For Louise

Like many churches, Old South had a matriarch.  I use the past tense here, as our matriarch passed away a few days ago.  It’s a very sad time for Old South.  In the midst of the many challenges we face, the passing of our matriarch, Louise, is a huge loss.

When I was growing up, in a large suburban Congregational church outside of Boston, I knew  a lot of matriarchs.  The church had a sort of cluster of them.  In a church of so many, each area of church life had its own matriarch—the choir, the church office, Christian Education, etc.

I didn’t especially like the matriarchs, although I learned how to navigate their domains—at least for a few of them.  The matriarchs often wielded their power like a cudgel.  Step on their toes, and whack!  You might lose an appendage, or your self-respect.

The matriarchs were a fearsome group, and for the most part, they didn’t like each other, although most of them knew enough to stick to their own area and to be wary of straying into another woman’s domain.  The matriarchs of my childhood inspired me to think long and hard about that initial awareness of my call to ordained ministry, and to resist at first.  Who would want to deal with people like that on a regular basis?

When I took the call as Pastor and Teacher at Old South, it was immediately clear that Old South had just one matriarch.  Yet she was like no matriarch I had known in my younger years.  Louise was a woman of immense dignity and faith.  She was a woman of grace, and courage, love and laughter.  And, she made the world’s best lemon squares.

Over the years, Louise and I spent a great deal of time together.  Perhaps the most powerful of my memories are those that involved discussions we had when Louise was unhappy about a decision that I and/or the church’s governing body had made.  When I explained the decision-making process, Louise always listened with an open mind, and an open heart.  She didn’t always change her mind, but she sometimes did—or at least, she would give the new thing a try.  Worship on Zoom was one of those things.  She didn’t like it, but she didn’t resist it or complain about it, at least not much. 

She may have balked at the title of “matriarch,” but I think she knew that, like or not, that’s who she was.  And, while the role had power, it also had a great deal of responsibility.  She understood that relationship between power and responsibility like no woman I had ever known before.

Over the course of my long relationship with Old South, we have lost many important people.  The loss of Louise is not more important than the other losses, but it is different.  The loss of the matriarch, the one to whom so many turned (whether they realized it or not) to get a sense of the mood and direction of the church community, is a loss that will not only be deeply felt, but will reverberate through so many aspects of our life and ministry together.  In these challenging days, it will likely feel as if we’ve lost our earthly, human anchor.

In all of her grace and wisdom through her long life, Louise offered many lessons: perseverance in the midst of challenge and loss; finding meaning and purpose in good days and not so good days; and, laughing heartily on a regular basis.  Louise gave freely of herself and her gifts.  She formed deep relationships in her commitment to community.  She was loved, and she offered love to others.

I feel blessed to have known Louise, and to have been a part of the church she loved so much.  For her grace and her strength, her love of church and church community, I am deeply grateful. Rest in peace, my dear friend. 

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The Looming Season

There always seems to be a certain moment, sometime in August, when the end of summer comes into focus.  I’m not sure what exactly happens, but it always feels like there’s a clear turn in the sense of the season.  Maybe it’s the moment when I go to set the table for dinner and realize that we won’t be eating outside for much longer:  7:00 is noticeably dimmer than it was just last week.  And, once the dimness sets in, it’s also a bit chillier.  Living on a lake, we notice the changes in the other creatures who live near us, especially among the loons.  Usually loons are seen in pairs around the lake.  Late in summer, though, they start to gather in larger groups, as if they are conferencing together about their winter plans.  We’ve started to see those larger groups gathering.  And, then there are the beginnings of color in some of the leaves on the trees, and the summer plants begin to look haggard and worn.

It’s time to start thinking about and planning for fall.  And, I’ll admit that this year, fall seems more daunting.  Adjusting to our new reality in the spring was not hugely difficult, and Old South has managed reasonably well through this protracted pandemic.  It’s quite another thing altogether, though, to start what amounts to a new year in the midst of a great number of questions and an awful lot of uncertainty.  And, to try to absorb all of the new information regarding the tenacious grasp the virus seems to have on our communal life, that the hoped for “fade” hasn’t happened at all, that we must continue to be always vigilant, distant and covered. It’s a heavy burden to bear, when usually there is anticipation of a fall of re-connecting, for worship and for singing.

In Maine, where we have experienced a rather remarkable low-grade impact of the virus with relatively low numbers and most of the state having escaped “community transmission,” and where mask-wearing seems to have caught on fairly well, we still find plenty of cautionary tales that send a shiver down the spine of any leader of a group of mostly older, and more vulnerable, people.  The local paper recently ran a story about a wedding reception in northern Maine earlier this month, where 32 of 65 attendees tested positive and fell ill of COVID (plus quite a few who had contact with the 32).  One woman who did not attend the wedding, but had contact with someone who did, died a couple of days ago.

Thinking about and planning for the fall, in terms of worship and programming, feels not only very different, but more intense and more challenging.  The realities of the pandemic have opened up opportunities for trying new things, but how long can we be church in the midst of the significant challenges we face?

I was talking to one parishioner recently who lives alone, and feels keenly the loss of human contact.  Sure, it’s nice to see everyone on Sunday mornings for our worship on Zoom.  It’s good to watch the organ clips at the start and end of the service, that the organist records in advance.  But, there is no substitute for the loss of contact—the handshake, an arm around a shoulder, a caring touch offered casually when we gathered each Sunday before social distancing requirements. 

To begin the fall season knowing that a solution to the issues we face will not arrive until after Christmas, and perhaps well after Christmas, is overwhelming.  Trying to organize worship and programming so that we still feel as connected as possible, despite the distance, is a difficult task.  The novelty of Zoom has worn off, and we have settled into a new way of being.  Still, much of what feels most meaningful for a small church—the intimacy and familiarity of our friendships—is decidedly missing. 

It feels like my task is to provide as much normalcy as possible, that we gather to worship and praise, to be God’s church, while I also endeavor to distract everyone from those things that have been lost.  This isn’t how we want, or need, church to be.  But, we cannot wish away the reality of pandemic and we surely cannot ignore the risks, for the risks are real and serious.

A new season looms, and with it, a deepening sense of the yearning for what is not only not available to us, but forbidden.  Can we find ways of acknowledging that yearning without despairing?  Can we don an attitude of persistent patience while we wander around the wilderness of COVID-19?  Will we rise to the challenge of all of those words that we have so casually bandied about for so long—hope, joy, love, and light?  Will we clothe ourselves in what is needed to build up during this challenging time?

I certainly hope so.  And, pray that we will not only “hang in there” (a phrase I hear a lot), but that we will find ourselves actually closer to the One we seek, and will find in this time, blessing and grace.

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Me and My Misanthropy?

In preparation for a weeklong clergy writing conference last year, participants were asked to submit a short essay on something that was on their minds at the moment.  Don’t spend too much time on it, we were instructed.  Write and submit.  For reasons that I don’t remember, I wrote about the dread that I feel during every presidential election cycle, when politically like-minded friends sometimes treat me with a veiled scorn because I’m married to someone from the “other side.”

My essay included a very brief reflection on the common ground that my spouse and I discovered long ago, that boils down to something that we refer to as our “shared misanthropy.”  My suspicious nature concerning humanity has led me to believe that government is the best we can do to live together in, more or less, harmony.  My husband’s suspicions have led him to believe that the smallest possible government would be more ideal.   

When it was time to discuss my essay during the workshop, the first issue I was confronted with was the alarm my new colleagues felt in reading my reference to “misanthropy.”  How could a Christian pastor possibly think such a thing? In the discussion that followed, I told them that the word was really a joke that my husband and I had used for so long, I had forgotten the real meaning of it.  Of course, I reassured them, I didn’t loathe my fellow human beings. 

Now, though, I’m starting to reconsider:  maybe I do harbor a sort of loathing of my fellow human beings.

There’s a lot not to like:

  • From the Washington Post: “He held a BLM sign in what he called ‘America’s most racist town.’ The result? A viral video of abuse.” [link]
  • From the New York Times: “Fighting Over Masks in Public Is the New American Pastime” [link]
  • From “Voices of the Pandemic” in the Washington Post: a story of a store clerk who has experienced all sorts of terrible things.  She’s been yelled at, spat at, screamed at, mocked, ignored, and disregarded—from people who refuse to wear a face mask.[link]
  • Try a YouTube search of “face mask confrontation.” The results are alarming. And depressing.

It’s not that anything that’s going on is especially new.  The unpleasant aspects of human behavior and interaction have long been on display.

What seems a bit different now is that it feels like abuse and scorn have simply become a part of our everyday existence, rather than coming to the surface for special occasions.   Although I realize we are talking about a small number of people, there’s a level of meanness that is still disconcerting.  Or maybe I just haven’t noticed until now.

Has the cruelty always been there, but less known because such encounters were not so easily taped and shared?  Or, has the meanness actually become more of a problem? 

Whether or not malice is more of a problem now, the fact that many people in cruel and violent viral videos seem not to care that their actions are being taped argues that people are comfortable with a great deal of meanness in their responses to other human beings—maybe only in small numbers, but still . . . . More than a few of these videos is unsettling.

So, I find myself wondering about my own capacity for misanthropy, recognizing that while it may be a good idea to admit to such a thing, if that’s how I feel, more loathing is not a helpful, nor productive, way of interacting with the world. Not now. Not ever.

Will the meanness on display push me further into despair, or will I take the opportunity to fight the cruelty with a more conscientious and determined approach to how I live my life?

I will do my best to take up the latter, and resolve to put in check my suspicions, and try more kindness. And watch fewer YouTube videos.

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Be the Church: Protect the Environment

A Meditative Slideshow on Psalm 8, using “Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Silvia Purdie [] and photos by Susan, Joseph, Margaret and John Reisert

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The Church in These Days—Hungering and Heartbreak

On July 8, the New York Times published a story entitled, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen.  Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”  The article offered a litany of churches that reopened in various ways, some trying to follow social distancing and face covering guidelines, like United Methodist churches in Louisiana.  Despite the efforts, people still tested positive for COVID-19.  Other churches have been more defiant in the face of rules and restrictions.  For one Baptist church in West Virginia that did not require face masks, people started falling ill shortly after in-person worship services resumed in late May.  At least fifty-one cases are linked to that church, along with three deaths.

Reading the stories of the defiant, it’s easy to shake one’s head and to offer a wag of the finger, at least in one’s mind.  How stupid.  How irresponsible.

Allow the stories to settle in for a bit, though, and it doesn’t take long to start feeling the heartbreak.  Sure, the decision to ignore the warnings and the information regarding the particularly problematic conditions of indoor church worship (stagnant air, along with people talking and singing loudly, sending off countless invisible respiratory droplets, carrying the virus) can easily be condemned and ridiculed.

But . . .

In the midst of these stories, in those that tried to maintain pandemic protocols as well as those who defied the “new normal,” a significant truth becomes clear:  that church is important and meaningful to people.  Church is not solely about a theological system of belief or a place to contemplate one’s relationship with God.  Church provides community and extended family.  Church offers a place—a place where one feels connection, with others, with God, and with oneself.  It’s understandable, then, to feel empathy for the poor pastor who feels the need for connection among a church’s parishioners and allows it to happen, whether or not they try to insist on distancing and mask-wearing.

The simple fact is that for many people, being a part of a church is a part of who they are, part of their identity, part of how they interact in the world.  The President has declared that churches should be allowed to open, that they are “essential.”  Churches are essential, but I have a strong sense that the President doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about here.  The President doesn’t seem to have a clue about the sort of connection that church folk find compelling.  Instead, he’d rather heap churches into the culture war camp, and let us all engage in morally repugnant combat. 

Church leaders ought to resist.  Yet, at the same time, we feel and know the deep longing that so many people are experiencing.  For those who regularly attend worship, it’s not easy living one’s life, especially in a time of such uncertainty, without that place that provides an anchor in the midst of the storm, a refuge in a time of trouble.  Most churches can fairly easily move their worship services online, allowing for distant, contactless gathering. It helps, but it’s not the same. 

As a pastor, I’ve watched the routines and habits of church life over a long career.  Among the most routine of our habits is the simple touch, or hug.  Wander around a sanctuary before or after a worship service, and one of the most pervasive qualities is that of touch.  Someone reaches out to hug another, or puts a hand on another hand, or rests a comforting palm upon a shoulder.  Before the pandemic, hardly anyone talked about this common characteristic of a congregation.  It was just there, completely taken for granted.

And, now it is gone, at least for a while. 

While Old South has been able to maintain an online existence through these months, and remains committed to keeping our people safe (the average age of the congregation is in the 70s), I know that the lack of physical presence is difficult and alienating.  If I had a bunch of people clamoring for a return to in-person services, I might buckle as other pastors have under the weight of longing. 

When we finally find ourselves on the other side of this pandemic, able to gather, to sing, to worship without physical distance and face masks, I suspect it will take a long time before we start taking for granted the element of touch. As much as we might miss certain elements of worship, or the opportunity to sing, we likely miss touch most of all, as a point of personal connection, but also because it’s something that we do as modeled by Jesus himself. For all sorts of reasons, Jesus reached out and touched people. That’s what we did, and, someday, we will again.

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Apples, Oranges, and the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation

Several years ago, emails from the “Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation” started appearing in my inbox.  I had no idea why.  I had not asked for them.  But, there they were.  At first, I ignored them, or deleted them without opening them.  One day, I went looking for the “unsubscribe” button. On the way down the page, I noticed the contents of the the email and found it all rather unsettling.  The group claims to be non-partisan, but the content seemed decidedly lacking in non-partisan-ness.  It was full of right-wing, Trump loving content.  So, I decided not to unsubscribe.  Better to keep an eye on what they were up to.

I don’t actually open their emails very often, but something inspired me today to take a look.  At the top of the email was a story about Maine and our seemingly very bad, and unfair, Democratic Governor, Janet Mills, who is clearly out to get Christian churches: 

Maine Governor Janet Mills has prohibited religious gatherings, even in parking lots, while allowing entities such as liquor stores, big box stores, warehouse clubs, and marijuana dispensaries to operate.  A church building can be used to hold meetings to feed, shelter, and provide social services to an unlimited number of people, but religious services are severely limited in the same building where non-religious services can be held. She has said that when she is satisfied with the “metrics” the churches will have to apply for permission and then display an official badge of approval on their door.

Faith Report Alert from the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, July 8, 2020

Aside from the fact that this is now old, outdated news (outdoor religious gatherings are now not only not prohibited, they are encouraged by the Governor’s office in Maine, so long as proper physical distancing is practiced), this slant on news regarding churches during the pandemic, with outrage at the threat to their liberties, is often tied to other establishments, especially retail stores and the dreaded categories of liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries.  While retail stores and morally questionable enterprises have been allowed to reopen, churches face seemingly outrageous restrictions.  Clearly, so says the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation and other similar organizations, the state is discriminating against faithful, upright Christians.  And, the rhetoric is heightened to get the rage going.  How dare state leaders trample on religious liberties!

The comparisons, though, are not “apples to apples.”  Instead, we have apples and oranges willfully forced together, in order to feed the fury.  Retail establishments and churches are very different. How people interact with them is not the same. Entering a retail establishment, whether to buy groceries, toilet paper or liquor, usually involves a short period of time.  In addition, visiting such establishments involves movement—walking into the store, finding what’s needed, going to the register, paying and then leaving. Short visits to indoor spaces, like stores, along with movement are things that minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19, although they certainly do not eliminate risk.  Buying groceries, or shopping at a “big box” store also involves a great deal of space, and adequate air ventilation—also important elements to minimizing risk.

Churches are not like retail establishments.  “Going to church” is not at all like going to buy groceries, or liquor.  Attending a worship service involves sitting or standing in one place for a sustained period of time, with little to no movement, in an environment that often does not have adequate air ventilation.  As we continue to learn more about how COVID-19 works, particularly in the lingering nature of respiratory droplets hovering in the air indoors, a church worship service seems to be one of the riskiest places to spend time. It’s entirely a different thing that going to a store. Just today, the New York Times reported that churches are indeed responsible for an alarming number of COVID cases (read article here).

Apples. Oranges. Churches. Stores. Not the same.

In addition, it’s misleading to claim that church buildings “can be used to hold meetings to feed, shelter, and provide social services to an unlimited number of people,” as if churches have not had to make serious changes in how they serve communities, implementing physical distancing, mask-wearing, and intensive cleaning procedures. Churches have made considerable changes to mission and outreach. To suggest that the state is somehow sabotaging church worship, while also taking advantage of a church’s call to serve the vulnerable, is simply shameful.

As the efforts in Maine to “flatten the curve” have brought meaningful results, Maine’s Governor ought to be thanked and supported.  We should all be tremendously grateful to the Governor, and our intrepid Maine CDC Director, Nirav Shah, for our communal reduction of risk, and low numbers of infections in most of Maine’s counties. It hasn’t all been perfect, but Maine clearly has a lot of good people who are working very hard to serve the common good.

It’s disheartening, in this time of pandemic, to see what the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (and other groups like it) is doing: expressing outrage where there really shouldn’t be any outrage; fanning the flames of distrust and discord; distorting and manipulating information in order to cultivate suspicion; and warping state guidance into conspiracies against certain kinds of Christians. In these challenging days, as people of faith find themselves cut off from many of the things that make church so meaningful and vital, the Foundation could be engaged in much more productive, prayerful work, building up the Body of Christ, rather than tearing it to pieces.

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Lingering Lessons

When I was a first year student at Harvard Divinity School, I lived in Divinity Hall on Divinity Avenue in Cambridge, MA. I lived in a room on the second floor, next to the Divinity Hall Chapel, where Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his famous address to the graduating class of 1838, railing against the defects in historical Christianity. The speech was denounced by many, on various sides of the issue.

During my year living in Divinity Hall, we also lived in the midst of moments of heated debate, along with a great deal of the more mundane aspects of a group of people living together and sharing a large, common kitchen in the basement. Divinity Hall was, by far, the most diverse community I have ever been part of for a sustained period of time. By age, race, national origin, politics, sexual orientation, and religion, we were all over the place. I remember when I moved into Divinity Hall, in the fall of 1989, I was welcomed joyously to “Jesus Boulevard” by the woman across the hall. At a school so well-known for its liberal tendencies, I wasn’t expecting to meet such an enthusiastic Pentecostalist. But, there she was and she wasn’t the only one.

My roommate was from China, and arrived barely in time to start fall classes—as it was a mere couple of months after Tiananman Square. I became good friends with a gay man down the hall. His room looked out over the volleyball court used by students from the biology labs, whose buildings formed the remainder of a quadrangle. Jim and I liked to sit in his window on nice, fall days and enjoy the scenery offered to us. I was also good friends with a guy upstairs who yearned for a return of the 1970s, so much so that he often wore leisure suits to weekend parties. And, then there was the Monday night supper club, where about a dozen of us divided into pairs and cooked dinner for each other every week. That group included my roommate, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, a couple of women from Africa, and a sixty-something year old nun.

Divinity Hall was a fascinating place. It was also, at times, a difficult place. The most enduring lessons I learned while living there involved race. One of the first lessons was hearing about how difficult it was for black men to shop in Harvard Square. These men shared stories about always being followed by security or store staff, especially at The Coop, the venerable Harvard Square department/book store. Finding this a little hard to believe, I started to go out of my way to wander through The Coop on a regular basis and to look for black men who were shopping. Every single time, I noticed a security guard close by, keeping an eye on black shoppers. How had I not noticed that before?

The year I lived in Divinity Hall was also the year of the terrible incident when a white man named Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant white wife in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston, and blamed it on a black man. It seemed that all of Boston believed the story, and the city erupted in a fury to catch the despicable man who would commit such a heinous crime. The black students who lived in Divinity Hall, though, knew full well that Charles Stuart had lied. And, when it turned out that the one who committed the heinous act was Charles Stuart himself, it felt like all of those black students looked at all of the white students with a mix of rage, anger and pity. How could we not see something that was so crystal clear to them?

I’ve also been thinking about some of the other lessons regarding race that I learned during my years as a student at HDS. One of the most memorable lessons happened in my last year. There was a day planned for a student walk out of classes throughout the University, to protest the low number of black professors among the ranks of teachers at Harvard. On that particular day, I had a once-a-week seminar with the Dean of the Div School. I was uncomfortable about not attending that class, so I went. The Dean took the opportunity to share his frustrations with what seemed to him a meaningless demonstration. Sure, it would feel righteous to those who walked out of class, or did not attend at all, and gathered with others waving signs and chanting for justice. But, what about committing themselves to understanding the complexities of the issues and engaging in the long, difficult work of change? The Dean talked passionately about how hard it was to lure minority faculty members to the Cambridge/Boston area. Who wanted to live in and raise their families in such a racist place (and who can blame them, considering incidents like the Charles Stuart debacle)? The Dean also criticized students who would make such demands, but did nothing to increase the number of minority students seeking advanced degrees, who could eventually teach at the university level. How about improving the educational experiences and realities of young black students, so many of them stuck in miserable and failing inner city school systems? If students at one of the most prestigious universities in the country could not appreciate the complexities of the problem, what hope did we have to deal adequately with what it would really take to pursue justice?

I’ve thought a lot about these lessons over the years, and have found lots of opportunities to bristle when someone sends me a message about a protest or demonstration. It’s not that we shouldn’t stand up publicly to decry what’s happening when injustice is so violently clear, but it takes a whole lot more than a protest march to bring meaningful change, to set our path on the road to justice. That we have experienced wave after wave of widespread protest in recent years, and yet racism remains seemingly untouched, offers a serious and sobering admonition that we need to do a whole lot more than demonstrate.

In this moment, as the country once again erupts over racial injustice, it seems clear enough that we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with the complex issue of race, nor are we able even to agree on its lingering influence or what to do about it. There’s a lot of yelling and demanding as well as a lot of denial. There’s not much in the way of conversation and reflection. There’s not much in the way of seeking understanding, taking a moment to really stand in another’s shoes and walk around a bit.

From a Christian perspective, I find myself drawn to those passages from the Gospels where we are told that Jesus feels compassion, a sense of deep feeling when looking upon the people, seeing their brokenness and waywardness. I assume that Christ is moved to compassion now as well, and those of us who follow him ought to engage in that same sort of compassion, that deep feeling that leads to transformation, of ourselves as well as others.

It begins with listening and paying attention. What sorts of things are happening right in front of us, yet we have difficulty in seeing? It begins, too, with an openness to compassion, a desire to allow ourselves to be moved by the experiences of others, especially those whose life experiences are very different from our own. And, it begins with an appreciation for the complex nature of these issues. We may not be able to unravel all of the tangled strands of racism and white privilege, but we must seek to understand and to act accordingly, not simply in righteous protest, but in all of the small moments that make up our lives.

May this time be different.

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O Say Can You See

The national anthem of the United States begins with a call for sight. Strictly speaking, the anthem paints the picture of a torn and battered flag of stars and stripes, waving majestically through a fierce battle. I think the call for sight, though, ought to extend much wider than the flag itself, since the flag doesn’t mean much without a people unified by it, aspiring to fulfill the notion of “land of the free and home of the brave.”

Today, there is much that calls to us, in the United States, to be noticed, to be seen, to be considered. Some of those things are not so challenging for us to lift up: the brave medical and public health personnel who persevere in the face of a terrible virus; the courageous women and men who volunteer to serve in the military; and school teachers who creatively maintain a commitment to learning in these extraordinary times. And, there are plenty of other examples too.

But, there are other, much more challenging, issues that call to us as well. O say, can we see?

Can we see the ugly persistence of racism? Can we appreciate the damage that’s being done, the injustice, the inhumanity? Can we see that we have a serious problem that demands attention?

In the midst of the horrifying issues surrounding the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and the rage and fury now unleashed in so many cities across the U.S., I find myself playing over and over again another confrontation, the one in Central Park, between a black man and a white woman. Perhaps because it feels a little more accessible, in that no one was killed, and that it was such a simple encounter that escalated so alarmingly quickly, I find myself hearing over and over again the hateful words of the white woman, and the quiet, calm words of the black man.

It was early in the day, and in a heavily wooded part of Central Park. The man was out looking at birds, and the woman was walking her dog. Despite posted rules, the dog was not leashed. The man asked her to leash the dog. And, that’s when it all got really ugly, really fast. It was especially disconcerting to hear the woman declare her intention of not only calling the police, but to tell the police that an African American man was threatening her. In a simple matter of seconds.

We are being called to see, to listen, to acknowledge, to reflect: we have a serious problem. And, the serious problem is not just located in small pockets that are so easily dismissed, for their location or for those who, stereotypically, live there. The problem is widespread, and runs deeply in our national culture and psyche.

For people of faith, this ought to be a matter of profound concern, and considerable response. As people who believe that we are called to share the love of God, and to see in every human being the image of God, we must open our eyes and our ears to what is happening, and to seek a path of response. This is especially important for those of us who are white.

But, what is the appropriate response? Protest? Demonstration? I’ll admit that I’m not sure, especially given the complications of public gatherings in these days of pandemic. What seems important, though, is that we open our eyes and perhaps even more so, that we open our ears and our minds. We must listen, and learn. We must consider and reflect, and challenge ourselves to step into another’s shoes, and another’s experience.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot, in recent days, of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, Dr. King wrote about his great disappointment in the white moderate, those committed more to “‘order’ than to justice.”  Dr. King expressed his fervent hope that white moderates “would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

Dr. King’s letter was written in April 1963, well over fifty years ago. It’s heartbreaking to see that we are still in the quagmire of injustice, where black people are treated with such violent inhumanity and white people are so quick to make false and dangerous accusations.

It’s time for good people of faith to seek the path of justice, and that begins with listening. In this season of Pentecost, of celebrating the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit, we ought to allow the Spirit to bestow upon us the courage and grace we need to learn the lessons we must learn, that positive change may become reality. We are not a land of freedom and a home of brave, and loving, people. But, with hard, holy work, we can be.

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On Essentialness

“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend.” –– President Trump, May 22, 2020 (as quoted in the New York Times)

Now that we are well into the COVID-19 pandemic, and “shelter in place” orders are morphing into “safer at home” declarations, and debates continue to rage regarding what is “essential” and what should be open to the public, and how, etc., churches all over the country are engaging in their own processes of discussion, reflection and evaluation.  Except, of course, that many churches never really closed.  Churches, like Old South, may not have in-person worship or meetings, but we have been well and truly open all this time, moving ourselves to online platforms.

We know we are important, and essential, even if for a relatively small group.  We also know what it means to have common sense, and what it means to look out for ourselves as well as others, to love God with all our heart, as well as our neighbors as ourselves—most of us, anyway.  We also know the significance of kindness, thoughtfulness and the oft offered refrain from Jesus:  “Do not be afraid.”

For this past Sunday’s worship, Old South once again held an online Zoom service, with probably the best attendance we’ve had in a long time for the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.  The “first weekend of summer” (when there are also lots of graduations, social gatherings, and moving “upta camp”) does not usually include robust worship attendance.  This year, however, we had better than usual attendance numbers.  Not as many people went away this year, and even some of those who had gone away (within the state) were still able to join us—since we worshipped online.

We know we are important, and essential.  But, that doesn’t mean that we are eager to do anything reckless or stupid about the health and well-being of the congregation, or the community in which we live.

The average age of the Old South community is somewhere in the 70s.  I can’t possibly consider in-person worship, at least at this point, for a community largely of those most at-risk.  Even with no evidence of community transmission in our county, I can just imagine worship where everyone brave enough to attend worship in the sanctuary is sitting rigid and apprehensive, worrying about sneezing and/or coughing—or the sneezing and coughing of others in the sanctuary—with no choir to sing and everyone at appropriate social distances, not able to do more than nod at each other.

Gathering in our sanctuary at this time wouldn’t feel any better than our online worship.  In fact, I suspect that it would feel worse.  Sure, it would be nice to be in our lovely sanctuary and to see each other in physical form (rather than in those Brady Bunch boxes of Zoom).  But, we all know we are in the midst of a global health crisis, and we all know that we must act and behave in a responsible, loving, and prayerful manner.

We have learned, essentially, that we don’t need our building to be church.  We don’t need the sanctuary to worship. 

We know we are important.  And, we are essential, for the small group of people who have found a spiritual home at Old South.  We are responding in that way, led by the Spirit who draws us in, no matter how we gather, in order to empower us to be sent out, even if the sending looks a whole lot different than it did a few months ago.

The President, if he had bothered to go to church this weekend, or if he had ever actually paid attention when in church, or stopped treating church-goers just as political pawns, maybe he would have a better idea of what essential actually means, or better yet, what a life of faith actually looks like.

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The Strange Case of the Unpopular Bible Study

In my long tenure as Pastor and Teacher at Old South, Bible study groups have never been especially well-attended.  Over the years, I’ve led short-term as well as long-term groups, on a range of topics.  I’ve offered studies that have met in the evening and during the day, and, occasionally, I’ve tried a seasonal approach to try to lure people into a group.

I’ve never had more than a small handful of Old South folk attend any study.

For a long time, I heard a wide array of excuses from those who did not attend.  These excuses mostly had something to do with a conflict with another group or meeting, or, as in the case of several choir members, they already spent (before the pandemic) a considerable amount of time each week engaged in church-related activity.

Still, it’s always been one of those places that has caused me concern.  How can so many who seem so committed to a church community display such a sustained lack of interest in exploring our holy book outside of the small bit that we do during Sunday worship?  What is a church where the great majority of parishioners does not engage in conversation with each other about sacred stories, wrestling with meaning and questions?

With our ongoing “stay at home” order in Maine, I’ve been curious about what our new reality might reveal about the health and well-being of Old South’s connection to matters of faith, like Bible study.

There’s no way around it:  I’m concerned.

While it’s true that at least some members of Old South are still working, although very differently than they did, many have shared that they aren’t doing a lot. After all, a large percentage of the congregation is made up of retirees.  They may be active retirees, but our current situation has forced major changes to community life.  And, at Old South, choir and choir rehearsals, like so many gatherings that can’t easily be transferred to online platforms, are on hiatus.

Bible study, though, remains as unpopular as ever.

For the last several weeks, the topic of our weekly virtual Bible study has simply been the scripture passage from the previous Sunday—Let’s talk about the sermon!  Ask your questions!  Tell me you think I’m completely wrong or that my sermon didn’t make any sense!  Anything!

With the small group that assembles on Zoom, we have had lively and interesting conversations.  This week, we discussed some of the words in last Sunday’s scripture, John 10:1-10, where Jesus talks about sheep, gates and abundance.  Is “gate” really the best way to translate that Greek word that actually means “door” and what does “gate” or “door” mean to us?  What’s the difference between a gate and a door, relative to the image of sheep in the passage?  And, what about the word “abundance” at the end?  Are we living our lives abundantly at the moment?

We had a good chat.

The four of us.

I find myself wondering:  What does this mean?

Various situations, issues, and conversations over the years, have led me to worry about Old South’s health and well-being not simply as a church, but as a Christian church that is part of a tradition where Bible study has, historically, been an important element of church life.  There’s really no question that Old South is a church nearing the end of its life.  Before the pandemic, though, I would have said that, while we are dwindling, we still had spots of vibrancy—mission and music at the top of the list.

But, now I find myself dwelling in a place of much greater concern.  Am I leading a Christian church or what is essentially a social club?  It’s clear enough that the people who gather for Sunday worship genuinely like and care for each other.  They check in with each other, making phone calls and sending email.  They are especially attentive to those who are grieving and dealing with very difficult aspects of life.

Is that enough, though, to be “the church”?

I’m not sure.  And, so I wonder and I worry.   And I pray for the wisdom to understand the clues and the lessons, the gifts and opportunity of this strange journey into pandemic crisis.

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