Call, Church Life, Emerging

Spiritual, not…

Starbucks We met in a coffee shop on a rainy Saturday morning, the
wind blowing the bare trees across the way. They wanted to get married, but
although both grew up Catholic, they had decided against being married by a
priest. I asked why, then, they were talking to a pastor? Why not simply ask a
Justice of the Peace, or find a notary to do the paperwork? And they answered
with the statement we hear so often these days, “We’re spiritual, but not
religious.” They believe in God, and they want their ceremony to reflect that
belief, but they don’t want it to come with the trappings and strictures of the
church that nurtured them.

“We’re spiritual, but not religious.” It’s not only young
people who say this to us, and when those of us who are religious hear it, we
almost invariably react a little defensively. What’s wrong with being
religious? In church, I hope we can be both, connected by the history and
tradition passed down to us but also in touch with the leading of the Holy
Spirit that moves among us, guiding us to new ways of being faithful to God and
to Jesus Christ.

There is no question in this second decade of the 21st
century that being church means something different than it did when I was a
little girl growing up in Virginia or in the Maine of 50 or 100 years ago. We
live in a world, for better or worse, where businesses open on Sunday, where
people carry coffee everywhere and sleep with their iPhones nestled on their
pillows, a world where weekly attendance at worship and Sunday School no longer
goes without saying. When you meet a young couple and ask if they go to church,
you’ll likely hear the same thing I heard, “We’re spiritual, but not…”

But aren’t we spiritual? I want to think I am, in the sense
that the word means to me. Like the people who define themselves that way, I’ve
experienced the transcendent in nature, walking in the woods or watching the
waves break or looking west to Mount Washington while the sun sets. But I have
also experienced the transcendent, literally something beyond my rational
understanding, in the gasp of a gorgeous toddler surprised by the handful of
water I’ve just laid on his red curls as the water runs down his forehead. Our
rituals, our sacraments, retain their power as signs of God’s presence among
us. The breaking of bread, repeated so many times, does not become dull or
repetitive, but rather becomes amplified by experience. And whether we pass the
little cups in their special trays or dip the bread into a chalice, we are both
spiritual *and* religious when we experience the presence of Christ among us, a
presence we cannot explain but can feel in our hearts and souls.

I think what we’ve lacked in many mainline churches is an
inclination to talk about what our faith means to us, unless we’re in a very
safe space or a moment of crisis. We’ve allowed the world to think we are
simply religious, engaging in practices that are simply old-fashioned,
something your grandmother does, not necessary for today’s world. When we close
in on ourselves and insist on doing everything the way we’ve always done it
before, when we hold to habits and traditions for their own sake, we write our
own epitaph. When we’re reserved about the deeper reality of our faith lives—our
spiritual lives—we miss the chance to connect with others.

And that’s what people are hungry for, what they are seeking
on the Internet and in coffee shops, something they don’t believe we even care
about in the average church of Congregational heritage. Really, they don’t even
know what that heritage means. But we do. We know it means the freedom to
figure out for ourselves who God is and how we understand the life of Jesus. It
means agreeing to disagree when the person sitting down the pew from us sees
Christ a little differently. It means leaving each other enough breathing room
that the Spirit has some space to move among us.

In this second decade of this 21st century, I
believe we’re being called to let our friends and neighbors know that church is
not quaint or forgettable but real and meaningful, that the connections we make
with one another and the world through worship and service make our lives
richer and deeper. I believe we’re being called to speak up and tell our
stories, to share the ways God has touched our lives: in art and music, in
nature and in relationships, and even in church. When we are ready to share it,
the world will see we are spiritual *and* religious. 

Church Life, Emerging, Isaiah

Send Me

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" (Isaiah 6:8, NRSV)

It's a passage I first paid attention to when the choir at Woodfords Church prepared an anthem based on the text for the installation of our new Senior Pastor, Bill Gregory, in the long ago year of 1991. Isaiah is in the Temple and encounters the Almighty, surrounded by seraphs, so enormous that the hem of God's robe fills the Temple.

God tells Isaiah to go out and give an important word to the people, but Isaiah resists: "How can I speak for you, God? My lips are unclean! I'm not a good enough person!!"

"Woe-oe-oe is me," we sang, "for I-I am undone."

God, of course, has an answer for Isaiah, a ritual act of cleansing the lips with a live coal. God has ways of convincing us.

The text confronted me again a few months later when I visited Andover Newton, considering the possibility of enrolling in the M.Div. program. 

"Woe-oe-oe is me," I thought, "for I-I am a Mom!" 

How in the world would I be able to do all the things seminary and ministry required at the same time I cared for my family? I wanted to do both things well. 

I tell this story now because I believe it is the story for the church I'm serving, looking ahead and considering contrasting ministries to people who already comprise the church and to people who have not yet walked through the doors. It sounds exciting; we feel moved by the possibilities! But there may also be awe at the task lying ahead of us, worry about whether the message will really communicate to the existing congregation or to the community-to-come.

Isaiah faced a challenge; he had to deliver some bad news to the people, warnings of hard times to come as a result of not paying attention to God. The words passed down to us are difficult; we don't want to think of a God who dulls the minds of the people, and stops their ears, in order to show them real devastation and disconnection. 

Well, I don't want to think of that God.

But the good news for us is, well, the Good News! The good news is that these ancient stories containing images that still speak to us, and rightly so, are not the whole story. The whole story tells of a God who walked among us, as one of us. The whole story tells us that with God, all things are possible. The good news is that no matter what the details are of the new story we are called to tell, we are not telling it alone. 

Emerging, Family, Living in This World, Preaching

The way we talk about things

In between coffee and oatmeal, I heard something fascinating, an examination of how many times the President and Mrs. Obama used the personal pronoun in their remarks to the Olympic Committee a few days ago. This bothered someone (George Will?), and it seemed to irritate the cast of characters at Morning Joe, even though they on the whole supported the President's trip to promote Chicago bid to host the Olympics.

And it occurred to me, this is another example of the break-points between modern and post-modern culture. My experience of post-modern culture and church is that it's more about narrative and depth and that, by necessity, includes telling our personal stories.

Not that people haven't told their stories. Listen to any young/new pastor trying to make the adjustment to visiting elderly parishioners, shocked that they repeat their stories. (As if younger people don't…) But we haven't typically told them in political speeches or sermons. This is new.

Not too long ago I watched a short video from in which the presenter insisted that sermons ought not include personal stories.


If that's the standard, I may as well hang up the preaching shoes and get a job at Starbucks. I mean, I *can* write a sermon without a personal story, but that is simply not the way the Spirit works in and through me. If you are friends with me on Facebook and noted the conversation I had on this topic, you'll know it really left me questioning what I do and how I do it.

But last week, I got some feedback that helped a lot, in a meeting with the Pastoral Relations Committee, where a lay person told me that when I preach at Y1P there are many people who speak to her and say how much they like the way I do it, particularly the way everyday things are woven together with the word of God to create a whole.

Thank you, Jesus. That was helpful.

And it occurs to me that there is a difference between narcissism or testimony and putting things in context. We don't live in a world anymore where we can assume shared experiences. If a pastor of 40 years talks about the movies or the music that meant something to him, without setting up the context, his sermon may well feel irrelevant to people who don't share his cultural understandings.

I do agree that testimony is tricky if only the pastor employs it. If I've had a spectacular spiritual experience, and you haven't, and I preach about it, I'm not necessarily encouraging you to believe you'll have one or to seek one (as if most of us can). More likely I'm creating a two-tiered system in which I am the "holy" person with the mystical experiences and the people in the pews are the audience.

To go back to the Obamas, I love the way they employ their life stories in their interpretation of where we are today and where we hope to be. We don't live in a world comprised only of intact, white Protestant families. But those of us who grew up in those families need to hear stories other than our own.

My children grew up, are growing up, in what we used to call a broken home. They would be considered at risk, according to various studies, for early sexual acting out and truancy and academic failure and all sorts of things you would never want your kids to face. After the divorce, #1 Son did not want anyone to identify him as a kid whose parents had divorced. (Chime in if you read this and think that's wrong, #1 Son, but I believe that's an accurate telling.) He was able to maintain that sort of Twilight Zone because we kept things calm and reasonable, The Father of My Children and I, and because when Pure Luck came into the family, he took his time with the kids and did not try to be someone he was not in relationship to them.

We've defied statistics. I'm thankful for that.

But a speech that is just about that ends up sounding like a major case of hubris, dangerously so, and I would rather normalize my family's experience for others by referring to it slant-wise, not making a report about it.

I'm in favor of telling our stories, of broadening our collective understanding of how people live, of testifying to our practical reality and our spiritual hopes and our social dreams.


Church Life, Emerging

I’m Not Afraid of It

The kingdom of heaven is like:

"It is an amazing time to work in TV," said "Mad Men" creator Matthew
Weiner. "And, I know that everything is changing, but I'm not afraid of
because I feel like all these different media is just more choice
and more entertainment. It's better for the viewers in the end and I'm
glad to be a part of it."

But how is that like the kingdom of heaven?

Just a short time ago, in the greater scheme of things, there were three broadcast networks and a few independent stations and PBS. As David Bianculli pointed out on Fresh Air earlier this week, the TV season hinged on the major Big Three auto makers and their advertisements, and the timing of one had everything to do with the production calendar of the other.

How is the kingdom of heaven like that?

We're all in the midst of change, like it or not. My actor son is happy to wait on tables and make interesting art with his friends. I wish he would go on auditions and get into a union for the health insurance, but that's my own anxiety about the future. The way we've always done things seems ready to implode. For some churches, it already has, whether or not the people involved feel ready to admit it.

But how is that like the kingdom of heaven?

LP and I are still watching Heroes, which is on one of those old school major networks. We've watched people fall from buildings and discover they can fly. We've seen them die and arise. We've seen them stop time and travel through it. We've seen the painful shifting of shapes.

The kingdom of heaven is like a person who says "Don't rely on things being as they were. Anticipate transformation. Expect it to be uncomfortable. Shift shape with it. Let go into it. It's better for all of us, in the end."

I'm not afraid of it.

(Well, not much.)

Church Life, Emerging, Mark

It would be better

(Thinking about Proper 21B)

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones
who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were
hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." (Mark 9:42, NRSV)

Before we get into the maiming and mutilation of the rest of this tough passage from Mark's gospel, I would like to say, happily, this weekend we will have our Conference Annual Meeting, and I will not be in the pulpit.

But I want to give some thought to this passage, and particularly this verse. I'm coming up on the 7th anniversary of my ordination, and I'm aware of the prickliness of having authority conveyed, the way it makes other people prickle against me, and the way I have often bristled at authority myself. In fact, I disturbed my Field Ed Supervisor by putting a bumper sticker on my Woodie-style minivan that announced "Question Authority." (She mentioned it in my final evaluation.)

I believe a great portion of the journey of faith involves, perhaps even requires, just such questioning.

So I don't always enjoy being the upholder of orthodoxy, the person in authority, or the person who represents on its behalf.

And other times I may enjoy it too much.

When do standards and definitions matter? And when do they become stumbling blocks? 

The whole idea of Congregationalism was to establish norms at the most local level possible. The notion of an overarching structure was anathema. But over time, the advantage of having some loose, very loose, way of joining together for certain purposes became apparent. Ten churches or one hundred churches had a better chance of supporting a mission project than one church alone. Guidelines, if not absolute rules, seemed wise when considering people for ordination.

As we consider the idea that being post-modern and post-Christendom may be leading to also being post-denominational, I find I become protectively if ironically orthodox where my adopted tradition is concerned. I'm not starry-eyed. I don't think my denomination is perfect. If I ran the zoo, so to speak, I might like to see different priorities.

But I don't want to see what I understand as advances in inclusion watered down in any way. I don't want to lose the (mostly) shared understanding that ministry in both its lay and ordained forms should be open to all baptized believers regardless of age or gender identity or physical ability or sexual orientation or marital status or socio-economic background.

Let's back up to verse 40. "Whoever is not against us is for us." The trouble is knowing just what Jesus means here, right? There are a lot of people who wear the same label I do, Christian, who would look at my beliefs above as being against them, and I feel the same way about theirs. How do we move into this post-denominational conversation without stumbling over one another?

A-Croc-Alypse Now, Call, Church Life, Emerging, New Church

Thought for the Day

"The time will come when the Christian faith will have to fight for the right of way among crowding antagonists as vigorously as in the times of Athanasius and Augustine. And in thoughts like these all genuine Christians must rejoice. Without the call to high adventure, the faith has never flourished."

~Vida Scudder, 1912

(As cited in "A People History of Christianity," by Diana Butler Bass)

Mulling this over, friends.

Emerging, Religion

A Discomfortable Edge

Recently my Conference Minister asked if I would co-chair our Annual Meeting for the next two years. He said my name came up because the topic they hope to explore in 2010 is the Emerging Church.


If you know me at all, if you read my old blog especially, you'll know I cannot get on the page with Emergent very easily. When I read that certain leaders in the movement do not support women in leadership, or that they are still trying to figure out what to do about LGBT people and their inclusion, I think, "This is why I am no longer Southern Baptist."

I skipped over a big, uncomfortable discussion and went straight to the United Church of Christ, where there are local pockets of concern and question but the national church is *proud* of our long history of ordaining people from traditionally unacceptable groups, as well as a history of prophetic, classically liberal pronouncements.

And yet at our General Synod last month, people felt left out of a debate about changing the governance structure, a discussion on which I truly have no informed opinion. I can simply see that we have a money problem and hear that there is no happy way to make changes.

Believe me, I know what that is like. Whether it's a local church or a denomination or a household of four people, making major changes in response to a financial downturn hurts. Someone will always feel discounted; everyone may feel disappointed.

How long is long enough to sit at a discomfortable edge? How long is too long?

I agreed to co-chair the Annual Meeting, in large measure because I suspect that in relatively isolated Maine, my uncomfortable forays into reading about Emergent are about as much experience as anyone has with it. While other mainline churches have their own Emergent branches, we on the oddly nerdy liberal fringe of Trinitarian Christianity haven't related much to the conversation, even though
we're held up as the example of all that is bad about the mainline
church by one of Emergent's leading lights. (I'm not going to say his
name because I don't really want him to find this post. And he knows
how to find posts about himself, as some of my blogging friends have
discovered by mentioning him.)The one church in our Conference that might be labeled Emergent is, as far as I can tell, out of favor for becoming less denominational.

I, on the other hand, seem to be viewed as a Company Gal.

And that takes me to the discomfortable edge. So many things get tangled up together. At Small Church, I believe I ministered in ways that opened up space for the Spirit to move, for the Spirit to emerge, if you will. In that place and among those people the Spirit seemed to call for colored candles and unusual flowers and twigs and drama in worship–lots of drama–and music from a variety of traditions that underscored the message. In that place and among those people the Spirit led to a positive vote to be Open and Affirming. In that place and among those people the Spirit led to hope for the future. And that was all good, but it didn't save Small Church from the inevitable need to hire a part-time pastor or spare me the difficult decision to leave so they could recognize the need.

At the discomfortable edge, the new emergence may not save–really it surely won't save–the old structures.

How, then, do we ask people who liked the old ways to allow something new to emerge when it may hasten the erasure of all they loved? Is it enough to tell them it was going to die, anyway? Are we inviting ourselves to a suicide party?

Believe me, no one wants to attend that.

We'll move more quietly, then, toward extinction. We don't have the kind of theology that urges us to save the souls of
others; our beliefs don't have the ferocity of evangelicalism.

But I admire that ferocity, that sense that the Word received must be transmitted.

Some churches, the ones that have maintained their endowments or that are particularly well-situated, will go on for some time. But the others will drop sooner, unable to defend themselves, like plant-eating dinosaurs finally pushed over a discomfortable edge.