All Together Now?

When my husband and I decided to move out to our “camp” (summer house) year-round, after our younger child graduated from high school, we began to think of all of the adjustments we would need to make—a longer commute to work (including an even longer commute when the road gets icy in winter), a much more remote living situation, and some of the other taken-for-granted aspects of living in a more suburban environment, like the proximity of a grocery store. And a place to exercise.

Exercise, especially through Maine’s hunting season and then very cold winter months, is not an especially easy prospect when outside activities are the only decent alternative to a 25-minute drive to the gym. So, in order to make a reasonable attempt at continued physical activity, we purchased one of those stationary bikes that offers online streaming (it has a large tablet on the front of the bike). We can “spin” with a live class that’s taking place in New York (or London) or choose from a veritable treasure trove of various taped classes.

For the most part, I love my new exercise routine. While I miss the social aspect of the gym, I love that variety that the online world allows. I can take a quick 20-minute class, when I don’t have much time, or a class that’s an hour or more. Plus, there’s stretching and strengthening classes as well.

This whole new adventure also comes with the promise of “community.” I can follow other people, and they can follow me. During classes, we can offer electronic “high fives” to each other. And, then there are the instructors, who by varying degrees, preach the gospel of community. Let’s do this together! Together we are stronger! Don’t give up! I’m here for you; we are here for each other! Etc, etc.

The other day, one of the instructors ended class by declaring, “This is my church!” And, then went on to say that on the bike, in class, is where he experiences healing—while a cover version of the Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil was playing in the background.

It’s in instances such as these that I begin to feel a little unsettled. While I’ll admit that I like the attempt to create a sort of community—it certainly helps to motivate me to get on the bike on those days when I would prefer not to—I’m uncomfortable with the notion that a virtual community can somehow be a seamless substitution for real, in-person communities, like church.

This new way of building community is all over the place, and has been for a while. And, many churches themselves are active in creating virtual places for connection. People don’t need to congregate physically to meet others and to form bonds of friendship. All one needs is WIFI.

Still, I can’t help but wonder about what sorts of communities will come from this new world that is unfolding—and what sorts of important things will be left behind. What happens when certain words and concepts—like “church”— are carried over so casually into this new, virtual existence? Is it possible for something like a virtual cycling class to offer care not only for the body, but also for the soul and the spirit as well?

I have serious doubts.  While there are benefits to virtual worlds, as I am experiencing myself, they have their limits.  Virtual high fives and empowerment slogans are fun, but they do not sustain deep and meaningful connection and relationship.  The value of physical presence cannot be denied.

A great deal of care ought to be employed in recognizing the distinctions between virtual community and in-person community.   It’s a good thing that we have a variety of ways of gathering together.  But, it also seems clear that we must appreciate the necessity of that variety, that the virtual cannot replace the real.

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Guardians of Community

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about last Saturday’s shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue. The aftermath of the shooting involved a ritual that I have come to loathe. Each time I do it, I desperately hope it will be the last but I also know that it will not be.

After every mass shooting, I await news of the victims. There is something about these terrible, unspeakable incidents that requires that I read the names of those whose lives were so tragically taken. While I also read about the incident itself, it’s the list of the names of the victims that offers a focal point. I watch and wait for the list, the names and ages, and the bits of story about each one.

For the Tree of Life shooting, along with the location of the shooting and the profoundly disturbing anti-Semitic rhetoric of the shooter, the ages of the victims stood out for me. So many of them “older” people, all gathered in a place of faith, of sanctuary, of community, a place that likely felt as familiar as home.

The victims appeared to be a lot like the people who gather at my church, and how we gather on Sunday mornings. Old South is also a congregation of mostly older people. There’s a lot of gray hair, wrinkles and people who generally move around with slowness and caution.

Like Tree of Life, Old South has people who have distinctive roles in the congregation.   Each Sunday morning is, among other things, an exercise in mundane ritual: unlocking the doors; turning on the lights and sound system; preparing the space for worship; etc.

Those who were so violently murdered were not simply going about their ordinary lives. They were going about those little acts that are part of a community of faith. They were doing those little things that probably most other people hardly noticed, except that those small acts spelled out welcome and a careful attention to the significance of the community itself as a gathering of the people of God.

According to the New York Times, David and Cecil Rosenthal, brothers in their 50s, were almost always in the synagogue, greeting everyone who came with a “Good Shabbos” and a ready prayer book. Melvin Wax, 87, took on many tasks — from leading services to changing light bulbs.

In reading the names of those murdered at Tree of Life, it’s hard not to think of my congregation, the familiar rituals of worship, and the dedication of the older folks who take it upon themselves to do all of those little things that make worship happen.

One of the headlines referred to the victims as “guardians of the faith.” They were people who recognized that one vital component of the faith is community—the sort of community that welcomes, brings meaning and hope and joy. They didn’t simply participate in community. They fostered it.

It’s this angle of the story that brings another layer of grief and sadness. I didn’t know any of the victims, yet I suspect that I know people just like them—guardians of the faith. Guardians of community.

The loss of these good people, at the hands of a man full of hatred, ought to inspire people of faith—older and younger— to renew their commitment to community, and to seek out ways of strengthening communities of love, compassion and peace—in big ways, and in lots of small ways too.

May you rest in peace: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.



















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Men and Their Marks

But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’  Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 

John 20:24-28

Men certainly have a thing about marks, that something visible ought be shown to offer proof, assurance of validity, especially in the case of an assertion regarding a wrong perpetrated upon a person. Thomas, often called Doubting Thomas (but, let’s be honest, if more of the disciples had been out of that room when the risen Christ first appeared to them, there would have been more doubters among them), boldly claimed that he would not believe unless he saw and touched the mark of the nails himself. And, Christ obliged.

I wish he hadn’t.

As we have recently experienced in the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination process, and as we’ve witnessed in the past, violations against women—sexual harassment and assault—often don’t leave visible marks, nor do they involve witnesses for whom the event is as searing as it is for the victim. There is no place to put one’s finger upon a mark, no way to offer evidence—at least in terms of a scar upon the flesh. But, we do bear marks, marks inside, in our memories, in our spirits, in how we live our lives. Those marks may be different than visible, bodily marks, but they are powerful and substantial.

I was assaulted in the fall of my senior year in college. Thankfully, I was not raped. The attack occurred in my dorm room in the middle of the night. I had been asleep when I awoke to find a man standing next to my bed. That incident happened in the fall of 1985. Though I don’t often think of it anymore, I remember it still with vivid detail. No visible mark was made upon my flesh, and I never learned the identity of that man, but I remember exactly what happened to me. I don’t remember what I had done the day before or the following day, but I remember those few moments in the middle of the night when that unknown man loomed over me and shoved his tongue into my mouth and down my throat.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to talk about that incident today in a public setting, where I would likely be grilled on my credibility, where I might be ridiculed for leaving my dorm room unlocked (a common practice at my small, rural college) or accused of having had only a particularly vivid dream.

The marks that so many women bear are internal marks. Yet, time and time again, we learn that these internal marks are not the marks that really count. Somehow, we need to be able to show scars upon our flesh in order to prove what happened to us really happened to us.

I wish that the Risen Christ had not shown Thomas what he wanted to see, that believing and understanding consist of something more than scars. Christ didn’t need to show the remnants of the physical wounds, nor the physical proof of his resurrection. The women had reported on the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene had seen and spoken to the risen Christ. But, yet again, that wasn’t enough for the men.

Although Christ goes on in the Doubting Thomas story to suggest praise for those who believe without seeing, I wish such a concept started before Thomas declared his doubt, rather than after. While the story is surely more about the believing of later followers (John was written decades after the crucifixion and resurrection), I still wish that we didn’t have this moment of what seems to me to be an unfortunate offering of a physical sign of proof to a man who shouldn’t have needed one.

Invisible marks ought not be so easily discounted or dismissed or doubted. And the stories of women ought not be so plainly greeted with disbelief and derision, nor should they be cast as simple errors of memory.

The marks we bear are powerful and substantial, despite their lack of physical presence on our flesh. The witness of those who bravely share the stories of their internal marks of violence and terror should be respected. Physical scars are not the only marks that should matter.

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Do Politics Belong in Church?

I have an essay in the current Christian Century, part of a series of essays on politics and church.  Click here to check it out!

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Stuck in the Middle with No One

In my work with the Maine Conference United Church of Christ, I currently find myself in the midst of a difficult situation just on the edge of crisis. One of the dynamics running through this situation (just one of many) is an older versus younger problem. It’s not the first time I’ve been in such a dynamic, such a weird crossroads where I am alone, not one of the older group and certainly not one of the younger group.

It’s a lonely place to be.

In the United Church of Christ, not just in Maine but across the denomination, an effort has unfolded over the last decade or so to encourage young clergy and gather them in an affinity group of sorts—the 20/30 group. Attend any large gathering of UCC people and there are bound to be younger people in attendance sporting their bold “20/30” t-shirts.

On the other end, there are the older people. They don’t need t-shirts. They have gray hair, or no hair in some cases. Their faces sport wrinkles and some walk with canes. They are organized by their shared experiences with the vicissitudes of getting older. It’s not hard to pick them out of a crowd.

I am in the middle. And I have been for a long time. Now on the late edge of my early fifties, I am well beyond the 20/30s group (which, of course, didn’t yet exist when I was in that age range) and I’m too young for the post 60 near retirement or actually retired group.

I am in the middle, and mostly alone.

A few years ago, whenever I attended a large gathering of UCC people—conferences, general synod, etc.—I would joke around about creating a 20 plus 30 group. People would look at me in puzzlement. Then, I would emphasize that it was about addition: 20 + 30. Add them together and you get 50. There would be a spark of recognition and then the puzzled look would return. Why in the world would anyone want that sort of group?

If there is a group.

But, I know there are other clergy who are around my age. Somehow most of us just do our work, without the benefit of a gathering of similarly aged individuals. Last year, when I attended the UCC General Synod, a multi-day meeting of UCC folks from around the country, I reconnected with several old friends from divinity school, all of us around the same age. Here in Maine, though, I have few colleagues who share my vintage.

I’m stuck in the middle.   With no one.

It’s not easy, then, when situations arise where one of the components is an “older versus younger” affair. I sometimes feel like I’m the net in a heated tennis match—just there keeping the two sides from attacking each other. And feeling woefully inadequate to the task.

And sometimes I feel that person on the tall chair at a tennis match, trying to keep order. Keeping order, though, doesn’t mean that each side will take the time necessary to comprehend the other, or appreciate the other. Instead, a whole lot of assumptions are discussed just amongst each side, leaving a chasm in the middle of suspicion and misunderstanding—and that’s where I am.

I can see and understand issues raised by both sides, yet that doesn’t help much in trying to find common ground.   Each group remains unsure about the other. One side worked hard to make things the way they are. The other wants to change things because, well, things have changed.

I’m stuck in that strange, vast space in the middle, land of sea monsters and dragons. In the current crisis that looms in the midst of our life together in the Maine Conference, let’s hope that we will find other ways of working through our various difficulties. If it’s left to the younger versus older business, I fear it will only result in a fierce battle. One side may win, but we will all lose.


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The Island Life

IMG_2806 2

Most years, a bit of my summer vacation involves spending time with old friends on an island off of the Maine coast. The island has no electricity and, except for rainwater collected in cisterns to assist with washing dishes, no running water. There are no cars, no stores, no restaurants, or anything of that sort. There are several houses on the island, each equipped with a gas range and gas refrigerator—we are not completely roughing it.

Preparing to go to the island takes a bit of work and forethought. Just getting to the island requires a ferry, then driving across Swan’s Island (not far from Bar Harbor) and then taking a small launch from a lobsterman’s dock over to the island.   Food must be purchased ahead of time and carried to the island. There’s a small (and I mean very small) market on Swan’s Island for things like milk and bread. Alcohol of any kind must be purchased on the “mainland.” The tiny market doesn’t sell those kinds of provisions.

Why go through all of this hassle? For one thing, it’s great to spend some time with old friends. Plus, the island is a beautiful place, featuring nice walking trails and lovely views of the rocky Maine coast:


These days, perhaps the most significant of the island’s allure: no internet.

I should admit that I’m not completely without access to the outside world while I’m on the island. I have my smartphone, along with an external battery, so that I can be reached in case of an emergency. But, to ensure that I am reachable in an emergency, I limit the use of my phone. After a quick check of email and daily headlines, and then completion of the NYT mini-crossword, the phone goes away.

This year, I cannot adequately articulate how wonderful it was to be able to disconnect from the world. Not only is the news so hard to bear—from politics to the latest scandal from the Catholic Church—but news on the smaller scale is also increasingly difficult.   The town of which we have been part for most of the time we’ve lived in Maine has become a microcosm of what’s happening nationally, politically speaking anyway. Lines are clearly drawn. Terrible things are said—posted, actually, to social media sites—one group to the other, one person to another. And, at least a few people seem to be living and speaking out of an alternate reality.

Along with all of this, there’s work. Thankfully, Old South is mostly quiet and behaving itself. But, my role as chair of the Maine Conference UCC Board of Directors has become rather problematic, with disgruntled people making themselves known, and also making it known that they expect a response to their complaints quickly—like now. As if any Board of Directors can move quickly about anything . . .

It was all too tempting just to stay on the island. So what if acquiring provisions requires considerably more thought and planning. So what if meal clean up is a major task.  So what if water must be fetched and hauled from a well.  So what if an occasional squirrel finds its way into the walls of one of the old buildings and starts scurrying around at 4 o’clock in the morning. So what if my lovely, well-equipped bathroom at home is replaced with this:


Outhouse and all, it just might be worth it to stay.

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When Right Is Wrong (or, if not exactly wrong, not exactly right either)

Perhaps in response to a humid, but dry, summer in Maine, much of my reading this season has involved a lot of cold and ice. After watching the AMC series “The Terror” in the spring, I read the book by the same name by Dan Simmons. The book is a fictionalized account of the two ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, and their combined 129-man crew, that went in search of the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. And never returned.

Now, I’m reading In The Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides, the nonfiction account of the voyage of the USS Jeannette. This ship ventured in search of the North Pole around 1880. Of the crew of 33, only 13 returned home, without tales of a successful discovery of the North Pole.

These books may offer a bit of a reprieve from the heat of summer, with the endless scenes of ice, cold, and the notion of a “balmy” June day in the 20s. The books also offer into an interesting view into the age-old concept that we human beings can really get carried away with ideas of our own destiny, God’s desire for us to conquer and dominate, and that sheer will can allow us to achieve what we believe to be ours and will allow us to overcome any obstacle in our path. Hubris is the neat and tidy word.

It’s hard to listen to these stories (I’m a big audiobook fan) and not be filled with a deep sense of dread. How could they not see that so many of their decisions were terrible ones, that they were doomed to failure? From the beginning of the germ of the idea and then all the way through their journey, decision after decision is shown to be misguided or just plain wrong. And, instead of seeing each disaster as maybe a sign that the plan was a bad one, there’s only the sense that God (or some sort of power beyond themselves) likes to place obstacles, somehow in order that strong men (they are all men in these stories) can become yet stronger.

While such groundbreaking exploration as these two stories unveil involves a great deal of risk, these two adventures contain something beyond risk: an overwhelming amount of recklessness. That recklessness is certainly clear in hindsight. Yet, it’s interesting to wonder if the voice of reason was ever raised in the decision-making process—and dismissed—or if the voice of reason was simply silent all the way through.

As I listen to these stories, I can’t help but reflect on my own decisions and, at the present time, the decisions related to my work as a pastor of a local church and as the chair of the board of directors for the Maine Conference United Church of Christ. It’s not hard to be lured into the notion that my decisions or the decisions of which I am part are all good and right ones, that they are part of the laying out of such things as healthier group dynamics. Past decisions and behaviors were clearly bad ones and have led to “dysfunction” and problematic practices. And, now we are all about bringing health and wellbeing.

It’s much more difficult to see that current decisions and choices have their own elements of trouble and waywardness. After all, we are all imperfect beings.   Our decisions and choices cannot lead to a perfect, or even near perfect, system. Yet, somehow we find convenient ways of keeping our own imperfection at bay.

It’s awfully tempting to see ourselves as saviors, of a sort, to the groups of which we are part—church and conference. Look at the good work we are doing, “righting the ship,” so to speak. Such work always invites a disgruntled group, or groups, of those who represent the old, bad way of doing things (which, of course, they tend to see as not at all bad or dysfunctional). Can we get them onboard with our new plan, or find a way to dismiss them or discourage them, or minimize their attempts to undermine this new, better way?

It’s hard for decision-makers to see the mistakes inherent in their own choices. It’s also hard to fathom that some future group will look back to this time and wonder what in the world we were thinking. On the one hand, we see ourselves as contributing to the improvement of whatever situation we are in. But, on the other hand, we are certainly making errors that will contribute to dysfunction of some sort, now and into the future—whether we want to realize it or not.

The decisions that we make may, at least on some occasions, be wayward. Sometimes our choices are just plain wrong. Yet, our intentions are usually good ones. In looking into the past, and trying to undo, or redo, some of the work of our predecessors, we ought to cut them a little slack. With the grace that I’m sure we would appreciate when some of our decisions are clearly shown one day to be bad ones, we ought to look back with that same sort of grace, resisting the dangerous appeal of believing that we are the ones to finally “right the ship” fully and completely.

Decisions in local churches in Maine, and on the Maine Conference board, will likely not result in considerable death and destruction like those adventurous voyages of the nineteenth century, of the Terror and Erebus and the Jeannette. Still, those of us who participate in the decision-making for and with our peers, and for the institutions of which we are part, ought to spend some time in serious and deep reflection regarding the way we are forging. For the sake of the past, the present and the future, we should be of a conscientious mind in resisting hubris, appreciating that our knowledge is, like that of our predecessors, incomplete.  We may steer the ship in a more positive direction, for this time and context, but we will never fully “right the ship.” That is beyond our capabilities, no matter how hard we try.

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