Old South the Musical or Old South the Opera?

Are we comedy or tragedy?

One of the most important Sundays on the church calendar for me is the Sunday after Easter. That’s when I get the best sense of the state of the church I’ve served for almost fifteen years.

After all of the thrill and spectacle of Easter Sunday, when the choir sings and the bell choir performs and the sanctuary is decked out in the spring colors of tulips and daffodils and the occasional hydrangea (we discourage lilies as several members of the choir are allergic) and we gladly claim “He Is Risen” and “He Is Risen Indeed,” we can finally get to a more realistic sense of Easter on the Sunday after Easter. It’s a strange thing, after all, to try to make Easter into a Christmas-like extravaganza. Christmas has the long list of characters, with the choir of angels and the visit from afar of the exotic magi.

For Easter, we yearn for something similar, especially for those of us living in a place like Maine. As Christmas offers an opportunity for a celebratory way of dealing with the onset of winter, Easter ought to allow for a celebration not only for the coming of spring, but the survival of another long, brutal winter (which often feels still very much present even when Easter is in late April). We replace Christmas poinsettias with spring flowers, the green and red of Christmas with pastels, and “O Come All Ye Faithful” with “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (the older version, thank you very much).

But it just doesn’t come off very well. Easter really doesn’t lend itself to the big celebration. The Gospel accounts offer no great cast of characters. There’s no angel choir, no visit of strangers from a faraway land, no young couple huddled up in a barn with a bunch of smelly, but adorable, animals. Instead, Easter offers an empty tomb, a few frightened close friends, and the small murmurings of something wondrous, but very strange. According to John, Mary Magdalene doesn’t even recognize the Risen Christ at first. She thinks he’s the gardener. It’s only when he speaks her name that she realizes who’s standing in front of her.

For those of us who are not CEOs (Christmas and Easter Only), the big celebratory atmosphere of Easter feels a little, if not a lot, odd.

It’s the Sunday after Easter when I get a real sense of the state of Old South, and a very real glimpse of who has also heard their name called by Jesus in a quiet, unexpected moment.

This year, as I have done in the past, I took the opportunity, on the Sunday after Easter, to note the strange way that we deal with Easter. But, also recognized that what actually happens on the first Easter, according to the Gospel writers, doesn’t make for especially good  worship.   Would anyone want to gather for Easter worship and shout out things like: “We are fearful. We are fearful indeed.” “We are doubting. Praise God for doubt!” “Lock the doors and be quick about it.” “We are confused. Alleluia and Amen to that.”

On the Sunday after Easter, when those who attend church only rarely are gone, when our normal small group is back, we can say those things. And, this year we did. We said out loud those things that we feel: “I have doubts!” and “I am fearful.”

And we said them over and over again.

After the worship service, one long-time member wondered what it would have been like if we had put those phrases to music. And, wondered more about other lyrics that could go along with those sentiments.

Then a few others joined us and we had quite an animated conversation that led to the question: is this a musical or an opera? Is this comedy or tragedy?

Both, I would say. And more.

We are a small church, and getting smaller—although, thankfully, not stagnant (we have a few new members in our midst). But, we aren’t likely to survive into the indefinite future.

Yet, we are a community of faith, a church. We are a group of people committed to, though still a little wary of, Easter and what it means for us not only to gather on that one glorious day, but to be together for all of the other days as well. And, in that, there is both comedy and tragedy. And everything in between.

The road we travel is not an easy one. There is confusion and fear, doubt and trepidation. Just like those first disciples experienced.

So we press on, keeping our ears and hearts open to the voice of the Risen Christ and singing along to the lyric and rhythm of faith. It may not be completely harmonious, but it is wondrous and wonderful.

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Where Would We Be Without the Women?

Western Christians gathered this past weekend for the most significant of holy days, Easter (Eastern Orthodox Easter is next weekend). For those Christian Churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary (and many that do not) the Sunday Easter worship service included, perhaps even highlighted, the story of the first Easter morning as told by the Gospel writer of John. Mary of Magdala is the first to discover the empty tomb and is then the first to encounter the Risen Christ.

Although Mary was, according to the writer of John, the first evangelist sharing the news of the resurrection, this hasn’t done much for the status of women in the Christian church. The great majority of the world’s Christians, whether they celebrated Easter this weekend or will next weekend, gather in churches that belong to denominations that deny ordination to women. It’s rather starting, really, that in the 21st century, that this is still an issue. And, it’s more than a little depressing.

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis released a document stating that women have “legitimate claims” to seek more equality in the Catholic Church, but he wouldn’t go so far as to say that women ought to be in positions of leadership.

Years ago, I remember attending an Easter worship service at a Congregational Church in Massachusetts where the preacher emphasized that the women in the first Easter stories really don’t deserve much, if any, credit. After all, the women were there for the wrong reason. They didn’t go in search of the empty tomb or to discover the whereabouts of the Risen Christ. They went to the tomb to take care of the body they assumed would be inside.

As I sat there listening to that terrible sermon, I wanted to jump up and yell—and what about the men? They didn’t do any better. Some of them were even in hiding.

Yet, there they are, given sole authority in leadership for the largest Christian denominations in the world.

Two centuries after the start of this religious tradition that includes powerful testimonies of women in its earliest stories and most holy of moments, the great majority of the faithful worship in churches that belong to denominations that deny ordination to women—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Southern Baptists, etc.

It’s hard to understand the continued insistence on keeping women out of the ranks of the ordained, and out of leadership. Clearly, the men aren’t doing an especially good job. Sexual abuse and sexual misconduct have scarred and continued to scar the Church in profound and unspeakable ways.

To be fair, it ought to be noted that nuns don’t exactly enjoy a spotless reputation. There are lots of deeply troubling stories of their abuse as well.

Still, Easter offers a remarkable moment of the evangelism of women, especially Mary of Magdala. As Christians around the world observe this most holy of days, it’s time to pay attention to the person who first shared the amazing news of the Risen Christ, and her gender. Presumably, Christ could have appeared to whomever he wanted. He could have appeared to Peter, or one of the other disciples, but he didn’t. According to the Gospel of John, Christ appeared to Mary, and spoke to her, relying on her to bring the news of resurrection to the disciples.

Where would we be without her?

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A Church on Fire: A Confession


The scenes from Paris were (and are) startling and heartbreaking. When part of the spire of Notre Dame fell into the huge cauldron of flames, I gasped. It was hard to take it all in from the vantage point of my laptop computer so many miles away. Clearly, I could appreciate only a very small sense of what it was like to watch the beautiful cathedral burn.

Structure fires always conjure a special dread. They are so striking, as the flames consume everything they can, while they seem to leap and dance at the same time. Church fires feel particularly heartbreaking. Last year, the large Baptist church in my hometown burned in a massive fire. Although I wasn’t there, the photos were enough to make me feel ill. Something precious and important had gone.

While terrible and heartbreaking, I must also make a confession: I wouldn’t mind a fire, a fire at Old South. It’s hard to type out those words, but they are true. I wouldn’t mind a fire. After the first shock of watching the Baptist church in my hometown burn, and then discovering that it had been hit by lightning, I wondered: why can’t we experience a bit of lightning?

Old South has a beautiful sanctuary building, graceful and elegant. The exterior is made of large, granite blocks, extracted from the earth at a local quarry. The interior is lovely with its decorative organ pipes and its acoustically inclined architecture.

If a fire were to occur, I would be heartbroken. But, at the same time, I must admit that I would also be a little grateful.

Old South’s sanctuary building is beautiful, but it’s also expensive. Utilities and maintenance are only getting more complicated, especially as the congregation decreases in number. We’ve had to deal with mold in the basement. The slate tile roof won’t last forever. In the past few weeks, we discovered a leak in the back of the building that allowed water into a storage closet.

The sanctuary building sits on a steep hill, looking down on the Kennebec River (Hallowell is a very hilly place). Access in the winter is a problem, especially for anyone who has mobility issues of any kind. We have three choices—scale a tall flight of wooden stairs, cross a street that may be covered with snow and/or ice, or hold worship in the parish house across the street (where the primary parking lot is located). For the past five or six winters, we have opted for the third option, for January, February and the first part of March.

Once inside the sanctuary, the problems don’t disappear. The sloping floor, while providing “stadium seating” with a great view from anywhere in the room, offers an uncomfortable and almost treacherous environment for anyone in a wheelchair. Some years ago, I tried to point that out in a dramatic way, asking someone to use a wheelchair to access the sanctuary. There was a remarkable lack of sympathy for the woman struggling to maneuver her way into and around the room—except for a few people.

The sanctuary building is gracious and lovely, but it is a problem—an increasingly large problem. It may very well end up the last remnant of our faith community. My fear is that it will stand as a monument to a painful, difficult and not especially faithful ending. As a congregation, we have a diversity of opinions regarding the sanctuary. For some, it is how they experience the divine; it is how they communicate with God, and show their reverence to their Creator. For others, it is simply a convenient gathering place. For some, the sanctuary holds a cache of important life memories. For others, it’s just associated with the relationships they have with others who find Old South to be a meaningful place in which to gather for worship on Sunday mornings.  For some, it is a significant historic landmark.  For others, it is just a big cause of worry.

How will we deal with the sanctuary building as its maintenance requires more and more of our resources? Will we find our way to faithful consensus, even if that means making heartbreaking decisions, or will the demands of the building tear us apart as a community of faith?

In the aftermath of the terrible fire at Notre Dame, it is clear enough that the cathedral will be rebuilt. It’s a symbol. It’s a monument. It’s part of the fabric of Paris. It is a tourist attraction.

Let’s be clear: Notre Dame will not be rebuilt because it is crucial to the religious and spiritual lives of Parisians, or the tourists who flock to that beautiful city. It will be rebuilt because it is an iconic monument of Paris, and gothic architecture.

I confess:  I feel like the fire that Notre Dame experienced could have been put to better use elsewhere. I also confess that this is a terrible thought. Yet, it would make a lot of important decisions go away—if a fire were to visit a certain corner of Chestnut and Second Streets in Hallowell, Maine.

I can’t say that I’m happy about my confession, or that I will to do anything at all to make such a thing happen.  But, in my confession is a deep worry that without something like a great fire, the decisions that Old South will face in the coming years will be no less heartbreaking and no less terrible.

I wouldn’t mind something coming along to lift that burden.


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The Remarkable Sound of Silence

Many years ago, when I was a second year divinity school student trying to figure out what sort of ministry was the right path for me, I took a field education assignment at a local church, after a year spent at a day shelter for homeless women. One of the benefits of this new placement was frequent preaching and worship leadership. Field education sites at churches were notorious for giving students the jobs no one else wanted, especially in the way of youth group leadership.   My placement included youth work (which I didn’t mind), but that work was balanced by ample time in the pulpit, including monthly preaching.

I don’t know how many sermons I preached before I experienced the remarkable, humbling, almost goose-bump producing, moment of unplanned silence. But, when it happened, I was completely awestruck. And, continue to be whenever such a moment of grace occurs.

What in the world am I talking about? In some churches, the sense of the presence of the Spirit is measured in noise—in music, in animated preaching, in voices raised up in affirmation of various kinds. In predominantly white Congregational churches of the Northeast, the sense of the presence of the Spirit is measured in silence (much of the time, anyway).

In those moments when the only sound is the sound of my voice, when the congregation is completely silent, it is tempting to take the moment and stop talking myself. I’ve never gone that route, but still it is noticeable when a sanctuary of people moves into a space of silence, so quiet that one could hear a pin drop. Even in a relatively small congregation, complete silence is hard to come by. Coughing, clearing of throats, shuffling of paper and the contents of purses, and the general rustling of body movement, is omnipresent in a normal worship service, even during the sermon.

Moments when the sanctuary is full of people who are completely engaged in the moment, when it feels like all assembled are collectively holding their breath, so urgent to grasp and maintain that sense of the Spirit, that collective yet unspoken experience when we are aware that we are not alone, are moments of remarkable grace and wonder. It’s also very clear that such moments can’t be manufactured. Sometimes, in the planning for a Sunday worship service, I feel like what I’m putting together something—an observation, a point, a perspective— that will lead to a moment of utter silence. Yet, it never happens that way.

Silence is always unexpected, unplanned.

In my many years of ministry, these moments of silence feed my spirit and assist me—especially now, when our situation seems so precarious. As we struggle with our shrinking numbers and our stubbornly needy buildings and demands on our resources, it can be easy to allow worries to get in the way of experiencing a moment of grace and offering a word of gratitude. How wondrous it is when a moment comes suddenly that is teeming with that sense of the Spirit, that feeling of otherness that comes upon us.

For a brief moment, I don’t need to care about what will happen tomorrow or the next day. I don’t need to think about what we are going to do with our aging, shrinking church. I don’t need to contemplate our deficit budget or the developing leak in the roof.

These moments of grace and wonder are holy reminders that we are a part of something greater—greater than our building or our endowment—and something much smaller, and intimate. Let us be not simply grateful. Let us be captivated by awe and wonder, that it will help us to discern our path forward—not in fear, but in love and hope found in the still, small voice that speaks to us in silence.

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The Dreaded Funeral and Its Dreadful Portents

It doesn’t happen often, thank goodness, and less often than it happened in my first years at Old South: leading a funeral/memorial service for someone I’ve never met. In the almost fifteen years of serving Old South, I occasionally discover a person or an entire family who feels that Old South is “their church,” even though they haven’t attended in many years—not even Christmas Eve or Easter. When there’s a family death, I get the call to schedule a service. It’s an especially awkward moment when the funeral home calls to share the very sad news, only to discover that I have no idea who they are talking about.

In my first few years at Old South, I didn’t mind these services, strange as they were. I would meet with the family, plan for the service, etc. For the service itself, I always made sure that I didn’t pretend to know the deceased, but tried to be comforting and helpful. If nothing else, I felt like a good memorial service could offer an opportunity for a sort of evangelism. It got people into the church building and then I would do my best to suggest that the church is not so bad and scary, that it is a good place to be—and not just when mourning the loss of a family member or friend.

It took a while, but I finally realized that these memorial services did not bring the hoped for sense of good will. In fact, I noticed that there were some memorial services where people attended only out of obligation to the deceased or the deceased’s family. They made it clear that they didn’t want to be in the church, and no one was going to convince them otherwise. In looking out at the congregation, I could see people with their arms crossed over their chests and the look of distaste on their faces. I recall a couple of times when I actually heard someone audibly scoff during my homily, when I mentioned something along the lines of God’s comfort and Jesus knowing our suffering through his own experience on the cross. One time, the noise came from a member of the deceased’s family.

Now, I dread the phone call from the funeral home, when they mention a name I don’t know and then add that the family or the deceased “used to be active at Old South.” “Used to be” is usually counted in decades. Because it is a sad and difficult occasion, I refrain from asking the question that I always want to ask: how they could abandon the church, but then expect it to be there when they need a nice big place in which to offer a farewell to a loved one—along with a travel guide through the early stages of grief?

At a recent memorial service for someone I didn’t know and had never met, despite the fact that the family lives not far from the church, the sanctuary was almost completely full—with a bunch of people I didn’t recognize. Before the service began, the sanctuary was abuzz with people chatting in small groups, or coming forward to offer words of condolence to the family. Then, the service started and everyone quieted down. Near the start of the service, came the first of two hymns. And all that could be heard was the organ. Hardly anyone sang. Not even the family (even though they had chosen the hymns). And, when it was time to say the Lord’s Prayer together, hardly anyone joined in. For the hymn near the end, Amazing Grace, I hoped that its general familiarity would aid additional voices singing along. It didn’t.

It was the most painful memorial service I’ve ever led, or attended. It was clear that there were only a very few regular church-goers in attendance. It felt like a large group of tourists had come to visit my country, even though they didn’t really want to, and we didn’t share a common language.

I certainly don’t require any additional evidence for the decline of mainline churches, but it’s still a heartbreaking moment to recognize that the meaning that I find in church is now shared by so few and that it likely won’t survive until the day when it’s time for my family to say goodbye to me. Where will my funeral take place?

I find myself wondering about these funerals and what they signal. Is it too late for churches like Old South to turn the tide and, if it is too late, how do we embrace (or at least acknowledge) our decline in a way that is faithful and meaningful? Is the decline we are experiencing our own fault or was it inevitable, part of the natural course of human existence?   How can we continue to welcome and include, even as we face the reality that lots of people think ill of the Church and by extension, local churches?

The days ahead will be tricky and painful, but I hope not full of despair. I hope that we’ll be able to maintain a steadfast hold on our faith and what it means for us to gather as God’s people, in this place and time, in the midst of obvious challenges.

The next time, though, the funeral home calls with a name that I don’t recognize, I’m not sure what I’m going to do. While I can’t imagine that I would ever say no to a family in grief, I don’t ever want to lead another memorial service like the one I led recently. But, perhaps I’ll find a way of asking why—why abandon the church, but then expect it to be there when the need arises?  What will happen when the need arises, but there isn’t anyone there to answer?



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In These Difficult Days

The news from Christendom these days isn’t good. The seemingly endless parade of revelations from the Roman Catholic Church is heartbreaking and disturbing. The recent signs of serious rifts in the United Methodist Church are also distressing. The Southern Baptists, too, have been in the news after reports of widespread sexual misconduct among church leaders and volunteers.

It’s a tough time to be a Christian.

Most, if not all, of the recent scandals shaking the Church have something to do with sexuality—questions surrounding whether or not homosexuality is acceptable in the eyes of God, and the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by those who claim to have heard the call of God to ordained ministry and ought to know better.

While the United Church of Christ is not quite so riven by such scandals, we are certainly not immune from them. The denomination is generally welcoming of a diversity of sexual and gender identities and orientations, but we still experience problems with sexual misconduct.

It’s hard to know how to respond to the all-too-frequent unsettling revelations in the Church. As we begin the holy season of Lent, we have an opportunity to take stock and reflect on our place in the Christian landscape and to do what we can to lift up and live out an honest, transformative, thoughtful and responsible faith.

Just how should we do that? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Embrace and maintain a sensitivity to the reality that many people have been hurt in devastating ways by the Church—and continue to be.
  2. Lift up and live out a different expression of the Church, and Christianity, openly practicing a faith that welcomes rather than judges, that loves rather than hates—while also recognizing that the notion “loving the sinner but not the sin” just isn’t good enough.
  3. Learn about appropriate clergy (and lay leader) boundaries and ask whether or not the clergy people in your life have been trained in understanding, recognizing and maintaining appropriate boundaries.
  4. Appreciate the lines of denominational affiliation like that in the United Church of Christ, that are set up to reduce the possibility of clergy abuse—especially recurrent clergy abuse. The system isn’t foolproof, but it’s a lot better than not having one.

Given the terrible things that have happened, and continue to happen, it may be tempting to ignore the headlines and the news stories—especially if it’s not directly a part of our own church experience. But, as part of the wider Church, we ought not look the other way or stick our heads in the sand.   The entire Church, of which we are part, has been damaged.

Churches like the one that I serve in the United Church of Christ, an Open and Affirming congregation, ought to show a greater willingness to be our Christian selves in all of the ways through which we live our lives. We don’t need to be obnoxious about it (we know full well that we aren’t perfect either), but the world could use more of a different Christian witness than what we’ve been seeing in the news.

In this season of Lent, this season of reflection, following our Savior into places where we would prefer not to go, let us accept the grace and courage that Christ offers—and be the people we are called to be, offering love and hope to all and daring to do as Jesus did in reaching out and welcoming in.

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Rules of Engagement, Part 1

A recent article in the local newspaper highlighted a protest at the Maine State House—clergy protesting the separation of families at the border. I recognized a couple of the clergy who were present. My first response was to wonder why I hadn’t known about the protest.  Perhaps I would have joined them.

But, then I remembered that, although I haven’t completely sworn off protests, I have become much more circumspect about participating in them, especially as a member of the clergy. The reason why I’ve been struggling with the notion of clergy engaging in political protests and political issues is this:

Image result for catholic priests pro-life rally

While I don’t like or celebrate abortion, I believe it is a woman’s right to have access to safe and affordable abortion. Watching clergy people, with their clerical collars and other clearly clerical garb, trying to influence those in political office, or those seeking political office, as well as the courts has made me more than uneasy for years.

Clergy are certainly welcome to take any stand they like and share that stand, and its theological reasons, to their congregation, flock or denomination. But, during the long years of watching conservative clergy seeking to influence public policy, especially in the case of abortion, has made me rather angry. And even more so as most of those members of the clergy are men who appear to have little or no respect for women, or the reality of the lives of women, or the notion that women ought be allowed to make such a profoundly personal decision that is so often profoundly complicated.

Now that we have a President who has somehow managed to convince a whole lot of Christians, especially evangelical and conservative ones, that he has their interests at heart, yet also appears to trample certain Christian concepts, particularly those that are close to the heart of more liberal Christians, I’ve found myself in a rather odd position. On the one hand, I want to get out there and protest, to raise my voice as a Christian and declare that many of the policies of this President don’t line up at all with basic tenets of any sort of Christianity—at least in my perception of the basics of Christian theology. On the other hand, though, I keep seeing those abortion-protesting clergy in my head.

What are the rules of engagement? Should clergy people—as clergy— get involved at all in trying to influence public policy and, if so, how?

I’m sure most of those members of the clergy who protest against abortion rights believe fully that they are doing what is right in the eyes of God.  And, that they should do all that they can to influence public policy, trying to make public policy acceptable to the God they worship.

I don’t agree with them, or with what they are doing. How does that disagreement then inform my own engagement with policy issues outside my church community?

While I hold very similar views as those clergy people who took to the Maine State House to protest the loathsome practice of separating families at the border (and I believe there is plenty of biblical back up for this position), I wonder:  is it appropriate for clergy to demonstrate in such a manner—to declare a position, to raise their voices, specifically as clergy, in order to influence public officials?

I’m not sure, and so I continue to wrestle. Next time, I’ll share a bit more of this struggle.

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