A New Focus: Three Great Loves

Instead of my usual chronological approach, I’ll begin with the unveiling of the big new UCC theme, our fresh, shared mission, for the next two years. It’s not that it was so much a surprise, since we’ve been seeing the theme and its new logo all over the place since we arrived in Baltimore. But, tonight the President and General Minister offered more of the vision and plan:

Three Great Loves

Love of Children

Love of Neighbor

Love of Creation

A Just World for All

This will help guide and frame our work and connection together as a national church, seeking to find ways to hear from local churches on how they are already living out this mission, as well as new stories for how churches find renewal of mission through this vision.

In the midst of all of the business and resolutions, the discussions and all of the messy parliamentarian issues, the unveiling of the theme was a nice bright spot that helped me see beyond what often seems like a lot of slogginess in the business of the Synod and the moments—which seem all too frequent—of pettiness. Through the resolution debates, we squabble over language and punctuation. Sometimes, we endure commentary that seems not so connected to the actual content of a resolution. And, then there is what often feels to me like empty theological reflection at the end of our business, with someone speaking in breathless terms about issues that are really not so breathless.

For the most part, though, we somehow manage to witness to a shared experience of the presence of God. Sure, it’s muddy and messy. But, there is in the midst of us the way of being God’s people, where everyone is invited to speak, to participate. We are not about the business of sitting and listening to pronouncements offered to us from on high. We gather as a diverse body of people—lay and authorized—to work together to be the church, the wider church, stretched and stretching to live out God’s vision of love and hope.

Since my last post, we have waded through quite a lot of business.

Committee #9: On Establishing Procedures for Cultural Diversity Training for Authorized Ministers. This was a contentious issue, especially as we debated time and whether or not we can authorize such a thing. In the end, it overwhelmingly passed.

Committee #6: The Disparity of Rights of Adoptees to Access Birth Certificates for Adults. This was also a contentious issue, with lots of questions and concerns. It did not pass.

Committee #14, Part 1: The Earth is the Lord’s, Not Ours to Wreck. Passed with 97% support.

Committee #11: Affirming and Supporting the Authorized Ministries of Under-represented Clergy in Local Congregations: A Call for Greater Representation and Economic Justice. This also inspired quite a lot of discussion and debate. An amendment offered by the Maine Conference added “age” to the resolution. One of the comments that received a lot of affirmation from the assembled observation, that while we as a denomination hold the clergy to standards of accountability, we do not hold churches to standards of accountability. Good point. We should do something about that! Resolution passed with 93% support.

Committee #14, Part 2: On Recognizing and Studying Gun Violence as a Public Health Emergency. Passed with 97% in favor.

Committee #10: Resolution of Witness in Support of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse and Neglect. This was another resolution that garnered a fair amount of discussion regarding language. In the end, it passed with 98% support.

Though tired and spent, we ended with wonderful worship. Although it was tempting to sneak out and head right to bed before worship began, I’m glad that I didn’t. It was a great way of ending a very long day. I’ll try to write more later about the content.

It’s now Tuesday morning. The penultimate plenary has just started.

On this 4th of July, let us Make Glad!  Let us consider not so much our Independence, but our dependence on each other.

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Gen Synod #3: It’s Monday and I’m Tired

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Although I enjoyed a slightly slower morning yesterday (Sunday), things started to pick up in the afternoon and—except for an all-too-short time for sleep last night—things have continued to move, even though most of the time I’m sitting.

Sunday afternoon’s community worship was a wonderful worship experience. The music was especially inspiring, with the last hymn a rousing organ-accompanied singing of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” It’s not among my favorite hymns, but I recognized that it was a good “shout out” to this year’s big Reformation anniversary.

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When worship was over, I ran into a couple of old friends and we spent a few moments getting caught up. And, then I went off to get something to eat with a friend from my Div School days. I hadn’t seen or heard from Marie since we were at HDS together over twenty-five years ago. Her conference, where she is now the conference minister, is sitting at the table next to the Maine Conference. What an amazing moment to run into her!

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After a lovely meal together, taking turns to offer summaries of all that each of us had done over the last twenty-five years, we returned to the convention center for the evening plenary.

The evening plenary featured several of the resolutions, an overview of financial status, amendments to the bylaws, and the election of the Rev. Traci Blackmon.

The resolutions were from Committees #1 (enhanced missionary support), #7 (immigrant welcoming), #5 (patterns of giving), and #2 (“rights of children living Israeli military occupation”). Most of the resolutions passed with little, or no, discussion. Committee #2 probably received the most discussion, overwhelmingly in favor but a couple of people suggesting that the information in the resolution was either dated or harmful to the work that is currently being done.

Plenary ended around 9:30.

Then, it was off to bed? Well, not exactly. A few of us decided to gather in the hotel bar for a little end of evening refreshment. When we arrived, it looked like most of the Synod delegates staying at the hotel had the very same idea. And, then even more followed.

Despite several attempts to extract myself, I ended up staying up quite late, engaged in an interesting conversation with some folks from the Nebraska Conference. We discovered a lot of common interests in the life of our churches, and the wider church to which we belong.

Finally, time for bed and about six hours to get some sleep before getting up for a 6:30 am caucus with the conferences in southern New England.

The alarm rang all too early, but I dragged myself out of bed and attended the caucus, which was a nice opportunity to gather with other New Englanders—all together, we are big! And, there was coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

Plenary was called to order right at 8:00 am. And, this is where I am as I write.

So far, we have elected new members to the UCC Board of Directors, a Moderator for the next Synod and a new Vice Moderator, along with some not exciting bylaw amendments.

The first resolution of the day was Committee #15, supporting legislation for aid in dying—the committee to which I was assigned. This has been the most controversial issue, by far, that we have addressed so far. Lines formed at all of the microphones, for, against, and suggestions for changes or points of order. This amendment inspired considerable conversation and debate, and even exceeded the time allotment

In the end, the resolution did not pass. It required 66% support and received just 65%.

This is a good place to stop for now, a good place to break.

Let us make glad, despite the lack of sleep!

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General Synod, Day 2: Some Good, Some Really Good, and Some Really, Really Bad

It’s Sunday morning, the beginning of Day 3 of General Synod. But, the day hasn’t really started yet, so I’ll focus on Friday night and Saturday.

After finishing Friday’s post, early in the evening, I attended the meeting of the committee to which I was assigned—Resolution of Witness in Support of Legislation Authorizing Aid in Dying. I can’t say that I went into that meeting with strong feelings about the issue, but most of the concerns that might have prevented me from voting in favor were resolved during the hearing earlier in the day, when the details—including the very narrowly constructed circumstances through which such aid in dying could be accessed—were outlined. The committee meeting was mostly a very thoughtful discussion about the issue, including a couple of personal stories that were shared.

For the most part, I felt quite positive about the whole experience. People spoke respectfully and they listened as well. There was a moment, though, when someone stood up to talk about the “hard time” she was having with the issue and I was struck by the thought that we could have a resolution declaring that the sky is blue and there would be at least one person who felt compelled not simply to have a “hard time” with it, but also feel compelled to share their “hard time,” using of course, the maximum amount of time available. Still, except for that one strange expression of someone having a “hard time” (yet was unable to actually articulate anything that sounded at all truly connected to the issues at hand), it was a positive and rewarding experience, as a room full of strangers connected only by the tenuous thread of our nonhierarchical denomination, managed to conduct business with quite a lot of respect, humility and trust.  The resolution will now move on to the full assembly, probably Monday.

To sum up Saturday, I first should admit that I kept my Synod experience just to the morning. It was a very full morning, including a Maine delegation caucus meeting at 7:00 and the first plenary of the day starting at 8:00. The plenary ran until close to noon. That was enough Synod for me.

The first part of the morning was great. The Rev. Traci Blackmon, the candidate for the Justice and Witness Ministries Executive Minister, was introduced by a dynamic speaker. Then, Rev. Blackmon offered her candidate speech. While I didn’t agree with everything she said, I was impressed. She offered a meaningful, substantive speech, delivered clearly and passionately.   I was ready to take on the challenge of doing the “messy, difficult work” of “making room” and not just “creating space,” and considering carefully and thoughtfully the different set of tools we need to confront the things that divide us, understanding that healing comes in community.

When she finished, and we all stood up to applaud, it was only mid-morning—and it was looking like a very good day.

Alas, that’s when the day took a bad turn.

It was time for the keynote address of the morning, in the form of a conversation between the Synod Moderator and Ms. Glennon Doyle. I had never heard of Ms. Doyle, but the bio in the Synod materials described her as the “New York Times bestselling author of Love Warrior, which was chosen as one of Oprah’s Book Club picks for 2016, as well as the inspiring and hilarious New York Times bestseller, Carry On, Warrior. Doyle is the founder of Momastery, an on-line community where millions of readers meet each week to experience her shameless and laugh-out-loud funny essays about faith, freedom, addiction, recovery, motherhood and serving the marginalized.”

Ms. Doyle’s remarks began with a rundown of all of her life issues—addiction, bulimia, escaping pain, an unexpected pregnancy, a cheating husband, a divorce, etc. She went on to talk about life as “brutal,” but that most everything could be made better if only there was more yoga: “If you can sit with the hot loneliness, that is the journey of the warrior.”

Warrior?  Really?

She also had the enormously annoying habit, after making certain points, to say to the assembled, “Right?” just so that she could gather up a little affirmation from the audience, which seemed much too willing to offer it.

Ms. Doyle suggested that “we are all afraid of the pain,” but that we shouldn’t be, and that pain is the way to transformation— (say this next part in your best Valley Girl voice) because, you know, that’s what happened to Jesus, like he suffered and he could have escaped the pain, but he didn’t, and then he was crucified and then he experienced new life. Right?

Her remarks were delivered in that way that one hears occasionally from people who somehow, mysteriously and on shaky grounds (which Ms. Doyle was at least gracious enough to observe for herself), make it into the public square of purveyors of truth and wisdom. They think they are offering something tremendously original and profound, yet it’s really just pedestrian drivel.

And, what seemed even more problematic to me was, after not only such a great and inspirational morning, but a morning when we were challenged to consider the ways of injustice in our society and in our world, we were confronted by a clueless privileged white girl who appeared to argue that yoga is the answer to problems. And, much, much worse than that, that she touted a message of transformation through suffering and pain after a powerful and meaningful speech by an African American woman whose own family and ancestors likely heard the very same message—that through their suffering, they would—eventually—experience reward. Although Ms. Doyle made reference to Rev. Blackmon as a remarkable person, she seemed to have no actual appreciation for the content or context of the speech that Rev. Blackmon had given. The confrontation against what vexes as a society should have started in the midst of Ms. Doyle’s presentation.

Before it was over, I walked out. Eventually, though, I came back and listened to the rest of the morning’s speakers.

But, then I was done. And, off to the Walker Art Museum I went. And, after that, it was dinner with a few of my new Maine delegation Synod buddies, where we enjoyed the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.

Today’s start is a little later than yesterday. Thank goodness. But, then, there’s lots to do, with community worship this afternoon and a very full plenary session that begins just after dinner.

 

 

 

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United Church of Christ General Synod 2017– Day One

It’s Day One of the United Church of Christ General Synod, gathering in Baltimore, MD. A long, string of words pop into my head as I think about this day. Most of those words have something to do with the array of people assembled in this enormous convention center.

Coming from Maine, I’m fully aware of how homogeneous my context is. At Synod, I expected a very different experience. And, that has certainly been true.

People of all shapes, sizes and colors are here. There’s also an interesting array of hair on display—some very colorful or arranged in an interesting presentation. And, as well, there’s a fascinating parade of mobility (something I didn’t really think about in advance)—with quite a few people on scooters and others with various aids in getting around, along with quite a few who walk with such purpose that it looks like anyone in their way may be in danger, and then a good number of people whose gait can best be described as strolling.

While the beginning of the day was filled with (not very exciting) meetings, the real interesting stuff started mid-afternoon, when we gathered for worship. Again, I knew I was in for a remarkably different experience from what I’m used to. And, it was.

I’m used to worship with 25-50 people, with the occasional holy day worship of around 100, along with a smattering of funerals where hundreds are in attendance.

Synod worship was worship of a couple of thousand people, with huge screens throughout the large convention hall. And, that’s not all. The order of worship was not found on printed paper materials. Instead, it was available online or on the Synod “app.”

While it was a truly wonderful experience to be in that space, at worship, with people from all over the United States, I’ll also admit that there was something about it that I found not so fulfilling. In the huge crowd in attendance, worship possessed an element of anonymity. It really didn’t matter if I spoke the lines for the congregation. It really didn’t matter if I sang with the group.  It was certainly a great experience to be in such a large room, with thousands of people singing, worshiping and praising. But, it was also impersonal.

Day One is not quite done. I still have a committee meeting to attend this evening.

So far, it’s a mixed experience. On the one hand, it’s an incredible experience to be in a room full of such a remarkable diversity of humanity, of God’s creation. But, it’s not where I would want to be on a regular basis. Sure, big and diverse is great. But, small and intimate is also great.

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The Strong, But Dangerous, Allure of Denial

At Old South, I’ve started talking to the leadership team about beginning to discuss the process (just the process and not yet the content) of considering the future of Old South. How should we talk about, consider, make decisions about our future? Should we sell one of our two buildings, and if we think we should, how do we go about figuring out which one? Should we insert a “sunset clause” into our bylaws and, if so, what should it say? How shall we talk about our endowment, and how it should be used as we get smaller and have more trouble meeting our budget?

The simple act of talking about the process through which we might discuss these issues is raising a bit of anxiety—no surprise there. But, in the expression of anxiety a few interesting issues and perspectives have been exposed.

One of those issues is the concern over how it will “look” if we begin to talk openly about our decline. What if word gets out that we are thinking about selling one of our buildings? How will the larger community perceive the church if we begin such a process? How will we be judged? Will people consider joining us if we have what amounts to a “going out of business” sign out front?

Another issue is the possibility that even those among the most faithful of church members may decide to flee. Instead of engaging in the process of discerning the best path forward, the way that God is calling us to follow, some may prefer not only to stay out of that discussion—fraught as it is with complexity and emotion—but to leave the church altogether.

Some moments have transpired where the grasping onto denial is almost palpable, as if its soft comfort of security can be held like a child’s cherished blanket.

The aspect of all of this that seems to create a lot of discomfort is the notion that we must contend with a world that is not only changing, but has changed— past tense. Without a radical reorientation of our notions of what it means to be church, Old South’s days are numbered. And, even if we were to engage in a radical reorientation, our days may still be numbered. The world in which we exist is dramatically different. It’s not that things are changing. It’s that things have changed.

For me, it seems clear that we must heed the call to continue to live out our faithfulness as a church of Jesus Christ—no matter what happens. And part of that is to find the courage to keep the allure of denial at bay.

Sure, it is understandably tempting to bury our heads in the sand—to continue to do what we do and think that our fortunes will change at any moment, that we just need to be ready for some sort of reinvention of the 1950s. It’s also understandable to cast blame at all of the usual suspects—sports practices on Sunday mornings, the pastor who isn’t doing her job adequately, etc.

But, this is the time when we must demonstrate that we are a church, and not just a religiously affiliated business, that we are tied inexorably with our Savior, even to the point of being willing to die.

The challenge ahead of us is profoundly significant. We need to resist the temptation of denial. We also need to try to keep people from wanting to flee. We need to find the grace and the courage—as individuals and as a community— to speak up about our grief, sadness and even anger. We must be willing to talk about our emotional responses to what has happened, and to be willing to listen to each other.

Denial may feel a whole lot more comfortable—not to mention desirable. But, denial will keep us from perhaps a most remarkable experience—that though we die, we may also live. In walking the path to our end, we may find a whole new beginning. It’s just that to walk this path is to give up control of our church, and to trust that it is Christ’s. We need to be willing to give up what we hold dear, and to trust that our Savior will be there to catch us as we fall.

The road ahead is not an easy one, but it is one that may very well offer something much more wonderful, a security that no blanket can bestow.

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The Great Commission in the Old Mainline

This past Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost aka “Trinity Sunday,” we at Old South focused on the lectionary passage from Matthew—The Great Commission, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” and “I’ll be with you until the end of the age,” etc.

In my prep work for Sunday, I stumbled across a Day 1 sermon, in which the preacher offered the following observation regarding the making of disciples and the decline of the Mainline: “As the church has turned inward over the last 30 or 40 years, it has lost sight of its mission to make disciples. This is one of the reasons why the mainline church is struggling to grow. The stats don’t look good. The mainline church overall is not replenishing itself with a new generation of disciples.”

It is certainly true that many Mainline churches, like Old South, have experienced a serious decline in the last decades, with members leaving or dying and not much in the way of newer members coming in. This trend, though, is complicated.

There was something about the observation at the beginning of that preacher’s sermon that stuck in my head, and stayed there for a while. I couldn’t, initially, figure out why. I wondered about it for days.

Finally, some clarity formed and the threads that I knew were there, separate and distinct, came together into a (mostly) coherent series of questions: what does it mean to “make disciples”? Were all, or even most, of those people who swarmed into the Mainline back in the fifties and sixties “disciples”? Is there a difference between “disciple” and “church-goer”?

Over the years, I’ve talked to a lot of people about their church experiences, most of those people still part of the church, but quite a few who are not part of any church any longer. When I look back and consider those conversations, especially as people have reflected on their experiences half a century ago, I am often left with the impression that a lot of church involvement of the mid-20th century might not have been what Christ was getting at when he offered his “great commission.” Church attendance in the Mainline during those middle century years sounds similar to other civic involvement, as the mid-20th century cultural ethos, forged in response to two world wars, encouraged a lot of participation in community. And, church was one of those places. Sure, the church provided good values and even a spiritual dimension to human life, but the Mainline was not especially good at doing more than “making church-goers” who, dare I suggest, were not necessarily “disciples.”

The more I think about it, the more I feel that there is a difference between the two, that there were, and still are, some “church-goers” who aren’t quite “disciples,” nor do they wish to be. Church going is, relatively anyway, easy. It’s a nice routine and habit; it lends itself to something different in the average week—a place to be in community, to sing or just to listen, to feel a sense of purpose, and to reconnect with something beyond oneself. Church-going is not really a hard thing.

Discipleship is different. It is harder road, a more demanding one. Discipleship asks tough questions about who one is, one’s relationship with God, and one’s connection to the world. Discipleship offers an invitation to the “narrow way,” while at the same time, expecting an openness to love, grace, hope and blessing that stretches the outer limits of our own neat sense of order.

When I hear those words, to “make disciples,” I think of my small community of Old South, where we challenge ourselves and encourage each other to be disciples, and to share the love of God with others. It may be that we will get smaller in number, but at the same time, we have the opportunity to grow in Spirit, to learn and accept that our faithfulness to the Gospel is not measured by how many butts sit in the pews of the sanctuary, but in our willingness to follow, even into unfamiliar territory of love, hope and peace—and to do so over and over again.

The wording of the Great Commission, in the original Greek, suggests that “making disciples” is really “teaching disciples.” We serve and plant seeds, and trust that they will take root and grow, perhaps not exactly where we would like, but in accordance with the presence of Christ. Our life in the church, as followers of Christ, ought to be more about quality than quantity.

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What Is Church For? Part 2

During a recent “faith story” (children’s message) during worship, I talked about the significance of various people in our church and in our worship life at Old South. We began with the “here is the church, here is the steeple” rhyme, ending with, “you can have a church without a steeple, but you can’t have a church without any people.” And, then I went on to ask what would happen if certain people decided not to show up for Sunday worship. What if the music director didn’t show up for worship, or the choir, or the greeters, or the Sunday School teachers, etc.? And, then I asked, “What would happen if I didn’t show up?”

And, without missing a beat, someone in the choir chimed in, “We could all go home!”

And the people laughed.

I know it was meant to be funny, and it was, but at the same time, it was a moment that betrayed a raw and difficult reality—that even among those who attend Old South, and churches like it, a certain level of ambivalence lurks in our midst. I don’t doubt that many who attend Old South feel a sense of deep connection to the life of the church, but I sometimes worry about the threads of that connection. I know we have some people who wouldn’t be at Old South but for the choir. Friendships and relationships are important, too. And, there are a number of people who share with me the need to spend some time each week in a place set apart, when they can be renewed in their connection to God, etc. There are others for whom worship is a part of their weekly routine.

Still, a tension rears its ugly head from time to time that for at least a few of Old South’s most active participants, my role as “pastor and teacher” is not quite on the list of church priorities—especially when it comes to my post in the pulpit.

Last week, as we were preparing for this past Sunday’s worship, celebrating Pentecost and Music Sunday, with communion as well, we started to fret a bit about the length of the service. After the weekly choir rehearsal, I got a call from the church secretary (who is also in the choir), asking a question posed by another choir member: would I consider eliminating the “sermon” from the service? You know, to save a bit of time. I heaved a heavy sigh.

In these days of concern over the future of our church, as we watch our average weekly attendance decline and our average age increase, it seems that the church could use a little more in the way of what my job is, that is “pastoring and teaching.” Our holy book, after all, offers many significant lessons and perspectives pertinent to the challenges we face. Yet, there is resistance.

Resistance, I should be clear, is not a dominant force in the life of Old South. Yet, it is present in ways that ought not be ignored—because it gets in the way. It hinders new things and new ideas. It obscures the movement of the Spirit. It undermines our relationship with the Gospel.

It’s not a bad thing to experience a funny moment in the midst of worship, or to observe, occasionally, the age-old disdainful attitude toward sermons (although, I can’t help but get a little disdainful back—I mean, really, my sermons are rarely over fifteen minutes these days). But, when it starts to become more than a sporadic quip, one must ask critical questions about the overall wellbeing of the church, as a community of God’s people, devoted to the living out of the Gospel. If our attachment to our scriptures—and our desire to learn more about how those scriptures still speak to us—is not held in high esteem, as a central piece of who are and what we do, we must then ask about the point of our gathering.

While there are many aspects of our life together that contribute to keeping us attached, we must never lose sight of the fact that we gather as “church,” as a holy people, a “spiritual house,” grounded in faith and in the Gospel. That must be, and must remain, at the core of our being. Or, we are really just a club and not a church.

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