Call and Circumstance

In the year King Uzziah died . . . So begins the sixth chapter of Isaiah, in which Isaiah is called as a prophet. In reading Isaiah’s call story, it’s easy to get caught up in the wild elements of the story: the Lord sitting on a high and lofty throne; the seraphs and their various wings; the hot coal and the tongs that carry it, etc.   It’s also easy to focus on the seemingly eager response that Isaiah offers, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah’s call story is a truly dramatic and remarkable one. Yet, in the drama, we may miss that vital first statement that marks the context of the call, “In the year King Uzziah died.” Isaiah’s call didn’t come in a vacuum, or in a solitary, personal moment. Isaiah’s call occurred at a particular moment, within a set of circumstances.

This angle of the story came to me as I reflected on the annual honorary degree dinner held at Colby College, where my husband teaches, the night before commencement (which also happened to be the night before I was planning to give my Sunday sermon at Old South with Isaiah 6:1-8 as the focus scripture from the lectionary readings). It’s an event that I look forward to every year, as it offers an opportunity not only to celebrate accomplished individuals, but also to hear from them and to learn a little about their stories. This year, my husband and I served as hosts for one of the celebrated people who was also the commencement speaker this year, Senator Susan Collins.

During the dinner, all of the individuals had an opportunity to speak. I was struck by the sense that each of them had recognized a moment, or a set of circumstances, that led them to response. Each of them experienced a certain kind of “call” to do something, to respond, to take a risk:

Rebecca Corbett is an assistant managing editor at The New York Times. She was involved in the reporting that broke the Harvey Weinstein story.

Theaster Gates is an artist who “creates sculptures with clay, tar, and renovated buildings, transforming the raw material of urban neighborhoods into radically re-imagined vessels of opportunity for the community.”

Greg Powell was contentedly working as an attorney when family friend, Harold Alfond, called and asked him to try something completely new: become chair of his charitable foundation. The Harold Alfond Foundation is the largest charitable foundation in Maine.

Susan Collins is the most senior Republican woman in the United States Senate. At the honorary degree dinner, the story of the evening focused on the government shutdown this past January. While many legislators chose to huddle in their own ideological corner, Collins invited a diverse group of her colleagues to her office. A system was established that forced the participants to talk one at a time and to listen to each other.  The shutdown lasted only a few days.

All of these individuals recognized context and circumstances and then responded accordingly. That they were being celebrated at Colby College (and in other ways too) meant that the risk they took worked out and worked out well.

The lesson that these honorary degree candidates offer is one that should be part of church life as well, especially for churches of the old Mainline. In churches like the one I serve—a church that was once the center of community life, where people had to arrive an hour early for the Christmas Eve service to get a seat—quite a lot of energy is spent in arguing our context and circumstances. We fret and complain. We push against the reality in which we exist.

We are no longer at the heart of community life. The Christmas Eve service, while still the largest of the year, doesn’t even come close to filling the sanctuary.

Over the past fifty years, our circumstances have changed, and changed dramatically. Instead of carefully considering our new context, though, we complain and argue. If only the Sunday morning sports practices would end. If only families would appreciate how important church is to their well-being. If only . . .

As is the case for Isaiah, context and circumstances are important. The call is grounded in a particular moment.

For the current moment, how is the church—and its members—being called? To what mission, to what opportunity, should we direct our focus? What risk is calling us to action, that we might share God’s love and hope?

Certainly, there are opportunities, and plenty of them. Our communities abound with poverty, homelessness, spiritual hunger, loneliness, and addiction. Yet, we so often yearn for what we had, and what we were.   It’s okay to hold fond memories of our past, but those memories shouldn’t get in the way of how we are being called now, in our current context, to be God’s people.

We may be fewer in number, but we are called to important ministries in this time, grounded in our own context. It’s time to let go of the past, and to take stock of who and what we are now, and how God is calling us. As Isaiah recognized his own sinfulness, and that of his people, he was cleared of that sin and was able to see and to hear anew what God was speaking to him. And, when the call of God came, Isaiah responded with a compelling eagerness, “Here am I; send me!”

We, the church and its people, are called to do the same—in this time, in this place.




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The Use and Abuse of the Bible

The New York Times recently reported that, at a rural Oregon high school, LGBT students were assigned certain Bible readings when they got into trouble. [“L.G.B.T Students in Oregon Were Bullied and Forced to Read Bible, Report Says,” May 16, 2018] According to the story, “school officials initially denied that students were required to read the Bible as punishment. But they later told investigators it was true, adding that they handed down the punishment not to promote a religion but ‘to assist students in understanding the effects of certain behaviors.’”

The article didn’t identify which readings were a part of the punishment, but the tone of the article suggested that some of my favorite Biblical readings were very likely not included:

1 Corinthians 7: 8, 32-35—“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. . . . I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.”

Galatians 3:28—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Luke 6:37—“‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Matthew 22:37-40—“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

The Bible contains a great deal of everything—narratives, stories, lessons, poetry, commands, appeals, etc. It’s a rich tapestry of tradition, as well as an important foundation especially for those who are within the bonds of Judaism and Christianity.

But, time and time again, over and over, the Bible is used and abused in ways that are deeply unsettling. It’s not only that individuals and communities have been targeted for scorn, derision and even violence, but that in our seemingly knowledgeable and literate society, the tendency is still for large, dominant groups to use the Bible to punish and marginalize smaller, more vulnerable groups.

It’s simply unacceptable to use the Bible to belittle or demean. Those school officials stated that they wished to “assist students in understanding the effects of certain behaviors.” What about the behaviors of the school officials themselves? Did they spend even a moment reflecting on what they were doing and why?

Beyond the problematic use of the Bible as punishment in a public school setting, it’s distressing to see yet another example of the misuse of the Bible. Sure, there are individual verses that can be plucked out—for almost any purpose under the sun. But, the Bible also contains remarkable stories that are more than the sum of their individual verses. How about that story about the Good Samaritan? Or the Prodigal Son? What about all those times when Jesus chose to spend his time in the midst of the despised and downtrodden, rather than the powerful and pious?

All of this is bad enough, but it’s hard to ignore another alarming aspect of this story: the damage done to faith communities for whom the Bible is central and vital. When some people of faith choose to punish rather than welcome, to judge rather than love, to demean rather than respect, to marginalize the vulnerable rather than recognizing their dignity, we fall far short of the lessons laid out in the book that we claim to esteem as holy.

The faithful must consider prayerfully the misuse of our holy book, and invite the wisdom and courage to “understand the effects” of our own behavior, especially those certain behaviors that undermine the love of God.

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The Last Lasts

When my daughter was a senior in high school, we observed many of the elements of that last year of high school as “the lasts.” And, in a blog post during that time, I reflected on those “lasts” as they related to my life as a small church pastor, in a church that may also be experiencing a series of “lasts,” as church attendance shrinks under the strain of current American culture, especially virulent in the Northeast.  (see “The Lasts” from February 2015)

Now, it’s my son’s turn for “lasts.” And, since my husband and I had only two children, our son’s “lasts” are our “lasts” as well. No more school field trips or permission slips. No more packed lunches or unpleasant, dissonant, high school concerts (or musicals). No more parent-teacher conferences.

The swim meets will continue, though, as our son will swim in college (as our daughter does). But, I won’t be in charge of organizing the timers or paying the team’s bills or putting together the end of season slideshow.

Our son’s lasts are our lasts. And, there are a few things I’m fairly certain I will miss. I’ll miss the community of parents, especially the swim parents. There are some very good people there. I’ll also miss the rhythm of family life with children at home and school activities.

Among the lasts is a very big last: the last year living in what has been our primary residence. Since 2002, we’ve been a very lucky family, with two houses. One house is a nice suburban house just down the hill from my husband’s job and not at all far from places where kids spend time, like the Y, the city playground and the soccer fields. The other house is in a much more rural location on a beautiful Maine lake, down a long dirt road.

Since we purchased the lake house (in Maine, referred to as a “camp”), our plan has been to make it our primary residence when our son graduated from high school. Now, that time is upon us.

After twenty years, the Waterville house has accumulated a lot of stuff—actual, physical stuff as well as a lot of other sorts of stuff, like memories of family, friends, holidays, special gatherings, and the moments of our growing children seemingly stamped on the very surfaces of the house itself. When I started dealing with the reality of moving from one house to the other, and making the transition from two houses to one, I found the task fairly easy, almost exhilarating. The thought of not needing to worry about the other residence seemed like the path to contentment.

As I continued the process, though, of packing up some things and heaving other things into the dumpster, and as I moved deeper and deeper into boxes and cabinets and closets, encountering items that I hadn’t seen in years, I’ve started to get rather nostalgic. I’m starting to feel a sense of loss while also sensing a greater awareness of moving into a new, unfamiliar reality: the unknown land of the empty nester.

In this season of the last lasts, I can’t help but reflect on how it connects to my life as pastor. This time, I’m thinking especially about Old South’s sanctuary building and all of the conversations I’ve had over the years, as we’ve started contemplating what we are going to do with our beautiful, but high maintenance, sanctuary building (Old South also has a parish house), as our financial resources shrink along with our congregation.

The oldest members of Old South are “builders”—their experience of God is wrapped up in that building. But, even those who are not “builders” express a profound sense of loss when they even slightly begin thinking about the possibility of giving up on the sanctuary building. It’s as if their lives of faith are stamped on the very surfaces of that building, and so firmly rooted in the foundation that their faith will shrivel without the building itself.

Whenever I’ve had one of these conversations, I’ve felt the welling of empathy. I do understand the attachment to the building, and all that it means to people. Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but wonder about what this all says about our lives of faith—individually and collectively. To give up the building will be deeply painful, but our Christian faith has quite a lot to say about giving things up and going down roads we’d prefer not to travel. Our Christian faith has a lot to say about death, and new life. And, our Christian faith has a lot to say about fear, as in one of the most uttered commands of Jesus himself: Do not be afraid.

Whether or not we keep the sanctuary building, we ought to allow our Christian faith to turn our hearts and minds beyond the building. Sanctuaries are special places and hold special memories, but we must contemplate the extent to which we are worshiping the building and our memories, and turning them into dangerous idols.

As I’ve discovered in the packing up of the home where my husband and I have raised our children, memories are powerful and they are precious. But memories will not feed our souls nor provide the foundation we require. While there is certainly a component of faith that looks back, as we understand ourselves to be a part of a long story, faith is very much about moving forward into a future that is not ours to determine. Our faith beckons us always forward, even into unknown and uncomfortable places. Yet, that is where there is hope, love and life.

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The Changing Ways of Devotion and Worship

Recently, I spent a few days in New York City, as a mini-vacation and as a way to step away from my usual mundane life in the middle of Maine to experience a little, as we Mainers would say, “cul-cha.” In just a few short days, I crammed in visits to museums, a play, whisky tasting and even a performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Metropolitan Opera.

One of the museum visits was to The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s home for medieval art. It’s a bit of a hike to The Cloisters, but from previous visits, I knew it was worth the effort. Among its more famous holdings is the impressive seven-tapestry drama “The Hunt of the Unicorn,” from Belgium, around 1500.

Given that the museum is focused on medieval art from Europe, the subject of a lot of the art is, in one way or another, Christianity. There are paintings and sculptures and altarpieces, featuring Madonna and Child, or stories from the Gospels, especially from the end of the earthly life of Jesus Christ.

During this particular visit, I found myself paying close attention to the smaller pieces, items that were likely in a home for personal or family devotions. This piece is a portable devotional shrine focusing on Virgin and Child, from early 1300s France:


Although I suspect that there are Christian homes that continue to hold such devotional pieces, they are certainly not central to the current practice of the faith, especially in the United States. We’ve “moved on” to other methods of devotion. As post-Enlightenment people, devotional materials, particularly among Mainline Protestant churches, involves written material, like the “Daily Devotional” offered by the United Church of Christ or “God Pause,” provided by Luther Seminary.

The ways of practicing the faith have evolved, and continues to evolve. We are presently in the midst of a time that seems so full of evolution of faith practice that it’s hard to keep up with all of the changes.

At Old South, we are very much a twentieth-century, traditional church. Our worship and devotional style hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. For those who gather, it’s a meaningful way of practicing the faith. For many of our children and grandchildren, however, it is not.

When people at Old South start talking about the churches in the area with full parking lots, “Why can’t we be more like them?” I ask them if they are interested in attending worship that is more in a theater-type space, with a rock band and a (male) minister in jeans who offers a long sermon. I don’t even need to get past the rock band part of the description to know that they are not interested.

And that’s okay.

The ways of Christian practice and devotion have evolved and changed in lots of ways over a long period of time. This isn’t the only time of great change.

As I gazed upon those lovely pieces of personal devotion at The Cloisters, now trapped behind glass in a museum, I wondered how my own practice of worship and devotion will be remembered years from now. Will some museum display a worship bulletin or perhaps offer a place where visitors can watch a video of worship?

The ways of worship and devotion change over time. The temptation may be to make judgments regarding forms of worship and devotion that are different from one’s own. But, it’s important to refrain from such judgments. Worship and devotion change over time, but that doesn’t mean that we are marching toward “better” worship and devotion, nor is one way or another clearly more pleasing to God.  From what we learn in the Holy Scriptures, God doesn’t seem all that swayed by popularity.

One may find connection to God through personal shrines or through singing familiar hymns or through a band playing contemporary praise music.  What’s important is that connection, and the sense of meaning and authenticity in one’s worship.  Our devotional life ought to remind us, again and again, that to worship God is to understand deeply that we are not God.  Nor can any one person or group claim to know God fully.

The ways of worship and devotion change and evolve, but worship and devotion isn’t like buying a car.  A newer way may not be better, more powerful, more efficient, or even packed with improved safety features.  Whether we choose a newer way or stick with the more traditional, it’s about worship and our connection to the Creator.  It’s about being the Church of Jesus Christ, sharing hope and love as best we are able.  And always coming back to the source of our life, and offering our thanks and praise.

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Winter’s People

In Central Maine, especially where I live on a tranquil Maine lake, it feels like we are still very much in the grip of winter.   There’s still plenty of snow on the ground, temperatures are chilly, and the lake doesn’t show any open water anywhere near our shore—it’s just one giant slab of ice. The calendar may declare that we are about in the middle of April, and well into spring, but it looks a lot more like February from my kitchen window.

I find myself also feeling at least a bit as if I’m in the midst of winter in the small church that I serve. Despite having declared just a week and a half ago that “He is Risen!” and “He is Risen Indeed!” it doesn’t much feel like Easter has taken any hold on most of my congregation. It feels like they are still in the midst of winter.

The Sunday after Easter (which happened to be last Sunday) is one of the Sundays of the year that I usually look forward to. Easter so often seems weird and disorientating. Such a quiet, intimate story blown up so large and loud, with the ambitious, potent tune of Christ the Lord is Risen Today and the sanctuary almost as full as Christmas Eve. Somehow, it doesn’t really work, considering the Gospel stories of the first Easter, when there was so much confusion and fear and not a lot of people. I like the Sunday after Easter, when all of the “extras” have tucked themselves back into their normal Sunday routines, away from worship.

This year, on the Sunday after Easter, I didn’t get the feeling that I usually do, of satisfaction and connection. Easter, I declared to the congregation, is really for us, for those of us who get up and go to church on the Sunday after Easter. Easter is for those of us who stick around, for that’s one of the ways through which we experience the risen Christ.

Yet, last Sunday, as I was offering what I thought to be a happy and even invigorating message—sure, we may be small, but we’re the ones who stick around, we’re the ones ready to experience the risen Christ—it was hard not to notice that most of the congregation didn’t exactly seem with me.

I could see at least one person struggling to stay awake. Another looked angry. And a few others just looked blank.

I wasn’t sure what to do. Stop the sermon and ask them what was going on, what were they thinking, why didn’t they feel engaged with this message? It was tempting, but I didn’t. I stumbled to the end. And though it was very quiet at the end of the sermon, which in a northern New England Congregational Church often means that the congregation likes the sermon, something seemed amiss.

For the last several days, I’ve been thinking about last Sunday and wondering about what it all meant. I wonder, sometimes, if there are people at Old South who just prefer being “winter” people, that they just are not all that interested in experiencing the “spring” of the risen Christ. They are older, and mostly settled in who they are and what’s important to them. Whether or not they can identify an experience of the risen Christ in the past, they are not all that interested at this point in their lives.

They just want to stick to the routine, and ensure that the building will be operational, and there’s a pastor in the pulpit, until . . . well, until they reach the end of their earthly life.

Thankfully, it’s not everyone. On Sunday, there were a few with animated faces (yes! I’m here! I stuck around! I might experience the risen Christ!), but there weren’t many of them.

In the middle of this April, it’s still winter—inside and out. My hope is that the risen Christ will still find a way to surprise us, to make himself known in the midst of our little congregation in the middle of Maine.   We are sticking around, after all.

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Where Does Easter Start?

As I was scanning the local newspaper a couple of days ago, I stopped at an almost full-sized ad from one of the local supermarket chains. The colors of the ad, bold spring colors on a page that was otherwise black and newsprint white, caught my attention. Then I noticed the headline: “Easter Starts Here!”

In my only slightly caffeinated state at the time, I just stared at it. Something seemed not quite right. And, then it started to sink in. Really? Easter starts at the grocery store? And, below the headline: pictures of ham, turkey, tulips and asparagus. Is this really where Easter starts?

Do they not know what Easter is? It’s quite possible that the writer of the ad doesn’t know much of anything about Easter, if the writer of the ad is a typical resident of Maine, where only a small percentage of the population is made up of people who identify themselves as Christian.

Like every other business, who can really blame them for trying to cash in on the latest holiday? But, I can’t help but think that that particular headline went too far. I don’t begrudge them trying to lure people into their stores with pictures of ham and spring vegetables, but the notion that one of the major holidays of Christianity—the holy day that makes Christianity what it is—can be so casually absorbed into business marketing, as if Easter is the equivalent of the 4th of July. It all seems wrong, and offensive.

Yesterday, during Old South’s Good Friday observance, we listened to difficult scripture, the stories of the end of the earthly life of Jesus, the pain and the agony of death on a cross, and finally the words, “It is finished.” We sang familiar Holy Week hymns like “Were You There?” and “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. So many of the words heartbreaking and haunting, yet, still in those words, the promise of hope: “What language can 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.” (third verse of “O Sacred Head”)

Tomorrow, on Easter Sunday, we’ll gather as God’s beloved community and contemplate the wonder of resurrection, and consider new insights into our journey of faith—how Christ is present with us still and how we are called, as individuals and as a church, to follow in Christ’s way. The story we will hear, the songs that we will sing, the silence that we will observe, the opening of the heart and mind to new awareness of an ancient story: that is where Easter starts. Yet again.

In the Dr. Suess meditation on Christianity’s other most holy of days, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the story reaches its climax when an entirely unexpected (and completely contrary to his motives) experience befalls the Grinch. With his sleigh full of Whoville’s Christmas gifts and decorations, up high on the top of Mt. Crumpet, the Grinch pauses so that he can listen in for the wailing of Whoville’s residents as they discover the gifts and decorations missing, and therefore that Christmas is not coming. Instead of crying and carrying on, though, the Grinch discovers that the residents are still celebrating Christmas, gathering together, holding hands and singing.

A bold thought enters the Grinch’s mind, “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

It’s the same for Easter. It won’t be found in any store, not even the grocery store with its bold claim that it is where Easter starts. It won’t be found in the midst of the tulips or the asparagus or even the ham.

Easter won’t be found there. It’s found in the story of God’s people, next to an empty tomb, and an awareness that something amazing and unfathomable has happened.

And continues to happen.

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The Funny Thing About Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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