A Not So Good Good Friday

We are well into our “stay at home” order that Maine’s Governor put into place April 2nd.  At Old South, we have been holding worship services, meetings and other gatherings online.  This new format isn’t perfect, but it has offered an opportunity to try some new things, like daily Holy Week “gatherings” (up until today—more on that in a bit).  We’ve also been able to welcome new people, from near and far, to our online worship.

Now, we are at Good Friday, a day on the liturgical calendar that holds special meaning for me, as we usually sing one of my most favorite hymns, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.  Today, I’m not only stuck at home, but forced to postpone our online noon service until tomorrow, and even then may have to cancel it.

Last night, it snowed.  And snowed.  Wet, heavy, large flakes of snow.  And then the wind picked up.  By midnight, the electricity had gone out.   I could tell when the noise of the generator woke me up.  In the morning, I discovered that we had also lost internet access.  Who knows when we’ll get the power and internet back.  (Thankfully, my phone’s hotspot setting allows me to check email and post to this blog.)

Any hope I might have had to take my all-wheel drive vehicle to try to get to the church’s parish house to do today’s service from there (where there is power and internet) vanished when my husband:  a. went off the road when he tried to leave (we live at the end of a long, dirt private road), and, b. when he then discovered that a large tree had fallen across the road (and the earliest it can be removed is tomorrow).

Now, not only am I under a “stay at home” order, but I’m really stuck at home.  And, I can’t do anything that will allow me to connect to what always feels especially holy about Good Friday.  It’s not just about one of my favorite hymns, or the painful, difficult story.  There’s also something significant about spending time in a church sanctuary for part of this day.  When I knew that I couldn’t be in Old South’s sanctuary for today’s service, I heaved a heavy sigh, but then thought, well, at least I wouldn’t need to be without my community, even as small as it usually is for a Good Friday service.

It’s not that at home devotionals are without some sense of holiness, but it’s not nearly the same.  Without church, in terms of building or people, today feels rather barren and even more distant than social distancing.

Years ago, when I was a divinity school student, I attended the annual Good Friday three-hour service at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, Noon – 3:00.  The first time I contemplated going to that service, I remember worrying about being able to sit in a church pew for so long.  And, then discovered that I wasn’t really ready to leave when the service was over.  While we don’t have such a long service at Old South, I still remember that feeling of being in that sanctuary and not quite ready to leave and to return to normal life outside.  That memory comes back each year during the Good Friday service.

While I certainly have that feeling of being away from the life “outside,” stuck inside as I am, there is a definite disconnect in the experience.  I’d rather not feel like the disciples who huddled up in fear behind a locked door, thinking that they might be next.

This year is a whole new experience of Good Friday, and I’m not sure if I’ll look back on this experience and come to realize that maybe it was, if not a good experience, at least worthwhile.  I’ll hope, at least, that next year, when this current circumstance is a distant memory (for surely it will be by then?), that I won’t take anything for granted.

What language shall I borrow, to thank Thee dearest friend,                                          For this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?                                                                    O make me thine forever, and should I fainting be,                                                             O let me never, never, outlive my love to Thee.                                                                   (O Sacred Head, verse 3)

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Reflections on Hosanna

Homily for April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday                                                                                      Mark 11:1-11

They shouted Hosanna.  Over and over again, as the procession made its way into the city.  “Hosanna!  Hosanna!”  The crowd shouted and cheered.  And, some laid down cloaks and others branches to heighten the festive air.

“Hosanna!” they shouted and cried out.  Hosanna!

Have you ever wondered—ever looked up—what that word means?  Hosanna?

It means “save us.”

Save us.  How appropriate.  And, not just in the first century.

How appropriate for this moment, this time.

Save us:  Those who are lonely, feeling much too isolated.

Save us:   Those who are wishing that they could feel a bit more isolated, with a house full of people who aren’t usually there—at least not all the time.

Save us:   Those who are consumed with worry—worried about the simplest of tasks, like getting groceries or some milk from the convenience store.

Save us:   Those who are worried about family far away, and there’s no way to get there, except maybe online.

Save us:   Those who thought they knew the plan for the spring—things to do, a new job, a trip.  And now all of those plans are in the midst of the great unknown.

Save us.  Hosanna.  Save us.  We may not be lining the streets, shouting out or lining the rode with coats and tree branches, but we may be lifting up this cry silently in our own prayers many times throughout each day.

Who among us doesn’t yearn for saving, for deliverance, from this strange, unfamiliar and difficult time?  Who among us hasn’t yearned to be freed, to be brought safely through to the other side, that life may get back to its simple normal once again?

Here we find a deep and abiding tie to our ancient brethren, those who gathered along the streets of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday in the first century.  They too were seeking not simply a saving grace, a sense of blessing, but a literal saving—from the oppression of Rome, from religious leaders who worked in concert with the Romans.   They too sought and yearned for deliverance.  Hosanna, they shouted.  Save us.

Waving branches and setting down cloaks, with shouts of Hosanna.  Save us.

Yet, within a few days, that same crowd had changed their mind.  Their shouts of Hosanna altered to a viscous “Crucify Him!”

How could that be?  How could such a dramatic change happen in such a short time, from cries of “Save Us” to “Crucify Him”?

When they shouted “Hosanna” on that very first Palm Sunday, it turns out that it really was a sort of demand, with a lot attached to it.  “Save Us” was not some simple slogan, with an implied “please.”  It was a mandate, an expectation.  And one that didn’t have a lot of time attached to it, or much a variance from what they wanted—and at that moment.

Deliverance.  Now.  Big and decisive.  Now.  Romans gone.  Religious leaders doing the work of God and not in concert with the ruling Romans.  Now.  Save us.  Now.

The clues that the demands and expectations they had were not going to be met in the way that THEY wanted were clear enough right from the start.  This so-called Savior riding in on a humble beast, not a weapon or army in sight.  No chariot, no jewels, no trappings of royalty, no arms or armor, no soldiers in front nor behind.

This, so clearly, not the Savior they expected or wanted.  Not any number of Hosannas or branches waved or cloaks laid out was going to change that.

The question for today, the question as we begin our journey into Holy Week:  do we fall into that same trap?  Or, perhaps the question may more rightly be:  how many times have we fallen into that same sort of trap?

Deliver me.  Deliver us.  Save me.  Save us.  In the way that I want.  In the way that I need.  Or, I’ll turn away.

Like those who lined the streets on that first Palm Sunday, do we yearn for that sort of Savior who will swoop in, destroy our enemies, and give us want we want in the way that we want it?

Hosanna.  Save us.

What sort of yearnings do we have, as individuals and as a church?  What desires of God do we hold in our heart?

Do we welcome the Savior that we want or the Savior that Christ actually is?

Jesus doesn’t provide easy answers or a simple and decisive victory over our enemies.  Instead, he presents himself fully as the humble servant.  Where is strength?  It’s in weakness.  Where is your hope?  It’s in looking for a new way, a different way—not in violence, not in vengeance.

Here is your Savior, but he isn’t going to save you, or us, in the manner that we would like or prefer.

Today, on this Palm Sunday, in this strangest of times, at the start of this holiest of weeks, we take a moment to consider what sort of Savior we are looking for, what sort of Savior we want.  We have an opportunity to reflect for a moment on the sort of Jesus we are looking for, yearning for.  It’s best to begin this week not in the same place we began last year’s holy week, or the year before.  Here’s a new week, in a decidedly new time.

So take a moment and think about the sort of Savior you are looking for.  You don’t need to tell anyone else about it.  But, take a moment.  And, by taking that moment, we begin this holiest of weeks with an honest reckoning of where we are and who we are, that through this week, we may learn a little more about ourselves, and about who and what this Jesus was and is, and what it all means to us, and to Christ.

Will we be among those who shout Hosanna one day and then Crucify a few days later?  Or, will we be among those who walked quietly but determinedly with Jesus along the way, there when he was crucified and then there to discover the empty tomb of Easter morning?  Will we be among those who turned against him because he didn’t fulfill their expectations, or will we be among those who pushed those expectations aside and, therefore, discovered what saving is really all about?

I look forward to the journey of Holy Week with you, this year, this week.  Each day (except for Saturday), we’ll have an opportunity to spend a few moments together, to listen to the stories of this week, to reflect on our own faith, and our own expectations of Jesus, with the hope that, by doing so, we may discover something new and wonderful, something meaningful and marvelous.   Welcome to Holy Week.

 

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Not Counting Pets (or puppets)

And those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.        Matthew 14:21

Old South has now held two online worship services, one on March 22 and the other this past Sunday, March 29.  I’ll admit that I was very nervous about moving our worship experience online, especially as I thought about who might attend, and who likely would not.  My guess for attendance for that first Sunday was around twelve.  While twelve is a nice biblical number and certainly above the quorum set by Jesus himself (wherever two or three are gathered in my name . . . ), it would not have been a very good number at Old South.  We are a small church, to be sure, but not that small.  But, we are an older church with several people who don’t even own computers and others who are not particularly amenable to learning new ways of using their computers.

Our online worship experience, though, has been quite the surprise.  For the first service, we had about 28.  This past Sunday, we had about 40.  Not including pets, or puppets (this past Sunday, one person, who had noticed the presence of pets the previous Sunday, brought a puppet, in the absence of any live animals in his household).  And there were definitely a few pets, like Tad the cat who doesn’t like his owner talking to anyone but him.

I am certainly heartened by this.  And hearing people check in with each other, seeking continued connection as the Body of Christ, before and after the service is both comforting and a little bit exciting.

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Along with my tech guy (my husband) and my feedback crew at home (my young adult children who are not shy about offering “constructive feedback”), we are learning a lot (and quickly), about how to make this experience work with our platform of choice, Zoom.  We’ve been learning about lighting and what I should be wearing (and not wearing– like black clothing).  We’ve been learning about what the right length of an online service should be, and how to include music (a tricky, but important, part of our worship experience).

It’s fascinating to be in the midst of this radical change to how we are church.  And while I’m relieved of much of that initial nervousness, I find that I must, in a conscientious way, keep my feelings of utter disconcertedness at bay– for those feelings are still very much present.  I don’t like doing worship this new way.  I miss the congregation being right in front of me.  I miss the back-and-forth of our usual worship, the familiarity between preacher and parish.  But, I must put those unsettled feelings aside and move bravely forward.

It has occurred to me, over and over again over the past couple of weeks, that there are significant opportunities here, especially for spiritual growth.  And, it’s my job, whether I feel like it or not, to explore those opportunities and to find ways of laying out pathways for connection– to each other and to Christ.

Many need, in these strange and difficult days, spiritual feeding.  Those who consider Old South their church home need to know the reality of care, grace, blessing, hope and love.  It’s my job, my calling, to do what I can to provide that, to seek ways of linking these people with Christ, to help them open up to the spiritual food that Christ offers.  Even as I struggle to ascend the steep learning curve of online worship (as well as other ways of gathering online), I know that I must.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so keenly my role as pastor, of shepherd to the good people of the congregation I serve, and beyond.

And, I trust that I will be shown the way.

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It’s Time to Self-Isolate . . . from the New York Times

Like a lot of people, my usual morning follows a routine.  First, coffee. Second, make toast.  Third, drink coffee.  Fourth, say good morning to others who may be in the kitchen at the same time.  Fifth, open computer, review the headlines and visit the puzzle page of The New York Times.  Sixth, scan Boston.com (I’ve lived in Maine for almost twenty-five years, but I can’t quite shake that connection to Boston).  And, then, finally, I’m usually ready to settle down and read below the headlines in the New York Times.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it may be time to limit my attachment to the New York Times.  While it’s been the primary source to gather news and perspective, in regard to the U.S. and the world, I’ve become seriously annoyed at its coverage of the latest crisis.  Here are just a few recent headlines that have grabbed my attention:  “The Epic Failure of Testing in America”; “Stop Saying That Everything is Under Control.  It Isn’t.”; “Can’t Get Tested?  Maybe You’re in the Wrong Country”; “A New York Doctor’s Coronavirus Warning:  The Sky Is Falling”; “U.S. Is Plunged Into Deeper Disruption and Paralysis”; “The World We Once Lived In Has Vanished.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic is certainly very, very serious.  The news coverage, though, in the New York Times is aggressively disconcerting and unsettling.  Everything seems poised to draw me into panic, rather than offer information and balanced perspective  It feels like the headlines have been ramped up, to become something more akin to “click bait” on much less reputable sites.

As a clergyperson, I think it’s especially important to refrain from panic and to maintain, instead, the mantra that Jesus so often spoke:  “Fear not.”  How many times did Jesus utter such words?  I don’t know.  But, it was a lot.

In the first century, there was plenty to fear.  There was plenty to fear among those who gathered with Jesus as well as among those who gathered long after the crucifixion, in the communities that organized throughout the latter half of the first century (when the Gospel accounts were written).  The words “fear not” or “do not fear” were likely significant touchstones for those who actually knew Jesus when he was walking around, as well as for those who gathered in his name, in the early days of the church.

Do not fear.  Fear not.  These are the words to which we must cling, whether or not we find ourselves in the midst of crisis and/or a global pandemic.

This doesn’t at all mean that we should act recklessly, ignoring the advice of experts and public health officials.  But, it does mean that we resist panic, and we recognize that we may need to do so in a conscientious way.

Therefore, it’s time to practice a little social distancing when it comes to the Times.

Take a breath.  Remember who you are and to whom you belong.   And, speak again and again the words of Jesus.  They are just as important and just as vital as they were in the first century:  Fear not.

And, share your witness of hope and love, of not fearing in the midst of crisis, with everyone you can.

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Can This Old Dog Learn New Tricks?

Ministry in the Age of COVID-19

My twenty-year-old son blames his twenty-three-year-old sister for everything that is happening in the world, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  For Christmas, Margaret gave her brother a t-shirt from Venice, Italy (where she had lived in the fall).  It was a shirt that she had purchased at the 2019 Venice Biennale, with the theme blazoned on the front, “May You Live in Interesting Times.”  Here’s a photo of the theme, juxtaposed with a damaged vaporetto during November’s acqua alta:

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These are indeed interesting times.

I could use a little less interesting, actually.

Since there’s not any choice about it, we have in the midst of this crisis, opportunity (of course).  The question is, for an old, traditional, mainline church like the one I serve:  what sort of community can we be, will we be, in the midst of this new, ever changing and rapidly evolving (and scary) landscape in which we now find ourselves?

And, the even bigger question is this:  how well will I/we adapt?  How well will I be able to deliver meaningful guidance, leadership, and general faith connection, when I have I have to learn a whole bunch of new things?

Ministry in this new environment is no small thing.  For those of us in small, older churches, where there are still people who don’t even have email, let alone a decent computer or a smart phone, it’s simply overwhelming to begin to consider how in the world we are going to offer anything reasonable in terms of worship, meetings and gatherings for our church community.

Sure, I can try to learn how to provide online content.  I’ve subscribed to Zoom and I’ve created a YouTube channel.  I’ll start to update our webpage later today, and start working with the Music Director on what we can do about providing something that resembles worship for Sunday mornings for at least the next few weeks– for those who can access content online.

Can this old dog learn some new tricks?  And, even more than that: can I learn to deliver content effectively?

While there are some things that I think I can do without venturing too far from my comfort zone, I can’t help but worry about my ability to deliver good content.  Let’s take sermons, for one thing.  I know that I rely heavily on the in-person experience of delivering a sermon.  If those in the sanctuary start fidgeting early on, I know I need to just get to the point already. Or, if the sanctuary gets amazingly quiet, and I know that those present are all completely focused on what is coming out of my mouth, I may slow down, alter my voice, and extend for a bit, or simply provide a moment to take in that holy moment of quiet convergence, as if we can actually feel the Spirit tiptoeing through the sanctuary, drawing us in.

I rely a lot on the in-person dynamics of gathering, reading body language and facial expressions, and listening to comments and other sorts of utterances.  I’ve been at Old South a long time.  There’s an intimacy that’s been created over my many years with this congregation.  An intimacy that, as I reflect on it, makes me very nervous about our new life as a primarily online community– even if this time is relatively short-lived.

It’s not so much about the “tricks” of our twenty-first century world.  I use email and other social media platforms.  I can create online meetings, as well as worship.  But, will I be able to provide something meaningful and worthy in this very new way of being?  Will I ever feel the tiptoe of the Holy Spirit when we gather over Zoom?

I’ll admit my doubts.  But, I also need to admit that I know I must trust, trust that the Spirit will continue to make her/himself known.  When only two or three of us are gathered in Christ’s name, surely Christ is there as well.  Even through Zoom?

These are interesting times, that’s for sure.  But, may they be not only interesting, but holy and faithful.

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A Sad Day

When I was a younger woman, I felt confident that at some point during my lifetime, the United States would elect a president who happened to be a woman—or perhaps because she was a woman (women generally possessing many excellent qualities lacking in the average man).  Now that I’m well into my fifties, I’m starting to seriously doubt that confidence that I felt so long ago.  In fact, I’m feeling quite the opposite—that I won’t see a woman president in the course of my lifetime.

After the 2016 election, I became sure of a deep and abiding sexism that simply is part of the fabric of American life, so ingrained and integrated that we don’t really even notice or acknowledge it.  I know lots of people felt that Hillary Clinton had “issues” (she wasn’t exactly my first choice for president either), but were those issues really so much worse than Donald Trump’s????

And, now four years later, it’s clear that no woman will be elected as president in November.  As I perused some of my favorite online news spots this morning, I clicked on the “What We Learned from Elizabeth Warren’s Third Place Finish in Massachusetts” on Boston.com.  I really didn’t need to read the piece.  I knew what it would say—that Elizabeth Warren did well only among the most educated white women, especially those in the nicer suburbs of Cambridge, despite being one of the senators from Massachusetts.

Sure, Elizabeth Warren has her “issues,” and her wonkiness turned off a lot of people, but are her “issues” worse than those attached to Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders?  Really??

This is really so overwhelmingly depressing for me.  But, why am I writing about it here, in this blog on faith?

I have felt for a long time that Christianity has a lot to do with the ingrained and integrated nature of sexism in this country, and other countries as well.  Even with the decline of Christianity, its influence is still very much present.  The two largest Christian denominations in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center, are Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention and they have held onto that status for quite some time, despite their declining numbers.

Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention are denominations that do not allow the ordination of women.  Most Christians, then, who attend worship regularly attend churches where women are kept from leadership.  According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2015, only 11% of congregations in the U.S. had women as leaders.

This is an outrage.

And it’s not Biblical.

Jesus spent a great deal of time in the company of women, offering a place of significance to several of those women with whom he was especially close.  In fact, without the witness of the women on that first Easter morning, we might not have Christianity at all.  Mary of Magdala was the first to announce the good news of the resurrection.

That Christianity continues its sexist ways is a huge problem—and not just for the Church.  For everyone’s benefit, the sexism that is a part of the fabric of our community life must be acknowledged and addressed.  Wouldn’t it be great if the Church took the lead on this?

It’s a sad day, to be sure.  Yet I will cling to whatever small thread of hope I can find, that the Church will finally come to a reckoning of its sexist attitudes in its theology and practice.  And, women will be treated with the same sort of dignity and respect that Jesus showed for them.  It’s way past time.

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A Lenten Discipline 2020

I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.  Matthew 12:36-37

Lent has begun.

Since Lent holds a confessional element, I’ll begin in that vein:  It’s been at least a few years since I’ve followed a Lenten discipline.  When I was younger, I did things like giving up chocolate, which was really hard.  As I got older, I got onboard with the not so much deprivation angle of Lent, but with the “doing of good deeds” opportunity of Lent.  One year, not all that long ago, I kept a gratitude journal for every day of Lent.  Well, in all honesty, I kept it for about two-thirds of Lent.

Around me people talk about giving things up (mostly things that, along with deprivation, offer a health benefit).   I’ve also heard a few people talk about the doing of good deeds for Lent.

In recent years, I’ve discovered that though these two approaches are laudable, they are just not quite so meaningful to me—in the way of feeling closer to the holiness of Lent.  While giving up chocolate might benefit my waistline, as well as my connection to the sufferings of Jesus, it has too much of a “been there, done that” quality.  The doing of good deeds, well, yes I should be about that business to be sure, but, I’d like to think that I try to do that year-round.  Paying closer attention to it through Lent, then, is less than satisfying.

This year, instead of doing my best to ignore the whole business, I decided to go in search of something new that I might actually do, or not do, in terms of a Lenten discipline.  And, somewhere along the way, I discovered just the thing, something to give up that may not benefit my waistline, and will likely not help me connect more deeply with the sufferings of Christ, but will still provide a way of meaning, grounded in biblical lesson and story, that will pose a challenge as well.

For Lent 2020, I’m giving up:  gossip.  Or, at least I’m going to try.

I discovered the idea on a website a week or two ago and it stuck with me as a good one.  And, then, a few days ago, I received an email from an old colleague who now lives in another state, asking for “the story” behind the recent resignation of a Maine Conference UCC staff member.  I thought to myself:  yup, giving up gossip is just the thing.

Maine may be a large state geographically.  But, it’s a small state in many ways, especially when it comes to people and how they interact.  There’s about one and a half degrees of separation, if you’re lucky, between complete strangers.  People know each other, and we know each other’s stories.  And, we like to tell and be told.

It’s not hard at all to fall over the edge from sharing news to engaging in gossip.  In fact, it can be very difficult to recognize the difference, and even more so to act and speak accordingly.  It’s one thing for someone to ask about another person’s health and well-being, for instance.  It’s quite another to ask for the “story,” the material where facts, opinion, supposition and outright guesses and assumptions are melded and molded—and given life.

Among clergy in Maine, at least in my experience in the Maine Conference United Church of Christ, there is considerable gossip.  It often begins with a simple sharing of information, but it doesn’t take long before what we are dealing with is actually gossip, careless words shared person to person—without hardly anyone even seeming to notice that there’s no longer any connection to fact.  It’s just how we talk ‘round here.

It really shouldn’t be so.  And, the evidence is clear enough, as we discover half-truths, partial truths and no truths to be the common currency of chatter.  How hurtful it can all be, as well as dangerous.  It seems a good Lenten discipline, then, to endeavor to refrain from gossip and to be mindful, in this holy season, of the significance and consequence of words.

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Getting My Non On

At some point during this year’s annual meeting at Old South, I experienced a moment—an instance that I can only describe as almost terrifying.  I was looking out at the assembled group of good, dedicated church folk and realizing that the church had experienced a momentous shift from last year’s annual meeting—and it felt decidedly ominous.

One person who probably hasn’t missed an annual meeting since he was an infant was not present.  He wasn’t feeling well enough to attend.  Several people have experienced significant health issues over the last year and appeared frail and diminished.  One person is about to move, and another is talking about moving.   A few others weren’t present because they can’t easily get to church anymore, because of their health.  And, a couple of others weren’t there because they had passed away over the course of the last year.

I felt a moment where I could have easily fallen over the edge into panic.  What are we going to do?  And how in the world are we going to make the difficult decisions we need to make in the near future?

After the meeting was over and the cleanup completed, and I was alone in the parish house with just a few of the church’s leadership, I said something about my concerns about the change from last year’s annual meeting to this year’s.  And, we chatted for a few minutes.

As I was driving home, though, I realized that I had made a mistake.  I need to be careful about how I express my concerns.  While the panic may be on the high side inside, my outside must not show that fear and alarm.

Here’s where I must put on my non-anxious armor, a be the non-anxious presence that is required if we are to get through what we must in the next year or two.  While everyone else can feel and even show panic, I know that I cannot.  It’s not a good thing for the pastor to be as panicked and anxious as the parishioners.  It won’t work—for anyone.

So, it’s time to get my “non” on, and to find a way fully into a place where I can lead with faith and clarity as a non-anxious presence.  How many times did Jesus declare, “Do not be afraid”? A lot.  And, that must be my mantra.

Yet, it is a challenge.  It’s not exactly a surprise that the church finds itself in such a precarious place.  We have known for a long time that this day would come, and I have talked often over many years about the church’s status and what lies ahead.  Somehow, though, that we are now at a time for decision-making, I’m finding that it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.  And, it feels a whole lot more uncomfortable and upsetting.

In the midst of my close-to-panic state at annual meeting, there was also the reality that Old South is a wonderful church.  People listen to each other.  They work together.  They engage in good mission.  They care deeply for and about each other, as well as extended families and friends outside of the church community.  During our annual meeting, as well as the lunch and the worship that preceded it, there was laughter, grace, blessing and joy—mingled amidst the grief that attends the knowledge that the church is in serious decline.

That so many in the wider community not only find no value in church, but seem so casually to dismiss our old-fashioned, strange ways of worshiping a deity (Hallowell is a very secular place, as is much of Maine), is an especially difficult piece of knowledge.  The church, while far from perfect, offers a place of care and comfort, of blessing and hope, of grace and community.  Its passing will not simply be sad.  Its passing will leave a chasm in the community, the loss of a place of significance where very different people gathered to live out an attachment to a weird thing called love, and more than that, a love beyond what we can actually know or understand, a love that offers both respite from and strength for this world in which we live.

It’s time to get the non on, to tackle some very difficult issues, but to know as well that I don’t do it alone.  Not at all.

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Identity Crisis

Last Sunday’s sermon was on unity, focusing on the lectionary passage from the beginning of First Corinthians. The title of my sermon was “Give Me a U.” The plan was to talk about Paul’s encouragement regarding unity, to remind us all to reflect on how we seek unity in our own local church, but also to offer a confession regarding unity on a larger level. Most of the world’s Christians gather in churches that belong to denominations that do not ordain people like me:  a woman. I’m not exactly all that eager to pursue unity in that regard, I’ll admit.

In the time before the service started, as people began arriving and the choir got settled in, I noticed a few people perusing the bulletin and then I heard a few comments regarding the sermon title. “U?” someone asked, “is that for Unitarian?”

My heart sank. Over the course of the last six months or so, several people who are part of the Old South community have admitted to me that they don’t really feel tied to Christianity. Instead, they feel more Unitarian.

This isn’t exactly new to my experience at Old South. I remember a couple who had started attending the church about ten years ago. They openly identified as Unitarian-Universalist, but they didn’t really like the local UU church. They knew a few people who belonged to Old South, so they started to come to worship and to get involved in the church. Occasionally, they would make a comment regarding my “too Christian” approach, suggesting that perhaps I could try talking about Jesus not quite so often. It was hard to know how to respond to them, except to find ways of saying that the church was a Christian church, and was when they started attending.

I am a Christian and I was called to serve a Christian church. Yet, I’m aware that the church that I serve is not universally connected to the One who is supposed to serve as our center, our focus, our “Head.” And, it feels like this is more and more of an issue as the church gets smaller.

I remember when I was in Divinity School that there was a common joking thread that UCC stood for “Unitarians Considering Christ” rather than “United Church of Christ.” The churches that I’ve served and the church I grew up in have all, until Old South, unabashedly identified as Christian. During my first months at Old South, almost fifteen years ago, one of my predecessors warned me that the church was not strongly connected to “the Gospel.”

Over the years, I’ve experienced small reminders of that warning. But, it’s only recently that it has started to feel like an issue. I particularly worry about the church’s sense of identity.  Perhaps among a larger group of people, a few stragglers may not be all that big of a deal.  But, as the church shrinks, it feels more troublesome for the community to be only partially connected to a common sense of purpose, a reason for being.

At Old South, we are blessed with a group of people who do not spend considerable time quarreling with each other.  It’s a fairly unified group.  As it shrinks, though, things are likely to become a more complicated, especially around important decisions that we’ll need to make.  Will our unity hold?  And, how will it hold if we are not all connected to the same sense of purpose, if we cannot agree on who we are and to whom we belong?

I pray, then, that we’ll find our way to a higher sense of unity, and of purpose, that we’ll find our way, together, to embrace and renew our link to our Head.  I’ll take a U, please, for unity:  unity in Christ.

 

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Don’t Sit There!

And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

During my homily last Sunday, on our first winter worship service of the season in Old South’s parish house (where worship is a little more informal than in the sanctuary), I was talking about stars and signs. It was Epiphany Sunday.   What sorts of signs do we perceive? Do we welcome them and pursue them, as the magi did? Or do we see them as threats, as Herod did?

At some point, I made a reference to our most recent Christmas Eve service. It was a beautiful and meaningful service, but attendance was at an all-time low. Attendance for that service has been, in fact, on a slow, steady decline since the 1980s. What sort of sign is that for us? Is it something to welcome or something to fear? Shall we pursue it or treat it as a threat?

As I was talking about the Christmas Eve service I saw one woman in the small congregation fall neatly and thoroughly into a state of sentimental nostalgia. I could see it. At one point, she uttered in a voice of deep longing, “It used to be that you had to get here so early just to get a good seat.” I could see her slipping into a state tantamount to sinking into to a comfy couch or recliner, ready to settle in for a good long trip down memory lane. I remember thinking that I should yell out, “Don’t sit there!”

But I didn’t.

Nostalgia and sentimentality. They threaten the life and wellbeing of the small, struggling church. It’s not that memories themselves are bad or even the occasional short stroll into wistful reminiscence. But, when memories turn into an intense yearning for a condition that only the past can deliver, that nostalgia may feel like a big comfy recliner, soft and reassuring. But it’s really a cancer. That sort of settling into a longing for the past (that very likely wasn’t even as great as all that) feeds upon itself, like abnormal cells that grow uncontrollably in the body, forming a tumor.

So, don’t sit there! Don’t sit in that seat that looks so alluring, so comfortable, so familiar. Because it’s really the place where nostalgia suffocates what’s happening now, and how the church, and its members, are being guided for the future. That seat stifles the movement of and our connection to the Holy Spirit.

Don’t sit there. That’s a difficult thing to say, though, and even more difficult thing to do. For when we are looking at stars and signs, the ones that are so clearly present can feel threatening and ominous. Lower attendance and an aging congregation full of people who would like so desperately to hand over the reigns of leadership to the next generation who are now simply not present: these signs feel threatening. Who can blame the church member who retreats to the comfy recliner of memory and nostalgia, when church was what and how it was meant to be, or how they think church was what and how it was meant to be? Christendom. The glory days.

Yet, there are signs and stars that offer hope. At Old South, we maintain a strong commitment to mission. We have a wonderful and talented, though small, choir. Ministry is more widely shared. It’s wondrous to behold someone serving communion for the first time in their life, well into older age. It’s wondrous when someone who is normally so shy and reserved volunteers to lead the beginning of worship. It’s wondrous to behold a Worship Team meeting where we talk about and sing new hymns and work together to strengthen our weekly worship service.

These signs and stars do not point to a larger congregation, nor to they point to a church that will exist well into the future. But, they do point to the abiding presence of the Spirit in our midst. Along with all of the things that seem and feel ominous, there is new life, faithfulness, love and hope—a living out of our trust in the presence of Christ among us.

While it is tempting to sink into that comfy chair of nostalgia and sentimentality, to try to surround oneself with golden memories of the past, we must find the courage to open our hearts and minds to the Spirit and the grace to do as the Spirit beckons: “Don’t sit there!”

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:19

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