I risked my life to bring you this picture from a local big box today...but I didn't buy anything!
It is Friday now. Thanksgiving--with its own rituals of excess--is behind us and I am looking forward to Advent. Today we will go shopping, but not in the way that you might think. No door busters for us! Instead we are buying from local retailers. We do this for a number of reasons. Some of them are fairly conceptual and life-styley. We want to support local businesses and the local economy, for example. Some are less so. My mother-in-law and the college boys are here for the weekend so we need to get out of the house. Since hiking is out for a number of reasons, patronizing used-book stores is a nice way to spend time together.
However, for me, there is also a general darkness to the day. I guess that is what I really wanted to mention. You can count me among the people who struggle not to get depressed during the holidays. The culturally enforced frivolity can be rough for many people. I am one of them. Like most folks, I try to keep with the breathtakingly saccharine "holiday spirit" but sometimes--frequently in fact--I fall short. Do you know what never snaps me out of my holiday blues? Perky people telling me to cheer up.
Another weight on the season is from all the commercial "requirements". For the last couple of decades, after all, there is a narrative that tells us it is actually unpatriotic to choose not to shop to excess. December, itself, has become a season where our financial stress is viewed as a worthy sacrifice to the nation. Anyway, when you combine that with the natural ups and downs of life, it is easy to see how what--in easier times--might be a minor emotional bump in the road cant escalate to an existential black hole.
From the outside looking in, it may appear to be a weird situation for a pastor. Of course...it isn't. Many of my colleagues are the same way. We aren't actually responsible for secular Christmas, We are responsible for the other one that starts later and then gets overwhelmed. That would be the season that is spiritual--whether it is religious or not--but that is also more gradual as it follows the rhythms of our human lives in relationship with the Earth. That relationship pre-dates any of the current winter festivals, yet exists within all of them. In addition, part of our job is to sit with other people's feelings. A lot of folks are struggling with the unsustainable nature of the next few weeks. We experience their emotions as well.
I don't think anyone at my congregation would be surprised to know this about me. After all, there is what the deacons sometimes (affectionately) refer to as the "Adam Hates Christmas" sermon that happens at some point each year. I don't hate Christmas (not all of it anyway) but I do feel like it is overblown for reasons that don't have much to do with the themes of light in the darkness and the power of the human spirit to prevail in hard times. I am not a "keep Christ in Christmas" kinda guy. I just want everyone to calm the heck down and pace themselves. I also want to pace myself and come out the other end of this time with my spirits intact, able to look back and tell myself that it was a good holiday season.
Anyway, here is a video of me tell people to calm down that I put up right before Thanksgiving. Good luck to you all this weekend. May however you greet the coming Advent be the way you want to greet it.
So after three years of talking, we finally managed to run a pilot for our dinner vespers service. The reasons it took so long have primarily to do with allocation of resources. In principle we all thought it was a good idea. There really wasn't much in the way of resistance from any "old guard" that we hear about in clergy groups. It was simply that we had other priorities so it would come up, we would get excited, and we would put it away as something else demanded our attention. That is the challenge for a small church. As we become increasingly counter-cultural, the dominant culture makes it harder for us to innovate. Institutions and activities that promote reflection and down-time are more frequently seen in a negative light. Church is one of those institutions,.
The church Worship Committee took the lead on this and many of them were there last night. We have been calling it "dinner church" but it is quite possible we have been using the wrong name. I have found that church growth people are among the more doctrinaire when it comes to labeling. We have a "Pub Theology" group that almost certainly doesn't fit the accepted definition. So we settled on "Dinner Folk Vespers" because all three words have specific meaning in our context. "Dinner" is...well...dinner. "Folk" in our context means non-professional musicians leading the music on stringed instruments. We have a long tradition of that. For us "Vespers" just means worship at night.
The service was pretty basic. There was 20 minutes of structured worship, then about 20 or 30 minutes of structured conversation over dinner. We took the Maundy Thursday Communion Vespers service and then deconstructed it. The subsequently rebuilt service kept a number of the aspects of the old one. The "Invitation" and prayers of Confession and Thanksgiving were straight out of various communion materials that we have used in the past. We added a couple of poems that made use of table imagery; "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo and "At Home" by Kate Barnes. Lee Manuel and I provided music and Tara Humphries, our ministerial intern, took care of much of the worship leading, set up, and general coordination that we needed to get things done. I gave the prayer. The reading was Luke 14:15-24.
We also had a couple of guiding questions based on the table image and also on the concept of God's steadfast love that appeared in a number of places in the service and, of course, will be part of what we talk about on Sunday as part of our Thanksgiving service. These questions were discussed while we ate.
It really was fun--or at least I thought so--and we will do it again. The format was conceived as a different form of communion. The meal had an intention to it. We did not "potluck" but instead made specific food requests so that the food "matched" and we weren't overwhelmed by a large number of diverse items or leftovers. That way the service was more "worship" than "social" which enabled us to engage in a different way than we are often able to.
It is probably worth noting that while we did not spend the whole meal answering the questions, beginning with the questions affected how the rest of the meal conversation proceeded afterward. It was a good conversation all around--at least at my table--and a nice break in a busy and stressful week. That said, some people mentioned that the questions and the format in which we presented them felt too structured. We need to look at that for next time. The challenge is finding a way to continue addressing the ideas from worship while at the table...at least for a little while.
The entire service took two hours, including clean up (but not set up!). It was a good first try that, I think, over time, will get better as we get used to the format and streamline some things. Logistics, in particular were tricky. In addition to the clunky question format, the two dinner tables were pretty far way from each other. We will need to think about how to remedy that in the future as well.
Still, in all it was worthwhile. What we are learning at Eliot is the same thing everyone is learning everywhere. Weekends are super-busy now as well. If we want to meet as a community of faith. We need to learn to be flexible and responsive to the world we live in. The challenge now is to grow with our sophomore effort.
Here are a couple of videos. The first is of the one hymn we sang; "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" (also called "Deportee") which is, unfortunately, still very relevant today. I have a whole post abut the song, which you can read here.
This final one is a portion of the service, itself. It may only actually be interesting to wonky church nerds but we to need each other to share sometimes. We had technical difficulties for the first 5 minutes so the Harjo reading is missing and it opened about halfway through the Barnes reading. It ends as we prepare for dinner...
I looked at the blog while prepping for the Burbania Posts Advent Calendar and noticed that I have been completely silent for almost 11 months. There are reasons of course. I have been on quite an adventure since I wrote here last. I haven't moved or changed jobs, but there have been plenty of peaks and valleys. There have been moments that have appeared to be both. I have been busy with my family and my ministry.
As I look back it is self-evident that this silent year has been a big one for me. I traveled more than I have in the past. I have pushed my self more. I took on a few new challenges in my ministry. What I did not do was post about it here. If you are interested in any of that you will find plenty of information in "Wednesday Words" (my vlog) or on the sermon page. Those need updating as well but they aren't quite so bad. I do want to write here more, though, and so I am. Sometimes writing and reading conveys more complexity than would otherwise be possible.
My big learning during my BP silence is simple. The fact is, over the last year or so I have figured out how much effort goes into keeping a small church alive and thriving. Maybe it is because I am down to only one kid at home and have less to distract me, but this year I have felt the energy that it takes to do this job more keenly than I have in the past. This is true in the energy I draw from it in worship and study and elsewhere. However, I am also aware of how tired I can actually be at the end of the day. Of course, at the end of the day I am still thinking about the congregation.
That is what it takes, after all. Church people know the difficult environment we try to work in. I don't mean that the congregation, itself, is difficult! For over 16 years I have found my particular faith community to be a blessing. Instead I mean the environment that we as a congregation (or more generally as congregations) face together. I could make an attempt at enumerating the challenges but you know what I am talking about. If you don't then you can look it up...but be careful. Everyone knows the problem in its generalities but we do love to argue about the particulars...
Anyway, that is what I have for today. Basically it is an excuse. A healthy church requires a great deal of time and energy and I would rather work for the church than anything else. I will try to post more--Advent is coming right up!--but today please say prayer for our churches, our dedicated lay people and our staff. If you are not a church person you may need us more than you know. If you ARE a church person, you have my thanks and my prayers, just like every day.