I usually keep the Ukestra videos somewhere else on my page but I wanted to put this one here. Recorded under a variety of names, this song began life as a poem by Woody Guthrie to commemorate the (at that time) anonymous Mexican victims of a plane crash in 1948. The song was set to music by a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman and it has been sung ever since. The passengers were migrant farm workers being transported back over the border to Mexico. Reports at the time did not feel the need to mention their names.
A name is important. It has practical uses, of course. It is also a recognition of our existence as holy children of God. To erase someone's name doesn't really erase their existence or their holiness, However, it makes it very hard to tell their story. What is happening today is a willful ignorance--a gross perpetuation--of our past and present injustices. It is suppression and oppression of people. It is an attempt to erase the reality of our shared humanity to comfort the status quo.
We cannot stand with the status quo. We cannot allow the victims of today's crackdown on immigrant families--separating them from each other and in some cases "losing" their identities--to become mere numbers. We cannot allow ourselves to be numb. We must know their faces and their names and speak them loudly to the powers and principalities of this world.
Obviously, this song still has meaning for us today. Our nation--both before and since the plane crash at Los Gatos--has grappled with recognizing the humanity of people who do not fit a "traditional" (that is, white) concept of "America". We played this song on Sunday in recognition of past and ongoing acts of injustice. It is a reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same.
One postscript to the story is that years later, thanks to some diligent work, the names of the victims of the plane crash were discovered. Here they are so that they are not forgotten again....
The 28 Mexican Citizens Who Died in the Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos January 28, 1948
Miguel Negrete Álvarez. Tomás Aviña de Gracia. Francisco Llamas Durán. Santiago García Elizondo. Rosalio Padilla Estrada. Tomás Padilla Márquez. Bernabé López Garcia. Salvador Sandoval Hernández. Severo Medina Lára. Elías Trujillo Macias. José Rodriguez Macias. Luis López Medina. Manuel Calderón Merino. Luis Cuevas Miranda. Martin Razo Navarro. Ignacio Pérez Navarro. Román Ochoa Ochoa. Ramón Paredes Gonzalez. Guadalupe Ramírez Lára. Apolonio Ramírez Placencia. Alberto Carlos Raygoza. Guadalupe Hernández Rodríguez. Maria Santana Rodríguez. Juan Valenzuela Ruiz. Wenceslao Flores Ruiz. José Valdívia Sánchez. Jesús Meza Santos. Baldomero Marcas Torres.
There were prayers this Sunday as well. Our Congregational Associate prayed for the displaced people of the world. I closed with a prayer for the dream of that Commonwealth of Heaven, or as Woody Guthrie put it in one of our readings, "One Big Union."
Prayer for the One Big Union
Yes, we do all believe in “One Big Union”
We may not call it that
We may use terms like “The Just Society”
Or the “The Utopian Ideal”
Or the “Commonwealth of Heaven”
But what draws us together in places like
The Eliot Church
Is the dream of something greater
The will to oppose inequality
To find a home for the displaced
And to see the humanity of the stranger
We also gather here to recognize the call
In the words of the prophet Micah
To do Justice, Love Mercy, and walk humbly with God
We know that this new world
This new society will not come
Without the sacrifices and labors
Of those who envision it
And we know that we need help
To maintain our vision
And so we pray:
We know that we have fallen short
Of the call to equality, peace and justice
To the building of a world
That is free of violence and oppression
That give to each according to their needs
In the spirit of radical welcome that Jesus
And other prophets taught
We know this and we are sorry
And promise to commit ourselves
To the One Big Union again
Dear God please give us the strength
To keep on traveling down that road
A road with many distractions
Many struggles and discomforts
Please give us the assurance
That (even though we may never see the day
Of the Commonwealth here on Earth)
Please give us the assurance we need
To still work toward that day
In Faith, in Hope, and always in Love
If you happened to walk or drive by the Eliot Church in the last few days, you probably noticed that something is missing. On Saturday night (as best we can tell) someone tore our Rainbow "Peace" flag out of its usual spot and walked off with it. In the morning, I noticed its absence as I headed in to work, Of course we went through a brief "denial" phase. We don't like to think of our neighborhood as a place where things like this happen.
However, it appears that it has. The grommets were still in their place so it wasn't one of us moving it for some reason. Members even walked around the neighborhood to see if the wind blew it away. This theory already seemed unlikely, as we had recently switched out an older, more fragile flag for this one. It was in pretty good shape. Needless to say, we didn't find it.
Eventually we contacted the police and they did the same things. The officer we spoke to, came to the same conclusion we did. Yes, it was most likely stolen. We don't know who did this, of course, and hesitate to ascribe a detailed motive. That said, we assume that they didn't take it to put in their room or to otherwise display for themselves. If that was the case they could have just asked for one. We have plenty for that purpose.
So, what did we do when we met for worship at our appointed time? It was World Communion Sunday, a service dedicated to what holds people together in the midst of disagreement. It is a day when Christians around the globe take communion together. The issues represented by that flag, of course, are ones that divide many people both Christian and non-Christian. It seemed fitting to mark this occasion the way we had planned. .We took communion, too. We chose to stand for unity and for building relationships across ideological lines.
Of course we also prayed. We prayed for whoever took the flag. We prayed for those in our congregation who were impacted by the theft. Finally we prayed the entire LGBTQIA+ community, who have to endure much more than a simple act of vandalism. In fact, they do so on a daily basis.
What are we doing now? We are putting up a new flag. Like I said, we have plenty. We will even give you one if you want. We like to see them put to use. That flag is part of our identity, like communion, the cross in the sanctuary, or the many good works we perform in the community.. It stands for peace, obviously. It also stands for diversity. It is one of the ways our congregation offers support and welcome to all people.
It is not healthy to hide who you are. We are an Open and Affirming congregation.
We will not hide. This is us.
When I was a kid, this machine shed was a big part of my life. I painted it (twice). I helped reshingle it after the world's largest raccoon tore racoon-sized holes in the roof. I learned to sharpen various dangerous farming implements in its back room. I learned to "grease" vintage hay rakes that I would then pull behind a 1948 Ford tractor when I was learning to drive. Perhaps most importantly, it was the base of operations for my grandfather's Christmas tree farm and--therefore--one of the most formative elements in my understanding of how to celebrate the holidays.
You see, even then Christmas and Advent were part of my job. I would spend my summers up on the side of those hills as a teen swinging a machete along the edge of a young tree in long, diagonal, downward strokes. I would try (and fail) to avoid the poison ivy, sunstroke, and angry critters who lived at the base in the underbrush. I did manage to not cut myself, which was an achievement considering how much I enjoyed sharpening things. Planting was the worst. It was heavy, boring work and there was no way to pretend you were fighting trolls. Thankfully my little brother, Dan, started to come down with me after a couple years. Then I had a friend and ally in my misery.
At some point we would head back to school and family in Maine. Other relatives (cousins mostly) would help Grampa look after the trees along with the rest of the farm until we could come back around Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving meant tagging and counting the trees, mowing one last time between them, and decorating the machine shed to attract families from Poughkeepsie and New York looking for "authenticity" in their holiday rituals. It also meant dragging the immensely heavy antique sleigh onto the porch of the house. Everyone helped with that.
The day after Thanksgiving we would cut one of the largest trees and put it in the front hall of my grandparents' house. The day after that we would cut one for ourselves. Usually it was slightly ungainly and unlikely to sell otherwise. Then we would tie it on (or put it in) the car to drive six hours north to our home.
Yes, it was a bit "coals to Newcastle" to bring a tree from Dutchess County, New York to Maine. but we weren't the only ones! It was part of our family tradition. It was something from the ancestral home. Eight generations of our family had lived and farmed there. It was something that made my mother happy, a part of her childhood that we would keep in the house for a couple months until it was just too dangerous to comprehend.
I don't do any of that now. When I became an adult and lived in places like Chicago and Detroit we had a plastic tree. When I served churches in northern Maine we went back to sawing one down at a place where you left a $20 bill in a can by the road. However, when we finally moved to the 'burbs I had a sudden realization. I am still deathly allergic to poison ivy. We persisted cutting our own for a while but after a year or two of me preaching my Advent sermons like a goblin on Benadryl we resigned ourselves to picking one up at the local "mom and pop". They are nice folks. I also get my turkey and pumpkins from them. Still, I do think about what it was like back in the day.
Life moves on and the rituals of the season remind us of that. Climbing into the attic to fish out the lights and the decorations is easy in the years when memories are mostly good or if bad ones feel distant and the future seems bright. Other times it is a rough go. Either way, we hold on to the acts that make this time special. Putting a tree in your house can be a simple thing that you do because you always have. It can also be an act of resistance. It is a strange activity when you really think about it. This is why we often wait until the time feels right.
It took a while for us to get one this year.
Years ago as a blade-wielding teenager in the hot sun I wondered who would end up with the tree I was preparing. What place would it hold in the celebration? What sort of family would it witness? It always seemed worthwhile to give it the attention it deserved both then and now. Be mindful, whether you are handling tools or hanging lights.
I have been both busy and mindful lately, just not with trees. I have been fortunate that my present includes the promise of Christmas Eve services and Advent candles. There is still holiday stuff for me to do. It is still part of my job. These days that job is quite a bit less isolated than raising trees can be. Besides, there are other rituals that help bring meaning and underline the specialness of the season. This year the idea of a small, hot flame in the cold dark has been more compelling than the festive pine with its promise of Christmas morn.
Back on the first Sunday in Advent we held a rally against racism on the town common. After the recent election there has been a rash of racist activity in the area that needed to be addressed by our community. Our interfaith clergy association was among the groups that stepped up. We lit candles. We stood in a group. We held our lights near each other to push back the dark. I said a quick prayer at the mic that I do not remember and as I stood, listening to various colleagues say (and pray) their piece, I felt a different sort of spirit. I was reminded that even as we walk through hard times in our lives we are not alone. There are friends and strangers to hold us up. There are people for us to lift up, too. I value them and am grateful for them all. It was another chance for mindfulness.
Anyway, we got the tree up this evening. We bought it at supper time so it sits in its stand undecorated for now. Tomorrow the house will smell like coffee and evergreen. Eventually we will put up those lights. Then we will go up to attic.
After that we will continue to live in hope and love for another season.
It is about 11:50pm on election night and I was planning to go to bed. The "paths to victory" for my candidate, Hillary Clinton, are closing rapidly and I don't know if we will win or lose, but the tone of conversation among the pundits, my friends, and my family makes it clear. We are expecting the worst. I was going to hit the sack, rest up, and head back out tomorrow. I really was going to do that. The computer was off and the lights were out.
I want to say something that will hopefully still make sense when I look at it in the morning.
I just went into the living room to turn off the TV and I saw my son falling asleep on the couch, still waiting for Pennsylvania. When I saw him, my mind drifted back to when I was his age. It was election night and I was in the "Governor's Suite" at the Portland Sonesta Hotel. We had gathered the family along with close friends and key campaign officials to plan the exact steps that would lead to my father's concession speech in his race for governor of the state of Maine. There was silence mostly, and tears. Eventually we lined up and walked to the door, Then we slowly marched down the hall and into the elevator to the 1980's-tacky ballroom where more people waited. There was more silence and more tears. The son of the outgoing governor appeared next to me and guided me, my sister and brothers up to the riser and behind the lecturn. "It is going to be OK," he said. Then he drifted into the crowd.
I was standing directly behind my parents and slightly to the right. My mom was standing next to my dad. Then he began to talk. I don't remember much about the speech but it was one of those gracious ones. Dad had lost to a man who had been a friend and rival since high school. They had the sort of respect for each other you don't see anymore. What I do remember was watching Dad finish reading a handwritten page of his speech and then slipping it to Mom in a way that the people out in the audience--shocked and dismayed--could not see. Her hand was on his back and Dad stood as still as he could but we were all shaking.
It was one of the darkest moments of my life and I haven't really felt that way since. Now I remember it. I remember the sadness. I remember the sense that we happy few had worked so long and so hard and all had been for naught. All that we had hoped and dreamed wasn't going to happen after all. We--all of us in that hotel ballroom--had lost. In the morning we would need to face the new world. We would have to live with someone else's goals and dreams.
You know what? I remember something else, too. I cannot tell you where the voice came from. Maybe it was inside me. Maybe it was something my parents said. Maybe it came from somewhere else in the room. Whatever it was and wherever it came from I remember standing up there looking out at the people and the cameras while saying four short words to myself over and over and over again.
"So now we fight".
So now we fight. That is what rattled around in my head at the lowest of moments when I was fifteen years old. We fight for every person who stood by our side. We fight for everyone who needs someone to struggle with them or on their behalf. We stand up for that cause we believed in enough to dedicate our time, our effort and our money. We will enter this new world with a firmness of resolve and a chip on our shoulders. Dammit we were right! That rightness was--and is--worth fighting for.
You know what? Those four words have guided my life. That awkward kid in the picture is seventeen-year-old me at the 1988 Democratic convention fighting again, this time for Jesse Jackson. I sure know how to pick a winner, right? That week in Atlanta was when I heard the call to ministry. I chose to be a pastor because it gave me a voice. It gave me a way to enter into the struggle.
It is now 12:30 and I have spent more time on this than I should. The outcome is clearer now. My son is yelling at the TV. I am glad he is a fighter. We are entering another new world. There will parts of it that will truly be awful. We need to keep hope alive. We need to check in with each other. We need to stand up for each other, especially for those who will probably receive the heavy blunt end of the backlash against our shared dream. Women, Muslims, LGBTQIA, poor people, Native-Americans, African-Americans, latinx and other minority groups need every ally they can get. We cannot let the side down.
Dammit, we are still right! We will act that way. We may have lost but we are not defeated or dead. We must remember the requirements and responsibilities of a just society and we must shout them from the rooftops. We need to rush out of our houses tomorrow to continue what we began. Hold your heads high. Meet every gaze firmly and with confidence. No sulking. No hiding. Now is not the time.
So now we fight. We will be back. The truth is on our side. and in the end...
We. Will. Win.
Last night my wife and I slept on cots in the living room as our bedroom ceiling is being repaired and the walls painted. In fact, this is going on in every room in the parsonage, in order. Each time the contractors move on to another room, we engage in a deep cleaning and a culling of stuff. Then we shove what is left into the middle in anticipation of the tarp that will protect our possessions. Then we do it again...and again. Of course each effort reveals a new problem that needs to be addressed. There is some ancient wiring that must be removed at some point before it catches fire. There are leaks in the plumbing that have developed over the last 15 years. There is also the usual sort of wear and tear that can be expected in an old building occupied by clumsy humans.
In a weird sense, it fits right into my experience of sabbatical. In my mind I expected it to be peaceful, with an abundance of time for reflection and study. Instead it has reveled in impracticality and inconvenience. It underlines disorder. It shines a light on places in life where the workmanship has been haphazard.
In my last post I described the church as being a place that sometimes gets wrapped up in measurable tasks at the expense of the spirit. It turns out that pastors get wrapped up too. We are as guilty as anyone of losing track of that path of faith and exploration. As much as anyone, clergy folks like to point to what we have built and--if it is good--say "I did this". At least we say it to ourselves. We also stress out about those times when we have failed. When we do, many of us are still capable of seeing our hands and voices in those moments.
My sabbatical is full of tasks and goals. It is full of things that I can point to--good, bad, or indifferent--and account for time spent. However, I have lately felt the absence of that Transcendence which makes all the activity worthwhile.
Or maybe I have just gotten around to noticing the absence. Maybe it drifted away a while ago and now as I search around for that connection I depend on, it is finally missed There are plenty of reasons why the feeling would recede, just as there are reasons I need it. Not only are all our possessions being shifted around the parsonage. There is plenty of motion and chaos elsewhere. One son is in college now. The car that has been a constant since before our youngest was born finally kicked the bucket while cruising down Rt. 128. Sabbatical, itself, has its own rhythm and requirements that open and close doors for me every day. I am getting stretched.
Also, there are the more global issues. Black Lives Matter continues to underscore the existence of a system of racism that I--like the rest of you--participate in. The presidential election has made us all think about the pool of sexism we cannot seem to get out of. In fact, any member of the male species who hasn't been challenged by the antics of Donald Trump must be spiritually dead. It is a time for self examination. We cannot say we don't recognize him, even if we have never been like him. What are we men to become in this exciting new world? I know what I don't want to be. I don't want to be a burden, an impediment to progress, or a creep.
What I am trying to say is that, like most people, I want to walk through the garbage dump of life equipped to be the best human being I can be. That is a hard thing to do. There is no way I am not getting some garbage on me. My spiritual life is what I rely on to get me through.
I am (we are) reminded of various inequalities and oppression. We all push through times of personal; transition. We should be. What is the faithful response? What is my faithful response? The question today isn't about my work as a progressive and liberal minister of a progressive and liberal church. We all have jobs and I am blessed to have one that enables me to work toward solutions. The question is more existential and fundamental. How should I act? What should I do as a human being?
More basic: Who. Am. I?
One change for sabbatical is that I have made time for study and--consciously or unconsciously--also ended up with a system of accountability. I have written elsewhere about how Dungeons and Dragons encourages the imagination. That curriculum for the RE program requires not just facts and figures but a a level of religious intention. Those courses I am teaching force me to explain and examine some fundamental elements of my own belief system. Hanging out with teens can change your perspective as well. However, maybe the best articulation of the spiritual problem I found was thanks to good ol' Ralph Waldo Emerson.
If you read this blog you are aware of the fact that one of the courses I am teaching is entitled "Nature and Spirituality". Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the readings--in fact the key one--is Emerson's "Nature". It turns out that it is a bit of a challenge to explain to kids, particularly because I and they get hung up at the same place Emerson did when he wrote it. That place is the philosophical concept of "Idealism". For Emerson this material world (or "nature") is infused with the Divine. Ultimately what is real is the soul, It is God, It is the spirit that has ultimate and permanent substance, not the matter that it inhabits. I could go on about his take, but instead you should read the book.
The problem is that for those of us who try to live a life of the spirit face an enormous hill to climb. The problems that we are all wrestling with and that cast a pall over our regular lives need material ("real-world") solutions as much as spiritual ones. In fact, our basic needs in a world in crisis obscure the spiritual ones to a large degree. How, for example, do you explain to someone who cannot get enough food to eat, or who fears the reality of daily violence that they should contemplate the divine spirit that flows through all things?
Of course, there is another question that should hit closer to home for most readers of Burbania Posts. How do we connect with the spirit in people who put their own ambitions and desires over the basic needs of others? What do we do to make them (us) see that spirit in such a way that there is a change of heart? We aren't starving. In fact, most of the people I know are not lacking in material wealth. We are the ones who can make the changes to create abundance for the rest of the world. In giving up our own material ways we can free ourselves, too. Such potential! Such inertia! Dang!
If you asked me what my bedrock beliefs are I, like Emerson, would claim to be an idealist, but we are living (to quote a certain 20th century bard and philosopher) in a material world or, at least, in a material culture. There lies my own tension (again, in the philosophical sense). I expect it does for others.
To be a person on a faith journey is to be a person who at some level accepts that there is more. There is something greater (maybe "God", maybe not). There is something behind what we see and interact with that is worth knowing better. We expect it to sustain us, after all. We may even hope, like Emerson, that we can experience a holy and absolute connection to that "Oneness" that will give us the strength to let go of all the crap--material, emotional, spiritual--that we cling to. As we let go we may fall, but where we land will be a better land than the one we left.
That said, the journey is long. When we feel the absence of meaning it is important to fill the space with the right thing. I do believe that there is more to the world than what we see. However, it takes patience, insight, and effort to connect to what lie behind our mundane existence. Over the last few months I have gained a new appreciation for this dynamic in life. I have also gained an appreciation for the institution of Sabbath. A question, I think, for all of us as a community and as individuals is how to bring the sabbath back. It is more than "time off" after all. How do we find the structured time to return the sacred to our hasty lives?
Thank God I go to a house of worship. Thank the Divine presence that I can take part in a community to support my own journey even as I support them. I give thanks that sometimes--during my better moments--I can get a glimpse of the spirit that flows through us all. Thanks for the strength to move through the darkness and the struggle. Thanks for the power to grow and change.
There is an article floating around my Facebook page that suggests the near death of spirituality in the protestant churches of the United States. In one way it is just another clergy clickbait article. It has one of those titles, after all; "5 Reasons Spirituality is No Longer Important to the American Church!" Also, it comes from a long line of "this is why we are shrinking" complaints and it--although the author points out that we haven't ever really be that good at spirituality in the first place--at least implies a fix . In these ways it fits just the sort of church-story I warn people about.
However, it does underline a problem and it is a serious one. Here is an example; my dad, who isn't a church person at all, told me the other day that he had noticed that a certain type of institution was "picking up the slack" from declining churches. Guess what they were. Were they new age bookstores? Retreat centers? Martial Arts and yoga? Nope. He said they were libraries.
Libraries!? What could he mean by that?
The problem is we know exactly what he means. Libraries are another place--just like churches--that provide non-religious and non-spiritual services. They are a good gathering spot to talk about issues and to get to know people. I have a great one a block from my house. I love it. Dad's implication, of course, was that what libraries do is also what churches do. That is, not spiritual services, but community services. It is hard to view something as a spiritual place or a house of worship if you aren't interested in what those terms might imply. Secular society frequently sees a community center where some of the people engage in magical thinking. To a large extent, this is exactly how we sell ourselves to the world.
That is the problem. Folks inside and outside the church see the congregation in pragmatic terms. It does what libraries do. Or what the salad bar did for single people in the '90's. Where can I meet people? What is the best way for me to impact and improve my community? Where can the kids get that little bit of enrichment--often with very little home reinforcement--that comes from Sunday school? I could go on. We see church as an avenue for good works. What we frequently miss is the spiritual grounding that is supposed to go into those works.
Isn't spirituality supposed to be what the church does best? In my previous post we learned that for Frederick Henry Hedge the "north pole" of the church represents mystical connection to the Divine. The south is for rituals to help us get there. The west draws us to adventure and exploration of ourselves and of the great and wondrous world. The east grounds us in our core beliefs. Many people work hard to situate themselves and their communities on this compass but we are so distracted by the practical bits--rental agreements, the big fundraiser, the fall fair or the new initiative--that we can lose track of why we are doing these things. Church isn't just a place to be busy or to be in some sense a good citizen. We do these things through a congregation because we are spiritual beings trying to live lives that are in some sense religious.
Sometimes I wonder if all our activity actually is part of the problem. Most of the ministers I know work hard to develop their own spiritual paths. Some of them are involved in rituals and pilgrimages. Others are more likely to study or discuss. Virtually all of them try to pray and meditate. They offer these options at their church from time to time. They try to provide explicitly spiritual opportunities for children and adults. Rarely do these programs become popular. There is a small core in each congregation who has the interest and can make the time. There are others who would like to participate as well. Yet we instinctively know what will bring the most people out and the emphasis goes there. When we do this we risk becoming a library without books. Which is to say a library you might visit but are unlikely to join.
I do wonder what the new church will do to lift up this central element of church life. The challenges are many. People cannot (or will not) make it to worship on Sunday morning in the numbers they used to. Other times all seem problematic. Clergy are expected to be a resource on these topics (and are) but few people ever ask them a question. Some people feel that there is so much "important" stuff to think about (like the acquisition and maintenance of money and stuff) which leaves little time to consider the reason we exist, and what makes a just and holy life. The new church will need to find a way to reach out to those folks.
Also, the church needs to figure out a way to cast a line to those people who try to be part of the spiritual life and cannot do it on their own. These are the people who grace our pews when they can. They may think they are there for the coffee and the committee meeting but they aren't. They chose the church (or synagogue or mosque) over the library (or rotary or diner). There is a hunger that may not be fully understood and articulated in each of them.
How does the new church find that hunger? And how do we feed it?
Here are some links...
First, to the article I mentioned: 5 Reasons...
Next, here is a link to my local library. Frankly public libraries are struggling, too. In fact, most places where people gather together for free are having a hard time. Patronize them, and drop some money in the plate. They do good work.
Here are links for other articles in this series
The first one is a "Prequel"
Here is Chapter 1
Here is Chapter 2
Here is Chapter 3
By Chapter 3 we should have a good idea what the problems are. The established church and all its institutions are in crisis. The ship is sinking. The strange part is that what we mostly do is run around trying to save it! Getting lighter or leaner doesn't help on its own. Pumping the bilges doesn't really keep the flood at bay. I hate to say it folks, but it is time to test the water. We need to make plans before the clock runs out.. We are not alone, of course, all kinds of non-profits and service organizations are sinking too. We also have a cloud of congregations. We all must think creatively. Maybe we need to make a different boat out of the old one.
So...what will help us do this? At this point it might make sense to survey the ship. What is its fundamental function? What are its fundamental parts? I am concerned primarily with the liberal church but this applies to others as well. In order to get our bearings it makes sense to look to models that have been used in the past. Naturally (at least if you know me and my own tendencies), this made me think of that great transcendentalist theologian of the church, Frederick Henry Hedge.
You see, many years ago (in the late 19th Century) Hedge preached a sermon called "The Broad Church". In it he discussed the sources and forces that could make his inclusive tradition even more so, while also keeping it grounded enough to be something other than a discussion society or social clique. Like others before him, he organized his thoughts around the image of a compass.
The goal at this point isn't for us all to find the same point on this compass. Instead it is to find our own place between the points. As you read the descriptions you will see that your congregation may travel farther "north" than some. Others may have found a strong place in the "east." This is a good thing. To Hedge the goal was to get situated, be ready to travel, and to be open to seeing and experiencing the perspective of others in their own places. This he called the "Broad" or (small-"c") "catholic" church. A church that knows what it is but is also adaptable and welcoming.
Now, he chose his points based on his own New England biases. That is to say, he labeled things "North," South," "East," and "West" pretty much based on the worldview and understanding of his culture and his friends. Don't get bogged down in that. What is important is that he is trying to situate each broad (wide, open, non-creedal) church somewhere between these four elements, each balancing out (and in conversation with) the others.
Hedge began with the east. For him this pole stood for the unchanging and eternal parts of the community. This is the pole of core belief. It is the story by which we tell our own stories. "The east is the region of steadfastness, of perpetuity...Every church must have its conservative side, its point of resistance, its fixed fact." Even churches like our own need something like this to hold it together. Without the eastern pole, we are adrift.
There are churches (liberal and conservative) who try to hide it and who (at least among the liberals) even deny it. Yet the east is there for us all. What it is varies of course. In the case of my own congregation we take the teachings of the heroes and stories of the Bible very seriously, even if we do not always agree in interpretation. There is our covenant as well "In the Love of truth and the Spirit of Jesus, we unite for the Worship of God and Service to All." Also, though it may seem strange to some, the idea of a non-creedal tradition is itself a central belief.. We explore our faith together, with the understanding that we will disagree.
For another congregation the eastern pole may be different. It may provide a greater or lesser pull. However, it is there and gives us a foundation on which to build.
It also gives us something to struggle with and against.. "Christianity," Hedge writes "though bound to a given idea and to certain immutable truths is not, for the rest, a fixture, but a movement and a growth." What keeps our faith vibrant and growing (here we are talking about spiritual growth, not numerical growth) is that opposite pole. The west calls to us as well. Back in Hedge's time the image was an obvious one. There the "wilderness" started right outside Boston's western suburbs and stretched all the way to California. For the people of the area and era, it stood for almost unlimited potential.
That said, it is hard to get up for the western hike sometimes. When we think of this pole there is both excitement and fear. It calls us to creativity in both our personal and corporate lives. The west is uncomfortable. Still, we need to do go there, don't we? Henry David Thoreau wrote (in "Walking") "Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free." Hedge asks us to consider what we are holding on to that we don't need to take with us in our new explorations. In church language, how many times have we used the phrase "we have always done it this way" as our sole excuse for not changing?
What holds us back more than anything else is that fear of failure. A journey into the wilderness inevitably leads to numerous misadventures. When we are finally safe and sound we love to look back at them, impressed by our own perseverance. However, at the time they are just painful. They challenge our sense of self. We are embarrassed. This is one of those places where an attitude adjustment is in order. We need to get over ourselves. We have to explore and experiment. We must prepare ourselves for mistakes and wrong turns confident that our final location will make it worthwhile, even if we don't ultimately know where that is.
Thoreau reminds us that "We go eastward to realize history and study the words of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race, we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure." OK... So what does that leave us? The north is the next on our list and for Hedge represents ideals and mystical connection. Quite simply, for most folks (my hero Larry Wilmore being a notable exception) the northern arrow points "up". This is the direction we think of when we think of the transcendent, the Divine, God, or the Great Whatever.
This is what makes congregations unique. We are into the big question and the big connection. An internal urge--small or large--toward exploring this dimension of our lives is what drew us to find a church. We know we won't ever have all the answers. Yet we travel north in fits and starts. Our communities of faith are frequently the gates and doors that we take to go that way. Frequently it is where we find the best companions and the clearest road. Hedge reminds us that "mysticism is a very important element in religion--a feeling after God... It is that by which religion lays hold of the invisible and enters into fuller, that is, more conscious and intimate, communion with the spiritual and heavenly world."
Finally, there is the south. Here is the home of ritual. Hedge says, "A church requires a ritual, requires symbols and sacraments,--something outward as the exponent and medium of ecclesiastical life." North and south work together to help us connect to each other and the Divine.
In a church like mine, it may at first seem like we don't have many symbols and sacraments. However, it just means that what rituals we do have grow in importance. Our worship services--while comparatively simple--are filled with elements we expect to sustain us. The cross behind the pulpit reminds us that not everything is about us. Sermons, hymns, special music, contributions for our kids and monthly communion help us, through steady and meaningful repetition, to look north to God.
Do you see what these points have in common? They are all religious. They are all spiritual. They aren't about programs, budgets, or membership initiatives. They are about the deep and the eternal. They are about the thing that no other organization does as well as houses of worship. If we are to build the new church out of the old, it makes sense to start by situating ourselves in the seas of spirituality. What better thing to use than a compass, helping us to narrow our thoughts down to the basics?
Other institutions and projects may grow out of our foundational work. They certainly should! Still, we need to remember that they are secondary. Buildings are nice to have, Sunday school is, too. It is great to have money and staff. It is lovely to bring them all together on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. Yet without these four points what we do is nothing but a show; a chance for warm and transitory feels.
So, where is your ship? How do you situate yourself? How do you situate you community? Where you land will say a lot about the direction to take. Then we can ask ourselves if we need to move or--just as likely, possibly even more--we can ask what new church we need to build in the same spot.
We should also remember that finding the location of others will help us form coalitions, squadrons and fleets to do the work of church together. As denominations break down and seminaries alter their course, each church has to find its way, but we do not go alone. Hedge concludes his sermon by saying "Let each church labor in its place and kind to develop and assert this catholicity, and the boundary lines which divide the sects shall be washed clean out in the gracious life that shall flood them all, and fuse them all into one prevailing kingdom of God, whose unshut gates shall exclude none that desire to enter, and where east and west and north and south shall meet in peace and join in praise."
That is in for Chapter 3! If you made it to the end, I congratulate you. As you know this is part of a series. I am not sure what comes next. If you have any thoughts or stories to share about the new church being built at your spot of spiritual life, please share!
Here is Chapter 1
Here is Chapter 2
Here is Chapter 4
All Hedge Quotes are from his sermon, "the Broad Church".
I am technically on vacation, but I have taken a little bit of time to get started on one of my sabbatical projects. You see, we are trying something new in our Sunday school. We are going to a "one room" model in which all of the kids will work together on a single topic and then (at the end of each unit) will present something (a play, readings, music, or reflections) during worship. I, at least, have high hopes for this. I hope the kids are engaged. I hope the parents are engaged as well. Maybe that is why I have taken it upon myself to develop the curricula for four of the five units.
The first of these units (ending with a play on Reformation Sunday) is about women in the church. In particular, we are focusing on one of the giants of Universalism, Olympia Brown. There is a lot to say about her. Here it must suffice to point out that she was a "first-generation" suffragist, an abolitionist, and the first woman to be ordained and serve a congregation while also being fully recognized as a minister by her denomination. She was smart, determined, tough, and (according to many) a great preacher and pastor. In my world she is held up as a role model for ministers of all gender identities.
Of course, I want people in my church and Sunday school to know more about this remarkable person. However, I am also well aware of the context in which they will be learning about her. This unit begins when people come back from their summer adventures and it will end on October 23, the day Brown died (in 1926). Obviously, we will be thinking about another leader during that time. We will be thinking about (hopefully) the impending election of Hillary Clinton as the first female president of the United States. Brown was one of the few women of her generation of feminists who had the opportunity to vote for the 19th amendment. I cannot help but wonder what she would say about our momentous opportunity.
I have watched parts of both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. I have followed the election coverage. I have been involved in many conversations with political friends and foes. So often we seem to be stepping around conversations about gender. Some people (pundits, mostly) seem to feel it's not that big a deal anymore. Others, perhaps, are struggling with their own feelings. I even get why this event is occasionally downplayed by Clinton supporters. It appears that many in my white male cohort are intimidated by the possibility of a female president. I suspect others from other cohorts are as well. There is always the question of how much our impressions of her--those famous "unfavorable" ratings--are based on our own unrecognized biases.
I am not intimidated. I am looking forward to it. That said, having been raised from the cradle as part of the American left, I have never voted for her (or her husband for that matter) in the primaries. This time around I was excited by the energy that Sen. Sanders has brought and I am looking forward to participating in whatever his (our) movement generates in the future. However, like the vast majority of Sanders supporters (look it up), I will proudly and happily vote for Sec. Clinton. We are making history, people! My vote will not be anti-Trump (at least not entirely). It will be anti-fear and pro-future.
Even if you are not voting for her, it is hard to miss the significance of this moment. Sexism in this country is so vast a force that we participate in it without even being aware. We all do. We have never known a different way. This is part of why we see so much resistance. There is a disconnect. We experience a cognitive dissonance when we think of the idea that--after a run of 44 men of varying competency--we will be doing something different. Will doing the different thing cure us of sexism? Obviously not. Electing Barack Obama didn't cure us of racism, did it? That said, it is a huge step and one I look forward to making.
Anyway, as I prepare for this religious education unit I am aware that I will not be there to help teach. Two of my sons will be there (at least part of the time) and I will certainly follow its progress. I hope that the people who are connected with it (kids, teachers, parents, and congregants) will greet with excitement the chance to look back to a time not so long ago. I hope they take advantage of what is going on around them. I hope they celebrate how far we have come.
Yep, I am a minister and have revealed my political preferences and party affiliation. I will remind you that Burbania Posts is not affiliated with the congregation I serve. All the opinions herein are my own and not necessarily those of my congregation or individual members of that congregation.
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind and earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
Over the past month or so I have had two similar experiences that got me thinking. The first was while I was camping with my family in Maine. We drove up from Burbania as we usually do. Then we spent the rest of the day in pursuit of the usual activities. We visited friends. We ate. We laughed. We swam in the lake. Then-- not long after dark-- we went to bed. Some time after dawn I woke up and it was completely silent. It wasn't just quiet like it sometimes gets in the woods. There was no noise at all! No loons on the lake. No critters rustling in the bushes.
The second experience was a little bit more surprising as it occurred at a bluegrass festival. Music festivals are loud, after all! In fact, at this particular week long event (no doubt I will tell you more about it in another post) things don't really settle down until around 3 AM. Falling asleep before then means contending with a layer cake of noise. This is true even in the "Quiet Zone" where the music of the main stage high on the hill provides background to the sounds of the dance stage only a few yards away. It is "quiet" in the sense that we are spared some (but not all) of the wandering revelers. Some folks bring earplugs to bed. Most of us, however, just stay up until we are exhausted. Then we drag sweaty, tired bodies to our sleeping bags and pass into a dreamless state until morning.
The first night I woke up to a bright light in the tent and cursed what I assumed were the high beams of somebody's car. Then I realize the light was the sun and that there was no real sound but the ringing in my ears. Over time I could discern some other noises. It wasn't really as still as that lake in Maine. However, there is a special sort of silence made by over 3000 people trying not to wake each other up that is just as majestic and profound.
Silence is something I am not all that familiar with since I entered the ministry...since I had children...since I moved to the suburbs over a decade ago. After all, my profession requires a great deal of talking and listening. Thanks to years of training, when I talk I am usually loud. Then there are the many sounds of children growing up and filling the void with their noises as they do. Finally, even when I have a few moments and the parsonage is empty (the ringer off and books waiting to be read), there is the constant sound of "civilization". There are cars humming by. There are people on the sidewalk, planes overhead and God knows what else contributing to the background hum that I must accept as part of living where I do.
I grew up in the country on a rural road in Androscoggin County, Maine. I spent my summers working on my grandparent's farm in rural Dutchess County, New York. In both places you could hear a single car coming from half a mile away, note its passing, and then listen to its retreat for another couple minutes. My adult life, too, had been spent either in cities like Chicago or Montréal or in small communities in northern New England. Maybe this is why (in spite of my verbose nature) I value the moments of silence I do receive. It is something that doesn't really happen much anymore.
I wonder if it happens to any of us all that frequently. To the best of my knowledge, I live the way most people live. There is a great deal of chatter and environmental noise. There is the "noise" of the Internet, social networking, and the news cycle. So each of us in our own way yells to be heard. We also are naturally attracted to the loudest voice. Sometimes we hear shouts of joy. Sometimes we hear shouts of anger. Mostly, though, what we hear is confusion. I am talking about politics, of course. I am talking about religion. I am also talking about the ways we relate to each other more personally. I am talking about the way we interact with the world; with Creation.
In that quote from 1 Kings the final phrase "sheer silence" is sometimes translated as the "still small voice". In either case we need to find ways to hear it. In the noise and the thunder that we create around us it is hard to discern the motions of whatever spirit we wish to listen to and follow. It is also easy to be distracted by fear and anxiety. Recently at the church we decided to have a picnic, a "Civility Dinner" to purposefully practice making room for that spirit in the midst of our conversation. Of course, we try to practice it all the time but-- just as in worship--sometimes it is good to do it with intention.
Lent isn't like Advent for me. I realize that structurally they seem very similar. One lasts about a month right before Christmas. The other is slightly longer and ends with Easter. Therefore the casual observer can be forgiven for lumping them together. However, I don't see them the same way. Partly this just has to do with my attitude.
You see, I am not at my best during the wintertime. People who know me will tell you that I am naturally moody. For whatever reason my greatest susceptibility to the funk is right about now. When I step up to the beginning of Lent I'm not feeling a post – Thanksgiving rush of seasonal enthusiasm. Instead I am in the midst of a grim slog through the darkness.
In fact, that is the biggest difference. Advent is a walk through the darkness, but there is always a little light. I am able to put together a series of rituals for myself, for the family, and for the church that bring us from one place to another. Every day I send out a little post for my "Facebook Advent Calendar". The secular culture around us, of course, wants to skip Advent all together in favor of a four week festival of consumption. While I don't really agree with this approach, I do enjoy the steady diet of parties, concerts, and festivals. By the end of the season I am ready for Christmas.
Lent, on the other hand, comes at a fragile time for many of us. It certainly does for me. I have never heard of a "Lent party". Super Bowl Sunday and Valentine's Day are nice but not consistent enough. Winter is cold (not so much literally this year, but definitely metaphorically). It is hard sometimes just to peel myself out of bed. Perhaps this is why--though I don't get the warm holiday fuzzies-- I need Lent more than Advent. After all, at times we all could use a little discipline to get going.
The trick for Lent is to watch for smaller, quieter signs of grace. This morning, when I moved my car across the street to facilitate a quick getaway for part of the morning school run, I noticed that the sky and the air were just a bit lighter than they were the day before. Earlier this week I had a seemingly innocuous conversation that helped me think about some things. Keep on the lookout. You never know what you will find.
Also, I need to get out. There are people who do well sitting by themselves but I just don't. If you are that sort of person, perhaps your Lenten discipline can be a social one. I might just join you in that. Actually, church is a great help for getting out and busy. I realize that may be surprising if you aren't part of a congregation (the stereotype of church is all candles, incense and silent drama, after all) or if your congregation leans more toward the contemplative side of things. In my experience, though. There is plenty of positive chaos in a religious community. I plan to tap into it.
As Lent comes closer I am doing my best to develop a plan. Part of this plan is for work. There needs to be a sermon theme, for example. Right now we are considering one in which we discuss current events and issues like the Flint water crisis and the election coming up. Connecting that back to the life of the spirit shouldn't be all that difficult. If we are trying to be authentically ourselves, then how we act in the world is part of that journey.
Still, there is a part of my Lent plans that is personal. How do I get up in the morning? How do I find meaning in a time when meaning is hard to find? I will figure it out, of course, and then (because life forms preaching) whatever comes up will influence my work.
I am not the only one who tends to slip on the ice in the dark of winter. What are your plans?