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.