Don’t Sit There!

And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

During my homily last Sunday, on our first winter worship service of the season in Old South’s parish house (where worship is a little more informal than in the sanctuary), I was talking about stars and signs. It was Epiphany Sunday.   What sorts of signs do we perceive? Do we welcome them and pursue them, as the magi did? Or do we see them as threats, as Herod did?

At some point, I made a reference to our most recent Christmas Eve service. It was a beautiful and meaningful service, but attendance was at an all-time low. Attendance for that service has been, in fact, on a slow, steady decline since the 1980s. What sort of sign is that for us? Is it something to welcome or something to fear? Shall we pursue it or treat it as a threat?

As I was talking about the Christmas Eve service I saw one woman in the small congregation fall neatly and thoroughly into a state of sentimental nostalgia. I could see it. At one point, she uttered in a voice of deep longing, “It used to be that you had to get here so early just to get a good seat.” I could see her slipping into a state tantamount to sinking into to a comfy couch or recliner, ready to settle in for a good long trip down memory lane. I remember thinking that I should yell out, “Don’t sit there!”

But I didn’t.

Nostalgia and sentimentality. They threaten the life and wellbeing of the small, struggling church. It’s not that memories themselves are bad or even the occasional short stroll into wistful reminiscence. But, when memories turn into an intense yearning for a condition that only the past can deliver, that nostalgia may feel like a big comfy recliner, soft and reassuring. But it’s really a cancer. That sort of settling into a longing for the past (that very likely wasn’t even as great as all that) feeds upon itself, like abnormal cells that grow uncontrollably in the body, forming a tumor.

So, don’t sit there! Don’t sit in that seat that looks so alluring, so comfortable, so familiar. Because it’s really the place where nostalgia suffocates what’s happening now, and how the church, and its members, are being guided for the future. That seat stifles the movement of and our connection to the Holy Spirit.

Don’t sit there. That’s a difficult thing to say, though, and even more difficult thing to do. For when we are looking at stars and signs, the ones that are so clearly present can feel threatening and ominous. Lower attendance and an aging congregation full of people who would like so desperately to hand over the reigns of leadership to the next generation who are now simply not present: these signs feel threatening. Who can blame the church member who retreats to the comfy recliner of memory and nostalgia, when church was what and how it was meant to be, or how they think church was what and how it was meant to be? Christendom. The glory days.

Yet, there are signs and stars that offer hope. At Old South, we maintain a strong commitment to mission. We have a wonderful and talented, though small, choir. Ministry is more widely shared. It’s wondrous to behold someone serving communion for the first time in their life, well into older age. It’s wondrous when someone who is normally so shy and reserved volunteers to lead the beginning of worship. It’s wondrous to behold a Worship Team meeting where we talk about and sing new hymns and work together to strengthen our weekly worship service.

These signs and stars do not point to a larger congregation, nor to they point to a church that will exist well into the future. But, they do point to the abiding presence of the Spirit in our midst. Along with all of the things that seem and feel ominous, there is new life, faithfulness, love and hope—a living out of our trust in the presence of Christ among us.

While it is tempting to sink into that comfy chair of nostalgia and sentimentality, to try to surround oneself with golden memories of the past, we must find the courage to open our hearts and minds to the Spirit and the grace to do as the Spirit beckons: “Don’t sit there!”

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:19

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The Heartbreak of Christmas 2019

At Old South, Christmas Eve has become the most unwelcome and dire of bellwethers. When I began my ministry with Old South, in 2005, I heard quite a lot about the annual Christmas Eve service. The bell choir would play several pieces. The choir would sing even more pieces. The choir’s best voice would sing “O Holy Night.” There would be candlelight. There would be carols and scripture. The pastor was something of an emcee for the evening—no sermon or homily permitted, thank you very much (although I’ve found various ways over the years of inserting messages through readings and poems).

And, it used to be that people arrived an hour in advance in order to secure a seat.

Not anymore. Not by a longshot.

Between 1986 and 2018, attendance at the annual Christmas Eve service declined by 65%. This year, it took another significant dip. Where 225 – 250 people attended in the early to mid 1980s, Christmas Eve 2019 had 65 people in attendance, including all of the music makers and the several children who fell asleep almost as soon as the service started.

For those who rehearse so hard, who attend the weekly meetings of the choir and bell choirs (and especially those who participate in both), the diminishing crowd for the Christmas Eve service is particularly depressing. While the singers and ringers may appreciate that they are not entirely playing for the audience, that it is a worship service and even if only 2 or 3 are present, Christ is still in our midst, it is still painful to look out at all of the empty spaces in the sanctuary after weeks of preparation.

Over the past five or six years, as the attendance has steadily declined, the smaller numbers have generally been explained away—snow or other frozen precipitation; icy cold temperatures; or, a power outage (yes, one year, we lost power for most of Christmas Eve day, with the electricity returning a mere hour or two before the start of the service). For Christmas Eve 2019, though, the conditions were close to perfect. Not too cold, but not unseasonably warm either. Though not extensive, we had a bit of the white stuff on the ground. And, the skies were completely clear. Just about perfect.

And the lowest attendance, by a noticeable amount, ever at a Christmas Eve service.

Even for those who regularly attend worship at Old South, the numbers were alarmingly low. I was aware that there were a few people traveling, another couple of people had too many family members visiting to try to herd them all to church for a 7:00 service, and a few others don’t drive after dark, and are not especially interested in getting a ride (if we could find one).

The most obvious absences, though, were:
1. Those who are no longer with us, who have either moved away or passed away, and,
2. The CEOs (Christmas and Easter Only). They have been coming less and less to Easter. And now even less to Christmas Eve.

The second obvious absence is what feels especially dire to me, as if the very last tie to the religious significance of the holiday has evaporated.

As we arrived at the end of our Christmas Eve service this year, as the lights were dimmed and candlelight spread throughout the sanctuary, and those assembled sang “Silent Night,” I found myself close to tears, the edges of my eyes filling with excess moisture. On the one hand, the service had been a beautiful one, full of praise and wonder, with lovely and moving music and words. And, on the other, it felt as if this religious and spiritual practice that is so meaningful for me, is simply not worth the effort for most of the people who live where I live. In the midst of the wonder and awe that I feel at Christmas, this year I also felt a great deal of sadness and heartbreak at the stark decline of Christian tradition and practice.

The statistics certainly underscore the new reality we are experiencing. Maine has been especially hard-hit, with some surveys suggesting that Maine is the least religious state in the country. Somehow, though, the blatant demonstration of that new reality in the decline in the significance of one of our holiest of days is much harder to absorb, appreciate, acknowledge, and accept. Up until not all that long ago, it felt like, even though weekly worship attendance was declining, Christmas Eve still held some religious significance in the community.

Now, it is yet another indicator of how sharply the tide has turned and I can’t help but wonder where I’ll observe Christmas Eve ten or twenty years from now—just at home with my family? With a small group in someone’s living room?

For this Christmas, in the midst of the great joy, there is heartbreak. Along with the joy of new life, there is the dread of the steady decline, and eventual death. As I consider the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke yet again, I pray for the strength to walk the path that looms ahead, a path that is not the path I would choose. Yet, I’m also aware of what is at the root of this holiday, that a remarkably strange and mysterious event offered a profound sign of God’s remarkable love for people. That sign got its start in the smallness and vulnerability of a child. Perhaps there is reason to be hopeful.

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Do I Need to Write About This?

Do I Need to Write About This? That was the first thought that entered my fuzzy head when I woke up to the news that the President had been impeached. I don’t want to write about this. It’s Christmas; I’ve got a lot going on.

But, to not write . . . To ignore it all. What would that mean?

I don’t like the President. Never have. Should he be impeached? Probably. For his attitude toward and treatment of women—that would be a good idea. Then, of course, there are the myriad other issues—the border, climate change, white nationalists, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress . . .   the list goes on and on. Or how about that signature? That must be a crime of some kind.

Yet, I find myself in this strange limbo, not quite sure how I feel about the impeachment of the current President. For the most part, I really don’t want to think about him at all. It’s Christmas. But, I’m aware that my silence is not as satisfying as I would like it to be. While there’s a part of me that would like to ignore the whole wretched mess, I can hear a small voice from the back of my head chiding me for my cowardice.

The church that I serve, Old South (UCC) in Hallowell, Maine, may be a very small faith community, but it has a lot of people who pay attention to the world in which we live and of which we are part. Many Old South folk watch the news, read several newspapers each day, and engage in conversation about current events. Several people watched quite a lot of the hearings. On a recent Sunday, as I was blithely focusing on Advent and not saying anything about politics, one of Old South’s long-time members raised a hand during joys and concerns—“I think we should pray for our country and the leaders of this country and everything that’s going on right now.”

I felt like I had been brought up short. I hadn’t said anything about what’s been going on in the country—not because I hadn’t been paying any attention. But, simply because I didn’t want to. I just didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to pray about it.

On the one hand, I am completely disgusted with the President, and what I’ve seen of the tone at rallies that the President has attended and the numerous tweets he is so fond of sending out. The level of sheer meanness and animosity is deeply distressing. The President (and many of his supporters) could use a visit from the ghosts of A Christmas Carol, in an attempt to remold his hard, cold, ungracious soul. But, then there are those with whom I generally agree when it comes to political issues. I’ve noticed there, too, what feels like a hardening in the rhetoric regarding the “other side.” In my book group, for instance, one person mercilessly rails against her work colleagues—many of whom voted for and like the current President—calling them uninformed and stupid.

It’s Christmas, the season where darkness and anxiety meet birth and vulnerability and light, where awe and wonder squeeze their way into a crusty, hardened landscape. But, that’s not how it feels this year. Instead, it feels like so many are simply going through the motions of the season, saying the appropriate words and doing what is done at this time of year, without any sense that there’s an important invitation here. The untransformed Scrooges and Grinches rule the day, greedy for the assurance of their own righteousness.

I’m not sure how I feel about what is happening in the country, nor what exactly to include in my praying. But, I’ll do my best to trust in that small light that struggles to find its way into hearts and minds, and trust that it will find a small bit of fertile ground to take root and grow, to be pondered and treasured.

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The Neighborhood that Wasn’t Allowed in My House

We are in the throes of a renewed consideration, examination and all-around reminiscence of (and perhaps yearning for) Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the children’s show that ran on PBS from 1968 to 2001. Last year, there was a documentary on the show and now we have a feature film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. I won’t be surprised if everyone will soon be wearing zippered cardigans and indoor sneakers. And, wouldn’t it be lovely if more people adopted the habit of speaking gently yet persuasively to our fellow human beings, especially children?

How nice it is that Mr. Rogers is having a moment. We could use a little (actually a lot) of Fred Rogers these days, with his caring manner, his clear ability to listen and his open desire to learn, about the world and other people.

Born in 1964, I was at just about the right age for Mr. Rogers. Yet, I wasn’t able to watch Mr. Rogers in my house. I watched at the neighbor’s house across the street where my best friend lived. My mother didn’t like Mr. Rogers. I clearly remember a derogatory word that my mother used to refer to Mr. Rogers and what she thought of him.

As a young child, I couldn’t understand at all why anyone would not like Mr. Rogers. He spoke so calmly and so nicely. And, he had all of those great puppets and that wonderful place called the Land of Make Believe. I can’t say that I was a huge fan of Mr. Rogers when I was a child (I was drawn more to the faster pace of Sesame Street), but I remember watching that show, with my best friend across the street, and liking it. The tone of voice, the caring attitude, the sense that Mr. Rogers clearly loved children and seemed to want to reach out and actually sit with us in our living room—well, my friend’s living room—was all very appealing. Why was that neighborhood of Mr. Rogers not welcome in my house?

This question is particularly challenging as my parents were observant Christians, active in our local Congregational church. Mr. Rogers seemed to fit neatly into a Christian home, yet he was banished from mine.   Our television was much more likely tuned to The Three Stooges, the slapstick comedy show that had nothing to do with thoughtfulness, gentleness or the consideration of complicated feelings.

As I look back, I’m aware that I grew up in a household where there was a suspicion directed at those who demonstrated not simply an obvious kindness, but more than that: an engaging openness to neighbors, strangers and the world. In more recent years, this suspicion has morphed into forwarded e-mails from one of my parents that praise the current President and his hostility to almost everyone who doesn’t look or act as he does.

I find myself wondering a great deal about this quagmire in which we find ourselves, on the local and national level, and the part of it where so many observant, church-going Christians seem so effortlessly to reject the many Gospel stories of Jesus demonstrating and highlighting the humanity of the marginalized, the stranger, the other. Instead of kindness and openness, there is caution, doubt and even hostility. How do/how should the faithful look upon the world, upon their own neighborhoods? Do the faithful allow their view to be shaped by their faith, or is their faith shaped by their view?

Mr. Rogers offered a vision, a path, and a direction, all deeply rooted in his Christian faith: “Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all relationships—love, or the lack of it.” Exactly. In this moment of reconsideration, amid the cardigans and sneakers, we—especially those of us who claim ourselves “Christian”—ought to spend time reflecting on love, or the lack of it, and how the love of Christ seeks to shape who we are, how we think and how we act, in this great big neighborhood in which we live.

 

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This Writing Life 3: Creating Community

At first I wasn’t sure how they all seemed to know who I was.  I was greeted by name by more than one person.  One reached out a hand, “Susan, it’s nice to meet you,” before I uttered much more than a hello.  I was confused.  But, then I picked up my nametag and I realized:  I was the last to arrive.

We were now assembled, twelve strangers and one leader, for a five day (plus a bit more) writing workshop.  Our first task was to navigate the reception and we seemed to do nicely.  Small clusters of people formed, but not in a way that seemed cliqueish.  People wandered around, introducing themselves and sharing a few personal details—where they were from and how they had arrived at the conference center in central Massachusetts, etc.

We gathered for dinner and then the scene was set for the following days.  It was a busy schedule.  For five full days, we would be writing, learning, sharing comments, listening to comments, experimenting with new writing, reading, discussing, eating, writing some more, occasionally sleeping, and perhaps finding a little time for some exercise.  In addition, we would also gather to watch and discuss a film and meet with a local author.  

During the course of our five days (plus a bit more) together, we shared many things:  vulnerabilities and tender moments; challenges we face in our ministries along with a joyful moment or two; childhood memories that hadn’t come to mind in a very long time; and attempts at new, and sometimes awkward, forms of writing.  And, of course, there was a lot of laughter and the accumulation of inside jokes.

Twelve strangers and a leader—men and women, different ages, from different places, different Christian faith traditions, and different life experiences.  All writers, wanting to learn more, do more, with this thing that had become such a loud voice in our calling.  Twelve strangers and a leader.  All writers, although sometimes a bit wary of claiming that part of ourselves.  We sought to help each other, offering encouragement or a suggestion.  Sometimes we just listened, marveling at the power and meaning that words can convey.

On Saturday night, as we came together for our final session, each of us sharing a short piece of writing, laughing and crying and falling into moments of pregnant silence, we marveled at our wonderful, fruitful days, and how quickly they had evaporated.  At the end, we shared communion together, and after almost a week of writing and rewriting sentences, paragraphs and pages, we each shared a single word with our neighbor around the table.  The words were whispered as the cup was passed around—joy, create, blessing, trust, shine . . . .

We had become a community, a group of friends.  And, then it was time to scatter, to return home.  But, each one left with amazing and powerful gifts—a stronger voice, a clearer point, a renewed commitment to write more and to share more widely.

Thank you to my writing colleagues who made last week such a meaningful experience for me.  Thank you Beth, Kelly, Tiffany, Kevin, Mike, Tim, Michael, Carol, Taylor, Carl, and Alyssa.  And, thank you as well to our thoughtful and fearless leader, John.  Thank you all for your attentiveness to the other that surely was with us along the way, the Holy Spirit.

I must also thank those who were not writing with us, but were still significantly present, in their support and encouragement of spiritual writers—the Lilly Endowment, the Collegeville Institute and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.  And, finally, to Andrea and Ellie at the Massachusetts Conference who handled all of the small details that made the week run so smoothly.  Thank you to all for a remarkable and memorable week.

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Judging the View

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

The Maine Conference United Church of Christ recently met for its annual meeting.  Among the business, workshops and lunches, the almost two-day meeting included several worship services.  One of those worship services was led by a Maine UCC pastor who took the opportunity to—albeit gently—mock, scold and snarkily refer to those forebears of our faith who went about the business of constructing church buildings and all that usually accompanies church buildings—like church organs.  And, at the same time, this particular pastor just happened to mention his own current ministry call with a church that has discovered the grace and wisdom to follow the truer, better path of selling their building, and finding another church willing to take away their large, not so long ago expanded but now “worthless” organ, and moving into a smaller, more central location from which they will be able to more freely involve themselves in mission.

That this pastor and this church have found their way to a place where they can divest themselves of their building that had become too large and too financially demanding is no doubt a marvelous achievement, and a deeply faithful one.  The problem is that this pastor has now taken on the ungracious posture of seeing a unique sort of virtue in the decision-making process through which he and his church traveled, casting earlier versions of the congregation as less than faithful in their attachment to the building and its accoutrement.

It’s one thing to make an honest assessment of one’s church, and to set out on a path that allows the church to continue its witness into the future, even to the point of selling its building.  It’s quite another to see one’s path as more faithful than the path taken by one’s predecessors, and to then take the opportunity to disparage those earlier church folk.

Making judgments while looking through the rearview mirror is all too easy.   And, I suspect that it’s also an easy thing to experience comfort and assurance in the processes and decisions one makes—at the unfortunate expense of those who cannot speak for themselves.  Or, if they are still alive and can speak for themselves, they are—explicitly or not—dismissed as having done it wrong. 

Mainline churches like the congregations of the United Church of Christ in Maine have undergone tremendous changes over the years.  Occasionally church folk make bad decisions, with bad intent.  But, more often, church folk have made decisions that they have believed to be faithful.  They have done the best they could with the grace and knowledge bestowed upon them at the time.  To look back with such a judgmental eye is simply not fitting for those who claim an attachment to the way of Christ.

Jesus had a thing or two to say about making judgments.  Those of us who look back and find foolishness in the decisions of the past ought to be cautious before making such claims.  After all, we cannot be sure of what will come of the decisions that we make.  We should endeavor to employ the same amount of graciousness, if not more, that we expect from those who come after us.

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Worship Spaces

One of the most difficult lines of conversation in these days at Old South is connected to our sanctuary. The sanctuary exists in a building separate from the building that contains the offices, kitchen, classrooms, etc. The sanctuary building is a good-sized building made of granite. In addition to the sanctuary, the building contains a vestry, a choir room, and, of course, the sizable organ.

One of the biggest problems with the sanctuary building is that it is used for only a few hours every week—about three hours for Sunday morning worship and another couple of hours for weekly choir rehearsal.

In a harsh climate as we experience in Maine, it’s hard to justify the expense of the sanctuary. The tall ceiling makes it an expensive place to keep warm in the winter months. The building also requires a fair amount of maintenance. Some of the maintenance has been put off, as funds are scarce. The concrete stairs to one of the primary entrances may not survive another winter, crumbling as they are under the strain of ice melt.

As the congregation shrinks, and our financial resources too, it’s hard to know how to deal with the problem of our buildings. For some people, the church simply isn’t the church without our sanctuary building, or without the organ, or without the sense of space that the sanctuary provides. But, it’s also hard to justify the funding required to keep the sanctuary building heated and maintained.

This is a problem not easily solved.

During my recent trip to Venice, Italy, my daughter and I visited quite a few churches. The sense of space is indeed significant. While we can try to focus on the people “being the church,” it’s hard to ignore what a large space can do to help one feel the presence of God. And, it’s not only the size of the space, but the feeling of sacredness, of a space set apart for something holy.

Along with many in my congregation, I feel deeply torn when it comes to the practicalities of our future and our buildings. On the one hand, the math indicates that there really is only one choice, and that is to keep the parish house and try to sell the sanctuary building. On the other hand, it feels like a sort of betrayal to consider selling the sanctuary building. It feels like we are giving up on a space that conveys holiness that the parish house simply will never convey.

That sense of holiness is not simply for us, but for the community of which we are part. The people who live in the small city of Hallowell are largely a secular bunch. With that in mind, I must admit that I feel even more called to keep the sanctuary building and keep it holy. It stands as witness to our belief in the presence of God and in our trust in God’s love and hope.

But, the sanctuary building will not maintain itself and the money that is and will be required to keep that building boggles the mind. It’s also hard to escape the fact that the money that we’ll need to maintain that building could go to other, very important places and causes that are also a significant aspect of our mission as church.

How to proceed, then, is a tricky business. It will, I suspect, test our trust in our God whom we worship and will demonstrate our ability to listen to God’s voice and to follow where God leads.

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