Looking for the Opportunity in the Crisis

Last week, I read an article from NPR entitled, “The Faithful See Both Crisis and OpportunityAs Churches Close Around the Country.” (https://www.npr.org/2023/05/17/1175452002/church-closings-religious-affiliation) The article outlined the continued issues experienced in the Christian Church and its many denominations. More churches are closing than opening. The percentage of people who list “religion” as important in their lives continues to decline. The average parishioner age is increasing. Etc.

At Old South, we are experiencing all of it. While we may be in better shape than some churches (we still have a healthy endowment, we’ve already “right-sized” our governance structure, and so on), we are struggling with how to move forward. A growing number of our regular parishioners seem ready to disengage from the building that houses the sanctuary, to try to sell it and move worship— and everything else that we do— to the parish house. But, there are a few who are opposed to selling the sanctuary building. For a congregation that is already small, the sense of a possible rift that might cause even just a few people to leave the church has ushered in its own worry and consternation— and inertia.

And then there is the grief. Over the past couple of months, members of the governing board have paired off and have met with those who are not part of the board, to listen and to talk about the challenges ahead. The central question revolves around the possible sale of the sanctuary building. Most people agree that it’s probably time to sell the sanctuary building. The congregation is getting smaller and older while the sanctuary building is getting older too, and instead of shrinking along with the congregation, has become much more in need of costly repair and maintenance. But, the thought of actually going through with a vote and putting a “for sale” sign in front of the sanctuary building brings a deep sense of loss and grief that can barely be contemplated. How did this happen? Why now? Why us? The grief looms large, as if there’s nothing but failure and death. The word “sad” is now used so much that we might rename ourselves “Old Sad Church.”

It has been difficult to lay out the reality of opportunity in such a way that it finds its place alongside the grief. For there are opportunities here. Instead of two aging and needy buildings, we could have one updated and more useful building. Instead of spending so much of our time and energy worrying about the sanctuary building and fretting over the next rain storm (and the water that will make its way into the structure, further damaging walls, ceilings and floors), we could be considering ways of making our parish house more useful to the community. We could spend less time on the demands of our physical plant, and more time on mission.

Some of the anxiety at Old South is connected to the notion that no one will want to buy the sanctuary building alone, that the only way to sell is to offer both buildings. If we end up needing to sell both, then where will we be? To some extent, I can understand the vexation at the thought of somehow becoming a “homeless” congregation. Still, it’s frustrating that we, a congregation of people who claim a kinship as followers of Jesus Christ, the One who died and then rose again, appear to be paralyzed by the challenges we face— instead of allowing our faith to lead us.

Christians throughout the centuries have found themselves in all sorts of challenges and difficulties. So many Christians have found ways of managing the grief and sadness (and anger too), in order that they might grasp onto the opportunities that the way of faith opens up. It’s not an easy or simple thing to do, but finding opportunities in the midst of crisis is really a vital component to the life of any Christian and any Christian community. Easter wouldn’t be Easter if those first followers didn’t open their eyes and their hearts to perceive what was right in front of them— as unbelievable as it surely seemed.

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What’s So Funny?

I’m not sure where the practice began, but at the church where I grew up in suburban Boston in the 1970s, it was a common practice for the pastor to begin his weekly sermon with a joke. Perhaps it was meant to lighten the mood, to allow people a brief moment to settle in, or simply to provide a little break before delving into more weighty matters, there was always the opening joke.

Occasionally, I follow the same pattern by starting a sermon with a joke. But, I don’t do it very often. Although I like humor, and I like to be in situations and among people where there is the opportunity for laughter, I usually find that the middle of a worship service is just not the right place.

As I have gotten older, and have acquired a bit more (of what I hope can be classified as) wisdom, I’ve discovered that humor in the context of a sermon is a dicey business. There are times when it feels appropriate to offer something funny, but I have found that the mix of joking and sermonizing, can be a really difficult area. So, for the most part, I avoid it.

I’ve been thinking about humor and the Christian faith. It started when a certain email newsletter, that I never subscribed to, started to show up in my in-box, sometimes multiple times a day. A couple of months ago, a friend pointed me to a piece on the Babylon Bee that she thought I would find amusing. So I went looking for it. I did not find that particular piece especially funny, but somehow in taking a look at it, the Babylon Bee figured out my email address and started sending me their email newsletter.

The Babylon Bee describes itself as “Your Trusted Source for Christian News Satire.” It leans decidedly to the conservative side.

When I started to find the Babylon Bee in my inbox on a regular basis, I went looking for a way to unsubscribe. I didn’t really like most of the material I saw. But, after some thought, I decided that I wasn’t quite ready to unsubscribe. I felt like I should keep an eye on this newsletter.

I don’t often open the emails that I receive multiple times a day. I take a look probably once every few days. I’m troubled by many of the items that I see. Although there are a few vaguely amusing headlines about Bible stories (“Disciples Casually Ask Kid With Fish and Loaves If His Mom Could Pack Wings and Nachos Next Time”) and church life (“Visitor Expertly Weaves Past Church Greeters Like Saquon Barkley”), much of the humor seems directed at tired and cheap stereotypes about women (“Woke Alert: New Movie Features Competent Female” and “Man Daydreaming During Wife’s Long Story Praying It Doesn’t End With A Question”) and everything they can think of to pile onto the LGBTQ+ community (“Hasbro Introduces New ‘Transition Me’ Elmo Doll” and quite a few headlines connected to Bud Light and their relationship with a transgender influencer).

I have a reasonable sense of humor. I like to laugh. But, there is very little I find funny at The Babylon Bee. Its humor, and attempt at satire, is usually sophomoric, at best. If I were a teenage boy, I would probably find it hilarious. That’s not a good thing.

The world of Christian comedy is a complicated one. And I suspect it is even more complicated for organizations whose job it is to produce and provide comedy/satire for Christians. And given the number of emails that I receive from the Babylon Bee, it’s clear that they feel that it’s necessary to keep the content coming.

But there’s still a question about the relationship between the Christian faith and humor, whether it be satire or a relatively simple joke. How should Christians go about being funny and amusing? Should Christians observe particular boundaries, should they endeavor to avoid certain situations or categories or people? What is the relationship between one’s faith and one’s desire to make fun of other people or situations? Should Christian satirists practice any sort of restraint in providing humorous content for other Christians and/or the general public?

It’s one thing to make fun of the powerful, those whose lives consist of a certain level of status and comfort. It’s a very different thing to kick people when they are already down, or to take advantage of people whose lives are not at all comfortable and worse yet, to perpetuate harmful lies and distortions about the lives of people who are not straight white men.

Jesus was very clear about the most important components of the life of faith: love God and love neighbor as self. I’m not trying to be a complete fun squelcher, but I don’t think Jesus gave a pass to humorists or satirists. It’s not that we cannot ever look to our neighbors to be amused. And, it’s always a good idea to consider one’s own foibles on a regular basis. But, when so-called Christians consistently prey upon easy targets, when they further marginalize people who are already struggling, when they rely too often on stale, old stereotypes, a crucial question must be considered: what sort of faith are these “Christians” displaying?

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125-48: You Do the Math

This year’s Easter Sunday worship service at Old South brought a total attendance of 48 people. That number includes guest musicians and guests of the guest musicians. Two days later, Old South “hosted” (I’ll get to the use that particular word in a moment) a memorial service. Attendance at that service? 125.

This is the reality in which we live. While there may be some who stubbornly hang on to their denial, it’s impossible to ignore the precipitous freefall we clearly are experiencing as a church. We are not alone, of course. Most Mainline Protestant churches in our area (and across the country) are also struggling with attendance. The United Methodist church in Maine’s capital city, Augusta (just north of Hallowell), recently voted to put their building up for sale. Not all that long ago, that particular church was known as one of “the” churches in the area, with a large and robust congregation.

One of the people who attended Tuesday’s memorial service spoke to me during the reception. He asked about how the church is doing and how many attended worship on Easter. This began a short conversation about church life in the small city in Hallowell. The man attends the Roman Catholic church, just down the street from Old South. He bemoaned the struggles of the area churches and then started shaking his head at the expenses of maintaining church buildings. “We need more money!” he declared. I gently, but firmly, disagreed. Sure, money is an issue and more of it would be helpful. But, the more significant problem is people.

It doesn’t really matter how well a building is maintained. If there’s no congregation, there’s no church.

And, this brings me to the sense of “hosting” that memorial service. One of the sons of the woman who died had contacted me several weeks ago, to let me know that his mother was nearing the end of her life. He wanted to alert me and to start the process of planning her service. The name of the dying woman rang no bells for me. So, I tried to ask a few questions, without being too obnoxious. Had he reached the right church (there are several Old Souths in Maine)? Yes. Was he sure she wanted her funeral at the church? Yes. Can you tell me a bit more about that, since I’m fairly certain I never met her, even though I’ve been at the church for almost twenty years? Old South is our family’s church, I was told. She taught Sunday School there and was in the choir.

Once I was informed of her death a couple of weeks later, I met with a small group of the woman’s many children (all now adults). I continued to try to explore the “why” question and the family continued to tell me that Old South is their “family” church, even though none of them attend except for the occasional memorial service. Several of them live close by, so there’s no excuse not to attend at all. I asked a few more questions about the mother, trying to figure out why she had stopped attending— especially after I figured out that she had stopped attending years and years ago, probably back in the 1970s. Still baffled, I continued to ask questions. And, then there was a piece of information that hit me hard, and made me want to banish the entire family from my sight: the woman who had died had been living right across the street from the church, in senior housing. For years.

Years! And, never did she darken the door. Not even for Christmas Eve or Easter. The last time she set foot in the church, as far as I could tell, was for her husband’s funeral in 2001. Yet, she seems to have clearly informed her family that she wanted to have her memorial at Old South.

The family shared all of this with me like it was no big deal, as if there are loads of families who have some distant tie to the building and when there’s a death, that’s where they will go.

Like it will always be there. Like magic.

While it may seem for this family that Old South is their “family church,” they clearly have no idea what it means to put those two words together. Claiming a special fondness for a church involves a lot more than simply declaring a connection and sort of admiring the building from afar, even if the distance is only the width of a street in a small city. As the clergyperson called upon to lead this service, it felt altogether odd and disconcerting. I couldn’t say anything personal about this woman. I also couldn’t say anything about her affinity for our faith or her spiritual life. There were no special Bible passages to share and no favorite hymns to sing.

We were hosts to a bizarre little ritual that seemed like only an item that needed to be checked off in settling the affairs of the deceased. She asked for her memorial service to take place at Old South in Hallowell. Done. Check.

Yet her service attracted more than twice the number that attended the Easter Sunday worship just two days before. The math isn’t good— for anyone. That family really has no idea that the next time there’s a death in their family, the “family” church may no longer exist simply because they chose not to be involved in any way. The church is not just a convenient building. It’s not a place that magically supports itself. It’s not just a handy place to gather for life’s big transitional moments. It’s a living, breathing thing, that is slowly suffocating and diminishing because certain families do not care enough to actually care for their “family church.”

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The Mirror of Holy Week

When the crowds gathered on the very first Palm Sunday, waving palms or branches, and laying down still more branches or cloaks (the details differ among the Gospel accounts), it’s likely that at least some of those who were part of that crowd were hoping to set their eyes upon a certain kind of figure. They wanted tough talk and decisiveness. They wanted someone who could show power and strength, someone who could lead them to glory. Time to get rid of those Romans, those wretched overlords who trampled on their freedom. They may even have been expecting someone akin to a first century version of a certain former President of the United States.

Instead, what they witnessed on that first Palm Sunday, in that little parade into Jerusalem, was a calm, serene man who appeared to set his gaze on each and every one, with a blend of love and challenge. And, riding on a decidedly lowly, unimpressive beast. He might as well have been riding a toy pony. Where were the weapons? Where was the army? Where was the righteous anger, the fist pumping, the set of determination? Where was the call for triumph and greatness, the return to glory days, which of course were not really so glorious for everyone, but never mind about that.

No wonder it didn’t take long for that segment of the crowd to turn on him and start shouting for crucifixion only a few days later.

Jesus continued, though, throughout that week that we now observe as Holy Week, demonstrating through the actions of his own life, the way of love and compassion, the way of a more steadfast strength.

Eventually, some people got it— especially those women who gathered close by as the nails were cruelly driven into his flesh. And still more as the Good News of Easter became real, first in small whispers. And, a community gathered, a community of people who became know for their distinctive way of caring for each other and for others as well as their strange attentiveness to those on the margins of society, just as Jesus had shown himself.

Holy Week is a sort of mirror. It feels like a time when Jesus pulls up a big mirror and tries to get us to see the problems that develop when we decide to follow our own way and our own rules, to love only some people and not other people, when we lust for a very earthly form of triumph and glory, when we decide to love God only so much as we perceive that God agrees with us. In the midst of the difficult story of Holy Week, Jesus raises a mirror and beckons us to take a good look. Look at how your ways work. Not very well, if we are able to be even just a little bit honest with ourselves.

Jesus demonstrated, throughout his earthly ministry, the way of God’s intentions for humanity. For those who wish to live purposeful, meaningful lives, here is the way to do it. Follow me, Jesus says. Follow my example. And, don’t be afraid when what I’m asking you to do feels odd and strange. Follow me. This is how Jesus taught and lived. Despite what we may see as the way forward, the life and ministry of Jesus demonstrated what the Golden Rule looks like in real life: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Really and seriously. There’s nothing in there about the smiting enemies or the extra-holiness of white people or the sacred qualities of one specific country or political party.

Nearing the end of this Holy Week, amid the ongoing witness of chaos and violence, Jesus still holds up that mirror, beckoning us to take a good, honest look, to perceive our own waywardness. In love and hope, he holds up the mirror, holding it up for me as well as those who believe that children are in more danger in the company of drag queens than tormented people with easy access to AR-15s or that women are significant only insofar as what their wombs can produce.

If only we could, this would be a good time to take an honest look in the mirror of Holy Week, the mirror through which Jesus tries to get us to understand more fully and completely that our ways are not usually God’s ways. It is through such an approach that we may truly experience the wondrous new life of Easter.

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New Life and Its Consequences

Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?”  So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me.  I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.”  Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”  Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.  Then the chief priests and Pharisees called together the council[a] and said, “What are we going to do? This man is doing many miraculous signs!  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our people.” One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, told them, “You don’t know anything!  You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed.” He didn’t say this on his own. As high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would soon die for the nation—  and not only for the nation. Jesus would also die so that God’s children scattered everywhere would be gathered together as one.  From that day on they plotted to kill him.

John 11:40-53 (Common English Bible)

The Gospel According to John contains a series of “signs” that Jesus performs that eventually lead to the plot, among the Jewish authorities, to get Jesus killed. In the increasingly dramatic miracles, Jesus had shown himself to be a problem, potentially harmful to the delicate relationship between the Jewish community and its Roman rulers. Still, Jesus carries on and continues to demonstrate that he is the Messiah sent by God, eventually going so far as to resurrect his close friend, Lazarus, from the dead.

As we learn in the story, new life has consequences. Some of those consequences are mundane and some are profound. Some are predictable and others are unexpected, surprising and unsettling. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, I’ve often wondered about the life that Lazarus led after his resurrection. Did he and his sisters slide back into their old routine or did their lives change in unimaginable ways? I suspect it was the latter.

Although a very different sort of situation, the story of Lazarus almost always causes me to remember a man I met during the unit of Clinical Pastoral Education I completed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in the summer of 1991. I met Bob during my first weekend on-call. It was a lovely June Saturday. I was called in not so much to see Bob, but instead his wife, Mary. Bob was a 39-year-old man who had spent much of his adult life dealing with heart disease. A day or two before we met, he had been rushed to his local hospital, where his heart stopped in the ER. After successfully resuscitating him, a plan was made to send him to Boston to be evaluated for a heart transplant.

He and his wife arrived at the hospital and the wife almost had a panic attack. Her husband was in a serious health crisis and they were in a city they did not know, with no family or friends nearby.

I spent a couple of hours with them, listening to their story and getting to know them. We prayed together. Then, I visited with them again a couple of days later, just before Bob was sent home, after he was put on the transplant list.

A few weeks later, I heard that Bob was on his way back to the hospital. His condition had become so precarious that he needed to be admitted— until a transplant became available or his heart failed him for the last time. He didn’t arrive before my shift was over, so I alerted my CPE colleague who was on-call and asked him to check in on Bob, and his wife.

As I made my way home on the med school shuttle, back to Cambridge, my own precarious situation started to dawn on me. To be with Bob and his wife would likely involve praying for a new heart. And, new hearts only come from one place: relatively young, healthy people who die in tragic accidents. How in the world could I pray for that?

The next morning, I thankfully had a lecture to attend and that allowed me to push off my visit to Bob and Mary a little longer. When I emerged into the hallway after the lecture, the chaplain who had been on-call the night before was standing there waiting for me. He had news. Bob had received a new heart overnight. He was still in surgery and Mary was in the surgery waiting room.

Shortly after I arrived at the waiting room, the surgeon came to talk to Mary. The procedure had gone well. Bob was the new owner of a healthy heart that had come from a teenage boy.

Bob’s recovery was nothing less than remarkable. Before surgery, he always looked pale, weak and ill. After surgery, he looked healthy and energized. His face was radiant. His recovery went so well that his doctors allowed him to walk around the hospital. I remember bumping into him in the lobby and hardly recognizing him. It was amazing, and joyful.

I started to notice, though, in the midst of all of the elation, that Mary was acting strangely. She seemed distant and disconnected. I invited her to join me for a cup of coffee. She freely admitted that she was struggling. She had married a man with heart disease, a man who moved slowly and cautiously. She had grown accustomed to being the caregiver. And, now she hardly recognized her husband. But, how could she talk to him about her unexpectedly unsettled feelings?

New life has consequences. Sometimes those consequences are joyful. Sometimes they are unforeseen and difficult. Sometimes the consequences are complicated and hard to manage.

I find myself thinking a lot about new life and its consequences, not simply for individuals I know, or have known, but for the church that I serve. How is new life making itself known among us? And, what are the consequences of that new life? How do we engage with the “signs” of newness around us, especially when those signs turn out to be ones that we would not choose?

At Old South, in a congregation where the average age is over 70, it can feel strange to point to signs of new life. But they are there. They just aren’t the signs that most of us have wished for. I feel signs of new life when we talk about downsizing our attachment to our physical plant and putting our large, maintenance-demanding sanctuary building up for sale. Without that building, we could turn our attention to more mission projects and other ways of being of good use in the community.

Those little signs of new life have consequences, though. Not everyone is able to see those signs as clearly as others. And, some seem determined to turn a blind eye to signs of new life, and to remain steadfast in their own vision. The raising of Lazarus calls to us and beckons us to seek the wisdom to release those things that cloud or cover our sight and to be released from the ties that bind us to the ways that lead only to death. We must heed the call of Jesus to “come out,” to let go of our own wishes and desires and to realize that new life in faith is so often not something we get to define or choose. Still, it is the path of light and life.

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Safety and Security?

Last week, I attended a workshop on “Protecting Houses of Worship,” offered by various state and federal entities in the state of Maine. The workshop included a whole lot of information on different aspects of safety in light of the peculiar circumstances of houses of worship, in that they are places that are so often “open” and “inviting,” and sometimes the handy target of people who are driven to hatefulness. On the one hand, it was good to be reminded of the significance of planning and looking at our physical plant with the eye of an outsider. What are our vulnerabilities? If the unimaginable happened, what would we do and how would people know how to respond? On the other hand, the workshop reminded me of the very different ways people look at the world. One person’s security can be the source of another person’s feelings of the exact opposite.

The presenters covered a large swath of issues— from emergency planning to active shooter scenarios to cybersecurity. I found myself thinking about all sorts of situations at Old South, some real and some imaginary. Although it hasn’t happened often, we’ve occasionally encountered a new person who arrives for worship behaving in a strange and perplexing way. Every one of these episodes that I can remember has involved a young man who arrived a little late for worship. Since worship had begun, it was impossible to speak to the person, to welcome him and make an assessment of his intentions. One time, the young man came right up to the front pew and plopped down. He had a cardboard sign in his hands that he placed backwards against the back of the pew, so that I couldn’t read it. He made me— and a whole lot of other people— very nervous. After worship, we discovered that he was planning to attend a rally at the state capitol, which is not far away. Another time, a young man arrived a little late for worship and spent quite a lot of time pacing around the back of the sanctuary and taking photos. It turned out that he was a tourist from Germany.

One of the most bothersome aspects of these episodes has been that the worship experience got completely derailed. I might as well have just stopped worship altogether. Once the distraction arrived, almost no one paid attention to worship any longer. After the incident with the German photographer, several people told me how nervous they were through the whole service, and that they were especially concerned for me and my safety. This was before the pandemic, in our old worship format, which put me behind a huge piece of furniture. I was probably the safest one in the building behind that behemoth of a chancel. Still, I appreciated their concerns and wondered about whether or not we should have formal plans for out-of-the-ordinary visitors.

The last session of the workshop involved a panel discussion that included a couple of leaders of religious communities who have experienced situations far worse than mine and a couple of law enforcement officers. One of the officers identified himself as the police chief in a large Maine town. He said that he attended church not in that town, but in a city about 20 miles away.

Although we were told, earlier in the day, that the panel would be the “most exciting” part of the day, I found the panel to be dull and uninteresting— until that police chief started talking about his own church experience and attending worship. He shared with the audience that he keeps a gun on his person when he attends worship and church events, and he’s not the only police officer to do so at that particular church. And, it sounded like he doesn’t conceal his weapon, but that he carries it on his person openly. He told us that he likes helping people feel safe.

I didn’t feel safe. And I wondered if I would feel safe if someone who attended worship at Old South not only carried a gun to worship, but carried it openly. I started thinking about those few incidents we’ve had at Old South, where young men have shown up and acted a little strangely. Could something really unfortunate have happened?

I know that I would probably feel differently if I had ever experienced a terrible episode of violence on church grounds. Still, I am very uncomfortable with the notion that anyone would attend a Christian worship service with any sort of deadly weapon, concealed or otherwise, police officer or not. It’s too easy for small episodes to ramp up to dangerous levels. It’s too easy for people to react and respond in problematic ways. Are weapons the only way of confronting a dangerous situation, especially in a Christian setting?

While it’s not unreasonable to want to feel safe, I wonder about what is given up when people attend worship with weapons for the expressed purpose of “helping” people to feel safe. I would prefer not to feel like I’m living in the Wild West, surrounded by “good guys” and “bad guys,” since there’s sometimes no difference between the two. In a Christian setting, safety must be considered in light of the Golden Rule, with an effort to identify honestly the sources of fearfulness. Relying on a firearm to “protect” a house of worship is a fragile and flimsy method in a community that claims to be the Body of Christ.

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I’ve Got that Guilty Feeling, or Maybe Not

Western religious practice and guilt have what might be called a cozy relationship. For some forms of religious practice, guilt is an important motivator for good works and for an approach to at least some relationships. Rather than seeking good solely for the sake of goodness, people (especially religious leaders) find that guilt provides the necessary instrument to inspire good behavior. While it may seem that guilt is something we ought to endeavor to avoid, lest we develop problematic feelings about ourselves and others, how do we deal with those aspects of our own behaviors and those of others, as well as as our ancestors, that have caused real and profound harm not just to individuals, but to large groups of people?

I grew up in a Congregational church in the Boston suburbs where guilt was not actually a major topic— at least not in my childhood.  The senior pastor of that church, who served from when I was an infant until the year I graduated from high school, practiced his craft on the coattails of Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking. Everything seemed to be about empowerment and embracing all of the good that could come from a relationship with God and with the Church.

Around the time I started high school, the Christian Education Committee of that church decided to end the tradition of hiring seminarians from the mainline-aligned Andover Newton Theological School, and instead to hire seminarians from the more conservative/evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I remember quite well the first Gordon-Conwell-educated seminarian who was hired to lead the youth groups. If we had spent our childhood free from religious guilt, he set out to remedy that, in no uncertain terms. It was an astonishing change. I remember one occasion when our high school youth group was on a weekend retreat with several other youth groups, and very late on Saturday night we were corralled into a large room and forced to watch a very dramatic, and graphic, telling of the crucifixion of Jesus, laden with the guilt that we should all be feeling for our sins that Jesus had come to save. Following that very dramatic story telling, we were “invited“ to stand up and declare ourselves saved, that we accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. One by one each and every one of us stood up. Did we stand up because we felt saved? Did we stand up because we felt guilty that Jesus found it necessary to offer himself as a sacrifice because of our personal sins? Or did we stand up simply because we knew that was the only way any of us were going to get out of there? For me, it was this last option.

Guilt isn’t the best motivator for much of anything. And, as I discovered personally, it’s not the best way to entice young people, or older people, to take up a life of faith. Still, I can’t help but wonder about how we should approach the subject of guilt as people of faith— for surely, there are things in this life that should cause us to feel guilty, or at least to feel badly about how people behave, or have behaved, and how others are, or have been, treated. It seems critical that we, as individuals and as communities, engage honestly in and around those places where human beings have gone seriously astray and when the lives of others have been incalculably damaged.

Let’s consider (although I would really prefer not to) the current quest of the Governor of Florida to stop “wokeness,” to end education and training that would lead people to “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.” To stifle, dismiss and even outlaw an honest and full consideration of the terrible aspects of our common history, in order to save people from “psychological distress” seems a completely misguided way of dealing with the fact that past injustices are still a part of the fabric of this country. How can we possibly create healthy relationships and communities in these days if we refrain, or are forced to refrain, from an examination of problematic practices that have directly led to issues that we still face? Whether it’s the treatment of the descendants of slaves, or native populations, etc, issues that stretch back to before this nation’s founding are still woven into the fabric of this land we call home.

While guilt may be a part of the experience of considering the past and the present, it’s important that we consider all of our history, and not just the parts that feel good. As much as Mr. DeSantis may try, no one can erase the past, especially a past that continues to shape the present. Mr. DeSantis, who claims to be a Christian, ought to know full well that it’s only in taking an honest look at the good and the bad, the righteous and the sinful, that we have any hope of being freed from the guilt that clings to the imperfect lives that we live.

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Blurred Lines

I recently spent most of a day driving one of our family vehicles that I don’t use very often. Since I didn’t have a way of using my phone for entertainment or access to Sirius XM, I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes: channel surfing through the FM radio stations. At some point, I came across the station that broadcasts Roman Catholic programming. A few words grabbed my attention and I paused. The program involved an interview with a parish priest (I don’t know if this was Maine priest or a program from another state). The priest was in the midst of an airing of grievances. As part of his list of complaints, the priest talked about those people who come up to him, especially before worship, to report building issues, like a loose board or pew. “What am I supposed to do about that?” the priest asked and then continued with something like, “Do I look like the sexton?” He also complained about people who tell him about the lack of supplies in the restrooms. He questioned yet again, “Why are they coming to me? Do I look like I handle such things?” He wondered why so many people turn to him to report these various sorts of issues instead of calling the church office, like any person with good sense would supposedly know to do. To be fair, he didn’t use those words exactly, but that was his tone. After a long stretch of complaining, he offered this strange bit of reflection: “I know I’m complaining a lot . . But, it’s fun, isn’t it?”

Then he went on to talk about how irritating it is when people enter the sacristy before worship, when the priest is not only robing and putting on his various vestments, but saying the proper prayers, preparing himself for leading worship. This preparation includes a significant opportunity for the priest to attune himself to observing the mystery of God‘s presence, and to lead the congregation in that holy observance. Why do people pop into the sacristy just to say hello, when he’s in the midst of his preparations? How can they not understand how inappropriate that is?

As I was listening to this radio broadcast, my first reaction was to be annoyed. He sounded like a whiny jerk. I moved on to more channel surfing. Somehow, though, the words of that priest burrowed into my brain and I have been thinking about them. I’ve been reflecting on my own experience as a clergyperson, particularly on my own preparation time immediately before the start of worship. I don’t have a regular ritual and there’s no sacristy at the Protestant church where I serve, but I must admit that I share at least a somewhat similar list of grievances when it comes to preparing to lead worship.

I, too, am irritated when people bring a problem to me before worship that I can’t do anything about at that moment. I, too, am annoyed when people search me out, when I’m in the church office, or in the back of the sanctuary building, putting on my robe and trying to find a private moment to settle into my role as the worship leader.

In what seems like an increasingly casual culture, I suspect many people have no real idea that they are crossing boundaries or acting inappropriately. There’s a problem or something to report or just the desire to be friendly, so why not search out the priest or minister just before worship, when it seems so convenient?

What is the clergyperson to do? Is it possible to set boundaries without sounding whiny or like a spoiled child? Is is possible to re-establish a sense of formality around worship and its rituals, once a whole lot of casualness has taken hold?

While I think it’s important that clergy use a great deal of care in airing their grievances (I don’t think the radio broadcast and the tone of the interview, for instance, were appropriate), the complaining priest raised issues that are worth broader consideration. For those who are part of a worshipping community, how does that community as a whole define and practice good boundaries in the relationship between clergy and worship, as well as clergy and congregation?

It’s worth considering the relationship between clergy and worship and clergy and congregation. These relationships ought to be defined and tended, nurtured and sustained, in caring and compassionate ways. I know that those who search me out before worship, to pass along a piece of information or request that has nothing to do with worship, probably get the message that they have annoyed me, since I don’t have much of a poker face. But, I suspect that they have no idea why. While I may wish that there were clearly understood rules of engagement, it seems plain enough that, for the most part anyway, there is not. It’s part of my job to help my congregation, the flock that I tend, appreciate my various roles, and among the most significant is worship leadership. If I’m just hanging onto my list of complaints as a talisman of days gone by, when people knew not to bother the minister/priest before worship (although I question that assumption), then I’m doing a poor job not simply as clergy, but as pastor, as a small “s” shepherd following the big “S” Shepherd. Essentially, if my flock has lost its way in how it relates to me, that’s my problem, not theirs.

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To Be Welcomed, Or Not

The death of Pope Benedict XVI several weeks ago propelled me into a memory— a couple of memories, actually— about my experiences of welcome, or unwelcome, in the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve had a decidedly mixed experience. In reflecting on those experiences, I’ve started to wonder quite a lot about what sort of welcome we offer at Old South, especially for special services in which we have visitors. More on that in a bit. I’ll start with the memory part.

When my husband’s grandmother died in 2008, we attended her funeral mass in New York. We (my husband, myself and our kids) sat near the front of the sanctuary with the rest of the family. When it came to communion, the congregation was treated to a stern announcement from the officiating priest, regarding who was eligible, or not, to receive the sacrament. I believe it was Pope Benedict’s idea to tighten things up. If you weren’t a Roman Catholic in good standing, you were not allowed. And, somehow the Pope thought it a good idea to make this— I mean it wasn’t exactly a change in policy— a more sharply worded statement, just in case people hadn’t been listening, or didn’t understand that Catholics have certain standards when it came to this particular sacrament.

Since my husband, my kids and I were not practicing Roman Catholics, we just stood there, as everyone else— including the entire family block, except for us— went forward to receive the sacrament. I hadn’t planned on going forward, but the priest’s statement made me want to go to the front and tell him directly that I had no intention of participating in the sacrament, but I didn’t appreciate the feeling of not being welcome in that house of worship, and I didn’t appreciate the sense of being separated in such a public way, like sheep and goats, in the midst of a holy ritual of the church, even if I did not directly participate in it.

I remember feeling not only angry, but disappointed. By that time, so many of the Church’s sins had been exposed. Why did the Pope find it necessary to dig in and cling more strongly to the Church’s sense of its own supposed holiness?

Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt quite so agitated if I hadn’t experienced something quite different years before. When my husband and I were not yet husband and wife, but we were planning to get married, we visited the Roman Catholic graduate student chaplain at the parish in Harvard Square. At the time, Joseph was a practicing Catholic. Since I was on the path to becoming an ordained Protestant minister, we had a few things to work out. We had decided that we would attend a Protestant church as a family and, in return, I agreed to change my last name, so that we would have one family name. But, it was important to him that our marriage be recognized by the Catholic church. What did we need to do to make that happen? The short answer, from Father George, was that we needed to attend a marriage preparation seminar. He pulled out the area schedule of such classes and clearly indicated to us that, given our situation, we should make an effort to attend a class in Harvard Square, but if the schedule didn’t work for us, there were a few other places that would be welcoming. And, then he circled another group of churches and told us not to go to any of those. We would not be welcomed.

We attended one of the Harvard Square sessions. For St. Paul’s, marriage preparation was one long Saturday. I really don’t remember much of it (it happened almost 29 years ago!). But, I do remember that after lunch, the head priest at the church came into the large meeting space (there were a lot of people there) and asked the “non-Catholics” to raise their hands. I, along with quite a few others, looked around the room and tentatively started to raise our hands. What was going to happen? A scolding or shaming of some kind? Not at all. Once our hands were raised, he offered us a clear and joyful message of gratitude. He thanked us for taking the wishes of our future spouse seriously enough to have our marriage recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, by attending this marriage preparation day.

How hard was that? I remember my first-ever warm and fuzzy feeling toward Roman Catholicism. Alas, it didn’t last long.

I’ve found myself reflecting not only on my own experiences of welcome, or not, in religious traditions that are not my own, but my own attempts at creating a welcoming atmosphere at Old South. I’m increasingly aware that I need to do a better job. Special services, like funerals, are where I’ve started to sense the significance of welcome. As worship attendance declines, so does the general understanding of “churchy” vocabulary words. During the last couple of funerals I’ve led, it has started to occur to me that I need to explain things, even going so far as making sure the congregation knows what a “hymn” is and a “hymnal.” Not only do we need to print out the words to the Lord’s Prayer, but I need to explain—briefly— what it is and why we pray it. Those who do not attend Christian worship may not pray along with the Prayer, but they should be aware of what it is. It’s an important part of welcoming.

It’s a strange thing to gaze upon a funeral congregation and realize that there are quite a few faces looking confused and disoriented. If the only time they have ever entered a church for a service is for a funeral, I suspect that much of what we do seems strange. I could just dig in and let them all figure it out for themselves. It’s not my fault they don’t understand church. While I don’t think funerals are the best places for proselytizing, they are a good opportunity for churches to show warmth and welcome, to demonstrate some of that loving God and loving neighbor thing that we are told, quite clearly, should be at the top of our “to do” list— by the big guy himself.

To welcome or not to welcome? It’s not really a question, if the faith means as much to you as you say it does.

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A Long December

And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe/Maybe this year will be better than the last/I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself/To hold onto these moments as they pass.

“A Long December” by the Counting Crows

The past month at Old South included two of the best attended services of the year. Any guesses as to which services I’m talking about? Christmas Eve perhaps? A unexpected surge in observing the religious significance of Advent? No, to both. The well-attended services of the past month were funerals, and in this case, two people who had been married to each other for a very long time. The husband died on Thanksgiving and the wife died a few weeks later, just days before Christmas.

For both funerals, the sanctuary wasn’t full, but it wasn’t too far off from being full. Plus, each service had a small group of individuals on Zoom. Attendance at our end-of-year funerals far exceeded attendance on Christmas Eve as well as the worship services of Advent. While I usually cringe when church folks start a sentence with “It used to be . . . “, I can’t help but remember the almost full sanctuaries of Christmas Eves past. It’s not just that they were well attended. I have clear memories of Christmas Eve services, during my tenure at Old South, that were so full of energy and wonder that a tear or two would find their way down my cheek— and I’m not one to cry easily at church.

In what seems like the blink of an eye we’ve gone from very full Christmas Eve services that felt not only full in number but in spirit as well, to Christmas Eve services that involve a lot of looking around, with the sense of wonder having little to do with the birth of Jesus, and much more to do with trying to figure out what’s happened to our church. The Christmas Eve attendance number for 2022 may be twice that of a usual Sunday, but usual Sundays have attendance now hovering in the lower twenties. Twice that number isn’t a lot. It’s important to recognize that numbers aren’t everything. I’ve written quite a lot over the years about numbers and the fact that numbers don’t tell much of the story of a church community. But, there is something about how the community feels when it gathers, something indefinable in the sense not only of community, but of its connection to the Divine. And, in that way, there’s something that has started to feel decidedly different.

Given that the Christmas Eve service in 2022 was sandwiched between two well-attended funerals, that sense of something different stands out in greater relief. While I could wish for a long December that would offer reason to believe that the next year will be better than the last, as the lyrics above imply, I feel the doubts creeping in. I fear that the long December of 2022 may bring more long months ahead.

I don’t like the feeling of pessimism about the new year, but our long December has led me to wonder a lot about what it means when a church community attracts many more people to a funeral than to a Christmas Eve service. I will be reflecting and pondering in the days ahead, hoping that the light of Epiphany and its accompanying season may offer a bit of wisdom and understanding, and a renewed sense of what a church community can and should be and do, regardless of how many gather.

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