Church Life, Psalms, Reflectionary

If two preachers…

Like many churches, the Presbyterian congregation my wife serves has seen what we used to think of as the fall return to a regular schedule pushed back from September to October and into November by travel team soccer and fall baseball, 5Ks and half-marathons at popular regional locations, Penn State football games (in our area), even cheerleading for elementary school girls. This year the staff decided to offer a worship opportunity late on Sunday afternoon, from mid-September through October, lined up with the time parents typically drop teens off for youth group. Kathryn planned a simple service using an Iona liturgy. After she joked several times that she would be reading it alone, I offered to come over to church at the appointed time. 

It was just the two of us the first week. And the second week. The third week Kathryn was out of town, and a few people joined the Christian Ed director, so we were hopeful that week 4 might bring more.

It was just the two of us again. 

We prayed and sang and engaged in lectio divina, just the two of us, for the third time in four weeks. This past Sunday’s psalm was 26, and we listened for the phrases that stood out for us, and talked about what was different for each of us and how we heard the verses for ourselves and for the other. It’s ironic, in this time of #ChurchToo, and knowing how important it is to be outside the walls of the church to be in ministry, and perhaps most of all because no one else had come to worship, that this verse popped for me.

If two preachers pray in the sanctuary, but no one else sees them, do they make any sound at all?

By all the metrics that matter in denominational surveys and material assessments, the 5:30 Sunday service could be called a failure. Yet as we left to walk back across the street to the manse, I thought, I would love to keep doing this, whether anyone else ever comes or not.

A version of this post appeared in the RevGals Weekly e-Reader

Church Life, Reflectionary, The Inner Landscape

Shake it off? No, sit with it.

Long before Taylor Swift turned it into an ear worm (you’re welcome), my dad used to tell me “Shake it off.” It was a multi-purpose instruction, aimed at minor injuries both physical and social. While that’s good advice for a stubbed toe or even a bruised ego, some experiences jar us in ways that shaking will only amplify, because we are already shook. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a drive-by dagger in the handshake line, or a late night email intended to wound, or a theological snubbing, you’ll know what I mean. 

For me, step 1 is to sit with it. Today I’m doing that sitting in a Starbucks, pampering myself with a piece of coffee cake and a mocha topped off with the whipped cream I usually eschew. I’m thinking about something that happened yesterday, trying to figure out what to do with it, and what the ramifications of sharing the story publicly might be, for me and for the work I do. I’m asking myself, could it be helpful to share, or would I just be relieving my own tension?

Often, step 2 is to tell the story to a trusted friend or colleague, or perhaps a therapist, spiritual director, or coach. If you don’t have one of the above, I hope you will find one before the need is urgent. In my two pastor household, we have the trusted colleague available 24/7, and for that I am grateful, this day and every day. Still, for those times I need to tell the story 83 times before I feel finished, it’s good to have more places to put it. 

Step 3 for me is always to write about it. Sometimes that writing is an email I will never send, or a fragment saved in the Notes app on my iPhone that will find its way into a more polished form months or years in the future, when I have more perspective. And sometimes it’s like this, an exploration of how it feels to be injured, without saying anything about what actually happened. It’s an effort to make sense of things, to determine whether I was responsible for something I haven’t acknowledged, and whether I was actually wronged.

In this case, I’m pretty sure I was, but before I take it anywhere else, step 4 needs to happen in conversation with scripture, and in prayer. I’ll confess that since I stopped preaching regularly, I find this part harder, because for years this step took place for me in regular engagement with the lectionary. Having lost track of where we are in year B, I had to look it up. There I found the Syrophoenecian woman, like a trusted friend, ready to hear my story and feel it with me, right here in the Starbucks.

I don’t think this is a situation to shake off, but thanks to her, I’ve remembered where healing comes from ultimately. Now I’m ready to brush the coffee cake crumbs off my lap and go on with my day. Wherever you find your friends, may it be the same for you.


This post originally appeared in the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.

Church Life, Family, Whimsy

BuildIt

A corner of my city.

My older children would be horrified to hear that the 13-year-old and I are both playing SimCity BuildIt on our iPads. Back in the day when Super NES became part of our household, I took on the seemingly innocent city planning game to show that I was a good sport, and to learn how to use the controller so I could also play MarioKart with my little guys. I loved creating neighborhoods, as long as I could avoid the disasters that were part of the game, fire and earthquake and Bowser rampaging through your city like Godzilla. All was fine until I stayed up most of one night; the next morning, my oldest, then 9, said, “Mom, I don’t think this game is good for you.”

In this generation of the game, which is much more sophisticated and complex, you have the choice of which areas of city life to develop, and unless you pay for extra SimCash and coins, those choices have to be made based on the budget you can raise yourself by creating and trading resources. I’ve been focused on ground transportation and education, versus entertainment and gambling.

Some of the in-game challenges involve choosing disasters and wars that will allow you to earn more. I’ve read that you can always rebuild. In fact, that’s the point. You achieve more by allowing the disasters and rebuilding after them, or fighting the wars and reconstructing your city. But I cannot bring myself to do it. The real world is hard enough.

We do something similar in the life of the church when we dream about what we might build, but we also consider the limits for what is possible. What can a particular congregation do well? What is needed in the community? Where can we put our limited resources to make the world we are building a little better, on behalf of Jesus Christ?

Playing the game my way, I don’t think I will ever save up enough to build the airport or the Parisian quarter my residents keep asking for in pop-up bubbles. But I am planning to stick with it at least until Level 40, when the game unlocks Worship. And I promise not to stay up all night to do it.


This post was written for the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader.

Church Life, Music, Reflectionary

Freedom’s Holy Light

Until a couple of years ago, I would have described myself as a moderate about singing patriotic hymns in church. I wouldn’t design a whole service around patriotic themes; usually I allowed time for a patriotic sing-along before the start of the worship service proper. My philosophy was to keep what was usually a communion service on the first Sunday in July separate from nationalistic themes. I would tell myself, there is no other place where people sing together anymore. And some – even most – of those songs include themes that call us to be better.

We get into trouble when we consider them descriptive rather than aspirational.

This past Sunday I worshipped at kathrynzj’s church; her attitude about those songs is similar, but for reasons having to do with the installation of a new sound system and the resulting limited rehearsal time for her musician, two patriotic hymns were part of the service.

I can remember listening rhapsodically to a broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” from Wolf Trap in which Garrison Keillor had the audience singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” a capella; I remember wishing I could have been there to feel the sound rise around me.

This past Sunday, though, I was crying by the time we got to verse 4.

Our fathers’ God to, Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!

I’m past grieving now for the idealized America my parents let me believe in, because they hope it would be true, protecting me from the racism they wished were solved, promoting values of equality and fairness and kindness to others, particularly those less fortunate than we were.

I'm crying now because when God's holy light shines bright we see every sin, collective and individual, that plagues us.

I’m crying now because when freedom’s holy light shines bright we see every sin that plagues us. Worse, we see how many people in this country positively rejoice in those sins of violence and cruelty when they serve a White Supremacist agenda. Power now seems to belong to the cruelest, the unkindest, the most selfish among us, people who understand freedom as whatever profits the individual.

Today I am looking for and finding signs of hope, not the kind of candy-coated, bunting-inspired hope of past 4ths of July, but the gritty determination of activists, pastors, moms, and many other ordinary people determined to help others, to embody the values I cherish, values I derive from my faith, values I believe will bring freedom and liberation: inclusion, cooperation, and mercy.

I pray for the day when our land will be bright with freedom’s holy light, a freedom that will no longer be merely aspirational, a freedom that makes manifest God’s commonwealth of love.

Church Life, Ministry, Reflectionary

Asked and Answered

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My favorite preacher

The question has been asked and answered so many times. At least on this occasion I knew the asker was friendly, offering an opportunity to make the case to an audience containing listeners of mixed attitudes. We had discussed a recent complaint on the matter before the recording began. Even so, I was a little surprised when I heard the question.

“What would you say to people who don’t think women should be clergy?”

He asked, so I answered, bearing in mind our earlier conversation.

“I would point them,” I said, “to the gospel stories of the Resurrection, and to the first evangelists, who were women. I would suggest they read Paul’s epistles carefully and take note of how many leaders in the early church were women.”

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Some other preachers I appreciate

My interviewer moved on to the next question, but I know that out in the ether, people will repeat the one already asked and answered. A vocal portion of humankind – which I like to think are in the minority despite the volume of their voices and the attention paid to them – continue to value women only in relation and submission to men.

They make these claims on religious grounds, forgetting or ignoring passages of scripture inconvenient to their thesis. At the church my wife serves, the staff and Session have undertaken a read-along, Four Gospels in Four Months, and invited the congregation to join them. Today’s chapter was Matthew 15, in which Jesus meets a woman who teaches him when she says, “…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” She asks, and he answers, and the mission of Christ expands to become a mission to the world.

Holy God, give us patience to answer questions asked again and again, and keep us open to answers that will change us. Amen.


This post was written for the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader. You can hear the interview mentioned above on Day1 in June.

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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Church Life, LGBTQ, Ministry

Dear Mainline Church people (a response to the Nashville Statement)

Dear Mainline Church people,

I’m writing this in response to the Nashville Statement, a pernicious manifesto issued today by a coalition of conservative Evangelical Christians. In a season when the church could be speaking out against White supremacy, agitating for peace in a troubled world, finally getting some clean water for Flint, and mobilizing to help after Hurricane Harvey, they felt it was instead the time to reiterate their condemnation of LGBTQIA+ people and to be particularly specific in their disdain for trans* people.

Now, my Church people, some of you make space for your LGBTQIA+ siblings; we can really be part of the body of Christ with you. Some of you think you do it, but maybe you stopped at making a statement without doing any further work to figure out what might make us feel welcome to do things beyond coming to worship, or worry that if you have a rainbow anywhere on your premises, people will think you’re “the gay church.”

Meanwhile, our Evangelical cousins, empowered by the political success of the right, have doubled down on theology that is exclusive and cruel. They’ve affirmed their own superiority, denied the full humanity of LGBTQIA+ people, and declared that anyone who doesn’t agree and come over to their side of the line they are drawing is not a faithful Christian.

For Jesus’s sake and in Christ’s name, mainline pastors and leaders, have the conversations you’ve been putting off. I say these things with all love. Get clear about what it means to be welcoming and affirming. Fix up the forms parents fill out at Sunday School; why do they need to be gendered? Consider new signage for your bathrooms. Be ready when one of your young people comes out to you, ready to love and embrace that young person instead of setting them on the path of rejection. Have a Bible study and discuss alternative interpretations of scripture used by others to condemn, equipping yourselves for larger conversations in your neighborhoods.

Maybe even buy that rainbow flag for the outside of your church, so we know it’s safe to come inside.

Faithfully,
Martha