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.

Call, Midway, Ministry, Ministry of the Meantime, New Church, Preaching

Mind, Fully

(Thinking about Proper 18B, Mark 7:24-37)

Even though I used to say I was a "writer who preaches" rather than a "preacher who writes," I find without the deadline of preaching I did not write much this week. That may be in large measure because it was a busy week with a lot of meetings and conversations and the beginning of high school, which in itself was a source of things about which to write.

Maybe those things would have found themselves in a sermon, some of them, anyway. I try to live mindful of Sunday, sorting what might work from what will not.

Even though I wasn't preaching this week, I read the scriptures for tomorrow, studied them with my preacher group and used one of them at a gathering of Sunday School teachers on Thursday night. We used the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman as an opening for talking about times when we didn't want to listen to or talk to anyone anymore, a time we brushed someone off and later wished we hadn't.

I met with people to talk about trying to do church in different ways, both within an existing church and in potential new communities of faith.

I met with my successor at Small Church. He has been there for a year, and we both had a sense that the timing was finally right to compare notes.

I watched "For the Bible Tells Me So" with Y1P's ONA committee and attended a workshop sponsored by the MCLU and put on by HRC on how to talk about Marriage Equality.

I also watched a video clip that made me wonder if I should call myself any kind of a preacher.

I met with two candidates for ordination at different points along the journey, read and discussed one ordination paper and one senior project (Hi, RevDisco!).

Really, it was a full week even without a sermon to prepare. And I had a great, quiet Saturday, spending lots of time with Pure Luck, who leaves in two weeks for a two month job in the Southwest.

But. I miss it. I miss the feeling of completion when various threads of the week weave together into 1500 or so words with (hoped for) meaning.

So instead of a sermon tonight, I'm posting this somewhat self-serving recitation of the week's events, to make a shorthand record of them. I suspect it was a week that I will say mattered, when I look back from some distance, but in the midst of it there was no room to review what happened, what was said, what was heard, what was felt.

Which brings me back to Jesus. He wanted to get away, to be alone, perhaps to pray or to process or just to stop thinking and giving for a little while. LP read somewhere that Jesus was an INFJ (her Myers-Briggs type, too, as it happens), and if he was an introvert, then I can understand his need. But I am not, and what I need is a friend, or friends, who will let me talk it all through until the pieces of whatever it is I need to learn will fall into place.

And really,that's what happened to Jesus, too, one of those moments, except the conversation took place with a stranger and he figured it out faster than the ordinary mortal bird seems to be doing this week. It's Chapter 7 of 16 in Mark's gospel, and the man who works wonders, then escapes to rest and recuperate, will be pushed to the next level of his life and his ministry and his self-understanding. He'll heal a little girl at a distance, and she will represent his recognition that God's love is for everyone, not just Israel. He will hear, I believe, what God wanted him to hear all along, and he will go right on to help someone else be able to hear, too.

If this were a sermon, I would be asking where the Good News is in this story, but it seems to tell itself: there is more to learn, to realize, to internalize and metabolize and embody and enact. We're not finished yet. I am grateful for that, even as I struggle to sort through it all on a Saturday night, late, mind and heart full of possibilities.

New Church, Prayer

A Prayer of Jesus

Tonight I went to a bittersweet celebration for my friend, RevFun. At the same time we marked the 25th anniversary of his ordination, we looked ahead to the closing of the church he founded, which will worship together for the last time on September 13th.

Lots of new church starts don't make it, in the sense of becoming numeric or financial successes. You have to hit a sweet spot of demographics and energy and skills in the congregation and who knows what else. RevFun and I learned all about that at the New Church Leadership Institute last summer, and we whapped ourselves in the heads and said, "THAT would have been good to know!" More than once.

But what they did so well at Open House is something the rest of us need to learn and make part of ourselves and our churches.

The old way of doing church will not sustain itself forever, and it's just possible God is calling us to new life, not just with new vocabulary for the things we do and but with completely new ways of being. We need to welcome people not just with a handshake and a nametag but by talking together about what we do and why we do it, and maybe by deciding what we do is no longer what pleases God if it leaves people cold, people who won't have the experience of Christ's loving community because the way we worship feels like, well, nothing to them.

At Rock 'n Roll Church, they rewrote The Lord's Prayer. Heresy, right? I remember wondering, what the heck? Why'd they do that? But tonight I heard their words, the ones they discussed and chose together, set to music, and they moved me. They moved me. I hope they'll move you, too.

 

A Prayer of Jesus

Dear God who is everywhere

You are pure and perfect.

May this world become entirely yours.

 

Help us to do what you want,

Completely and perfectly,

Until earth is like Heaven.

 

Sustain us in life and spirit today,

And forgive us the harm we cause,

As we forgive those who harm us.

 

When we are tested, keep us in the light

And don't let us be lost to darkness.

For to you belongs the whole universe

The mighty strength and everlasting love.

 

Let it be so.

Grief, New Church, Rheumatoid Arthritis, The Inner Landscape

A Word About Anger

You may recall that just the other day I wrote about the five stages of grief and my attempt to get to acceptance via shoe-shopping. Of course these phases are not linear, as I would sensibly tell anyone else in the grieving process. But it's hard to be sensible about my own process, and I believe that by claiming acceptance I was hoping to edge past anger altogether.

Although I am a word person, finding words to express my feelings about what being ill means for my work life and my personal life challenges me. I like to package things. That is not to say that I like to make them nice, but I do like to make them pretty, to put all the words needed into an artful sentence, to carefully put the sentences into a paragraph, and then to stand back admiringly.

When I allow myself to get near my anger, I lose that ability.

On Tuesday? I lost it.

On Tuesday I attended a denominational meeting, which I referenced in a post later in the day. What I didn't tell you, what I could not put into words, or at least not into prettily arranged words, would be how very, very angry I felt as I left the meeting.

Anger frightens me. I grew up in a household where one parent never, ever got angry and the other one only got angry at me and her anger invariable ended in a blow of some kind. I love words, but anger comes from a place that might be labeled post-verbal, or at least post-articulate. Or perhaps it is simply pre-verbal for me, a place where every kind of fear (survival, abandonment, rejection, worthlessness) comes screaming up from my core.

Yes, that's it. The adult expression may be post-articulate or extra-articulate, but the component emotion rises from the base of who I am, that frightened baby passed from one adult to another, afraid the cycle will never end, convinced she must be at fault or it would not be happening.

I would like to know why, at 47, I am still working on this.

I have "articulated" this question before. I would like to move on to some other key text that does not include the lilies of the field and the advice to stop worrying about tomorrow. I would love not to be in that place where the future seems ominous and unknown.

Because there can be a difference in how we approach the unknown. If we approach it from a secure base (yes, I'm referring to Bowlby), it's one thing. And that may well describe the source of my anger on Tuesday. It began with my reaction to an infuriatingly smug colleague. On the leading edge, which is to say moving to post-denominationalism, he seemed so SURE of everything. Stuff that I might have deemed "cool" about his work and his church I instead found threatening and disturbing.

Probably the comment that set me off was one–well, no, there were two. First was a remark about the growing trend toward bivocationalism for pastors. I would like to mention that women with families, unless they share things extraordinarily equally with their partners, are ALREADY bivocational. I know I am. Second, in response to a question I asked about whether being post-denominational meant giving up health and pension benefits, I got a response to my own situation with chronic illness about God providing a way.

I left incensed. INCENSED!!!! "God will provide a way," I muttered, "tell that to the people in frickin' Darfur!!!"

Clearly, my colleague is not entirely responsible for the situation in Darfur or my Rheumatoid Arthritis or the general decline of mainline denominations. Lord, I never met him before that morning. "Who am I so angry at?" I asked this question as I drove away, poor grammar and all, because, you know, pre-verbal, etc.

And I concluded, fairly quickly, I WAS ANGRY WITH GOD!!!!!!!!!!

Eek.

Raised to be a good and respectful girl who does not show inappropriate emotions to figures in authority, I find it problematic to be angry with God.

But, I was. (Maybe I still am.)

I got in the car. I thought about calling someone. I ran through a list in my mind of friends and trusted colleagues I might be able to turn to in my moment of distress, but some were not available and others were still at the meeting that had MADE ME SO ANGRY!!!!!

(Yes, it's still there. A bit.)

Finally I shook my finger skyward and said, "I'M ANGRY WITH YOU!!!!"

In fact, there may have been some colorful language involved, as I clearly expressed myself from that post-articulate frame of mind described above.

I felt better and worse, both, better for expressing what I really felt, worse because I might know in theory that others feel angry toward God, but in practice, it feels lonely.

I called my friend, RevFun, and got his voice mail. I hung up, but then reconsidered. I left him a borderline tearful, none-too-articulate message, saying something like this:

"Hi, it's Songbird. I just came from that meeting we were all invited to and I had a head-on collision with myself, I mean not a real collision in the car, I'm fine, but a head-on collision with HOW ANGRY I AM, and I realized I'm ANGRY WITH GOD, and I'm too ANGRY WITH GOD to pray, and I wonder, would you pray for me? Thanks."

Later in the afternoon, I heard my phone ringing during a meeting and let it go to voicemail. I was feeling better, having finally reached will smama and told her much the same things I left on RevFun's voice mail, which helped a lot. After the meeting, I called for the message, and here is what he said:

"I couldn't even go to the meeting because *I* was too angry with God."

Which made me laugh.

Later he turned up at my church unexpectedly. Talk about a sight for sore eyes. We're both wandering in the discernment wilderness. What does God want from us? How can we be any more faithful than we think we have already been? Are we doing something wrong?

How do I sort out the seeming call to new church work with the chronic illness and the need to keep the same health insurance and the gifts for interim ministry and the desirability of living closer to where I work and the important needs of a 13-year-old who is happy where she is? Why is it so complicated?

And why can't I bend my fingers to touch my palms when I wake up in the morning?

I wish Job could have had better friends. I surely love mine. Even in the midst of anger with God, I had friends to meet me exactly where I sat, or drove, or called, or cried. I'm grateful for them.

And, yes, I'm grateful to God, though I don't imagine God set me up with this or that particular one, providing a way in that micro-managing sense. Because if God did, then we still need to talk about the Rheumatoid Arthritis. Not to mention Darfur.

Exodus, New Church

A Way Around

Shifrapuah
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live."

But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.

So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?"

The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." (Exodus 1:15-19)

Sometimes we have to find a way around.

It was many, many years ago, more than we could readily count, more than we can understand easily in our rational minds, and so we might say “once upon a time” to find our way there.

Once upon a time, in faraway Egypt, a new Pharaoh came to power, and he did not remember Joseph.

Now, we remember Joseph, and his coat of many colors, and his irritated, jealous, homicidal brothers. We remember his adventures in Egypt, accused of sleeping with his master’s wife, later interpreting dreams for Pharaoh, preparing him to deal with a time of plenty followed by a time of famine. We remember the way he tricked his father and his brothers into coming to him, all of them, frightening old Jacob with the threat to take away Benjamin, the only other child of his beloved Rachel, beautiful Rachel, a fairy-tale woman worth working and waiting to wed.

Once upon a time they all met again in Egypt and had a happy ending, but that is in the past, and now there is a new Pharaoh, and he does not remember Joseph, his importance to the nation, his significance in managing a terrible time, his insight, his vision, his invaluable life.

The beginning of the Book of Exodus tells the truth about fresh starts. They come at a cost. They come with the cutting of old ties. They come about through the courage to break the rules.

I am in ministry because I don’t adhere to the rules of the denomination of my childhood, where I would not be eligible for ordained ministry, for positions where I hold authority over men (to the extent that any pastor in the Congregational wing of the United Church of Christ has authority over anyone at all), to stand in the pulpit and attempt to bring the Good News to Christ’s people. If I listened to those rules, if I continued to live as a good little Southern Baptist girl, I would not be faithful to God’s call in my life.

Sometimes we have to find a way around.

Shiphrah and Puah, faced with a choice between faithfulness and authority, chose faithfulness. Midwifery must be a calling, don’t you think? It’s hard work, and it takes a person to the gateway between not-yet-life and birth, between life and death. In my last experience of childbirth, in a place of pain and awe I had not visited before in more ordinary deliveries, I suddenly understood how close to death we come in giving birth, or perhaps I should say how close to the other side, to the place where the spirit comes from and goes to, to the gate of delivery, here and there.

It must be a sacred trust to tend that gate, even moreso in a time when no monitors or ultrasounds or IVs helped keep mothers safe.

The story Shiphrah and Puah concoct plays to the fears of the Pharaoh and therefore rings true. Those thriving Hebrews, so intimidating to the Egyptians, *would* be the sort who could tend the gateway all by themselves, wouldn’t they?

Shiphrah and Puah had their way around, and it allowed for Moses’ mother to find hers and even for the Princess to find one, too, to take in the boy she would love and raise as her own child. Imagine Miriam on the shore, a girl anointed by the spirits of those other women, encouraged to speak up and keep the little one safe, to keep faith with midwives and mothers, aware of but not cowed by the demands of authority.

I have friends in ministry who tell me they knew they had a call to ministry even though they had never seen an ordained woman. They found a way around, claiming their calls despite the resistance they met along the way, living as examples for the young women who can now take for granted in our mainline denominations that they are acceptable not only to God but to human authority, too.

Eventually I found myself in a church with a woman pastor, and then realized I was in a denomination with lots of them, and then found myself in a seminary full of other women, and I began to think being a woman in ministry had no limitations. But I’m finding now it does, some self-imposed (my sense that staying in this place is more faithful at this time in our lives than moving for a job), some part of wider church culture (they say it’s easy for a woman to get the first job, but hard to get the second, and that would appear to be true, which is galling). I could go on working as an Interim indefinitely, but I feel called to live in community with others, to have a ministry that is not a set of tasks but a way of life.

What is the way around?

It seems my way around is starting something new, that my second settled call will be a birth experience, that I will be a midwife. I hope I have the courage of Shiphrah and Puah.

(Image from a quilt by Mary Ann Rosenbloom.)

New Church, Sports

The Ice Cream of the Future

Turnerfield

Here's Turner Field, which I really enjoyed visiting tonight.

In Atlanta for a workshop about planting new churches, I went to a ballgame with my friend and colleague, RevFun. We sat high, high, high, with a perfect view of the entire field. RevFun kept a box score, and I thought back to games I had listened to or seen with my dad, the last person to take me to a major league game, in the summer of 1976. On the first leg of a trip abroad, our family spent the night in New York City, where we took the subway to the Bronx to see the Yankees play.

This time I saw the Braves play the Chicago Cubs. Why do you suppose so many Cubs fans were at a game in Atlanta? I don't know much about the Cubs. They're from Chicago. They last won the World Series in 1908. Their fans are nuts for them, clearly, if they'll travel to see the team play.

They had the pleasure of seeing their team win, convincingly, their second win of the day. But even if the Cubbies had lost, the fans would still care about them, still watch and attend games, still compare statistics and share anecdotes born of a common culture developed around a beloved pastime.

I learned there are seven ways to get to first base. Do you know them? I named four, eventually. That kind of arcane knowledge has not been lost, is passed from one person to another, from generation to generation.

Baseball somehow remains interesting to people.

Turner Field has adequate restrooms, lots of places to eat or buy food, roving beer sellers, a big screen that keeps you informed and a pretty friendly attitude, right down to the parking lot staff. No wonder people like to go to ballgames!

I want to know, how can we get people as interested in attending church? Clearly people respond to ritual, to activities that vary from one event to another but have the same basic framework. Is there some method of attraction short of selling beer?

Other methods are working in some parts of the country, in cultures that aren't quite as post-Church or De-churched as New England. Some places you can suggest recruiting a school principal to your Launch Team. In Maine, a school principal inviting his or her teachers or student parents to church might well bring on an action by the ACLU, and I would probably support it!

Dippin' dots
Short of selling beer, what can I offer? Peanuts in the shell? Kettlecorn? Dippin' Dots? After all, it is the Ice Cream of the Future!

Can The Church of the Future reach people who flock to ball games, who bond over cheers and team colors instead of hymns and paraments appropriate to the liturgical season?

The Ice Cream of the Future melts quickly on a warm August night. You have to hurry to chase the rapidly melting dots around the dish with the spoon lest they become blobs or, worse, melted all together.

I hope I am not just chasing what's left of something ephemeral when I contemplate planting a new church. Surely the God I know means more, ultimately, than the gods of baseball I heard invoked tonight. Surely people could find some joy, some comfort or some relief in meeting that God of Love. Surely we can find a new way to form community that is not tied up in Colonial buildings or Victorian stained glass or 1950's family values.

The Ice Cream of the Future is so cold and so delicious, I don't care that a dish is expensive. I enjoy the extravagant moments, the cool balls of flavor on my tongue, the little bits of Oreo mixed in to my favorite flavor. I savor the moment.

If church felt just as immediate and elemental, who could resist it?

New Church, Sports

Today, Tonight

Today: More ah-deahs for New Church planting.
Tonight: Braves vs. Cubs. Because I am traveling with RevFun. I think it's been 30 years since I went to a major league ball game. It's going to be great, I'm sure. (As long as it isn't raining. Because, to use my father's patois, "Ev-iduhntlih, it would have been a good ah-deah to bring your um-brelluh.")