When I first started serving as Pastor and Teacher at Old South Church in Hallowell, Maine, it was only a couple of months before Advent. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when it came to Old South’s usual Advent and Christmas observance, but I got a good sense of things when I arrived for worship on the Sunday after Thanksgiving to find the entire sanctuary bedecked for Christmas—greens, wreaths, green and red, etc. Everywhere.

No one had said anything and, of course, no one had consulted me, or asked about what I thought about Christmas decorations at the start of Advent. Just as in lots of other congregational churches like Old South, there was really nothing to ask. Thanksgiving arrives and then it’s Christmastime. Sure, there might be the token nod to Advent with an Advent wreath, but the emphasis is clearly on Christmas. And, somewhere in there, the expectation that Christmas carols will be a part of worship as soon as possible.

Old South was my first call as a senior or sole pastor, but I knew that Advent is sometimes a prickly part of church life. When I served as an associate pastor in Cambridge, MA, one of the area UCC clergy was infamous for his hard-line approach to the season: no Christmas carols until Christmas! Somehow he managed to keep a hold on an all-Advent season before December 24, but there were plenty of unhappy folks from that church who gloomingly shared the tale of the injustice of no Christmas carols before Christmas.

I never felt quite the need to develop such a hard-line approach, and certainly knew that such an approach would likely spell a quick end to my tenure at Old South, but I wasn’t exactly going to let Advent go, mostly, unacknowledged and unobserved.

Over my years at Old South, which are now quite a few, we’ve settled into something of a compromise of sorts. Although I haven’t been able to stem the tide of the festooning of the sanctuary in Christmas garb that still occurs right after Thanksgiving (and has increased over the years), I have been able to maintain a focus on Advent at least through the first two or three Sundays of Advent. Worship is grounded in Advent, in some way or another, and we don’t sing Christmas carols.

I’m not sure I can admit any sort of victory. For the most part, I sense that most of the folks who regularly attend Old South manage to put up with my strange Advent eccentricity only because I’m now not the only one who plans worship. We have a small worship team that meets regularly to talk about worship, and to choose hymns. Team members, it turns out, really like Advent hymns—especially the ones that are found in The New Century hymnal. The words and the minor tone qualities of those Advent hymns provide a comforting antidote to the crush of Merry Christmas everywhere else in their lives.

This year, in addition to the Advent candle-lighting themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love, worship has centered on the women in the genealogy of Jesus (thank you The Junia Project for this idea)—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s Wife (Bathsheba) and Mary. It seems especially appropriate to highlight these women now in light of the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, for these women have much to teach us. Their stories are remarkable and should be known. And, beyond that, these women provide illuminating lessons not only concerning the difficult and oppressive conditions in which women have lived, and continue to live, but also on the ways through which God has made use of and relied on bold and courageous women.   And, in addition to that, these women teach us about the significance of outsiders in the line of which Jesus was part. Woman after woman is clearly defined as an outsider of some kind, an outsider who was welcomed in (more or less) and who became an integral piece of the family puzzle that would produce the Messiah, God’s Promised One.

In the midst of the display of Christmas all around us, worship at Old South is centered on Advent—at least for a few precious weeks. Advent is a crucial time in the life of a community of faith, as we not only prepare for a story that most of us know all too well, but as we seek to open our hearts and minds to the continuing unexpected, mysterious and surprising presence of God in our lives. Advent is not only a season for waiting for the same old Christmas story, and the opportunity to sing our favorite Christmas carols. It’s also a holy and sacred time to consider anew what that babe in the manger means, and how well we are able to follow where he beckons us.

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It was an interesting moment last week to have headlines involving Christian creeds and statements of faith. When’s the last time that happened? And, to witness various media outlets and late night talk show hosts struggle with what exactly a creed is—a prayer, perhaps? A strange, Christian ritual?

The occasion was the funeral for George H. W. Bush. There they all were in the front pew: all of the living former Presidents of the United States, along with their spouses, and the current President and his spouse. At some point in the proceedings, the service included the reciting (or reading, since it was printed in the program) of the Apostles’ Creed, the most ancient of Christian statements of faith.

One could clearly see that all of the former Presidents, and their spouses, read/declared that statement of faith and belief, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . . “

The current President, and his wife, stood silent, the program for the service closed, held down by the President’s lap.

Critics were quick to point this out. The President is clearly popular with evangelical Christians. Shouldn’t this be a big deal for them? How can a President who claims such a kinship with the Christian Right not even make the smallest effort to recite one of Christianity’s oldest and most well known creeds?

Evangelicals were quick to push back, somehow likening the reciting of the creed to singing a hymn—maybe the President doesn’t have a good singing voice? Maybe he’s uncomfortable singing in public? Even though the Creed is not sung. And other evangelical leaders defended the President in other ways, like pointing out that he likely has a lot on his mind.

I cannot, in good conscience, defend the current President, but I don’t recite creeds either and I don’t include them any longer in worship services at Old South. Given the scowl on the President’s face during that moment at the funeral, I don’t think the President shares my creedal concerns. It’s also clear that, though he remains popular with the Christian Right, he seems to have little to no appreciation for the teachings Jesus offered on caring for the widow and orphaned, welcoming the stranger and loving one’s neighbor. I cannot defend him.

Still, at Old South, we no longer include creeds and statements of faith in worship, or in any other church gathering.

When I began serving at Old South in 2005, there was a tradition of reciting a creed or statement of faith on the first Sunday of each month, when we celebrate the sacrament of communion. For a while, I continued this tradition—until I just couldn’t do it any longer.

Old South is made up of a wide range of people, of varying attachments to Christian faith and practice. Creeds are simply no longer the true communal statement they once were. Now, they seem like a sort of test, where we figure out who’s really in, and who’s out.

And, that just doesn’t fit in—in any way, shape or form—to how I feel called to practice church in these times. We are not about tests. We are about invitation and welcome, about gathering together amid our questions and doubts, our occasional assurances, and our sense that we are mysteriously drawn together to be God’s people, whatever that might mean.

This fall, I offered opportunities for the people of Old South to share a brief glimpse into their story, their life of faith, during our weekly Sunday worship. A few weeks ago, a woman got up to tell us a bit about her story. Her parents are both UCC pastors. As a child and youth, she attended church regularly. Yet, it just didn’t speak to her in a meaningful way. She drifted away from church involvement.

When she moved to Hallowell, there was something that inspired her to try church again. She’s been an active member of Old South ever since.

In the story she shared in worship, she declared that she’s not sure what she believes or why she felt motivated to come back to church. But, the welcoming statement of the United Church of Christ, “No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” spoke to her in a deep way. She may not be able to articulate a set of beliefs, but she feels it’s important to be in the midst of a community of faith. She feels drawn in to the mystery of God’s presence and the gathering of God’s people.

And, this is part of what brings powerful meaning to our community. We are not about firm declaration of faith statements, but instead, we gather around something that we can hardly articulate: a sense of finding God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, strangely, yet fervently, compelling. No test for admittance. No prescribed answers to life’s and faith’s most complicated and difficult questions. Instead, we offer welcome and invitation, to walk this journey of life and faith together, and to seek to share the love of God.

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Lessons from the Lord (& Taylor)

In the dim light of late afternoon and amid the crushing movement of countless, busting human beings, the large “store closing” signs adorning every window of a very large building didn’t seem all that extraordinary. I was just trying to stay upright and to make sure that my family unit of four stayed close together so we wouldn’t lose anyone. At some point, my husband paused and asked if I wanted to take a picture. Picture of what, I wondered. Then, I realized what I was looking at.

It was Black Friday and we were in New York City. My family and I had spent the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then decided to take a long walk toward our temporary New York City home in Chelsea. After leaving the Met, we walked along the edge of Central Park until we arrived at the corner of 5th Avenue and 59th Street. There, we took a little break and enjoyed Belgian wafels from the “Wafels and Dinges” cart.

Then, we continued along Fifth, into Black Friday hell. Yes, we could have avoided the whole thing, but we had done this before and it seemed like a good epic quest. How long could we survive the crowds?

We paused to enjoy the holiday light show in front of Saks. And, then we continued to make our way amid the multitude. Along the way, we came upon the large building with its very large “Store Closing” signs in every window. It was the Lord & Taylor building.

I don’t have any special attachment to Lord & Taylor, and no particular regard for its Fifth Avenue store. But, it was one of those moments when I felt a certain kinship with a dying institution. I’m part of one of those too.

While there are significant and crucial differences between large department stores and churches, I can’t help but feel a little bit of connection when I see the unmistakable signs of decline in others. My church is not alone.

I suspect Lord & Taylor, just like other large department store chains, has employed a whole bunch of people at great expense, to try to keep its brand relevant and thriving in our changing times. It hasn’t been altogether successful—at least not in terms of its flagship store that has proudly stood on Fifth Avenue for over a hundred years. So, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about the decline we are feeling at Old South, where we have not employed a great number of people at great expense in the effort to stay afloat. The church that I serve has been around longer than the Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue. It doesn’t have large closing signs in every window. We aren’t thriving, but we are not on the brink of oblivion—at least not yet.

Things are changing, and sometimes changing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up. I have no doubt that the Church will continue on, but the shape and form of its existence is changing. No doubt about that. Churches of the old mainline are struggling. Denominations are finding that brand loyalty is no longer an important aspect of how people live their lives or connect with faith, if they connect at all.

There is considerable sadness, and angst, and anger with the changes that are afoot. But, I can’t help but to be hopeful too. Perhaps in the new ways of being church, there will be less of those things that have plagued the Church in its current format—like clergy abuse, denial and cover-up; and buildings that can seem more important than mission.

The decline of the form of church that has been meaningful to me, and those who gather at Old South (and churches like ours) is difficult to witness from the inside. And, it can lead to certain forms of recriminations—maybe it’s the pastor’s fault; maybe it’s because we are Open and Affirming; maybe it’s because there are sports practices for kids on Sunday mornings; maybe it’s because people are just immoral, narcissistic ne’er-do-wells.

Somehow we don’t say the same things about the closing of Lord & Taylor. Instead, we manage to recognize that life is changing, has changed, and continues to change. And certain aspects of our current, and past, existence are just not going to survive—like the Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue, and Sears, and typewriters, and landline phones.

Through our decline, our focus must stay on our faith, and on our experience of God’s love for us and for others. Our “success” as a church is not measured in the number of years we have managed to stay in business, but in the ways through which we have endeavored to share God’s love and hope, peace and joy. When it is time to hang up the “closed” sign, we ought not feel that we have failed. Instead, we should continue to hold our mission at the forefront, and to know that, even in our decline, we hear the ancient words of the Lord who gathers us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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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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