Children, Church Life, Family, Reflectionary

Why would anyone go to church now?

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

The Boy wondered this, watching the news about the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. He has reached the age where he hears about the news at school, so we have become more open to having him hear and see things on TV, rather than trying to shield him from the hard things that happen. We need to be able to answer his questions ourselves. I don’t know if you have heard the common talk of 7th grade boys lately, but it definitely requires some counter-influences.

“Why would anyone go to church now?” He asked us again. “The doors are unlocked! Anyone could come in.”

It’s true that in church we are a special flock of sitting ducks, focused in one direction, both physically and spiritually. I rarely look around in church, when I am sitting in the pews, other than when we pass the peace. I estimate how large a crowd is behind me by the sounds they make. I’m trying not to seem overly interested in who is late, or whose children are making noise; I’m trying to be a good pastor’s wife.

Up front, as the pastor and preacher, it’s different. I’m counting heads, noting who is missing. But even then, I am not worrying about disaster, or I haven’t been, even though I know Kathryn has a plan in case someone dangerous comes into the sanctuary.

Experts offering their two cents worth on cable news recommended that churches review their emergency plans and look into security systems of staffing appropriate to their size and situation. Maybe, they suggested, someone in the congregation is already wearing a weapon to worship.

I know this is true in some of my colleague’s congregations.

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

It’s not clear yet what the shooter’s relationship to religion was. His social media accounts were quickly archived, but not so fast that some bad actors didn’t have a chance to create alternative “likes” and loyalties for him. What does seem to be clear is that a man with a history of domestic violence threatened his mother-in-law, and then he shot up the church she attended. This morning the President suggested that had a neighbor not fired at the shooter, there might have been hundreds of deaths. A better guess is had he not been given chase, his next stop would have been his mother-in-law’s house.

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

We did our best to reassure The Boy, pointing out that the shooter did not choose a church at random. I’m not sure how comforting that is, really. How was a guy who cracked his infant stepson’s skull out on the street to do this? He choked his wife; he punched his dog. Why don’t we take these clusters of behavior seriously? We don’t because we undervalue harm done to women/children, overvalue white men and their chance of a future. This is magnified when we add race, sexual orientation, gender identity to the victim side of the equation.

The permission given to this man to keep assaulting other people, the pattern of abuse he inflicted on others before Sunday, the ready availability of a weapon that can kill, terribly, so many people, so quickly – all these factors remain for other abusers, other men who cannot manage their anger or their disappointment or their frustration, who cannot resist the temptation of power and have the means available to deal out death.

Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:15)

It might not be fair for me to make suggestions about what churches should do about their security when I am not serving one right now. Our own history as people of faith is problematic. Joshua and his house pledged to serve the Lord, but in the Promised Land, they used all their available weapons and powers to kill the people they saw as enemies, and to gain the land they wanted. They saw being the chosen ones as permission to deal out death. We should not be surprised that righteousness and power have been confused and conflated throughout human history.

Why would anyone go to church now? Our boy doesn’t drop his questions until he gets a satisfying answer, and he usually asks them again, just to be sure. We will go because it’s what we do, just like we ride on a bike path, or go to the movies, or attend a concert. We will go because most of us cannot maintain the kind of hyper-vigilance required to be on watch at all times. We will go because we want to be with the people we know and love. We will go for solace, and solidarity.

That is not enough.

I’m not saying this is easy. In the United States, we worship our guns like no other nation in the world, and some will say more guns are the answer. I do not believe this. We need to be direct in saying the god of guns is a false god. As much as I believe Jesus is among the grieving, I believe he is also pressing on his church to engage with the powers and principalities and say “No more!” Our culture privileges the powerful; often our church culture does the same. Yet we know Jesus proclaimed a preferential option for people who are marginalized and oppressed. We need the church to be a place where we talk about why mass shootings happen. We need to have those conversations and let God be part of them. We need to decide whether the church will be not just a voice speaking but a body acting to bring change in human priorities and understanding. If we have any power left as an institution, we must work together for good, in Jesus’s name.

I could stay screened here across the street, watching for unfamiliar vehicles and people, but I want more than the safe view from my window.

As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

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Children

What’s Next?

Smith College MomThis morning, we get in the car and travel to a small town in Massachusetts, which will be over-filled with parents and other relatives gathering to participate in graduation ceremonies at four colleges. Our daughter will graduate from Smith on Sunday morning, and in the ongoing competition for who had the best speaker. Mine years ago was Garry Trudeau at the height of Doonesbury fame; #1 Son had then-Senator Obama in 2008, with Secret Service agents on the rooftops surrounding the ceremony. We all think LP wins with Oprah.

Passionate about her major, Japanese, LP will leave in July to be an Assistant Language Teacher in the JET program for a year. Or two. Or five. Although we still have one child at home, we’re clear that this is a new phase in our family life. All three of the older children are far away, and they are game pieces in motion, one of our sons swapping the East Coast of the US for the West, and the other preparing for the reverse. I keep changing the cities in my Weather app. Maybe it’s a little silly to get alerts about pollen in Los Angeles when I’m sitting at my dining room table in South Central Pennsylvania, but it reminds me that wherever we are, we all live under the same sky. And what do I expect after urging them to pursue the things they love?

A friend who served as a missionary in South Africa once told me that her aim there was to put herself out of a job, to empower the women she worked with to support themselves with the sewing and crafting her ministry helped enable. That feels like the work I’ve been doing as a parent, slowly getting out of the way, trusting that these children – no, these adults – can make their way in the world, as reasonably good members of the human community. It’s both a help and a challenge to have an understanding of call. My children watched me wrestle with my call to ministry, accompanied me through my theological education, gathered at my Commencement 15 years ago this week. Their feelings probably resembled mine now, some mixture of relief and pride and “what’s next?”

What’s next is this: Go out there and be the person God made you to be.

It’s a good word for a big day; it’s a good word for every day.


A version of this post appeared in the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader, May 18, 2017.

Children, Church Life, Ministry

Only love can do that

I’m in the strange-for-me position of being out of the pulpit for the foreseeable future, and at least for now, I am attending my wife’s church as a worshipper.

Yesterday, in the first session of a wonderful and thoughtful Sunday School on Peace, Reconciliation, and Forgiveness that includes all ages from 6th grade to Senior citizens, we were asked to share in small groups the names of people we thought of as truly good. I was proud of The Boy when he named Martin Luther King, Jr., then saddened to hear a trusted adult respond, “He was good, but he was not perfect.”

Now, this was going to be the further point of the discussion – we are all in need of God’s grace, as the Presbyterian Confession of 1967 was used to illustrate – but I felt frustrated that an adult would administer that kind of corrective to the one student in our group. No one questioned any other suggestions.

When the full class shared answers, The Boy whispered to me, “Don’t say it. Don’t say it.” My heart hurt.

img_0055Later, as we sat in our pew before worship, he picked up the bulletin and saw the quote on the cover. He pointed out the words and the name to me and said, “I wasn’t wrong!”

No, son, you were not wrong.

We went on to read portions of the Letter From Birmingham Jail as the Confession and the Statement of Faith, alongside a text from Luke reminding us that the hometown crowd tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

Thus it has ever been with prophets, even the 6th-graders.

Children, Mothering, Reflectionary

See Your Memories

NEC Commencement 017
#2 Son’s commencement, 2013, New England Conservatory

At my house, Facebook’s daily memories take us back in time to lives before the life we have now. I brought to our marriage the kids we call “the olders,” and they appear in this season wearing mortarboards and graduation gowns and prom attire. My stepson, in my mind, begins as the toddler son of a friend, but in my public life, he appears later, a schoolboy, in baseball uniform, or walking our puppy. The separate time zones of our memories remind me how new this life is still.

Sometimes I miss the old spaces: the house in Maine on a street with an esplanade of maple trees, the place where we picked up donuts, the beach where I walked my dogs of blessed memory. At the same time I am thankful for the new life, for the blending of two families into one, for the hope represented by God’s power to make me see myself and my world differently even at midlife. I am thankful.

Holy One, give us a glimpse of the future and gratitude for the present when we glance at the past. You are ever working with us and on us, and we thank you for it. Amen.

(Written originally for the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader. You can subscribe here.)

Books, Children, Pentecost

The Day When God Made Church ( book review)

Paraclete Press, 2016
Paraclete Press, 2016

The Day When God Made Church is a new children’s book from Paraclete Press, and it went to press just in time for the celebration of the holiday it describes, Pentecost. The author is a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor, the Rev. Rebekah McLeod Hutto. The lively illustrations are by freelance artist Stephanie Haig.

The text of the book begins with the people who followed Jesus waiting to see what will happen next. Those gathered include men, women, children and animals, a microcosm of creation. The first-person plural narration draws the reader or listener into the story, as one hopes to do when reading to young children.

The animals notice something first, and then the people feel the wind of the Spirit. They respond with joy and with a range of verbal expressions:

Some with LOUD sounds,
some with quiet WHISPERS;
words like DRUMBEATS,
words that TIPTOE through the air.

The narrative continues through Peter’s sermon, which is paraphrased for a youthful understanding. We are all called upon to share the good news. The story includes references to Jesus’ ministry, and the illustrations amplify the telling with familiar symbols like loaves and fishes, a lamb, and the empty tomb.

Haig’s illustrations bring the simple text to life with swirls of color and texture. A variety of human and animal figures populate the pages, and the human – males and females across the age range – include a number of skin tones, hair colors and facial features, further embodying the idea of the book that all people are welcome to be part of the church God made and to share the good news with the world.

A photo I took of two of the pages. Don't you love the quizzical dog?
A photo I took of two of the pages. Don’t you love the quizzical dog?

While I don’t find it hard to tell the Pentecost story, and therefore haven’t looked for books to use with children, I really like Hutto’s approach, both theologically and pedagogically. It would be a great book to use for a children’s message in worship or in a Sunday School setting, and certainly appropriate at home as well. The illustrations are fun. They invite curiosity. I particularly appreciate the quirkiness shown by including animals throughout. They are a great way to keep children engaged with the overall story.

As is always true with books from Paraclete, the quality of the book is beautiful. Although it is a paperback, the paper is nice quality and feels good to hold in your hand.

I recommend The Day When God Made Church for church and home libraries, as well as the bookshelves of pastors and Christian educators.

*****

I received a review copy of the book from Paraclete in exchange for my honest assessment. This review originally appeared at RevGalBlogPals.

Children, Ministry, Prayers for Pastors

Tech Sabbath (a prayer for pastors)

Spirit of God,
You move like the wind,
are everywhere,
in everything.

But we are not looking for you
when our noses are bent toward
small screens and large,
when our eyes cross
and vision fades
after hours of studying
tiny images
held in our hands.

We know this, but it was a shock
when the 11-year-old said,
“Hey, maybe we could all
take a break from electronics!”

Hmmm. People might need us for something.
Suppose there is an actual emergency?
How can we arrange this?
Phones in a basket on the counter?
(We know the difference between
the ringer and a Facebook chime,
a tweet, a Bleacher Report update.)

After church, said the clergy parents.
After church, until Monday morning.

Today, may we find peace
in some Sabbath hours
unbusily spent
reading,
playing games,
going for a walk,
looking each other
in the eye,
looking for You.

Children, Mothering, Poetry

The kind of mother I want to be

On NPR they told the story
Of helicopter parent glory:
Moms and dads of grown-ups calling
Corporations to ask why they are failing
Evaluations and reviews —
Because it all reflects on who?

Perhaps they fear the future for them,
Comfortable kids who may be poor then.
We are punch lines of late-night jokes
And not the least bit like our folks
Who sent us off and wished us well.
Instead we hover, raising hell.

LP on her way to Vespers at Smith.
LP on her way to Vespers at Smith.

The kind of mother I want to be
Flies in when asked, and just to see
The way she dresses for the concert,
His gold tie jaunty with the black shirt,
A glimpse of mustache (is it curled?),
The ways they move in their own worlds.

These observations aren’t just surface,
They give a sense of inner purpose
A frame of mind, a turn of heart,
A choice to take the better part
All show the people they’ve become,
the things they carry learned at home.

Admittedly I miss the times they
sat and told me of their dramas,
making me feel like Wonder Mama.
I think they hesitate to say
the things that matter, which then might
move out of dream and into sight.

If you tell your mother, it must be true,
that conclusion you’ve held for only you.
I love them, even tied in knots.
To help them rearrange their thoughts
Is still a loved, familiar task
But mine now only if they ask.

~~~~~~~~

(Inspired by a conversation between Krista Tippett and Brene Brown.)