—not just about issues, but about candidates as well.

Of course, that conversation already exists, at least to some extent, but I can’t help but wonder what might come of conversation when a preacher speaks of a particular candidate from the pulpit, and how particular candidates might be held accountable to people of faith.  This is already happening in significant ways among conservatives and evangelicals. What if it starts happening among liberals and progressives?

Despite the stereotype, not all churches are conservative. The more liberal and progressive churches may be smaller, but I suspect that our voices could become louder and more forceful. There are legitimate and significant discussions to be had regarding church, politics and society. And, there are important debates regarding how the the holy scriptures informs how we live together.

It’s an interesting time to be church. And an important time to be church too.

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If Jesus Had Lived in Maine

Maine winters are long, and sometimes very challenging. This year, February has roared in with storm after storm. In Central Maine, we got about 8 inches last Thursday, 6 more on Saturday, and then the  “Snowpocalyse” set in. Between Sunday evening and Monday evening, somewhere between 24 and 28 inches landed in our area. And, that’s not the end. Tomorrow and into Thursday may give us another foot.

Here’s a photo of the window in my mudroom:

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There are times like this when I wonder what Jesus might have to say, and what sort of faith illustrations he might offer in the wake of mountainous piles of snow and sheets of ice, etc. Maybe something along these lines?

Blessed are the cold and frost-bitten, for they shall find warmth.

But I say to you, embrace the winter and pray for those who can’t help but complain all the time about the weather over which they have no control. Get thee good outerwear, wool socks, fleece, thermal underwear, and insulated boots—so that you may be children of God, who is in heaven; for God makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends snow and sometimes freezing rain on the just and on the unjust.

Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. There is plenty of shoveling for today, and roof raking. Let the day’s own trouble and challenging weather be sufficient for the day.

So I say to you, Ask and it will be given to you, shovel and you will find bare ground, wear ice cleats and you shall not fall, snowblow the frozen precipitation from the door and when you finally get to the door, knock and the door will be opened for you, and there will be soup and hot chocolate.

Blessed are those who snowshoe and ski (Nordic and/or Alpine) for they shall see the wonders of God’s creation.

I think Jesus would find lots of good faith illustrations in the midst of a Maine winter. Winter often requires a different approach, as there are days when one simply cannot move at the same frenetic pace as usual. There are days when one simply cannot go very far. And, days when one is reminded of the significance of looking in on the well-being of neighbors and of the simple kindness of lending one’s snowblower or offering a word of thanks when a neighbor clears your sidewalk.

The weather of winter can be very challenging and getting around can be not only difficult, but hazardous. There’s something to be said for slowing down and for paying attention to those around you.   Faith often requires the same. There’s also something to be said for taking a moment to wonder at a world blanketed in snow, those magical frozen shapes of water, no two the same so we are told.  Again, the life of faith asks something similar.

Winter offers opportunities for reflection and lessons in faith. Although our home is beginning to feel a bit cave-like, as the mounds of snow creep up to the top of our first floor windows, we also feel a renewed sense of resilience and endurance.

As Paul might have written, if he were writing from Central Maine to the church in Corinth:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed . . . The wind may blow, and the snow may pile up around us, so high as to create snowdrifts that dwarf the tallest man (or woman), yet we are not defeated; though we wonder at the need for such a preponderance of frozen precipitation, our faith will not waver; we may subjected to cold, and seemingly unending storms, yet we know with even more certainty the love of God, because we have experienced the warmth and the light and the presence of God, through Jesus the Christ.

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Is the Church Ready for a Comeback?

Over the years, I have been known, on occasion, to use the New England Patriots to illustrate important church lessons. Almost every time, I’ve ended up regretting it. While I’m a long-time fan of the Pats, I also recognize that they are far from perfect. I don’t put much stock in the Deflategate ridiculousness, but the cheating claims certainly make me squirm.

After their stunning victory at this year’s Super Bowl, though, I can’t help it: there are lessons to be learned and the Patriots provide something of an object lesson that is good for football, as well as the church.

The first lesson: When the Patriots found themselves in a very big hole, in a place that would require a never-before-seen comeback, one might expect to see some fraying of tempers on the sidelines. For most teams, we would likely see finger pointing and anger—frustration taken out teammate against teammate. Grounds for some finger pointing existed, after all—Brady threw not only a pick but a pick-6, LeGarrette Blount fumbled, Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point.

For the Patriots, there was no finger pointing, no anger directed from one team member to another. Instead, they were a team, working together, struggling together and then winning together.

Churches, especially struggling churches, could use a little more of this sort of team spirit. It’s easy to point fingers and to lay blame on others for the challenges and difficulties. As seen on other football teams, finger pointing ends up with something more serious than a loss. Finger pointing is like a cancer in the community, eroding trust, wounding relationship.

It’s much harder to refrain from the pointing of fingers, laying blame on specific individuals. Yet, this is the way not only to “victory,” but to good, healthy, inviting community.

The other lesson is the now familiar Patriots mantra: Do your job.

For churches, this is also a critical lesson. Although our jobs are very different than the jobs on a football team, it’s important that we stay focused on our jobs and on the job of the church: the sharing of the love of God, and the living out of the Gospel.

As Paul so eloquently articulates in his words of encouragement for the early church, there are a variety of gifts and talents. All of them, working together, make up the body of Christ. The “job” of the follower of Christ is to offer one’s own gifts, understanding that others have different gifts. We are called to appreciate the variety of gifts and to work together that each gift may be put to good use and that all are valued.

On the football field, we learn that these lessons are hard lessons and cannot be accomplished without focus and determination. Churches often fall into the habit of thinking that somehow the presence of God will make their work together easy, or at least easier, that somehow it will all become intuitive. But, it does not—not in football, and not in the church. We are called to be intentional, conscientious and thoughtful in being the church, and doing the hard work of living as a community of faith.

In the church that I serve, it often feels like we are behind 28-3, as the Patriots were in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, and it can feel like the game is all over and that it’s time to figure out whose fault it is. But, as those who watched on Sunday learned, the game isn’t over in the third quarter. There’s still more to play, and how it is played matters.

The small struggling church may not “win” by the standards of a sports team, but so long as we are here and worshiping every Sunday, we must embrace the notion that there’s more game to be played, there’s more of God’s love to be shared, and how we “play the game,” how we do the work of the Gospel, matters.

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What Films Can Do

It’s awards season, in the world of film. While I don’t hold any professional film critic credentials, I do find myself at this time of year trying to see at least a few of the films that receive a lot of awards buzz. I am fortunate, that though I live in an area that is likely considered by most metrics to be in the “middle of nowhere,” Waterville is blessed with a wonderful independent movie theater. With little effort, I have access to most, if not all, of the big awards contenders that often don’t make it (unless and/or until they win a big award) to the local movieplex.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw La La Land, a lovely film to see with a big group of friends, which is exactly what my husband and I did recently—and then sliding over to the Mexican restaurant next door to discuss the film over margaritas.

The films that I’m especially thinking about in this season are Moonlight and Manchester By the Sea—two more films receiving a lot of awards buzz, both nominated in the Best Film category for the Academy Awards. These films have reminded me of the power of film to invite the viewer into a story, and especially into a place, circumstance, situation that is sometimes familiar, and sometimes completely foreign and strange.

Both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are films of amazing power. Each, in its own way, is sad, provocative, moving, and thoughtful. These films offer two very different, yet at the same time very similar, stories. One film felt very familiar to me. The other, completely mysterious.

I grew up not far from Manchester-by-the-Sea, the town whose name offers the title to the film. That distinctive Massachusetts accent is not just something to make fun of. It’s a part of my life. The intersection of grief, isolation, hostility, familial bonds, and wry humor are also very familiar to me. Growing up in Massachusetts and working there as a young adult, I knew those people. I even knew people who had experienced profound loss, and responded in much the same way as Lee Chandler in the film.

While Manchester by the Sea was haunting, moving and familiar, Moonlight was haunting and moving, but altogether strange and unknown. And, therefore, just as important to see and experience.

Moonlight introduced me to the life of one young man, growing up in a poverty stricken part of Miami with a drug-addicted mother. Like Manchester, the tale has a lot to do with a man who lives a very contained life, with a diligently drawn box in which to protect and preserve himself. In Moonlight, Chiron tries to protect himself from the likely hostile responses as he becomes increasingly aware of his homosexuality. In Manchester, Lee tries to protect himself from memory and feeling.

Both films share a story about the complications of surrogacy. No neat and warm Hallmark moments. Instead, there is on full display the complicated nature of our human relationships. In Manchester, Lee is asked to serve as guardian of his nephew after the death of Lee’s brother. But, serving as guardian means moving back to the town that will tear down all of those carefully drawn walls, a town that reminds him at every turn of his unspeakable loss. In Moonlight, Chiron as a boy is looked after by a seemingly kind and gentle man, who just so happens to be the source of the drugs that take hold of his mother and, in other aspects of the man’s life, is not at all kind or gentle. One of the most wondrous of film scenes that I’ve seen in a long time shows Chiron being taught to swim by this father figure, the only man who seems not only to hold such a place, but the only man who appears to want such a place in young Chiron’s life.

These films offer an invitation to delve into the messiness of life, including haunting and difficult tragedies. There is also the opportunity to explore and consider empathy for people whose lives are very different than the life of the viewer.

As a Christian, I find these films to be especially significant. Jesus taught over and over again the importance of being neighbor, especially to and for those we may be quick to judge and keep at a distance. The Gospels offer a number of stories that characterize Jesus as being moved by the plight of the people before him, people who were often very different.

Films can take us out of our lives for a short time, and allow us to be carried far away from ourselves—sometimes into a fantasy world. But, films can also provide crucial context for the lives we live, helping us understand and consider people whose lives are very different. Films can help us explore and exercise our empathy.

In times such as these, opportunities for empathy seem even more significant. When it feels like we human beings, especially in the United States, live and gather in communities of deepening sameness, when treating neighbors with respect is not difficult, films can provide an opportunity to see and begin to understand those in very different communities, in very different contexts, with very different experiences.

Jesus didn’t call his followers to do what is easy, but to engage in what is difficult. Films may not solve all of the world’s problems, but some of them offer invitations to travel to completely unknown places to discover something that is completely familiar, in our shared humanity. We could do with a whole lot more of that.

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