April 25, 2017
The large flowering cherry trees in front of the church have been holding their blossoms in “almost open” stage for about a week now. For a while, I thought they might open for Easter, which would have been sweet, but the tree is holding out for more sun, I think, and more warmth. I am guessing that the weather forecast for Thursday this week might entice the blossoms to let go their tight hold on beauty and open to us.
Holding tight. Not wanting to open up for fear of cold, or rain. Keeping spring at bay despite other trees around us opening their blossoms. I speak to the cherry trees every time I walk past them. “Blossom!” I commanded fruitlessly for a while. Then I began to gently yearn, “Open your beautiful blooms,” I sweetly requested.
But they do not open yet. “When the time is right,” I guess, is what they are saying to me. I heard a friend yesterday describe a pilgrimage as taking a break from velocity. I liked that and realized that the cherry trees gave me the same message. “What’s your hurry?” they ask. “Whenever we bloom, it will be beautiful. Wait for the fullness. It comes when it comes. Peace.”
I am learning the lesson being taught. Take a break from velocity. Watch. Wait. Something is getting ready to open. It always does.
April 11, 2017 Holy Week
As I write this, we are all still reeling after the poison gas killing of dozens of people, including children, in Syria. And the bombings of Coptic Churches on Palm Sunday, again killing many including children. And the murder/suicide school shooting in San Bernadino which killed a teacher and a child and left another child in critical condition.
Our President reacted to the first set of killings, saying that no child should have to suffer like that. He sent in bombers to make an ineffective symbolic strike on a Syrian airway to show how upset he was at children suffering.
Yet children who are shot regularly in this country, usually by people they know and people who have claimed to love them, are clearly not as important, for guns are rampant in this country and a recent law relaxed any restrictions on mentally ill vets owning guns. Seriously?
We are in a week in the church year where we remember suffering at length. We read on Palm Sunday, on Maundy Thursday, and on Good Friday about Jesus’ suffering and the suffering of those who loved him. We sing about his sacred head being wounded and his blood flowing out. And we imagine, sometimes, that if we had only been there, we might have done something to help him.
We are there.
ch 29, 2017
We’ve passed the midpoint of Lent and it feels like Holy Week is fast approaching. I’ve been planning worship services and looking for participants and creating visuals for a couple of weeks now. So have many of my colleagues.
So today, a shout out to all of us who are pastoring congregations anywhere. Most of us are not well-known, well-compensated and sometimes not even appreciated by the folk with whom we work (I except myself from that last one happily). Most of us will not write the “it” book of the moment or be interviewed by NPR or CNN or FOX or serve the “tall steeple” church with power and influence in a city or speak at the fancy conferences (or even have the dollars to attend them!). Most of us will do the mundane and the miraculous in obscurity, with even the people close to us not knowing when either of those things happen. Most of us wonder, at one time or another, if this is what God really wants us to be doing, especially in the midst of broken boilers or arguing parishioners or dwindling numbers.
To you, my colleagues and friends, remember that you were blessed to be a blessing. You were anointed to bring the good news in whatever way you can. You are part of the body of Christ, which reaches around the world. You are not alone.
This week, before Holy Week comes and sometimes the remembering is lost in the attention to detail, take Mary Oliver’s advice. “It is time now for the deepening and quieting of the spirit among the flux of happenings.”
And if you are reading this and are not a pastor, please include us in your prayers from time to time. You have no idea what a support that is for us. Thank you.
March 20, 2017
I spent last week visiting friends in Oxford, England and met a new spiritual model! St. Frideswide lived in the 7th century. She founded a monastic order in Oxford on the site of what is now Christ Church Cathedral and College. Her family wanted to see her married to a King, but she said no. They explained to her why, and he pursued her so that she had to hide in the woods to escape him. She persisted. Eventually, according to the legend, the King was killed as he pursued her and she successfully founded her monastery.
A woman religious leader in the 7th century! Talk about a hidden history! And even more interesting is that her life and story contained such power that even through the dissolution of the monasteries and various changes in Oxford, her presence continues on in a small side chapel in the Cathedral. She is today the patron saint of Christ Church College. This persistent woman, this leader and organizer, this deeply faithful sister’s spirit moves today.
Just what I needed at this time in our world: a woman who knows what it is to persist in the midst of her family, her society, even the church placing roadblocks of all kinds in front of her pursuit of living the life to which she was called.
I hope that the young women and men of Christ Church College know Frideswide, and that they can feel her presence and power. I know her, too, and will try to channel her in my life and work. Is there someone from the past (not necessarily an official “saint”) to whom you can turn for inspiration or support or strength or hope? If not, feel free to borrow Frideswide. Here’s the beautiful statue that stands in her chapel at Oxford.
8, 2017International Women’s Day
I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s.
In all my history books from elementary school through college, women were largely absent.
In the Bible, nameless women outnumber those with names.
In the pictures of scientists and technological wizards, women’s faces were largely absent.
In sports from high school through professional teams, the money and prestige have not gone to women.
In the halls of government from my town to Washington, women’s voices were silent, and silenced.
And the first woman I heard preach was….me.
Some things have changed since then. But for the most part, the change has not come without struggle, without women insisting that we are, indeed, half the world. We are smart. We are talented. We are strong. We are, well, persistent. And we always have been!
Our stories of the past too often remain hidden. I wept in grad school when I read of women mystics, women who ran whole religious orders of women, women who fought with the pope 500 years before I was born, and I thought women couldn’t be leaders in the church. I wept when I saw “A League of Their Own” because I wanted to play Little League in a time when girls were forbidden. It wasn’t until I was an adult and saw this film that I learned women once played pro baseball. I wept this year at the film “Hidden Figures.” Black and white women labored at the whole range of jobs in science and technology when I was a child and I never knew that was even an option for me. They were already there but the guys took the credit.
Sisters! Do not hide! Do not stay silent! Do not let someone else take the credit for your work! Persist! She is with you always!
February 28, 2017
I was speaking with a friend today about the Oscar debacle, when the wrong film was originally named Best Picture. What a terrible mistake, I said. She said, “But did you see how gracious the actual losing film’s producers were? They were the ones who called out the error! They kept calling the Moonlight folk on stage! How lovely to see such grace in the world.”
And how lovely to be reminded that every situation has multiple points of view inherent in it. My friend is a person who tends to see grace in the world more often than I do. So I have decided that what I will take on for Lent this year is a practice of recognizing grace and calling it out to remind myself, and perhaps others, that there is much to be thankful for and many people doing acts of intentional grace to create love in this world daily. I am going to write one note a day during the 40 days of Lent (Sundays are not part of Lent) to someone who has carried grace into my life or the world in general. Some days I’ll write to people I know. Some days I’ll write to people I hear about in the news. Every day I will endeavor to discover grace around me. I hope that this will empower me to be more of a person of grace myself, something that Jesus modeled so eloquently as he dealt with difficult situations in his time.
This does not mean that I will neglect to see evil or struggle in the world. How can I not? What it means is that I will remember that no matter what the evil, there are gracious acts of transformation that people of faith must take in the face of it, sometimes sacrificing self to do so, as Jesus did. I want to be one of those people. One of my colleagues speaks of some people in his congregation as “MGR” people. MGR stands for More Grace Required. Less a judgment on them and more a challenge for him. We are living in More Grace Required times. This Lent, I want to pay attention to people who are grace-filled and learn to be like them.
February 20, 2017
I am a white, native-born, citizen of the United States of America. Simply those facts, regardless of anything else about me, confer daily privileges of which I am mostly unaware. Those facts are also nothing I have done anything to earn; they simply are. For many years I was also unaware of the detriment (what is the opposite of privilege? Words fail to describe that.) experienced by those in this country whose facts of life do not measure up with one or all three of those facts.
Yesterday, Redeemer members and I spent the afternoon at an introductory training session on becoming a sanctuary congregation. In the evening, I joined members of the congregation at a screening of the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” featuring the words of James Baldwin telling both his own reality and the stories of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. The film is a stunning mix of footage from the last 5 years and that of the 50’s and 60’s. In the last month, I have also seen Hidden Figures (and heard the author speak), Moonlight and Lion.
And each time my privilege smacked me upside the head, as we used to say when I was a kid. And I was a kid in a working-class home with a father who had not graduated from high school and a mother who desperately wanted to go to college but came from a farm family with no money. I thought “privilege” meant those people I went to grad school with at Princeton who had gone to prep schools and vacationed by sailing on the family yacht in the Caribbean and knew what the multiple forks and spoons on a fancy table setting were for.
I have learned a lot about the definition of “privilege” in the years since then. There are categories of privilege, for sure, and equally for sure I sit smack dab in three of them: white, native-born, citizen. I am going to continue exploring that privilege and how I accompany those who do not share that privilege. I think that work will take the rest of my life.
February 14, 2017
Valentine’s Day. Depending on where you are in your life, this could be a day to celebrate a relationship with someone dear to you; it could be a day to remember someone now gone; it could be a day for little children’s paper hearts; it could be a day of sadness for broken or never-started relationships. It’s complicated.
For us as Christians, it could also be a day to remember that the organizing ethos for the realm of God is love. Really important to hold onto that these days. The organizing ethos of our society right now seems to be fear. Our new President and his chosen leadership team are crafting executive orders, legislation, and court battles meant to feed the fear of immigrants, refugees, non-Christians from anywhere in the world, criminals using crime statistics that are patently false, and decades old letters from women read by women. Fear.
On the other hand, those opposed to the administration are also stoking the fires of fear, parsing every word, every phrase out of the White House or any public servant everywhere to feed fears of impending doom.
Without question some of those fears are valid. Without question, some are not. Whatever the reality here, it is fear that leads action.
What would it look like for the ethos of a society to be organized around love? According to scripture, Jesus, and tradition, that is what the church is supposed to be modeling and working toward. It’s hard work. Fear is much easier.
This Valentine’s Day, no matter what your Facebook status says about “relationships,” why not find some folk who want to work on an organizing ethos of love?
February 6, 2017
Our congregation, along with United Church and Shalom and numerous Yale and New Haven groups, are sponsoring the display of a full-size model of a Solitary Confinement Cell, made by the National Religious Committee Against Torture (NRCAT). When I first heard about this project, I was not that interested in it. I assumed, somewhat naively, that the people who were put in solitary confinement were the “worst of the worst” in the prison system. People who tried to kill guards or other prisoners. People who were very dangerous to all those around them. Or people who were put there to protect them from other prisoners.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the project, I attended the opening press conference and volunteered to staff the display for an hour and a half on Friday afternoon. And my whole perception of Solitary Confinement was blown apart.
From the literature, I learned that people entered Solitary at the discretion of the Corrections Officers or Prison officials, not by order of a judge. They could be placed there for offenses such as throwing food in a cafeteria, cursing at CO’s, having forbidden objects including everything from illegal drugs to pens and paper. I also learned that in some cases minors can be placed in these cells. I learned that lights can be on 24/7, that it is not silent, but filled with the screams and pounding of other prisoners in other Solitary cells, that shackles are used during the 30 minutes per day a prisoner is allowed out to shower and walk. I learned that it is often not a one day punishment, but that some people are there for years with no meaningful human contact
And I learned some of this from the 5 men who stopped by while I was there, who had spent time in solitary at prisons in Connecticut and elsewhere. It took courage for them to go into the cell and remember. To a man, they told me afterward that the time in Solitary had left lasting scars on them, and not the kind that improves one’s attitude or life. This is not like a “time out” you give a child. This is torture. And it needs to stop.
January 31, 2017
For the next three weeks, our congregation, along with about 10 other groups in New Haven, is sponsoring the display of a Solitary Confinement Cell in the public library. The purpose is for people to begin to understand the reality of what Solitary, or “administrative confinement” really means, and how extended time in this cell, especially for minors, can cause the same mental and physical damage as torture. Spending even 5 minutes in this cell is chilling. Imagine spending days, weeks, months or even years without any meaningful human contact, without any sight of sky, never leaving the cell without being shackled hands and feet. People can be put in solitary for so many reasons that do not involve them being a danger to others. The point is to break someone’s will, and it works in horrible ways.
When human beings work hard at separating people from each other, a society is always in trouble of breaking apart. What makes a human society strong, joyful, productive, just and creative is when human beings share ideas, work, and love. Especially when people share their differences from one another in order to enrich each other’s experience of the world. This is not profound and new; it has been said by far wiser people than I am. It has been experienced throughout millennia. Rare is the human being who is so damaged that it is better for them to be shut away alone; healing more often can happen through positive human interaction.
Today in the United States, I fear our increasingly rapid moves toward separating people from one another. The Solitary Cell is a dramatic example which has been around a long time. Now the White House wants to reconsider using torture on a broader scale. Many are calling for us to be divided physically and emotionally from one another based on religion, national origin, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, economic status. These divisions are urged upon us based on fear: instead of difference being an enhancement to the human experience, it is seen as a danger. People who feel this way would have me look at the children of refugees who meet at our church and feel anger or fear, instead of laughing with joy as they practice their English by smiling at me and saying Good Morning. I will not be afraid of them. I was chilled by stories this past weekend of children under 5 being separated from parents and handcuffed because they came from countries on a random list (a list, by the way, that left off the countries from which people have come to do harm here since 9/11).
Divide and conquer. Well, I refuse to be conquered, because I refuse to be divided. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid.” (Psalm 27)
January 24, 2017
So many stories and moments from Saturday’s Women’s March in New York City. Here are just a few.
•On the packed train on the way into New York, a little girl, maybe 4 or 5, got on with her Dad. She had a sign with Princess Leia on it and the quote from the film Rogue One that Resistance is Built on Hope. Her first train trip. Her first visit to NYC. Her eyes were wide and bright and her heart open. We marched for her future.
•Many more people there than the police and planners had expected, so glitches in people moving. Everyone patient, creative, helpful to one another.
•Walking up 53rd St. to 5th Ave. and hearing the bells of St. Thomas Church playing “This Land is Your Land.”
•Walking down 55th St. past a store called Vivien Westwood. In the windows, where mannequins would be, stood four young employees of the store in black t-shirts that read “We are not disposable.” Waving, smiling at us, posing for pictures! No, they are not disposable.
•Young women often leading the way, leading us on a detour down 3rd Ave. singing. Strength, confidence, joy, power just emanated from them. I have such hope for the generations after me.
•Seeing online pictures of marchers around the world (on a boat in Antarctica!). As people checked their phones and word spread, our excitement grew.
•Every once in a while, a “roar” would come over the crowd in a wave. Our voices joined. Strangers. Kin.
•A woman who was once part of Redeemer’s family and now lives elsewhere had a picture of her sign in D.C. which read “We are our ancestors dreams.”
•This was the beloved community. Kindness and care defined the vibe. Listening, speaking, holding, singing. So glad to have been there with members of Redeemer and United!
Rev. Dr. Shelly Stackhouse
WHY I AM MARCHING ON SATURDAY JANUARY 21, 2017
As many of you know, I am going to New York City on Saturday for the Women’s March. New York joins Washington and dozens of cities around this nation as a gathering place for women, and some men, to come together to speak out. I have heard people say we are marching because we are mad that Hillary Clinton did not win the election, and we refuse to move on and give Donald Trump a chance. That’s not why I am marching. Here’s why I will be in New York on Saturday:
•Because the past two years of this campaign have brought to light the truths that many of us did not want to face about the character of our nation, and I want to shine a light on those realities, and lift up another way forward.
•Part of that ugly truth is that my sisters of color still face an upward battle for respect, safety, and equality that annual readings of the “I Have a Dream” speech have not ended. As a white woman who sees her privilege, I march beside my Black, Asian, Latina and Native American sisters, listening to their stories of racism and misogyny and say, “Enough!”
•Part of that ugly truth is that my fellow Christians across this nation too often present our faith as one that subjugates women, that is more concerned about their sexuality than their power as children of God and their abilities as disciples of Jesus. I proudly march as a Christian faith leader who proclaims a God who empowers and loves women in their fullness.
•Part of that ugly truth is that I keep hearing from male politicians in city, state and national legislatures that they think they still have the right to control women’s bodies, that sexual assault is also their right, and I want to firmly say, “No!”
•Part of that ugly truth is a fear and hatred of religions other than Christianity that is unfathomable in this day and age. I march with my Jewish and Muslim and Sikh and Hindu and Buddhist and Atheist sisters to say that there are many paths to truth and that this nation was founded as a safe place for all those paths to come together.
•Part of that ugly truth is the greed which seeks to deny the words on the Statue of Liberty. I march because the refugees who meet at our church have gone through hell, and I see my sisters from the Congo and Afghanistan and Syria with their babies and I cannot imagine why we would NOT give them home?
•Part of that ugly truth is that despite all the strides that have been made by LGBTQ people in the past 50 years, hatred of these folk abounds, often with Christian religious justifications. I walk beside my kin in this community because every human being is a beloved child of God.
•Part of that ugly truth is about deception. About wealthy white men (and a few women) telling poor people (of any race) that they are going to help them. Bring jobs for them. Give them healthcare. But almost always those same folks have what they need and only pass laws which enhance their own wealth. I am marching for poor women, men and children, to say with them, there is enough and to share!
•Part of that ugly truth is that despite all the gains we have made since I was in high school in the early 1970’s, when girls took Home Ec and boys took Shop, when girls used the “old” gym while only boys got to go into the pristine “new” gym (which didn’t even have girls’ locker rooms), before Title 9 had been implemented, still 40 years later, I have to worry about whether my daughter will be treated with respect by the men around her, whether she will have the same work opportunities as the men around her, whether she will be discriminated against as a person of color by white people like me. I am marching for Leah.
•Finally, part of the ugly truth that I do not want to face is that straight white women who look a lot like me are as responsible for many of these ugly things as men. I am marching to shout out to my straight white sisters that they need to pay attention, open their minds and hearts and spirits, listen to what is happening around them, and get a clue. Wake up. Because all that ugly is going to fall on you sooner or later.
So this is about way more than our President and Vice President elect. This is about my America. My sons’ and daughter’s future. My faith tradition’s future. And the society in which we all thrive, or fail, right now.
FREEDOM AND MARRIAGE
25 years ago an elderly couple came to me at my church office and asked a favor. Her husband had died 10 years earlier and his wife had died about the same time. Now in their 80’s, they had met and fallen in love, but did not feel right about “living in sin.” (Remember when people used that phrase? If you are too young to remember, it meant living together in a sexual relationship without being married). They did not want to get a marriage license because they would lose pension benefits as survivors and be reduced to living on social security. So they asked if I would do a wedding for them in the eyes of God without a wedding license. After some long conversations to make sure they were both clear about this marriage, I agreed. It was one of the loveliest weddings I have ever celebrated. The state of New York did not recognize their marriage and no legal rights (like joint tax filing) came from it, but they felt the support of God and the church in this relationship, and that was more important to them by far.
Today if I had done that wedding in North Carolina, I could be subject to large fines and jail time. In an effort to head off the recognition of same gender marriages, the state passed a bill that included a provision making it illegal for a pastor to conduct a wedding ceremony for anyone without a state-issued license. On April 28, the United Church of Christ filed a federal lawsuit on the basis of restricting religious liberty to seek to have this provision overturned. You can read the details of the case here: http://www.ucc.org/ido/
The Church of the Redeemer is officially an Open and Affirming Church in the UCC, and I have celebrated two same gender weddings here (and two others off site) since Connecticut legalized such weddings several years ago. When I was a pastor in Pennsylvania before I came here, where such couples cannot get marriage licenses, I celebrated a wedding for two woman parishioners without a license from the state without fear of prosecution. As a pastor, I have the right to choose which weddings I will and will not celebrate without interference from the state. For example, just because someone has a wedding license does not mean I am forced to perform their wedding, and at Redeemer we have a longstanding policy that generally we do not hold weddings of non-members in our sanctuary (though I do have the freedom to make exceptions to that policy, and I have several times over the past 8 years). When Connecticut officially recognized same-gender marriage, clergy who disagreed were not forced to perform those weddings in their churches/synagogues/mosques. The Constitution guarantees that the state cannot interfere in our worship services. What the UCC is asking in North Carolina is precisely that same protection for those who DO choose to celebrate religious weddings without state licenses, whether it is an elderly couple, someone who is dying in hospice, or a same-gender couple, fully understanding that legally those marriages are not recognized by the state.
This is an important issue and I am glad our denomination is taking leadership on this in North Carolina and elsewhere. Again, I encourage you to check out the link at ucc.org and learn more!
February 20, 2014 The New Normal
What a winter we have been having! More snowstorms and colder temps! The meteorologists and climate scientists are telling us that this pattern is “the new normal” in the midst of a changing climate. We need to be adapting our patterns of life, our town budgets for snow removal, our school schedules, and our attitudes to deal with the “new normal.” But we are slow to do so, slower, it seems, than the climate is changing.
So my question today, as it finally gets above freezing outside and begins the great melt, is about the church. What is the “new normal” for churches? The stats tell us that mainline churches have been having worship attendance and membership declines for some years now, and that ice age is catching up with evangelical churches, too. Although we at Redeemer have had a couple of years of very generous giving in pledge season, we still are eating our endowment to pay the bills. Many churches are struggling financially significantly more than we are. Worship styles, the music of worship and praise, styles of prayer, patterns of “joining” or not joining all organizations among people under 35, all of this is changing steadily with the future uncertain.
In some ways, it doesn’t matter what the “new normal” is in weather or in church. What matters is that we are flexible people. What matters is that we think clearly about what matters, really matters, and find ways to hold onto that which are life giving, love sharing, God serving. So, in many ways, the new normal looks like the old normal: there is no such thing in working with God as normal!
February 6, 2014 People still want us to pray
About a month ago we placed a box at one entrance to the church building inviting people to place prayer requests for us to pray both during the week and on Sunday morning. Many more people are in the building during the week for about 15 different groups than are in worship on Sunday, and we want to try to reach out more to these folk. We wondered if anyone would respond.
Yes, they did. Nearly every day there is one or more card in the box requesting prayers. Prayers for healing for themselves or someone else. Prayers about troubles of all kinds. Prayers for the world. Lots of desires for prayer out there!
Now I don’t know if all these folk seeking prayer are part of churches or synagogues or mosques and just want to add our prayers (strangers to them for the most part) to those they already seek elsewhere, but I am guessing that most of them are not. Yet somehow it brings them hope or comfort to know that people they do not know are holding their troubles and lifting them up to the loving arms of God. They find a power and strength in this practice of shared prayer.
So yes, you don’t need a church to pray. You don’t need a pastor or worship leader to pray. You can pray anywhere anytime. But out there in the world of New Haven, there are still lots of people who value shared prayer, even if it is only writing a request on a 3x5 card and putting it in a box, trusting that someone will receive it and share it. How might we as church live more fully into our identity as a community of prayer?
January 29, 2014
Pete Seeger died this week. When I mentioned this to my teenagers, they did not know who he was, but when I began to sing his music, they recognized the songs. Seeger made an indelible mark not only on American music, but on American culture in general. An activist for many causes, he also made an impact on things as diverse as the state of the Hudson River, civil rights and energy conservation. He seemed to have an amazing capacity to learn new things, to respond to changing realities, to adapt ideas and music to new generations.
Pete began singing during the Great Depression, the one in the 1930’s! Not much about our world, including the music, is the same as it was then. Yet somehow Pete’s songs still have a power and relevance that has people like Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and school children still singing them. In the case of those children, they may not know his name, but they know the music, and Pete would be just fine with that.
Somehow there is something for the church to learn in this, and not just about music. How do we take what is of great value in the past and adapt it to present generations? How do we remain open to changing realities and respond? How nimble and willing are we to learn new things for new times (as an old hymn put it “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.” Written by James Russell Lowell in the mid 19th century!)?
Perhaps most importantly, we might learn a sense of perspective here. For Pete, the music and message were more important than Pete. For us, the message of the gospel, a message of doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God, of loving God and neighbor, is more important than our individual congregation or denomination. In 90 years, if the generation coming of age then knows the message but doesn’t remember our names, that’s okay. How might living into that impact our priorities here?
“It is Us.”January 23, 2014
Continuing last week’s theme exploring “the box” outside of which we are being called by all the church gurus to think, a quote from a member of our Deacon Team: “We have met the box and it is us!”
Though here at Redeemer, there are many fewer boundaries and walls around “church” than in many other congregations, they certainly still exist here. Some of them are simply a function of the lived experience of those of us who are members and leaders here. While most members are very open to new ideas and experiences in church, every one of us has some kind of line drawn in our internal sandbox that defines what we “must” have for us to “be church.” Some examples might be:
•the words we use for the Lord’s Prayer.
•pews in the sanctuary instead of chairs or open spaces.
•organ music for hymns
•a choir providing anthems
•worship happening on Sunday morning
•Sunday School happening during worship most Sundays
•a youth group that meets Sunday nights
•official “membership” marked by a joining ceremony and names on a list
•counting members and defining ourselves as a church by those numbers or the numbers of people in worship on a given Sunday
There is nothing inherently bad about any of these things, but when we define our “box,” that is our conception of what church is and needs to be, we need to be clear down to small details about what our understanding of that is. Then we need to ask ourselves what would happen if any of those things changed. How would we feel about it? Would we still be able to connect with God and other people to further our own faith formation and live out our mission as God’s servants?
Keep asking yourself what box is you?
January 16, 2014“Outside the Box”
I will be gathering tomorrow with a group of colleagues in New Haven and we will try to do what we often call some “thinking outside the box.” Which got me to wondering why, when we do this, we so rarely try to define what the box is! As we think about the church moving ahead in this time of change, we really need to be defining the box so we are clear where we are. Some random thoughts:
•Part of the box is our buildings, spaces which often predetermine what kind of worship we do, what kind of faith formation, how a large part of our money is spent.
•Part of the box is our expectations about who, humanly speaking, should represent our priorities for staff time, programming, and spending. Is it our “official members,” those people who have made a public commitment and give money and some of whom show up to worship or programs on a regular basis? Is it the people out there who might become members? Is it the people who use our building every day but never worship or work with the members? Is it the groups with whom we engage in service?
•Part of the box is habits that become expectations that become traditions that we sometimes think are things we “have” to do.
•Part of the box is the unspoken competition we are in with other churches.
•Part of the box is inertia, and part is fear.
•Part of the box is history. Which sometimes includes things like endowments. And buildings and the furnishings in them.
There’s more than that, but perhaps that will get us started as we think what it might mean to imagine “outside” these things, and as we decide if we really want to.
Of EpiphaniesJanuary 9, 2014
“in time of all sweet things beyond
whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek (forgetting find)” e.e. cummings
Often when I speak with people who are disaffected with organized religion, it is the “organized” part of the religion that they have fled. When the church has presented itself as full of answers and certainties, full of commandments and boundaries, full of absolute clarity about who is a saint and who is a sinner, focused heavily on proper behavior with the goal of placating an angry God who has drawn clear squares within which we must color our lives, that’s when they have given up on us.
I get it.
I also get that sometimes, like children, we need boundaries and answers and clarity.
Perhaps the key is how they are presented to us. Which is why I love Epiphany season. In this time we are called to be looking, seeking, and opening ourselves to the rather unpredictable movement of God which happens in all places in the world, including the church. Stars in the sky, water jugs at a wedding, a riverside, a synagogue in Nazareth; these are some of the places we read about in scripture this season in which people discovered the movement of the Spirit of God, places where they were more concerned with relationship and encounter than results.
I think cummings gives us the gift of Epiphany as an invitation in our personal lives and perhaps a corrective to organized religion: “remember seek (forgetting find).”
January 2, 2014, the 9th day of Christmas
On the 9th day of Christmas, I did not get “ladies dancing,” but a different kind of gift came my way. I needed a large jar for a new project, and I emptied out a jar full of quotes that had been given to me 12 years ago by a wonderful group of women in Glen Ridge, NJ. I had been their interim Associate Pastor for 2 years, and we had met weekly in a support/study group for women at home raising children. They wanted to give me the gift of inspiration in honor of the ways I had inspired them. I eagerly read all their quotes, then put them back in the jar and promptly forgot about it, except to move it around to all the offices I have had since then.
But today I read them all again, at the start of this new year. What an amazing trip that was! I will be sharing several of them throughout this new year in this blog because so many of them seem to touch on this subject of the changes in church that we are finding in this new century. Here’s the one for today:
“When one door of happiness closes another door opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” Helen Keller
Certainly true in our private lives. Also often heart-wrenchingly true in the lives of churches. The doors through which people used to pour into our worship services seem to open less often. We look longingly at this door; we put signs on it; we paint it; we station greeters at it, but we miss the fact that other doors are opening out there through which we need to walk to meet the people God is sending us to.
So my new images for the church do not include a static building (as in “here is the church, here is the steeple,”) but rather a Tardis (for Doctor Who fans) or a portkey (for Harry Potter fans): a device which moves us from where we are to somewhere else we need to be, somewhere we are being called, somewhere we are needed by others. I will have more to say about this; meanwhile tell me what you think of these as animating images for us as we move into this new year!
Third Advent 2013
For thirteen years I struggled mightily to have a “merry” Christmas each year. You see, I was what the Bible calls a “barren woman;” I was infertile and very much wanted to be, like Mary, “great with child.” It was never to be so, at least in terms of a physical pregnancy. And though the feminist within battled against that term “barren,” for so much of my life was fruitful, the emotional context of Christmas for me in those years was indeed barren.
It’s a curious word. Picture the landscape of Mars: no green, no breathable air, no flowing rivers or tranquil lakes. No life. Sort of the opposite of the idealized picture of Christmas with a brightly decorated tree and lights shining and tables full of food.
But it is not only the infertile who may experience Christmas as barren. Those without a table full of food, for example. Those deep in grief. Those estranged from families. Those in prison. Those lost in addictions. The poor. Those who know only the most superficial nature of this holiday and are obsessed with finding the right gift or have overspent credit cards and are afraid for what the new year will bring.
The church is indeed the place where not only should we welcome the barren and make a space for their hearts in our celebrations, but the church is also the people who should consciously reach out to those who are barren and would not or could not enter our doors. If our ministry is to resemble that of the compassionate innkeeper who found a place for Mary and Joseph as opposed to those who simply turned away to pursue their own pleasures, then even in the 21st century, this must be our Christmas ministry. We already are doing it in many ways; how can we empower each other to live into this call?
Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-ChangesDecember 11, 2013
Ponderings on church into the 21st century
Last night I attended a concert featuring the entirety of Handel’s Messiah, both the Christmas and the Good Friday/Easter sections. About three hours of music, and The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys (NYC) and Concert Royal and soloists were utterly amazing, but that’s not my theme here.
I was a bit grumpy about needing to hear the whole thing. “Why don’t they just do the Christmas part and quit at that?” I mumbled to no one in particular. Who wants to hear “He was wounded for our transgressions” when we are celebrating Jesus being born? Who wants to hear “All we like sheep have gone astray” when we are Jingle Belling our way through the shops on Fifth Avenue?
I got over it. Two thoughts today. First, the crowd (and it was packed and that church holds a lot of people) was not all people my age or older. There were lots of people there under 50, under 40, under 30 even. This old music in this very traditional worship space speaks still, which is a bit amazing when you think about it.
Second, hearing the whole arc of Jesus, from prophecy to birth to death to resurrection to “Worthy is the Lamb” has a power that we lose by just focusing on baby. And it is not a “downer,” for Hallelujah Chorus takes on a new dimension in the context of Christmas. The Jesus story really does have a remarkable amount of joy attached to it. As we approach Gaudete (Joy) Sunday, how might we express this to a generation who often sees church as lacking joy?
Reflecting on the church into the 21st century
In a society where the marketing of Christmas began sometime in October, does the concept of a season of preparation limited to four weeks before Christmas have any kind of meaning at all? Certainly its original intent as a season of confession and penitence—bookend to Lent—has little if any relevance today. If it is about anything, the season leading up to Christmas seems to be about a frenzy of consumer oriented “joy,” certainly not confession and repentance.
But I have been wondering if the wholesale takeover of Christmas by secular culture isn’t a gift in disguise to the churches. With all the focus on those who proclaim themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” might we not see this as an opportunity to reach out to those folk with a Spiritual time of preparation for Christmas? What if we thought about our programming for this season in a very intentional way of tending to the spirits of our parishioners and those in our communities who are aware of a yearning for a God-connection to this holiday time? We might do this in worship most especially, and in worship beyond the Sunday morning component. We might do this in materials we make available on social media or on (gasp!) paper. We might do this as we reach out to those grieving, emotionally struggling, ill or low income with a message of the season different from the manufactured and required happiness of secular Christmas. We might do this in a mission focus on caring for those in need, a la those who helped Mary and Joseph. We need to, and I hesitate to use the word, “market” ourselves as those who have a gift to give that is different from amazon.com. while not trying in vain to go back to a time when Christmas was faith focused. That train has left the station.
At Redeemer, we are already moving in this direction, but how might we think and plan more decisively and intentionally as we consider next year?
November 25, 2013
Several friends and I got into a discussion recently on what the best way is to communicate with people. One felt that blogging was now passé. Another said Facebook is the place to be. And in response to an article I sent out to one of our Ministry Teams on the church and social networking which asserted Sunday morning face to face worship is on the way out, one member said that for her Sunday morning face to face was utterly critical.
So, what is it? Well, all of course, and hence the challenge. We are in a profound moment of generational shift in communication patterns today that I see with my teenagers daily. For some of us, face to face and gathered physical community in worship is life-giving. For some, spiritual disciplines and discipleship come entirely out in the world, in work and avocations, in what they read online. Community means whoever I am linked to through a screen. I feel like sands are shifting and I keep finding islands to stand on only to look out to other islands and see other folk out there calling to me. How are we to navigate this in a way that cuts across generations and communication styles? And how does this thousands-year-old book speak to any of it?
Reflections on the evolution of “church” in the 21st century
My home church is on life support and has been given about a year to live. At that point they face foreclosure, followed by closure. The small congregation remaining will probably disperse to various other churches in the area, the pastor will retire, and something will happen to the building. A congregation founded in the 50’s at the height of the church-going boom in the U.S., and whose very interesting, non-traditional sanctuary was built in the 60’s, and which sent out 2 members into the ministry, will cease to exist.
While this makes me sad because this church nurtured me as a teenager and planted the seeds that sent me into my life’s work, I also recognize that this church probably needs to close. Times for churches have changed, and the landscape of faith communities today is radically different from the 1950’s or even the 1980’s. This congregation has been afraid to take risks, afraid to change its ways, afraid to try new things, afraid of those changes.
Indeed, the church I was trained to serve in seminary in the late 70’s and early 80’s does not really exist anymore. Those of us of that generation still in ministry are constantly playing catch-up with what is happening to America’s religious landscape. The phenomenal pace of technological change, the rise of those who are unaffiliated with any religious community, changes in music and worship styles, all complicated by buildings that were built for a church that existed in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s or that boom period of the 50’s (which is what many of us have) sends me reeling on a regular basis.
So in this blog I plan to do some regular reflecting on all this change, and I invite you to reflect with me, comment, consider, and imagine. That last word is important, because while I am sometimes tired at trying to keep up, I am not afraid. I am excited because new things are coming to pass. Let’s imagine together.
As I write this, the George Zimmerman case still brings people out in rallies and marches and has many people wondering either what all the fuss is about or how our country has come to this, depending on their point of view. I attended a very fine gathering at Dixwell Ave. UCC in July for a wide ranging panel discussion and conversation. Panelists and audience members addressed issues like “Stand Your Ground” legislation, the flaws in the prosecution of the Zimmerman case, issues of black on black violence, how to teach our youth about the justice system, and many other concerns, all of which danced around the inherent racism still present in our society, despite the fact that we have a black President.
I am not going to rehearse the Martin/Zimmerman issue again here. But what I heard at Dixwell Church that night raised up something else in my heart. I have often said in the past that it is the job of the church to put itself out of business. In other words, we are to work hard at living into the kingdom of God so that church is not necessary.
Now I believe that some kind of organized religion will always be necessary, indeed critical, for human society. We need to gather together regularly to be reminded of the kind of behavior and community God intends for the comfort, joy, security and prosperity of humankind and the earth in general. We need to gather together regularly to be supported when we despair that things will ever change as our society continues to be violent, suspicious of the “other,” concerned more with celebrity and bling than with loving one another, and just so centered in fear of all kinds. We need to practice together and encourage one another to be the yeast of love in the dough of human community. We need to witness to others that there are alternatives to walls, bars, guns, money, anger, suspicion and fear as the basis for structuring human communities.
I believe God has not given up hope in the human project. I need you to help me not give up hope. Thanks be to God for the church, and for The Church of the Redeemer UCC!