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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Ministry Advice in Strange Places: Bill Belichick Versus Julia Child

The New England Patriots are bound for yet another Super Bowl. As someone who has been a life-long New Englander (and Pats fan), and is old enough to remember the terrible days of the old Patriots, when a visit to the Super Bowl seemed only to result from the fact that no one else in the AFC was foolish enough to want to present themselves for slaughter at the hands of the 1985 Bears, it’s still a little hard to get my head around the now long-standing dominance of the Patriots. Nine Super Bowl appearances since 2000. Five Super Bowl rings.

Anyone who pays attention to football, and certainly anyone who keeps an eye on the Patriots and their winning combination of owner-coach-quarterback, knows full well the mantra of the Patriots: Do Your Job.

In an interview with Head Coach Bill Belichick, he went a little further with the mantra, acknowledging that success comes not simply from “doing your job,” but doing your job well.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of concept for a while, and very much so in the last few days. In a church congregation the concept of doing one’s job well, or perfectly (or even close to perfectly), actually gets in the way of doing ministry and engaging in the life of the Spirit. When someone who’s never served communion before, for instance, shows a willingness to give it a try, they want to know how to do it perfectly. And, when they make a mistake, they have a hard time letting go of that mistake, fixating on it, instead of focusing on participating in a sacred moment of grace.

Ministry is a messy business, and there’s no “right” way of doing much of anything. The important thing is to give things a try, to engage in the work of ministry, and not to worry about getting things done “just right.”

When it comes to ministry, I think Julia Child has a better approach.  [Allow me to throw in here that I once saw Julia Child buying groceries at the Star Market in Porter Square in Cambridge.  Very exciting.]

In the event that one drops the leg of lamb in the kitchen, Julia Child famously advised that the leg be picked up and served: who’s going to know? I also recall an episode of one of her shows where she’s talking about hollandaise sauce (or some other sauce that is difficult to make). What happens if it doesn’t come out just right? Her advice: serve it as best as you can. Your guests probably have no idea what it’s supposed to look like anyway.

In other words, don’t serve with fear and trepidation. Serve with confidence and grace.

Congregations are not professional football teams. Yet, there are ways in which congregations want to pretend that they are something similar. Certain practices (traditions) are to be done in a particular manner.   Traditions are to be obeyed, as if it is in the strict observance of how “things are done” that congregations find God.

The focus ought to be on service, and service as the path to engaging in ministry, and ministry as an opportunity to both experience God’s presence and share it. As many congregations (like the one that I serve) get smaller, it’s even more important for people to get off the sidelines, realizing that someone else may no longer be available to do the important work of our congregational life. Everyone must participate in some way.

So, let us serve with confidence and grace, offering our imperfect selves for service to our God who gathers us together. We don’t need to be perfect. We don’t even need to do our job well. We just need to do. As Julia Child counseled: “Try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” That’s good advice, and not just for cooking.


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Preach It, Lady Gaga

It seems a troubling day when a pop artist notoriously prone to outrageous acts of theatricality becomes the voice of reasoned Christianity. But, that’s where we appear to be.

After a recent story printed in the New York Times regarding the current Vice President’s wife working at a Christian school that bans LBGTQ students and teachers (according to the school requires employees to affirm in writing that they will not engage in homosexual acts or have a transgender identity, while it also reserves the right to refuse to admit or expel students if those students or their parents support, condone, promote or engage in homosexual acts), Lady Gaga took a moment during a performance in Las Vegas to declare:

            To Mike Pence, who thinks that it’s acceptable that his wife works at a school that bans LGBTQ, you’re wrong. You’re the worst representation of what it means to be a Christian. . . .   I am a Christian woman, and what I do know about Christianity is that we bear no prejudice, and everybody is welcome. So you can take all that disgrace, Mr. Pence, and look yourself in the mirror and you’ll find it right there. [USA Today, 1/21/19]

Franklin Graham rushed in to side with the Pences, tweeting that Lady Gaga’s statement was “misguided and inappropriate.”

This whole unfortunate episode brought to my mind my own experience of Christianity, the Church, and the local church—and how incredibly important it is to feel welcome. I’ve been thinking especially of my own childhood and my early teen years, when I wore thick coke-bottle eyeglasses on my face. I had lots of braces on my very crooked teeth. I was described by my teachers as “painfully shy.” I had few friends.

While I was a generic straight white girl from the suburbs of Boston, and never felt inclined toward anything related to LBGTQ, etc., I still often felt like an outsider, someone who just didn’t fit in anywhere.

At church, though, I found my place, a sense of myself as a beloved child of God. I encountered lots of people who could see beyond my glasses and braces and my introverted style—including adults and other teenagers. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was spending a great deal of time at church—teaching Sunday School and as a very active youth group member.

Church was where I discovered a lived experience of faith, where those Sunday School lessons of loving God and neighbor and welcoming the outsider became real. They were not just words. They became a way of life, and how relationships and friendships were formed.

It wasn’t perfect by a long shot. I remember, for instance, the youth group leader criticizing our sometimes very harsh nicknames for each other. In retrospect, I’ll admit that he had a point. We were sometimes mean to each other and to those outside of our group.

But, still, there were lots of incredible, wonderful moments of grace, and opportunities where, in very real ways, I experienced love and welcome that I experienced nowhere else. By the time I graduated from high school, I had lots of friends and I was no longer described as painfully shy. And, more than that, I had learned to love myself while learning the value of sharing that experience and knowledge with others in how I would live my life.

How could anyone want to keep that sort of experience from other people, especially young people? How could anyone want to horde that sort of love just for themselves and only for those who are like them? How could any school that calls itself Christian devise such a restrictive statement about who can be a part of their so-called “Christian” community?

Does the school where Karen Pence teaches also ban tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), discourage marriage (1 Corinthians 7:8,25,32-34), and dictate proper hair length (1 Corinthians 11:14-15)? I doubt it.

Christians who pick and choose those whom to welcome, who seek to reject and marginalize those who don’t quite fit into the majority group, make, as Lady Gaga declared, a big mistake. And, so much more. Christians ought to be about the work of welcome and inclusion, of seeking out the marginalized and helping them to experience love and acceptance.

Is Mr. Pence the “worst representation of what it means to be Christian”? I’m not sure I would go quite that far. But, he and the many other “Christians” who share his views need to realize the harm they do to others, as well as themselves, in declaring some people deserving of God’s love and others not, or some people’s behavior deserving of God’s love and others not. It is their attitude that is “misguided and inappropriate.” And, they also harm the Church, the institution that is called to share the love of Christ with the world—not just with some, but with all.






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The Not So Graceful Art of Treading Water

The typical routine of life at Old South Church means that the Advent and Christmas seasons are followed not so much by the season of Epiphany, but the season of Annual Meeting—finalizing the budget, figuring out and nominating a slate of officers and members of the governing body, planning for the meeting itself (at the end of January), and putting together the “Annual Report.” The Annual Report includes a summary and review of the year just finished, including a report by the Pastor and Teacher.

In order to begin the writing of my annual report, I always first go back to the previous year’s report. What were the highlights that I had outlined?   What were the challenges? What went well, or not so well? What was I looking forward to in the next year in the life of the church?

As I reviewed 2018 in these first days of 2019, I found the reading of my review and summary of 2017 to be an unexpectedly unsettling experience. The sense of unease began to make itself known when I realized that I could take my report from last year and simply change the date on the top and I’d be all done—voila!  Somehow I had lived through an entire year in the life of the church and nothing had changed.

Did I/we accomplish nothing in an entire year? Did I/we fail to broaden, or deepen, our journey as God’s people?

On the one hand, this may not be such a bad thing. The year could have been full of terror and turmoil (which was my experience beyond the local church, in my relationship with the Maine Conference), and perhaps I should be grateful that it wasn’t. But still, I’m troubled that we seem to be in the exact same spot as we were a year ago—with the same concerns, the same challenges, the same list of good things that we are doing.

When it comes to life in the Church, I expect that we should feel a sense of progress of some sort, a sense of a deepening relationship and/or awareness of God’s presence. In 2018, though, we—as a church—seem to have gone nowhere. As if we are simply treading water.

I can’t escape the feeling that treading water, in the life of a church, is essentially sinking—maybe in slow motion, but sinking nonetheless. The life of faith, individually and collectively, requires motion of some kind—taking risks, trying new things, following what at least feels like the beckoning call of God.

In 2018, we didn’t do that. Instead, I fear that we settled for what feels safe and comfortable. Again, that’s not all bad. After all, the church continued to be especially generous regarding mission. But, in those few moments where I tried to begin a conversation with the governing body regarding some of the issues that are critical—figuring out how a small congregation can continue to maintain two aging buildings (or if it should); how best to utilize our assets and resources, including a large endowment; and, a revision to our mission statement—I couldn’t gain any traction. Instead, we spent the year treading water.

We are beginning to see small clues of what will likely be in the not so distant future a real crisis. Our budget process for 2019 offered significant concerns. While giving remains strong for a church of our size, the number of pledge units is noticeably smaller than it was just five years ago.

Simply treading water, trying to maintain that place of comfort and security, will likely do more harm than good in the long run. To wait for the actual crisis will result in an occasion where we are more likely to rely on panic than the grace of God. I would prefer not to wait for the clanging bell of crisis, especially since we are apt to focus solely on that particular moment of crisis, instead of seeing it as part of a much larger picture.

It’s understandable to want to avoid the unpleasant issues that are so clearly in our midst. None of us ever envisioned being a part of a church facing decline and very likely eventual closure.   But, that is where we must go. We must take to heart the clear words of Jesus: do not fear. Not even death.

We are a people of faith, and our faith requires that we travel to places that are not on our “bucket list.” But, to travel this journey, in faith and in hope, is to learn and experience what it truly means to be God’s people, to be church. We have the opportunity to avoid the panic and instead welcome the grace and courage that Christ so freely offers. It’s more than a life ring tossed out to rescue the drowning person. It’s a lifeline that will feed our spirits and will allow us not only to continue to be church, but to move ever deeper into becoming the church we are called to be.

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When I first started serving as Pastor and Teacher at Old South Church in Hallowell, Maine, it was only a couple of months before Advent. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when it came to Old South’s usual Advent and Christmas observance, but I got a good sense of things when I arrived for worship on the Sunday after Thanksgiving to find the entire sanctuary bedecked for Christmas—greens, wreaths, green and red, etc. Everywhere.

No one had said anything and, of course, no one had consulted me, or asked about what I thought about Christmas decorations at the start of Advent. Just as in lots of other congregational churches like Old South, there was really nothing to ask. Thanksgiving arrives and then it’s Christmastime. Sure, there might be the token nod to Advent with an Advent wreath, but the emphasis is clearly on Christmas. And, somewhere in there, the expectation that Christmas carols will be a part of worship as soon as possible.

Old South was my first call as a senior or sole pastor, but I knew that Advent is sometimes a prickly part of church life. When I served as an associate pastor in Cambridge, MA, one of the area UCC clergy was infamous for his hard-line approach to the season: no Christmas carols until Christmas! Somehow he managed to keep a hold on an all-Advent season before December 24, but there were plenty of unhappy folks from that church who gloomingly shared the tale of the injustice of no Christmas carols before Christmas.

I never felt quite the need to develop such a hard-line approach, and certainly knew that such an approach would likely spell a quick end to my tenure at Old South, but I wasn’t exactly going to let Advent go, mostly, unacknowledged and unobserved.

Over my years at Old South, which are now quite a few, we’ve settled into something of a compromise of sorts. Although I haven’t been able to stem the tide of the festooning of the sanctuary in Christmas garb that still occurs right after Thanksgiving (and has increased over the years), I have been able to maintain a focus on Advent at least through the first two or three Sundays of Advent. Worship is grounded in Advent, in some way or another, and we don’t sing Christmas carols.

I’m not sure I can admit any sort of victory. For the most part, I sense that most of the folks who regularly attend Old South manage to put up with my strange Advent eccentricity only because I’m now not the only one who plans worship. We have a small worship team that meets regularly to talk about worship, and to choose hymns. Team members, it turns out, really like Advent hymns—especially the ones that are found in The New Century hymnal. The words and the minor tone qualities of those Advent hymns provide a comforting antidote to the crush of Merry Christmas everywhere else in their lives.

This year, in addition to the Advent candle-lighting themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love, worship has centered on the women in the genealogy of Jesus (thank you The Junia Project for this idea)—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s Wife (Bathsheba) and Mary. It seems especially appropriate to highlight these women now in light of the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, for these women have much to teach us. Their stories are remarkable and should be known. And, beyond that, these women provide illuminating lessons not only concerning the difficult and oppressive conditions in which women have lived, and continue to live, but also on the ways through which God has made use of and relied on bold and courageous women.   And, in addition to that, these women teach us about the significance of outsiders in the line of which Jesus was part. Woman after woman is clearly defined as an outsider of some kind, an outsider who was welcomed in (more or less) and who became an integral piece of the family puzzle that would produce the Messiah, God’s Promised One.

In the midst of the display of Christmas all around us, worship at Old South is centered on Advent—at least for a few precious weeks. Advent is a crucial time in the life of a community of faith, as we not only prepare for a story that most of us know all too well, but as we seek to open our hearts and minds to the continuing unexpected, mysterious and surprising presence of God in our lives. Advent is not only a season for waiting for the same old Christmas story, and the opportunity to sing our favorite Christmas carols. It’s also a holy and sacred time to consider anew what that babe in the manger means, and how well we are able to follow where he beckons us.

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It was an interesting moment last week to have headlines involving Christian creeds and statements of faith. When’s the last time that happened? And, to witness various media outlets and late night talk show hosts struggle with what exactly a creed is—a prayer, perhaps? A strange, Christian ritual?

The occasion was the funeral for George H. W. Bush. There they all were in the front pew: all of the living former Presidents of the United States, along with their spouses, and the current President and his spouse. At some point in the proceedings, the service included the reciting (or reading, since it was printed in the program) of the Apostles’ Creed, the most ancient of Christian statements of faith.

One could clearly see that all of the former Presidents, and their spouses, read/declared that statement of faith and belief, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . . “

The current President, and his wife, stood silent, the program for the service closed, held down by the President’s lap.

Critics were quick to point this out. The President is clearly popular with evangelical Christians. Shouldn’t this be a big deal for them? How can a President who claims such a kinship with the Christian Right not even make the smallest effort to recite one of Christianity’s oldest and most well known creeds?

Evangelicals were quick to push back, somehow likening the reciting of the creed to singing a hymn—maybe the President doesn’t have a good singing voice? Maybe he’s uncomfortable singing in public? Even though the Creed is not sung. And other evangelical leaders defended the President in other ways, like pointing out that he likely has a lot on his mind.

I cannot, in good conscience, defend the current President, but I don’t recite creeds either and I don’t include them any longer in worship services at Old South. Given the scowl on the President’s face during that moment at the funeral, I don’t think the President shares my creedal concerns. It’s also clear that, though he remains popular with the Christian Right, he seems to have little to no appreciation for the teachings Jesus offered on caring for the widow and orphaned, welcoming the stranger and loving one’s neighbor. I cannot defend him.

Still, at Old South, we no longer include creeds and statements of faith in worship, or in any other church gathering.

When I began serving at Old South in 2005, there was a tradition of reciting a creed or statement of faith on the first Sunday of each month, when we celebrate the sacrament of communion. For a while, I continued this tradition—until I just couldn’t do it any longer.

Old South is made up of a wide range of people, of varying attachments to Christian faith and practice. Creeds are simply no longer the true communal statement they once were. Now, they seem like a sort of test, where we figure out who’s really in, and who’s out.

And, that just doesn’t fit in—in any way, shape or form—to how I feel called to practice church in these times. We are not about tests. We are about invitation and welcome, about gathering together amid our questions and doubts, our occasional assurances, and our sense that we are mysteriously drawn together to be God’s people, whatever that might mean.

This fall, I offered opportunities for the people of Old South to share a brief glimpse into their story, their life of faith, during our weekly Sunday worship. A few weeks ago, a woman got up to tell us a bit about her story. Her parents are both UCC pastors. As a child and youth, she attended church regularly. Yet, it just didn’t speak to her in a meaningful way. She drifted away from church involvement.

When she moved to Hallowell, there was something that inspired her to try church again. She’s been an active member of Old South ever since.

In the story she shared in worship, she declared that she’s not sure what she believes or why she felt motivated to come back to church. But, the welcoming statement of the United Church of Christ, “No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” spoke to her in a deep way. She may not be able to articulate a set of beliefs, but she feels it’s important to be in the midst of a community of faith. She feels drawn in to the mystery of God’s presence and the gathering of God’s people.

And, this is part of what brings powerful meaning to our community. We are not about firm declaration of faith statements, but instead, we gather around something that we can hardly articulate: a sense of finding God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, strangely, yet fervently, compelling. No test for admittance. No prescribed answers to life’s and faith’s most complicated and difficult questions. Instead, we offer welcome and invitation, to walk this journey of life and faith together, and to seek to share the love of God.

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