The Funny Thing About Numbers

A math professor friend of mine likes to joke that real math doesn’t use numbers. The church could use a similar sort of approach. Do real churches need numbers?

Attending a Conference meeting at a church about an hour from where I live, I couldn’t help but notice the large timeline painted on the fellowship hall wall. It was huge, taking up a large, long wall of the room.

The timeline included a lot of important events for the church, like when an addition was built and certain stained glass windows were installed. The timeline also highlighted several numbers—the date for record setting attendance in the Sunday School (1962), along with the number that set the “record,” and the date and number for record attendance at worship services, which happened on Easter Sunday in 1960.

Presumably, the numbers were included in this large display as a way of signaling points of pride for the congregation. Now, perhaps, those numbers serve as an opportunity for the heaving a heavy sigh. Oh, how things have changed. I’m sure all of those “records” now seem wildly out of reach, in a church that is part of the national decline of mainline churches and yet more complicated by the decline in overall population of the area.

What do numbers truly say about a church? What sort of reality do they convey? What, if anything, do numbers tell us about “real” church?

In conversations I’ve had over the years, I’ve heard over and over again the sense that more is not only better, but more suggests “success,” or at least that the church that has more, especially more people, is doing something good or right.

I know how alluring the numbers game can be. I, for one, will admit that I notice that worship at Old South—especially when we are worshiping in our sanctuary—feels noticeably better when there are more people. There’s something about sharing the worship experience with a larger group—singing the hymns with a louder voice, saying the prayers with more people—that makes worship feel somehow something more. More of what, I’m not sure.  Perhaps it’s that it feels more compelling, or meaningful, or affirming, or all of those things. Yet, what do those numbers really mean?

Churches, like so many other human enterprises, can’t seem to help to associate success or failure, goodness or badness, with numbers, even beyond the notion that the “more the merrier.” It’s as if the numbers also indicate something along the lines of relationship with God, as if more people bring more of God’s blessing.

But, there’s nothing scriptural that indicates anything along the lines of God loving the bigger church, or God’s grace falling more on the church with the full parking lot. We are told that Jesus had great compassion for the large group of 5000, and that he fed them, but there’s no indication that Jesus showed any preference for the larger group over the small one.   In fact, there are ways through which the New Testament conveys respect and appreciation for smaller numbers—“for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

At this time of year, we ought to be especially aware of those important smaller numbers. At the crucifixion, only a small group of close followers, all women, chose to stay and watch until the end. And on Easter morning, it was again only a very small group that encountered the risen Christ.

The reality of church is that “real” church isn’t about numbers. Whether a church has many or just a few, church is about relationship with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit. It may be that more people in the sanctuary makes for a more rewarding worship experience, and that more people are helpful to a church’s bottom line, but we ought not be confused about what the numbers mean (or not) and what truly matters in being a church of Jesus Christ.

Real church is focused on sharing the love of Christ. Real church is focused on how it remains true to its mission. Whether there are many or just a few, real church is focused on faithfulness to the Gospel. Real church is not tempted by the notions of this world that more is, of its own accord, better and that more indicates success in the eyes of God.

Do real churches need numbers? Sure, more people are nice to have. But, more doesn’t convey anything about actual faithfulness or ability to be the church of Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

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On Walking Out, Protesting and Making Change

Today, high school students from around the country are planning to walk out of their classrooms at 10:00, in remembrance of the students and staff killed in the Parkland shooting and to demand stricter gun control laws—unless they are having yet another snow day, as is the case where we live (the second in a row; the third in a week).

In my own home, we’ve been talking about this action, mostly because my son goes to a public high school where local students have organized a walkout. We’ve also talked about it as it relates to my position on the local school board. Although information about the walkout has been provided to the board, the board decided not to take any action at all, in favor or opposed, since the matter was being handled well by administrators.

I’ve also found myself discussing the walkout around town, when I’ve met with friends and acquaintances. It’s interesting to note those adults who are eager to protest themselves. How they wish they could walk out too, and do something—and, for many of them, relive the protests of their youth and young adulthood.

I find myself reflecting on this issue in a variety of ways. I’m all in favor of students walking out of class today—as long as it’s voluntary and the protest is organized by students and not adults or teachers—in order to try to make clear their distress and their demands related to school shootings.   I’m in favor of such actions because most of those students don’t have any other way of raising their concerns in a meaningful way.   Most of them cannot vote, and they have no power over those who make the rules and laws.

For adults, I think action should be less about walkout and more about sustained action. While I’m not opposed to protest (I occasionally participate in them myself), I’m discouraged when the protests of adults don’t lead to anything beyond the act of protest—as if adults somehow fool themselves into thinking that all they need to do is protest. How surprised they are when no response of consequence immediately takes place and then they slip back into their normal lives.

My approach to such matters, and my consternation at those who think their occasional organized protests should do the trick to set the world aright, has a lot to do with a very particular day when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.

During my last year, there was some organized complaining around the University about the lack of diversity among the faculty. Students from the various schools at Harvard decided to stage a walkout.

The walkout just happened to take place during my once per week seminar—with the Dean. Should I participate in the walkout? Or not?

After a fair amount of internal debate, I went to class. And, much of that class turned out to be an amazing learning experience that has stayed with me.

The Dean was annoyed at the protest. He shared with us his frustration at the simplistic and unproductive walkout. Didn’t students understand that the lack of diversity among faculty wasn’t a simple matter of just hiring people? Didn’t students understand that diverse professors and teachers were offered jobs on a regular basis, but turned those offers down because they didn’t want to move to the Boston area, where racial difficulties were well known? Didn’t those students also know how hard it was to diversify a faculty when the number of minority Ph.D. candidates was low and that, in turn, had much to do with the paucity of opportunities for minorities, especially when so many were stuck attending poor, ill-equipped, urban public schools? And so on. If you want to make a difference, he challenged us, go teach in a poor, urban public school and actually make a difference in lives of real people. If you want to make a difference, find ways of easing racial conflict and division.

Harvard students, he clearly laid out to us, were smart enough to understand the complexities of the problems of the world and to do their part in making changes, instead of expecting changes to be made only by others.

That message attached itself somewhere in my brain, and it has stayed there.

While I didn’t go on to teach in a poor, urban public school, I have set out to participate in community and to be an active person in making a difference.

I don’t just attend protests. I get involved in the doing, bit by little bit. It can be frustrating, to be sure, but it’s how change happens.

Today, school children will walk out of class for 17 minutes, to remember and to raise their voices. I hope it’s just the beginning of their work, work that must be done to make our schools and our communities safer.

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Our Children Are Not the Enemy

My 18-year-old son is a senior in high school. On the day after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as my son gathered his things to head to school, I went to give him a hug good-bye. He tensed and put his hand up to stop me, as he has been doing over the last few months whenever I go to touch him—a normal thing, I think, for your average 18-year-old. But, I told him that I needed to hug him and asked if he would let me. I just couldn’t let him go without touching him, after what had happened at that high school in Florida the day before. He let me give him a brief hug.

Another senseless, horrific shooting at an American school. I’d like to think the shooting was also “unimaginable,” but that’s no longer true.

I just couldn’t get it out of my head. How many of those young people had left home that Wednesday morning—Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday—refusing a hug or a kiss from their mother, because, well, that’s what teenagers do? How many of those who died that day had been their normal, teenage selves that morning and had left home without a hug or a kiss from a parent?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I have before, after a school shooting. How can it be that we continue to allow such violence to take place? How can it be that nothing has changed, no meaningful, substantial alterations have taken place in how we live together, in how we deal with gun access and ownership, in the United States? How can it be that another mass shooting has taken place, in a school, and that those in power to change such things have not thought of their own, precious children and have been moved to action at the thought of sending their own child off on a normal day—not to war, not to chaos, not into some violent place—but to school and to know that school is no longer the safe place it ought to be?

These are our children—young, with their lives in front of them, brimming with potential—whose lives have been cut short because we somehow can’t get our act together and to eliminate, or reduce, access to assault rifles to the general public, or at least to young people.

In this mortal, imperfect life, many children die during childhood, sometimes through violent means. But, the mass shootings in American schools seem to me to be just the thing that should call us all to figure something out to eradicate, or at least severely limit, such events.

As many have noted, if these young gunmen were named Mohammed, we would likely do something about it. But, they are white, young, American men. Although some have offered clues and “red flags,” this seems a flimsy path to meaningful action.

It’s the manner and method of their violence that ought to be the focus: assault weapons.   Assault rifles are military weapons and their purpose is to kill quickly and efficiently. Why does any civilian need such a weapon?

Living in Maine for the last twenty years, I’ve gained an appreciation for firearms. Although I don’t own one myself and have never used one, I know hunters—lots of them. I’ve also met plenty of people who live in places where there is no local police department and where the rare possibility of harm compels them to own and keep a weapon at home. There are lots of remote places in this corner of the country, places that are beautiful and peaceful but are not completely free from threat or danger.

But, no civilian needs an assault rifle—to hunt in the woods or to protect themselves at home.

Given that these are the weapons of choice for those who walk into schools bent not just on killing, but on killing on a massive scale, it seems logical to work on how to limit access to such weapons.

Yet, shooting after shooting, child after child gunned down, nothing happens, except empty talk of thoughts and prayers.

This time, the aftermath seems more forceful than it’s been for a while, and I am truly grateful for that. But, I’m also wary. I don’t want to get my hopes up that maybe something will happen this time only to discover that nothing happens—yet again.

I’m grateful that my son will graduate in a few months. But, I hope I never let go of that feeling I had on the morning of February 15, when I had to hug him before he left for school, that feeling that I was sending him off to a place that may not be the safe place it should be. While we cannot make our schools completely safe, schools should never be the hunting ground for shooters armed with military weapons. Our children are not the enemy.

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To Give Up or Take Up?

I’ve always had a rather awkward relationship with Lent. I remember when I was in high school, the season of Lent had an almost athletic contest vibe to it. My youth group friends and I would usually decide to give up something that would be challenging, and then see how each of us would do. We didn’t exactly intentionally try to trip each other up, but there was definitely an edge of competition about the whole thing.

When I was a senior in high school, I decided to take on something that would be especially challenging for me by giving up chocolate. I knew that it would be a difficult, painful slog to abstain from chocolate (the greatest substance in the world) from Ash Wednesday to Easter. And that I probably wouldn’t make it.   It’s hard enough to go a day . . .  Yet, I took it on, likely with a few thoughts of the glory I would feel if I did make it through the season.

That year, as it happens every year, my birthday was not far from the start of Lent. On the Sunday closest to my birthday, my parents would typically arrange to have a little birthday celebration during a youth group meeting, since that’s where all of my friends were. The cake that they delivered to the church that year was of course chocolate, as it normally was (my parents never paid much attention to whatever I decided to give up for Lent and they clearly hadn’t that year).

I stared at the cake for a long moment. Although we were only a week or two into Lent, I had been faithful to my Lenten discipline. I had not consumed any chocolate. But, it was my birthday and my birthday cake. Internally, I was torn. My friends, who were also in the midst of their own Lenten challenges knew very well what I was facing. To eat or not to eat? To give in or to maintain the fast?

Then, the Roman Catholic kid who was part of our youth group, by virtue of his girlfriend being a part of our group, chimed in: “Sundays don’t count!” In fact, Sundays are not part of the 40 days of fasting. Leave it to the Catholic in the group to know the details.

I could have my cake and my fast as well.

So, I ate a piece of that cake, but experience left me with an odd feeling that has stayed with me ever since. How did any of what I was doing in that particular Lenten fast, or in any of the others that preceded it, help draw me closer to Christ?

As an adult, I rarely give anything up anymore. But, I feel drawn to do something. In recent years, I’ve tried taking something up instead. This year, I’ve decided to keep a gratitude journal—each day reflecting on something about which I’m grateful. I got the idea a few years ago, from a writing workshop colleague. I remember her talking about her gratitude journal and thinking to myself that keeping such a thing over a period of time would be difficult—perhaps even very difficult—for me. But, the idea stuck itself to a piece of my brain. This year, I’ll give it a try.

The season of Lent is connected to the withdrawal of Jesus into the desert for 40 days. Not only did Jesus fast during that time, but he wrestled with the “devil” or “the tempter.”

Lent ought not only be a time to “give up,” but to endeavor to connect in a new way, and to face those temptations that keep us from Christ. The season should not be akin to a game or athletic contest, nor about how much we can deprive ourselves, as if that’s the only want to please God. Instead, Lent offers an opportunity to reflect and to act, to ponder and to engage, not only with the deprivations that Jesus himself experienced, but with the temptations with which he wrestled—temptations of power, authority and wealth. For those are very important temptations indeed.

Whether we give up or take up, the season of Lent is a holy time to delve into what it means for us to be faithful people—people who wish to walk the road following Jesus. As we know very well, the road is difficult and will bring us places we would rather not go. But, it is also the road that leads to love, hope and new life.

Lent is a special time, a time of invitation to a mysterious holiness. We should not be so focused on our own willpower, or lack thereof, or whether or not we can be better than another in sacrificing, that we miss the beckoning of Christ, whose hand is held out in welcome to us, that we may be drawn closer and to find in that closeness strength and wholeness for the journey of faith and of life.

 

 

 

 

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The Heisman Approach to Christian Theology

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, there was a saying that became part of the language of my group of friends: “the Heisman.” You may be familiar with the Heisman Trophy, awarded each year to the most outstanding college athlete in the United States. Among my friends, the use of the phrase “The Heisman” had nothing to do with football. It had to do with what the trophy looks like, in that it looks like the figure is pushing away from someone or something:

heisman_trophy

In my group of friends, “The Heisman” was how we referred to a romantic connection gone bad, as in:  Did your girlfriend give you The Heisman? which meant, Did your girlfriend break up with you?

And, sometimes asking the question involved actually assuming the Heisman stance.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about this sort of “Heisman” stance in relationship to Christian theology. At Old South, I’ve long been aware of at least some discomfort in relationship to certain traditional aspects of Christian theology—incarnation; atonement; the promise of eternal life; resurrection; etc. I’ll even admit that I share an attitude of distance toward certain pieces of traditional Christian theology—like Original Sin. I really don’t like that one, for a whole bunch of reasons.

I’m also becoming increasingly aware of the Heisman approach to Christian theology well beyond my little congregation.

At a recent gathering of United Church of Christ clergy, as well as a few lay people, one of the younger people in our midst, a graduate of a respected divinity school, suggested that the theology he had learned was really not at all part of the work that he did, work that he claims to be inherently ministerial (in a chaplain-type setting). The theology that he had learned remained in books lined up on a dusty shelf in his office.

In response to this, I asked him if he really left that theology on the shelf. Is it really not in any way part of the work that you do? I asked. His answer was that it is indeed not any part of the work that he does.  No matter, though, for the rest of my clergy colleagues.  They approved him for ordination.

When I shared a concern about this exchange at another gathering, attended mostly by other United Church of Christ clergy, the only response I got was a couple of shoulder shrugs.

And at yet another meeting, this one involving the Maine Conference UCC summer camp, the out-going camp director reflected on his long tenure at the camp. When he began, all he had to do to entice people to attend camp was to put a photo prominently on the brochure of the camp’s outdoor chapel cross with a sunset in the background. The cross, though, is now a liability. It not only doesn’t entice people as it once did, it repels them.  He, at least, expressed sadness at the change he has witnessed.

There’s certainly plenty of reason for people to be suspicious when it comes to Christian groups and denominations. The other day, I came home to find my 18-year-old son watching the film Spotlight, the Oscar winning film about The Boston Globe team that uncovered the vast conspiracy in the Roman Catholic Church to shield priests who had sexually abused children.   It’s just one profoundly sobering example of how very un-Christian Christians can be.

Still, for those of us who remain within the Church, trying to live in the midst of and endeavoring to live out of what we find to be good about Christianity, I find it unsettling to think that so many seem prepared to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” giving much of Christian theology “the Heisman.”

 

I can’t say that I’m often an eager theologian.  And, while I don’t usually quote important theologians in my sermons, I can’t imagine doing this work without the theology.  After all, how can we even engage with our sacred texts without the theological lens?  The Gospel writers, for instance, weren’t historians or biographers.  They were really theologians, telling a story about Jesus the Christ, who and why he was and is.

What are we, who are we, without the theology, without an interest in active engagement with the study of God and God’s relationship with us and creation?  I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s what I want to be, or where I want to go.  It’s one thing to grapple with traditional elements of Christian theology, considering and re-considering their meaning in a modern context.  It’s quite another to heave it all out the window, pushing it far away.

The Heisman approach to Christian theology may seem and feel a lot more comfortable and palatable to some, but it leaves us unmoored and drifting from the very thing that gives us life and sustains our faith in a deep and abiding way.   To heave our theology also diminishes the love and hope we claim to want to share.

 

 

 

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Where the Epiphanies Have No Name

miscellaneous-religion-epiphany-insights-bright_idea-insight-bven419_low.jpg

At the start of Epiphany season this year, I innocently asked (at least I thought it was an innocent question) for those who had assembled for worship that Sunday to think about epiphanies that they had experienced. The empty looks on the faces staring back at me caught me off guard. I told them that I wasn’t expecting anyone to share their epiphanies, unless they wanted to, but just curious about their experiences. Still, a sea of blank faces.

So, when I reframed the question, I asked if anyone had ever had an epiphany.

Only one woman raised her hand.

She went on to share a lovely experience of a sudden awareness of God as Creator.  Even that, didn’t inspire any additional raising of hands.

I was at a loss, not only at the unexpected notion that I was part of a congregation full of people who had never experienced something that they could classify as an epiphany, but also because my interactive sermon that day got, in that moment, a lot more complicated. I was planning on talking about epiphanies, in a group of people where most of the people knew what I was talking about.

I’ve been Pastor and Teacher at Old South for over a dozen years. How could I not know that the people of this congregation—except for one—had never had an epiphany? I couldn’t help the sudden flood of conversations that I’ve had with people over the years regarding epiphanies. But, as the flood became clearer, with each individual taking shape in my memory, it occurred to me that many of those conversations were old ones, that predated my call to Old South, and except for one or two, were among other clergy types or people about my age or younger.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about this and wondering. What does it mean to be in the midst of so many good and well-meaning church folk, but people who are not able to define a moment of epiphany?

For Christians, there is the big E Epiphany, on January 6, when we remember the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, marking their realization of the Incarnation of God, and there are the little “e” epiphanies, moments of sudden, and unexpected, insight and awareness—spiritual “aha” moments, if you will.

When I asked my little congregation about their own experiences of such moments, I wasn’t at all expecting to encounter blankness. I had simply assumed, based on conversations that I’ve had over the years, that almost everyone who attends church on a regular basis has had some sort of epiphany, that it’s the random epiphany or two in life that compels continued participation in a community of faith.

I’m not sure now what to do with this new knowledge—it’s own strange, unwelcome sort of epiphany. There is the hopeful side of me that wants to believe that it’s not so much the absence of the experience of epiphany, but simply that it’s never been called such a thing. But, then there’s the not so hopeful side that wonders about the actual lack of epiphanies, whether they are called such things or not.

This isn’t really the first of these sorts of moments, when I’m confronted by the sense that for most of those who call Old South home, the life of faith is not defined, nor informed, nor dependent on spiritual “aha” moments, when one is blessed with that sudden, wondrous, awareness in one’s soul.  Instead, for the good church folk who gather at Old South, the life of faith is about gathering among a certain group of people in a certain building in the midst of a certain routine of worship, tradition and the liturgical year.  Faith is not so much about  that resonating “still small voice” (or occasional yell), but about habit and routine, friendships and community.

 

This isn’t to say that one way is good and the other bad, or that one way is correct and the other incorrect.  Instead, it is another witness of the changing shape of life and faith.  The congregation that I lead is essentially an active, practicing community of what was, of what church used to be.

They are not a community of what will be.

In this, some sadness exists, that even some of the language that I speak is not a common language in my congregation.  Yet, I’m also aware of how important it is to not only meet them where they are, but respect them for who and what they are.  The ways of Old South may no longer be what a great many people want (or think they want), but for those who gather in community at Old South, they endeavor to live their faith, actively and fervently.  They are church and a people of faith, a witness to the love of God and the hope of making the world a better place through the sharing of that love.

 

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The Common Good

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16(NRSV)

Last week, as I was preparing my communion Sunday homily, I stumbled upon a column in the New York Times written by David Brooks, “How Would Jesus Drive?” Brooks began that column with this paragraph:

Over the past several years we have done an outstanding job of putting total sleazoids at the top of our society: Trump, Bannon, Ailes, Weinstein, Cosby, etc. So it was good to get a reminder, from Pope Francis in his New Year’s Eve homily, that the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly. The pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, “the artisans of the common good.”

I agree with Brooks on the Pope’s phrase being a beautiful one. And useful.

Although I mostly take for granted the ways of my little congregation in Hallowell, Maine, it’s a good thing, from time to time, to step back and take a different sort of look at what we do, just being who we are. In our gathering, we don’t need to say much about being attentive to the common good. It’s something that we do. Sure, there’s always room for improvement, but we are artisans of the common good—and not just in terms of our gestures of kindness.

Old South may be an older church and predominantly white, but in one area we are not homogenous: politics. We are a mixed bag in terms of how we vote, and why. We have Democrats and Republicans. We also have people who are rather stridently Independent. And, we likely have a few Libertarians. And, perhaps still more of which I am unaware.

We don’t exactly have regular political debates, but most people who attend Old South know that not everyone in the congregation votes the same way. Occasionally, someone will express a bit of consternation that we cannot speak clearly as one voice in matters of a political nature. But, the folks who make up the Old South community generally find it a more significant value to be respectful of our political diversity. We remain a mixed group, yet one that is able to worship and work together. An increasingly rare thing.

For myself, I’m a Democrat, married to a Republican. Years ago, this wasn’t such a big deal, but now I get the sense that it’s not only a bigger deal, but even alarming to some people. My daughter, a junior at a college in New York, has told me that she has learned to be careful about letting people know that she comes from a politically mixed family. Some friends have not only expressed some surprise at her upbringing in such a household, but a sense of disbelief (and even outrage) that such a thing is even possible.

In so many aspects of our public life, people now gather only with those with whom they agree. At Old South, what we do, and who we are, is increasingly rare. In this way, it is even more important that we don’t just keep our “lamp under a bushel basket,” only for ourselves.  We are artisans of the common good, attentive to what lies beyond our differences: our common humanity.

We are called to cast our artisan ways out and beyond, with a sort of stealthy, reckless abandon, furtively interrupting the efforts to keep people apart, and mistrustful of those who are different.  May our artisan light so shine, that it may offer light and hope to others.

 

 

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