If Jesus Had Lived in Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is the Church Ready for a Comeback?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Films Can Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Is It

When my daughter was young, she had a pet betta fish. Like most betta fish, it didn’t live very long. But, when it died, Margaret was distraught. To help her deal with her considerable grief, I suggested that she organize a service for her little departed pet.

In good, organized Margaret fashion, she gathered some of the neighborhood children for the service. As the traditional church-goer that she was, Margaret wrote out a program for the service, with a drawing of the fish, and above that drawing a title, summing up her sentiments of the occasion, “This Is It.”

Well, that’s about how I’m feeling as I contemplate the swearing in of the new president. This is it. And, it isn’t good. In fact, I’m starting to feel at least a little distraught myself—though I hide it well under a veil of manhattans.

In the past, I certainly haven’t been excited about the swearing in of other Republican presidents. But, this is different, very, very different. In the past, I haven’t felt nearly so demoralized or despairing.

This time, it feels like “this is it.” And, it’s not exactly because I think the world is actually going to come to an end, at least I hope not. I just have never been able to get past Donald Trump’s treatment of women. We all know that there have been plenty of other presidents not even so long ago who’ve had problematic views of and relationships with women—presidents who have been unfaithful to their wives, who have used the power of the office for sexual conquests, etc. Trump is different, though. With him, it’s not just about infidelity or sexual conquests. The whole grabbing of women in the you know where, the unsettling stalking of contestants at his beauty pageant, and all the vile things that he has said about women, all on full and complete display—in his own words, undisputed. And, people—including lots of women—voted for him. The Creepmander-in-Chief. Yuck.

I’ve been having a hard time listening to or watching the news—even NPR and the New York Times. The Times recently ran an article on the women who voted for Trump, in their own words. The headline read, “You Focus on the Good.”

What good?

It just feels so horrible. And, somewhere in the midst of the moments when I find myself dwelling on this wretched situation, I admit that my thoughts wander to that place where I wonder about the part my own beloved religious tradition has played in creating this most unfortunate situation. Christianity, after all, hasn’t had a particularly stellar record in its treatment of women.

Scripturally, there’s little support, especially in the New Testament, for the objectification or oppression of women. Certainly one important example of the significance of women to the faith—among many—is the witness of Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning. It should be further noted that though Mary Magdalene is regularly referred to in some way as a prostitute, there is no actual scriptural evidence for such a claim.

Christian scriptures may honor and recognize the significance of women, but the practice of the faith has not exactly followed along. It was the practice of the faith after all, and not the scriptures, that made Mary Magdalene into a prostitute. And still today, we struggle with the place of women. Even women have a hard time supporting other women— in our communities, in the church, and clearly in the highest elected office in the country.

Today, a creepy stalker becomes President of the United States.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the rally in Augusta, the local “sister” event to the Women’s March in Washington, standing with a group from the Maine Conference United Church of Christ, with our “Be the Church” banner:

I’ll hope that something will come of tomorrow, that it will serve as a starting point for new awareness and new commitment. I don’t hold out much hope that the new creepmander-in-chief will take much notice, or even understand why we stand against him.

Mr. Trump did not win the popular vote, and there’s a bit of comfort in that, but there’s lots of work to do. And that includes work that must be done in the church and in the Church. It’s a different kind of “this is it” moment. We’ve had time to grieve, now it’s time to move forward and do the work that we are so clearly called to do.

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Dividing Lines

Just before Christmas, the New York Times ran a column by Nick Kristof in which Mr. Kristof asked the question, “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?” The column offered a conversation between Mr. Kristof and the Rev. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a large “new start” church founded in 1989.

In the conversation between the two men, Kristof asked questions regarding how one defines “Christian,” wondering particularly about how doubt fits into the Christian faith. One question was spelled out as, “So where does that leave people like me? Am I a Christian? A Jesus follower? A secular Christian? Can I be a Christian while doubting the Resurrection?”

Rev. Keller’s response was, “I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length. But, in general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”

While this attempt at defining boundaries around who is, and who is not, a Christian is probably as old as Christianity itself, I found this recent attempt at definitions interesting. Rev. Keller is the pastor of a large, thriving church, so perhaps his point of view bears more weight. As the pastor of a small, struggling church, I have come to view definitions and boundaries differently.

In the more than a decade of serving Old South, I’ve learned that definitions are not only unhelpful, they can be damaging to the congregation and the individuals that are part of the congregation. We require a more expansive view, and a more inclusive attitude, or we would likely be not only smaller in number, but smaller in spirit as well.

While I don’t stray from preaching about the divinity of Jesus, or the Resurrection, I have become much less concerned with outlining definitions. Definitions create, in my humble opinion, problematic views regarding who’s “in” and who’s “out,” instead of inviting people into a community where we all—each of us and all of us together—engage in what it means to follow Christ.

At Old South, we are not so much a community that can provide neat definitions, even for those who feel quite comfortable in accepting “foundational” beliefs as Rev. Keller suggests. Instead, we are a community that views itself as part of the continually unfolding story of God and God’s people. And we offer invitation to others who wish to join us on the journey.

In the community that is Old South, we have those with doubts and questions. We have a couple of people who, when pressed, would label themselves “Unitarian.” We have still others with a clear sense of traditional Christian faith and belief. What holds us together as a church, as a “Christian” church, is the notion that we find the story of Jesus, and the concept of Jesus as Christ, compelling. We wish to walk this path, to engage in this journey, because there’s something about this story that is meaningful to us, and captures our imaginations. It is not so much about what we believe, but what draws us into something that is as much about certainty as it is about mystery.

We don’t define. Instead, we invite.

We may be small. We may be struggling. But, we are connected to each other, and to God, and to the unfolding story, a story in which we participate.

So, Mr. Kristof, and others like him who question and doubt, you are welcome at Old South. You are welcome if you find something compelling and/or meaningful in the story, if you feel drawn into the story not simply about Jesus, but about Christ. It is not about how we define the boundaries, but how we are willing to be defined by that compelling story and the One who joins along the way and beckons us ever forward.

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When Hope Is a Problem

An area church similar to Old South recently came to the end of a long journey through which the church seriously considered its future. Part of the process focused on the building in which the church meets. The church, decreasing in number as most, if not all, Mainline churches in this part of the world, examined a number of choices regarding its relationship with its building and the possibilities of leaving, or sharing, its building.

In the end, the congregation received a remarkable offer. If they donated their organ to a local college, the college would allow the congregation to worship in its chapel, free of charge, for ten years. An offer too good to refuse?

But, the church did refuse it. When it came time for the congregation to make a decision, it voted to remain in its own (large) building. The vote was relatively close, but the decision to stay was certain. The number of people who gathered for the meeting numbered, in total, just over sixty.

As the clergyperson for a similar congregation not far away, I worry a great deal about what will become of the church I lead. While I don’t know everything that happened at the area church that rejected what seemed like an offer dropped from heaven itself, I know that buildings mean a lot to mainline church congregations.

And, perhaps even more than that, is the problem of the “hope springs eternal” mentality.

Lots of good, faithful church folk cannot free themselves from the notion that things will change, that the tide will turn, that all they need to do is hang on and something will happen that will propel people back into these churches. Hope springs eternal.

Hope may be just the thing that will kill us for good.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, despite the best efforts that have come to nothing (or not much), despite the avalanche of studies, good church folk have a very hard time letting go of the hope that the forces of nature and human behavior will somehow miraculously alter, and that the old mainline will be alive again, with lots of young, intact families and people who love to participate and attend meetings, and worshippers who crave traditional worship with a burgeoning organ carrying the tunes of hymns heavenward.

Hope is a problem.

In a place like Central Maine where secularism reigns and where most church-attending Christians prefer the arena platform with ministers in jeans and a Christian rock band, it’s a real problem that lots of Mainline church folk can’t seem to understand the basics of human behavior, and physics. While there’s a slim possibility that the tide might turn, the tide isn’t likely to change. While there’s a shred of possibility that human beings may begin to behave differently, it’s exceedingly remote.

For churches like Old South, the challenge will be to let go of that “hope springs eternal” mentality and to learn to be the best church we can be, for the time we have left to be church. In so many ways, in its worship and in its mission and outreach, Old South lives out its faith in meaningful, strong, and wondrous ways. Old South is a vital church. But, it’s small and getting smaller and likely to get smaller still.

When Old South folk look around, it’s hard not to feel small and insignificant, especially surrounded by such a large building. It’s also hard to escape the word “failing”—despite the various ways that the small group lives out its faith. Still, there is the unmistakable undercurrent of hope, the almost tangible belief that something will happen to make the congregation grow.

Hope may be just the thing that will kill us.

And, that will be a terrible thing. For churches in decline, old Mainline churches with our old-fashioned worship, the challenge will be to allow a different calculus to be our guide. After all, there’s nothing scriptural about churches needing to be big. Churches and the Christians that are part of them are to be faithful—sharing the love of God with reckless abandon. Faithfulness is how we measure who we are and what we do. Faithfulness is what matters to God.

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The March of Time

The end of the year has brought a lot of the usual—visits with family and friends, trying to figure out New Year’s Eve plans, recovering from the busyness of Christmas (and pre-Christmas), and contemplating what might be in store as the year turns. This year, the end of the year has also involved the actual end of a life.

One of my parishioners passed away yesterday, after a very long, slow (occasionally excruciatingly slow) decline. Yesterday wasn’t the first time that I had been called to her deathbed. The other times, she rebounded. When I entered her room yesterday, filled with her family, everyone quiet, all listening to her labored breathing, it seemed quite clear that she would not rebound this time. And, in many ways, that was a blessing.

I greeted the family members one by one, all of them I remembered from when the woman’s husband died several years ago. We talked about what was happening. Then, I read a couple of psalms and we gathered around the bedside to pray, each of us laying a hand on the woman in the bed. During the next hour or so, we shared stories and comforted one another. We cried and we laughed.

It remains a wonder and a privilege to be invited and welcomed with family to a deathbed, though I must admit that it’s becoming a more difficult experience.

When I first became involved in ministry, in my twenties, I found end of life, and even death, oddly satisfying. It was an opportunity to be truly helpful, as I guided families and friends through the usually unfamiliar processes and language of grief. I remember the gratifying experience of spending time in a hospital or nursing home, praying and reading scripture as one person in the room was breathing their last breaths. Although what I do in such a circumstance is not rocket science, there is something to it that I know seems completely unfathomable to many.

As I get older myself, this whole business has become more fraught. While it remains an opportunity to be uniquely helpful, it has also become much more complicated—as my own mortality comes into clearer focus.

Yesterday, in the midst of the prayers and the stories, the tears and the laughter, I couldn’t escape wondering about my own mortality. Will my death be a long, drawn out affair or will it be short? Will it be expected or a surprise? Will family and friends surround me or will I be alone?

It’s not easy to contemplate one’s demise, but as I drove home from the nursing home yesterday, I became mindful, as I have in the past, that the days that one lives are significant—and that our days are made up of an awful lot of seemingly small, unimportant moments that feel like nothing. Yet, they are not nothing. While we talked yesterday of some of the regrets that the dying woman likely had, we also talked about the wonderful life she had lived, devoted to family, friends and faith. She hadn’t lived a perfect life, but she had lived the gift of life well. She lived with love, for her family and friends, and for the church.

As the new year dawns, and resolutions are considered, it might be a good idea to think not so much of the grand or essentially superficial resolution (yes, I would like to lose a few pounds), but to think of the small moments of life and to live them, most of them anyway, well—not perfectly, but thoughtfully. This coming year, that just might make all the difference.

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