Thursday, May 31, 2012

On the Other Hand, Some of the Most Open-minded, Progressive, Intriguing People I know are over 65

Reaching Out To Young Adults Will Screw Up Your Church, wrote Adam Copeland recently.  He's gotten a lot of great conversation going about what's wrong with the church these days, what young people bring, what it means to belong before you believe, and the danger and necessity of change.

Still, when I read his post, I wanted to share some stories:

Last fall I met a couple of older women at a Writing Conference held at a progressive church.  We had a great conversation over lunch.  I did confess, at one point, that I was a pastor.  One of the women told me that though she was very active in social ministries, she no longer attended a church, and sort of felt an aversion to it.  She had grown up Pentecostal and felt that she had enough church then for the entire rest of her life.

I used to visit a retired pastor and his wife every month, to bring them communion.  She was in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer's disease; he visited her faithfully every day.  He was a pretty conservative, confessional Lutheran, but always with a commitment to social justice.  One day we broached the subject of the ELCA's position on ordaining gays and lesbians in committed relationships.  (This was before the 2009 vote.)  After beating around the bush for a little while, I came out and asked him, "What do you think we should do?"  He answered, "I think we should ordain them!" 

One of our part-time receptionists is an 85 year old woman who comes in to help with bookkeeping and building management.  She loves all kinds of  Bible study, including the rigorous historical critical study that our senior pastor used to give.  She is very open to change in our congregation, and once mused to me that the fear of change of some of the other older members of our congregation is not so much a function of their age, but of the length of their tenure in the congregation.

On the other hand, a young woman I'm friends with said to me that she was looking for a church with traditional worsihp, but a progressive sermon.

I suppose that my points are that: 1)  it's true, reaching out to young adults will screw up your church, but that perhaps reaching out to anyone new who is at all different than you will screw up your church.  Immigrants.  Poor people.  People who are not native to Your Particular Denomination or your Political Orientation.  But, it's possible that this will be the Holy Spirit at work.

2)  It is true that often-times churches are not open to the ideas, doubts and questions that younger adults bring.  It is also true that churches are not always open to the ideas, doubts and questions that new-comers bring, whatever their age.  I actually think that this is an a more accurate (and sadder) statement.

3)  It is true that not all young people like contemporary worship, or traditional worship, or ask the same questions or have the same ideas.  It is also true that not all old people like the same things either.  God hates stereotypes, and will blow them apart, and perhaps screw up your church. 

4)  It is true that the general culture outside the church values youth and de-values age.  In our earnest and well-meaning attempts to screw up the church by reaching out to young people, I hope we do not de-value the very real gifts that older adults bring.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why I Read Memoirs

I'm reading another memoir now, one I picked up in a local used (mostly) bookstore.  It's called Let's Take the Long Way Home, a book about the friendship of two women writers. They meet because they also have new puppies.  On the docket after that is another memoir, Ashes to Ashes, by Benjamin Busch, as well as a novel, Ella Minnow Pea.

Why do I read memoirs?  Until a few years ago, I was barely aware that memoirs existed.  I was an English Major, which meant that I read literature and poetry, and liked it.  I even started a book club here at my church, "Faith and Fiction," because I was convinced that God was lurking around any good story, in some way or another.   I remember hearing novelist Alice McDermott interviewed on the radio a few years ago.  Perhaps the memoir was just becoming popular, but I remember that she was quite critical of the genre at the time.  Fiction is rigorous; you are really creating something, not simply re-shaping a part of your own story.  (I believe she has softened her critique somewhat.)

There is something a little unsettling about looking through the Biography section at the bookstore, and seeing all of the people telling all of their different stories, some of them sordid, some strange, some exotic, some even ordinary.   A part of me wonders if the writing and reading of all of these memoirs is really a healthy sign.   The other part of me reads memoirs, anyway, for these reasons:

1.  Some of them are extremely well-written.  I'll admit it, I love reading good sentences like some people like eating chocolate.  No kidding.  It's great to have a good message, but I'll take a well-tempered sentence over a too-righteous message any day.  I picked up A Three Dog Life almost entirely because of the beauty of the sentences. 

2.  There is an experience foreign to me that I want to know something about.  This is one of the reasons I picked up the book The Latehomecomer.  It is the story of a Hmong family's journey from the refugee camps of Thailand to St. Paul, Minnesota, told through the eyes of one of the daughters.  This is a perspective entirely foreign to me.  And yet....

3.  There is something with which I can make a connection.  I do not know the immigrant experience of the Hmong, but my family has its own immigrant story, so I want to make the connection with others who have been displaced in other ways.  In the same way, I chose Michelle Norris' book about her experience growing up African American in Minneapolis, The Grace of Silence, both because her experience was so different from my own, and also because her address was so jarringly close to mine.

4.  They are stories about God, somehow.  Sometimes it is overt, as in In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, which is a story of a man who went to prison for check-kiting.  He happens to be imprisoned in Lousiana, in a place which is also a leper colony.  At the same time that he studies the inmates there, learns the history of the prison and the people, he also comes to terms with himself as a criminal in need of redemption:  an outcast.   Most of the stories I read are not conversion stories in any way, but there are stories of grief and loss and failure and transformation, which means that faith or doubt or unbelief reside there. 

The first memoirs, long ago, were written by generals telling stories of their battles, and by religious, telling stories of their conversion.  We've come a long way since then, but in this secular, individual era of ours, I think that memoirs are still, at their heart, faith stories.  In them, people take their lives, or bits of them, anyway, and make them into something that is bigger, and about more than themselves.   And the best ones are both strange and familiar, a window into an exotic world where we still see ourselves. 


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Building a Sense of Community

In my tradition, pastors are encouraged to reflect occasionally on a number of different ministry strengths and skills.  Some are as obvious as Preaching and Worship Leadership or Pastoral Care, and some are more specific and perhaps unusual, like Being an Agent of Change, or Advocacy.  One I have been musing on lately is this:  Building a Sense of Community.

Perhaps it's because long long ago, I named this blog "Faith in Community."  I did it for a number of reasons:  I was involved in community social ministry at the time, and felt that churches needed to be a force for positive change in their local and wider communities.  But also, I have always been convinced that faith grows and is challenged in the context of a faith community of some kind.

But, this is the age of individuals, not the age of community, much as we say we long for it.  This is the age when we have the freedom to go our own way; what would compel us to throw in our lot with one another?  The question is:  how do you build a sense of community in a congregation, a sense that we are not simply a collection of individuals who show up on occasion on Sunday morning, but that we do all belong to one another, which is a truth of the gospel that we do not often seen, at least not lately. 

I did see it in my little rural parishes.  They knew each other, sometimes for generations, and though they were often independent, they also knew that they were all in this life together, all in their small communities together, all in their faith communities together.  The downside of this was that sometimes they did not assimilate newcomers easily.  However, they did know that they belonged to each other.

Here are some first musings on some practices that might build community.

1.  Eating together.  It's one of the most basic of activities.  We all need to eat to live.  But when we eat together, we share our common hunger with our food.  Eating together binds us to one another.  The easy conversation that comes with the food also plays a part in building community.

2.  Learning together.  I've noticed that some communities will advocate that they read a book together over a period of time.  Sometimes I see the notice at the Public Library -- we're all reading "Three Cups of Tea", and the author will be with us as well.  In churches, when people gather to puzzle over the words of Holy Scripture, or read a common text and together meditate on how it will affect their individual and common lives, they build community.

3.  Shared experience.  When I was in seminary, I was a part of a program called "the Integrated Quarter."  During this time our classes, out of classroom learning, and other experiences were integrated around a common theme, "hope in suffering."   There were just 20 or so of us, and all of our classes were together.  I volunteered at a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence, along with a few of my colleagues.  We went to plays together, and sometimes discussed them afterwards.  Shared experiences.

4.  Shared service.  Sometimes the service is as small as supporting one member of the community at a time of crisis.  Sometimes it's a mission trip, traveling to another community and deeply learning how all of our gifts and even our liabilities work together to make us a team that completes a mission.  We come together to address a community need or advocate for change.  Shared service builds community.

5.  Shared language of prayer and worship.  We learn hymns and prayers and rituals, and we practice them together.  This prayer, this song is something we know by heart and it defines us.  There are few of these hymns and songs any more, but on occasion I have experienced this at a funeral when many people together sing a familiar hymn that they know well, or when I have heard people sing, "Be Present At Our Table Lord."  For a certain generation, this is a shared prayer, and it binds them together.

Most important of all:

6.  A shared mission.  Churches exist to witness to the love of Christ in and for the world, in some way or another.  We exist to bear one another's burdens, and to reach out beyond ourselves.  We are part of one another, we are a community, because we share this purpose.  In the past some people have pointed out that the people who begin and build a church building naturally also build a sense of community.  They are engaged literally in building something with one another.  When the building is complete, though, the building is not finished.  In fact, the work of being God's people is more important than ever. 

Maybe your mission is to be a place of radical welcome for everyone.  Maybe your mission is to feed people.  Maybe your mission is to be a place of healing.  Maybe your mission is to be a place where the creative Spirit empowers artists to proclaim God's love. 

At Pentecost, the disciples stopped being a collection of individuals who followed Jesus and became a people chosen for a purpose and mission:  to share the powerful love of God made real in the life of Jesus, and in their lives, as well.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dis-Organized Religion

"I have a problem with organized religion," he said to me.  They were sitting in my office, this couple preparing for marriage, when he said these words.  They were doing the pre-marital talks, it was Sunday morning right after worship, I was wearing (you know) the outfit that identifies me as a member of Organized Religion. 

Not that I'm defensive or anything.  And I don't claim to know always what a person might mean when they say "organized religion", but I have a couple of ideas (or suspicions).  Possibly they might mean "organized religion" that is designed (it seems) to judge people unworthy and keep them out.  Or they might mean the "organized religion" that seems to serve to protect the powerful instead of caring for the vulnerable, poor, hungry and lonely.   (For example, systems that give people in collars power and turn a blind eye when they abuse the power given them.)  Possibly they mean religion that organizes to try to impose religious values on people who don't share those values. 

Or, they could mean something else.  I'm open to suggestions.

Maybe they mean religion that organizes to get together on Sunday morning and sing some songs.  That's organized, too (although some churches are more organized than others).

So anyway,  it was Sunday morning, and I was tired, so when he said he had a problem with organized religion, I said, "How do you feel about dis-organized religion?" 

I've been thinking a bit about this since then; I think I might feel comfortable with a sort of dis-organized religion (well, except for the Sunday morning part; I would like to know when we are getting together for worship).  Maybe a little more dis-organized religion is what people need.  For example, maybe we need a faith with fewer answers and more questions, with more room for exploring, changing our minds, adding a new insight.  Then when we recite the creed, we can consider that our statement of faith is supposed to make God bigger, not smaller.   When we follow Jesus, we can consider that instead of cleaning up our lives and making them orderly, he's really dis-organizing us by giving us a new center.   Maybe we need some dis-organized religion, because (maybe) what people hate about organized religion is that it makes us sound like we have God all domesticated in a box.

I remember a professor in seminary once talking about progress in the Christian life.  He was talking about Augustine, I think, and he drew a straight line with an arrow on the board.  Then he said, "Luther believed in progress in the Christian life too, but he thought it looked more like this"  -- and he drew a squiggly line in the middle of the board.  I think there was an arrow in there somewhere.

I remember thinking, "I guess I'm Lutheran, then."

Dis-organized religion.   Religion with with room for people who don't agree with one another, where progress in the Christian life is messy, and where there is room for repentance.  That's what I'm looking for.

Join me.  We meet at 10:00 on Sunday morning.  Or thereabouts.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ascension Day

Today was Ascension Day.  I let it almost get past without a blog post.
But, I couldn't quite let it pass.

Because Ascension is not on Sunday, most congregations don't hear the story of Jesus' ascension into heaven, how he took the disciples up to a mountain, promised them that they would received power, and then disappeared from view while they stood with their mouths open, looking up.

Maybe that's okay, because the story of the Ascension is a sort of odd story, if you think about it, especially if you think about it in a sort of 21st Century way.  But, actually, it's hard to really consider Pentecost without Ascension.

We usually read the Ascension story on the 7th Sunday of Easter, and at the point where Jesus disappears, we pause, and someone extinguishes the paschal candle.  There it has been, since Easter, while we've been reading all of those resurrection stories, Jesus walking around, showing us his hands and feet, going fishing, breaking bread.  Now, 40 days later, that's history.  We are not going to see Jesus any more.

There's something poignant about that, and about the disciples standing there looking up.  The angels tell them to stop looking up, which everyone interprets as "start looking around for all the work that needs to be done."  I don't think they are wrong.

But there's this other statement, that Jesus will return in the same way that he left.  Maybe this is just me, but I don't think this is a reference to the Second Coming.  It think it's about what is going to happen 10 days later, when the Holy Spirit falls on the disciples.  Jesus' Spirit, in them, pushing them out into the world, farther and farther into the world. 

Ascension Day is only the day we stopped seeing Jesus with our eyes.  On Pentecost we began to see Jesus with the eyes of our hearts.  And you never ever know where he might turn up.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pity the Poor Typewriter

In our Leadership Board meeting last week, we continued to talk about how to use technology effectively and efficiently in our congregation.  It's a stewardship issue (among other things):  how can we be most effective in our use of technology so that we have time to do what is most important in the life of our congregation and community.

I freely admit that though I know a lot about computers and the internet and email, my knowledge is spotty and incomplete.  Though I was a little taken aback with the vehemence with which one member of the Board pointed out how backward we are:  "You still have a TYPEWRITER."

It's true.  There is a typewriter in our office, although, to be honest, we don't really use it. Much.  We type names in Wedding Certificates and those baptismal cards, and that's pretty much It.  And (to give the particular typewriter all the credit it is due) it is one of those huge, semi-computerized typewriters.  It can remember whole lines of type before it writes anything down.  (I always hated those.)

I learned to type in junior high, two summers in a row, in summer school.  The first summer I took typing on a manual typewriter, slamming down the keys and using the return lever.  The second summer they had at least semi-electric typewriters, and I got better.  My mother tricked me into learning to type by telling me, "if you want to be a writer, you will need to be able to type your manuscripts."  I have never come out and asked her this, but I suspect that she was actually more interested in the idea that I would actually have a Marketable Skill.

When I got to college, my parents bought me my own Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter.  I was thankful, but in my heart of hearts I coveted the Selectrics I typed on when I went to work in offices.  I could type much faster, and I loved how heavy the machines were.  The little portable typewriter sort of bounced around on the table when I got going too fast. 

When I was growing up, we had an old manual typewriter just sitting around our house.  No one ever used it, but it was sturdy and gleaming.  Until I learned to type, it seemed as mysterious to my as a computer would have been.  For many many years people typed on something very similar to that old typewriter, and not much changed.

In recent years, things have moved much faster.  First typewriters re-invented themselves as electric.  Electric typewriters then took many forms.  Typewriters had self-correction devices in them, and then there were "memory typewriters" (I always hated those.)  It wasn't long before computers took center stage.

There is a typewriter in our office, but I'm thankful that I don't have to use it.  I haven't used a typewriter for a long time.  Pretty soon, no one will. 

Still,  the computers I have used are not so sturdy as that old manual typewriter, or even the Smith-Corona that I had in college.  My first computer as a pastor was a desktop varietry of Mac; I loved it dearly, but it was obsolete not long after I got it.  It was not capable of email or internet connections.  Now the computers I am interested in are ever lighter and more portable.  I suspect the latest variety will too soon be old.

I'd like to think this:  that hidden inside each one of those sleek new laptops and tablets is an old sturdy manual typewriter, the parent from which all of this communication was born.  I'd like to think this:  that nothing of the past is really lost, that somewhere the things we throw away are cherished, that their stories are told, typed out on old typewriters  by strong fingers, and saved for another time.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

This song goes back a long way for me.  It is one of the first songs I ever learned, probably in Bible School.  I think, if I tried, I could sing all three verses by heart.  My grandmother once told me that she remembers prayer meetings at their home when her own grandmother was sick.  They would gather around and sing and pray.  "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" was one of the songs they sang.

I know, I know, the tune is not that interesting.  But try singing the lyrics to another tune (Thy Strong Word, for example), and the lyrics don't sound tired or trite.  "What a friend we have in Jesus/All our sins and griefs to bear/What a privilege to carry/Everything to God in prayer."  And notice that it's "what a friend WE have in Jesus" -- the song is an expression of personal faith, but not individual faith.

I think many of us are very familiar with this comforting image of Jesus -- as a good friend, one to whom we can tell our troubles, who will hear and help and not judge.  There's an old saying, "A friend is someone who knows all about you -- and likes you anyway."  Yeah.  Jesus is that sort of friend.

So imagine my surprise when I was re-reading John 15 this week and I looked again at Jesus' declaration of friendship to his disciples.  "From now on I call you not servants, but friends."  At first glance, this is, of course, "what a friend we have in Jesus."  But it is just ever-so-slightly different.  Jesus is not saying that he is our friend, but that we are his friends. 

Maybe it's the same thing, you say.  Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill.  But look:  Jesus says we are his friends, and it's not about how we get to tell him all the things that are on our mind, not about how we get to unload on him when we're feeling blue.  Instead, Jesus names us friends (instead of servants) because "the servant does not know what the master is doing.  I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father."

In other words, we are Jesus' friends, not because of the secrets we can share with him, but because of the secrets he has shared with us, the things he has heard from the father.

I use the word "secret" because Jesus has shared with his disciples things that not everyone knows, things we are privileged to hear, to know, to act on.  Like a good friend, Jesus has trusted us with the most important things he has learned:  about love and sacrifice and a God who washes feet.   Jesus has trusted us with the most important things he has learned about the Father's love, and that is not something readily apparent in the world.  To a lot of people, it's a big secret.  Oh, once in awhile, you can catch a glimpse of something, if you look carefully.  You might see people rebuilding houses in Mississippi, even now, or you might spy a man dancing with a woman in a wheelchair.  You might notice people opening the doors of their churches to homeless families.   But a lot of the time, the tragedy in the world shouts louder.

So Jesus says to us:  "I have called you my friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father."  Such as, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."  Such as, "I will not leave you orphans.  I will come to you."  Such as, "For God so loved the world.... " 

And then he sends us out, armed with these secrets he has told us, and more.

What a friend we have in Jesus/all our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry/Everything to God in prayer.

Yes, it's still a comfort and a privilege to share our own poor hearts with Jesus.
But it's an even greater privilege, I think, that he has shared his own heart with us.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Leaving Space

It was not long after I started serving my first parishes in rural South Dakota that someone approached me after worship one Sunday.

"You don't leave enough space," she told me.  "When we are praying during worship, and naming people in our parish who need healing, and you invite us to pray silently for others..... you don't leave enough space for us to pray."

I don't think I was intentionally rushing through the time of silent prayer, but I've always been glad for her words.  She taught me a lot, some things that you wouldn't think that I would need to learn, others that I think everyone needs to learn over and over. 

She taught me the importance of leaving space.

Of course, I knew in my head that the time of intercessory prayer in Sunday worship was called "the Prayer of the Church", or "the prayers of the people".  I knew in my head that it was not my prayer, but the church's prayer, that we were all praying together, and I had the privilege of saying it out loud.  But the words of this woman reminded me that it is really true, that we really are praying together, and that when I make an invitation for people to remember those "we name in our hearts before you..." people are really naming names.    We are not just going through the motions here.  Just because this prayer is public, and sometimes seems a little formal, does not make it any less real. 

One man told me recently that they always bring a list of people they are praying for with them to worship; they can bring the list out and name the names at the appropriate time.  And he told me that their list is getting longer and longer.

"You should leave more space," I hear in my head, while he is talking.  "You should leave more space for us to pray with you."

Of course, this is not just true about the time of silence during the prayers; it's true about all of worship, and other parts of our lives, too.  And it's not just about silence.  Leaving space is about trusting that God is working in the cracks and silent places and all of the spaces where we might think "Nothing is happening."  It is trusting that God is working in our congregation, in the hearts of people, in our community, whether or not we can get an "Amen," when the action is silent or invisible to the eye.

Pastors are leaders, that's the truth: among the areas where we need to lead is in leaving space.  We lift the cup, we break the bread, but it is God who inhabits us, God who breaks us, God who is making us, all of us, new.

In the midst of all the strategies and strategic planning, in the midst of the words and the actions, in the midst of the prayers and the songs and the silence, hear the judgment of God:  "You need to leave more space."

Hear the grace of God, "for I am working among you."