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.
Dear Members and Friends,
Worship and Religious Education are well underway this year. I have been enjoying getting to touch base with you all as we have gone about our usual opening rituals. I enjoyed getting to see folks at the Kickoff Sunday brunch. I was moved by the sharing at our the Gathering of the Waters during our ingathering. This congregation is a community that supports and hears each other. It is wonderful to be getting back together after our summer journeys.
It was also great to see so many of you make an effort to get to church! This brings me to another topic that I would like to touch on briefly. I want to talk to you about attendance. Keep reading! You can do it! It may even be helpful to know that our current attendance is slightly higher this year...
We have always been a church with a much larger membership than we see regularly on Sundays. This is fine. In fact, even though this is the case, most people do manage to drop in from time to time. People work hard to make it to non-worship events when they come up on the calendar. Which is to say that we attend Pub Theology, Dungeons & Dragons, philosophy discussions (like our Emerson group), Chili Cookoffs, house parties, vigils, rallies, and workdays, among other things. We are there for each other outside of church and for casual gathers, too. Eliot Church is blessed by a dedicated membership.
It’s just that we can get really, really busy. The world isn’t constructed around “sacred time”. Many of our members work on Sundays. Others have rigorous travel schedules. There are illnesses, child commitments, weather challenges, and social obligations that get in the way of making it every week.
I get it. There are weeks I don’t make it to church either.
However, I would like to encourage all of us to make a point of attending worship when we can this year. In fact, I would like you to consider committing to making it to church more than you did last year! I will, too. I can think of an infinite number of reasons why we should make an effort. I bet you can think of a few as well. However, I would like to mention three key reasons for this church this year.
Our Faith Community Needs Our Presence To Thrive:
You may have noticed over the years that Eliot Church has gone through some changes. We are very much a community in transition. Our RE program is divided between teens and toddlers with no one in between. Our outreach and justice work (and, therefore our profile in the community) has increased substantially. We have also grown closer together as individuals. Heck, we even go skiing in New Hampshire together!
The fact is, this church is doing a lot of work and having a lot of fun. We need your presence to make the party better. We need your participation to make the load lighter. We need your ideas to maintain this congregation and guarantee its future. Right now the church is strong. We want to keep it that way. This won’t just happen on it’s own.
I am serious. There are no guarantees. If you value the Eliot Church, it isn’t enough to love it from afar. We need you to be here with us to keep it a living, loving, vibrant place. Worship is the biggest part of that. It is central to everything else we do.
Our Faith Community Needs Our Presence for Others:
Guess what? Loving Eliot Church from afar doesn’t help when we have visitors, either. Worship is usually where they encounter the congregation for the first time. The past couple of weeks we have had a few newbies drop by. If you are not here, they don’t know that you are part of what is happening. They only see those who showed up that day. Yeah, we do our best when people cannot make it. That said, when new folks come to church they are looking for others on the same spot in their life-path. It’s not that they don’t want to hang with everyone else. They just want to know that people like them are welcome and supported!
That means they want to see parents of young children, new empty nesters, retirees, young couples and old couples and be greeted by those people. Life can be lonely. Visitors want to see folks who are interested in the same things they are interested in. In a small church--and being a small church is also our strength--the challenge is that when one or two individuals or families cannot make it on a Sunday, it is like that entire group just doesn’t exist. Once again, part of belonging is showing up.
If visitors do not make some sort of connection with people they identify with after a couple of weeks? They find somewhere else to go to church. The congregation misses out on potential members. We members miss out on potential friends. Those visitors miss out on a community that they may have loved and would have loved them.
We Need Our Faith Community:
Look, getting through the week is hard. It is isolating. There are times when all we do is move from task to task. Even things we enjoy take time and effort. They leave us feeling tired and wiped out. Maybe there are moments when we just want to “sleep in” on Sunday. This certainly happens to me. However, when we step back and really consider it, that doesn’t make much sense.
Let’s set aside the fact that services are at 10am. When we are home most of us can realistically both sleep in and get to church on time. I get up between 5 and 6 most mornings. I bet a lot of the rest of the congregation does too. We get the kids off to school and then get to work by 8 or 9. The only “school” the kids have on Sunday is at church. Also, the commute to Eliot is usually pretty easy. It is near where we live. Traffic is light.
What we are really suffering from is inertia. We forget that church has something to offer. We forget that it is only an hour long on the slowest day of the week. We are forgetting that we need to feed our spirits. We need the church but we worry too much about the demands of our everyday lives and neglect the sacred elements that give those lives meaning. This is what keeps us home.
The fact is, what sustains us is exactly what the church is offering. Stressed out and tired? Come sit with us and take a while to put those worries in perspective. Find some solace and new life in the rituals and ancient wisdom that worship provides. Do you feel isolated? Guess what! Your friends are at church. We can talk to you about your problems. We can listen to you talk. We can just have some coffee. We are not the first people to feel the way we do. That is why we are meant to join in community to explore the Divine. Coming together in worship helps us to live lives of greater meaning and strength.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this long screed, people are, in fact, coming to church. Also, those of you who were around a couple of weeks ago know that I made a big thing in the sermon about how worship attendance and participation is non-coercive in our tradition. That is true. Neither I nor the leadership is interested in making anyone do anything they don't want to do. That said, part of my job is to observe and encourage. Both your own spiritual well being and the future well-being of this community are in your hands. In this new church year, it is my hope that we continue to grow together as a healthy community of faith
This Sunday we will gather in worship. We will have coffee hour. We will practice what we preach about being a caring spiritual community. I hope you can make it. If you cannot, then I hope to see you when you are able!
See You in Church,
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.
This Friday is the big Coffeehouse. We have two a year. This one--youth only--has always been the largest in terms of both participants and audience. There is an art show attached to it as well. The visual artists display their works and we keep them up for Reformation Sunday, which is also a big day in our church that includes worship, a "pageant" (about Olympia Brown), D&D, pumpkin carving, and the Jack-O-Lantern competition. Anyway, Friday is an important day for some of the kids and they work pretty hard to get the weekend going properly.
It has always been interesting to watch the youth prepare. As young artists they are learning a variety of "languages" they can use to express their inner thoughts and feelings. It is a challenge for them. We all want to be understood. We also all know that our audience--our "public"-- will fall short of fully comprehending our message. Still, we try to get it right, don't we? To be fully human we have to try. A song--a painting, a poem, a photograph--comes from deep inside us. As artists our hopes are high. However, it helps to keep our expectations more realistic without also crushing that dream we wanted to share in the first place.
I know how the kids feel. I have struggled to be understood in a variety of media over the years. However, the one I care about the most is preaching. I will never be a great (or even good) musician. My photography doesn't get much past the "pretty picture" phase. In pottery class I once made a 4-foot tall unbalanced black vase which may have been the ugliest thing ever offered up at a school art exhibit. I admit that I abandoned it. I walked away. For all I know it still sits there by the door to the North Yarmouth Academy teacher's lounge collecting cigarettes and dust.
Preaching, though, I care about doing well. I feel it when I don't quite hit the mark.
Yeah, preaching is an art. At least it is sometimes. It falls into the same category as chairs and benches. They can be built just to keep your bottom off the ground or they can be built to also elicit a feeling or a thought. I bet they--chairs--can even inspire action. I can go to the Museum of Fine Art to see (and sometimes sit on) a wide variety of items, or I can sit at my computer to get my emails done. One chair is not better than the other. They just have different purposes. One is a practical item that helps support our daily living. Our bodies and our backs are grateful for its presence. Another is all of that plus art. It makes us look up, out, down, or in. Even though we may be physically stationary we are, in fact, moved.
Sermons should fall into that second category, even when people do not notice the "soul" within it. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who work in professions where talking is part of the job. Politicians and lecturers (the good ones anyway) often use some of the techniques of preaching to improve their own work. Others believe there is no difference between a good lecture and a good sermon. Those folks are wrong, of course. You can give a fine presentation, but performing it in church doesn't necessarily mean you have come close to touching the sacred.
After all, I can make a witty, informative, entertaining, motivational talk using the tools I am teaching those teens in my public speaking class. However, I still fail to preach sometimes. I have done it before (sadly) and I will do it again. The fact is, to create art one must dig deep. A good sermon--just like any of the offerings at our coffeehouses--requires a bit of personal exploration. It requires a moment of connection to the great "out there". In the moment of creation and interpretation we find that part of us and/or our world where normal conversation fails. Then we try once again to articulate it.
As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels and have not love, I am but a noisy gong or a clanging symbol." Finding that love (here used in its broad, theological sense) is the task of any artist--and we are all artists. The preacher tries to find some small glimmer of it each week to issue an invitation and offer up a path for people who hopefully feel drawn enough to walk another mile along the way.
Preaching, like any art, requires discipline. We grow into our voices and into our "vision". Whenever you hear a sermon, you are listening to the product of hours, days, and years of prayer, meditation, and study focused into a tiny window of mere minutes. Sometimes it stinks. Sometimes it just isn't your bag. That said, have faith at least that the preacher is working hard. The colleagues I have met who didn't accept the preaching moment as a sacred one are all doing something else with their lives now. Leading worship isn't something you do without love.
When I think of the kids getting ready for this weekend, I think of this process. I hope and pray that in their important and necessary playing around they find what they need to build a life of deep spiritual expression. I hope they find something that motivates them and makes all the steep lonely hours of practice and study worthwhile. The world of hard matter may never give them a measurable reward for their efforts, but maybe they will find that reward where they keep their souls and spirits. Maybe they will reach others through the foggy chaos of their existence.
Then--maybe--they will make us all a little less broken.
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".
Back when I was in seminary, there was a retreat center that ran advertisements in church trade magazines. The ad featured a large picture of a youngish hipster male blissfully and intently staring at a handful of moss. I will say that again. He was staring at a handful of moss. It appeared that he had previously been smelling it and was now in the process of of making it his pet. I always thought this picture was a little odd. I get the idea of course. I know (and teach) my Emerson and Thoreau. "Come to our retreat center and stare at moss" isn't really that bad a sales pitch in the world of spiritual and religious development. It indicates an extended period of free time with nothing to bother you. You have the freedom to stare at moss! What a blessing that is.
That image has been flashing through my mind lately when people ask how my "vacation" is going. They mean my sabbatical, of course, but since they probably aren't reading my blog their image of me is closer to that of our moss-meditating friend than it is to reality. At the very least I must be sitting by the lake, right? Nope. I have projects and ideas, many of which I have already mentioned. However I am finding that there is a certain flexibility in my time that has allowed me to engage in an unofficial listening tour of church leaders who also happen to be my friends. I have to tell you. What they report is both exciting and sobering.
Things are hard in the traditional church. People are stressed out. Attendance is down. enrollment is down. Pledges are just holding their own in most places and dipping in others. Our old, romantic-yet-tired buildings keep sucking away more and more of the money. Our pastors feel the pinch of limited resources and guilt for not being able to "turn it around" and send the church back to the dreamy heights of the 1950's and 60's. They experience this while knowing in their hearts that in most cases they really really can't. That train has left the station. A new era has begun.
Still, in the midst of all the crazy and the chaos, people are finding new ways to do church. They are seeing clearly enough to begin to build the tools and techniques that will help the next generations grow their own communities of faith. They do this even as they live in and love the old way.
In an earlier post I wrote about how the new church is coming but that I didn't know if I had any suggestions. I still may not, but I do have a better idea of what people see as the next thing. By "people" I mean ministers, mostly, and some dedicated lay leaders. Which is to say, the folks who think about this pretty much all the time.
I am beginning a series today about what I am learning. First we will look at some changes that people are talking about. Perhaps there might even be some suggestions by way of example, but I can't promise anything....
Here is #1
Denominations are becoming both less important and more important.
This really shouldn't be a shock to anyone, right? We all know about those people who do not claim any particular religion (we like to call them "nones" apparently). Well, guess what? Most lay people who attend church probably don't claim a specific denomination. Instead of saying "I am a--" [UU, Baptist, or...whatever] they say "I attend--" [First Parish or Johnson Street Baptist or...whatever]. Their identity is with a specific group of people with whom they have formed relationships, not with an office in a city somewhere, a set of historic institutional predecessors, or even a poetically-named initiative.
The specific differences between the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Association, American Baptist Convention, and Disciples of Christ, for example are very important to the people whose job it is to serve member congregations. To the person who shows up on Sunday or volunteers in a congregation's ministry it is a lot less important. There are plenty of agnostics in conservative churches. There are plenty of evangelicals in liberal ones. I have met a lot of them. Mostly they are happy where they are and have solid reasons for attending a congregation that does not reflect their theology. To put it simply, they love the people they go to church with.
That said, all you denominational types don't need to panic right away. There is something very important that you need to do. Congregations still need services. Folks may no longer want denominational leadership (denomination x tells me to do y so I will) but they do want quality materials for RE. They like to have their professional staff licensed in some way. They need people with big picture knowledge to facilitate their own congregational discernment. Churches need to know that they are not alone even if our connections work differently than they did before.
Denominations cannot point the way to the future because they don't know what it will be either. They are doing their best to do so but there have been so many changes. Just like churches, themselves, they are trying to survive, to hold on to what they have been for the last century or so. Also just like the churches the option to turn back or stay the same is a mirage. We are all becoming transdenominational. We are finding out together what that means. Clearly there is a place for institutions that work with (not over) congregations. I know many denomination leaders who are doing just this kind of work. It is happening but it is slow and sometimes obscured by other things.
For those of us who serve churches in the Congregationalist tradition we have a model hidden among the various programs, initiatives and positions that have built up over the years. Providing basic services was what denominations (or associations) were originally all about! In the Congregationalist way every congregation is its own denomination. An individual is only ever a member of that local church community. Good news! We are headed back to our roots. The challenge is to point ourselves in the right direction.
OK this is already long so I am ending Chapter #1
Here is a link to Chapter #2
...TO BE CONTINUED...
So today is the first official day of my sabbatical. I have already been working on various projects but in the next week or so, things will be kicking into a higher gear. Over the last few weeks, there have been some changes to the plan. My "Folk Project" will need to take a back seat to some more pressing material. In fact, a theme has emerged that runs through most of the other projects and, naturally, this is something that I intend to follow.
I am enclosing here the outline of my work for the next few months. They are roughly in the order they will be addressed. Of course, there will be some overlap as well.
Teaching: Some of you are aware that I have a son who is "homeschooled". The term--while it makes sense from a legal perspective--is a bit misleading. Most homeschoolers do NOT spend their days sitting around the kitchen table. They are highly social and are involved in programs outside the home on a daily basis. Many times they have a great deal of control over what and how they learn. It can be complicated, but for a certain kind of kid who is willing to take ownership of their education, a well-conducted homeschool plan is just the best darn thing.
Among other activities, my son attends a school that subscribes to a "self directed learning" model. It has teachers and advisers who help the student plan out their year. Various courses are offered by the teachers, volunteers, and interns based on the interests of the student body. This is where I come in. I will be teaching two course at the school this fall. One is Public Speaking and the other is Nature and Spirituality. I know a bit about both subjects and expect to learn more.
I am looking forward to this. I am curious how it will go. While I have done some teaching with children in this age group (10-19), it has been mostly in a church context. Of course, there is a great deal of similarity between a Sunday School model and what happens at this school, so it won't be entirely unfamiliar. Still, it is good practice and a lot more "face time" than what I am used to. Each class meets formally once a week and then I will be available as a "mentor" at other times. Thanks to this time commitment, it is the first on my list.
Church Curriculum: I have written about this before. We are transitioning our Sunday School to a "one-room" model with a series of "units". Each unit will lead to some kind of project or presentation in church. I am responsible for writing all but one of these.
My former intern (now sabbatical pastor) will be writing the second unit on Advent. I have already written the first unit, which is about women in the church. This means that the next one I am concerned with (a social justice unit with a focus on LGBTQIA+ issues) will need to be ready some time in November so the teachers and I can go over it before it's January start date.
Obviously, the teaching I will do at the school will influence how I go about these curricula at church. In both cases there is a "project" element. Also, they both work on a student-centered discussion model. A great deal will depend on their willingness to be engaged and our ability to engage them. I am actually moving a little slower in this area right now because I think that my perspective may change after doing some teaching.
Dungeons and Dragons Club: Yeah, there is this. I am well into the development of a world for my player characters to explore. I have been a Dungeon Master for many a year, starting way back in my teens when being a nerd wasn't so cool. Perhaps that is why I am still a bit surprised by the level of initial interest from the kids. It is a great thing! I am very pleased.
My goal is to have enough material ready for a first meeting near the end of September. At that point we will make characters and perhaps run through a couple of short battles or scenarios to see if everyone gets the game mechanics. It would also be good to see who actually shows up so we can plan for either one or two groups. I will probably also need a rotating cast of "assistant DM's" to keep things rolling...
OK... I assume you see the theme, right? All of these activities will apply most directly toward the church's religious education program. RE has been an interest of mine ever since my first paid gig as "Co-Youth Group Director" for the middle schoolers at the UU church in Evanston, Illinois. In my current capacity I don't have as much time to do get into it as much as I would like. I am hoping that using my sabbatical time to get the prep work done will make me a better pastor to the kids and their parents. We shall see...
What this does mean is that the who Folk Project must be the last of my concerns. I haven't given up on it entirely. However, the spirit does seem to be moving me in a different direction right now...
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.
I want to be clear. I chose a life in the church. When I was about 17, I became one of those kids that hangs around the margins of friendly youth groups. I would show up for pizza and movies. Sometimes, I might even go to worship. At that time my parents were not church people. They liked to sleep in and have brunch on Sundays. I went on my own.
There were many reasons for my decision. I was interested in issues of life and death that didn't seem to be addressed in other places. I was also a very political kid. In fact, I decide to become a minister at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta. I was a "page" for the Maine delegation (I wasn't old enough to vote ). However, I was also there as a volunteer for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. It was my time with that campaign ---staying up late with a combination of labor organizers and pastors ---that helped me find a different path from the political system I had become disillusioned with. That is when it finally occurred to me that I could find a way to combine my interest in spirituality with my interest in helping people. None of those folks I knew in Atlanta would remember me today but I am glad that I met them.
The point is, I love the church. There have been times and contexts where I have found myself in a "poor fit". There are times when I have grown tired both as a layperson and as a pastor. This is natural. That said, I have made the church central to my existence. It is my job. The church houses, clothes, and feeds me...literally. When everyone else leaves, I am still there. It is also, in many respects, central to my social life. Outside of my family, the vast bulk of my friends are either clergy or clergy spouses. So it is no small thing to me when I see the changes happening in our congregations and institutions. You can count me in the front ranks of those who have a lot to lose.
Like everyone, I see that most churches are shrinking. Some of them are closing. Supporting institutions like denominations/associations and seminaries are merging and sometimes vanishing as resources for survival become harder to find. Well-meaning church growth consultants will sell you recovery programs. The problem is that their success rate is hardly better than doing whatever you are doing now. Pub Theology isn't going to save us. Tweaking the liturgy isn't going to save us. Increasing or decreasing staffing isn't going to save us. Altering our programming isn't going to save us. At least not the "us" that we think of when we think of the traditional institutional church. Change is already here.
It is inevitable that we greet this desperate situation with a certain amount of anxiety. This is simply because the change we see is also inevitable. There are too many forces at play to turn back the clock and expect that being the "best congregation or denomination ever" is going to bring people back in to worship every week. We are in the midst of watching something we love potentially die. It is as if we built sand castles on the beach expecting that the tide would never rise. Well now it has risen and it will continue to. Building a bigger moat will work about as well as it does on the beach. Our culture will not reverse itself. The institutions that we know and love will either fall into the sea or become something entirely different.
We do no one any favors by pretending that this isn't happening. When we do, we all end up running around trying to fix it. Then, when we fail we label ourselves "failures". Perhaps we find others (denominational leaders, pastors, church moderators for example) to blame for a flood that has been centuries in the making. In any case, we mourn the loss and see it as final and tragic. None of this is a necessary response.
What we should do is stop our whining and face the future with our heads high and our hearts open. That, of course, requires us to greet our situation using a different frame. Instead of anxiety, fear, and frustration as we watch the "old thing" fall away we need to turn to the "new thing" being born with a combination of hope, love, and excitement. It is exciting, you know. After centuries of doing roughly the same thing we have been chosen to reinvent how people do religion! Who wouldn't want to do that? I don't know about you but I believe in resurrection. I feel blessed to be able to witness at least the beginning of this one.
The challenge ahead of us, frankly, is a big one. Those consultants I mentioned? They are doing their best but the fact is no one knows what is coming. They are showing us programs that worked somewhere else (we hope). They do not know our (or your) church. Each congregation and each religious organization has a part to play in this resurrection story. That part requires courage. There will be more failures in our future than victories. Yet, the victories will be greater than our failures. It means every leader of every committee in our committee-filled faith will have to expect that they will be sifting through the ruins of plans A, B, and C (at least) to find the small successes with which to build a new way of doing church. Every pastor will have to expect that the church they are building may be beyond their (our) skill set to lead. Denominations and Associations may have to face the fact that they are in the way rather than the way. Everything must be on the table. Why would we expect what comes next to be at all like what is here now?
As you might have gathered, I am not planning to make any great system recommendations at this time (and possibly ever). Too much is in flux. What I would like to suggest, though, is that we practice changing our attitude. We need to be aware of our irrational concerns and to work to solve only the rational ones. We need to once again find joy in innovation. We need to cheer the heck up and open the windows. Throw things against the wall and see what sticks. Then clear out what falls and move on with more grist for the mill.. This is not a time for timidity. Church mice can hide and wring their hands. The rest of us cannot afford to.
I chose a life in the church. I do not want the new church to be built by people with closed minds and hearts. I do not want to spend the rest of my life in an institution that is bitter, angry, and always looking back. I do not want to live in a church that is sincere but scared of the world around it. Can we prepare ourselves for the leap of faith? I hope so. I do not enjoy living in a world of infinite resignation.