Saturday, July 29, 2023

Make America Godly Again

 It was back in June, and I was shopping for clothes to take on a retreat.  I suppose it was an excuse — do I really need more clothes? — in a nice women’s shop. I had picked out a couple of sale items, when I turned and saw her.  She was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Make America godly Again.”

And immediately I wondered, I wonder what godliness would look like to her?

I didn’t ask.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into a theological discussion right then, and, it was June, and out of the corner of my eye I also spied what I THINK was their tasteful and sort of understated Pride-themed shirt.  It was white but had all kinds of colors woven into it as well.   

The woman’s “godly” t-shirt:  gray.

Maybe this was a coincidence, but it did make me think.

I posted about the incident and my question on facebook.  Some people did ask me why I didn’t ask HER.  Maybe I should have.  But I thought possibly it would have been a longer conversation.

On facebook though, I did get a response that made me think.  One of my friends talked about godliness and how people just went to church more back in the 1940s and 1950s (and even 1960s).  The church where I grew up was full, and, I will admit, I sort of wish that the church was full like that again.

It got me nostalgic for awhile, thinking back on the crowded Sunday School Rooms, and youth group (although I didn’t really like youth group, but that’s another story).  I thought about every Sunday worship and what it sounded like when a lot of people are singing hymns they know and love, together.  Most of the stores weren’t open and there wasn’t much on TV.  If you asked people, almost everyone said they believed in God.

The Good Old Days.

But was that godliness?

I’m older (and still Christian, by the way), but I know some things about the “good old days” that I didn’t when I was growing up.  The good old days weren’t good for everyone.  I just didn’t know about it then.  I didn’t know about segregation.  My northern suburb didn’t really have any people of color.  I didn’t know about lynching.  I didn’t know that people thought it was somehow godly to bar the doors of their churches and not let people of color worship with them.  It was considered godly to have separate schools and separate water fountains.  

But everybody went to church.  And believed in God.

So “Make America Godly Again?”  How do we know we were godly before?  How are we even defining godliness?  What is our criteria for godliness anyway?

When I think back on my childhood, (and frankly, even parts of my adulthood), I think I defined godliness as what I wasn't supposed to do -- drink, smoke, swear, be too familiar with the opposite sex before marriage,  My grandparents also included dancing and playing cards (they believed it was a sin to use face cards and we only played Rook.)  So godliness was a sort of respectability, although that turned out in some cases to be outward respectability.  And perhaps, in some cases, that included going to church.  

I still remember my aunt telling me once, when I talked to her about the "good old days" in her hometown and home church, about men being active in church, that she replied, "And then they went home and beat their wives."

So, "make America godly again?"  I have mixed feelings.  I would want to know what the definition of godliness was.  I would want to know what the criteria was.  I would hope that rather than barring the doors and keeping people out, true godliness would include mercy and wide welcome.  It would include seeing the image of God in one another, and even the stranger.  You know, like Jesus, who hung around with sinners and accepted dinner invitations from them.

I think as well that I would be careful about wearing a "Make America Godly Again" t-shirt.   If I did, it wouldn’t be gray.  It would be all the colors.  Godliness would be vibrant, with open arms.  Godliness would rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  Godliness would laugh, and sing.  And be humble.  Godliness would have room for more people, not fewer, because it would be based on the huge surprise of grace.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

What makes a church good?

 Early one steamy morning my husband and I were walking our dog around the common areas of our community.  It was early enough that the lawn workers were out, mowing and weeding and beautifying, and as we walked along the circle, one of them paused mowing to let us pass.  I thanked him, and asked him how he was.

“I want to quit!”  He said.  

“How long have you been doing this?” I replied.

“Three days.  But I know I don’t want to do this the rest of my life.  I think I might want to go to college.”

I asked him which college, and he quickly named a well-regarded college nearby.  I offered that one of the young people from my church would be attending that college this fall.

He asked if I attended the church down the street, and I said, No, and I named my church (Grace) and where it was located.

Then he asked, “Is it a good church?”

Before I could say anything, my husband responded, “SHE’S the pastor!”

The young man looked surprised.  “YOU’RE the pastor?”

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine that after all these years (women have been ordained for over 50 years in my denomination) people are still shocked that I exist.  And yet, it’s not his final comment that reverberates; it’s his question:  “Is it a good church?”

It made me wonder what a “good church” would look like to him.  Maybe that’s why I hesitated to say “yes."  I think that my church is good (after all, I’m the pastor), but in what way is it good?  Would he think so?  And even though I think we are “good” (whatever that means), I don’t think we are a perfect church.   There are times that I am amazed by our love and generosity — I still remember the Spirit I felt when our congregation blessed our two high school seniors and gave them quilts that our quilters group made.  On that day, I thought, “This is a great church!”

One of our newer members lives alone; when he had medical appointments, some of our other members gave him rides to and from the doctor’s office.  And when the son of a friend of the congregation needed to get married over a weekend leave, members of the congregation made sure he and his fiancĂ© were welcomed, and made the celebration happen.

When an older member of the congregation died suddenly, almost 30 members of the church attended her funeral, even though it was at another venue about forty miles away.

But, if I am honest, there are other moments too:  times when someone (even me) said the wrong thing at the wrong time.  There have been moments when the livestream failed, or the sermon fell short.  The music isn’t always perfect.

But, what makes a church good?  That’s what I am thinking about.  I don’t know what this young man thinks.  I don’t know if a good church for him is large, and has a band, or small, and has prayer groups.  I don’t know if a good church for him is sure about everything, or leaves room for doubt.  

For me, this is what makes a church good: a church that listens to the children and the shut ins.  A church that hears the voice of God, in scripture, but also in outcasts.  A church that practices forgiveness.  A church that knows Jesus, and wants to know him better.  A church that cares for one another, and for others.  This church doesn’t need to be large, but there is always room for more.

What makes a church good?