It has been a month since I checked in. As I recover from surgery to "fix" my back, I have been able to do some study and some work. Worship planning is moving along in fits and starts. Just when I think I have it set there are changes, new ideas and new topics that need to be addressed. There are new approaches to old subjects as well.
But while all of this planning for church--we will be pretty much virtual in most respects this fall--has lifted up some exciting new possibilities, I am also now able to be aware of some of the things we lost at least for now. There is something to the "old way" we did church in these parts. We are a smallish congregation. We are a casual and familiar people, given to friendly chatter and informal gathering. Traditionally our approach to worship reflects that. So does the sacred time when we gather in person well before "official" worship begins.
Now things are different. Way back in January--and for over a decade-and-a-half before--my Sundays began in pretty much the same way. I arrived around 7 or 7:30, read through my sermon, and checked the Order of Service for rhythm and flow. Then I would sit behind the pulpit, experience the silence of the place, and silently pray for a holy and restorative sabbath. I believe that God lives in the world, not in the sanctuary of the church. However, the sanctuary is a gathering place for the community of God and I still value my time in it.
Then--around 8 or 8:30 people would start trickling in. Our Intern/Assistant/Associate (the title keeps changing with the individual) arrives and we go through old and new business, figure out who we need to talk to and about what, then we go over the service again. The choir, the deacons, the money-and-building people, the Music Director, coffee hour hosts and a few others who can't stay away until kickoff swing by as well. We catch up with each other and maybe do some light business (we have a "no business talk during coffee" rule that I occasionally forget). Then we are usually running late for the start and we rush to our places.
Then worship happens in all its human and Divine glory. During worship--even though most of us sit stock still as is our individual custom--we feel each other's presence. From my perch I can see everyone, but everyone knows who is there and often how they are feeling. We have looked around. We have checked in.
Sometimes--like on Pageant Sunday--it feels like we all are there to rehearse and plan the worship beforehand...then we just do it again. Those are the best times.
During the Postlude it is off to coffee. Some few rush out to various activities shouting their apologies as they hustle past me and through the door. Others stay...and stay...and stay. There is just so much we (or at least some of us) want to communicate to each other! Families bring two cars so the more verbose can talk until lunch. Then, when the last word is said I and the Intern/Assistant/Associate and the Music Director take a moment to collect ourselves, close the place up, and look forward to the next Sunday when we will be together with everyone again.
I guess what I miss the most isn't the structured part of worship, but all that used to happen around it. Structured worship we can still do. Thanks to judicious editing there are times when our recorded services are so much more organized and effective. Still, the people are not with us in the same way. "Virtual Coffee Hour" fills some of the requirements but there isn't the old flow and the constant distraction of other small, unplanned groups parallel chatting in the parlor and the sanctuary.
I miss the chaos and energy. I miss the snacks and the bored kids. I miss the party even a low Sunday can bring. I miss hanging out with my friends, people who have raised children together; who have gone through great victories and heartbreaking tragedies, marking their time with each other.
Anyway that is part of what I am thinking about these days as I get ready for a continuance of the strangest year ever. We are working on some in-person things, though. Maybe we can gather in people's back yards or by the river. Maybe we don't have to give up hikes and Pub Theology. Is it still "Pub Theology" if there is no Pub? BYOB(everage) and find out. Yeah these are small groups and the chaos is a different one, if still holy.
We will be fine but, man, I cannot wait to get back...whenever that may be.
One thing I wasn't really able to do during the past few months is read. I did not expect this. It turns out--and I realize that many of you already know this--when one is experiencing extreme and chronic pain it becomes very hard to concentrate! Reading, of course, requires concentration. I had none.
I did manage some. However, the problem was that--with my limited bandwidth--my approach leaned toward the merely efficient and pragmatic. There was no pleasure reading. There was no research-for-fun reading. On the surface I was getting things done. Still...there was little time to focus on the things that would help me gain a deeper and broader sense of the world, of life, and of the human condition.
Now of course there was a great deal to be pragmatic and efficient about. First there were the decisions and discussions around the opening and closing of church. Then we had to think about how the congregation and I would respond to increased interest and energy in the national conversation on race and discrimination. These problems gave way to many smaller ones. Each required me to pay attention to current events, to interpret the articles and explanations of the diseases--both biological and societal--then help apply them to the shared experience of our congregation.
Finally--or perhaps ultimately--there were those worship services. Even in this era of video technology, the progressive Protestant .tradition that I and the church are part of relies heavily on the written word. There is the Bible, of course, that is read every Sunday. There are all the other texts as well. Some are from other faith traditions that help illuminate the theme for the day. Others--at least on the face of things--are more "secular." All of them require study and interpretation so that we can apply them to the text of our lived experience.
Other than the book of Job--which suddenly made much more sense to me--I had to be strategic in my approach. Out of physical necessity, I encountered the readings in small doses and digested them over time. However--and strangely for those who know me--I was actually somewhat prepared. At least, that is, when it came to worship.
Some history: For most of my ministry I would have scoffed at trying to plan out worship for an entire "church year" from September to June. However, three years ago while trying to entertain myself while on a study retreat, I managed to get a reasonable outline of topics completed. It kept me busy enough during that week away. Then, when the fall came around and it was time to step back into the pulpit...it worked!
Or, at least, I got more out of it than I put in up front. Basically, having thought about what to talk about back in August helped me to deepen my perspective when I finally got to that particular scheduled theme in October...or December...or February...then--in 2018--the system broke down. So much for the first try.
Last summer, though, I was ready to give it more time and intention. I compiled a reading list that spring that was made up mostly of books I had always been interested in. There were a few re-reads in there as well. There were also specific books of the Bible that I knew I wanted to hit again. Then, in one long week sequestered at my dad's house, I came up with themes and readings for every service of the year.
It is funny how things work out. I had no idea how strange things would become between then and now. However--while the themes were often altered to address the rapidly changing spiritual landscape of 2019-2020--I rarely needed to move a reading from it's assigned date. Every Sunday afternoon from late February through June--most of the time after watching myself preach on YouTube and wrapping up the "Zoom Coffee Hour"--I would take a look at that list, grateful to my summer self for planning ahead.
Now I am back at it again. I mean, really. I don't think I could have made it through the past few months with out the me of the past guiding my sermon prep! I mean...I am so disorganized in normal times! After all that happened, I am committed to the process for year number 3. It saved my bacon in more ways than I can count.
However...I am behind already. Now that the back is somewhat less of an issue--at least for now--I am binge-reading; digging in to a tall stack of neglected books. In order to maintain accountability, I have revived my old "Goodreads" page (last updated in 2013). Feel free to check me out over there. I use my real name so I shouldn't be hard to find.
I am also writing short reviews there and may cross-post them here. They are partly just for my own use. I need notes and some place to start so I can remember what I wanted to talk about when that topic is a mere two weeks out. Finally there are notes written in a notebook titled "Sermons '20-'21" and in the margins of the books themselves. I am behind in my reading, but I hope--if infirmities don't slow me down--to catch up in time for a late summer brainstorm.
Oh yeah...and I am on retreat of sorts for just this week. Then I will return home. There is a lot to get done while I am away from the parish. A change of scenery brings with it a change of attitude that I, at least, desperately need.
That is all for now! May all your summer studies be fruitful. Keep in touch. I am thinking of you.
I think that it is safe to say that things have been strange lately. I don't need to tell you why...you already know. However, I have to say that I am feeling the strangeness more now than I did at the beginning. I have been a little distracted since then.
You see, late in February, right before my son's birthday and right before our planned trip to PAX East I managed to injure my back. Long story short, after weeks of trying to stretch it out, and then taking prednisone, it didn't get better. In fact, if anything it got worse. One MRI later it turned out that I had a herniated disk along with underlying congenital lower lumbar scoliosis and stenosis. After a few shots and some PT I am now hopefully on the mend. Things are still a bit of a mess...but they are SO much better.
I spent most of March, April, and May in a metric ton of pain. I slept on the floor in the living room. I stumbled around inside the house unable to manage a walk outdoors. I was able to do my job--ironically--because the pandemic had forced us into “virtual church” so I could preach from the living room as well as sleep there. Otherwise, I probably would have had to take a leave of absence for at least a couple of weeks.
In most ways it was pretty depressing, particularly with all the chaos going on around us. However, it did keep me focused. I am grateful for that. I had only so much time to concentrate, so I spent it on the things that mattered most, like preparing the church for it's new "virtual" status and figuring out my own response to the new rules of pandemic engagement.
By the time the murder of George Floyd came to light, along with the national reaction of anger and mourning, I was better able to move--a little--and to take some small part in that response. As tragic as that situation is, there is something in the protests and policy initiatives that has the potential (if we continue to soldier on) to usher in real and lasting change. I am glad to be able to witness what I hope--most of us hope--will be a massive culture shift.
There is a lot I could say about our situation right now as a country. There are plenty of memes and such out in the ether that complain about the horribleness of this year. There are, though, glimmers of hope in areas that haven’t seen much of that in a long time. This year could be the year that we re-think racism and law-enforcement. We might just even re-think our responsibility to each other. There is a chance--a chance--that historians will look back at the many trying moments of 2020 and say that this year we are in--instead of being cursed--is when everything turned around.
But back to the strangeness for a moment; as the pain slowly becomes manageable, I find that I have more time to think and to read. However, much of that time is taken up with...anxiety. A couple weeks ago, when I was still sleeping on the floor, there were tasks to do. There were too many tasks, in fact, for me to sometimes manage them all. I had to concentrate on the problem before me. I had no time to reflect.
Now...now I have time and that isn’t always a good thing. I have been humbled, physically, emotionally, culturally. The next couple months are wide open for many. I look into the future and it isn’t all that clear where to go or what to do.
I am anxious about how to socially distance this summer and beyond. We talk about it as a family pretty much every night. We also talk about race. I worry about how not to get sick or get others sick. I am worried about how to be a good ally in the days, weeks and years to come.
I also want to be a good pastor. That means figuring out the waves and tides that will push us one way or another. It is always pushing us away from a world that may never be the same again--I can live with that--and toward something...as of yet unknown.
Anyway, I don’t miss the darkest days of this back problem. However, as I move back into the world I must say that I am impressed by all of you. You, dear reader, have been doing the hard work facing right into the storm. I am amazed. You have my support and my love. After all, we are all anxious with cause.
Lately I have been strong enough to take short walks around the neighborhood. There is a slow-moving log that until recently hung over the dam near my parsonage on the Charles. We all watch it with great intensity. My neighbors wave at me or stop to talk. To them I have become the masked version of a 19th century parson stumping along on my cane, drawing humorous comparisons to Horatio Alger Sr., who passes for famous in these parts. He was pastor during the Civil War, so at least contextually it is fitting in this hot summer to come. Then I get back to work at my standing desk.
People, we will keep fighting on, won’t we? Even though we are afraid. We come through these times of pain together doing our best to manifest the love that we and the world need. Then, in the end, we are that much closer to the Commonwealth of Heaven.
I have work to do. I am glad you are working, too.
So I am posting this Sunday's communion service here on the blog as I have made a number of edits to our usual service. There are a number of new prayers which would be great to recite in unison. This is hard to do in virtual worship so in case folks want and advance run...here they are. The entire communion service is based on a much-adapted (first by my predecessor, M. Boardman, and then by me) service from the Iona Community in Scotland. Some of it still remains so it should be a least a little bit familiar...
Eliot Communion June 7, 2020
Minister: We gather today in spirit, mindful of the trials of the world, but also aware of the divine abundance that exists within and without us; that waits for us and draws us together even in the darkest times.
All: We gather together knowing that this abundance can and will sustain and strengthen us for the journey to come.
Minister: Thanks be to you, O God, for the rising of this day and for the rising of life, itself. May you be with us in our suffering, may you guide us in our struggles, may you celebrate with us when we find joy, may you love with us when we find love.
For we confess this day that :
All: We have not touched, but trampled you in creation. We have not met, but missed you in one another. We have not received, but rejected you in the poor. Forgive us we pray. God, strong and holy, God holy and deathless, bless us with mercy, we pray.
Minister: Dear God, we recognize the special urgency of this day, when we have found our society tested. As a people we stand on the edge of decision. We can decide to continue along the same path we have trod for so long--ignorant of the plight of the oppressed--or we can choose a new direction, persisting in the act of opening our hearts so as to make an equal space for everyone.
God we pray for the wisdom to make the right choices and we are sorry for the choices that have brought us to this point in time. Help us to act with the abundance of our hearts toward all people, no matter how different they may appear from us. Help us to encounter this world in humility, without the burdens of our bias.
Prayer Against Violence
All: We pray for an end to violence as a tool to dominate others. We oppose it’s domestication and normalization in our society as a means to silence the voices of the powerless. We recognize our own complicity in this cycle even if we have never struck out in anger or self-righteousness. Please give us the clarity of vision to find and end the ways in which we have passively and actively contributed to the domination of others. Strengthen us to resist the temptation to ignore the cries that come from society’s margins in this current moment so that all your people may be healed and whole.
Prayer for the Health of the People
All: Dear God we also pray for those who are suffering--physically and mentally, directly or indirectly--from the current pandemic. Please help us to think not only of ourselves but also of those who we come in contact with, understanding that our perceived freedoms do not make us free if they rely on the suffering of others. Help us to care for each other during this difficult time by strengthening us to put our own conveniences aside for the good of those who are most at risk whether that risk is related to health, geography, race, economic circumstance, or any other measure. Help us to see our place in the interconnected web that binds all of creation together so we might bring about a diverse community of mutual care.
Prayer for the Private Cares of Individuals
All: Finally, we pray for the private struggles of individuals that we may never fully know or understand. We recognize that in the midst of these large, attention-grabbing stories there are still issues of birth and death, of illness and pain, of relationships and of isolation that occur beyond the news. We honor those among us who battle these demons far from the light and heat of current events. Help us to respond with love and care to our fellow humans. Help us to understand that we do not know fully what burdens they carry. Help us to make our world a safe place to share our burdens and find mutual support in our journeys.
Minister: At the Last Supper, Jesus, in sharing bread and wine invited his disciples to share his journey. Today we renew that journey with him and with a world of fellow-followers. Come, enter into communion with the Earth, the sky, the sea and all of creation.
Minister: Among friends, gathered around a table, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke the bread and gave it to those who were with him, likening it to his body, His life, which he gave for us and yet remains present to us.
Eat this bread in memory of Jesus and of those who are near and dear to us.
Minister: In the same way he took wine, and, having given thanks for it, poured it out and gave it to his disciples saying, “This cup is the new relationship with God, sealed with my blood. Take and share it."
Drink this wine in memory of Jesus and of those who are near and dear to us.
Minister: Spirit of the Living God, present with us now, may this bread and wine be heaven’s food and drink for us, renewing and making us whole, that we may be your loving and caring body in this world. Amen
Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving
In the end as in the beginning, God is God: Loved by us, wanted by us, praised by us, served by us, filling us with the gifts of the spirit, Making us whole for the good of the earth. For bread and wine, this place and time, thanks be to God, Amen
Can I share something with you?
Over the course of the day--today--I have felt an overwhelming surge of love and hope for our beloved progressive and liberal church. I don't just mean my own, little tiny church in suburban Boston...but all of them. Those of you who know me know this state of being isn't in my nature for long, so bear with me...we are on untraveled ground...
I was talking to my intern, Tara Humphries this morning over Zoom. She--rightly--is not permitted by her seminary in Connecticut to travel to her internship site but she has been a wonder and support to us at the church nonetheless.
We were discussing how her time with us has changed...
...Oh how it has...
Like good church folks, we gave some thought to the division of the psalms into ones of Orientation, Disorientation, and Re-Oientation (a conversation made easier by having the same Hebrew Scripture professor...albeit 20 years apart) and about how the first part of the year was the first and now we are in the second. We also talked about the third phase, still unseen for the most part, when we reorient to the new world and sing songs of thanksgiving again, not for a return to the old ways, but the approach of the blessed and good new ways, informed by the old but honed through tragedy, fear, chaos and despair to suit the new just, peaceful, and healthy world we seek to build.
That image kept with me today as I picked my way around the eerie emptiness of my almost 200 year-old church building. It stuck with me as I stood before my computer for email after email and meeting after meeting with my back turned to the chaos of my living room that circumstance has morphed into a recording studio, virtual pulpit, and classroom for me as well as an office for an 8th grader and a college Freshman.
And as the day went on...
As I "talked" to my staff and congregants and colleagues planning whatever we think might work for Easter and for future church programming...
As we figured out how to be safe and together and how to do normal things in the "new normal"...
...I realized how lucky I am...
In spite of all the darkness around us...
I am fortunate at least in this one way...
I have realized that the church--the liberal and mainline church--will survive this time and emerge changed and reoriented. It will grow.
The new thing is happening now, you see, and we are finally off our asses.
We are doing it! We. Are. Ready. I can see it...and I never ever really thought I would...
Lets be clear. I never thought I would still be active in the professional ministry when the new thing appeared. I have done my best for mentees and anyone else who I thought might be the ones to see it. The old ways aren't working. We know that. I thought I knew, though, that it wasn't for me to see what came next...except maybe in a pew, supporting my pastor in retirement.
It was my lot--I thought--to pave the way, wading through dubious advice and programming promoted by men (almost all men, right?) too old for the skinny jeans and tight T-shirts they sported; people who wouldn't last a day as the leaders of my church. I knew my place temperamentally and generationally. I would hold the door open for others to walk through.
"John the Baptizer I am. Be ready.....all will be well in time..."
Will you look at us now? I see you my friends. When I get "home" from my virtual worship service and get a chance to breathe, I check in on you. Lots of shaky cams and bad lighting and sound that cuts in and out? Can't get the hang of visiting your people over the darkened tube of...well...what we used to call "the tube"? Yeah, me too. It is overwhelming.
Guess what, though? Seth Meyers and Jon Oliver? Their sound stinks too these days but they are still heard aren't they? When I see you on the screen I do not feel the need or urge to mock or laugh. I see you being strong and getting it done. I love, love, love what I see!
Don't be self-conscious. What I see are clergy and lay people putting it all out there for each other. DIY-ing with the best. Use that iPad or cell phone or whatever. Screw with your background or not. Duct tape that sheet or camera or poster to the wall. It is beautiful. You are inspiring. You--we--are getting it done with love, grace, and authenticity. I couldn't be more proud to be a church person today. I couldn't be more proud to be part of this great profession...
Do we have hard times ahead? Yeah we do. Are there reasons to be sad and lonely and frustrated? Yes...yes...yes. There is death and illness all around. We are struggling to be there when we cannot actually be physically there. It hurts, we are frustrated. Everyone is and with good reason.
Compounding this are failures of leadership that abound in government and elsewhere, including the church. Don't think I have forgotten the grand-standers jeopardizing their flocks by opening their buildings instead of learning something new! I live in the same disoriented and disorienting world you do.
Yeah, I see this hard time we are in. I am afraid, too. Still...I didn't think I would see the new church and now I see just a little bit and that makes me so so happy. I want to see more. Take the party where you can, right? That is Palm Sunday. That is Easter, too.
Tara took this picture of our coffee hour on Sunday and sent it to me. Each of those faces are of people I love. Some are recent faces, but many I have known for years. The other pictures are from among our congregation, figuring it out, taking chances on this new world even in the current chaos. Colleagues (and future colleagues) you are doing great. Church leaders, you are too.
Let's stick together and see this new day. As hard as the journey may be right now...deliverance will come.
Then Palms of Victory, I declare.
A couple weeks ago, when this all started, I wrote a FB post about unschooling. Really, that is what many parents are finding themselves having to do. "Homeschooling" is the term that I hear and see on FB, which evokes images of projects and curricula and parents having to work way outside their comfort zones. However, "unschooling" is what many of us are really doing. On a very basic level it just means letting go and letting the kids explore their interests.
Does it mean more screen time? Yeah, probably. Does it mean fewer minutes taken in the pursuit of targeted learning goals? Yep. However, it also means stepping back and letting your child find their own way to learning what they are actually interested in. It also means maintaining your own sanity, which your kids need more than learning shapes and colors or long division.
Here is the basic fact of why I am writing you this. Recently there have been a number of articles about how stressed parents are right now and I get it. I am a parent, too. Still, I feel like my experience might help you let go a bit...
So...my middle child unschooled. He is in college now and on the Dean's List. I am not bringing that up to say "look at my smart kid". Instead I bring it up to let you know that he didn't go to to a structured school for four (4) whole years during what would have been his high school years and he is just fine. He also took 4th grade off...yes 4th grade! He also found his friends during that time. So if that is what you are worried about, please don't be, at least not right away.
We are not talking about 5 years of social isolation. Your child--who is also gifted (as all children are)--will be OK during this period as well. I also taught in an unschooling "learning cooperative" while my son was on his adventure. I have spent quite a bit of time with the "feral children". I have kept in touch with many of them. They have all grown to be responsible curious, brilliant young adults.
So I have some advice for you. You can take it or leave it, but, please...give yourself a break, practice forgiveness, and understand that this freedom--even if it turns out to be lots of boredom and TV--is a gift for you and your child. Even if it seems super weird right now...
FROM YOUR FRIENDLY FORMER (AND CURRENT AGAIN) UNSCHOOL PARENT.
So I was getting my youngest ready for his "Coronavirus School" today and remember that yesterday during virtual coffee hour, there were some questions about how to keep our children learning during this time. For me, I am having to dust off my pedagogical skills of a few years ago when my middle son "unschooled" for high school and part of elementary school. For others, this is new territory so I thought I would just mention a few things that have helped me...
MAKE BOREDOM YOUR FRIEND: Every kid I know was ever so slightly delighted by the extra free time of the past couple weeks. However, over that time...they got bored. Our brains do this to us to make sure we don't stagnate and rot. As they get bored, they will seek out something to fill their time that is more nourishing than video games. They truly will.
LET THEM CHOOSE WHAT TO STUDY: Once they are thoroughly bored they will start looking around for things to do. The temptation as a parent is to be like "Hey! The learning targets for the school say you need to understand linear equations. Go do that!" Instead...ask them what they want to do. What they choose may not sound academic. Who cares? It will be if they delve deeply enough. An interest in crafting can become a dive into the history and use (or science or practical math) of that craft. An interest in baseball covers biology, history, sociology, math, fitness, English (some of the most beautiful prose in our language is devoted to the game), religion, race, class, and so much more. Let them pick and help them get excited.
My unschooled son learned about history by going for walks. After a while he became interested in the Civil War veterans in the local graveyard. He taught himself (yes with my help) how to research a topic. He took out regimental histories from the libraries here and in Boston. In the process he learned how to be a historian and became a expert in the regiments of what we now call Metrowest. When he got tired of that he got into YouTube and wrote and directed two movies and numerous comic sketches. You get the idea.
HELP THEM WHEN THEY ASK: They will come to you with problems. Wait for them or--if you see they are struggling-- check in on them, but it is their project. Often they just need a gentle push toward resources.
SET A TIME FRAME: This is the "structure" part of our unstructured "school". They need to know--particularly at first--that they are expected to work on whatever their project is for a set amount of time per day. This still doesn't need to be a fight. They are bored and you are helping them not be bored. Let them know you are just helping by giving them the space and accountability for what it is THEY (not you) want to do.
Also...it doesn't have to be that much time.
This is important, keep your agenda somewhere else. I know you may be worried about your child's future success. We are often told--in large and small ways--that this sort of free time will doom them to mediocrity. Oh the anxiety of parenting in normal times! Believe me, though, it won't. We are told that so we and they can jump through certain hoops at certain moments to fill a certain slot in the economic engine. Guess what? That engine is being rebuilt. We don't don't know what it will look like. So even if we perceive the goal of education being economic "success" (which is a pretty poor definition of educational goals in my opinion) there are no targets to shoot for. There are no slots to put the kid in for now.
Look, we are not talking about forever here. We are talking about giving their minds a workout so they are still awake and ready when they get back to school--whenever that will be. They will be better for it. If anything, my unschooled son was better prepared for his freshman year because he knew how to take ownership of his education and didn't need to be enculturated to the greater personal autonomy of college. A couple weeks or months of this same approach will help your child feel more confident, too.
Remember: this time is not a compromise. It is an opportunity and an asset. We need to think that way. We need to step back, take care of what we can, and allow our children to grow and learn in their own way as much as we can. Their homeschool is not your job. It is theirs. You are not their supervisor, you are their parent, and their mentor. Give yourself and them a break.
Here is a sermon I preached a couple of years ago about the foundations of this approach. My son's "school" was a community of liberated learners called "Bay State Learning Center". In the sermon I mention their couch, where children sit before they get up and get going to learn and study in the way they determine for themselves. You might want to check out their Facebook page if you want to learn more.
So Sunday is tomorrow and I, like most of my pastor friends, have had to become an expert on virtual church. Sadly, I am not sure that I have reached the "expert" level. For the most part, it is just me and a camera. We also got started late, which was my fault. I really wanted to have church in person and began climbing the ol' learning curve on Thursday. The lifeblood of a small church and a small church pastor is being together in 3D, able to look each other in the eye and talk over paper cups of bad coffee. Man, I miss that. Yet it hasn't even been a week.
This Sunday I pre-recorded a "sermon" and a "service". The whole arrangement is under 30 minutes. I am using the "premier" function so that--if I set it up right--I can sit and watch the sermon with my virtual congregation. There is a comment function that I plan to use for that purpose. Then to Zoom. As many of you know, that is a meeting app being re-purposed for pretty much everything by pretty much everybody. We are going to attempt a "virtual coffee hour". It is the part I am looking forward to. It could also be chaos. It is a first attempt. There will be more attempts in the future.
I hope it goes well. As I look at the service, I can see a dozen things that I could do differently and better if I had the time. This is a trying and weird period in church life It feels like each small congregation is its own tough rock in the midst of the storm. I hope that we weather it well.
Our hymn is "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." It fits with the Bible reading, which is about Jesus calming the storm. Here are the words to the hymn. When it is all over, maybe I will post an update here and a video of me and my son Eamon playing it, hoping that somewhere someone is singing.
If you would like to sing with us, the short and no doubt "not quite as good as it could be" service can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkeY1iSCFMM. We are starting at 10am sharp. It is in Youtube's hands now
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
The river Jordan is chilly and cold, hallelujah!
Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
The river Jordan is deep and wide, hallelujah!
Milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Sister help to trim the sails, hallelujah!
Sister help to trim the sails, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Here I am innocently leading the congregation in O Come O Come Emmanuel, blissfully unaware of the homiletical debacle about to unfold...
Barring a number of early sermons where I wouldn't have known what a good sermon was (and would be forgiven for not knowing), I preached the worst sermon of my life yesterday. The theme was all about taking things more slowly, not getting overbooked, and being mindful of where we are in the moment. So, naturally, the wheels came off...
In its original form it was OK. This is a well-worn theme for Advent and it was meant to serve as a brief reflection between the "Sanctuary Lighting" ritual and our monthly communion service. For the first two thirds of the sermon, that is exactly what it was. However, as I turned from page 6 expecting page 7...I found...yup...page 9.
In that moment I had the sort of brief, out of body experience that happens during times of stress. I flashed to a post-game press conference where I was saying things like "well I guess my head just wasn't in the game". Commentators were doubting my future prospects in a career that once held so much promise. I envisioned the "spinning newspaper effect" popular in old black and white movies. Each paper carried the headline "Clerical Catastrophe! What Went Wrong!" I did, of course, put my head back in the game, but I took a long pause in my addled state and questioned my life choices.
When this happens one has a number of decisions to make. Some folks just barrel ahead with page 9 like nothing happened. Some start riffing in hopes that things will come around. Others freeze. The option I initially chose was to get my spare copy with a perfectly good page 7. However, I quickly discovered that it was lacking...page 8.
By this time I had told the congregation what was happening. I switched to the freestyle riffing option and wrapped with the closing reading from page 10, which was the end of my notes. Thankfully we had a brilliant violinist who played right after my "reflection" and--as so often happens--the music saved the service.
First, in case there are preachers reading this. Yes, I am a manuscript preacher and have been for 20 years. Before assuming that this is something that doesn't happen to outline or noteless preachers, think again. Each form has its challenges. We just just choose the risk that works for us. The key, of course, is to avoid what an old driving video called "The Final Factor." That is, the thing that ultimately makes you take your eye off the road.
However, I really don't want to get bogged down in the shop talk anyway. I want to talk about the response. This isn't about preachers. It is about the people we preach to and with each and every Sunday. Besides, there is grace in this story and a counter narrative for anyone concerned by the fact you can fall flat on your face in mid-career. It turns out, the sermon, thank God, isn't really about us after all.
I have been at the Eliot Church for over 16 years and am the longest serving minister in it's 191 year history, We are friends in many respects and have shared much of our post-childhood "growing up" together, so mostly I expected some light joshing and sympathy, That is what I got. It was funny if you weren't the one stumbling around. Besides, teasing me about it made it clear that the disaster they had witnessed is not a weekly occurrence for them. I will still be starting the game next week.
However, I was also amazed by how hard people worked to get the sermon--truly a hot mess by the end--to still make sense! Pretty much everyone pointed out that I demonstrated the perils of the frantic season and the frustration that it can bring. Others felt--in the words of a note from my intern when I sat down to listen to the violinist--I had "embodied imperfection beautifully." The church, it seems, found meaning in my epic fail.
That isn't what I got out of it at all...except the imperfection part. What I got from it was a desperate attempt to make sense of my own argument in real time while hoping whatever word salad came out of my mouth would make sense to somebody. The great thing is, they did get something out of it. Even though I didn't help them much at all.
This is the great thing about people who come to worship. They bring their own sermons with them and when "the show" goes south, their hearts preach the sermon instead, with whatever they can disentangle from the chaotic resources they have been given. They know what they want to hear and accept that the obviously flawed worship leader will do their best to help and not hinder. Yes, there is the occasional curmudgeon who is hoping that the sermon will contain something they can get offended about, but for the vast majority, this is not the case, Everyone at worship is there in part to find meaning in their lives and they trust the community, the service, and its leaders enough that they are frequently able to find that meaning even when things aren't hanging together the way they should.
When we preachers fumble, the message gets through in spite of us, and I am grateful for my hard working church. I am grateful, too, for the Divine Spirit that connects us all together to form a loving, supportive community of seekers In a world that needs many more such communities than it currently has.
Now, I am not quite ready to post the whole sermon. I am not sure that the internet needs a permanent record of my failure. However, I thought I would share this clip--mostly of my cameraman--from the moment when it appeared to be on its way to fiasco.
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...